'I Never Saw Him Drunk': An Interview with Bukowski’s Longtime Publisher

By Jonathan Smith

Bukowski with his wife, Linda. Photo via Getty Images

Regardless of your opinions on Bukowski—whether you think he was a no-talent nihilistic fuck-machine who ran on whores and anything with an ABV, the voice for a generation of postwar blue-collar workers fed up with the factories, or a combination of both—the fact that he is a large figure in Los Angeles’s literary history is undeniable. So a few years back, when we were working on an edition of the magazine devoted to Hollywood called the Showbiz Issue, I decided to reach out to Bukowski’s longtime publisher, John Martin. I wanted to try to cut through the folklore and figure out what the late “poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars” was like in his daily life.

If there is one man alive who knew the real Charles Bukowski, it is Martin. Bukowski’s publisher for most of his career, Martin is the reason you know who the Buk is and either love or hate him today. In 1965 Martin offered Bukwoski $100 a month, for the rest of his life, to quit his job at the post office and write full-time for the publishing house Black Sparrow. Bukowski delivered, and Martin kept to his word, eventually paying him $10,000 every two weeks. He was the best man at Bukowski’s wedding and represented a source of security in what was often a very unstable life.

In the end, despite getting some great stuff out of Martin (like the quote in the headline of this article), the interview didn’t run in the issue and was shelved for various reasons. Fast-forward to this month, when we published a fashion shoot titled "Bukowski’s Women" featuring a number of nubile young ladies dolled up like characters from the author’s novels. This seemed as good an excuse as any to unearth the interview with Martin, so that’s what we’re doing.

John Martin. Photo via Kurt Rogers/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

VICE: Was Bukowski the sole reason you started Black Sparrow?
John Martin: Yes. I started Black Sparrow to publish Charles Bukowski. I’d seen his work in underground magazines, and I just became convinced—almost obsessively—that he was the new Walt Whitman. He was publishing these little tiny eight-, ten-, 12-page chapbooks in editions of 100 with small-press publishers around the country who were basically just his fans—they weren’t really publishers at all. They didn’t make any attempt to distribute his books or anything like that.

In the beginning I had another job that I would work from 7:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon. Then I’d go home and have dinner with my wife and daughter before going to my Black Sparrow office at 7:00 and working until 12:00 or 1:00 AM. I did that for years. Eventually, around '74, he [Bukowski] had just gotten so big I couldn’t handle it myself, and so I got an assistant and a book-packer.

Tell me about your initial deal with Bukowski. You agreed to give him $100 a month, right?
That’s a great moment in time for me and Bukowski and, I think, for poetry. We sat down with a little piece of paper. I sat there with a pen, and he listed out all of his monthly expenses—and you’ve got to remember, this was 1965, when his rent was $35 a month. He had $15 in child support, $3 for cigarettes, $10 for liquor, and another $15 for food. And yet, even though that sounds pitifully small, at the time he was feeding himself and had nice clothes, drove a very old car, and lived in this completely or partially destroyed unit in East Hollywood. He could get along on $100 a month. I was only earning $400 a month, so I was giving him 25 percent of my income. But as soon as the thing took off we did much better.

At the very end, I paid him a retainer so I wouldn’t owe him some horrible amount of money. Eventually I paid him $10,000 every two weeks. So he went from $100 every month to $10,000 every two weeks, and then, at the end of the year, I’d make up whatever I still owed him. Later, the really big money came in when we started to sell his books for movies and stuff like that.

Were other novels, besides Factotum and Barfly, turned into screenplays?
Yes. They were sold but have never been made. Post Office was sold to Taylor Hackford way back in the early 70s; Ham on Rye was also sold… You’re kinda catching me off the cuff here… Factotum was sold, Women was sold to Paul Verhoeven, and Barfly of course was sold.

Do you think they’re going to make any in the future?
You know what? At this point, I could care less. I wanted to make Bukowski independent, and he died a millionaire. He was very frugal with his money and not at all ostentatious. I remember once I went with him to buy a new car, a BMW.  He walked in with his flannel pants and a flannel shirt and a pen in his breast pocket—he always carried a pin clipped into his breast pocket—and he skulked around until he found the car he wanted. The salespeople wouldn’t even look at him. Finally someone comes over and, in a very kind of sarcastic tone, says, “Can I help you, sir?” And he said, “Yeah, I decided I want this car.”

“Do you want to finance it?” the guy asked.

“No, I’ll give you a check.”

The salesman asked, “Now?” and Bukowski said, “Yes.” The guy was just flabbergasted, but suddenly the coffee and coffeecakes and doughnuts were produced, and soft chairs came out from nowhere. They were all huddled around. He filled out the paperwork, wrote out the check, got in the car, and drove off.

Such a classic story. Was there ever a time when you were skeptical about giving this drunk guy a quarter of your money?
No. Never. I believed in him as much as he believed in himself. It was almost like a religious conversion, where a person can’t be dissuaded. They’re gonna go on that crusade on the back of a mule or whatever, regardless of anything. That’s the way I felt about publishing Bukowski.

How did Bukowski feel about having his books turned into screenplays? It seems like he had mixed feelings about Hollywood.
Well, he makes fun of it in the novel Hollywood, but at the same time he was a guy who, before he went to work for the post office, had slept more than one night on a park bench. He was a guy who had been carted off to die in Los Angeles’s biggest hospital as a charity patient and almost bled to death. He was a guy who had worked—if you read Factotum—in a dog-biscuit factory. He worked nights putting up those little placards in the subway cars, those little advertising placards that you slide into a slot. He worked in a framing shop, framing pictures. I mean, he’d really been through the ringer.

Later, just by the power of his writing, he began to attract interesting and famous people to him, like Elliott Gould, Bono… His biggest fan was Sean Penn—he loved him. They were as close as two men have ever been. And those were sort of the spoils; you know what I mean? In the old days, medieval times, they would sack a city, and then there were the spoils—all the jewelry and artworks and whatever—it belonged to the invading army. He had earned those spoils. Not that he ever looked down on anybody, but I can remember at one point Bono was giving a concert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and invited Bukowski and his wife to be his guests. He started the concert by saying, “This concert is for Charles Bukowksi.” And the crowd cheered! They knew who he was.

What was the Elliott Gould connection?
It’s another famous Bukowski story. Bukowski began to feel ill; he had a temperature and a cough. Gould said, “You’ve gotta see my doctor.” Took him over to Beverly Hills, and the expensive Beverly Hills specialist checked him out and said, “You’re just run down. Take some vitamins and relax for a while.” He kept on having a temperature and a cough, and so Sean Penn took him to his doctor, who was another Beverly Hills specialist. The doctor looked him over and said, “I don’t see anything wrong. You’re just run down. Don’t stay up so late at work,” and that kind of thing. One day one of his cats—Bukowksi was a great cat lover—got hurt in a fight. Bukowksi took it to a veterinarian near where he lived in San Pedro, which is a tough sailor area, and the guy fixed up the cat, bandaged it, and did whatever needed to be done. Bukowski told him, “You know, I’ve been to these two doctors, I feel terrible, I’ve got this cough, this fever...” The guy lookked at him and said, “You’ve got tuberculosis.” The Beverly Hills doctors had never seen a case of tuberculosis! It’s a poor person’s disease. Then this vet—without even taking his temperature—looked at him, listened to his cough, and said, “Well, you’ve got tuberculosis.” So Sean Penn took him back to his doctor, who was thoroughly humiliated, and he was put on a regimen, and within a year he was OK.

I hope that veterinarian got a raise. Going back to those menial jobs, while they sounded like hell at the time, they did end up providing him with a lot of material.
He didn’t hate them as much as he was angry. In other words, a person who hates their job—that’s a small person. That’s a person without any character or self-knowledge. But you can be angry at being forced to go to a job, and that’s what he was, because he wanted to write.

How did his first novel, Post Office, come about?
This is a good story. So we made that deal in December for $100 a month—early December, as I recall—and so he gave notice to the post office, and his last day there was going to be December 31. He said, “OK, I’m going to work for you on January 2, because January 1 is New Year’s Day and I’m going to take that as a holiday. We thought that was really funny. About three or four weeks went by, I think it was still in January, or at worst the first week in February, and he called me—oh, and I had told him earlier, “If you ever think of writing a novel, that’s easier to sell than poetry; it would help if you could write a novel”—so he called me up at the very end of January or the first week of February, out of the blue, and said, “I got it; come and get it.” I said, “What?” And he said, “My novel.” I said, “You’ve written a novel since I saw you last?” And he said, “Yes.” I asked how that was possible, and he said, “Fear can accomplish a lot.” And that novel was Post Office.

Do you think if you had met him when he was younger and offered him money to write full-time, instead of working those jobs that he had to work, that his work would have suffered if he hadn’t had that experience?
You know, everything adds up to what we are, and he needed every bit of what went on prior to becoming successful. It’s like Henry Miller, practically down and out in the streets in Paris. If he hadn’t had that experience, how could he have written Tropic of Cancer? Bukowski hit bottom again and again.  The only stable period in his life after he left home was during the few years that he worked at the post office. Because it was a job to go to every day, he had to be sober, he had to be on time, and yet he was just burning with this desire to write. Remember, he had stopped writing at the end of the 40s and didn’t write for ten years—he was just on a ten-year drunk. And then, in the late 50s, he had the physical collapse, where he ended up in that hospital, bleeding from the rectum. He almost died.

Were you involved in the production of Barfly?
No. All I did was worry.

Why did you worry?
Because when he was surrounded by those people—Hank was not comfortable among people, in a crowd, even at a small gathering; he was a real loner. He wanted to get up in the morning, have a quick breakfast with his wife, read the paper, leave the house about noon, go to the track, come home at 6:00, have dinner about 7:00, go upstairs at 8:00, and write until two in the morning, and he wanted nothing to interfere with that routine. And he did that seven days a week. I mean, we spent time together, and he enjoyed being with Sean Penn, but I knew not to drop in on him every day—he would have hated it. He’d have been polite—he was the most polite man I’ve ever known, and the most honest man I’ve ever known. He was so deferential and polite and so concerned for your comfort, and whether you were happy or not, when you were with him.

That doesn’t always come across in his writing.
[laughs] It doesn’t come across at all. I mean, his public persona is very unlike the man.

How so, besides his being polite?
I knew him for what, 35 years or more? I never saw him drunk. Never once, never.

What? Really? Was he drinking often, just in moderation?
No, I think just the opposite. He was not drinking very often, but when he did he drank a lot. I mean, he drank every day, and toward the end it was good wine. Remember, he lived to write, and just like lots of writers, during the course of writing—say, between 8:00 in the evening and 2:00 in the morning—he would sip wine; it kept him sort of greased.

Bukowski at a screening of 'Barfly,' November 4, 1987. Photo via WireImage

So he was more of a social drinker? He would just have enough to keep him loose throughout the day?
Right. Unless it was like during the filming of Barfly, when he was being invited to cast parties and playing a kind of cameo role in the movie and that sort of thing. He would just drink blindly because he was so frightened. I mean, he was frightened of people.

So just to be clear, you knew him for 35 years but never saw him drunk. 
Well, I met him in ’65, and he died in ’94, so no, about 30 years I knew him—and I never saw him drunk, no.

But when he was hanging out with these Hollywood types he was getting drunk.
Yes, but I wasn’t there. I was living in Santa Barbra. When he started to get really famous—I moved to Santa Barbra in ’75, and that’s when he really—I knew what was coming. I remember once going over there when he was living in this dump in East Hollywood, and he had this little apartment right on the street, ground floor, with a little porch. And on the porch was a couch, a beat-up old couch. I wouldn’t have even sat in it, it looked so dirty. Anyway, I went over to see him, and there, sitting on the couch, were the two most beautiful little blond girls. Small, gracious, tender little girls, you know? I thought, What the hell are they doing here? And so, as I came up the porch, one of them said, “You’re not Bukowski.” And I said, “No, but I’m going to meet him here in about ten or 15 minutes.” And she said, “Oh, we’ve come all the way from Holland to meet him.” I said, “Well, that’s very nice. He’ll be pleased to meet you,” or something lame.  And I said, “That’s an awful long way to come just to meet him.” And they said, “Oh, we want to fuck him.”

They were just that blunt about it, huh?
Yeah. They said they had come all the way from Amsterdam to fuck Charles Bukowski.  

Did he come back and fuck them?
Ah, I doubt it. This was while he was writing Women, or just before. When he got there—I’m thinking about it—we all sat down and talked for about 15, 20 minutes, and when they saw that I wasn’t going to leave, they said, “Well, we’ll come back later,” and he told me they never came back. So I don’t know. They may have come back; he wouldn’t have told me.

Was Women a pretty accurate representation of the way he was living?
Oh, yeah. He wrote that in, like, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77. And I published it in ‘78. He would send me the manuscript chapter by chapter as he finished it, and after each chapter I’d have to sit down and compose myself and hope that it wasn’t all real.

Did you ask him how much of it was real?
I would just call him and say, “Are you OK? Are you behaving yourself?” Because, you know, he was always scrupulously on good behavior when I was around. Let’s face it: I became sort of the exit out of the life he’d had before. I have a thing I treasure framed on my wall. It’s just a piece of white paper, and he’s typed at the top:

Dear Johnny,

You’re the best boss I ever had.

And then a drawing of himself and signed, Henry Chinaski.

That’s great.
And every two weeks he got a check. I mean, I represented stability and hard work—because he knew how hard I was working at my end, and he appreciated it. So it was an ideal relationship. He used to call me up, and in this deep voice he’d say, "Mr. Rolls, this is Mr. Royce."

Is that when the money was starting to come in?
Yes. I used to kid him: "One day you’ll light your cigars with 50-dollar bills." He’d say, "Only 50? What about 100?" And this was a guy who, if he dropped a nickel in the street, would stop, walk over, pick it up, and put it in his pocket. Not that he was tight, because he could be very generous with people, but he was frugal; he knew what it meant to have only 20 or 30 cents in your pocket and be hungry.

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