Posts tagged ‘William Tenn’

Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley in 1968.

Robert Sheckley was a great — and greatly funny — writer of science-fiction short stories. Along with “William Tenn” (aka Phil Klass) and damon knight, he filled the magazines in that thrice-blessed decade of the ’60s with an apparently infinite supply of great little comic stories. When I say there was nothing like them before or after I know whereof I speak, because by the time the ’60s came along, I was a magazine editor desperate to find writers like them that I could publish. Oh, I did find some, including some really good ones, but no masterpiece-a-week humor generators like those.

I had met Sheckley when he was just beginning his run of great comic stories. Harlan Ellison had written about him, saying, “If the Marx Brothers had been writers they would have been Robert Sheckley,” and I had made a point of getting some of his published stories to check it out for myself. When we turned out to be attending the same party I made it a point to get a conversation going with him. We were getting along pretty well, and when I mentioned that my house was on a tidal river he got interested quickly. “You do? Well, I’ve got this boat that I don’t take out much because I don’t know many people who live on the water. Maybe I could come get you and take you out for a spin.”

That sounded like a great idea. It kept on sounding that way until I mentioned that the river had three low bridges between the ocean and my house and he, glumly, announced that his sailboat had an eighteen-foot mast. Then he told me how much he’d liked a book of mine that had just come out, and I told him how some of his stories had made me laugh out loud.

Then, when we started talking business, he asked if I could get him better pay than he had been receiving for his short stories. I assured him I could, and I did. Actually I doubled his monthly income almost at once. It wasn’t hard. I just changed the destination of each new manuscript that came popping out of his typewriter, for, like many new writers, Bob had convinced himself of a crippling fallacy. The fallacy is that beginners would have to work their way up through the low-paying markets — then paying about a penny a word, like Imagination — before they would be able to earn the rates that were double or triple that from Galaxy or the other leaders in the field.

What makes that a fallacy is that submitted stories come in roughly three levels of quality. There are the winners, which almost editor will buy as soon as he shakes it out of its envelope. Then there are the total losers that hardly anybody is desperate enough to buy and, finally, the stories that need a little work, and an editor will generally help the writer work its flaws away. The only sensible procedure in marketing a story is to send it to the highest-paying markets first, and work your way down if you have to.

Some times a higher-paying editor will help a writer along, as Playboy’s fiction editor did for me at a party when he poured me a drink and said, “You know, I would have bought about half of those stories you’ve been running in Galaxy.” To which I said, “Oh,” and quickly changed my ways.

Of course, those weren’t the only sales I made for Bob. I got him into some TV spots, from which he later got himself into better and better ones, and into double-selling reprints of his work to mostly paperback book publishers, and we became friends.

Then for quite a while I pretty much lost touch with Bob. It wasn’t as much of a blow as you might think, because nearly everyone did. He was doing well, but he was wandering the face of the Earth. What brought him back to New York was a job with Omni. When Ben Bova was elevated from Fiction Editor to Editor in Chief he chose Bob to take over the fiction. It was a good job, paid pretty well. And Bob had always wanted to be an editor for a while.

Only, of course, there were problems.

Continue reading ‘Robert Sheckley:
If the Marx Brothers Had Been Writers…’ »

How to Make Paper Flowers


After the war — that’s World War II, I’m talking about, what did you think? — I went to work as copywriter for a tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency called Thwing & Altman. It wasn’t a boring job, and one of the things I liked about it was that one of my favorite over-the-top novelists, Tiffany Thayer, was among my predecessors in holding it. But I turned out to be good at that kind of work, and they weren’t paying me particularly well, so before long I was studying the Help Wanted pages in the Times again.

It was still a boom time for the unemployed. Jobs were begging for people to fill them as America got back in the business of business. There was one particular listing which seemed to be addressed to me almost by name — I no longer remember what it was in the specifications that seemed to bear my initials, but the moment I saw the ad I lusted for it. The ad had been placed by an employment agency, so I called them up, made an appointment, sneaked out of the office with some of my roughs under my arm and laid them proudly before the man who had agreed to see me.

“Um,” he said. “Not too bad. Have you made a resume?” Of course I had, but when I handed it to him he looked puzzled. He gave me a dubious glance, studied the resume one more time and then said, “It doesn’t name the college you went to.”

At times in the past I had wondered if that question might ever handicap me in my chosen career. But no one who ever hired me for anything had ever asked about it before, so his comment rather surprised me. “Óh,” I said, “I never went to a college. I dropped out of high school as soon as I was seventeen.”

That got a reaction out of him. He gave me a scowl of repugnance, stuffed all my papers back into their folder and said, “You’ve wasted my time. This is a good job with a very important publishing company. Naturally they’re not going to hire anyone without at least a bachelor’s degree.” And I crept out of his office in humility, hardly daring to look at even the receptionist out of my high-school-dropout eyes.

But the ad was still in the paper on the next Sunday, as well as the as the Sunday after that. Moreover, although there were plenty of other jobs on offer, there weren’t any that seemed to be calling me by name, so I got back on the phone. “I called,” I said, after identifying myself and feeling the temperature drop when I did, “because I noticed that ad was still running, and I wondered — ”

“Mr. Pohl,” he said severely, “I told you that you’re simply not qualified for a job of this caliber. If anything comes up that might suit you I’ll keep you in mind. Goodbye.”

I hung up, meditating violence. But time passed and I cooled down. And, more important, the ad continued to run. So a few weeks later I called again. My account executive was beginning to sound tired of the subject, but he admitted they had run out of candidates. “All right,” he said. “I don’t suppose it would hurt anything if I let you try your luck. It’s the Popular Science Publishing Company, on Fourth Avenue around 28th Street. The man you want to see is their advertising director for circulation and books, and his name is George Spoerer. I’ll give him a call to say you’re coming — ”

“Well, no,” I said. “Let’s not do that. I’ll call him for an appointment myself. And, don’t worry, I won’t forget about your commission on my first week’s salary.”

I had been worrying a little myself about what this hard to please Mr. Spoerer might be like, but on the phone he sounded like a reasonable human being and when I got to his office he looked and acted that way too. Not only that, but, when I showed him some of the house ads I’d written at Popular Publications, he revealed himself as at least a part-time science-fiction fan. And when George Spoerer had decided I could do the job he walked me into the office of his boss, the Circulation Manager of the company, Eugene Watson, and he wasn’t bad either. And twenty minutes later I had the job.

I didn’t know how my account executive at the employment agency would take that news. When I phoned he just sighed a long sigh and began reminding me that, under New York law, their commission was a collectible debt and they would expect weekly checks from me until it was paid off. “All right,” I said, and hung up.”

I had intended at least to say “thank you,” but it no longer sounded appropriate.

I forgot to mention that, as I was leaving, George said, “Did I tell you about your other jobs?” And when I said an apprehensive no he said, “Don’t look so apprehensive. One is Subscription Fulfillment Manager, and all that requires is that you let Old Jim tell you what’s going on in that department so you can answer any questions the higher brass might ask. That’s where we have twenty-five young girls to type out the addressograph stencils that make labels for subscribers. Old Jim is the actual boss of the department because he’s too old and too religious to cause any trouble with those twenty-five young girls. But he’s hopeless when he tries to talk to a vice president.”

As I had never talked to a corporate vice president myself I crossed my fingers and went on to the next point. “And the other job?”

“That’s no sweat, too. The title is Book Editor for books published by our two magazines, Popular Science and Outdoor Life. We make a good thing out of mail-order books for home handymen and sport fishers. Since the magazines buy all rights we take material that appears in the magazines and retread it for how-to books.

“You don’t do that work yourself, of course. You hire an editor to do it, and you just make sure it’s done right — I’ll show you how it’s done over the table at the Gramercy Park, if you’ll have lunch with me on Monday.”

“A week from Monday, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I’d like to give Mr. Altman a little notice.” And a week from Monday it was.

Continue reading ‘My Life as Book Editor for Popular Science’ »

Phil Klass

Phil Klass

At the Philadelphia Worldcon of 1947 there was a lot of jabbering back and forth — mostly along the lines of “How’ve you been?” and “Where’d you serve?” because World War II was recently over and we generally hadn’t seen each other for years. But when that kind of talk was over, there was a different kind of question that came up pretty often, and that was, “Have you read ‘Child’s Play’?”

That was the name of a creepy-crawly and un-put-downable story that had just appeared in Astounding, signed by the unfamiliar byline of William Tenn. It was about a man who had somehow been given a children’s toy build-a-man set from the future and decided to see how it worked, disastrously, and it was written in a darkly sardonic style that combined real horror and laugh-out-loud comedy. The man who wrote it wasn’t really named William Tenn, of course. His name was Philip Klass, born in London but brought to Brooklyn as a baby and now a radio researcher, fresh out of the Army like the rest of us.

“Child’s Play” wasn’t the first story to appear as by “William Tenn” — that had been the very forgettable “Alexander the Bait” a few issues earlier in Astounding. But it was “Child’s Play” that created an instant demand for more of this kind of thing by that highly individual author. And the stories came — “Venus and the Seven Sexes,” “On Venus Have We Got a Rabbi” and many others in what seemed like an unstoppable stream. Many are currently in print in a couple of volumes of his collected works, and there were even a few quite good stories by Morton Klass, Phil’s kid brother, to show that the sf-writing gene is familial. The Klass brothers were friends and fellow poker players to much of New York fandom, until we lost Phil.

It wasn’t that he died then. What happened was that he got work as a college professor at Pennsylvania State University, lost to his New York friends by geography, since Penn State’s campus was smack in the middle of that very large state of Pennsylvania, and lost to writing because he discovered that teaching was more interesting and used up all his time. Phil taught, among other things, short story writing and was highly regarded by students and faculty through a respectable career. But when he started teaching, he stopped writing. Once he got comfortable in his new life in State College, Penn., he got active in sf writers’ organizations and the like, picking up several overdue awards, but the writing had stopped, and that was a great pity.