How I Came to Edit Frederik Pohl
Guest post by James Frenkel

James Frenkel (Photo by Joshua Frenkel)

James Frenkel (Photo by Joshua Frenkel)

For years I wanted to edit the works of Frederik Pohl. I loved his fiction, and not just the novels, but a lot of his stories as well. I also thought he was a terrific editor, because I read Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines in the 1960s, and when Fred was the editor they published a lot of great science fiction. So when I starting to work in book publishing and then began to edit science fiction for Dell Books, I thought it would be extremely cool to get Fred to write for Dell.

But I didn’t have a chance. The first time I ever really talked with him, at, I think, the Secondary Universe Conference at Queensborough Community College in New York City in 1969, he was polite, but I was not even close to being an editor yet. I was still in college, and meeting a bunch of big-name science fiction people all at once, and overwhelmed by the experience. It seemed to me that everywhere I looked was someone whose books or stories I had read: Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, Lester Del Rey, Gordon R. Dickson, Frederik Pohl … and lots of others, including Ivor Rogers, who wasn’t an SF writer, but did write the occasional article for Time Magazine. and was a fascinating participant.

So years later, when I was now editing SF for Dell, I knew who Fred was, and I knew that he was hot — Gateway had just been published, and if he hadn’t been famous enough before, for all of his previous accomplishments, Gateway made him nothing short of the hottest SF writer on the planet. He was published by Del Rey Books, which was arguably the best sf and fantasy publisher in the world at that moment. It took enormous courage for me to even introduce myself to him, but I managed to do it — I think it was during Lunacon, New York’s annual SF convention. And then I asked him if he’d like to have lunch sometime and maybe talk about publishing a book with Dell.

I have the feeling that he humored me because he knew that an editor for a major publisher could afford to take him out for a very nice lunch at a fine New York restaurant. I don’t know for sure, but he did agree to lunch with me, and we did so, at a nice place on the East Side in Kips Bay … I remember it was Italian food, and I was really nervous. And when I asked him what he was working on — a classic opening line for an editor to dangle the bait of publication to an author — he readily told me that he had just finished the sequel to Gateway … and Del Rey was going to publish it, of course.

And before I could ask much more about future books, he let me know that he was very happy wit Del Rey. They were paying him well, advertising and promoting his books well, and he had more books under contract to them.

Basically he was telling me that it would be a cold day in Hell before I had any chance at all of getting to buy the right to publish one of his books. So why, I thought, was I buying him lunch?

But despite my disappointment and mild feeling of humiliation, we had a nice lunch, and I felt as if I hadn’t acted like a total fool, even though I was nervous and somewhat diffident throughout the meal. And so, after I had paid the bill and we were getting ready to leave, I asked if we might do this again sometime, and he allowed as how he’d like to do that. And who knows, he said, sometime in the future he might have a book that Del Rey wouldn’t publish.

It was a ray of hope, and I held onto that little bit of hope for years … and years … and years. We would occasionally have another lunch, sometimes be on a panel together at an SF convention, and mingle companionably at sundry awards banquets in New York and elsewhere. But it was more than fifteen years before I got the chance to even consider one of his books for publication.

It was at Windycon in November, 1993. I was getting ready to leave the convention, which was at a hotel in a suburb of Chicago, and hadn’t really seen a lot of Fred. As I walked toward the front door of the hotel, Fred was crossing the lobby toward me. I slowed down, because by then I knew him well enough to no longer feel small and timid in his presence. Then he held out a manila envelope toward me. I wasn’t sure what this was about, until he said, “This is my latest novel. Would you like to take a look at it? Patrick Nielsen Hayden has it, but I thought you might like to see it.

I was a little confused, because at Tor Books we have a policy: if one editor is considering a manuscript, that’s it. So I really couldn’t legitimately consider his novel. But … but … this was something I’d wanted to do for years and years. I called Patrick, told him what had happened in the hotel, and asked whether he’d read it or not yet.

Patrick said that he had read it and he thought it was OK, but he had mixed feelings about it. If I wanted to consider it, it would be OK with him, he said. I said that yes, I’d like to do that. So I read it, and liked it more than a little. It was pretty cool, had the unmistakable aura of a Fred Pohl novel. I had questions about it. There were aspects of it that I thought were perhaps not as well developed as they might be. I thought Fred was surely capable of bringing it up to speed well enough to make it a terrific novel.

So I called Fred and asked him if I could perhaps talk with him about my questions, because, as I explained, I liked it a lot but wasn’t sure about certain things. He said sure, that would be fine. We set a time for when we would talk again.

The day and hour came. I had notes in front of me. I called Fred and told him about my questions, my thoughts on what I thought might change for the better in the novel to make it wonderful. Fred listened; I had only talked for about five or six minutes — there wasn’t a lot I needed to say. But when I had said my piece, Fred didn’t waste any time. He said, “Well, I don’t think I want to do those things (the things I was asking him to do), so I guess we’re not going to work together on this book.”

Oh, oh, oh. All those years, all I did to get to this point, and that was it? I thought fast: “Wait. How about I write you a letter about this, so you can see what I’m talking about in more detail. Maybe I’m not explaining this well. Please, just let me send you this letter. And if you still don’t like my thoughts, then I guess we won’t work together.”

He said he would be OK with that. I wrote him a letter of about five single-spaced pages, getting much more specific, giving him the reasons and rationales behind all of my thoughts for improving the book. About a week later, I got a call from him … “I can do what you’re asking.”

My heart, as some would say, leaped! I look back on that moment from time to time and think about the small things that change our lives for better or worse. If he hadn’t let me write him that letter … if I hadn ‘t seen him that day at Windycon … I might never have gotten to buy that first book. It never hurts to have a little bit of luck.

On the manuscript, the novel was titled The Complexities of Coupled Faults. I thought that was a great title … for a short story. But I kept thinking how tiny such a long title would have to be, to get all those letters and spaces on a book jacket. Eventually we settled on The Voices of Heaven, a title I still really like, for a novel I also still quite like.

It was the first of his novels I’ve edited, and now All the Lives He Led has just been published. That’s the tenth of his books that I’ve edited, including Chasing Science, his terrific popular-science book about the joys of finding science wherever one goes, and Platinum Pohl, a big, wonderful collection of his short stories. Working with him never gets dull; I have to admit, I still feel a little thrill every time I start to read a new Frederik Pohl manuscript.

He’s still writing the kind of intriguing, compulsively readable science fiction that hooked me on his science fiction when I was a teenager and later made me want to work with him.; still a creative genius, a Grand Master who has an unerring instinct for creating great story hooks, fascinating, quirky characters and science fictional notions that combine thought-provoking sociopolitical conflict with strong human drama.

In short, he’s just a lot of goddamned fun! I’m just so glad that when I first struck out with him, he let me try again.

8 Comments

  1. David B. Williams says:

    Speaking of small letters, take a look at the title on the book cover just above. I guess a writter knows he’s arrived when his name on a book cover is ten times bigger than the title.

  2. Dwight Decker says:

    This may be just a little off-topic, but I’m not sure where else to mention it. I was at the Windy City Pulp and Paperback Convention in Lombard, IL this weekend (15-17 April ’11), and noticed there’s a picture of Mr. Pohl on the back cover of the program book. (Along with a whole slew of other people.) The explanation is that the program book’s theme this year is the pulp empire of Popular Publications, and the Pohl pic comes from a trade magazine article spotlighting the company in 1940, when he was editing SUPER SCIENCE and ASTONISHING STORIES. Yet another sighting of the elusive wild Pohl…?

  3. lawyers says:

    I did not seen him that day at I might never have gotten to buy that first book. It never hurts to have a little bit of luck….

  4. Allison Bell says:

    Off-topic, because of severe horror: I just found out that some if Andre Norton’s books are in the public domain because no one bothered to renew the rights.

    I can see her maybe donating the rights to some kind of copyleft, fame through free stuff kind of organization, by the fact that they’re in the public domain because of neglect seems sad.

    It would be good if someone could develop an automated search to let fans know when grandmasters’ works were falling into the public domain so someone could rescue them.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Not a bit sad. The public domain is where all the wonderful characters who saw the light of day before 1923 live, from Odysseus to Cinderella. Anyone can tell their stories now, and that’s a good thing.

    In any event, the loophole you mention is now closed: works are copyright as soon as you write them down, and remain so until 70 years after your death. An awfully long time to lock them away, don’t you think?

  6. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    As often as not, entering the public domain is precisely what is rescuing them from being unobtainable. A few things from the very early 20th century are in print and still selling, but the vast majority is just gone, and they’re old enough that even used copies aren’t always easy to find.

    I’m terrified that the horrid extension of copyright to life+70 years will cause many works to die because they can’t be published. 70 years after the author’s death, there will generally be NO fans of the work left to evangelize the next generation. (Meanwhile, the great grandchildren of a very few authors will make modest profits long into the future, and Disney will still own The Mouse.)

  7. Cliff Winnig says:

    That’s a great story about serendipity and persistence, and how each one feeds the other. I’m looking forward to reading All the Lives He Led. A new Pohl novel is cause for celebration!

  8. Anton Sherwood says:

    How much less would writers be motivated to write if copyright were absolutely limited to, say, thirty years?