Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley was a great — and greatly funny — writer of science-fiction short stories. Along with “William Tenn” (aka Phil Klass) and damon knight, he filled the magazines in that thrice-blessed decade of the ’60s with an apparently infinite supply of great little comic stories. When I say there was nothing like them before or after I know whereof I speak, because by the time the ’60s came along, I was a magazine editor desperate to find writers like them that I could publish. Oh, I did find some, including some really good ones, but no masterpiece-a-week humor generators like those.

I had met Sheckley when he was just beginning his run of great comic stories. Harlan Ellison had written about him, saying, “If the Marx Brothers had been writers they would have been Robert Sheckley,” and I had made a point of getting some of his published stories to check it out for myself. When we turned out to be attending the same party I made it a point to get a conversation going with him. We were getting along pretty well, and when I mentioned that my house was on a tidal river he got interested quickly. “You do? Well, I’ve got this boat that I don’t take out much because I don’t know many people who live on the water. Maybe I could come get you and take you out for a spin.”

That sounded like a great idea. It kept on sounding that way until I mentioned that the river had three low bridges between the ocean and my house and he, glumly, announced that his sailboat had an eighteen-foot mast. Then he told me how much he’d liked a book of mine that had just come out, and I told him how some of his stories had made me laugh out loud.

Then, when we started talking business, he asked if I could get him better pay than he had been receiving for his short stories. I assured him I could, and I did. Actually I doubled his monthly income almost at once. It wasn’t hard. I just changed the destination of each new manuscript that came popping out of his typewriter, for, like many new writers, Bob had convinced himself of a crippling fallacy. The fallacy is that beginners would have to work their way up through the low-paying markets — then paying about a penny a word, like Imagination — before they would be able to earn the rates that were double or triple that from Galaxy or the other leaders in the field.

What makes that a fallacy is that submitted stories come in roughly three levels of quality. There are the winners, which almost editor will buy as soon as he shakes it out of its envelope. Then there are the total losers that hardly anybody is desperate enough to buy and, finally, the stories that need a little work, and an editor will generally help the writer work its flaws away. The only sensible procedure in marketing a story is to send it to the highest-paying markets first, and work your way down if you have to.

Some times a higher-paying editor will help a writer along, as Playboy’s fiction editor did for me at a party when he poured me a drink and said, “You know, I would have bought about half of those stories you’ve been running in Galaxy.” To which I said, “Oh,” and quickly changed my ways.

Of course, those weren’t the only sales I made for Bob. I got him into some TV spots, from which he later got himself into better and better ones, and into double-selling reprints of his work to mostly paperback book publishers, and we became friends.

Then for quite a while I pretty much lost touch with Bob. It wasn’t as much of a blow as you might think, because nearly everyone did. He was doing well, but he was wandering the face of the Earth. What brought him back to New York was a job with Omni. When Ben Bova was elevated from Fiction Editor to Editor in Chief he chose Bob to take over the fiction. It was a good job, paid pretty well. And Bob had always wanted to be an editor for a while.

Only, of course, there were problems.

I found out about them when the phone rang in my New York apartment about eleven one night. I was in the apartment as a stepping stone between divorcing Carol and marrying Betty Anne, and I had not really expected Bob Sheckley to be calling me there. “I need advice,” he explained. “You like to give it. I’m in the Village, so come up, have a drink with me and give me some.”

Well, I did. Not the drink, no — I specified black coffee — but I agreed to the advice and I do not exaggerate if I say I spent the next four hours advising him on his dilemma.

The dilemma was that the thing with Omni was a good job, but he wanted to write and they wouldn’t let him write while he was editing. So, with my first cup of coffee — this one at an Italian deli off Union Square, I said, “It’s simple, Bob. If you have to write to be happy and they won’t let you do it and keep the job, then you have to quit the job. And what time is it now, anyway?”

“Quarter of twelve,” he said, “but I like the job and the money’s good. .How can I throw it away?”

“So you can write again, you said,” I said.

He shook his head. “Isn’t that easy. I’m getting used to the money and the expense account. I don’t want to lose them.”

“Then you write under a secret pen name. Let’s shake this place. There’s a Greek coffee shop on Sixth Avenue—”

There was, but we used it up, and used up a bar on 8th Street, where we both stuck virtuously to coffee, and the famous old diner on Sixth Avenue, and an assortment of other places, until I just couldn’t put down another drop. And we wound up in the coffee shop on Second and 23rd, where I picked up my ‘steenth cup of coffee, lifted it to my lips and said again, firmly, “Bob, here’s the thing. If you have to write to be happy and they won’t let you do it and keep the job, then you have to quit the job. And we’re two blocks from my apartment, so good night. Let me know what you decide.”

And that was the last I heard from Bob Sheckley for quite a while. I did hear from Ben that Bob had indeed come in to the office the next day and quit. Then, a little later, I heard from others that Bob said I had talked Bob in to quitting his job because I wanted it for myself. The fact that I didn’t apply for it, because I really didn’t at all want it, must have puzzled him, but he finally stopped saying that and we became friends again. Then he went back to England and I began getting wires from the young woman he was traveling with, inviting me to come to London to be Best Man at their upcoming wedding, followed closely by wires from Bob saying don’t come right away because we’ve decided to wait.

And then he got sick, and returned to America and died.

I miss Bob. He was a lot of fun, but mostly for others and maybe not so much for himself.

7 Comments

  1. EdS says:

    Robert Sheckley was an hilarious writer. I remember reading his stuff when I was young, a lot of it now collected in two volumes from NESFA press. Highly recommended.

  2. steve davidson says:

    ‘Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?’ was a total eye-opener for me when I first read it. It’s the first SF story I ever read that showed me it was possible for SF to “handle” more mature themes. And funny? It’s the definition of comedic SF.

    Thanks for reminding us

  3. Ken says:

    That’s the trouble with giving honest advice, people always insist they want it, but half the time end up blaming you for whatever decision they make.

  4. John C. Boland says:

    What a treat. Thank you.

  5. Silvio Sosio says:

    I met Robert Sheckley a couple of times here in Italy, few years before he died. He had been in my house and smoked cigarettes on my balcony. To me he was like an Indian guru. He looked as if he had experience of all the things in the world, all the sufferings and all the pleasures, and nothing really mattered for him anymore. One night we went downtown to eat a pizza, and there was no parking and I had to park a long way from the restaurant, and we – the young ones – were pissed off of that, but he, who looked even elder than he was, didn’t mind at all. He walked for about two kilometres without complaining, chatting with us, with few words, as always.

  6. Ellen Datlow says:

    Bob was blocked for years. He got the OMNI job and held it for 1 ½ years or so. Jay Rothbell and he started dating and he started writing again. He asked for a two month leave of absence, which he got the summer of 1980. In September he asked for another month’s leave of absence. Ben said no so Bob left and I was promoted Fiction Editor, after being Associate fiction editor for the entire time Bob was there.

    End of story.

  7. James Van Hise says:

    You kind of left out Sheckley’s drug problems, which no one seems to want to talk about. Even after he died the obituaries would dance around it and try not to come right out and say that this was why he was blocked. Some 30 years ago Douglas Adams (who had just become an overnight success and a bestselling SF writer) gave a guest of honor talk at a convention and he came right out and said that he was doing the kind of writing that Robert Sheckley would be doing if he hadn’t burned himself out on drugs.