Posts tagged ‘Horace L. Gold’

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

Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

    Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

Pohl: I want to tell you something about this arrogance that you were talking about. It is not just editors, although the best in science fiction have been pretty insufferable in one way or another. We’ve mentioned Horace Gold, who was also demented. John Campbell clearly had a very decisive personality and impressed it on everybody around him all the time.

Some years ago two psychologists decided they wanted to find out what science-fiction writers were like. They sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of science-fiction writers and asked them to answer the sort of questions you get on psychological-testing papers. How do you feel about your mother and this and that. And from these they prepared a group psychological profile of science fiction writers.

They compared it with a similar group profile for some other kind of writers and for a third group of people. They found out that the science fiction writers were in many ways similar to most human beings! There were a couple of differences, and one was in what is called “aggressive” versus “withdrawn” “cyclothymia.”

Bester: What is “cyclothymia”?

Pohl: It’s a kind of lunacy. [Editor’s note: Cycling mood swings, but short of actual bipolar affective disorder.] But the question was not whether you had it, but if you had it which way you would go. Withdrawn cyclothymic people are more or less passive and tend to let things go; they overlook something that is wrong. The people who tend the other way are stubborn and won’t take nothing from nobody, and have their own opinions which you’re not going to change with an ax!

And science fiction writers were like that — the stubbornest, most difficult human beings alive!

Audience: How do writers get along with their readerships?

Bester: Fine, splendid. People ask me questions, and I answer them. People ask for autographs and I sign them. People want to talk to me. They’d like to be writers, so l try to help as hard as l can. I get along fine with readers.

Fred, have you ever been attacked by a reader?

Pohl: Not physically, no! But I went to a meeting in Boston some years ago; it was a Mensa meeting, and I was supposed to talk about science fiction and discuss it with somebody else, and this person came up to me and handed me a copy of one of my books.

I said, “Oh, you want my autograph.”

And he said, “No, I want to give it back to you. I hate it. I don’t want it in my possession.” And that’s the closest I ever came to being attacked. Of course, I started out as a fan.

Bester: So did I. I read what’s his name’s Amazing Stories when I was only that high. I couldn’t even afford to buy any. I used to read it on the newsstand. Until they chased me, and I’d come back five minutes later and I’d finish the story.

Pohl: Well, I didn’t do that. I bought them in secondhand stores and got them for a nickel. I identify more closely with readers than I do with most writers. I still read science fiction for pleasure. Not all of it, because who can? 1,200 books a year is more than I can handle. But when I have finished reading what I have to read professionally in science fiction, I read some just for fun.

Bester: Fortunately I don’t have to read it professionally. I read it just for fun, and I do read science fiction regularly.

Alas, there is not as much fun for me today because now that I’m a professional writer, always in the back of the mind is the critical writer, saying “Oh man, you loused that scene, you could have done it better.” That kind of thing kills a lot of stories for me. But occasionally a beaut comes along.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 7: Cyclothymia’ »

Part 4 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Space Merchants

Bester: I’m curious, Fred. Where did you get the idea for The Space Merchants?

Pohl: The Space Merchants has a long history. During World War II, I was with the American Air Force in Italy. I got a little homesick, and I’d brought my typewriter with me. I’d carried that damn thing all over World War II hoping some time to find a use for it and I did.

I thought I’d write a novel about New York City to make me feel a little better. And the most exciting thing I could think of to write about in New York City was the advertising business — which was a glamorous sort of thing —-and I wrote this novel for some 300 pages or so, called For Some We Loved. It’s a quotation from Omar Khayyam. I was 23 years old, what did I know?

And then the war was over and I got back home, and I looked at the novel and perceived there was something wrong with it. What was wrong with it was that I didn’t know anything about the advertising business, and I had written this whole novel that dealt with it. But I knew how to solve that problem. I looked in the Sunday New York Times, classified advertising section, and I saw three or four help-wanted ads for advertising copywriters. I’d never been an advertising copywriter, but it looked easy. So I answered a couple of the ads and one of them hired me, and I spent a couple of years there.

Bester: What agency was it, Fred?

Pohl: A little tiny thing called Thwing & Altman, mostly book accounts. We did the Dollar Book Club and the Literary Guild and William Wise. I got to be pretty good at writing advertising.

And, at some point during those years, I had a summer place in upstate New York looking out over a lake with a big fireplace, and I had my manuscript of my novel For Some We Loved with me, and one night, I began to read it in front of the fireplace and as I read each page, I tossed them in the fire one by one.

Bester: Oh, Fred, no! That’s terrible.

Pohl: It was awful. The concept was painful … but the novel itself was agonizing. I had no choice.

So here I had all this knowledge of advertising and no longer had a book to put it in. Also Fred Wakeman had come out with The Hucksters by then, so it was no longer really a fresh idea for a regular mainstream novel. Then it occurred to me to make a science-fiction novel about advertising, and I began tentatively putting words on paper — a little bit at a time, because by then I had a full-time job running a literary agency. And when I had put about 20,000 words on paper over about a year or two, I showed it to Horace Gold.

Bester: What did Horace have to say?

Pohl: He said, “I am now running Alfie Bester’s The Demolished Man—”

Bester: Leave me out of this, will you?

Pohl: I swear to God, that was what he said. And: “I haven’t got anything to follow it up with. There’s nothing else coming in that looks as if it’ll stand up to The Demolished Man. So I’m going to start with the first installment now, and by next Tuesday please have the second and the third.”

And I said, “There’s no way I can do that. I have a full-time job with the agency.”

And he said, “I don’t care whether you can do it or not, the printers will be waiting.”

So I went back to my home in New Jersey where my old friend Cyril Kornbluth, with whom I’d written a lot of stories before, was staying with me. He read over the part I’d written, the first third or so and said, “Yeah, yeah, we can do something with that.” So he rewrote that and added some, and I rewrote that and added some, and we barely got it into print, but actually the first part was being set before the last was written.

Bester: My God, you were living dangerously, Fred!

Pohl: I had nothing to lose. It was Horace’s problem!

Bester: Whose title was it — Horace’s or yours?

Pohl: I called it something ridiculous like “Fall Campaign,” and Horace put “Gravy Planet” on it.

There was a big book boom in science fiction at the time, all sorts of publishers deciding to bring it out in hardcovers. So, I thought, what the hell, I’ll sell it as a book, and I was a literary agent, and I knew every publisher and editor in New York, especially the ones that dealt in science fiction — a lot of them were very good friends of mine. So I took it off to one, and I said, “Here, print this. It’s pretty good stuff,” and he read it and gave it back and said, “No, that’s not really what I meant at all!”

And I said, “So much for you,” and I took it to the next one. And it was rejected by every publisher in America who then had a science-fiction line.

Bester: So was The Demolished Man, sir! It was bounced by everybody.

Pohl: Well, I think it’s the same story.

So, there was no publisher left to offer it to. Then Ian Ballantine started up his own company, and he was so inexperienced as a publisher that he didn’t know this was unpublishable. So he published it! You know, it’s been translated into 45 languages now.

Bester: It shows you, the greatest books in the world can be bounced by anybody. Look at Fred’s! The greatest science fiction novel of all time. Bounced by everybody! It’s preposterous!

To be continued.

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Part 3 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Demolished Man


Pohl: Now, getting back to where ideas come from, I’d like to hear from you, Alfie. I want to know where you get your ideas from. Specifically I want to know where you get the ideas for something like The Demolished Man. What persuaded you to write it in the first place?

Bester: Horace Gold! I kind of remember that story vaguely. I was writing the Nick Carter show, and I was having a rough time. I was having trouble with his agent. I was having all kinds of problems. It was a tough show to write, but it was a nice check, so you don’t complain about that.

Horace Gold had just started Galaxy, and he called me. I’d known Horace for years. He said, “Alfie, I want you to write for me,” and I said, “Oh, Horace, come on, will you? I’m so involved with this show, it’s eating up my time.”

He said, “No, I want you to write for me,” and I said, “Come on, you’ve got the greats, you’ve got Fred Pohl, you’ve got Heinlein, you’ve got Ted Sturgeon, and I’m not in their class.”

He said, “No, no, no, come on,” and he would keep on noodging me week in week out. We’d talk on the phone and stuff, and finally I said “All right, Horace.” I’ve got to get him off my back, I’ll submit some ideas. Now I submitted four or five ideas — I can’t remember all of them, it’s so long ago.

I should explain first that I’ve been trained as a detective-story writer and adventure writer and a comic-book writer and so on — always to do it the hard way. You do it the hard way, if you want A to get to Z, he just can’t get there, he’s got to hit conflict B off which he caroms into conflict C, D, E, F, G and so on. What you do is you set up an impossible situation for you as a writer and then you solve it, and that makes a story. So I set up some impossible situations.

This was very early in radio and television writing, and I practically invented for myself the open-story technique. The closed-story technique is the Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, in which a murder is committed and whoever the detective is goes around picking up clues from various people. You don’t know what the hell is going on and at the very end the big surprise comes and he, the butler, whatever, dunnit. That’s the closed mystery.

At the time, I had got rather tired of it. I was carrying too many shows and stealing my own scripts from myself, and looking through my file of scripts, I found one which I thought I could pinch for the other show, and reading through it I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’ve written all the wrong scenes. I have not written the action as it happened — I have written the result of the action and the detective’s puzzlement in how to interpret the result of the action.”

So I said to myself, “Why don’t you do a script in which you write the action and let the detective be puzzled? And we’ll watch them both. That’s a different story.”

Of course, it’s a cliché now; they’re doing it all the time. But this was years ago — back then it was brand new. I thought, I’ll do an open story for Horace, so I’ll set up something really rough.

So one of the suggestions I made was, “Horace, what if we have police equipped with time machines? So if a crime is committed, they can go back in time to the very beginning of the crime and ferret out a criminal. And how can a guy get around them, get away with it?”

That was the idea. The second idea was to do with ESP, mind reading, and there was a third and a fourth, each of which I had developed ever so slightly, just to give him an idea of what it was.

And he received the ideas and called me back and said, “Hey, Alf, now come on! Time machines! That’s old hat! ESP! That’s old hat, too! But why don’t we combine the idea of the police and a criminal not with a time machine but with mind reading?”

I said, “Sounds interesting, Horace.”

So we began to talk about it. I remember saying to him once on the phone, “Now look Horace, I cannot have a detective protagonist who can read minds. That’s unfair, it makes him special. I don’t want a special detective; he’s got to be just an average guy.”

Horace said, “Alf, what you gotta do is to build an entire society in which there are people who are espers, who can read minds, and people who cannot. That’s what you gotta do!”

And so the book developed and developed. Months and months of talk back and forth before I began to write it. We finally decided I would extrapolate a society — rather like a black/white society — in which there were various ethnic groups. One ethnic group is the mind-reading group, the other is the non-mind-reading group, and out of that comes social conflict, and so the whole thing builds.

This goddamn book was six months in preparation before I actually began to write it. And that’s how The Demolished Man came about.

But going back to how ideas are generated, one of my favorites was a story called “Fondly Fahrenheit.” I’m going to give you the genesis of that story. I remember this vividly, point by point.

I was reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. He mentioned that a Negro slave had been executed in Missouri for molesting, criminally assaulting and murdering a young girl. He had been hung for it, and Twain went on to say that this Negro slave had committed the same crime in Virginia and his owner had levanted him out of Virginia to Mississippi because the slave was too valuable to be destroyed.

And I thought, “There’s a hell of a story in that, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a hell of a story.” So I very carefully listed it in my “Gimmick” book and that was that.

I have hundreds and hundreds of fragments of ideas in this Gimmick book that I’ve been keeping all my life as a writer. And I leaf through the book all the time, looking for various things. I came across this months later, looked at it, and I was open at the time so I started to write the story. I got through the first scene or so and then I was hung up.

I knew I couldn’t write it as an anti-America story before our Civil War, because I knew nothing about the period — so it couldn’t really be a case of actual slavery. I couldn’t write it in the present because we don’t have chattel slavery; we have economic slavery today.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 3: Ideas and The Demolished Man’ »

As I mentioned in the short piece I wrote about Alfie Bester, he and I had a joint talk for a bunch of English fans thirty-odd years or so ago. To my total amazement, some of them recently came up with a tape of that discussion. They transcribed it, and I thought some of you might like to read it here in the blog.

Here’s what Peter Roberts’ fanzine, Checkpoint, reported at the time:

TYNESIDE “FUTUREWORLDS”: (Ritchie Smith reports on the Newcastle sf film festival) “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl spoke at the Tyneside Cinema for some two hours on June 26th. Bester was smallish, plump, larger-than-life, and explosively friendly in a Hollywood sort of way, right down to calling some people ‘darling’. Pohl looked more literary: ectomorphic, tall, and restrained, full of good anecdotes, like Bester (sadly, too many of them were familiar from Pohl’s essay in Hell’s Cartographers). Afterwards they signed books — Bester’s dedications were especially witty — and the great men and a large minority of North-East fandom went off for a Chinese meal.”


Frederik Pohl     Alfred Bester

   Frederik Pohl       Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation

Recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, by Kevin Williams. Transcript by Sue Williams, edited by Neil Jones and Kevin Williams. Originally published in Rob Jackson’s fanzine Inca 5, December 2009. Additional editing here by Leah A. Zeldes.

Pohl: Let me tell you about Alfie Bester. I’ve known him for a long time, and I first encountered him when I was 19 years old and editing a magazine called Astonishing Stories, and I bought a couple of stories of Alfie’s because I liked them. And then, some years later, Cyril Kornbluth and I had written a book called The Space Merchants, which I sort of hoped might win a prize, but it was beaten out by something called The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.

A little while later, Cyril and I were working on another novel — I think it was Search the Sky. We’d written a couple of others by then, and I’d just begun to edit a thing called Star Science Fiction Stories — a series of anthologies of original science fiction stories. I brought home a story by Alfie Bester that I had just accepted for Star. It was called “Disappearing Act,” and I showed it to Cyril while we were working on our own book.

He gave me a resentful look and said, “You bring me this to read when we are writing that!”

[The novel we were writing was pretty much space opera, while Alfie’s story was a literate gem. But I didn’t explain this in the conversation, which led to a mixup. —FP]

Bester: Cyril didn’t like it?

Pohl: He loved it. He thought it was so much superior to what we were doing that it embarrassed him.

It’s been going on like that — our paths keep crossing, and he keeps doing this superlative work, and now I’ll let him speak for himself.

Bester: The one thing that you must understand is that we admire each other profoundly. I cannot tell you how many times I have read a story or novel of Fred’s and said, “Why in Christ’s name couldn’t I have written that?” — and then run into Fred and I tell him. The truth of the matter is that there is no rivalry between us at all, there is nothing but admiration.

We are rather like the high baroque musicians: We borrow from each other, we learn from each other, we admire each other, we do the same things, or different things, and have a hell of a ball.

Now Fred’s novel which he wrote with Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, is, I think, the finest novel ever written in the history of science fiction. It is a brilliant piece of work. Many brilliant things have followed it, but this came along when everybody was obsessed with Doc Smith space opera, which has its own charm — it’s great fun — and suddenly comes this realistic extrapolation of what American life, American advertising, American ecology and American psychosis will lead to eventually.

Horace Gold ran it as a three parter in Galaxy. Gravy Planet, he called it. A tremendous piece of work — exciting, ravishing. I will never forget the scene where that crazy broad with the needle is giving him the works. Fred, that was outrageously brilliant.

Pohl: That scene was all Cyril’s but I’ll accept the credit.

Alfie is one of the greatest writers science fiction has ever had and he is well aware of it — he just wants to be told! Everybody knows the novels, but there was a period in the early ’50s when in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction month after month there was a leading novelette by Alfred Bester.

Bester: Always with the wrong title!

Pohl: Always with the wrong title but always good! They were just brilliant, one after another.

Bester: I once sent two stories to Mick McComas and Tony Boucher (at F&SF) — they had asked for them, of course — and they switched the titles on the stories. I stink on titles, I really do, I’m terrible.

But the point I’m going to make very strongly is the greatness of science fiction. To my mind, it is the last, the last outpost of freedom of literature in the States — I can’t speak for England. In science fiction, we can do what no one else can do in any other medium.

I speak as a magazine writer, novelist and scriptwriter. The constraints of commercial fiction in the States in television, in films, in radio, you name it, are so severe that there is very little you can do. This is one of the reasons why I have written science fiction off and on all of my life. Quite simply because if I come up with an idea which rather enchants me, I would very much like to develop it and do it, so that people would see it and hear it.

If my producer, my director, the client says “No, no, it’s too expensive, no it’s too far out, people won’t understand it, ah forget it, give us something a little less,” then I have to turn to science fiction. In science fiction, you can do anything you please, and God knows the artist needs a free hand. The greatness of science fiction is not the science, not the prediction of the future, not anything you want to name — the greatness is that it is wide open, and we can do exactly as we damn please, and that story will run somewhere, somehow, and you will have your audience, and you will get feedback. And after all, a writer without an audience is no writer at all; you’ve got to have people that you are entertaining.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie’ »

Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester

When the Air Force decided they wouldn’t need my services in order to accomplish the defeat of Japan — the reason for that being that Japan, discouraged by the simultaneous American atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Stalin’s last-minute invasion of their northern front, had finally given its struggle in World War II and surrendered — they sent me home to New York City. There I rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and, for reasons connected with a book I was trying to write, went looking for a job in the advertising business.

I answered three help-wanted ads in the Sunday Times employment section. One of them, a small Madison Avenue advertising agency, Thwing & Altman, took me on as a copywriter.

It didn’t pay as well as I had thought a Mad Ave. advertising job would, but otherwise it was a likable enough job. Its good features included location. Within the perimeter of a circle with a ten-block radius there were literally hundreds of quite good restaurants where I could get a lunch of almost any school and ethnicity. I quickly learned that, even with all that variety available, there were a handful that I kept returning to, and one of those was in the lobby of the Columbia radio (not yet TV) network’s then New York headquarters, the present skyscraper not yet having been built. The restaurant was frequently used by people from the network, and one of the reasons I liked it was that every once in a while I would run into Alfie Bester, also looking to grab a lunch there, and we would have a nice meal together, spiced with shop talk.

The thing to remember about the career of Alfred J. Bester is that he was first and foremost a money writer. He had the talent to do that well. He could write almost anything — science-fiction stories, comics, radio-serial scripts, you name it, and he could do them all at the top of his form — and what particular kind of thing he did write, depending on how the vagaries of the market fluctuated at any given moment, was whichever one of them was paying the most dollars per hour of punching typewriter keys.

Alfie had begun writing science fiction, back in the ’30s, because he had a number of friends — including Horace L. Gold and Mort Weisinger — who worked as editors at Standard Magazines, publishers of, among many other pulps, the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. They coached him in the writing of sf, and bought his practice stories. (Well, they didn’t buy all of them. A very few they rejected, and of those I bought one or two when, as a teenage editor, I was editing Astonishing and Super Science Stories).

Then Alfie discovered that comics were paying better than sf just then, so he tried his luck at comics, discovered that they were as easy to write as sf — for him — and switched his personal production line to comics.

Then he got a tip from his wife, Rolly, that changed everything.

Continue reading ‘Alfie’ »