Posts tagged ‘Television’

(And One of the Smartest)

Kathy Keeton

Kathy Keeton

In the spring of 1978, I was doing a book-promotion tour in the general area of Boston, Massachusetts. That sort of thing was usually scheduled to take advantage of the fact that I would be in that area anyway, for some other commitment such as a lecture date. The rest of that sort of tour is drudgery. Did you ever see the old TV comedy series, “WKRP in Cincinnati”? That’s it, one WKRP after another, cabbing all over some unattractive neighborhoods of Boston or Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit or — well, any big, or formerly big, city in the USA. I guess the worst of it is that when those little stations want a five-minute guest to drag in their listeners, it’s most likely to be in drive time— 7 to 9 AM or 5 to 7 PM, when the commuters will flick on their car radios, hungry for anything to take their minds off the job.

And what I particularly noticed about that morning tour was an extraordinarily good-looking blonde woman who always seemed to be coming out of a studio as I was going in. or the reverse. And that evening as I got to my 5:30 she was waiting for her turn to go on and she looked up from what she was pecking at in her lap and said, “We have to quit meeting like this. You’re Frederik Pohl, the receptionist told me. I’m Kathy Keeton, and I’m editing the new science and sf magazine, Nova.”

Well, actually she wasn’t. PBS had a lock on that title, and rather than go through a lawsuit they decided at the last minute to change their title to another four-letter word, Omni, and it was as Omni that their first issue came a few weeks later.

It wasn’t exactly a fact that that was a good year for popular-scientific magazines to come out. Half a dozen of them had already popped up, like mushrooms after a rain. A few years later, most of them had vanished, because although it was true that the American consumer had become more interested in science than before, that didn’t mean they were interested in buying magazines about it. Omni survived a few years longer than the others, though I don’t think it ever turned a profit.

It didn’t have to. Bob Guccione, the magazine’s publisher as well as Kathy’s boyfriend, and later husband, didn’t know what to do with all the money that was pouring in from his magazine Penthouse described as a magazine like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, but just a tad dirtier. Things went sour for him a few years later, but he had no trouble diverting some of the earnings from Penthouse into subsidizing Omni.

 

Madmen

 

People have been asking if I am the model for the Mad Ave. advertising man who writes for Galaxy under pen names. I don’t think so.

True, I did once work for a Madison Avenue ad agency, but Thwing & Altman was too tiny a shop to support all that adultery. And, yes, I did write quite a bit for the real Galaxy and some of the stories did appear under pen names, particularly when I had more than one story in an issue. But no. I don’t even know anybody on the program.

What a pity that the magazine hasn’t survived to get the benefit of all this Class A+ product placement.

Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ line of romance pulps.

Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ romance pulps.

The thing to remember about those pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s is that, with a few exceptions, the stories behind the lurid covers didn’t have to be any good. Not in any literary sense, at least — the average story in a pulp magazine was about as mindless as daytime television, if not more so. (Daytime TV at least provides weather reports and stock quotations.)

Curiously, however, in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, pulp editors were supposed to be almost as irreproachable as the New York Times, and actually came fairly close. Better than the average American college graduate, anyway. Even the writers, on average, were reasonably good at such matters., though the actual stories they framed in these grammatical and well spelled terms came about as close to mindless as any literature ever can.

You will remember, though, that I mentioned honorable exceptions to the rule of pure trash, and there were some. One was the crime pulp Black Mask, edited by Ken White from the cubicle next to my own.

Well, let’s slow down a moment here so I can paint you a word picture. The entire suite of Popular Publications’ offices on the top, or 20th, floor of the structure called the Bartholomew Building was in the approximate shape of a capital letter T, which someone had pushed over so it was lying on its side. The down stroke of the T, which now ran east and west, was shortened, leaving on one side just room for three small offices and on the other side the wall that kept visitors penned in the waiting room until our receptionist-switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, said they could go on in. The cross-stroke of the T, now running north and south and thus paralleling the nearby East River, housed all the rest of Popular’s employees except for the two on the (former) downstroke, which is to say Ken White, with his Black Mask, and me. (I believe a deceased pulp called Railroad Stories had once been edited from the now-vacant third of those downstroke offices.)

Although Ken White was my nearest neighbor, we seldom spoke. He was rarely in his office, apparently doing most of his work at home. He was, I believe, the magazine’s third working editor, and he was charged with keeping the magazine as outstanding for quality and innovation as it had been made by his predecessors. That was no light responsibility. Black Mask had been started by the team of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as publishers, and they had turned it over to “Cap” Joseph Shaw to edit. Shaw had done wonders, recruiting writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler to reinvent the crime story for him. Unfortunately for Ken White, those two were no longer pounding the typewriter keys to fill the pulps, so it was a tough assignment.

White and I had the only offices in use on that abbreviated leg of the lazy-T. Everything else was on the T’s crossbar. Backtracking to where the crossbar of the T sat on the stumpy vertical, there was the office of Jane Littell, who edited Popular’s love pulps.

Janie had a background she didn’t much care to talk about, including a stint — before she began to put on the pounds — as a circus performer. She would never get explicit about it but I formed the opinion that she had been an equestrienne, one of those fearless young women who circled the ring standing on the back of a galloping horse.

Continue reading ‘Popular Publications, Part 3:
The People Who Made the Pulps’ »

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 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’ »