Part 5 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
Audience: Could you elaborate on how you co-write with someone?
Pohl: With Cyril Kornbluth? Well, it’s different with different people. It’s like being married! Incidentally, Alfie, have you ever collaborated on fiction?
Bester: Never. I’ve never collaborated in my life. I’ve strictly been a loner always.
Pohl: I’m afraid I’ve been much more promiscuous than you have!
Bester: I’m curious, too, Fred. What was it like working with Cyril?
Pohl: Well, Cyril Kornbluth and I grew up together. We began writing together when I was about 18 or 19 and Cyril maybe 15. We belonged to a thing called the Futurians; it was a science-fiction fan club in New York in the late ’30s and early ’40s. There’s a book by Damon Knight called The Futurians, which I think is in print here now, full of all sorts of libelous, slanderous gossip about all of us. Much of which is true, but he shouldn’t have said it anyhow! People like Isaac Asimov and Don Wollheim and others would have paid him well not to publish the book.
But we all belonged to this club and we all wanted to write and we all tried. Cyril and I began working together and as we were just beginning to write we developed a lot of each other’s writing habits. We started much the same way, we were used to each other. Then the war came along. He went one way and I went another. And then we got together again on The Space Merchants. And with Cyril, because we had this background of common experience and common attitudes, writing was almost painless on most of what we wrote. We published altogether I think, seven novels and maybe 30 or 40 short stories.
Bester: Did you collaborate line by line?
Pohl: Mostly what we did was talk to each other for a while. He’d come out to my home in Red Bank, where we kept a room for him with his own typewriter, and we’d sit around and drink for a while, and when the booze ran out we’d start to talk seriously about what sort of book we’d plan to write. And we’d think about a situation and talk about a few characters and what might happen to them, and as long as the conversation was flowing we’d keep on talking. We didn’t put anything on paper.
And then when we were beginning to flag, and it felt like it was ready to write, we’d flip a coin and the loser would go up to the third floor — Cyril’s typewriter was in one room there and mine was another — and he would write the first four pages. And then at the end of those four pages, which would stop in the middle of a line or a word sometimes, he’d come down or I’d come down, and say, “You’re on.”
We called it the “Hot-Typewriter System” — just keep the thing going day and night — and we did in fact usually work straight through.
Bester: Now it’s you that’s on, right? You go upstairs, you read the first four pages. Now, did it ever happen that you came down and said, “Cyril, you’re out of your mind. They can’t do it that way?”
Pohl: Not once. A couple of times when we were towards the end of a novel and getting a little giddy we’d play tricks on each other. There was this scene at the end of one novel when, at the bottom of the last page I had somebody look through a microscope and the next line was, “What did he see?” and I said it was Charlie Chaplin in a bowler hat. Then I went down and said, “Take it from there.”
But he fooled me — he just crossed out that line. Usually we didn’t even cross out a line, we just drove from line to line. Page 5 to 8 would be Cyril’s and page 9 to 12 would be mine; we just kept on going until we came to the end of the book. This was rough draft and it always got rewritten all the way through, by one of us, almost always by myself except for the case of one novel, Wolfbane, which was the last writing Cyril did before he died, and there was quite a lot of revision involved in the rewriting. But basically, when we were finished, the novel was there, and it would sometimes only take five or six days to do a whole novel, because we’d work straight through for 24 hours a day.
Bester: I’ve another question! Timewise, sometimes the four pages would take four minutes, four hours, four days, what?
Pohl: Well, there’s a great incentive to speed when you know that the other guy is down there having a great time, and you want to break it up as quickly as possible, so usually it only took a couple of hours. You know that the other guy is waiting, and if you don’t get down there pretty soon he’ll be off to a bar somewhere. So we worked pretty fast. It’s a good way to write a book with two people who are close enough in their ways of work that they don’t kill each other.
I wrote a novel with Lester del Rey once and we almost did kill each other. He was one of my closest friends up until that point. Now we’ll never write another word together.
Bester: Why was he difficult?
Pohl: Lester’s way of working is entirely different from mine. I don’t like to know ahead of time what everything is going to be. Lester insists on it — he can’t write a novel unless by the time he has the first line on paper he knows what the last line is going to be.
Lester left to himself will sit at a typewriter and produce first lines for about a week. Puts a piece of paper in, types the first line, throws it out. Starts over. Once he gets to line two or three the novel follows as the night from day, and he knows all.
I can’t do that. I like to be surprised as I go along. Two or three times in my life I’ve come close to killing someone and one of them was Lester when we were writing that novel. So it’s all different with different people.
I’ve written seven novels, I think, with Jack Williamson and they’re quite different.
Bester: How was he to work with?
Pohl: Jack’s a marvel to work with. He’s a gentle, patient, understanding, tolerant human being or else we wouldn’t do it. We spend a lot of time corresponding, since he lives in New Mexico and I live in New Jersey, which are 2,000 miles apart. We meet now and then and talk. We exchange letters and sometimes the correspondence is thicker than the novel. Then he writes a complete first draft from which I throw away large parts and add new parts and rewrite what’s left, and what comes out of that is usually what’s published. With a certain amount of rewriting/polishing thereafter. But that’s not a labor-efficient method.
With Cyril and me, it was labor-efficient. We could have written every book in the British Museum if we had put our minds to it. I think we had been going about six years when he died, in which time we had written seven novels and some other odds and ends. If he’d lived, I think we would have written a hundred novels by now.
Bester: What kind of a guy was he? I never met him.
Pohl: Cyril Kornbluth was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known in my life. Witty, acerbic, sardonic, quick. He was stout and short — physically he looked like a dumpling. He had a deep father-figure voice. He had the kind of accent that comes from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was a sort of radio announcer accent. You couldn’t determine anything from it. He had a beautiful speaking voice and a good singing voice.
During the war he was in the Battle of the Bulge, carrying a 50-caliber machine gun around the Ardennes forest in the snow and ice. He damaged his heart and ultimately died of it 10 years later. He had noticed there was something wrong with his heart because he kept falling over every once in a while. He went to his doctor who said, “Okay Mr Kornbluth, I can tell you what your problem is. You have Essential Malignant Hypertension, and you’re going to die within a year unless you stop smoking and drinking and using salt and pepper and any other spices and unless you start getting 10 hours of sleep a night, regularly,” and a lot of other things.
Cyril tried faithfully for about three weeks to do what the doctor said. He was also required to take early tranquilizers, Rauwolfia or Reserpine or one of those things. The result was that he turned into some sort of a vegetable. This very quick mind became slow and fumbling and you’d ask him something and he wouldn’t be sure whether he knew or not. From being one of the brightest and quickest people I’ve ever met, he became a sort of comic figure. You know, W.C. Fields at his most fumbling was always swifter than Cyril at that time.
So he made a conscious decision and said, “Well, I’ll go back to my evil ways and if I die within a year, at least I will have lived for a year!” And he did, and he died just about a year later.
Bester: What was his wife like?
Pohl: They met when she was a young fan. They have two children. She’s still living in upstate New York.
Bester: The reason why I’m so fascinated with Cyril is that I read that dreadful book of Damon Knight’s called called The Futurians. Fred’s absolutely right. It should never have been written. And although I’m not in the book, I would personally kill Damon for putting it together. It is outrageous, it is just full of tacky scandal. Seeing people at their worst.
There is a rule: You must never go back to an actor’s dressing room if you’ve enjoyed the actor’s performance on stage. There are several exceptions — not many, and Fred, of course, is one — of writers who are what they write. But they are very rare. Very often, a guy could write a brilliant story, brilliant script, brilliant novel or whatever, and you meet him and he’s the world’s number one dullard. Don’t expect the writer to be what he writes.
Which raises a very interesting question, where is the reality? Does the writer write what he does out of frustration? Is he a dullard in real life because he’s afraid to do what he does in his work? I don’t know.
I remember once I was out in Chicago lecturing and I was being taken round some kind of park, and my guide took a shortcut across a lawn, hopping over a sign which said “Do not step on the grass,” and I refused point blank. I said, “I’ll go round on the walk, I’m not going to do that.”
And he looked at me in astonishment. “My God!” he said, “Bester, you break every rule in the world in your writing and you’re obeying a ‘Don’t Step on the Grass’ sign?”
More of this fascinating talk coming up soon.