‘Bashevis Singer said that every writer had to have an address – where their fiction, their imagination, is at home. So I have to work my way west of the Mississippi, even if I’ve started my story in Boston or the east coast.’
Like one of his stories, Sid Fleischman was born in Brooklyn but grew up in San Diego, ‘about as far south as you can get in California’, in a first-generation immigrant family – his father came from Russia in 1905 and his mother’s family from Leeds in 1916. Sid was the first even to finish high school, and there was certainly no literary tradition: ‘As a writer, I’m a product of the free library system.’
But those early borrowings were not fiction. ‘From fifth grade on, I knew what I would be – a magician. I must have been a pretty dogged kid. San Diego had no schools for magicians, no magic shop, so I taught myself sleight-of-hand entirely out of the library.’ At nineteen he published his own book of magic; the seed was sown but he still didn’t see himself as a writer.
‘I had no model – like most kids, I assumed all writers were dead! I was in my early twenties before I ever saw a writer: during the war, when I was in the Navy, I stepped into an elevator in New York and recognised this man from his pictures. It was Carl Sandburg – not bad for a first. He was perspiring in the heat, and that was the first clue I ever had that authors were like the rest of us. Humans.
‘That’s why I visit schools now. It may occasionally turn someone on to writing as well as reading.’ But he takes his magic with him. ‘When the kids have had this build-up for six weeks before your visit, and they’re expecting Shakespeare to walk in, it helps to loosen them up if you start by sawing someone in half…’
Magic in vaudeville and night clubs paid his way through college. Because of the war he graduated late, and with two books but no money became a political reporter. He loved the life, and when his paper suddenly folded set up a weekly news magazine with two colleagues – the sort that uses subscription money to pay the printers and has none over for salaries. He’d married a fellow student early in the war, and with a family imminent he sold his share in 1950 and wrote his first novel. ‘I didn’t write a line of fiction when I was in newspapers, so it turned out the best thing that ever happened.’
For us, Fleischman is synonymous with humour, but there were few signs of it in his early adult novels of mystery and suspense or his parallel career as a screenwriter. Only when he wrote Mr Mysterious & Company (1962) did comedy take over. ‘Every father wants to make his kids laugh – that’s how I discovered I had a facility for humour.’
The exuberance of that humour, the cheeky riot of ideas and imagery running amok, the impression of logic stretched to snapping point, seem muscularly American, but he points out that the tall tale came from Europe and the likes of Baron Munchausen. With America it simply hit fertile soil, and when it hit the Mid-West – wow! it sprouted to the sky like the seeds of McBroom’s wonderful one-acre farm.
‘They had nothing but terrible problems – it was so hot, so cold, so windy, and the grasshoppers so bad… They were great storytellers. They had to be, that was all there was. Now they’re a traditional part of the culture of the times.
‘The McBroom stories are comic fantasies that have to observe all the laws of fantasy while being based on reality, or else they become sheer nonsense, which they’re not. They’re reality blown way up, and that’s agonisingly difficult to write.
‘Although there’s plenty of humour for babies, starting with Mother Goose, it then does a vanishing act, leaving a handful of intelligent humorists like Beverly Cleary or Joan Aiken. And funny books don’t win awards: The Whipping Boy (latest winner of the Newbery Medal) is not my most comic novel.’ The Whipping Boy took ten years, on and off, to gel, partly because he perceived it as a picture book, which gave him no elbow room, and partly because – although he has always recognised Twain’s influence – he was inhibited by its Prince-and-Pauper element. ‘But you can’t avoid such echoes if you want the fun of traditional stories, if you want to entertain and turn kids on.
‘And I want to give them even more.’ Like all humorists, he’s kept an essential seriousness. ‘The real subject of humour is tragedy, else it is trivial. Humour is tragedy wearing a putty nose, tragedy with its shirt hanging out – give me time and I’ll think of more. War always produces comic novels, from Schweik to MASH, because humour’s a way of accommodating ourselves to the tragedy of life.’
Accustomed to parallels with Twain, he was taken aback by my positing a Jewish strain in his work, an affectionately mocking quality, an emotional largesse that allows people their quirks.
‘Well, it’s true that humour is a great equaliser – in the same way a gun made a little psychopath like Billy the Kid six feet tall – and gives you power over your adversaries. There is a certain dynamic in the kind of character a writer selects, and I suppose I am drawn to the disenfranchised, people at some social hazard like Praiseworthy, the butler in Chancy and the Grand Rascal, or Jemmy, the whipping boy. Like Garfield, I write the sort of history, the real history, that doesn’t get into the history books. That’s not only a Jewish trait, but it’s specially strong in Jewish writers. Of course, now I’m aware of it I may stop doing it!’
The Newbery crowns a cluster of awards, including the Boston Globe/Horn Book for Humbug Mountain. He has written thirty-one books, and cares nothing now for the adult novels – ’The only letters they brought were finding fault.’ A steady seven-day-a-week writer, his fiction has provided a living even without his film work, now also slanting towards children.
His first novel bought for the screen was Blood Alley (1955), ‘a John Wayne movie that turns up on US television all too often’. This was the McCarthy-tormented period in Hollywood, and, noting the visual quality of his work and its natural divisions into dramatic scenes, they sent for Fleischman to check that he was not, in fact, a banned screenwriter. A professional career followed, usually adapting his own novels but also whatever fell into the scope of a contract, ranging from ‘a beautiful dog story by James Street, Goodbye My Lady,’ to the latest, a western so awful ‘I couldn’t believe they’d got that picture out of that screenplay.’ He pities screenwriters who have to suffer impotence and frustration from work ruined by others without the safety valve of writing their own novels. ‘If my ego were entirely involved with motion pictures, I’d be a basket case – as it is, it’s in children’s books.’
He is barred by a screenwriters’ strike from one film he cares deeply about: it’s his extension of a 400-word story by his old friend, Don Freeman, an animated musical directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman; White Nights), who will also direct, with actors, Fleischman’s own adaptation of The Whipping Boy.
The showman-magician still lurks in this soft-spoken man. ‘Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Van Loon (popular in the twenties) were all magicians; O Henry’s stories were magic turns.’ A devotee of the short story, his first writings were short shorts, like Maupassant, and The Scarebird, his latest title, has actually won an award as a best short story. Through them he taught himself to write as he had taught himself magic, with secrets gleaned from books. He combined a need to dazzle and surprise and a passion for cunningly intricate plots with painstaking attention to detail and craft.
‘I had to learn what I was doing wrong. The function of a central character is to solve the problem – I was letting Dr Watson solve the crime. Once you know the conventions you can manipulate them – that was my breakthrough.
‘The magician in me is always looking around corners for surprises. I improvise daily: if I tried to work out all the problems in advance I’d never drive myself to the typewriter. Scenes pop out and amaze me!
‘I spend a lot of time getting the length and rhythm of a sentence right. A short McBroom story can take three months, day in, day out; a full-length novel – one, two, three years. No first drafts, looking this or that up later: I must have the security of knowing each page, each chapter, is just right, doing it fifteen times if necessary, before I can go on. My desk may be a disorganised mess, but I’m a compulsively tidy writer, tying up every loose end.’ It’s the neatness of expert sleight-of-hand.
His characters’ names – Master Peckwit, Hold-Your-Nose Billy, Captain Scratch, Step-and-a-half Jackson, Bigler and Cooke’s Colossal Circus and Congress of Wild Animals, not to mention Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryandlittleclarinda McBroom – ring with Dickensian bravura. Small wonder there is no writer he admires more than Garfield. ‘I’m comfortable with the nineteenth century because I like highly individual, eccentric people. It’s a century of fantasy, where my imagination can go crazy.’
Perhaps that’s why he’s remained in southern California, in a large antique house (a couple of years older than himself!) within sound of the Pacific of his childhood. ‘There’s a lot of madness in California, and someone from the east built this house with a New England-ish roof for snow.’ Instead of snow, he cherishes twenty-seven fruit trees bearing everything except cherries. ‘When I get serious I get serious, and I got serious about gardening fifteen years ago. I taught myself grafting’ – yes, out of the library – ‘and now I’ve got trees that don’t know what the hell they are.’ He’s glad they’ve kept the big house, for there have been three grandchildren in three years – welcome dedication candidates, for ‘when you’ve been around for as long as I have, you run out of friends and relatives.’
He regards himself as an old warhorse, with the writing future belonging to Paul, his middle child and only son, of whom he’s immensely proud. He, too, is a Newbery author, a unique family coup. ‘Paul has had the advantage of a role model, but it’s meant a struggle to find his own voice – he has a wonderful sense of humour but doesn’t show it in books because he doesn’t want to compete. But it’s fun to have someone around to discuss problems.
‘Children’s writers are special: I’ve been in the picture business since the fifties, and have, say, two close friends, but among children’s books I have ten, fifteen, twenty I can call on when I’m in town, whose company I enjoy. In that, too, we’re like magicians.’
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun, Puffin, 0 14 03.0443 6, £1.95 pbk
McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm/Here Comes McBroom, Puffin, 0 14 03.1053 3, £1.75 pbk
The Man on the Moon-Eyed Horse, Gollancz, 0 575 02837 8, £6.95
The Whipping Boy, Methuen Pied Piper, 0 416 12512 3, £5.95