Two months ago, Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg met in San Francisco for an epic conversation that spanned nearly every topic imaginable…and far more. Mulholland Books has transcribed the dialogue between these two masters of storytelling and will present it to you in two parts.
Lawrence Block: How did a nice fellow like you get into this business?
Robert Silverberg: When I went to college, I went to Columbia. I lived in Brooklyn and my first year at Columbia, I had to commute to Upper Manhattan to get to college and I saw working people on the subway with me, riding, riding, riding. And I thought if I get into this business, I can stay home when I work. I don’t have to do that.
LB: That does incentivize a person, you know.
RS: And I’ve never worked for anyone else. I worked at home as a professional writer for the last (When did I graduate? 1956) for the last 54 1/2 years and that’s because I didn’t want to be riding the subway. What’s your excuse?
LB: Well, I had the good sense to get tossed out of college, so I didn’t have anything to fall back on. And you know, that’s just as well. Because there were some times when if I had had something to fall back on, I would have.
RS: What college did you get tossed out of?
RS: Oh, very classy.
LB: It’s tough to get tossed out of Antioch.
RS: It’s one of the best to get tossed out of.
LB: What happened was I went down there for two years. And after the second year, they have a work study program there and instead of taking one of the jobs that the school had on offer for that semester, that term I went off and found a job. And the job I found was at Scott Meredith.
RS: You better explain. Tell them who Scott Meredith-
LB: He was a literary agent. Well—
RS: My literary agent.
LB: A sort of literary agent. Um-
RS: He wasn’t very literary, but he sure was an agent.
LB: Yes, yes, he had that part covered. And I got a job there as an editor and my job was to read the manuscripts submitted by hopeful writers who paid a fee to have their manuscript read by Scott personally and get a response from him. And I would write the letter and it would be one-and-a-half single-spaced pages, a long letter they got for their money, and it would come with their manuscript, which was returned, and it would say, essentially, “There were things wrong with this story which cannot be fixed because it is the plot that is at fault, but you are actually a superb writer and we hope you’ll be sending future stories to us, each, of course, accompanied by a fee.” And it was the best school for a young writer that there could possibly be. You can’t learn that much by reading wonderful work. You can learn a tremendous amount by reading things that don’t work. So it was a great education. Aside from that the only honest work I’ve ever done was a couple of years later when I took an editorial job in Wisconsin because I had had a falling out with Scott and a lot my markets suddenly were closed to me.
RS: He did control a lot of markets.
LB: Indeed. But you started out writing science fiction from the very beginning?
RS: Yes, I read science fiction when I was a little boy and I thought, “That can’t be hard to do.” And I was right. Although it took a while. I did get a lot of stories sent back between the ages of 13 and 17 by the editors until they realized I was not a demented adult, I was, in fact, an adolescent and then they started sending me nice letters saying, “Well, if you did this and this, it might be more effective.” And they were right. You know, I maligned Scott when I said he wasn’t literary. Do you know how Scott got his name?
LB: I have heard a couple variations on this.
RS: Well, he was, I wouldn’t say christened, but came into the world as Sidney Feldman. And his name is drawn from Walter Scott and George Meredith. So certainly he was a literary agent.
LB: Yes, yes, you can see his roots run deep.
RS: Scott ran a kind of factory. He had hundreds of clients and his theory was that a thousand writers getting a thousand dollars apiece for their novels might be easier to attain than say ten writers getting a hundred thousand dollars for their novels (because a hundred thousand was a lot of money back then) and it came to the same amount in commission income. Now you might say it came to extra work for the agency, but he (gestures to Lawrence Block) was doing the work, not Scott. And I came in there in 1955 as one of his mass production writers. And they encouraged this and I thought this works very well for him, for me. And so, I was one of the few who never went to work for him. Because-
LB: You didn’t need to.
RS: No, I was still in college in 1955 and I was selling a story a week. Somebody would call up, a guy named Larry Janifer would call up.
LB: Oh yes.
RS: He later became Larry Harrison.
LB: No, he was Larry Harris, he became Janifer later.
RS: Everybody changed his name at Scott Meredith, including Scott Meredith.
LB: Well, you know, Scott, as you said, started off as Sidney. He took the name Scott Meredith when he opened the agency and he hired his brother, whose name we’re not certain what it was, but his brother had become Sidney Meredith. So that if someone met him and said, “Aren’t you Sidney?” He could say, “No, that’s my brother.” And then many years later, Sid retired and he went to Florida and he didn’t like it and he came back and he had lunch with Scott. And he said, “You know, I’m sick of being retired, I want to go back into business.” And Scott said, “Well, what business are you going to go into?” And Sid, who had always been the office manager and the behind-the-scenes guy, said, “I think I’m going to go into business as a literary agent.” Scott said, “Well, you could do that if you want, but if you use the Meredith name, I’ll sue you.” So the son of a bitch gave his brother a name and wouldn’t let him use it.
RS: I didn’t know Sidney retired. I had moved to California by then. Who did Scott go to the bathroom with? The brothers always went to the washroom together.
LB: And also Sid was very useful because when someone wanted something from Scott, like an advance or anything of that sort, he would say, “Wait a minute. I’ll check with Sid.” And then he would go around the corner, wind his watch, come back and say, “I’m sorry, Sid says no.”
RS: He was my agent for 27 years and I have no complaints about Scott. He treated me well; I treated him well. And then I left and got a different agent. And he got very angry.
LB: I’ll bet.
RS: He thought that was a real betrayal that after 27 years I would go away.
LB: How come you left?
RS: I had stopped writing for awhile. I was in my forties, doing what happens to people in their forties, so I stopped. And when I came back, I thought, “It’s time to quit this mass production stuff. Get a different agent.” Stephen King’s agent, as a matter of fact. And I told Scott, not “You’re the kind of agent who encourages a writer to write as fast he can regardless of the consequences.” No, I said, “I’m having a mid-life crisis, Scott, and I’m changing everything and one of the things I’m changing is my agent.” Which was almost the truth, but not really. And he was famous for retaining his rights to everything you wrote. He was so angry at me that he just threw it all back at me. Said, “Alright, take everything!” Which was fine. He was not a good agent, but he was the right agent for the “eager beaver” kid that I was back there in the 50s.
LB: For what you would be writing anyway. You and I both wrote “mid-century erotica”. (That’s the name I’ve decided I prefer). I felt when someone described the early books of mine as “erotica,” I thought, “That’s wonderful! I really like that.” And I felt like that character in Moliere—
LB: -the French writer, who discovers at one point that all his life, he’d been speaking prose. He hadn’t known that and he felt really good about himself. You know, and I felt that way about that. And I wrote that because it was easy and it came naturally to me and I was like 18, 19, at the time when I started doing this. And I was writing erotica and it really flew in the face of “write about what you know.” I must admit that. And I think I stayed too long at the fair, you know. It was a good apprenticeship and there was a time to stop. I probably went on a little longer than I should have. But, you know, that was never the agency that was going to encourage you to take chances and extend yourself and take a little more time and do a little better book.
RS: You know I was the writer who brought the erotica to the agency. A friend of mine named Harlan Ellison went to work for the publisher out in Chicago, Bill Hamling. And I had been writing a few of these things, we didn’t call them “erotica” then (I didn’t know I was writing erotica either). We called them “sex novels.” The theory was that you found two protagonists of opposite sex and you got them into a conflict laden situation and you kept them jumping in and out of bed for 220 pages or so and you passed Go and got a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars back then was 10 or 15 thousand in today’s purchasing power. And if you could knock out one of those a week, you got rich.
LB: I didn’t do as many as you. You were the most extraordinarily productive writer I’ve ever known.
RS: I did a hundred fifty of them and I did them in six days. Anyway, Harlan called me, I’d been writing these, and he said, “Bill,”- Bill was a science fiction publisher- “Bill said the science fiction magazine is dying, he wants to do something else. What about these sex novels? Can you write one a month for us?” I said, “Yeah.” “Okay, 600 dollars.” “How about eight?” “Yeah.” This is bargaining. So I agreed to write one a month and I did. This is 1959. And I put these things out and they sold faster than he could print them. It was staggering quantities.
LB: They were marking them up in the stores in Times Square too. They had a cover price of 50 cents and they were selling them for 75 cents or a dollar.
RS: Big, big money. And then he came back to me, Harlan, and said, “Can you do two of them? A thousand dollars. Two thousand dollars a month.” In 1960, I’m now 25 years old and I’m making two thousand dollars a month from this one market. I’m also writing the science fiction still. And that is, two thousand a month, that’s about a quarter of a million a year in today’s purchasing power. Why not write them? It was stupid not to write them. And Scott said, “What is this stuff you’re writing?” And I told him. And he said, “Can I get in on that?” And I said, “Sure. Call Bill Hamling.” And he took over the whole thing.
LB: He sure did. He only took 10% of what the writer got, but he also took some sort of consulting fee, which was about equal to what the writer got per book as compensation for having the simplest marketing job in the world. Of course, the writers didn’t know that he was double dipping.
RS: I didn’t find this out until last year.
LB: Yeah, I found it out a few years ago, but it was fairly recent.
RS: But, I didn’t care because eventually my price got up to twelve hundred a book.
LB: Yeah, that’s what mine got to.
RS: I wrote them in six days. 1961, I bought Fiorello LaGuardia’s mansion in Riverdale on the proceeds of this stuff that I was writing.
LB: LaGuardia would have been so proud.
RS: Well, instead of reading the comics of the morning, he would have-
LB: Yes, that’s right. The people really would have loved it.
RS: But after five or six years of it, I’d had about enough. And once I’d made a ton of money, I stopped. And then the FBI came around. Did the FBI ever come to you?
LB: No, not yet. They probably will tomorrow.
RS: Well, the publisher, Hamling, got in trouble. He was indicted in Houston for publishing pornography. Later on you will have the opportunity to buy Campus Tramp by Professor Block or Gang Girl by me. And you’ll see what this stuff was. It was really tame. You will not find a single obscene word. The things that seven-year-old kids say in the street you will not find in our books. As for the “erotica,” old euphemisms- -the official euphemisms changed at one point. “’Do it!’ she cried.” Isn’t that provocative? Word came from Chicago, “’It’ is now a forbidden vulgarism.” “That” was the key word. It must be “that.”
LB: Did you have to change “Do it!” to “Do that!”?
RS: No, they had to change it. But I was told, “don’t use ‘it,’ use ‘that.’” Well, I was their star writer. I wasn’t going to take any crap like that.
LB: What do these bastards in Chicago know about art?
RS: I sent in a manuscript in which “it” was every other word. “’Do it!,’ she cried. ‘It, it, more it!’” I think that finished that. But anyway, I have not forgotten, master craftsman that I am, that this is my FBI story that I’m telling. Around the time when “Do it” became a vulgarism, Hamling got indicted for publishing pornography. Imagine “it” is a forbidden word in Houston. And the FBI came around to my house, my Fiorello La Guardia house, to talk to me because somehow they had linked me to those books. I also wrote children’s books at that time. You may say this was schizo. I say it was professional. I wrote books on science and whatnot. Some may still be on the shelves today. When the FBI, two gentlemen in suits and ties came in, I had a little stack of my children’s books on the table in the living room. And they said, “Mr. Silverberg, we understand you’re a writer.” I said, “Yes, yes, that’s true. Here are some of my latest books.” I showed them a little book, The History of Physics for 10 year olds. Stuff like that. And they looked with great interest. And then they said, “Have you ever heard of a company called Reed Enterprises?” Well, Reed Enterprises was one of the dummy corporations through which the checks to the writers came. Scott did not want to touch the checks. He got his commission and I guess his consulting fee as a separate check and the writers got them straight from Chicago.
LB: I never did. I got them always from Scott, but he set up a dummy corporation of his own that he dispensed them through.
RS: Well, I got mine that way. But I didn’t get mine from Reed Enterprises. I got mine from Blake Pharmaceutical Corporation.
LB: Because the books were used only for prevention of disease.
RS: The FBI fellow said, “Have you ever dealt with Reed Enterprises?” And I, who do not tell lies, said, “No sir, never heard of them.” I hadn’t. And they looked at my children’s books for awhile and then they went away, baffled and bewildered. That was my FBI experience. But eventually, I really got sick of them after writing 150 of them. We didn’t have computers in those days. We had (well, I see a lot of gray hair out there), we had thick old typewriters. Well, this involved a lot of pounding away. I would do 36 pages a day. That was my skill.
LB: That’s tiring. The fingers start to hurt.
RS: The typewriter makes a lot of noise. Had we had computers, somebody would have said, “Silverberg, there’s something called a macro. You can push one key and a whole scene will be plugged in, saying, “he stared at her gorgeous body and placed his hands on the pendulous alabaster globes of her breasts.” Well, we didn’t have that then, so I had to type every word.
LB: He’s still got it, folks. The man has still got it.
RS: I got tired of doing all the typing. So, around 1966, I quit. The funny thing is that I’ve now lived another 45 years and now these things are sought by collectors. A man just waved two of them at me. And they’re being republished. This hack work that Larry and I in our very adolescent days knocked out, not just to pay the rent, I bought a mansion with mine, is now being printed in large sleek trade paperback editions.
LB: A lot of mine are being made available as eBooks. But I have a somewhat different story. I did not write as many or as rapidly as Robert did. I wrote somewhat as rapidly. I could do a book in five days, but I couldn’t do three of them a month. Not anything like that. Nor did I seem much inclined to. At one point, I was up to two books a month for Hamling at $1200 a book. And two books a month was too much, especially since I really had ambitions to do other stuff. And throughout I was doing other stuff.
RS: I heard you wrote some mystery stories too.
LB: Now and then. And so, a friend of mine, Don Westlake, had a friend who had gone to school with him at Harper, who was unloading trucks in a warehouse in Syracuse. And he said, “The guy is a pretty good writer; maybe he could ghost the books.” So we brought him to New York and I felt at the time that anybody with an opposable thumb could do it. (You needed that for the space bar. That’s why the chimps were just out of it.) I thought that that might work. And we taught Bill how to write one of these books. He was doing one a month. I was doing one a month. And it was under my name and I was getting a couple of hundred dollars off the top. And a variety of people did that for awhile. So I was a capitalist swine.
RS: An entrepreneur!
LB: Yes, an entrepreneur. That’s better. An entrepreneur of mid-century erotica! I do prefer that. And one reason that I tended to disown the books in recent years until I decided to Hell with it was that I could handle the idea of having to be associated with the books that I wrote, but being tarred with the brush of the books that I hadn’t written, I really didn’t want. This fellow Bill Coons—at one point, I wrote a couple of chapters of a book. I started one of the books. I didn’t like the way it was going and I was really, really sick of it. So I called Bill and I said, “How would you like to collaborate on a book? I’ve done so much. You do the next chunk. And we’ll go through and it will be an extra book that month. And we’ll split it.” And he was delighted. So I brought the stuff to him and he put the two chapters on the shelf. And then I guess we probably went out and got drunk. Then he came home and his wife had read the two chapters. This was the portion that I had told him was really lousy and I couldn’t stand, but maybe he could make something out of it. She said, “I really think you’re getting better. This is by far the best thing of yours I’ve ever read.” The marriage failed.
RS: I farmed one out to Jerry Mundis, a friend of ours. I forget why. And for decades, I forgot which one it was. I knew he had written one. These all had similar titles. I didn’t even bother titling mine.
LB: No, after a while neither did I.
RS: You sent it in. They had a formula. It was either “Sin Quest,” “Passion Quest,” “Lust Quest,” “Sin Seeker,” “Lust Seeker,” “Passion Seeker.”
LB: Yeah, “lust” was in an awful lot of the titles.
RS: So sometimes I would send it in just called “Quest” to see what would happen. Sometimes, I didn’t put a title on. I had another friend who sent his all in with the title “David Copperfield.” Never happened. They always changed the title. Anyway, decades later, I have a row of these books. 150 from one publisher makes quite an impressive array. I pulled one off the shelf, wondering what the hell is this one about. And I opened it and read about three paragraphs. I know what my style is like. I’ve written a lot of books. I know what I sound like. This doesn’t sound like me. And I thought, “This must be the one Mundis wrote.” I know which one it is, but I’ve never told.
LB: I had a funny thing, the other day in Orange in Southern California. Lynn Munroe came to a signing and he brought two copies of a magazine. Dapper magazine from 1957. And he said “There is a story of yours in here. I brought two copies because I thought you might not have this because you haven’t published this story anywhere.” And I’ve published all of my early first stories I’ve collected one way or another. And I looked at it and I didn’t think I’d written it. I didn’t remember the title or the story. It was very big as life with my byline on it. And I thought, “I don’t think this is mine.” Because one thing I certainly knew was that I’d never sold anything to Dapper . I’d never seen a copy of Dapper. And I sure as Hell did not get paid by anything called “Dapper.” He said, “Well, take it and you can see.” And I took it back to the hotel and that night I had a chance to read it carefully. And it’s my story. The same as you said. You can tell certain things. More to the point, you can tell the ones you haven’t written. There wasn’t a line in there that couldn’t have been mine. And there were certain things that felt like my phrasing. And there was a twist at the end that rang a sort of muted bell. And I must have written this at some time or another. It was probably still in Scott Meredith’s files when I parted company with them. It would have been several years later when they did sell it to Dapper, and Dapper paid Scott, and I think that’s where it stayed.
RS: No, they might have paid it and never told you who they sold it to.
LB: No. There were no checks that kept coming in.
RS: One of the delightful things about having careers as long as ours have been. We both have 50 years or more behind us now: reading your own stuff as though for the first time. Because it’s so far away that you do recognize your own turn of phrase, but not the story itself.
LB: Sometimes you can forget the story. I can’t recall another time when I did not recollect the story.
RS: I’ve been reading a lot of my own stuff lately. Larry, you wrote one science fiction story?
LB: I wrote one or two depending on how you count.
RS: My crime fiction career is analogous to this. But I did write some back there in the 50s. And Charles Ardai, who runs a nice paperback outfit which is resuscitating stuff of that period, found something of mine that I had forgotten. He said, “I’ll reprint this if you want me to.” I said, “Let me read it.” And it was something I’d written in 1960 for a crime magazine called Tightrope, which lasted four issues. It was a spin-off of some TV show that lasted four weeks. And I read the Tightrope novel. “Jeez! This is exciting!” And I wondered, “How is he going to get out of this fix?” And I sat there on the edge of my seat, reading my own story, which I had completely forgotten. I remembered writing something for Tightrope. And my ledger said, “Yeah, you got 800 dollars for it.” But every twist and turn of the story was new to me. If you live long enough, that can happen to you.
LB: And if you live long enough, you can meet a new batch of people every day. I haven’t lived quite that long. A couple of times when I’ve read older stuff that I thought I remembered just fine, there will be a bit of funny repartee in there and I sit there very immodestly laughing at my own jokes.
RS: “That’s good, Block. Yeah, how did you ever think of that?” Yeah, I know the feeling.
Come back on Thursday for Part II.