Posts tagged ‘Robert M. Guinn’

Algis Budrys

Algis Budrys

Algis Budrys became my client within a matter of just months before, crippled by money troubles, I closed my literary agency’s door forever. I hadn’t really had enough time to position him in the kind of publications he deserved, but I had made a pretty good start. I had sold almost all of his backlog of science-fiction short stories and novelettes. I got him contracts for paperbound novels — not the genteel old-line kind of publishing house I had envisioned for him, but at least a step in a better direction. And then I turned him loose.

By then A J had begun to have a certain reputation. He negotiated a few contracts on his own, he got a film offer for one of them and successfully saw it through all the log-jams that lie between an expression of interest and an actual movie that people buy tickets to and then watch in a real motion-picture theater. It wasn’t big money, but it was a sign of success denied to almost all of his colleagues.

He didn’t abandon science fiction, because one of his best friends — me, that is — having jettisoned his literary agency, had become the editor of the Galaxy group of magazines. And, for the next couple of years almost every issue of my magazines had at least one Budrys story in it.

I should describe A J’s work habits, because they were a bit unusual. Every evening, after supper and perhaps an hour or so of television, AJ would fill a thermos with hot coffee, check his tape recorder to make sure the batteries were healthy and there was plenty of tape, kiss his wife, Edna, good night and then get into his car and drive away. Drive where? That didn’t matter because he wasn’t sightseeing. What he was doing, Scheherazade-like, was dictating a new story each night, though instead of into the impatient ears of a threatening sultan it went no farther than a spool of magnetic tape — at least, not until AJ got home sometime in that early morning, dumped the filled tape spools next to Edna’s typewriter and went cheerfully off to sleep. Edna was an excellent typist, so by the time A J shambled into the kitchen for breakfast around early afternoon, the manuscript was ready to be shown to an editor.

You must understand that by the words “an editor,” what I mean is me. The Budrys house in Monmouth County. New Jersey, was no more than a twenty-minute drive from mine, and on “story days,” the ones on which typing had produced a salable manuscript, A J, having phoned to make sure I was going into the office the next day, would bring in the story and sit in my third-floor office while I read it.

Truthfully, the act of reading A J’s stories was little more than a formality. I never rejected one. I had no reason to do so; AJ was hot. And the next morning I would pop the manuscript into my briefcase, along with anything else I wanted to buy and their purchase orders, take the Jersey Central train to New York and my little fraction of the offices of Bob Guinn, the man who owned Galaxy.

I had long ago convinced Bob that writers weren’t like printing-supply vendors. Each one had his own peculiar ways, and A J’s weird trait was punctuality. That is, he would give me first look at everything he wrote as long as he could get the check to pay for it the next day. So that’s what he got, By the time I got home for dinner AJ would be sitting in Carol’s kitchen, with a cup of her coffee in his hand, the other hand poised to accept the check.

It was, for both of us, a pretty smooth-running machine, most of the time.

(More to come.)

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Fantasy Book No. 6, 1950

Fantasy Book No. 6, 1950.

Sometime in the early 1950s, I was putting together Beyond the End of Time, an anthology for one of Doubleday’s subsidiary imprints. That was something I liked doing, so I did it fairly often.

It was an easy thousand dollars or so, because I had already read about a zillion stories that I liked well enough to be willing to package for some new readers and because all those old issues of Astounding, Amazing and Wonder had not yet been mined by so many other anthologists that every good story had already been reprinted by six or seven anthologists in six or seven books. I needed to include a bunch of those old superstars, because my editors felt that the names were what sold the books, but I also liked to include a couple of pieces that would be new to almost everyone. And I had one candidate in mind from the very beginning.

It was a story that had appeared in a semi-pro sf magazine from California called, if I remember aright, Fantasy Book. Its title was “Scanners Live in Vain.” It was about a bizarre kind of spaceflight, set in a bizarre future world, and it was signed as by someone named Cordwainer Smith. So I included it in my lineup, and then had the problem of finding out who could sign a permission for the use of the story and accept the payment for it. “Cordwainer Smith” smelled very much like a pseudonym to me. But for whom?

At first I thought it likely that it belonged to one of the existing pros because it just seemed to be too professional in quality to have been written by an amateur. However, stylistically it was very unusual, and not a bit like the style of any writer I could think of, So, as deadline time grew close and I had no signed permission I fell back on Plan B.

Plan B was Forrest J Ackerman. Forry knew just about everybody who was or ever had been connected with science fiction and had set up a literary agency of his own that capitalized on that fact. So I got my permission, the author got his money when Forry had tracked him down, and one day when I happened to be in the office, a man named Paul M.A. Linebarger showed up to thank me for publishing his story and to ask if I would be interested in some others he had written.

His timing was perfect. I had become editor of Galaxy when Horace Gold’s health made it impossible for him to go on with the job, and I was looking for strong new writers. Paul was just what the doctor ordered. Not only was he a welcome new voice in that every-issue cantata I tried to conduct, he had one trait I appreciated in particular. He liked to write. He did it in volume. And the stories were all good. Some I liked better than others, but I don’t think I ever turned down a single word he wrote. . . .

Well, except for titles. When Paul was on target, his titles were unlike anyone else’s, and better, but sometimes the muse seemed to have deserted him. I changed fairly many — not by any means a majority, but a significant fraction.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember most of them. If I could go through a complete file of the magazines, I could probably pick them out, but I don’t have one. The only instance I can remember for sure was “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” I don’t remember what Paul had called the story, but I thought it dreary … while what I do remember is that on the very next page of the ms., in another context, he had written the phrase “The Ballad of Lost C.Mell,” just begging to be made the title.

(If anyone is desperate to know which is which they probably could satisfy themselves by visiting Syracuse University’s library. After I left, I believe Bob Guinn, Galaxy’s publisher, donated all of the magazine’s papers to the university for a tax break, and the stories should all be there. If you come across a manuscript in which the original, typed title has been crossed out and a new one penciled in, that’s one.)

Writing science fiction was of course not Paul’s sole enterprise. He spent a lot of time on his main job, which was something weighty for the American State Department. I don’t know exactly what. He didn’t volunteer much, and I didn’t press him because I had learned, in the years when I was wandering the Earth to lecture on American science fiction as a sort of ice-breaker for the working diplomats, that there were things they didn’t want to talk about. You’d be chatting amiably with somebody in Washington — or in some embassy or consulate in Moscow or Leningrad or Stockholm or or Singapore or Auckland and at some point they would kick the conversation into a ninety-degree turn and, if you asked why, they’d just say, “Well, we’re not supposed to talk about that.”

Paul did say that the principal reason they considered him indispensable in Foggy Bottom was that they needed him to lecture to some groups of foreign diplomats. These were the people with not quite adequate command of English, and what they liked about Paul was that he could speak u-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-y S-L-O-W-l-y, so the foreigners had time to translate his remarks in their minds. But what those lectures were about he never said.

And then he would go home and write stories for me for relaxation.

If you would like to know everything that Paul was writing in those days, just look at my magazines. Up to a point, at least, it’s all there., just about every story Paul wrote in the mid-’60s, because he sent them all to me, and I couldn’t make myself reject any of them. . . .

Well, that’s true with one exception. At that time, Paul’s agent was Harry Altshuler, and one day Harry got in the mail an envelope from Paul that contained not one but two new stories. The bad part of that was that for reasons I can only guess — psychosis? Alcoholic delirium? — Harry had long ago imposed on himself a truly loopy rule prohibiting ever sending to an editor more than one story by a single author at a time. So he sent one story to me — which, whatever it was, I bought and published — and the other, a piece called “On Alpha-Ralpha Boulevard,” which, obediently to his maniacal Rule No. 1, he shipped off to Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Which, of course, not being incompetent, they bought and also published.

When I found out about it, I had words with Harry. This led him to suspend that rule for the duration of his life. But it was too late to prevent the loss of a story I really wanted. The damage was done.

To be continued.

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Cordwainer Smith, Part 2

Algis Budrys (Photo by William Shunn).

Algis Budrys
(Photo by William Shunn).

By the mid-1960s, Algis Budrys had become a darling of the critics. In the field of science fiction, two of the most respected at that time were Kingsley Amis and James Blish. Kingsley said that the way A J was going, he might become the most honored sf writer since H. G. Wells. Jim was less restrained. He thought that A J was becoming the finest writer in a second language since Joseph Conrad. One of A J’s stories had already been made into a film, though not a particularly good one, and his future was bright.

It was at that point that A J basically stopped writing science fiction and went off to Chicago to get into the public-relations business.


Well, I don’t know why. When A J took off for Chicago and a brief career as Mr. Pickle in a relish promoter’s PR campaign, it was a surprise to me. Perhaps it was because of the merciless difference between salary income and writer income that I alluded to earlier. By then the Budrys family census stood at six, with four healthy infant sons that needed to be fed every day — and would inevitably need more and more as the years advanced. But I lost touch with him for a year or two.

When I reconnected with him he had escaped from advertising and gone to work as the book editor for Playboy.

That made a certain amount of sense to me, particularly as he was showing signs of getting back to doing writing for me again. I was still editing for Bob Guinn, who had gradually enriched my expense account enough to permit annual trips to spur authors along . When in Chicago, I always spent some time with the Budryses. Their lives appeared to have slowed down and smoothed out.

But in that, too, I was quite wrong.

One day, back at home in New Jersey, I got a phone call from A J. He had news. The Church of Scientology had decided to honor their founder and principal sage, the science-fiction (and everything else, but best known for his science fiction) author L. Ron Hubbard, by establishing a new contest for talented entry-level sf writers that would pave the way for some of them to make the transition to professional success. Since none of the Scientology people knew much about publishing, they needed to find someone who did to save them from making too many blunders, and they had found A J.

“What I’m trying to do for them now,” he said, “is to try to find them major writers who —”

“No,” I said.

“— would be willing to be judges — what did you say?”

“I said, ‘no,'” I told him.

“But you didn’t let me tell you the good parts,” he said,

“That’s right,” I said. “I said, ‘no.’ ”

See how I handled it? A quick, firm decision, and then on to the next thing. No looking back, either.

Except that a few months later, when A J called again to tell me that Theodore Sturgeon, who A J had taken on as my replacement, was gravely ill, and A J was in a really tough spot, and if I could just help him out until he could find someone else. . . .

So I did it. I helped him out, and kept on doing it for the next thirty years.

In my defense, I will say that Writers of the Future, now broadened to include artists of the future, is indeed a good thing for beginning writers and artists, who can use all the help they can get. But there it is.

A J didn’t confine his efforts to Writers of the Future for the rest of his life. There was a prolonged, and expensive, period when he tried his luck as publisher of his own magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, but what happened at the end was simply that his health gave out. For the last several years of his life he was housebound in his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he complained that illness had so sapped his strength that he didn’t have energy for anything. Once he said, “There’s a novel I started in January and I’m not even a quarter through it.”

This was sometime in late spring. I said cheerfully, “So keep on plugging away. Sooner or later you’ll get it written.”

“Written?” he said, “I’m not talking about writing a novel. I’m talking about reading one.”

What was wrong with A J’s health was not a single, simple thing. I believe it was diabetes that kept him housebound for so long, but think it was metastasizing cancer that took him away in June of 2008.

He is missed.

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Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985 (Photo by William Shunn).

    Algis and Edna Budrys, 1985
    (Photo by William Shunn).

It was a nice spring day in 1950-something and I was up in my third-floor office in the house in Red Bank, New Jersey, trying to telephone my other office in New York.

I wasn’t having much luck. Every time I picked up the phone my then wife, Carol, was already on it. Finally, I gave up, turned off the typewriter and went downstairs to see if the mail had come yet. It had. I was opening it over a cup of coffee when Carol showed up, off the phone at last. “Long call,” I said. “Who were you talking to?”

“Eddie Duna,” she said. “Oh, and I invited her out for the weekend, all right?”

“Oh,” I said. “Listen, I forgot to tell you. I already invited A J. I don’t think they’ve met.”

She gave me a look, but what she said was, “Fine. We’ve got room.” We did, too — a house that was ancient, decrepit, requiring constant infusions of money to keep it standing, but with twelve or so rooms. (I work at home and I don’t like to be crowded. My current home is about the same size, though less decrepit and needing somewhat fewer infusions.)

“Maybe they’ll like each other,” she added. “Maybe they’ll get married. A J could do a lot worse. Edna’s smart and great looking, and she’s got a good job.”

“Well, so could she,” I said, sticking up for my client. “A J is turning into a hell of a writer. What’s for lunch?”

And, you know, they did like each other and, a few months later, they did get married.

Well, that’s not so strange, is it? Happens all the time. A couple introduces friends to each other and sometimes the friends get married.

Well, sure, but what’s unusual about this particular event, at least among my crowd, is that these two stayed married, through four sons and more than fifty years, until 2008, when a long illness finally carried A J off. Hey, I’m some matchmaker! When I make a match it stays made.

Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born in 1931 in Lithuania, but he didn’t stay there long. His father was an official in Lithuania’s diplomatic corps and while A J was still small the family was posted to Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia. A J, who had just about got a good handle on the Lithuanian language, began to learn German. His adult memories of East Prussia — which, like the rest of Germany, had been Nazified with the accession of Adolf Hitler a few years earlier — were troublesome.

He particularly recalled Hitler himself parading right past the Budrys apartment when he was five, he told Mark Williams in an interview shortly before he died. “After the Hitlerjugend walked through, Hitler came by in an open black Mercedes with his arm propped up.” The crowds made “indescribable” sounds. Men lost control of their bowels and had to race for the bushes or writhed and rolled on the ground.

Not long after that, the Budrys family was redeployed to New York. That was a much better posting, especially for a young boy who was beginning to read American children’s stories, but then everything changed.

The Soviet Union occupied all three of the Baltic countries; the Lithuanian diplomatic service ceased to exist, and so did the salary that had kept them afloat in this new country. A J’s father had to find a new way to support his little family. For a while it was farming, but then the Nazis evicted the Soviets and occupied Lithuania, and the other countries themselves, and the American government tardily decided to underwrite people like the Budryses. It looked as though they would be here for a while, so A J began the study of his third language. At which, most critics would agree, he became quite good.

In fact, while attending college, A J began writing stories of his own in English, and even managed to sell a few. Then one day he turned up at my Fifth Avenue literary-agency office to ask if I would take on his representation.

I did. Unfortunately for A J, though — and not all that nicely for me — he came along at a time when I was getting seriously over-extended and in increasingly deep money trouble. In what may have been A J’s last public talk, at the Heinlein Centennial in 2007, the hundredth anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s birth, A J reminisced about those days. “Fred made some great sales for me,” he said. “He even sold John Campbell a story that Campbell had already rejected when I sent it to him myself. But then when Fred sent me his check for the story, it bounced.”

(I regret to say that that’s a true story, though not one I enjoy. Maybe one day I’ll write about my literary-agent days for this blog, but not right now. They were only fifty or sixty years ago and still too painful.)

I couldn’t go on like that. I took the hard decision and packed the agency in, turned all the writers loose and began working to earn the money to pay back the $30,000 I had lost. Mostly I was doing it by writing but, when Horace Gold’s health made him unable to go on editing Galaxy and If, and Bob Guinn offered me the job, I took it. And, of course, A J was one of my principal contributors.

By then A J and Edna were not only married but in the next year or so expecting their first child. They had moved out of the city and into a small apartment in Red Bank, less than half a mile from my own house. That was convenient for A J. When he finished a story for me he could whip the last page out of the typewriter, walk out his door and in ten or fifteen minutes walk it over to my house for, when necessary, an immediate read followed by my trip to the Galaxy office in New York the next morning to bring back Bob Guinn’s check for the story.

“When necessary,” as it happened, was basically always, because when they moved out of New York, they had moved away from Edna’s job. The Budryses were now living on A J’s writing earnings.

Writing money is not like salary money. Salary money comes in a check every Friday, and you can budget according to what you’ll be able to pay. Writing money comes in indigestible lumps — perhaps not much in January, even less in February, a couple hundred, maybe, in March, and then in April a whopping big check, which makes your average income per month look pretty good. But, of course, the grocer, the landlord and everybody else are on their own timetable which has nothing to do with your monthly averages, and so there are problems.

Still, A J was both prolific and good. After a while, the Budryses had risen to the status of renting a house (in Oceanport, closer to the shore) and buying a car. A J, a true son of the automobile age, was now in his element. He developed a new writing behavior that was all his own. Each night, after dinner, he would kiss Edna and the babies (by then there were two of them) good night and jump into his car, carrying a recorder and a good supply of tape.

Then he would drive around for most of the night, more or less at random, steering with one hand and holding the tape recorder with the other to dictate stories into. When he had filled enough tape to satisfy himself he would drive home, park the car, hand the tape over to Edna to be typed out and hit the sack for a good day’s sleep.

Sometimes he hadn’t quite finished the stories when he turned them in, especially when it came to putting a title on them, so we would wrangle over that before I would concede the story was accepted. Generally, that didn’t take long but there was one story — allusive, subjective, poetic — that gave us particular trouble. After we both had come up empty I asked, “All right, A J, just tell me what the story’s about.”

He said, unhappily, “I can’t. I just know it’s what I wanted to write.”

I was leafing through the manuscript. “All right,” I said at last, “Here in the first couple of pages there are some phrases that I like, One is ‘wall of crystal’ and the other is ‘eye of night.’ How about calling it ‘Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night’?”

He gave me a pop-eyed look. “What does it mean?”

I said, “I don’t know, but I promise you that if we do, no one will ever ask you that question.” And no one ever did.

I have been asked which of A J’s stories were written in this hard-driving way, and I don’t know the answer. He had begun writing novels by then and my guess is that that was the system for two of them, probably Who? and Rogue Moon, but it’s only a guess. I don’t think it was many, perhaps not any, of the pieces I published, with the possible exception of the one of his novels that I ran as a three-part serial, The Iron Thorn.

Which nearly resulted in a homicide.

You know what the first law of editing is? It is this: “Never, ever, announce a story by a particular writer until the completed manuscript is safely in your hands.”

I didn’t just violate that law. I did worse. I wanted to start a new serial in the next issue of If, which was just about to go to the printer, and I didn’t have one. What I did have was Part One of A J’s The Iron Thorn. That was just the kind of story I wanted for that spot, but every warning bell in my mind was clanging away. . . .

I ignored them. I crossed my fingers, sent Part One off to the printers and hoped for the best.

I don’t want to tell you how many deadlines we came a hairsbreadth from missing over the next two issues, but A J, though often coming through at the last moment, and I mean by that the very, very last moment, did unfailingly come through, so I didn’t have to kill him.

But I never did that again.

To be continued. . . .

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Jack Vance, 1979.

Jack Vance, 1979.

One weekend last summer — to be exact, on the morning of 19 July, 2009 — a lot of New Yorkers got a surprise when they opened their Sunday Times Magazine. What they found was particularly pleasing to those among them who chanced to be science-fiction fans, for there in that prestigious journal was a critical — and very favorable — essay on a writer that it called “one of America’s most distinctive and underrated voices.” And the owner of that voice, it said, was none other than our own Jack Vance.

It was not only Carlo Rotella, the critic who wrote the Times piece, who thought so. He was able to quote Michael Chabon (“Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or the Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation.”) and Dan Simmons, who said that discovering Vance “was a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James…. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly tuned language. If he’d been born south of the border he’d be up for a Nobel prize.”

As one of those Vance-loving sf fans myself, I read the Times piece with astonishment and pleasure, for science fiction has long had a bad press — slightly relieved in recent years by the impressive earnings of writers like Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov — from most of the country’s respectable journals. But what this piece said was not only interesting, it was precisely true. Jack Vance not only imagines wonderful things to tell us about, he embodies his visions in a special individual kind of language that is all Vance’s own.

I came late to Vance. Most of his early stories appeared in magazines and other places that I didn’t normally read. Friends with my best interests at heart did try to persuade me to give this Vance person a try, but I never quite got around to following their sage advice. Then Horace L. Gold began to find the editing of Galaxy too much for him to handle. I helped him as needed for a while; then he retired and the publisher asked me to take over.

I not only had read little of Vance, I had never — unusually among the sf writers of the ’50s and ’60s — happened to meet him. We had many friends in common among the writers who lived, like Vance, in the Pacific Northwest, and they didn’t fail to keep me informed of his doings. With Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, he had for a time owned a houseboat, and when one day it sank at its moorings, Vance was the one who worked out a way to refloat it.

With his late wife, Norma, whom he had met and married when they both were still college undergraduates, Vance was a world traveler, visiting unlikely spots all over the map, and writing whole books in improbable places. He had begun writing while in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific in World War II, and kept it up in whatever part of the world he happened to be visiting at that specific moment. Whatever the locale, Jack wrote his stories in longhand, whereafter Norma typed them up to send out..

And then one day, after Horace had retired and I had inherited the batch of stories he had bought, I was going through them and I discovered one or two I had never seen. One was by Vance, and it was called “The Moon Moth.” It was the story of an Earthman posted as a diplomatic official on a planet whose people appear in public only when wearing ornate masks and communicate not by talking but by singing.

It caught my attention. Vance was what I thought of as an ornamental writer — mannered prose, complex sentences, formal dialogue. That was not necessarily a good thing. I’m as fond of Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever they’re calling Marcel Proust’s masterwork now) as the next man, but I don’t normally find that kind of linguistic mastery in the slush pile of a science-fiction magazine. Done beautifully, that sort of thing is beautiful. Done poorly, I send it back to the writer.

This was definitely in the beautiful territory.

One of Vance’s scholars has reported that Vance was impressed by the equally ornate style of James Branch Cabell. Both Vance’s and Cabell’s styles are similarly inflated, but I don’t think they are mannered in quite the same way. No matter. “The Moon Moth” was a fine story. I scheduled it for an early issue and sought more. It took a while, but ultimately my efforts did bear fruit as I received a new Vance manuscript called The Dragon Masters.

I read it at once and instantly loved it. It concerned a planet inhabited by humans, but from time to time visited by spaceships from another planet, this one inhabited by intelligent lizard-like aliens, called dragons, who kidnap humans for the purpose of breeding them into fighting troops. When they have achieved their purpose they have an army of mutated humans in several different types, including giant warriors. The dragons use these to capture more humans for their breeding experiments. However the humans of the raided planet have managed to capture one dragon spaceship with its crew, well before this story starts, and are breeding dragon warriors in the same way that the dragons breed (formerly) human ones.

It struck me as the perfect Jack Vance story, with a handsomely imagined setting, a carefully invented plot line, embellished by his unique use of language. I got busy.

I called Jack Gaughan, the most inventive of our stable of artists, and asked him to come in to discuss a particularly challenging set of illustrations. The wonderful thing about Gaughan was that he understood what I was asking for a good deal faster then most illustrators, and he did not disappoint. He came through with a bunch of his best work, including a cover and interior black and whites that involved thumbnail sketches of each of the purpose-bred races each side had created out of the captured samplings of the other.

I loved it.

I wasn’t the only one who did, either. When at last that issue was on the stands the reader mail was good, and when it came time for award voting The Dragon Masters had — of course — won a Hugo (though, curiously, it was described as a short story, I have never known why) and Gaughan had won an art Hugo of his own, specifically for The Dragon Masters work (and, I believe, the only time the award was given for a specified set of illustrations rather than for general high quality.)

Sometimes being an editor is fun.

For me the fun quotient was diminishing around that time. I have long believed as an article of faith that no one should hold the same editorial job for more than a decade or so, because (I believe) the best work is done when it is all fresh and new and after a while the editor is just going through the motions. A few years after The Dragon Masters, I proved that point by making a serious mistake with another Jack Vance story, The Last Castle. Jack had divided the story into a number of chapters and added a clutch of scholarly, but irrelevant, comments at the beginning of each chapter. Editors are put upon this Earth for the purpose of correcting an author’s errors in such matters, and I set myself to improving Jack’s chapter headers by cutting them fifty per cent or so.

The mistake wasn’t in making that decision — those chunks of prose were excessive and seriously distracting — it was in doing the cutting myself without first asking Jack to fix it. When he saw the published version he was unhappy. When I ran into him at a meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in Lake Tahoe a little later his first words were, “Fred, you shouldn’t have done it,” And he never sent me another story.

Actually he didn’t have many opportunities to do that. Not long afterward, I took a week off to go to a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, and when I came back to the office I found that Bob Guinn had taken advantage of my absence to sell the magazines to another publisher.

Indeed, that was his right; he owned them. But I think he suspected that if I were around when he was making that deal I might have talked him out of it, and I certainly would have tried. It wasn’t a good idea. But by then it was a fait accompli.

I took it as a reminder of my convictions about the relevance of longevity to performance in an editorial job, and actually as an opportunity to try something else for a while. (The other publisher had no idea how to run the magazines, as I had expected. They hung on for a couple of years of dwindling quality and then were folded.)

For a time, I lost touch with Jack Vance, as I did with many of the Galaxy contributors after that. Then I heard that things were not going as well as he deserved for him. First came the word that he was losing his vision, and then that Norma had died. Before the blindness became total, he was still managing to get some writing done by scribbling a word or two, in giant letters, on each sheet of paper and then writing the next word or two on another sheet, und so weiter.

Since then we do keep in some sort of touch by the occasional phone call, and I was happy to learn that he now has a sensitive high-tech computer system to write with. He’s too good a writer, and too good a man, to be condemned to silence.


Judy-Lynn and Lester del Rey (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet)
Judy-Lynn and Lester del Rey (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet)

Quite a few years ago —well, about seventy of them, to be exact —I was the teen-age editor of two professional science-fiction magazines for the giant pulp firm of Popular Publications. I didn’t pay much for the stories that went into my magazines but I did pay something, and so most of the science-fiction writers of that era dropped by from time to time to see if I would care to relieve them of some of their stack of Astounding rejects.

People like hoary old Ray Cummings and bright-minted new stars like L. Sprague de Camp came by my little office at the end of 42d Street, just where it stops dead at the East River, and one day our switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, informed me that I had a new visitor named Lester del Rey.

Though I’d never met the man, I knew the name; I had seen it, enviously, any number of times on the Astounding contents page. “Shoot him right in!” I commanded, hoping that he would come bearing manuscripts, and a couple of minutes later there he was, short, angel-faced, no more than a couple of years older than myself — and, yes, with two short-story manuscripts in his hands!

There is an established procedure for such events. It doesn’t allow the editor to snatch the typescripts from the author’s hands, or the author to throw them in from the doorway without a word. There has to be a little chatting back and forth first, so I had to wait until Lester was back in the elevator to start reading. The stories were short. I finished them both in a quarter of an hour.

Then I rejected them both.

What was wrong with them? I don’t remember. What were they about? I don’t remember that, either. And not only did I bounce them, so did every other editor Lester showed them to. Years later I asked him what had become of them. He said he had no idea, didn’t remember anything about them, and hoped I would never ask him such an embarrassing question again.

So that was my unpromising start to knowing Lester del Rey. Fortunately, later on things got better.

Later on things did, but it took a few years. John Campbell got over his nasty habit of rejecting any of Lester’s stories, so Lester had nothing to sell me; and then the Air Force invited me to join them for World War II so I had no magazine to buy them for, anyway. Then, postwar, Lester and I ran into each other now and then at various gatherings, and then in 1947 we ran into a big one. That was the ’47 World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia.

We were both there. When it was over we were having a cup of coffee together somewhere when we got to thinking. We had had such a great time mingling again with our nearest and dearest (as well as some of our farthest and dislikedest) from the world of science fiction that we decided we really ought to organize some sort of local sf group so we could do more of it. So Lester commandeered a couple of his friends and brought them to my Greenwich Village apartment, where I had collected a few of mine, and we sat down and created the Hydra Club. (Why Hydra? Because there were nine of us there, and the mythological Hydra had had nine heads.)

This was a definite public service, because for years thereafter the Hydra Club had become the place where sf writers from out of town visited when they came to New York in order to find people they could talk to. (Out of town sometimes meant very out of town — in the case of Arthur Clarke or W. Olaf Stapledon, the United Kingdom; in the case of A. Bertram Chandler, from about as far away as you could get without leaving our planet entirely, namely Australia.)

Nor was Hydra merely a place where you could exchange trade gossip with colleagues. Lester and I both found wives there, and we two couples made a habit of going to cons together. What made that easy was that after a while Lester and Evelyn del Rey came out to visit with Carol and me and our growing number of children in our big old house in Red Bank, New Jersey. The del Reys’ intention was to spend a weekend. They wound up staying seventeen years — well, seventeen years in the neighborhood, anyway, since after a while they bought a house of their own down the street. It might have been longer, but one day, driving to a small vacation in Florida, their car got entangled in the wake of an eighteen-wheeler and was sent spinning off the road. Evelyn was thrown clear, but then the car rolled over on her and she was killed.

After that Lester could not stay in their house. He sold it for a pitiful amount —furniture, books, wine cellar and all — to the first person who thought to make him an offer, and moved back to the city.

For all those years we had been keeping busy, Lester writing, me doing some of that but also fooling around with editing and other diversions. After putting together a string of anthologies for Ian Ballantine, I wound up as editor of a couple of science-fiction magazines, Galaxy and If. It was not a well-paying job but I loved it. It gave some welcome perks, including a full-time assistant.

When I needed to hire a new one I interviewed a recent Barnard graduate named Judy-Lynn Benjamin, who seemed to be bright and energetic enough for the job, but presented two worrisome problems. One was that her specialty was the works of James Joyce and she knew nothing at all about science fiction. That, I figured, could be handled; I would not ask her to make any buy-or-bounce decisions, and everything else I could easily teach her.

The other struck me as tougher. Judy-Lynn was an achondroplastic dwarf, not much over three feet tall, and I didn’t know how she would manage to reach the top drawers of the filing cabinets. But I took a chance, and actually she worked out rather well, turning out to be capable of managing anything at all. After I left the magazines, Judy-Lynn went to work for Ballantine Books, winding up running the enterprise, which is why its current avatar, Del Rey Books, was named after her.

Lester entered the picture when my publisher, Bob Guinn, urged me to add a fantasy magazine to my group. I had nothing against fantasy, but I didn’t have a great deal of interest in it, and anyway I didn’t want to add to my work load. So I persuaded Lester, now a widower for some years, to come aboard as its editor. He did well, and the three of us got along well, too, in fact better than I realized until I got a phone call from Lester to say that he and Judy-Lynn were getting married, and would I care to be his best man?

I would. They did it. And after a while, he joined Judy-Lynn at Ballantine, and — no surprise to anyone who knew them — with Lester handling the fantasy side of the operation while Judy-Lynn continued with the sf, they were fabulously successful, leading the field in the number of their books that wound up on the New York Times bestseller list.

What made Judy-Lynn successful? The answer to that is simply that she worked with (and/or married) three of the best editors around, studied what they did attentively and learned from all of them. (I know that makes me sound immodest, but I learned from the best there was, namely J. W. Campbell.)

Lester had a whole other style. Lester took as his model some of the historically great editors of the past and, like them, questioned every phrase and comma in every manuscript he accepted and made the authors rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It paid off — once when I was having lunch with Lester’s boss he told me that he believed Lester was the most profitable editor in the publishing industry — but it was arduous. Some authors dumped the man who had made them bestsellers in favor of some other editor who might give them a less stressful life.

So the del Reys were riding high, but it came to an end. One of the penalties of being an achondroplastic dwarf is the likelihood of a short life span. After some very good years, Judy-Lynn had a massive stroke and then died of it, and a few years later Lester followed her.

Other husband-wife editorial teams in science fiction and fantasy — Ian and Betty Ballantine, Donald and Elsie Wollheim — have done wonderfully well, but in making that Times list, no one has done better than the del Reys, and I don’t really think anyone ever will.