The conclusion of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Alfred Bester, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk).

Audience: What’s it like to start writing the next book after you have written, say, The Demolished Man?

Bester: I’ve just finished a book about a month ago and I’m absolutely pooped — there’s nothing left. It happens with me when I’ve finished something big like a novel. Not a script — with a script or a short story, next week you write another one. But with a book, I’m exhausted.

Now at my advanced age I know better — I leave it alone and the next thing I know, a few weeks, a couple of months maybe, an idea begins to niggle me and the next thing I know I’m beginning to dream and think about it. Who’s as surprised as me when there’s something in my head and there’s my legal pad, and a book is formed? You just have to wait for the battery to recharge. I just wait patiently and it starts all over again. There are so many ideas that one has.

I may think, “Ah yes, there’s that play that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time and I’m going to start on that play,” and the next thing I know it’s going to turn into a novel. You don’t know what will happen — you’re constantly surprised.

Pohl: You’re a much more organized person than I am. I don’t work on one thing at a time. I usually have eight or 10 projects going at one time. I work on one until I’m bored, and don’t know what to do next. Then I put it away and work on another. So the point never really comes where I have to say this day I start from scratch with something new, but each day, to the extent possible with the vicissitudes of travel or something, I do some writing!

Every day. I find that sometimes it gets a little treacherous though because I want to write the same scene in three different novels. There are two novels that I’m working on now and I’ve got a great scene and I want it in both of them.

Bester: I’ve stolen scenes from myself many a time and been ashamed.

Audience: Do you consider the increasing commercialism of science fiction will have a detrimental effect on the future?

Pohl: The increasing commercialism of science fiction has worried me sometimes because it seems to me that the prices have got pretty high and it’s a sort of South Sea Bubble thing that is going to bust before long. But I don’t think it’ll affect any writer seriously. Writers that are good enough to command the sky-high prices that are going on, especially science-fiction writers, are generally also so damn stubborn that they’re going to do what they want to do anyhow. And not too many of the first-rank writers that I know are going to worry about commercialism. They will do their thing.

From time to time I’ve flirted with things like television where you can’t really do your thing unless you have a commanding position and have spent 20 years earning it, but I don’t want to do that, even though I could make much more money and reach a wider audience. It’s not my thing. And most of the writers I know will not do what they don’t want to do, no matter what sort of money is about.

Bester: I agree completely. I do an occasional science-fiction special, but I can’t write for any of the standard shows. The coast — Hollywood — is impossible.

There’s a little gag: What is a camel? A camel is a horse designed by a committee. Out on the coast, it is all committee work.

Pohl: Yes, all these people have to justify their salaries by having an opinion! If they don’t have an opinion, they’re fired.

Bester: Which they impose on you. I’m all kinds of author, but I’ve never yet written anything in which I’ve not been in complete control. And I just will not put up with committee work.

Audience: Another person who comes to mind as somebody who has tried very hard to do his own thing within the framework of media work is Harlan Ellison!

Pohl: Harlan does his own thing. Harlan chooses for reasons not known to me to flagellate himself by going back and writing episodes of The Flying Nun from time to time. Why he does this I don’t really know; he doesn’t need the money.

Bester: Harlan did a Star Trek script and it was the one good script that they had. Harlan’s a marvelous writer, there’s no doubt about it.

Pohl: The reason I don’t get involved in film and top TV, is neither that I’m allergic to money nor above that sort of thing. It’s just that I don’t want to deal with all those people. One maniac editor is all that I can handle at one time; 27 lunatic network executives would just drive me insane.

AD: But Fred, now you’ve achieved enough clout to get away with it.

Pohl: I can get away with it until they come back and say, “NBC loves your idea but they won’t allow you to do what you said you want to do.” And then I walk away.

A couple of years ago, I was coming to Los Angeles and my Hollywood agent called me up and said: “When you come, I’ve got somebody for you to meet. He’s a producer and he wants you to write a script for him.”

And I said: “What kind of script?”

“It’s a Japanese monster movie!”

And I said, “I don’t write Japanese monster movies. I’ve never tried.”

“Well, he wants to take you for lunch at the Lambs Club.”

It was a big old theatrical club, and I’d never been in it. I said, “Well, sure, I’ll have lunch with the sonofagun. But he’s not going to send me off to Buenos Aires and make me write the thing. I’ll just have lunch and talk to him.”

And he showed me what he wanted to do. He had built a monster. It was called Thermoliath. It had six limbs and it was run by two men inside the suit, one sitting on the shoulders of the other, and the man on top did the head and the hands and the man underneath did the feet and the middle set of tentacles, or appendages. They were not exactly arms; they had ray-guns on their ends — heat-ray guns, which is where he got the name Thermoliath — it was supposed to melt things.

I said, “That’s not my kind of thing.”

And he said, “I don’t care what kind of script you write as long as you do three things for me. First, you have to use Thermoliath because I’ve already got the suit built and I don’t want to waste the money. Second, you’ve got to use some stock footage I own of hurricanes and earthquakes — you’ve got to work at least 10 minutes of that into the film somehow. And the third thing is that you have to destroy the city of Palm Springs, California.”

I said, “Why do I have to destroy Palm Springs, California?”

He said: “Well, one of my Japanese backers wants it destroyed!”

It never worked out. The whole thing went down the tube. But that’s the kind of people you meet.

Bester: I can tell you about something that did not happen to me, it happened to a friend of mine. They were putting together a show for Easter and he said he was passing by the producer’s office and the producer was talking to the Catholic priest who was their technical adviser on the Easter show and, just as he passed, he heard the producer say: “I don’t give a good goddamn, he’s got to be on the cross and off by 29:30!”

Audience: Mr. Bester, you spent 20 years after Tiger! Tiger! before you wrote another sf novel. Have your juices built up a better novel?

Bester: Hopefully, yeah. The one I’ve just finished is wild, and I’m frightened to death. It is pure psychedelia. I would say at least a quarter of it is graphics.

Pohl: He’s got this novel that goes along like a novel for about 200 pages, and all of a sudden it turns into four-color illustrations.

Bester: It’s just crazy. You know about Rorschach ink-blot tests? Well, I’ve invented something in the book — “ID blots” We’re going to have a production problem with that. I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But it was great fun. I wrote a page a day if I was lucky! I’ve broken every rule.

What I’ve been trying to do with this one is create a visuo-narrative style, so that I can use words to create images in the mind but also the impact of the eye on graphics, on visuals will also produce a certain emotional effect. And whether it comes off, I just don’t know. It may be a disaster — I just had to do it. We must make new things, try new experiments. And this is a tremendous experiment I tried. I’m so depleted now because I blew everything on that goddamn book.

The publisher and I have not agreed on the final title. The working title is Golem100. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad; I’m not too good on titles. Well, you know how they switched titles on me in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Pohl: Horace Gold bought a story from me once which I called “The Ides of June,” and he said, “That’s a terrible title — you’ve got to change it,” and I said, “I don’t want to change it, I like it.” So he changed it when I wasn’t looking.

There was a story by Richard Wilson called “The Tunnel Under the World— it was submitted to him and he didn’t even buy it, he rejected it. But he took Wilson’s title and put it on my story. And then about three months later, he took someone else’s story and changed their title to “The Ides of June.” Editors are insane.

Audience: Bob Shaw wrote Orbitsville at the same time Larry Niven wrote Ringworld and the two books were about the same idea, and it caused Bob Shaw to concede to Ringworld and put his book in the drawer for about 10 years. I just wondered if that sort of thing happens to you.

Pohl: Yeah, it happens, there is not a great deal you could do about it. It doesn’t really matter that two books are on more or less the same subject because the individual writer’s approach to it is so different. John Campbell used to feed the same story idea to six different writers and get six different stories and print all of them.

The only way it hurts is sometimes the first book will be a big bestseller and the other one won’t. It is just as good a book and will last just as long, but it doesn’t capture the market because the first one used it up. And if there’s going to be a film, the first one gets made into a film, the ones that come after don’t.

There’s a book called Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and a couple of other similar catastrophe books about meteor showers striking the earth. But theirs is first — the others are also good, but theirs is the one that I think will pick up all the marbles.

Audience: Do you feel that the name “science fiction” has become a bit of a misnomer and that the subject is losing its boundaries and becoming a bit diffuse?

Bester: We’re stuck with it. The name “science fiction,” there’s nothing we can do about it. I’ve never liked it myself because it is too limiting in concept.

Science fiction now is no longer science fiction as we used to know it. Science fiction has replaced quote mainstream fiction unquote, completely. Mainstream fiction is incredibly dull, and many “mainstream” authors are trying their hand at science fiction and doing miserably because you’ve got to be hell of a lot better than just a plain old mainstream author to write science fiction. Science fiction is the great literary form today.

But we’re stuck with that goddamn name: science fiction, sf, sci-fi, whatever. It is preposterous, what can we do? At least it’s better than what Hugo Gernsback tried to call it — scientifiction, or something like that.

Pohl: Science fiction is an under-description. It’s just a name, just that. My name is Fred. That doesn’t describe me very well, but we’re stuck with it. It is a sign you put on the section of the store where those books are. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Kevin Williams: I’m sorry to have to tell you that we’ve just run out of time, and so we now have to end this wonderful conversation between two of our favorite writers!

So thank you very much, Alfred J. Bester and Frederik Pohl — and thank you in the audience as well, for a pleasant and enlightening evening!

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  1. Jim Flanagan says:

    This has been a fantastic series of posts. Thanks Fred

  2. Jim Worrad says:

    Thank you, this has been wonderful!

  3. Mike Goldberg says:

    Thanks! This was a great interview. I wish that I had been in the audience!

  4. H. E. Parmer says:

    Thanks so much for putting this interview up, Fred, and thanks also to the fans who transcribed it.

    Speaking as a bad cinema freak, though, I have to believe we’re all the poorer for having been denied the spectacle of Thermoliath shambling through a cheap cardboard and plaster-of-Paris miniature replica of Palm Springs, intercut with stock footage of hurricanes and earthquakes.

    For all sad words
    of tongue or pen,
    the saddest are these:
    “It might have been.”

  5. JohnArmstrong says:

    Thanks, Fred –