WHEN I WAS WRITING
A Literary Memoir
Installment Eight: Doubling Up
In their biography Tracy and Hepburn, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon compare a career in the arts to a ride on a roller coaster. Every up is followed by a down, every down by an up. The winners are the people who hang on.
In August of 1963, my writing career was going through a down. I had sold two stories since I had been drafted in July 1959. I had spent most of the last four years trying to sell a novel and none of my attempts had succeeded.
I started working on novels when I was in the army. In those days most SF novels were published as paperback originals and you normally sold a novel by circulating three sample chapters and an extensive outline of the rest of the book.
My first attempt was a novel version of my Galaxy novelette “Sordman the Protector”. I called it I Feel My Power Flowing and it took Sordman from his discovery that he had psi powers through the struggles and character development that produced the hero of the novelette. It didn’t sell, but Scott Meredith passed me some encouraging words from Damon Knight, who was doing some editing for a paperback publisher. Damon had rejected the package with the comment that “This is a writer to watch.” Damon was one of the best short story writers in the field, a demanding critic, and an editor who was putting together a long string of anthologies.
I wrote at least two other sample chapter and outline packages, plus some short fiction that didn’t sell. Then sometime in 1962, I decided to write a contemporary novel about the romances of young people living in center city Philadelphia. I wrote the entire novel and put it through two or three drafts in about nine months, finishing sometime in May or June 1963.
About two weeks after I finished it, I received a phone call from Terry Carr, who was handling my stuff at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Terry was a popular figure in the science fiction world. He had become a well-known fan while he was a teenager in California and his first short story sales had made him a highly visible young writer. He had started working for Scott Meredith after he moved to New York. Later, like a lot of Scott Meredith protégés, he transferred to the editorial side and became a noted book and anthology editor.
Terry had to tell me the agency didn’t think the book was saleable. He was sorry but they were returning the manuscript. It was one of the gloomiest conversations I’ve ever had-- just as gloomy for Terry, I think, as it was for me.
In February of that year, Sara had suffered a miscarriage. She had quit her job with the Presbyterian Board so we could have a child and we had both been building up all the emotions and anticipations that precede childbirth. Then, without warning, the whole process came to a halt.
The miscarriage was only the beginning of a tense period. A few days after it happened, Sara broke out with chickenpox. She had never had chickenpox when she was a child. She had apparently picked it up from a boy who lived on the first floor of the center city walkup apartment building we were living in. The chicken pox had probably triggered the miscarriage.
The chicken pox was followed by an incident Sara wanted to ignore-- a sharp momentary pain in one of her eyes. I insisted she go to our eye doctor and she gave in-- a decision that had a huge effect on the future of our life together. The disturbances in her system had activated an autoimmune response. Her immune system was attacking her eyes. If she had visited the eye doctor a few days later, she would probably have gone blind.
As it was, the doctor couldn’t guarantee he could save her vision. She had to take cortisone for six weeks and hope the treatment would work. Once every week for six weeks, she trekked to the doctor’s office and he looked for indications the condition was getting worse. Once every week for six weeks, I waited for my wife to call me at the office and tell me she wasn’t going blind.
In May of 1963, a little after we had weathered Sara’s eye crisis, we made a major change in our lifestyle. I stopped working full-time at my job as an airline reservation clerk and started working part-time.
We had gotten married in November of 1960, while I was still in the army. I got out of the army in July, 1961 and returned to the kind of work schedule I had been maintaining before I got drafted. I worked forty hours a week at the airlines, on rotating shifts, and wrote two hours every day, including my days off.
At some point I noticed that the reservations staff included part timers. I started thinking about part-time work and the idea became more and more attractive. It seemed to me my life was out of proportion. Writing was supposed to be my primary occupation but I was spending forty hours a week earning a living and only fourteen writing. My working life looked like a giant rocket with a tiny payload.
I discussed the matter with Sara and we worked out a budget. I broached the idea to my employers and we negotiated a schedule. I would work 9-2 at the airlines, Monday through Friday. Then I would eat lunch at home with Sara and write four hours every afternoon, plus four hours on Saturday morning. The airline liked that schedule because it meant they would only have to carry me on the payroll during some of their peak hours. Sara liked it, she said, because it meant her husband wouldn’t disappear into his workroom for two hours every evening. We would have to live on a tighter budget but with luck I might make up the difference by writing more.
So now it was August. Sara could still see, my attempt to write a serious contemporary novel had failed, and our income was thirty-five percent smaller than it had been in May.
My novel projects had all been fairly ambitious efforts like I Feel My Power Flowing. I decided it was time I took two steps backward and tried something with guaranteed commercial potential. I decided I would aim for the Ace Double market.
Ace Doubles were paperback originals. Each Ace Double contained two novels, bound back to back, with a different cover on each side of the book. Ace Books paid the lowest advances in the field-- a thousand dollars for each half of a double-- and they specialized in the kind of stories science fiction fans referred to as “space opera”. Ace Doubles were essentially the paperback successors to pulp magazines like Planet Stories and Startling Stories -- magazines that had mostly carried adventure stories set in interplanetary and interstellar futures.
Like the pulps, Ace was a good market for hack writers-- for people who could write very fast to minimum standards. If you could sell several novels a year to publishers like Ace, you could make a comfortable living, in the same way you could make a living churning out a story a week for the pulps in the 30s and 40s.
But there was more to it than that. Like the pulps, Ace also provided a market for other kinds of work. In the late 40s, at the end of the pulp era in science fiction, Ray Bradbury had sold most of his early work to the space opera markets. Most of the stories that eventually became part of The Martian Chronicles, and transformed him into a writer of international stature, were originally published in low paying pulps like Startling and Thrilling Wonder. At the beginning of the paperback era, in the same way, Philip K. Dick sold most of his work to Ace. Dick has become a cult literary figure over the last thirty years, but many of his novels started life as Ace Doubles.
The Ace Double format had the great virtue, in addition, that it could accommodate science fiction that didn’t meet the length requirements for stand-alone novels. One of the classics of the early 60s, Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, was a long novella. I read it when it first appeared in Galaxy and Ace published it as half of a double.
Last-- and most important from my viewpoint-- Ace was a good beginner’s market. Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin both began their novel careers writing Ace Doubles. For most of us, Le Guin’s first novel was The Left Hand of Darkness, which Terry Carr published as part of the Ace Special series he started after he left Scott Meredith and joined Ace. But Le Guin actually wrote three Ace books, two of them Doubles, before she wrote the novel that made her a major figure in the science fiction cosmos.
Ace was an attractive beginner’s market because you just had to satisfy two requirements. You had to create a good action-adventure plot and you had to set it in a colorful, interesting future. The editor of Ace Books, Donald A. Wollheim, had been a science fiction fan since he had been a teenager in the 1930s. Don had been a member of the legendary fan group called The Futurians-- a group whose membership had included future writers and editors such as Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, and Isaac Asimov. Don grew up reading the science fiction pulps and he sometimes argued that science fiction was a branch of children’s literature-- a genre whose core audience consisted of bright teenage boys. He didn’t object if your novel included things like good prose, interesting characters, and an original view of the future. But anybody who understood science fiction and its history could look at the covers of a rack full of Ace Doubles and know what the basic requirements were.
I once read an article by one of the leading British SF writers of the 60s, John Brunner, in which he said he liked to pick up a standard SF theme every now and then and see what he could do with it. I did something similar with my Ace Doubles. Each double was built around a standard science fiction situation. For my first try, I decided to write a story about humans exploring a mysterious planet.
I developed the idea using a technique I had encountered in an article by a mystery writer. You can create a mystery plot, the author pointed out, by asking yourself a series of questions. Who was murdered? Who did it? Why did they do it? Who are the other suspects? Who is the detective? Where does this take place?
It sounds like a mechanical process, but there’s a catch. You must come up with the most interesting and original answers your brain can produce. People who dismiss this kind of thing as “formula writing” overlook an important fact. The so-called formula isn’t a list of ingredients you can buy at your corner store. It’s actually a set of requirements. The “formula” only provides you with the questions. You have to come up with the answers.
I don’t know exactly when I started thinking about the mysterious planet idea. I do know when the whole book fell into place.
One night in August I went to the Gilded Cage by myself. Sara was visiting her parents in Texas and I was on my own. I had thought I could hang around the Cage in the evenings while she was gone, but marriage had changed things. We no longer went to the Gilded Cage regularly. People we knew had drifted away and we hadn’t linked up with most of the new regulars as they drifted in. We still had friends who frequented the Gilded Cage but none of them were there when I came through the door.
I sat down at a table by myself and did something I had never done before. I turned over one of the yellow sheets that contained the Gilded Cage menu and started writing notes on the back. Ideas started flowing through my head. The familiar dimly lit room became a remote background. By the time I finished filling the menu with notes I had worked out all the major events of the plot, including the ending. It took me less than an hour-- possibly only twenty minutes.
A small group of humans land on a planet that confronts them with a big mystery. What kind of future society do they come from? Why are they there?
The standard answer to the first question would be some kind of galactic empire or interstellar federation. Hack writers could pull a prefabricated version of either one off the shelf. Better writers created something original and more interesting. James Schmitz’s Agent of Vega stories took place in an interstellar federation but it was called a confederacy and it had its own unique politics and government. Poul Anderson’s galactic empire was the final stage of a long historical process and he could set stories in intermediate stages such as the interstellar trading society of his Nicolas van Rijin stories. His Dominick Flandry adventure stories gain a special, ironic flavor because they take place in a decadent galactic empire-- a dying society which his hedonistic hero defends on the grounds that it’s preferable to more puritanical up-and-coming societies.
For my future society, I started with one of Arthur C. Clarke’s pronouncements. Any interstellar travelers we encounter, Clarke had argued, are going to be peaceful. If they can build starships, they must have gone through technological stages that include nuclear weapons and other dangerous items. If they’ve survived the crises created by those developments, they’ve learned how to live together in peace.
I decided my future society would incorporate my vision of the kind of world we could create if we survived the nuclear crisis and our economic and technological progress continued at its current pace. The human life span has been extended to four hundred years and humans go through a forty-seven year educational process that guarantees they will be peaceful members of the human community. The society is so wealthy and technologically advanced that five young people in their first century of life can acquire a faster than light starship merely by requesting it. No one has to work or do anything else they don’t want to do.
For my characters’ motivation, I turned to an idea that had intrigued me ever since I read a novelette called “Brightside Crossing” by Allen Nourse, a writer who worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania Medical School writing dozens of science fiction stories, and eventually became a successful science writer. In all the science fiction stories I could remember, characters usually had military or economic motives for their adventures. “Brightside Crossing” was written at a time when we thought Mercury kept one side exposed to the sun and it tells the story of two men who attempt to traverse the entire “brightside” in tractors. The stunt has no practical value. They can’t even claim they’re researchers or explorers. They do it for the same reason people climb mountains or sail around the world alone-- for the achievement itself and the emotional satisfaction it gives them.
My space travelers would wander the galaxy merely because they could do it. “They lived in the dawn of human freedom,” I wrote at the end of the second chapter. “Masters of the star drive, citizens of a human community so wealthy it could satisfy every material desire without human labor” they “went where they wanted and did what they pleased. They followed their hearts and nothing else.”
So what is the mystery that confronts them? What is the solution?
The plot I had developed at the Gilded Cage revolved around a mysterious super race called the Borg. My young adventurers get tired of touring worlds humans have already visited. They enter an unexplored star cluster and learn the Borg are offering to answer any question anyone asks. The Borg have occupied an uninhabited planet and dispatched emissaries to intelligent races throughout the cluster. Everyone is invited to visit the Borg planet. All questions will be answered. Their emissaries are even visiting races that haven’t developed interstellar travel and offering to transport their representatives to the Borg planet.
To the humans this is a horrifying idea. Their species has just squeaked through a period in which it was almost destroyed by high-speed technological change. Humans have adopted the principle-- a common one in the science fiction of the period-- that it’s criminal to introduce advanced ideas to less advanced species. The humans go to the Borg planet where representatives from a number of different species have been given habitats, and a series of violent episodes leads to the climactic moment when the hero, Jenorden A’Ley, confronts the Borg and learns their motive.
For the humans, the heart of the mystery is the motivation of the Borg. Why would anyone do such a thing? The solution was heavily influenced by a short story by one of the leading science fiction writers of the day, “Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon. In Sturgeon’s story, the main character asks why we always imagine superbeings will have super powers, such as super intelligence or super strength. Why can’t they have super emotions? Such as super love? Or super loneliness?
The revelation of the Borg’s purpose is combined with a cosmic vision that is related to Jenorden’s main preoccupation. Jenorden is haunted by the contrast between his own limited consciousness and the immensity of a universe in which a single galaxy harbors thousands of intelligent species. It’s a feeling many of us have when we contemplate the universe revealed to us by modern cosmology, but it is normally peripheral. For Jenorden, it is one of his primary motivators.
I had theorized that you could build characters by taking one of your minor emotions and making it the central emotion of a character’s life. I believe this is the only time I’ve put that theory into practice.
There was an obvious conflict between the peaceful human society Jenorden and his friends came from and the fact that I was writing an Ace Double action story. I resolved this by assuming that my characters had a limited right to self-defense. Jenorden can fight back-- and even kill-- if he’s attacked by one or two people. He might even kill a dozen attackers. But at some point beyond that-- and not too far beyond that-- he becomes emotionally incapable of killing.
Humans have developed this psychological inhibition-- which is imbedded in their personalities by the long educational process imposed on them-- as a defense against the possibilities created by nuclear weapons. They have eliminated their psychological ability to unleash weapons of mass destruction.
As I mentioned in the last chapter, “ticking time bombs” are an important aspect of plotting. You increase the pressure on your hero by adding an element that imposes a time limit. The psychological inhibition presented me with a time bomb that started ticking every time my characters became involved in an action scene. Sooner or later, at some unknown point, they were going to reach the limit of their capacity for violence. In one of my favorite scenes in the story, Jenorden is caught in a horrific fight. At the climax of the scene, he reaches his emotional limit and does something no action hero is supposed to do. He stops fighting and starts running.
Readers who’ve scrolled through chapter three may remember that I wrote an unsuccessful story about a telepathic race called the Horta. As I noted in that installment, I had been impressed with a Poul Anderson story about the disadvantages of telepathy. Telepaths, I had decided, could easily slip into paranoia. They would be constantly receiving the thoughts and emotions of the people around them and some of the feelings they picked up would be feelings they were repressing. In their attempts to repress the forbidden thoughts, they might lash out at the sources and attempt to destroy them. The Horta were an entire race of paranoid telepaths.
During my reverie in the Gilded Cage, I had decided I couldn’t start the book with my characters arriving on the mysterious planet. I needed a good action scene for an opening hook. I decided to resurrect the Horta.
The book begins with the humans strapped into an orbit-to-ground vehicle which is preparing to attack a Horta starship that is sitting on a small island on an alien planet. The Horta are the first telepaths any humans have encountered and they are enslaving the inhabitants of the planet, an amphibious race called the Sordini. Jenorden and his friends have decided to attack the Horta ship, and save the Sordini, in a spirit of youthful bravado.
The attack fails. The Horta enter their minds and turn their deepest feelings against them. They amplify Jenorden’s cosmic angst and turn it into paralyzing despair. The humans resume their wanderings chastened by the experience and encounter the emissaries of the Borg.
I devised the scene to give the book a fast opening. My musings at the Gilded Cage eventually turned the clash with the Horta into a conclusion that gave the book an overall shape. The next to the last chapter ends with Jenorden demanding to know the Borg’s purpose. When the last chapter opens, several years have passed and the humans are preparing to leave the Borg planet and take on the Horta armed with the psychological protection they have acquired from the Borg. The chapter then works backward through the Borg’s vision of the cosmos to the final line of the book, the revelation Jenorden received when he demanded that the Borg explain themselves.
Star Trek fans will probably note that the Star Trek universe also includes two species named the Borg and the Horta. People have asked me about the coincidence but I have no idea how it happened.
The Borg received their name from one of the components of the hi-fi set we bought just after I got out of the army. Horta was derived from my memories of the Marlon Brando movie Viva Zapata, which included a Mexican dictator named General Huerta.
I started working on the book shortly after I sketched it in at the Gilded Cage. I finished the first three chapters and a long outline in October. The outline was about ten thousand words long. I had read an article in Writer’s Digest which recommended detailed outlines that long. Nowadays you will generally be told an outline should run about six to twelve pages-- and the closer to six the better.
Short outlines were pretty standard in 1963, too, according to what Terry Carr told me, but I found it easier to write long outlines. I wrote very detailed scenarios when I was planning a story, with completely choreographed fight scenes. I could put together a long outline by retyping the scenario and adding a little polishing. A short outline would have required more thought.
I got a letter from Terry about a week after I mailed him the package. He advised me he was sending it out to market and noted that it was “a strange book, Edmond Hamilton cum Theodore Sturgeon”-- Edmond Hamilton being a legendary exponent of pulp space opera who was affectionately referred to as “World Wrecker Hamilton”.
On August 28, 1963, I had interrupted work on the book to visit Washington, along with some 200,000 other people, and express my views on civil rights, racial integration, and related matters. It was the first March on Washington since the Depression and there was widespread fear it might lead to violence. It was so peaceful, in fact, that the minister at Sara’s church took the first verse of Psalm 133 as his text when he discussed the March in his sermon the following Sunday: Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.
I went to the March with my friend Jerry Dunwoody, an advertising man who played an important role in my writing career when he went into business on his own twenty years later. Sara stayed home because she was pregnant and we didn’t want to run the risk she would have another miscarriage. At one point in our wanderings on the Mall, Jerry and I ran into Dick Eney, a prominent Washington science fiction fan. Dick was wearing the badge of the Hyborean Legion-- the national organization for sword and sorcery fans named after the Hyborean Age, the mythical time in which a barbarian named Conan fought his way to the throne of the richest kingdom in his world. When I kidded Dick about the badge, he said he felt they should be represented, too.
Martin Luther King didn’t know it, but a representative of the King of Aquilonia, Conan the Cimmerian, was standing in the audience when he made his famous “I have a dream” speech.
Sara’s minister, Lacey Harwell, was a Southern liberal-- a type of person who has always had a special place in my affections. Lacey was firmly opposed to racial segregation and all the attitudes that accompanied it, but he could never forget that the people on the other side were human beings, too. For someone like him, they could never be stereotyped racists or rednecks. They were the friends and relations he had grown up with.
The church was located in West Philadelphia, near the borderline between the University of Pennsylvania campus and the remains of a black neighborhood. In September, Lacey announced that the church was starting a remedial reading tutoring program. Everyone who participated in the March on Washington had been asked to pledge that they would do something for the cause when they returned home and Lacey’s tutoring program seemed like a good way to fulfill that obligation. On a sunny Saturday in October, one week after I got Terry’s letter, I attended a training session at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, in the Philadelphia suburbs. I got back to our apartment about three in the afternoon.
Sara was standing in the living room with a smile on her face when I opened the door. We had a cedar chest located where I could see it from the door and I could see an arrangement she had set out on top of it. My eyes took in three items laid out in a little overlapping stack-- a manila envelope, a mimeographed document that was obviously a contract, and, on top of everything, one of the small manila note papers Scott Meredith employees used for stationery.
“Don bought the book,” I said. And Sara nodded.
When I look back on that moment now, I’m aware of something I took for granted at the time. As I mentioned in the first chapter of this saga, my first short story sale had left me feeling it was an unshareable experience. Most of the people you know will either overreact and be awed that you have entered the hallowed ranks of the published or wonder why you’re making such a fuss over an acceptance from a publisher like Ace Books. Very few non-writers understand the concept of a beginner’s market.
This time I didn’t feel I was having an unshareable experience. This time I had a companion who knew precisely what it meant.
So now I had to write the rest of the book. The contract contained a deadline that gave me three months to finish the job “time being of the essence.”
It was an abnormally short deadline. The industry norm for a book was probably a full year, judging by the comments I received from one or two older writers.
Ace’s payment schedule was another deviation from standard publishing practice. The standard contract paid half the advance on signing and half on completion. Ace authors received one third on signing, one third on completion, and the final third on publication. The three payments were calculated to the last penny.
Ace had deep roots in the heyday of the pulp magazines, when writers like Max Brand wrote whole novels in a weekend and the lower level magazines paid on publication, rather than on acceptance.
The impact of this real-life ticking time bomb was magnified by another opportunity that had come my way. Fredrik Pohl had added a new magazine, Worlds of Tomorrow, to the two magazines he was already editing, Galaxy and If. Fred had circulated a request for non-fiction pieces for the new magazine, Terry had sent me a copy, and I had suggested an article on the future of the city. Fred liked the idea and I now found myself committed to writing my first novel and my first magazine article with a ridiculously tight deadline looming over me. I had also agreed to devote one night a week to Lacey Harwell’s tutoring program.
If I were writing the city article today, I would probably feel I had to conduct several interviews. For Worlds of Tomorrow, I based the piece on library research and my own thoughts on the future of the city. A friend who was a librarian at Drexel University searched their catalog and presented me with a stack of books that supported different viewpoints. I plowed through half a dozen and added a book I had been planning to read-- Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The article became a survey which pitted Jane Jacob’s enthusiasm for the dense, economically diversified big city-- which I shared-- against the sprawling, automobile oriented visions of thinkers like Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can’t remember how long it took me to write the article, but I believe I did all the reading and mailed Terry a finished manuscript in about three weeks. Fred was the Principal Speaker at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference in November and he told me he was buying the article shortly after he arrived at the conference.
Like a lot of other science fiction writers, I discovered that I liked writing non-fiction. Non-fiction is a natural offshoot of a science fiction career. It's easier to write, it pays better, and the research that goes into many science fiction stories can be turned into magazine articles. During the next two years I wrote another article for Fred and solidified my credits as a beginning journalist by writing three articles for a highly satisfactory middle-level national market, the Kiwanis magazine.
Some writers have problems with the transition from the short story to the novel. My biggest problem was the need to write longer, more detailed scenes. In a short story, you can usually skip mundane details like entrances and exits and exchanges of greetings. In a novel, they’re sometimes unavoidable. I kept running into passages in which I had to develop interesting ways to handle that kind of thing. The contract called for a 50,000 word book and I had some trouble stretching the story to that length-- an ironic problem, as it turned out.
President Kennedy was assassinated while I was working on the book and his death affected the way I handled certain scenes. At one point in the story, one of the most likable alien characters is shot from ambush while she’s riding in a vehicle. I had been treating the violence in the story in a somewhat detached manner, as an exercise in plotting. When I reached that scene a couple of weeks after the assassination, I found that I had to take the violence more seriously. The story acquired darker overtones. My characters’ reactions became deeper and more realistic.
Terry had advised me I could finish the book a little late, under the circumstances, but I believe I sent him the manuscript on time. It was, at most, just one or two days late.
Would Don like the book? Would I receive my second check? Had I actually succeeded in selling my first novel?
Don liked the book, Terry informed me, but he wanted me to cut it by fifteen percent.
It was a particularly annoying request because I had struggled to get the book up to the length called for in the contract. Now, the editor was asking me to undo the very thing he had asked me to do when he had filled in the blanks in the contract form.
It wasn’t going to be an easy job either. Terry and I both agreed I couldn’t solve the problem by eliminating one or two episodes. The manuscript would have to be cut almost page by page, one or two sentences per page.
A cut like that would also call for some rewriting. You can’t cut most manuscripts merely by eliminating words. In a lot of cases, you have to bridge the gap with new words.
Nowadays cutting is almost fun. You can hop around the manuscript on your computer screen and cut and rewrite anything that catches your attention. You can even check the word count now and then and stop cutting when your word processor returns the winning number. You can click Print when you’re finished and watch your printer churn out a clean fifty thousand word manuscript in half an hour.
In the glorious days of the typewriter era-- the days when writers had to have stamina and character and iron willed determination-- extensive cutting was a much more laborious process. Words and sentences had to be lined out by hand. Pages had to be retyped. I had to keep a running total of the number of words cut on a scrap of paper.
I have no memory of the time I spent doing the cutting. I just know it got done. The revised manuscript went back to Ace and Terry eventually sent me my second check.
A couple of years after this incident, I mentioned it again when I was talking to Terry. I still couldn’t understand why it had been necessary.
The two halves of an Ace double were supposed to total ninety thousand words, Terry told me. Don had ordered two fifty thousand word books.
I had called the book I Want the Stars-- a reference to the cosmic hunger that drove Jenorden A’Ley. It was an awkward title, since the book wasn’t written in the first person, but I had slapped it on when I started my initial planning and it had still been there when I mailed in the final manuscript. Don Wollheim frequently changed titles for commercial reasons, but my creation was still operating under its original name when Terry sent me a copy of the Ace flyer that advised distributors they would soon be receiving Ace Double F‑289.
We had several paperback bookstores in center city Philadelphia in those days but none of them carried Ace Doubles. I had noted that the newsstand in the Greyhound bus station a few blocks from our apartment did sell Ace products and I trotted down there soon after the publication date listed in the flyer. And there it was-- complete with the cover by Ed Emshwiller illustrated in the flyer.
People often ask how you feel when you first see a book with your name on it. I can remember three emotions.
Many science fiction readers were put off by the pulpy atmosphere that surrounded Ace but I actually liked it. I liked knowing my book would be sold in bus stations and drug stores. It took me back to the childhood days when I bought comic books and magazines like Model Airplane News at outlets like dime stores and outdoor magazine stands.
I can also remember feeling a peculiarly eerie sensation when I looked at the illustration in the flyer and saw the book on the newsstand. When a story appears in a magazine, you’re part of a collective effort. You’re one more name on a contents page. With a book, your name is the only name.
Other than that, I mostly felt relieved. I had struggled past one more checkpoint. There had been times during the last couple of years when I had felt like I was hanging from a cliff by my fingers. Now I felt like I was trudging up a steep slope.
Don Wollheim had discussed his publishing policies during a talk he gave at a Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference. He printed up one hundred thousand copies of each Ace Double, he said, and planned on selling seventy thousand. Some books reached that goal in six months, some took five years. He kept sending them back out until the sales figures hit the target.
I Want the Stars was paired with Demon’s World by Kenneth Bulmer, a British author who was an Ace regular (which may explain why I got to be the guy who did the cutting). According to my royalty statements, the double was published July 20, 1964. By June 30, 1965, it had sold 65,300 copies. It passed the 70,000 mark by June 30, 1967 and it ultimately sold over 74,000 copies.
The standard book publishing contract gave US publishers the right to sell copies in the United States and its possessions, Canada, and the Philippines. British rights were a separate right which could be sold to a British publisher for an additional advance. Ace bought worldwide English language rights. That would normally be considered a no-no but it seemed reasonable to me, since airports were a major Ace outlet.
One of my close friends in the airline office actually saw the book on the airport racks when she got off a plane in Bangkok. We had a little fun playing around with the possibility she could have boosted my career by sending Ace a fan letter from Thailand. If she had, we decided, she would have told them it was a great book but it should have been fifteen percent longer.
Normally a first novel would be dedicated to the author’s spouse. Sara and I both agreed that I Want the Stars should be dedicated to our friend Will Jenkins, who had been the best man at our wedding. Will had been hit with a stroke a few months before I went in the Army and we felt there was a real possibility he might die before I put a second book on the stands.
The first time I saw Will, he was opening the 1955 Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference. He introduced himself by noting that he was “the wrong Will Jenkins”-- a reference to the fact that Will F. Jenkins was the real name of Murray Leinster, who had been one of the best known writers in the field for a couple of decades.
Will earned his living working as a clerk for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He had never been to college but he was one of the best-read people I’ve ever met. He could talk about a pulp writer like Frederick Faust-- who wrote under the name Max Brand-- and switch without a pause to comments on the time he saw Laurence Olivier do Oedipus Rex. Like many of us in those days, he was especially fond of Hemingway’s work.
He was one of the three close male friends I’ve had in my life. He was a thin, slightly awkward guy who wore glasses and possessed some of the reticent likeability Henry Fonda displayed on the screen. Sara and I accumulated a wonderful group of friends from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Gilded Cage, and the other focal points of our life in center city, and Will’s wry, good-natured sense of humor made him one of the funniest people in a group that did a lot of laughing. He could even keep a bunch of people laughing while he showed off his slides of his trip to Disneyland, which he visited shortly after Walt Disney opened his Anaheim Utopia. Will’s stroke had been my first confrontation with medical calamity. I was only twenty-two when it happened and I had never lost anyone.
When I went to see Will in the hospital a few days after the stroke, his mouth was twisted to one side, and his right arm was draped limply across the sheets. I found myself trapped in a common dilemma. Should I look at his distorted face and give him the impression I was staring? Should I avert my eyes and make him think he looked so bad I couldn’t look at him?
Will was bantering with the other people who were there, in spite of the trouble he had talking, but he noticed my problem. He reached up with his good hand and ran it across his mouth.
“Lon Chaney did this bit in The Mummy’s Curse,” Will joked.
It was one of the most gallant things I’ve ever seen someone do-- an example that has guided me ever since.
Will recovered most of the use of his arm. He was actually driving his little red MG sports car when he arrived at our wedding in November of 1960. Our son Christopher was born in April of 1964 and we got to share the birth and Christopher’s first months with him. In July, I gave him a copy of the book with the dedication “For Will Jenkins of Philadelphia”-- a phrasing I had chosen so it would be clear I wasn’t dedicating the book to Murray Leinster. In October, I got a phone call telling me he had died suddenly of a massive heart attack.
When people ask me to autograph I Want the Stars, I sometimes write a famous line from The Old Man and the Sea under the dedication. “Man was not meant for defeat,” the quote goes. “Man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Copyright 2007 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.
Emsh's cover illustration for I Want the Stars can be viewed online.
When I was Writing: Installment One
When I was Writing: Installment Two When I was Writing: Installment Three
When I was Writing: Installment Four When I was Writing: Installment Five
When I was Writing: Installment Six When I was Writing: Installment Seven
When I was Writing: Installment Nine
When I was Writing: Installment Ten
Grieve for a Man (complete text)
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