WHEN I WAS WRITING

 

A Literary Memoir

by

Tom Purdom

 

 

 

Installment Two: Coffeehouse Sagas

 

John von Neumann, the founder of game theory, once said he wished Princeton had a coffeehouse so he could indulge in the kind of informal social life he had enjoyed in his native Hungary. It wouldnít work, one of his American colleagues said. Americans didnít understand that kind of thing.

"Thatís easy," von Neumann said. "Weíll have some Central Europeans sit in it and show you how itís done."

A few months before I made my first sale, I started hanging around a Philadelphia coffeehouse called the Gilded Cage. Coffeehouses had become something of a fad. They had become a big part of the Greenwich Village scene and we had acquired about half a dozen in center city Philadelphia.

The Gilded Cage was an American version of the kind of coffeehouse von Neumann was talking about. It was a perfect institution for a young writer who worked at a full time job and wrote for two hours every night. Once you became a regular, you could drop in at any time and find a few people you knew.

To many people, coffeehouses were inhabited by "bohemians", "beatniks", and other strange types. Most of the people I met at the Gilded Cage were fully employed young people who lived in the neighborhood around Philadelphiaís most popular downtown park, Rittenhouse Square. Center city Philadelphia was going through the first stages of a rejuvenation that has now lasted over fifty years. Areas that had degenerated into slums were being renovated house by house and block by block. Young people were discovering city life had possibilities they couldnít find anywhere else. The friends I made at the Gilded Cage included computer programmers, graduate students, lawyers and law students, white collar workers, an industrial salesman, and a few artists and musicians.

One evening, in November of 1957, I even met a Presbyterian church worker. Her name was Sara Wescoat, she was slender, tallish, and red-haired, she came from Amarillo, Texas, and she had come to Philadelphia to edit church publications at the Presbyterian national headquarters in center city. Three years later, in November of 1960, we were married in the historic Old Pine Presbyterian church at 4th and Pine Streets. Most of the guests came from three groups: Saraís colleagues at the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, members of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and habitues of the Gilded Cage coffeehouse.

One evening, sometime after I made my first sale, a friend of mine got into a huge confrontation with another Gilded Cage regular. I didnít see the event myself. It took place in the small back room and I was sitting in the main room in front. People kept coming out and telling me about it. Apparently my friend and the other guy were really tearing into each other.

The conversational style at the Gilded Cage could get pretty personal. Sara once commented on the way people went at each other. She didnít think everybody could take it.

Freudian psychology was a big part of the intellectual zeitgeist in those days. Somebody once told me Philadelphia supported more psychoanalysts than all the British Isles. I heard a lot of talk about "insecurity" and "health". It seemed to me many people were turning a therapeutic system into a moral ideal.

My friendís argument had been a two hour verbal brawl. The comments I had heard from spectators had made me think he and his opponent had been wearing boots and capes. Suppose you turned that kind of confrontation into a formal duel?

There was a lot of writing about "automation" at that time. Many pundits believed most manufacturing would be handled by robots in the near future. I read at least one article in which somebody argued that we would reduce the work week to twenty hours in a decade or two.

It didnít work out that way in the real world, even though we have had a huge increase in manufacturing productivity, just as the automation experts predicted. According to the Economist, US manufacturing output doubled between 1970 and 2000 while manufacturing employment actually declined. Many people assume that the decline in manufacturing jobs has been caused by foreign competition. Thatís been a factor, but the biggest cause has been the increase in productivity. Output per worker has more than doubled, just as we were told it would. We havenít switched to a twenty hour week, however. There is some evidence, in fact, that many people are actually working longer hours.

There are a number of reasons why this happened and I will probably discuss the whole question of economic growth at some point in this series. The twenty-hour week seemed plausible in 1957 and the idea of mass leisure intrigued me. What would happen if most of the population had that much leisure on their hands? Work fulfills important psychological functions in our society.

I felt the behavior of the old European aristocracies could provide us with a few clues. In spite of their claims to superiority, aristocrats were really a pretty random cross-section of the population. In the eighteenth century, in France and other European countries, aristocrats became people who lived lives of almost complete leisure. What did they do with their time?

For some reason, Iíve always been interested in the history of Versailles. I read a lot of Alexander Dumas when I was young, and his picture of court life at Versailles in his books about eighteenth century France made an impression that encouraged me to read about the real history. Louis XIV had deliberately lured the aristocracy to his palace and turned potential rebels into indolent courtiers. The aristocrats had regained some of their power after he died but Versailles was still a society of idlers. What do people do when you relieve them of necessity?

One thing they do is compete for social status. They politic. They intrigue. They feud and fight duels.

In the story I was developing, status, for many people, would revolve around the ethic many of my contemporaries seemed to be deriving from psychotherapy. The person who could claim to be more psychologically secure would be a superior person. The duel would be a psychological test.

There would be just two rules, I decided. You had to answer every question you were asked. And the person who left the table first lost.

You didnít have to tell the truth when you answered a question. You could lie. But you couldnít just sit there and stonewall. You had to give your opponent something he could work with.

I had sold three stories at that point and they had all been told in the third person. For this story I switched to first person. The story would include a lot of stuff about the heroís feelings and thoughts. I felt it would be more natural if he himself talked about his feelings. It wouldnít seem like an intrusion by the author.

First person raises a problem. If the hero is talking to his contemporaries, he canít explain things that they would already know. I got around this with a trick Iíve used a couple of times since. The hero is telling the story many years after it happened. He has to fill in certain details because his younger readers may not be familiar with them.

I decided at the start that the story would follow one of the classic patterns of the dueling story. At the climax, the hero would rise above the whole idea of dueling. He would have the strength of character to ignore the feelings of the audience and withdraw from the situation.

He had to have an important secret-- something that would destroy him if it came out. I decided he would be sexually impotent. In a sexually permissive future society, he would be concealing the fact that he had never engaged in sex. As the story progressed, he would be backed into a corner by his opponentís maneuvers. He would save his personal honor by standing up and revealing his secret before his opponent forced it out of him. He leaves the duel and the girl the two men have been fighting over joins him.

 

I titled the story "Insecurity". Scott Meredith accepted it for marketing and it sold to Satellite, a short-lived magazine edited by Sam Moskowitz. The actual publication was a letdown. Sam had changed the title to "The Duel of the Insecure Man" and made all kinds of changes in the text without telling me.

I had written the story in a spare, understated style. Sam had put in all the stuff I left out. He had also added lines that distorted the viewpoint behind the story and attributed outdated attitudes to the narrator. At one point, for example, the narrator in the Satellite version says that some women felt he was living the life of an "involuntary celibate" because he was a "moral idealist"-- an absurdity in the society depicted in the story.

Iíve only had this problem twice in my whole career. Generally speaking, science fiction editors send you some kind of general request when they ask for a rewrite-- cut it by ten percent, eliminate a character, give me a new title, etc. They donít try to rewrite your stuff themselves. And why should they? If a story doesnít meet their desires, they can reject it and buy something else.

There have been science fiction editors who had a reputation for meddling. Many science fiction writers have complained about the rewriting the founding editor of Galaxy, H.L. Gold, inflicted on their work. According to some accounts, Theodore Sturgeon would actually black out critical phrases and ink in the exact same phrase above it, so Gold wouldnít have room to write in a change. Iíve had problems like that with local editors in Philadelphia but Iíve never had any serious complaints when Iíve worked with major science fiction editors.

 

"Insecurity" was the first story to appear under the Tom Purdom byline. My first three sales were bylined Thomas E. Purdom. A few years ago, in an article in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a writer argued that the middle initial is a science fiction tradition. I think you can demonstrate that the informal byline is supported by a strong tradition, too-- Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Greg Bear and (I presume) Kate Wilhelm and Connie Willis.

A writerís byline is a brand name and I think most writers make good choices. Robert A. Heinlein has a sonorous, authoritative sound that fitted Heinleinís status in the genre. Raymond D. Bradbury couldnít possibly have written The Martian Chronicles.

I switched to Tom Purdom partly because I liked the sound of it and partly because I liked Tom Godwinís stuff. Tom Godwin is mostly known for his short story "The Cold Equations" but I was more impressed by a novella about a group of people who are marooned on a hell planet. They come from a hedonistic, individualistic culture and they survive because they acquire the pioneer (and military) virtues of self-sacrifice and group loyalty.

The byline change had an unexpected drawback. When people asked me for autographs at science fiction gatherings, I would ask them what stories of mine they had read. About a third of them would tell me how much they liked "The Cold Equations". The first time I met Arthur Clarke, he, too, thought I had written "The Cold Equations". Scott Meredith even sent me a check for the reprint rights to "The Cold Equations."

 

Two other things happened around this time. I switched to a regular, commission-only relationship with Scott Meredith and I came to a conclusion about story ideas.

The first story I sent Scott Meredith after the switch was a novelette I had built around a political theme-- the need to choose the lesser evil, or some such thing. The agency returned it to me-- an inauspicious beginning to our new relationship-- and I knew they were right. The story was lifeless. It had been hard to write, too.

I decided that themes werenít story ideas. You had a story idea when your brain handed you a dramatic situation that really gripped you.

Somerset Maugham once argued that critics assume writers start with a theme and invent some characters to illustrate it. It had been his experience, he said, that writers started with some characters and the theme grew out of their actions. You can apply the same argument to dramatic situations.

A good dramatic situation will attract themes. If you have any kind of a brain, you will have thoughts about life that will fit that particular situation. But you have to start with the situation. Fiction is about specific people doing specific things. You donít have the material for a good story until you have some good specifics.

 

One of the people who hung around the Gilded Cage was an older man who owned a music store. One evening he told me I should write a story about a love school. It was a classic subject, he said. What would a school for love be like?

The idea fitted into my vision of a highly leisured future society modeled on Versailles and other aristocratic cultures. Eighteenth century aristocrats spent some of their leisure discussing the complexities of the heart. The long, convoluted sentences they used may look funny to us, but they sometimes reflected more of the complexities of human feelings than the terser, half-understood semi-medical jargon many of the people I knew threw around.

The other big influence on my next story was an event my friend Harold Lynch organized for the 1958 Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference. Harold called it a "showdown" and it was supposed to be a form of dueling that would become popular in the future. Half a dozen of us stepped onto the stage, dressed in various costumey ways, and started assaulting each other with little rubber guns that fired ping-pong balls.

In the story, I changed the ping-pong guns to a science fiction clichť-- stun guns. I didnít have the slightest idea how the guns would work. I think I thought of them as some kind of radiation weapon. SF writers used stun guns all the time. I could assume my readers would simply accept them.

In later years, I took the concept of non-lethal weapons more seriously and came up with two different mechanisms, Oddly enough, the clichť radiation stun gun may yet become a reality. According to New Scientist, an Indiana company is working on a version that combines a laser beam with electric shock. The laser creates a narrow tube of ionized air and the electric charge travels down the temporary path the laser has created.

This was the second time I had injected some form of dueling into a story. A number of science fiction writers have included dueling in their visions of the future. Itís dramatic and writers can always invent futures in which the custom has been revived. (It may even be plausible. In his recent history of swordmanship, By the Sword, Richard Cohen says German students may still be engaging in clandestine face-scarring duels.) Iíve always found the subject personally fascinating and had read several books on the history of dueling-- the kind of reading project I tend to take on every now and then.

I had opted for a turtleneck and a black beret when I participated in Haroldís showdown, so the hero became a young man named Frenchie Wald. The love school in the story became a combination of psychotherapy, personal advice, and personally tailored exercises.

As I remember it, I made several attempts to make this story work. The showdown was a big help when I realized I could use it. It gave me a bang-bang action opening and it externalized the heroís inner conflict.

The story revolves around an emotional paradox. Frenchie is a young man who is committed to the pursuit of excellence. He enrolls in the love school because he wants to be really good at loving, in the same way he wants to be good at everything else. "Everything I do, I do well," he tells the reader. After two semesters, he has learned that to be really loving he has to be less competitive. He has responded by selling his stun gun and leaving his showdown gang. He has also abandoned his pursuit of a very attractive young woman. He has learned from the school that she was merely a trophy he was trying to wear on his arm.

When the story opens, Frenchie is watching his showdown gang, the Golden Horn Irregulars, go down to defeat. He is involved with a young woman with whom he feels he can have a truly loving relationship but the young woman isnít happy. Their relationship is cooling.

The plot of the story involved Frenchieís efforts to improve things. The climax comes when he is challenged to a really tough showdown and realizes Sandy wants him to fight. She needs a high status lover who can help her bolster her own self-image. Frenchie stands there with his thoughts whirling in circles. He isnít supposed to showdown or compete because heís trying to learn how to love. He knows he will accept any excuse to compete and may be rationalizing. But Sandy needs the prestige and status he has been trying to do without. The whole thing is too much for him, he tells the reader. The only solid thing he could see was Sandy and her needsÖ.

If my memories are correct, I tried to write the story in the third person and kept getting stuck. It didnít fall into place until I switched to first person. Like "Insecurity", the story revolves around the heroís analysis of his feelings. The description of the self-analysis seems more natural when itís done by the character himself.

 

Scott Meredith accepted the story for marketing and sold it to Amazing. It was a very satisfying sale. I thought it was a good, solid story and Amazing was a good market. Amazing had been the first science fiction magazine when it appeared on the stands in 1926.  It was the magazine that turned science fiction into a distinct genre, with its own specialized magazines. It had been converted to a digest sized magazine-- the mark of quality in those days-- and it was surviving the shakeout that had followed the big boom of the early 50ís. Under the editorship of Cele Goldsmith, it was publishing some very respectable science fiction.

The story was also a personal landmark. Writerís Digest had published an article by a writer who had discussed his first sales. He had thought he would sell everything he wrote after he made his first sale, the writer said, but he had discovered the second sale was almost as hard as the first. He hadnít started to sell consistently until he had made his fifth sale.

I had remembered that and decided my fifth sale was my next important goal. I was beginning to feel I really was a writer. I wasnít a full time writer or a "professional writer", but I felt I had demonstrated that I could sit down at the typewriter with some confidence I was writing words that would eventually appear in print.

 

I didnít normally read Time magazine but I bought a copy one week because the cover story was an article on Harry Bellafonte, who was going through a peak period as an actor and calypso singer. At some point in the article, it mentioned that Bellafonte had achieved the ultimate contemporary status symbol-- regular sessions with a psychotherapist.

The paragraph triggered a story idea as soon as I read it. I lowered the magazine and contemplated a world in which psychotherapists really could change almost any aspect of a personís personality, but their services were so expensive they could only be used by very successful people. Suppose you were a sadist, for example. Suppose you wanted to be healthy and whole but you could only raise the money by doing something that would hurt other people-- by actually fulfilling the desire you wanted to destroy. The heart of the story, as I saw it, would be a man who could only achieve his aims by cooperating with the very evil he was trying to destroy.

I knew it was a great idea as soon as I got it. I knew it could be compressed into a relatively short length-- about 3500 words. It would be a tight, savage little story.  (I was seeing Sara almost every night by then and she laughed when I told her Iíd just had a great idea for a story and used those very words, tight and savage. She claimed I actually rubbed my hands when I said it.)

I had left Aero Service-- I had been fired, in fact-- and I was now working as an airline reservation agent, a job that seemed to attract people who had a year or two of college and didnít quite fit the contemporary job market. I plotted the story in between phone calls over the next couple of days. It fell into place with very little effort on my part.

Recent research had established that the brain had pleasure centers that could be stimulated electrically. There had been some well publicized rats who ignored food and water while they compulsively worked a lever that activated a wire connected to their pleasure centers. I decided my hero would work in a section of my future Philadelphia called the Carnival. He would operate a booth that sold sessions with a device that stimulated the human pleasure centers. He got a commission every time he got someone to use the device. If they became addicted, he got a percentage of all their future sessions.

I called the device "the huxley". Aldous Huxley had been writing books about his experiences with drugs and his Brave New World had featured a drug called soma that had the same effects as my electrical contraption.

The heart of the story would be the heroís seduction of a woman customer. He knows she is a potential addict and he has to maneuver to get her to try the huxley. The climax I came up with was a twist. His relief has discovered he is holding down two jobs-- a crime in my twenty-hour work week society. The relief demands a part of his future earnings, they have a brief pointless fight, and the heroís quest receives a setback.

I think I got the title, "The Holy Grail", pretty early. It refers to the heroís image of himself as a cured, fully healthy human. I thought the image of the glowing, golden cup fitted the mood of the story. In my mind, the story and its setting had a colorful, Baroque quality.

The story begins just after the sadist has beaten his wife. I was particularly pleased with the opening paragraph:

Morgan Valentine had a wife. She lay on the floor with blood running out of her mouth.

I thought it was the best opening I had come up with. I showed the story to someone who asked me about it, a little after it appeared in print, and they actually let out a gasp and nearly dropped the book.

Writers normally work with invisible audiences. I had seen someone react to something I had written exactly as I had hoped they would.

 

Scott Meredith accepted the story for marketing and sent me a comment from H.L. Gold. "I would like to buy a lot from Purdom," Gold had written, "because when heís good, heís very, very good." Unfortunately, he also thought I had "a bitter cast of mind" which had dominated this particular story.

I still hadnít sold anything to Galaxy so I was certainly pleased with the first part of Goldís comment. A few weeks later I received another note telling me the agency had sold "The Holy Grail" to Frederik Pohl, for publication in his Star Science Fiction series.

Star was the first original anthology series-- the forerunner of series such as Terry Carrís Universe anthologies and Damon Knightís Orbit. Each number contained original stories, just like a magazine, but it was a paperback book and it came out about twice a year. It paid the same rates as the top science fiction magazines, it was published by Ballantine, which was then the most prestigious publisher in the field, and Frederik Pohl only bought about twenty stories a year. It was the best sale I had made up to that date-- my first sale to the upper level of the genre.

I got the letter on a Saturday. I happened to know Sara was working so I hurried over to her office. She was so pleased with the news she insisted we had to show the letter to the other Presbyterian editors who were working on Saturday. They all seemed to enjoy hearing that Saraís boyfriend had sold the Holy Grail.

 

Somewhere around this time Sara and I both became confirmed city people. I had started living in Philadelphia when I dropped out of college because my parents had moved to the Philadelphia suburbs after my father retired from the Navy for the second time, at the end of the Korean conflict. I could have settled in New York or some other major city, but Philadelphia was there, right at the end of the commuter railway tracks, and I had moved into center city without giving the matter much thought. At a time when most young Americans were creating a way of life based in the suburbs, I was discovering the pleasures and efficiencies of the big city.

We liked hanging around the Gilded Cage. We liked going to the Philadelphia Orchestra. We took in traveling Broadway shows like Líil Abner. The Old Vic came to town (itís now the Royal Shakespeare Company) and we saw all three productions: Henry V, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. We had good times eating in restaurants with our friends and more good times when people dropped by the little three story brick rowhouse Sara shared with her roommate. A cop banged a black guy on the head outside their door and Saraís roommate called the American Civil Liberties Union and got us acquainted with the director of the ACLU, a very interesting guy whom I still see now and then at concerts. You could do all this, furthermore-- and a lot more-- merely by walking from place to place. Almost everything that interested us could be found just a few blocks from our houses and apartments. I walked back and forth to work on weekdays, walked to Saraís office after I finished my nightly writing stint (she liked to start work late and work in the evening), and walked back to her place with her.

Iíve written other stories set in Philadelphia. Iíve also written about unnamed cities that were based on Philadelphia. But center city Philadelphia has also influenced my vision of lunar cities, asteroid habitats, and long-duration star ships. Center city has taught me people can live interesting, pleasant lives in places where lots of people and things are crammed into a small area.

Laurence Janifer was a New York science fiction writer. He and I once got into a mild city-vs.-suburb debate with a suburbanite who assailed us with the ultimate suburbanite argument and reminded us of his intimate, day to day contact with grass and trees.

"I donít write stories about conflicts among trees," Janifer said.

 

"Excellence" appeared in the October, 1959 Amazing. At the 1959 Philcon, Harold Lynch reminded the audience of the showdown he had put on the previous year and read the opening of my story. I wasnít there to read it myself. In June, I had been informed that the United States Army had finally decided it needed my services. I had advised Scott Meredith of this change in my circumstances and they had assured me typewriters were common items on military posts and many of their clients had continued their careers while they were in the army.

On July 14 (Bastille Day, as my friends enjoyed pointing out), I reported to the induction center on North Broad Street. A sergeant arranged us in a formation in a side room while a captain lounged in a corner.

The sergeant had a loud, slightly singsong voice. "If you wish to accept induction at this time," the sergeant intoned, "say ĎHere, sirí and take one step forward. If you do not wish to accept induction, say ĎHere, Sirí and remain in place. I must advise you that if you do not accept induction you are subject to five and ten-- five years imprisonment and a ten thousand dollar fine."

The sergeant called out our names and we all said "Here, sir," and took one step forward.

"See how easy it is to get a job with the government," the captain said.

 

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Copyright 2005 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

When I was Writing: Installment One 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 Eight

When I was Writing: Installment Nine

When I was Writing: Installment Ten

Grieve for a Man (complete text)


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