Posts tagged ‘Damon Knight’

Part 5 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

The Futurians by Damon Knight

Audience: Could you elaborate on how you co-write with someone?

Pohl: With Cyril Kornbluth? Well, it’s different with different people. It’s like being married! Incidentally, Alfie, have you ever collaborated on fiction?

Bester: Never. I’ve never collaborated in my life. I’ve strictly been a loner always.

Pohl: I’m afraid I’ve been much more promiscuous than you have!

Bester: I’m curious, too, Fred. What was it like working with Cyril?

Pohl: Well, Cyril Kornbluth and I grew up together. We began writing together when I was about 18 or 19 and Cyril maybe 15. We belonged to a thing called the Futurians; it was a science-fiction fan club in New York in the late ’30s and early ’40s. There’s a book by Damon Knight called The Futurians, which I think is in print here now, full of all sorts of libelous, slanderous gossip about all of us. Much of which is true, but he shouldn’t have said it anyhow! People like Isaac Asimov and Don Wollheim and others would have paid him well not to publish the book.

But we all belonged to this club and we all wanted to write and we all tried. Cyril and I began working together and as we were just beginning to write we developed a lot of each other’s writing habits. We started much the same way, we were used to each other. Then the war came along. He went one way and I went another. And then we got together again on The Space Merchants. And with Cyril, because we had this background of common experience and common attitudes, writing was almost painless on most of what we wrote. We published altogether I think, seven novels and maybe 30 or 40 short stories.

Bester: Did you collaborate line by line?

Pohl: Mostly what we did was talk to each other for a while. He’d come out to my home in Red Bank, where we kept a room for him with his own typewriter, and we’d sit around and drink for a while, and when the booze ran out we’d start to talk seriously about what sort of book we’d plan to write. And we’d think about a situation and talk about a few characters and what might happen to them, and as long as the conversation was flowing we’d keep on talking. We didn’t put anything on paper.

And then when we were beginning to flag, and it felt like it was ready to write, we’d flip a coin and the loser would go up to the third floor — Cyril’s typewriter was in one room there and mine was another — and he would write the first four pages. And then at the end of those four pages, which would stop in the middle of a line or a word sometimes, he’d come down or I’d come down, and say, “You’re on.”

We called it the “Hot-Typewriter System” — just keep the thing going day and night — and we did in fact usually work straight through.

Bester: Now it’s you that’s on, right? You go upstairs, you read the first four pages. Now, did it ever happen that you came down and said, “Cyril, you’re out of your mind. They can’t do it that way?”

Pohl: Not once. A couple of times when we were towards the end of a novel and getting a little giddy we’d play tricks on each other. There was this scene at the end of one novel when, at the bottom of the last page I had somebody look through a microscope and the next line was, “What did he see?” and I said it was Charlie Chaplin in a bowler hat. Then I went down and said, “Take it from there.”

But he fooled me — he just crossed out that line. Usually we didn’t even cross out a line, we just drove from line to line. Page 5 to 8 would be Cyril’s and page 9 to 12 would be mine; we just kept on going until we came to the end of the book. This was rough draft and it always got rewritten all the way through, by one of us, almost always by myself except for the case of one novel, Wolfbane, which was the last writing Cyril did before he died, and there was quite a lot of revision involved in the rewriting. But basically, when we were finished, the novel was there, and it would sometimes only take five or six days to do a whole novel, because we’d work straight through for 24 hours a day.

Bester: I’ve another question! Timewise, sometimes the four pages would take four minutes, four hours, four days, what?

Pohl: Well, there’s a great incentive to speed when you know that the other guy is down there having a great time, and you want to break it up as quickly as possible, so usually it only took a couple of hours. You know that the other guy is waiting, and if you don’t get down there pretty soon he’ll be off to a bar somewhere. So we worked pretty fast. It’s a good way to write a book with two people who are close enough in their ways of work that they don’t kill each other.

I wrote a novel with Lester del Rey once and we almost did kill each other. He was one of my closest friends up until that point. Now we’ll never write another word together.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 5: Collaboration and the Futurians’ »



What postwar New York had lacked was a gathering point for the area’s sf brethren (and sistren), so Lester del Rey and I created one. I invited a few of my sf friends to come and discuss the subject at my apartment at 28 Grove Street in the Village, Lester showed up with some of his, and we constituted ourselves a sort of roving gentlemen’s (and ladies’) club for people interested in science fiction, especially if professionally.

There were nine of us. The mythological Hydra was said to have nine heads. That was good enough, so we called it The Hydra Club and began beating the brush for members. In the process of inviting all the area’s sf writers and editors whose addresses we could locate, Fletcher Pratt was one of the first we reeled in.

He was a key recruit. We original nine of course knew all the book and magazine editors, and most of the writers, in the area. Fletcher knew everybody else — Basil Davenport, editor (and later judge) for the Book-of-the-Month Club; Bernard De Voto, authority on my personal hero, Mark Twain, whilom editor of The Saturday Review of Literature and eternally the author of its most popular regular column, “The Easy Chair”; Hans Stefan Santesson, editor of a couple of small book clubs which now and then did science-fiction books and so on.

The cut was between the people who primarily did science-fiction, all of whom we knew, and the people who did all kinds of works, but sometime did or sometimes might do a little science fiction as well. And those latter were the ones with whom Fletcher was our strongest link.

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t entirely easy with the idea of Fletcher Pratt, considered as friendship material for me. There was a generation gap. I didn’t have any other friends anywhere near that old. Fletcher was pushing fifty, and almost all my other friends were within at least approximate lying distance of my own age, which was then in my late twenties. Even Jack Williamson’s age was not much more than halfway to Fletcher’s. Fletcher was also famous — that is, famous in wider circles than just those of science fiction.

On the other hand, Fletcher did now and then definitely write science fiction himself, which betokened a certain youthfulness of outlook. Anyway, how could anyone be stuffy, stodgy or staid when he was known to spend at least one hour of every day hand-feeding live mealworms to his pack of pet marmosets?

Fletcher owned about a dozen of the little South American monkeys, kept in three or four large cages in a corner of his huge sitting room. They were sweet-looking little beasts, with a fringe of white beard all around their little faces, with their chronic expression of concern.

The census of the pack was not a fixed number. Fletcher encouraged the little animals to breed — not so much because the surplus was always well received by pet dealers, whose payments to the Pratts for those they didn’t keep just about covered the mealworm bill, as, I think, because Fletcher wanted his marmosets to be happy.. He had, of course, given them all names, mostly taken from New York’s literary establishment. The head marmoset, and Fletcher’s personal favorite, was Benny De Voto.

That same room was a great asset to us all. It was spacious, it was conveniently located, and Fletcher and his wife, Inga, were gracious hosts who enjoyed company, When a couple of Hollywood types came to New York with a proposal for a sort of syndicate of science-fiction writers to market their works to film and TV producers the Pratts provided them with a place where they could describe their plan to twenty or so of the area’s leading sf writers. (It came to nothing. The Hollywood duo had nothing tangible to offer the writers.)

Then when many of those same writers wanted to get together to discuss creating an organization of sf writers along lines similar to the Authors League, the Pratts once again offered a venue for the discussion. (And that, too, came to nothing at that time because half the writers declined to join anything that was structured like a trade union, and the other half rejected anything that wasn’t. When SFWA — the Science Fiction Writers of America — at last did come into existence, it was because two writers, Damon Knight and Lloyd Biggle, Jr., declared that they had created it and urged all the other writers whose addresses they could find to send in checks for some $25, upon which they would become members. This was an immediate success.)

Even more important, when such seldom seen heavy hitters as W. Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men, Odd John and many others of science fiction’s early classics, made a trip to New York for other reasons, the Pratts made that room available for a reception. That was a wonderful break for those of us lucky enough to be invited to meet him, and actually a welcome one for Stapledon himself.

He had been invited to New York to participate in a meeting to urge peace in international affairs. Like many respectable European intellectuals, Stapledon found it hard to decline such invitations, but when he got to the Waldorf-Astoria, he found it encircled by a howling mass of anti-communists, perhaps rather like today’s Tea Party hordes, and he welcomed the chance for some quiet conversation.

But the Pratts’ appetite for company wasn’t satisfied by what could be accomplished in one — after all — rather small New York apartment. Without telling anyone what they were doing, they went shopping for a more impressive place.

They found what they wanted in Highlands, New Jersey, a wonderfully huge structure that sat on a bluff over the sea, and for the next half-dozen or so years it was, for many of us, our favorite weekend resort.

To be continued.

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The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

After World War II had grabbed most of us Futurians by the scruff of the necks and flung us to various odd destinations in all sorts of unexpected parts of this planet of ours, it did, somehow get itself ended and there we were, civilians again, and back in New York. I had had a relatively undemanding war, ending up with doing public relations at the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in Caserta, Italy (with my spare time spent in a resort hotel on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius). Dirk Wylie, however, hadn’t had anywhere nearly as nice a war as I did.

Dirk’s war hit bottom in the early winter of 1944–45. That was when Hitler’s Wehrmacht made one last attempt to take back control of the western front in the Battle of the Bulge. It was a vicious and protracted fight, and Dirk, then an MP sergeant, was in the middle of it. This cost him. At one point, he jumped hastily out of a truck and landed in a very wrong way, doing something seriously bad to his spine.

That was the end of the war for Dirk, and the beginning of years of hospital stays and unremitting pain.

By the late 1940s, he was discharged from the New York-area Veterans Administration hospitals — not because he was cured but because there was nothing more they could do for him. Now Dirk was a civilian again, with one unanswerable question: What was he to do with the rest of his life? A normal nine-to-five job of any kind was pure fantasy. The only good part of the situation was that he didn’t need to make much money. The Veterans Administration had recognized their obligation to him and awarded him a substantial pension. But a living wage wasn’t the whole of Dirk’s needs. He was just barely out of his twenties, and didn’t like the prospect of doing nothing for the rest of his life.

I spent a lot of time with Dirk and his wife, Roz, discussing that question, and we came up with an idea that seemed worth pursuing. He could become a literary agent.

There are all kinds of literary agents. Some of them can do very good things for their clients, making sales for them that the writers would not have made by themselves and sometimes acting as story coaches to help their clients write more salable material. Others (as my mother used to say when totally exasperated) are not worth the powder to blow them to Hell.

So what made the difference between the saviors and the total wastes? One, a good agent needed to know the market. Two, s/he needed to know good work from bad. Three, s/he needed to be able to let clients know how to tell the difference between good and bad, too, and how to encourage them to get better.

Of course, Dirk didn’t have personal knowledge of all these things, although, as a Futurian, he had been exposed to a fair amount of shop talk over the years and had made a few sales himself. But what he did have was me.

Continue reading ‘How I Lost My Oldest Friend
(and Gained a Literary Agency)’ »

I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate.

I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate.

Let’s talk for a bit about my career as an agent.

Mark Rich has a lot to say about my failings, especially my financial woes, which were considerable. A J Budrys told a funny story about them in one of the last speeches he gave, at the Heinlein Centennial, a year or two before he died. He had discovered what a great agent I was, he said, when I sold John Campbell a story of A J’s that Campbell had turned down cold before A J became my client. And then when he got my check, it bounced.

Funny story? Sadly, also a true one.

But the interesting thing there is that A J didn’t quit the agency. He remained my client until the waters finally closed over my head. And almost all of my other clients, Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement and John Wyndham and Fritz Leiber and all the other household names and the lesser names that I was bringing along gave me an amazing amount of patience, and most of them didn’t want to give up until I did.

And, most interesting of all, most of them were my good friends for the rest of my life.

Do you wonder why?

I’ll tell you why. It was because I was a hell of a good agent.

First, I took the writers who had been getting $75 checks from Thrilling Wonder and worked with them to begin selling to Galaxy at twice the rate, and then I worked with the — magazine writers to turn them into book authors, and I kept looking for new and better markets they could sell to. A few I managed to get into television deals, even into syndicated newspaper cartoon strips. Some I managed to promote from the pulps to the slicks, at many times the rate.

In short, I did everything a good agent did for his clients. (I would like to say that, even today, not all agents are quite that good.) But I did something rather more than that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made a good writer — almost any of my dozens of good writers — sometimes be productive and profitable and sometimes be unable to get anything written for days or weeks at a time. I tried several different ways of, first, encouraging the writers to write, and, second, to do so at the top of their form. I finally invented one that worked.

I made a promise to eight or ten of my best (but not always solvent) writers that any time they brought in a new story I would hand them a check for that much wordage.. My rate was low for these incentive checks, at a half cent a word, but then when the story actually sold to a publisher the writer would be credited at the publisher’s scale, not that of my advances.

As a result, if you look at the stories published in the last year or so of my agency’s existence you will find that there were a larger number than usual of really good stories by Budrys, James Blish, Damon Knight and a dozen or so other clients who took me up on that offer. It worked. It got the writers writing more, and sometimes better. It even increased my sales to those markets, a little. And if I were unfortunate enough to become an agent again, I would at once start up something like that for at least a few clients.

But it also represented one more outflow of capital, and there wasn’t enough capital left to flow. Most of my clients didn’t want to leave, but finally, I gave up and folded the agency, and started paying everybody back.

Interestingly, maybe I should say ironically, then two unexpected new lifesavers were thrown to me.

Continue reading ‘What My Clients Thought’ »

Puli “Ch Banhegyi Ancsa with Mornebrake” Photo by w:en:User:Sannse.

In the 1930s, few of us had any excess of spending money. What money we had was scarce and hard-won. Radio was our great professional source of comedy, with those two titans Jack Benny and Fred Allen dominating the airways. Mostly, though, we generated our own comedy and a favorite form of it was the shaggy dog story, as practiced in the haunts of New York City’s café society.

The professionals worked in nightclubs which were sometimes dingy rooms with a tiny stage, seats for perhaps 100 to 300 persons, and of course, a bar. The people performing there were professionals. We weren’t. We didn’t have furnishings, electronics, or stocked bars, we had very little but our physical selves. Fortunately, we needed nothing more.

We Futurians would collect on the front stoop at the apartment house at 2574 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn. It housed the four rooms we called the Ivory Tower. After a period of talking, joking, gossiping, singing, making noise, we would start to move.

Cyril Kornbluth was likely to take part in one of these performances, Doc Lowndes almost as much so. Chet Cohen, Jack Gillespie and Damon Knight — or, as he preferentially wrote it in those days, damon knight — might be frequent performers, so might any Futurian or, for that matter, any other fan temporarily hanging out with us.

So when there were four or five of us gathered, we were likely to start the move, the narrator continuing to tell the story, and, when he came to the end, one of the others beginning a different one.

Nearly all the Futurian shaggy dog stories are lost to 21st-century performance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. The whole point of a shaggy dog story was that it needn’t have a point. When Futurians told their stories in the presence of ordinary fans, the expressions on the faces of the audience was often a sort of stupefied disbelief. A shaggy dog story was meant to be dragged out as long as possible.

I cannot write down for you the text of a classic Futurian shaggy dog story. It’s not just that my right hand would wither and fall away. You wouldn’t read it, either.

I will instead give you a short synopsis of the classic example of the Futurian shaggy dog story, which gave its name to the whole genre, and also “The Story of the Brass Cannon,” which is about the only story in the catalogue that has actually sometimes caused listeners to laugh right out loud.

The Shaggy Dog Story

A man who owns a shaggy dog has let it run away. He advertises in the all the local newspapers for the return of his dog. He says, “My dog has run away and I want him back. He is a shaggy dog and I will pay a reward for his return.

The next day he appears at the home of someone who says he has found the dog but when the dog appears at the door of the home, the man says, “Oh, not so damn shaggy.”

Continue reading ‘What Made the Futurians Laugh: The Shaggy Dog Story’ »


The Space Merchants

    Our most famous collaboration.

When I seriously began trying to be a writer — by which I mean when I began to write stories with beginnings, middles and ends — I began feeling the need to have other people around who were doing the same thing.

I wasn’t the only one. It was quite common for three or four, sometimes more, beginning writers to get together for a few hours after dinner — perhaps in someone’s apartment or, more likely, an office, because the chances of finding enough typewriters to go around would be better there — and everybody start typing at once. Then when we had something complete, we would show the story to the other guys, or maybe read it aloud to everyone at once, for criticism.

I don’t know that the presence of others made my own writing any better, but it did encourage me to do more of it. This is a good thing in itself. The very best way to improve as a writer is to keep right on writing until it gets good.

I hooked up briefly with two of these mutual-assistance groups. In neither case did we talk to each other about what we were going to write until we had written it. That was just as well, in a way, because what I wrote was almost always science fiction and in that the others had no interest at all. (A feeling I reciprocated about their light boy-girl comedies or sports.) I yearned not just to practice the mechanical skills but to hear trade talk about science fiction.

Then — blessed day! — along came the Futurians.

The Futurians were one of the New York area’s science-fiction fan clubs, but they were a little different from the others. We didn’t just want to read sf and talk about it. We wanted to make it — to write it, or to become editors of it or in some other way to become professionally involved in producing it, and to make that sort of thing our lifelong careers. So naturally, inevitably, we started our own writing group.

Actually, it might actually be more accurate to say we became one, because even the non-obsessed fraction of our members were mildly interested in the writing. All we needed was a place to set our portable typewriters — and then, when three of our members decided to club together on a joint apartment at 2574 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn that would also be the club headquarters, that problem was solved. We called it the Ivory Tower (it was on the fourth walk-up floor), and there we wrote. Three or four of us at a time, sometimes more.

The diligent ones, first to last, were Cyril Kornbluth, Dick Wilson, Donald Wollheim, Robert A.W. Lowndes, Dirk Wylie, James Blish, Damon Knight and, of course, me. Member Isaac Asimov rarely joined us in these sessions. He was as eager as anybody else, but he had to work regular shifts at his mom and pop’s candy store and so had to do most of his practice writing alone. (Well, except for a couple of minor collaborations with me, which are in his book The Early Asimov.) And, as you see, quite a few of us made the professional cut — some, like Isaac, almost excessively.

In fact we had a kind of success that writers’ workshops seldom achieve. Why? There may have been several reasons, but perhaps one of them was that there was a particular exercise we did that most workshops don’t do. We didn’t give each other just criticism and moral support. We began doing something else. We began to collaborate.

There are many ways of collaborating,. I think the traditional way goes with two writers getting into a room with a pot of coffee and a typewriter. One of them sits down at the typewriter and types their names and addresses and a title for the story and then looks expectantly at the other. Who says, “Okay, let’s start with he meets the girl. She gets out of a taxi, but when she closes the door and it starts away her dress is caught and the skirt is pulled off.” While the other one is typing away. And they keep on doing that, maybe changing places from time to time, until the story’s done.

What all the ways have in common is that two (or occasionally more) people are involved, and the hope is that if one gets stuck the other will come up with a way to get out of it. Or, when it’s working well, one has an idea for a bit of business and the other takes it and runs with it.

I’ll give you an example from life. When Cyril and I were writing The Space Merchants long, long, long ago we had some scenes in a food factory that we called Chlorella Costa Rica, where people were farming algae to turn into food for poor people. I said, “Why don’t we give them some actual meat? They can have an Alexis Carrel chicken heart that just keeps growing and growing and they chop steaks off it as it rotates.”

And Cyril said, “Fine,” and began to type and made the whole Chicken Little bit out of it. If you’ve read the book you know how fine that was; if you haven’t take my word for it. It was fine.

You have just seen one of the reasons why I loved collaborating with Cyril, but what I’m saying is that collaborating can help, even if you don’t have two writers who work together as productively as Cyril and I often did. It is often helpful to a newbie to collaborate, even with another newbie, just for the sake of the life support and discipline they can give each other.

Enough for now. Next time I’ll tell you how collaborating can help you even when you don’t have anyone to collaborate with.

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Fred’s Distilled Writing Wisdom,
Part 1, Part 3, Part 4