Posts tagged ‘Catherine Tarrant’

Ben Bova

Ben Bova

In the beginning of his career, young Ben Bova had a good job writing about the hardware his employer, Avco-Everett Research Laboratory, dealt with, but a yearning to write something less confining, particularly science fiction. When he began trying his hand at that he got a welcome from John Campbell, arguably the top editor in the field, who was fond of nuts-and-bolts science fiction anyway. But even that wasn’t quite satisfying.

In Milford, Pennsylvania, three established writers — James Blish, damon knight and Judy Merril — had just banded together to start the first in the long subsequent series of Milford Science-Fiction Writers Conferences. Ben signed up and became one of their early graduates.

For those unfamiliar with writers’ conferences, it often seems that even the best of them appear to be almost as much encounter groups as writers’ tutorials. Enrollees are expected to spend one or more weeks in shared housing, to each write a new story of some kind at regular intervals, and then to sit in a circle setup to have other participants discuss his or her story, sometimes to the point of exploring what hidden emotions had caused him or her to write it. It is a pressure-cooker environment and it was my personal observation that many writers who had gone through the experience — Cyril Kornbluth and Algis Budrys — for example, went through post-Milford periods of writing little or nothing for a time.

I still think that is a danger for those attending writers’ conferences, but as far as Ben Bova was concerned I could not have been more wrong. Whether because of Milford or simply because some of the synapses in his brain re-hooked themselves into new patterns, beginning around that period, his fiction began to show deeper insights into his characters, and thus were better books.

Or it simply may have been that he went through an even more demanding tutorial when John Campbell unexpectedly died, and Street & Smith hired Ben to replace him. I have long held that being an editor of other people’s stories is one of the best ways to improve your own writing. (I’m pretty sure it helped for me.)

Anyway, Ben was a great disappointment to Street & Smith. Not as an editor; he kept up the standing of the magazine. May even have improved it, as when Ben manumitted the writers from the I-hate-smut fervor of John Campbell’s (and also Ben Bova’s) associate editor, Kay Tarrant, who had made it her calling to expunge anything that hinted at the possibility of excretion or intercourse from every story, a step which added some parle to the magazine. No, what disappointed the elder gods was just tenure. They had hoped for an editor who would stay on the job for thirty or forty years, like Campbell, and through all that period continue to act as the small but welcome cash cow Astounding/Analog had always been for them. That didn’t happen. Bob Guccione came along with an offer Ben couldn’t refuse to become fiction editor (later managing editor) of Omni, where he stayed until the magazine itself died

Which was probably a good thing for Ben’s writing career, because it freed him to put in his time writing the more than 100 successful books that now grace his shelves.

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

Part 6 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 

Pohl: I’ve just realized something very significant. Of all the science fiction writers in the English-speaking world who began in the late ’30s and ’40s who have survived since and done reasonably well, there are only two who were not largely and directly influenced by John Campbell. That’s you and me!

John Campbell is the fellow who took science fiction by the scruff of the neck in the late ’30s and changed it. Made it much better. And people like Isaac Asimov and van Vogt and Bob Heinlein, and almost everybody else who really became significant writers around that period owe a great debt to Campbell. They were published primarily in his magazine and got a great deal of advice and guidance from him. And I know I didn’t.

John Campbell was a good friend of mine but he had this one tacky personality trait — he never bought any stories from me! I kept trying but he never would buy them. How about you, Alfie?

Bester: Oh, I had an experience with Campbell! As Fred has said, he really took science fiction by the scruff of the neck and shaped it into something really worthwhile. Up until then it had just been hack writing by guys who were translating westerns into science fiction. Campbell changed all that. He was a great man. I worshipped Campbell, of course.

I wrote a story called “Oddy and Id.” The premise of the story simply was that we are not consciously in control of our actions but this deep Id, this well of primal urges within us, is really in control. I submitted the story to Campbell and got a phone call from him — I’d never met him.

“I want to talk to you about the story. I want to buy it but I want some changes. Will you come and see me?”

“Oh God, yes, Mr. Campbell.” It was when their office was out in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Now, you’ve got to picture me, a guy from Madison Avenue writing scripts; all I know is the networks, the advertising agencies and all that jazz, it’s what I’m used to. I’m also used to the rates that they pay. But I have to meet Campbell.

I go out to Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I come to this goddamn printing plant, this factory, expecting to be ushered into the great office of this great man. But I go into this tacky little office which is about two feet by four feet and here is this guy who is about the size of what we would call in American football, a defensive tackler. He’s about 19 feet high, 47 feet wide, a towering guy. He sits behind his desk and I squirm into the one visitors’ chair.

He says, “Now about your story. Freud is finished!”

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 6: John W. Campbell and Dianetics’ »

John W. Campbell in 1957

John W. Campbell in 1957
(via efanzines.com)
 

The home base of Street & Smith at the time that John Campbell came aboard to edit Astounding was a remarkably rickety old building at the corner of 17th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. Well, that’s not strictly true. It wasn’t one old building. It was several of them, stitched together by knocking through walls and rerouting hallways to connect them.

This imposed a class system for getting into the offices. When John arrived for work each morning, he had to enter through the doorway on West 17th Street, because that was where the time clock was. (Yes, John Campbell had to punch in and out on a time clock, at least in the early days.)

Whereas when someone more important, like me, wanted to visit John in his office, we entered through the main door at 79 Seventh Avenue, like gentry. After telling the receptionist what we wanted, and providing we passed inspection, she summoned a guide to convoy us, through passages lined with thousand-pound rolls of pulp paper for the presses on the ground floor, to the ancientest and most decrepit elevator in the city of New York. Its controls were not push buttons, as we degenerate moderns suppose that every proper elevator’s are. They were not even the up or down handles that our parents remember from their youth. A rope dangled from rooftop to bottom of the elevator shaft, and if you wanted to make the Street & Smith elevator go down you caught the rope and pulled it downward, for up you pulled it upward, and the elevator stopped when you gave a little reverse tug on the rope.

That wasn’t the end of your journey. When you got to the right floor, you still had a country mile to hike before you got to John’s modest office. We were no longer in the original Seventh Avenue building — though we might as well have been when the presses began to roll and all the linked buildings began to shake. Then, at long last, we’re there … and John Campbell puts down the DeVilbiss with which he’s been spraying his throat.

“Good morning, Pohl,” he says — we knew each other for ten years before he ever addressed me as Fred — “Do you know why television can never replace radio in the American home?” And I knew that all was well with the world and John Campbell had begun work on his next month’s editorial.
 

That was one of the things I learned from John Campbell. He began each new month with some such polemical statement, trying it on everyone who came into the office. We were all encouraged to disagree with it, which meant that by the end of the month John had heard just about every disagreement that could be registered against his thesis, and had had time to think of rebuttals … so that he was ready to write his next editorial. (In which he proved that TV could never replace radio in the home because TV required attentive watching. Therefore housewives couldn’t turn it on just for company as they could radio.)

In John’s office, he sat at a rolltop desk. Why such an old-fashioned piece of furniture? I once asked him. “Because,” he said, poking a Camel into his long cigarette holder and lighting up, “these buildings are firetraps and smoking in them is against the law. So when the fire inspectors come by the switchboard girl gives everybody a special ring. We put our cigarettes out in the ashtrays and put them inside the desk with the top rolled down, and open the windows. Then we just wait for the inspectors to go away again.”

John was not alone in the room. He shared it with Catherine Tarrant, listed on the masthead as “Ass. Editor” until I pointed out to John that that might lead to unintended readings. Kay Tarrant had come with the job. Her official description was secretary-assistant, but as John preferred to do most of his own typing, she spent most of her time copy-editing the manuscripts he bought (and those bought by his successor, Ben Bova, as well) to prepare them for the printer.

That was not necessarily an arduous job. John did not normally go in for the kind of lavishly creative editing that characterized, say, Horace Gold’s tenure at Galaxy (and infuriated so many of his contributors), and when John took a notion to rewrite sections of a particular story to make it more like John’s image of what it should have been, he did it himself.

But Kay Tarrant, too, had impulses that went beyond the simple correction of faulty grammar, spelling or punctuation. She hated — hated! — smut. And she devoted her life to erasing every trace of it from the magazine.

This, of course, had an effect on the corps of science-fiction writers, a sadly rowdy lot. The more troublesome ones initiated a contest to see who could get something bawdy past Kay Tarrant. Many of them tried. All saw their best inspirations slain on the copy desk until George O. Smith stepped up to the plate. He won when he got past Miss Tarrant’s eagle eye his definition of a tomcat as “a ball-bearing mousetrap.”
 

I can’t avoid a personal reminiscence here. When John left us and Ben Bova took over as editor of Astounding, the first story Ben bought was my “The Gold at the Starbow’s End.” As those who remember the story can attest, it is simply riddled with naughty words and impure thoughts — not because I can’t express myself without them but because there was no way to tell this particular story in their absence. (It’s a pretty good story, too. I think it’s my best novelette.) When he gave the ms. to Kay Tarrant for copyediting, he warned her that it would have to be edited with a very light hand.

All the same, he told me later, she got no more than about three lines into the first page before clearing her throat and saying, “Oh, Ben? Do you really want me to leave in this — ” “I do,” he said. “Leave it.” And three minutes later, when she cried, “Ben! Really!” it was, “Leave it again.”

Mine was the first example of what is loosely called adult prose that Ben bought but by no means the last, and ultimately Kay learned to live with the new rules and soldiered on.

 
More follows whenever I find time to write it.

 
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The Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

The “Quadrumvirate,” for most of its existence, ran the Futurians. We accreted to the club and to each other by adhesion to other clubs; the first was G.G. Clark’s Brooklyn Science Fiction League, which Donald Wollheim and Johnny Michel had left a shambles after they had kidnapped most of its members, one of them being me; then we began sending radar signals to individuals to seemed to be our kind of people, by which we mostly meant the kind of fan who desperately wanted to become a pro.

We found one of these in Connecticut in a person who was then a member of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, because the CCC not only gave him three hots and a cot for planting trees and doing other things for the environment, it also sent some money back to his family who could use it (remember, this was the time of the Great Depression). That was Robert A.W. Lowndes. Before long, he was able to change jobs, becoming a hospital orderly (thus his nickname of “Doc”) and then he made it to New York and the Futurians.

Continue reading ‘The Quadrumvirate’ »