Posts tagged ‘Harlan Ellison’

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.

Continue reading ‘Robert Sheckley:
If the Marx Brothers Had Been Writers…’ »

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison did not appear from nowhere. When he first began to show up in the sf magazines he had already been writing from an early age — had even had his work appear in as prestigious a magazine as The New Yorker, but had never really found his voice until the beginning of that period in the early ’60’s. That’s when he began to write the astonishing series of pyrotechnical masterpieces sometimes referred to as the “Repent, Harlequinstories.

More than for most writers, Harlan’s stories and his life seemed both almost part of the same work of art. His home was in the hills overlooking Los Angeles — well, not exactly, in a technical sense, really overlooking it. To overlook the city from Harlan’s front door you would have had to be able to see through some miles of solid rock, because he lived on the far side of the hills.

The house was worth the trip. The name on the door was “Ellison Wonderland.” His writing office would not have shamed a banker, though it centered on nothing more spectacular than a typewriter, and one that was neither computer-based nor even electrified, but powered only by the muscles of Harlan’s ten fingers. His office’s central sound system, he boasted, could deliver any music a visitor requested at the press of a button; and the whole place, like any proper wonderland, had a secret chamber.

And there, in those years of the 1960s, he wrote stories like “‘Repent, Harlequin,&rsqu; Said the Tick-Tock Man,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” and “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” racking up a considerable collection of Hugos and Nebulas in the process. (One writer said, “They ought to give him a Hugo every time he writes a story, just for the titles.”)

I was Harlan’s editor for the first publication of some of the best of those stories, and I have to say that it was not an easy job. We were in a state of war for five or six years on end. There was the Battle of the Douchebag, when Harlan fought tenaciously for his right to have one character in a story call another by that epithet. In a large sense, he was sort of in the right; for generally speaking a writer should be entitled to have his story presented as he conceived it. But I was aware that a significant fraction of our magazine’s readers were fairly young boys, of an age where parents, not themselves readers, might pick up a magazine to see what Tom Junior was reading and be shocked to see that word becoming part of their son’s vocabulary. (Remember we’re talking about a time half a century ago.)

Or the Battle of the 4-Color Border, in which Harlan, having seen some colorful graph strips in, I think, Scientific American, wanted similar strips to frame his next story, and didn’t want to accept the judgment that he couldn’t have them unless we took the printing of the text of the magazine off the cheap black and white press they had always been printed on and substituted a budget-busting color press. And additional skirmishes beyond count.

There was no doubt that Harlan was a major sf writer. The only jarring note was that Harlan was dissatisfied with the possession of that pigeonhole, and so his production of sf stories dwindled as he went on to the exploration of other pastures.

The pasture that was most financially rewarding, I think, was a career as professional lecturer. In return for taking a plane to some college town and talking for an hour or two to a couple of thousand college undergraduates he would receive a check that was usually larger than what a short story brought in, and was a lot less trouble. Moreover, he soon hit upon a way of making it more profitable still. He brought along remaindered copies of his backlist books, and when the talk was over sold them, autographed, to members of the audience.

Audiences loved him. At least, most of the members of his audiences did, though for a few people it was not all that pleasurable. Those were people who were the subject of some of his reminiscences. If I had had any doubt this was true — I never did — I would have learned better on one occasion, in New York one evening just before that year’s annual Nebula Awards dinner.

Harlan had come to New York to speak at the dinner, and his publisher’s publicity people had taken advantage of the opportunity to put him on some radio and TV spots to promote Harlan’s latest book, the anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions. One of the programs was Long John Nebel’s all-night talk show, on which I was a regular. John had had some troublesome experiences with West Coast writers not long before, including Terry Southern, the man who wrote all the funny parts in the film Dr. Strangelove, but on six hours of John’s show rarely responded to a question with more than a “Yes,” “No” or “I don’t know, but maybe.”

So John called me up before booking Harlan with a worrisome question, “Can he talk?”

I assured him that the one problem no one had ever had with Harlan was getting him to talk, but John, wanting insurance, asked me to join the show anyhow.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. That day I made a big one. I said, “Yes.”

When we assembled in the studio and John began to talk he spent a good twenty minutes praising the anthology, though of course he hadn’t read any part of it. Then he turned the mikes over to Harlan, who spent another twenty minutes modestly praising the talents of all the authors in the book, Then John said, “What about you, Fred? What did you think of Again Dangerous Visions?”

That sort of question is not meant to be answered candidly on that sort of program, but I could not make myself join in the previous hymn of worship. What came out of my mouth was something like,, “Well, it’s interesting that Walter Bradbury, the book’s editor at Doubleday, describes it as ‘stories that have been rejected by every editor in the science-fiction field.’ All the same, I think there are some stories there that are really good.”

John, who had been about to lean back in his chair, gave me a quick look and then one at Harlan, whose mouth was already opening for rebuttal. John rapidly returned to the upright position and addressed me. “And why don’t you tell us about some of the stories that impressed you, Fred?” And bloodshed was postponed.

A consideration I had overlooked, however, was that Harlan was to be the keynote speaker at the next evening’s banquet. And I would be sitting at a head table, right under the speaker’s place, in full view of the audience for all of the three-quarters of an hour that Harlan spoke.

It was a memorable evening. There are, however, some memorable evenings that I really would prefer to forget. What’s more, I can prove that some of his assertions were false, as I have, for instance, a copy of my parents’ marriage certificate and the record of my own birth nearly two years later.

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!”

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 8: Hollywood and the Name Game’ »

Part 2 of my memories of Gene Roddenberry

Gene Roddenberry

  Gene Roddenberry

When the studio announced that Star Trek had been canceled after its second year, I took the news philosophically. I had more or less stopped watching it, and Gene Roddenberry had already taken me to previews of a couple of other science-fiction shows he was developing. (None of them actually did much.)

Gene, however, was not so easily defeated A few weeks after the announcement I got a letter from him asking if I would be willing to sign a letter asking the network to reverse itself and give Star Trek at least one more season to show its legs. Gene was not very specific about just what sort of letter it would be. I supposed it would be some sort of group letter signed by a bunch of old sf codgers. I had no objection to that, or indeed to any imaginable kind of letter he might have in mind. I could not think of any serious trouble such a thing might cause me, and I was quite willing to do Gene a favor.

I then forgot about it for a few weeks, until one day I got a letter from an eleven-year-old in some place like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and addressed to “Frederik Pohl, editor of Galaxy, If and Analog.” Its burden was a heartfelt plea for me to change my mind about canceling Star Trek and put it back on the air for at least one more year.

That was a rather puzzling letter. How did he get my home address? What made him believe I had anything to do with canceling the program? Most of all, what made anyone think that I was the editor of Analog, a post that had belonged to John Campbell since the Early Silurian?

It was not a great concern, though, and it had receded to the shadowy recesses of my consciousness when. A couple of days later I got a similar letter from a nine-year-old in a place like Freehold. New Jersey … and then more, many more, from youngsters all over the country, and all displaying the same errors concerning my control over Star Trek‘s fortunes and what magazines I happened to edit..

So I got in touch with Gene to ask, just as a matter of interest, what he knew about those letters.

I already had figured out the basic structure of what was going on. TV shows get a heavy dose of fan mail — in the case of Star Trek largely from young boys — and somebody connected with the show had saved all those return addresses on the envelopes and converted them into a mailing list. (I knew all about such lists. Dirk Wylie and I had got his literary agency started by mailing an invitation to a list of the same kind, although much smaller, this one taken from the return addresses on manuscripts submitted to Popular Publications’ pulp magazines.)

In his reply Gene admitted that they had written a letter to all those thousands of fans, suggesting they write letters to get the program extended — but phrased a little confusingly, which is no doubt how come so many of them thought I was the executioner. He hoped I wasn’t mad because, in the heat of the action, they had sent out the letter — bearing my signature — without showing it to me. I wasn’t mad, and wrote back to tell him so.

Bjo Trimble, in costume, with William Shatner on the set of Star Trek, ca. 1969.

Bjo Trimble, in costume, with William Shatner
on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, ca. 1979.

I wasn’t the only string to Gene’s bow. As I learned later, Harlan Ellison was trying to whip up pressure from the TV professionals, and Bjo Trimble and her husband were attempting to do the same among fan groups.

How well they did, I don’t know, but how well that letter under my name did was very. I have a statement from a person actually on the scene at the network that the executives were astonished and in no small degree worried at the volume and vigor of (correctly addressed) mail it produced.

And, in fact, the network did suddenly announce that they’d thought it over and, after all, they would let Star Trek stay on the air for one more season.



Related post:
Gene Roddenberry

Which, as you know, is the largest island in the Marquesas group, and the one in whose harbor we are now anchored so that our shipmates may storm ashore in search of tapa cloth and guaranteed authentic ironwood carved war clubs.

Betty Anne and I, shipboard, 2009.

Betty Anne and I, shipboard, 2009.

The other thing about Nuku Hiva is that it is the last dry land we are going to see until, after seven more days at sea, we dock once more in San Diego. This has certain consequences, among them the fact that something we do with our computers is incompatible with something the local comsats do up there in orbit. I won’t bore you by providing a more technical explanation of the problem (as if I could!), but what it means is that the posts I have been writing for transmission to our blogmeisters, Dick and Leah, aren’t going to get transmitted anywhere until we are back in our own home. And then they may not get to you in the proper order, as planned for your maximum reading enjoyment.

Ah, well. Sorry about that. I’ll try to do better. Meanwhile. . . .

I said in the beginning that I intended to provide reminiscences of some people who might interest you, and you might like to get an idea of who these people are. They appear to come in five categories: writers I have collaborated with to one degree or another (Williamson , Kornbluth, Asimov, Hubbard, etc.), writers who were my clients when I was a literary agent (Asimov, Budrys, Wyndham, etc.), writers I published when I was an editor (Asimov, Niven, Doc Smith, Heinlein, etc.), writers I hung around with a lot (Asimov, Silverberg, Ellison, etc. — you will note that some people come under more than one of these headings) and, the smallest of these categories, the nonwriters. This includes editors and publishers (the Ballantines, John Campbell, Horace Gold, etc.) and a few assorted scientists, politicians and other special cases (Carl Sagan, a local Democratic Party boss, a U.S. senator and so on).

Quite a few of these I have already written about in one form or another and those bits just need touchups to pass on to you, and so I will start them soon and keep them going as long as my right index finger permits. Along with whatever other kinds of comments I think you might be willing to sit still for. And I hope you’ll enjoy.