March 24, 2014

Jerome Kass: 'Out of the Bronx'

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Jerry Kass writes with such unblinking honesty and unfailing compassion that, as in life, it is sometimes a toss-up between laughter and tears. The stories in Out of the Bronx are aimed from his heart directly at the hearts of his readers.” — Actress Tyne Daly

You've had a successful career as a writer for the stage, television, and movies; and have taught screenwriting as well.  What compelled you to start writing books now?

Until a few years ago, I’d spent my career writing screenplays, television movies, and stage plays, and teaching screenwriting on and off at the American Film Institute, N.Y.U., and Columbia University. It had been a successful career, but I felt a need for a change. So one day, it occurred to me to sit down at the computer and finish a short story I’d begun some years before. I not only finished it but I found it to be the most enjoyable writing experience I’d had in years. At the same time, my close friend, Robert Wallace, was starting a publishing company in Los Angeles with his friend and colleague, Robert Asahina. I told Bob I’d written a short story. He asked to read it—with no motive, I don’t think, besides a curiosity about my work. I sent it to him. He told me he loved the writing and suggested I write some more stories, this time with the idea of his publishing a collection. Bob is a great editor and a great friend, so I followed his suggestion. Oddly, the story I’d written that encouraged Bob to urge me to do more is not even in the book—the story is not about Joel Sachs or the Bronx.

You've said that Out of the Bronx is based in part on your own life growing up with your family.  How much of what happens to the main character, Joel Sachs, actually happened to you?

A good deal of what happens to Joel also happened to me. But most of it is fiction. For example, I did work in a candy store, I was a chocolate addict, and I did try to invent chocolate concoctions as Joel does in “Joel Fresser, The Chocolate Virgin.” But Mrs. Katz, the owner of the candy store, is an invention based on various older women I have known; I still love chocolate, but I’m no longer an addict; and the concoctions in the story I invented in real life just for my own pleasure—I did not advertise or sell them. There was no chubby girl who begged for sex. There wasn’t even a thin girl who begged for sex!

What was life like growing up where you did and when you did in the Bronx?  How did that shape your life and your decision to become a writer rather than something else?

I grew up in a tenement neighborhood among people who were mostly lower middle class. There was a sizable Jewish population, but there were also people of many other ethnicities and races. Just as I was different from the other members of my family and felt like an outsider among them—for reasons I don’t completely understand—I also felt different from most of my friends and classmates. There were few books in my household. My father read mysteries occasionally. My mother read True Confessions magazine. My older sister read The Bobbsey Twins series. And I read comic books. I had a huge collection. But something in my experience, probably in school, possibly at the movies, inspired me to want more from life, a bigger experience. My father wanted me to be an engineer (because that’s where the money was, he told me), but engineering was as unnatural a field for me as any profession could be. I thought I wanted to be a teacher—and I have been one all through my life—but in college, a friend suggested we write a musical together (I would write the book and words, he would write the music), and I jumped at the opportunity. We wrote a musical called “Girls Are Hard to Find”—it was an all male school—and although two Variety critics saw it and told us not to bother to try writing for the professional theater, I was so stimulated by the experience and by the excitement of the student audiences who came to see the show—mostly they loved it—that I decided to spend my life writing as well as teaching, and I used the experience of writing the musical as motivation to flee the Bronx and that small life forever.

Who were the writers and artists that influenced you growing up?

Most of my literary influences were playwrights because I was passionate about the theatre: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Paddy Chayefsky, and several others. But among authors, my favorites were J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Sholem Aleichem. The Jewish influence is obvious. But I also read a lot of Somerset Maugham, Jane Austen, Henry James, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky.

War correspondent Dexter Filkins recently wrote in his review of The Long Road Home, Phil Klay's book of short stories about soldiers serving in Iraq, that "war is too weird a thing to make sense of when it's actually happening."  Do you think the same is true of family?  Could you have written Out of the Bronx when you were younger?

I needed the passage of years and the deaths of my parents and older sister to prepare me to write what I felt about my family. I always had the feelings that my stories ascribe to Joel, but I needed many years to reflect on them and dramatize them freely.

So many people who have read Out of the Bronx have found something from their own childhood and family in it.  Based on what you've seen and experienced, what is it that makes most families so dysfunctional?

I have thought for many years that the reason people refer to the family as “an institution” is that most institutions are by their nature dysfunctional, in many cases filled with and run by crazy people. Family is the first such institution most of us experience. And our parents are the first crazies we know.

Despite all the pain and heartbreak in the book, there is room for love and humor.  What is it about family that allows people to be cruel to each other and still, at the same time, love each other?

For one thing, love is a feeling I think all human beings need. Hate is another. Both love and hate require intimacy and time to develop. Living in a family is a deeply intimate experience. And it usually lasts quite a while. Love and hate are the result.

Based on what Joel goes through with his parents in Our of the Bronx, what would you tell any parent about how to raise a child?

I’m a parent myself, and I have no advice to give other parents. I have been a good parent at times—affectionate, generous, non-judgmental, infinitely patient, supportive—and I have been hapless at other times—critical, condemning, dismissive. My children, who are now grown-ups, have influenced me more than I’ve influenced them. So all I might suggest is to give what you can give and accept what you get in return.

 You've met so many interesting people in your career. Whom did you find most compelling, and who gave you the best advice?

When I decided to try playwriting in my early twenties, my teacher was the actor/director Herbert Berghof, who with his wife, the great actress Uta Hagen, ran a studio, the HB Studio on Bank Street in Manhattan. I was in Herbert’s first playwrights’ unit. He recognized my talent and nurtured it, all the while driving me mad with his exhausting Austrian temperament. Many of the short plays I wrote in his class were performed by HB acting students in their classes, so I got to see my work done over and over again by many different combinations of actors. Many of those actors were in Uta’s class. Uta responded to my work, too, so I got to know her almost as well as I got to know Herbert. They were both brilliant artists and teachers— unconventional, encouraging, appreciative of talent, and highly demanding. I owe them a good deal of my future success.

Herbert introduced me to Lucy Kroll, my first literary agent. Lucy was arrogant, tough, mean, and smart. She was relentless in her demands on my talent and patience but ultimately the best agent I’ve ever known—except for Robert Lantz, who was a polar opposite. I loved Robby Lantz, I mostly hated Lucy Kroll, but both of them were important influences on my career.

Harold Clurman was a teacher, director, and critic when I met him. I remember that I used to go with him many Friday nights to the Russian Tea Room, where he would hold forth to many others like me, who were his followers. He would inspire us by telling us personal theatre stories. Besides inspiration, the stories were an education. When he died, a good deal of my passion for theatre died with him. For me, Harold Clurman was defined by his love of the theater.

Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who have written many classic American songs, wrote the lyrics for my show Ballroom. That show has been the center of my life insofar as I wrote it about my mother soon after she died, almost forty years ago. Michael Bennett, the strongest influence in my career among directors, directed Ballroom when he was at his most dysfunctional, and the show flopped. But the Bergmans and I were sure it could be a success once Michael was no longer involved. So we have continued to rewrite it and improve it (I think) for almost all of the years since the original production in 1978. We expect it now to be revived, with a largely new book and many new songs, in England early in 2015, and we expect it to be the success we always anticipated.

The late actress, Maureen Stapleton, starred in what I consider my two best made-for-television movies, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (which subsequently became the stage musical Ballroom) and Last Wish, based on the book by Betty Rollin. Maureen was brilliant in both films. She was a mass of neuroses—afraid to fly or ride on trains or cars, or even elevators, terrified of crossing bridges, addicted to red wine (when she wasn’t working), but she was the most truthful and sensitive actress I ever worked with. Her performances seemed to me always magical.

Delia Ephron, my wife, has the most original and interesting take on things of anyone I know. Her writing, which I think is exceptional, reflects that take. She has a big, big heart, but at the same time, she has a no-nonsense coolness. She always tells the truth. There is nothing she says or does that I don’t trust.

What is it like for two writers to live together? Do you share first drafts and ask each other for advice?

I don’t know what it’s like for other writers who live together, but for Delia and me it’s a blessing. There are long stretches of time while we are working on something when we go off into our private zones and almost disappear from the world and from each other. This is more typical of Delia than of me. But because we know where each other is and why we’ve disappeared, it has become a natural rhythm for us. She is my first and best critic. She’s also my teacher. I believe I serve those purposes for her as well. It’s a fortunate marriage.

What are you working on next?

Delia and I are doing a screenplay together, based on a newspaper piece that she wrote. Collaboration is not easy. It’s often a battle between two strong egos. But I’ve learned how to solve the problem: I mostly let Delia boss me around. On my own, I am preparing another book, which, I think, like Out of the Bronx will be a collection of stories, told chronologically, about one character’s journey. This one will not take place in the Bronx.

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