David Scott Milton started as an actor in New York, learning acting and playwriting at Theatre Genesis alongside Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, and Murray Mednick. Milton had had a half dozen plays produced Off-Off-Broadway, when Duet for Solo Voice and Bread appeared at the American Place Theatre. Duet then made its way to Broadway, starring Ben Gazzara. Milton’s play Skin won the Neil Simon Playwriting Award.
When Milton moved to Los Angeles in the seventies, he fell into film writing and fiction writing. Ivan Passer directed his first screenplay, Born to Win, starring George Segal and Karen Black. Milton has published five novels, including Kabbalah and The Fat Lady Sings. A sixth novel, Iron City, is due next year. (Update: It's now out.)
He taught playwriting at USC starting in 1977, and for thirteen years, he also taught creative writing to men at the maximum security prison in Tehachapi. He wrote an article about the the prison for the Los Angeles Times (click here) and he created a one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, which was nominated as best one-man show by the Valley Theater League of Los Angeles.
I’ve known David since the eighties when I took his playwriting classes at USC, and I interviewed him for a major article in Los Angeles’ Daily News when he was 49. His drive and spirit have always inspired me, and in advance of his upcoming novel, I wanted to interview him.
CM: You more than anyone I know live the kind of writer’s life that I’ve pursued. You write fiction, plays, and movies. You also act. How did you end up being such a renaissance man, and do you favor one type of writing far more than another?
DSM: I wanted to be a writer from a very young age— five or six. Early on I was excited by the various forms that fiction took and I made a deal with myself to write a novel, a play, and a screenplay every year. I’ve kept that pact with noticeable variation for much of my writing life.
Out of high school, Taylor Allderdice in Pittsburgh, I had planned on going to Carnegie Tech (now “Carnegie Mellon”) for playwriting. I applied and was accepted. The Pittsburgh Playhouse had just opened a drama school and they sponsored a statewide contest for one boy and one girl to gain a scholarship to the new school. I was asked by our Dramatic English teacher to represent Taylor Allderdice and much to my amazement I won the boy’s scholarship. Shirley Jones, who was Miss Pittsburgh, won the girl’s scholarship.
I reasoned that such great playwrights as Shakespeare, Moliere, and O’Neill had experience as actors and since the schooling was free I had very little to lose by accepting the scholarship. I became steeped in theater, came to New York at the same time as Shirley, and for some years juggled writing and acting, though fairly early on writing dominated my efforts.
For someone in his seventies, you haven’t seemed to slow down. This year, in fact, you performed for video your one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, based on your experience of teaching how to write to murderers in the maximum security prison in Tahachapi. You’ve also written a screenplay for your novel The Fat Lady Sings for director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond and The Rose), and you’ve been polishing a novel, Iron City. What drives you so much still?
Years ago, I heard Jack Paar ask Ferdinand Demarah, The Great Imposter, why he continued to swindle people instead of pursuing one of the many honest careers he was obviously capable of. Demarah had a throaty laugh, a cherubic face with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. “Rascality,” he answered. “Pure rascality…” My drive to continue creating is a form of “rascality,” I suppose. I just enjoy the hell out of working on projects. I teem with ideas and have enough filed away to last into the next century. (In addition to the above projects, I’ve just completed a new full-length play, Destiny, which I first took notes on over ten years ago. There’ll be a staged reading with Karen Black at the Blank Theater in December.)
Your books at heart are mysteries, yet they’re not the Patricia Cornwell or Dick Francis type of mysteries. They investigate the human condition a great deal. How do you approach writing a new book? Do you start with a mystery?
As a young man I was a great fan of mystery novels. I still consider Georges Simenon, the Belgian novelist, one of the world’s great writers. I feel that in some way all literature—and by that I include film and plays—are mysteries. Mysteries of character, mysteries of circumstances. And they all ultimately deal with that awesome question: what are we doing here? Why have we been born? Why do we die?
I was very much influenced as a young man not only by Simenon—my first novel, written when I was fifteen, and long since lost, took place in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower—but by Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment. I felt that one could write “mysteries” that had the complexity, the heft of the most serious literature. And with mystery, one has entertainment values entrenched with the form—there is emotion, suspense, blood and guts. Tennessee Williams taught a playwriting class for a short while at UCLA. In his first lesson, he proclaimed, “I don’t know very much about writing, but I do know this: Don’t be boring…”
Do I start with a mystery? I think I start with a question: why did such and such happen? Why did this person or that do what they did? And it is a mystery that I am determined to probe, even though I may not come up with a definitive answer. Simenon’s books are not “who dunnits” but “why dunnit.” His are mysteries of character, and I’ve always been attracted by that.
I can tell that your time teaching convicts has settled on you deeply. Your novel The Fat Lady Sings, has a writer, Paul Dogolov, teaching writing to prisoners in the maximum-security section of the Tehachapi prison in California. Do your novels always have a connection to events in your life? How did The Fat Lady Sings evolve into what it became and is the screenplay different?
My novels certainly have a connection to events in my life, even though these connections are sometimes tenuous. Going back to my first novel, the one that took place in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the links to my life were exceedingly tenuous: I was an usher in a movie theater and we played The Man on the Eiffel Tower, which had been adapted from a Simenon novel, La Tete d’un Homme. While watching that film, I was drawn into Simenon’s world. In a silly way, a kid’s imaginative way, I began to live the life of that world. I read the novel and you might say all of this connected to my life and impelled me to try to write my“Paris” novel, though of course I had never been anywhere near Paris.As I grew older, events would occur that would touch me, and as I tried to make sense of them, I would find myself dealing with them in my fiction. What percentage is real and what percentage is pure invention? It varies from piece to piece. Usually there is something at the core that is close to me.
How did The Fat Lady Sings evolve? I had encounters in my prison class with several inmates whom I thought might be innocent. I became obsessed with their cases and began to “investigate” them. These investigations would, of course, only proceed to a certain point. I began to imagine what would happen if I took the investigations further. Of course, I would have to be a completely different character to do this. I would cease being a “writer” and become an activist of a sort, which is not in my nature.
I did the novel originally as a screenplay. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this -- written the screenplay first and then the novel. I was encouraged by something I read of Graham Greene and the film director, Carol Reed. They were vacationing on a yacht together in the Mediterranean and Greene told Reed the story of a dastardly character, Harry Lime, who had sold contaminated antibiotics in post-war Austria—it may have been a true story or partially true. Reed asked Greene to write it as a screenplay. Greene demurred: he had never written a screenplay and wouldn’t know where to begin. Carol Reed said write it as a novel, then, and I’ll shoot it exactly as you’ve written it, which is what occurred. The film became The Third Man, and the novel was released at the same time.
I did the screenplay of The Fat Lady Sings and felt there were areas that I hadn’t been able to explore just through cinema, so I went back and wrote it as a novel. The novel and the screenplay are essentially the same, though the novel is much more detailed and in some ways richer. In working with Mark Rydell, I’ve toiled to retain the terseness of the original screenplay while artfully, I hope, drizzling in elements of the book. At this stage, it feels good.
Are there differences between the book and the original screenplay and the new screenplay? I’ve been forced to really zero in on the logic of certain character’s behavior. I’ve rounded things out, deepened them, I hope. I’ve toned down some of the melodrama, but made it dramatically richer. I hope. (Rydell has been a very good barometer in working on these things.)
Tell me about your new novel, Iron City. What’s it about?
Iron City is about a middle-aged ex-cop from Pittsburgh, Frank Kalinyak. In his twenties, he had moved away from his hometown and had pursued a career in Tucson, Arizona, as a police detective, later becoming a private investigator. He returns for his 25th high school reunion and learns that a former comrade, a despicable-yet-charming guy by the name of Jack Davern, has been murdered. Kalinyak hears from his friend Bobby Mack, a Pittsburgh political hack who works for the DA’s office, that Davern has been killed in a particularly garish and brutal way.
Bobby Mack explains that no one on the Pittsburgh police force is interested in finding out who killed Davern. Davern had become wealthy and was so corrupt, vicious, and ugly that dozens would have had a motive to kill him, including members of the police force. But Bobby Mack, knowing Kalinyak’s rickety situation, and out of loyalty to their old friend, Davern, offers him a job, special investigator under Bobby Mack for this case.
Feeling misgivings, though having little else to do with his life, Kalinyak agrees to take Bobby Mack up on his offer. He returns for the reunion, is given information about Davern’s killing, meets many old friends and team mates and finds himself reliving high school relationships, opening old wounds, and also delving into what becomes a spider’s nest of grotesque murder--serial killings that seem to drag everything he knew of his youth and old neighborhood and friends into one furious nightmare.
As Kalinyak investigates, feelings that he’s been trying to repress boil up. In Arizona, he had married and had one child, a daughter. His daughter was murdered at a young age, ten years old, and his marriage broke up. He had enormous difficulty dealing with his daughter’s death. The killer was never found. He began drinking heavily. As a detective he had access to a number of bad guys and he wreaked his vengeance on them. Eventually, he was let go by the police force. He began to work as a private investigator, worked for attorneys, bail-bondsmen, that sort of thing. He was not doing well.
It is this broken man who is now looking into Davern’s death.The title "Iron City" refers to the old, industrial Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh of Kalinyak's youth, working-class Pittsburgh where everyone was drinking "Iron City" beer and Imperial Whiskey, and the Iron City beer sign dominated downtown.
I’ve been to a number of authors readings recently, and one question keeps coming up: does the author outline or write on the fly? What’s your approach?
I do a bit of both. I come up with a general idea that excites me, usually something related to my life. I begin taking notes, just random jottings that eventually begin to form themselves into a coherent story. I then make a very rough outline of things that this story suggests. And I start writing.
As I progress, I deepen and change and try to focus the material. At some point I might be a third of the way through the book, I’ll have another third or so of notes suggesting where the book might go. And I’ll have a few pages of very rough outline, usually involving the last part of the book.
Simenon had an interesting way of attacking a project: he would jot down on the back of an envelope a few cities, a few occupations, a few names. This was his outline! Then he would lock himself away for two weeks and write a chapter a day for ten days… most of his books are ten chapters long; then he’d revise that material over three days, and voila, he would have a novel!
My novels certainly don’t come as easily. How much do you keep an audience or reader in mind when you write?
To this extent: I’m constantly asking myself if this project will interest and move people as it has interested and moved me. Will people be engaged with these characters, these problems, as I have been engaged? I am somewhat limited in this sense—I cannot write pure entertainment. I cannot ask myself will this entertain a reader or an audience?
In that respect I’m not naturally a “commercial” writer. But I do feel that things that move and excite me will probably move and excite others. And I do write some comedy, and the question there is if I find this funny, will others share my enthusiasm? I’ve discovered that generally when I am moved, stimulated, astonished, delighted that most often others are, too. Heaven help me when that fails.
I remember from a class I took with you in the eighties that you spoke a lot about the playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, perhaps because a play of his was in Los Angeles at the time. What fiction writers have influenced you and how?
I admire Durrenmatt. I met him at USC when his play, Mr. and Mississippi, was done by the theater department. He also wrote novels and mystery novels, and it was all powerful and intelligent.
Who else has influenced me? As I’ve mentioned, Georges Simenon—his fascination with the “why” of character. James Joyce, his mastery of language and the rhythm of words and character and the poetry of grand design. Similarly, Nabokov—poetry, sense of words, a genius in weaving imaginative strands into astonishing works of dazzling precociousness; we’re left awed with admiration. Anton Chekhov, his ability to reach into the heart of men and women and surprise us and move us as almost no other artist has.
Shakespeare, of course. Like Chekhov he is a master of the human heart; the master of almost everything human. How does this man know so much? And, of course, his poetry is astonishing, stunning; his sense of theater, incomparable. Ernest Hemingway, who worked with words in such a true, intimate way, that we cannot really separate the man from his style. Hemingway is his words. Similarly, the great and tragic Russian writer, Issac Babel—another man who is his words. Every word is alive. And isn’t that true of all the great writers? They are their words and their words are living things. They bleed words.
I love writers. I could go on for pages on those that are important to me. What they all seem to have in common is an ability to reveal the deepest part of themselves, to reveal their souls, as it were. They all have grand souls, profound souls. And every word, therefore, is true and alive. And it all is drenched in humanity.
How have they influenced me? They’ve shown what great writing is and what great writers aspire to. And so you challenge yourself. When you’re in the presence of greatness, anything less seems demeaning, irrelevant, boring. So you try to be as good as you possibly can in order not to be embarrassed by those extraordinary artists who have come before you.
When I researched you recently, you came up in Andrew Yule’s book, Picture Shows: The Life and Films of Peter Bogdanovich. It occurs to me you’ve led a life much like Forrest Gump in that you’ve been around important people and events all your life. You met John Steinbeck when you were catering a party and he gave you advice. You knew Bogdanovich when he was a teenager. You landed your first teaching job at USC thanks to John Houseman. You’ve come to know a lot of film directors including Rydell, Sidney Pollack, Ivan Passer, and Irv Kershner, Do you find it a coincidence you’ve come to know all these people or do you attract them?
I certainly don’t think I attract them! I think it’s more a case of having been in the theater, literary world, and film business for so many years that just by the numbers I’d run into people.
And I think there’s probably a bit of curious luck. When I was twenty, I was taking coats for Stella Adler at a party she was throwing for John Steinbeck. I ended up spending more than a hour with him discussing the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata.
At the same party, Stella, after my coat gathering chores were done, deposited me at a group, laughing and chatting together in the living room—Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, and Lillian Hellman. She just introduced me as though it were perfectly natural for me to be there, and then wandered off, leaving me to nod and go “ahem,” while the others waxed ferociously about theater inside stuff, trading tales of pre-Broadway tryouts, dishing dirt on producers, directors, actors, and other writers. To this day I recall in detail the whole conversation!
At about the same time, I had a job as a messenger at the United Nations. When you were riding the elevator in the main building where I worked, if any of the major UN brass boarded, you were supposed to get off so that they could go directly to the 38th floor where the executive offices were. More than a few times, Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General, would get on with me there and he would not permit me to get off. It would be the two of us, pipsqueak messenger and head of the United Nations, moving up, floor after floor. And he would engage me in conversation, always starting with, “How’s everything on the 20th floor?” That’s where the messenger center was.
During the period I worked there, 1956, there were two major international crises: the invasion by a western allied force of the Suez Canal and the Hungarian Revolution. Often, I’d be sent in the middle of the night to Hammarskjold’s residence to deliver a message to him. Any message that went to the Secretary General or Dr. Ralph Bunche, the under Secretary, had to be delivered personally by hand. Hammarskjold would be awakened and groggy with sleep and inevitably he would say, “How’s everything on the 20th floor?”
One Christmas, I had a message to deliver to Dr. Bunche. When I got to his offices, I was informed that the executives were having a holiday party in Hammarskjold’s office. I went there and the three top men of the UN during the Suez and Hungarian crises, Hammarskjold, Bunche, and Andrew Cordier, were standing together having a drink. I delivered Dr. Bunche’s message to him and he offered me a glass of holiday punch! And I accepted and stood with these three astounding men, just as I had stood a few months earlier at Stella Adler’s with Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and Christopher Isherwood.
The UN people did not talk of out-of-town Broadway tryouts. Neither was there any tone of catty backstage gossip. No, they just stood there smiling at me and nodding and finally Hammarskjold said, “And how is everything on the 20th floor?”
“Good,” all three men said and we toasted to a better coming year. Forrest Gump, indeed!
Your two children make cameos in your novel The Fat Lady Sings. In your classes, stories about your children often came up, which showed me how curious and energizing kids can be. When I came to have children, I was in a sense prepared thanks to you. How have your children added to your life as a writer?
It may be obvious, but it’s nevertheless true, that you are not fully human until you have kids. There are aspects of being a human that don’t resonate or flourish until you have kids of your own. I remember as a young man finding Shakespeare’s King Lear the least satisfying of his great tragedies. Years later, when I had kids, the play moved me more than anything Shakespeare had written. I realized that only a father could have written it as Shakespeare had. The love, the confusion, the pain, the connection we have to those we have helped bring into this world is profound, even shattering. When Lear cries over his daughter Cordelia’s body, it is monumental and can only be fully felt I think by someone who is a parent.
Because you’ve written in so many genres, which one would you like to be best known for?
I suppose the novel because it’s the one genre that the work is completely yours; you are fully responsible for it. You are the main actors, the director, the costumer, the cameraman. You are responsible for everything. That said, there is also great satisfaction in seeing a film that you’ve written or the program or published version of a play you’ve done. It’s all good. It’s all part of the creative life.
When I’m at my most mature and relatively contented—and that’s not very often—I’m able to appreciate how lucky we artists, we writers and actors and painters and musicians are. Obviously we’re not always successful, even on our own terms, and we certainly aren’t always rich, but we have been given the gift of freedom to create. We’ve been able to tell tales of the death of kings, of love and loss, and myriad else about this life. In that sense, we truly own our lives and it can’t get much better than that.
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