Harry Harrison – The Octocon Interview

Octocon, The Royal Marine Hotel, Sunday 13th October 2001

 

Links to the audio files of this interview are here.

Introductions

Paul Tomlinson: Hi everybody, thanks for coming along. This panel is called “Harry Harrison at Fifty…”

Harry Harrison: … I’m really fifty-one!

PT: … not because Harry has just celebrated his fiftieth birthday: youthful as he is, he’s a little bit older than that…

HH: [Sounds of a doddering old man]

PT: But because this year he celebrates fifty years as a professional, published science fiction writer. My name’s Paul Tomlinson, and the reason I’m sitting up here next to Harry is because I’m one of the two people behind the Harry Harrison website, which we launched here at Octocon almost exactly two years ago. So we’re celebrating that as well, and anything else we can think of.

HH: Don’t forget that Paul’s also done my bibliography which is ‘about to be published’ every week now!

PT: It’s been ‘very nearly’ for about ten years now. We have another publisher now, and it’s coming out this year sometime.

Harry really needs no introduction, but I’m going to do one anyway. Seeing as we’re looking back over fifty years, I thought it might be worth saying a little bit… He published his first science fiction short story in February 1951, it was called ‘Rock Diver,’ that’s exactly fifty years ago this year. A few years later he wrote a story for John W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine featuring a character some of you have probably heard of, it was called ‘The Stainless Steel Rat.’ Soon after that he did his first serial for Astounding, which was the original Deathworld novel, and since then he’s written something like fifty novels, a hundred short stories or more, and edited something like fifty anthologies. He’s also written and edited a number of non-fiction works including an illustrated history of sex in science fiction called Great Balls of Fire, which is definitely worth looking out if you can find a copy.

HH: You’ll laugh and cry…

PT: Yep, there’s stuff in there I never knew about! It was a big part of my growing up, reading that.

HH: May I start with that?

PT: Yeah, please start with that…

 

Sex in SF Illustration

HH: A mad publisher called Phil Dunn in England was originating books, and he knew my background as an artist and he said: There’s sex in science
fiction illustration, but it’s always subliminal in the pulp magazines… and I thought about it and said: Yeah, you’re right. He said: Why don’t you
do a book about it, sex in science fiction illustration, and call it Great Balls of Fire! How can you refuse an offer like that?

[Audience laughter]

I was living in Dalkey at the time, or maybe Avoca, and I used to do a lot of research at the British Library, which was very good but very slow. And then I discovered that every publisher has to send a copy of every book published to the British Library, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Trinity. And it’s great because there’s hardly anyone doing any research there. I went down there and I’d read a book many years ago that I knew I had to get hold of, called Psychopathia Sexualis by Krafft-Ebing, this horrible old mad Swiss who did research into symbolism, sexual depravation, and laying off sexual drives through mad fetishism… there was one mad glove fetishist who so loved gloves that he wore this great overcoat and when he opened it up he was nude underneath and he had about eighty pairs of leather gloves in there! He actually walked down the street with gloves on him. And if you ever wondered where the rubber fetish comes from… he’d got all these things there…

So I decided I had to get hold of a copy, and I went to the shelves in Trinity for whatever the Dewey number is for sex books, and there was a big gap there! I thought they must be changing the shelves, re-ordering them or something… I went up to the guy at the desk and said: I’m looking for a copy of Psychopathia Sexualis but it’s not on the shelves, do you have it back in the stacks? He said: No, no it’s here… [Mimes reaching under the counter and retrieving the book.] I said: Who gets to look at them? Undergraduates can’t? You have to have grey hair? He said: I can’t talk to you about that!

It’s great stuff. If you start looking at science fiction illustration, some of it’s pretty obvious – there was a cover of Galaxy of a great big statue carved on a planet, with a guy in a spacesuit looking up at it, of a woman sitting in a chair holding a great big rocket ship in her lap: it doesn’t take Krafft-Ebing to figure that one out! And I found torture and all kind of things in them. Get a copy of the book, you’ll really like it if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sorry, Paul, I couldn’t resist…

PT: It’s one of my favourite books, so there you go.

HH: You can read it in the bathroom.

Joan Harrison: Mention who did the art…

PT: Jim Burns did the cover art, which has got the most phallic phallic spaceship ever

What else can I say about Harry Harrison? He’s one of the biggest-selling authors in Russia…

HH: The biggest.

PT: The biggest, sorry… And his books have been translated into thirty-odd languages at the last count, including Esperanto. His books have been adapted into comics, computer games, radio plays, and his novel Make Room! Make Room! formed the basis of the movie Soylent Green, a classic movie… probably.

 

Aztec Poetry

HH: A new adaptation which I just got through e-mail the other day, some mad man in an American university has a graduate degree in composing, and he’s written a musical piece based on the poetry from Captive Universe in Nahuatl language, which I thought was pretty exotic. And my translation, which wasn’t from the Nuhuatl language, it was from a Spanish translation… but I’m trying to get a recording of that, I mean of all the exotic things to have done to your work! Nahuatl songs and dances…

PT: So that’s Aztec poetry set to music?

HH: Yes.

PT: Okay… So coming up to date on the adaptations then, Jan de Bont, the director of Speed, is currently developing a movie of The Stainless Steel Rat, we hope.

 

New Movie Adaptations

HH: Fifteen years this has been optioned by the same producer, this
is the sixteenth year.

PT: It was announced in Variety so it must be true.

HH: The Variety thing said ‘film to be made, Twentieth Century Fox, producer Bill McCutcheon, director Jan de Bont, written by the reclusive Harry Harrison.’

[Audience laughter]

How do they mean reclusive? I don’t live in goddamn Hollywood, that’s what they mean. The whole world rotates around them…

PT: I don’t know whether we’re allowed to say this or not, but Mel Gibson’s company is also working on The Technicolor Time Machine… maybe.

HH: Maybe… Well, they’ve just renewed the option for the sixth year, and Mel wanted to do it. He hated Vikings, and I said: I’ll tell you a bad story about Vikings. He said: Tell me a bad story about Vikings. They actually got a screen play written by Marshall Brickman, which if you’re a movie buff you’ll know, he wrote all the Woody Allen films. So he’s a good writer, and he can handle humour very well. Maybe they’ll make it and maybe they won’t. But as long as they renew the option, I can support my drinking habit.

[Audience laughter]

 

Fifty Years of Short Stories

PT: And also this year Harry’s published a collection of fifty of his finest short stories, written during the last fifty years, it’s called Fifty in Fifty and it’s one of my favourite books because (a) it’s full of excellent stories, and (b) it’s dedicated to me.

[Audience laughter]

HH: Because he did more work on it than I did!

[Audience laughter]

PT: You can say that, I can’t.

HH: All you computer buffs know you don’t retype anymore, you run the old magazines through OCR, optical character reader, but if you ever use that, you’ll find that they say it has only a one percent error rate. Bullshit! You get at least five percent errors – Paul not only OCRed the stories, but he cleaned them up before I saw them. But that’ll be the definitive collection of my work, because with the up to date technology now I can go through … there was one story where the editor left characters out and changed their names, and things like this, wonderful! So I did put back, but I didn’t rewrite at all, including rewriting all the grammatical errors in my early stories – I figured they exist as a unit. I just cleaned them up where the spelling was wrong or something got left out or obviously mis-set… And fifty stories, fifty years, crikey!

PT: Okay, so I’m not sure of the best way of doing this… How do you cover fifty years in an hour, but…

HH: [Looks at watch] One year a minute. Go!

[Audience laughter]

 

Lunch with John W. Campbell

PT: Maybe you could start off by telling us a little bit about working with John Campbell…

HH: A great pleasure of my life was to work with John Campbell. I was a science fiction fan from the age of about six or seven, and of course as a true fan the only magazine was Astounding. You read them all – Super Science Stories and Captain Future and Amazing – but they were pretty much garbage even to a twelve year old. But Astounding had that little wire that would tickle in your mind and make you jump. And even after I came out of the army and was working at art school in New York, I went on the subway down to Canal Street, about a twenty minute ride, because I could get Astounding the day before it was published, the guy put out the book early and I could get it one day earlier!

I really liked the magazine, and when I started back in New York, John was always very accessible, and you could meet him for lunch. He put one day every week for lunch with authors and he’d hammer out ideas. And if you had an idea he’d amplify it and talk to you about it, ask you questions. He’d really work on you and you’d be sweating. Poul Anderson once said that talking to John was like throwing iron manhole lids at each other. Clang, clang!

I mean he’d come out at lunch with questions like: You’re a medieval peasant! [Looking terrified, nodding] I’m a medieval peasant. You’re a medieval peasant and you’re allergic to white flour, what happens? I don’t know, nothing much happens. Yes it does. You only eat brown bread. Okay, I only eat rye bread. What happens when you eat a bit of white bread is you fall down and start frothing at the mouth. Yeah, I do, I’m allergic. Now what happens? Sweat, sweat, sweat. You know what happens. What’s the one time in your life that you get white bread? The Host when you go to church. You eat the Host, you fall down, and you’re obviously possessed! That explains possession. [Meekly] You’re right John. Now write the story!

[Audience laughter]

That was the whole outline of the story there, what’s left to write? But he would give you ten ideas like that at lunch time. It was really earth-shaking. John never drank, ever. But he had bad catarrh and he chain-smoked. He’d drag on the cigarette and then he’d snort on the inhaler to clear his nose, and he’d go off again, and he was going like this all the time. But no alcohol. I’d had lunch with him a couple of times and been drinking ice water. Then one day we were going out for lunch and Randy Garrett came along and I discovered what to do. The waiter came by and Randy said: Double vodka on the rocks. And John just ignored him. And that was how you got your drinks, and John just paid for it. I said: Make that two!

[Audience laughter]

So we were knocking it back and you can see it, we made a training film once. Jim Gunn at the University of Kansas was teaching a course in media, including science fiction and film, and he had a lot of amateur film guys, and they went around and did a lot of interviews. You’ll see it, at conventions they show them. One interview with Forrey Ackerman went on for three hours, and they cut it down and it still seems like three hours! Good old Forrey!

I was talking to Jim and said: If you want to do a training film for science fiction, you should do a lunch with John Campbell. That’s where so much in the world gets created: writers meet with him and ideas get kicked around. He said: That’s good Harry, why don’t you do it?

I mentioned it to Gordy Dickson, and Gordy said: I’ve always had an idea that you could do a science fiction novel like the film Lifeboat, and I said: Say no more. We had lunch with John Campbell, set the whole thing up in the restaurant where he had lunch usually, for free because we showed the restaurant name in the background. And the amateur cameramen come down from the University of Kansas and put two cameras up so you could get a close-up of one and then the other, and being amateurs one camera packed in completely on the first roll. And we just did that cold… Gordy had an idea, he wanted to do a novel based on Lifeboat. John said: It can’t be done. [Stares open-mouthed]. So then we started explaining it and building it on camera, and we built the whole plot on camera. And we’d suggest something and say the story would go this way, and John would say: Impossible! You’re right John, it’s impossible…

And meanwhile, this one camera is always on the wrong person. When John’s talking, thinking the camera was on him we’d be knocking back drink, but when we looked at it after the camera was on us going like this [Mimes heavy drinking] and John’s voice is in the background! It was a much better film, I think, with one cameraman.

Eventually… John died before the film was released, and Gordy and I were honour-bound to write the story as a serial for Astounding. Ben Bova bought it and serialised it and then it became a novel, called alternately Lifeship or Lifeboat. And that was a tip of the hat to John Campbell.

PT: So who else was around for those lunches?

HH: Everybody. John started in the Golden Age of the Forties and he had a lot of pulp writers and they fell away like rain when he insisted upon logic, science and intelligent plotting, good drama, and the few that were left were people like A.E. van Vogt, Bob Heinlein, and Eric Frank Russell. And I met a few of them when I first started writing for John in the late Forties and early Fifties, but then the newer writers came along who, like me, read Astounding. Jim Blish, Damon Knight… Damon contributed particularly, Cyril Kornbluth, Fred Pohl, Bob Silverberg, they were all in New York at the time and you’d meet them for lunch, or meet them afterwards at various other places. So it was a very neat little circle of maybe thirty writers writing ninety-five percent of the science fiction, and twenty-five of them were in New York. So it was a very interesting time to be alive in science fiction.

All these were writers who’d been writers before the war, or fans before the war. They all came out of fandom. The first writer I ever met who didn’t come out of fandom was Tom Disch; he was a reader of science fiction but he’d never heard of fandom.

PT: So you wrote for John Campell for quite a while… the first half-dozen or more novels?

HH: Yes. This was in the good old days when all the action in writing was in the magazines. There were no books being published, period. A few vanity presses, Gnome Press, things like that, who issued old novels or old pre-war serials. And you sold to the magazines, and if you wrote a novel you wrote it at 60,000 words so you can break it into a three-part serial. And you didn’t go below 55,000 because it was too short and above seventy you couldn’t fit in. And later on paperbacks came in, and they were all that same length.

So I really had written three or four novels before I sold a novel as a novel, they were all serials for Campbell, which was very nice because they were already sitting on my shelf when books started picking up: Doubleday started up a book club and a few hardcover people came in, and then paperback people came in, and I had these novels on the shelf which helped my income no end. Aside from the fact that I was still writing Flash Gordon for ten years – I wrote the scripts for daily and Sunday – because with freelance in those days there was not that much money involved. I mean there were often advances of five hundred, seven hundred, a thousand dollars for a year’s work. Even living penuriously…

A fellow I was at art school with when we were living on the G.I. Bill where we got $75 a month total income and he lived on secondhand bread. In New York restaurants were supplied fresh bread and the next day they’d send it back to the bakery because it was a day old, and they’d sell it very cheaply out of a special little shop. And peanut butter. Peanut butter is very good in proteins and minerals and that sort of thing, and you can buy it very cheap in jars this big… this guy started to look yellowish brown after a while, he looked like a turd. But he did live, to the best of my knowledge, for three, four, five months on peanut butter and secondhand bread.

So having sold the books to paperback and hardback. I think the first one was Deathworld that came out from Bantam, I think it was. And then started selling books after the serial rights, and then selling hardcover and paperback. And those days – and still in these days if the writer is a sucker – the hardcover publisher will give you X amount of dollars, and he would sell it to the paperback house and keep half the money. And after a while I discovered that I was earning more from half the paperback money than for the hardcover advance, so I changed the contract. Then a few bright publishers started publishing both the hardback and paperback in one house, Berkley-Putnam did that, so I went to Berkley-Putnam until I found that they couldn’t sell books even having all the rights.

But it changed around, and after 35 novels you find you’ve had 35 different publishers, because it’s a bum’s game. You don’t know how good the publisher will be, you don’t know how well they’ll sell the book, you like the advance but when you go to a new house for a bigger advance you may in the end make less money.

PT: So after the Campbell stuff, I get the impression that you kind of got fed up writing those kind of stories and went off and did something a little bit different…

 

Men’s Adventures & True Confessions

HH: Well, I didn’t start out writing science fiction, I started out drawing comic books, and then I started writing them, and then editing them and publishing them. I still liked science fiction… The Hydra Club in New York was a professional club of science fiction professionals, editors, writers, and I was doing illustrations for Galaxy and other magazines, and I went there as ‘Harry the Artist’ and they were my friends. I was doing some illustrations for Damon Knight’s Worlds Beyond, I illustrated the whole magazine for him, three issues and then it died.

I was selling articles and true confessions. Having been a commercial artist I felt that I was a commercial writer and that you asked me to write something. As an artist they’d say: Harry, I want this green man with nine arms seizing this girl with great big tits. And I’d say [bored]: Yeah sure, how many arms? How big? Forty C-cup?

[Audience laughter]

And you’d bring it in. So when I started writing I said: What’s going down? I wrote men’s adventures. Two thousand words of absolute nonsense like ‘I Cut Off My Own Arm,’ by Augie Elmer; ‘I Went Down With My Ship,’ by Captain Masson Wilner, and these were good because they’d pay three or four hundred dollars for the top magazines, and $75 for the ‘salvage’. And then I finally went on to confessions – I was getting a penny a word from science fiction, and two cents a word in the men’s magazines, and they were paying five cents a word, and they liked great big 10,000 word things, that’s $500. My salary as an editor was $75 a week. So $500 for one piece of crap really attracted me.

Somewhere along the line I realised I was a little tried of that kind of stuff and I wanted to get out. I’d been selling some short stories to John Campbell, and I wanted to work on a novel. I had an idea for a novel, but I couldn’t write it in New York. So I did freelance work at the weekend, and I got a job as art director on a little picture magazine and earned enough money to save it up, and I had a few contracts for men’s adventures, and Joan and I and the baby sold the air conditioner. When a New Yorker sells the air conditioner, it means you’re really leaving New York. And we got into the little car, a Ford 10, I might say, an old Anglia, and went to Mexico. Where life was warm and cheap, and I could work on my book. I left New York in Fifty-Six and never went back.

 

If You Can Read This, You’re Too Damn Close!

PT: After the Deathworld novels and those kind of similar things, you started this thing called Bill, the Galactic Hero… [Someone in the audience shouts ‘Yes!’] Which was definitely not a Campbell novel, was it?

HH: I wrote Deathworld at least four times or five times under various disguises, you know? Deathworld 1, Deathworld 2, Deathworld 3 and Brian Aldiss said: Harry, you’re set for life, I look forward to Deathworld 69

[Audience laughter]

I did Planet of the Damned, which really was Deathworld disguised again. Until finally I thought: I’ve got to get out of this rut. I read Catch-22 and I said: Wow! This is it. How much I hate the army, and he showed me – he along with Candide by Voltaire – that the only way to deal with a lot of horror is to make fun of it and to laugh at it. And Damon Knight was very avante garde he was editor of Berkley then, and he used to sign his name with lower case initials like e.e. cummings and t.s. eliot. And I did an outline of the book called If You Can Read This You’re Too Damn Close! and little biographies of various characters, and I said: Damon I’ve got an idea for a novel that no one else fits it, it’s a little different for me. And he said: Yeah, that’s a good idea Harry, and he got Berkley to give me an advance of fifteen hundred dollars, big money! Seven-hundred and fifty on signing. $750 for a year’s work!

I started working on this book and I was so depressed because I was writing short, maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred words a day, and laughing, and then next day I’d read it and think: God, this is not funny at all. And I found that when you write humour, don’t rewrite it. If you laughed when you wrote it, leave it. You can change the punctuation and the spelling, you know, change the action, but do not touch the funny stuff. And I got very depressed, and Joan said: No, no, you’re doing great. So I spent a year on this damned thing, finally finished the book and sent it to Damon, and he sent it back, he rejected it saying: What you’ve got here is a war story, Harry, go through and take the jokes out. Thanks a lot, Damon, I really appreciate it! Of course Berkley wouldn’t buy it because he was supplying editor, so…

PT: Did you get to keep the money?

HH: Yeah, you never give a publisher money back! God forbid! They can’t sue you for anything… What’s $750 dollars to them? One lunch out.

[Audience laughter]

But they got it back in the sense that Larry Ashmead was going to Doubleday, he just started there as science fiction editor. He graduated as a Geologist, had a PhD in Geology, and was hired by Doubleday as a science editor, and science fiction was coming up, and they said to him: Will you be science fiction editor too? It’s the same word, you know? He’d never read science fiction, but he like it and became a very, very good editor. He bought it. My editor I worked with at A.P. Watt, Hilary Rubinstein, bought it for Gollancz, and then Fred Pohl bought it as a serial for Galaxy, at the same time Mike Moorcock bought it as a serial for New Worlds. So Damon Knight was wrong, I’m happy to say. And it was a sleeper, it didn’t sell many copies, but it goes back into print all the time, and it’s in about ten or fifteen languages now, and still in print in various strange languages including Russian. In Russia they couldn’t print it for a while, this was during the Stalin days, the Communist days [Russian accent]: Oh no, you make fun of the Communist Party in there. I was making fun of everybody in there!

[Audience laughter]

Why single out the Communist Party? What I wrote about the Communist Party in there and the revolutionaries was absolutely dead true. The American Communist Party, after the Second World War, was made illegal. So everyone who was a member tore up their membership cards and only a hardcore of four or five people said: We are still Communists. So they had a trial and put some of them in jail, and they found out that most of the members now were members of the FBI, they were supporting the Communist Party by handing over their membership dues. I made that part of the story. Truth always beats fiction. And I hope you enjoyed the book, or you wouldn’t have mentioned it…

And PS, after the horrible sales figures and after a year of trying to get this thing sold, I went to see John Campbell about a year later. John wasn’t a fascist, as some people have called him, he was a technocrat, which was big in the twenties and thirties in America, where the engineers thought that engineers could rule the world, better than the church, better than the politicians. I went to see him in his office, and I’d never sent him the book, he didn’t even know about it. I went into his office and said: Harry, why did you write Bill, the Galactic Hero? I said: I’ll tell you why, John, if you tell me how you know I wrote it.

Here’s a guy at the top magazine in the field, he gets submissions from agents, he gets them across the transom, he must have got ten to a hundred manuscripts a day. And he’d read them all, and he said: I was on the tube going back to New Jersey, and I saw it for sale with your name on it, so I bought it. He was buying science fiction too?! I waffled a bit and said: You wouldn’t like it, John, it’s not your kind of book. And he said: You were absolutely right in that. I got a quick lecture on it.

Joan Harrison: You remember one prominent author who never spoke to you after that?

HH: If you remember the book, I had a good time with a thinly concealed Starship Troopers… not too thinly concealed. Even some of the names… Bob was such a militarist, he actually had his Starship Troopers sing ‘Roger Young.’ You ever heard of … No you never heard of Roger Young. That was a Second World War song [Sings] ‘For the honour and the glory of the infantry, shines the name, shines the name of Roger Young.’ He was a moron who went over the top and got shot down, you know? And I said: This is going to be dead in fifteen years, find something that will live on. So I had the grand old lady, the ship Christine Keeler. I thought that might live on a little longer than Roger Young. I did that and a few other things, and I also in the second half of the book had fun with dear old Trantor after Isaac Asimov’s planet called Helior and had a good time there.

All I know is, after the book was published, I saw Bob Heinlein somewhere and we were talking, and I asked him if he ever read a book of mine called Bill, the Galactic Hero, and he said: No, never read it. He never talked to me again either [Audience laughter]… draw your own conclusions. Isaac was a gentleman. I said: Isaac, did you read Bill, the Galactic Hero. He said: I thought it was very funny, Harry, very, very funny: I never thought about the carbon dioxide, very good.

So, you know, watch yourself with that sort of thing…

 

Make Room! Make Room!

PT: I suppose another of the ‘big’ books that we all should know is Make Room! Make Room! which is kind of an ecological disaster novel disguised as a detective story…

HH: Thinly disguised, yeah. It was a device to move between the various stratas of society… That was also out of my usual action-adventure or humorous thing. We’d been living in Mexico when we left New York and we went back to visit it something like ten or fifteen years later, and at that time Mexico had the highest growth rate of a country under 50 million people. They doubled their population in fifteen years. Wow! We went back to the little town we were in and you couldn’t move in there. So I saw with my own eyes what overpopulation was doing.

I had a friend in London, he was a member of the Indian Communist Party. They were trying to get India going, you know. He said: Harry, you want to get rich? I said: Sure, I wouldn’t mind that. He said: Bring contraceptives to India, open a rubber company called ‘French Letters in India,’ or something like this, and you’ll get very rich because we need birth control there, and it’s very important for the society. I said: Well, I have a lot of ambitions in my life, but I’ve never thought of that. [Audience laughter] Someone else will have to do it…

So I started doing research on population growth patterns… this was before… Make Room! Make Room! was the first popular book, fiction or non-fiction, about overpopulation. I got it right, but it was too early or something. It was a good idea – John Brunner wrote it twice before I got mine out. He came to see me in Denmark, and he wrote one serial for New Worlds which died, and he wrote a thing called Stand on Zanzibar before I finally did mine and got it into print.

But it was a very different book, a cross-over book: if it had been published a few years later it might have been very successful. It did well in science fiction, did slightly well outside the field. And then did much better when they decided to make a film out of it. But there again you go up against publishers. I mentioned dear old Berkley-Putnam. Tom Docherty, publisher of Tor books, said the way to do a tie-in book is when the film is definitely being made and you know the release date, you release the book in paperback – don’t bother with hardcovers – ‘Soon to be a major film,’ and people buy it. And then on release day, when the film comes out, you say ‘Now a major film,’ whether it is or not, who cares? So you get two bites of the apple. I thought this was great idea, you know? But this was after the fact. I went to Berkley… I’d been in Hollywood a lot, working with the people making the film, I got a lot of feedback, I got a lot of stills, I got some colour artwork they had, and they agreed to give it to them for a certain amount of money, and I told them the release date. The film comes out, and the book is published three months later!… when you can’t find it in the cinemas at all. Don’t trust publishers…

 

Soylent Green

PT: When that film was made, you got to meet Edward G. Robinson on the set of the movie?

HH: Everybody, everybody. I went there a number of times myself. I couldn’t alter that rotten screenplay, but they allowed me on the set and I could pass out copies of the book to everybody, cameramen, soundmen… I gave them learned advice about how bad the screenplay was when the facts were completely wrong. I remember the actor named Chuck Connors, who did The Rifleman on television. He was about nine feet tall, an ex-athlete, built like a tank… I met him on the set there between takes and said: Mr. Connors, I have a book for you. He said: What’s this? I said: I’m the author of the book. He looks at it, and what happened… at that time they’d already changed the name of the film to Soylent Green, the ‘miracle plankton food’ – of course in the book it was soya beans and lentils, how the writer got plankton out of that I have no idea! I remember I asked the producer why they chose such a rotten name, and he said: Oh, we can’t use the original, because people might connect the film with…

Joan Harrison: It was a series with Danny Thomas…

HH: It was a TV series that died, called Make Room for Daddy. Who ever heard of it? No one ever heard of it. But having lost a good title, they got a piece of crap like Soylent Green. And Chuck Connors looked at the book and said: Make Room! Make Room! is a good title, Hey, Dick! He shouts across to where Dick Fleischer is setting up on the stage. What about this crappy title you’ve got, why don’t you use the original? [Mimes hiding his head in his hands with embarrassment].

When you’re on the set, there’s always the stills photographer bouncing around so he can get publicity photos. He said: Mr. Harrison, will you take a picture with Mr. Connors? Joan and the kids were on set that day, and we got a picture… he had arms like a gargantuan across Joanie’s shoulders and the kids shoulders there, and they’re smiling, and he has his arm around my shoulder and just before the camera clicked he squeezed and his fingers met in my shoulder in the middle, and I go Eeergh! [Audience laughter] Great publicity photo!

I had a good talk to Joe and Chuck Heston, a nice guy. And with Eddie Robinson, I just happened to be there by chance… he was talking to Dick Fleischer holding his screenplay and wearing this little beret. He said: I don’t know what my character’s supposed to be, I don’t understand the role at all. So I introduced myself, all shaky, and I said I’m the fellow who wrote the book, and the screenplay doesn’t match the book at all. I can tell you who you’re supposed to be if you like. And he said: Oh, come and have lunch with me. I had a sandwich with him in his trailer, and he was dying of cancer at the time, which no one knew. He was only working three days a week, he said, because he was sixty-nine years old. But he didn’t want to stay at home looking at his paintings… I explained that he’s the only character in the book who knew the good world of plenty, when the air was clean and there was food… and I gave him my army record, and I said: I’ll be your age at this time and I know this world. I gave him a three-dimensional thing… and he built this scene right on camera, with Chuck Heston and actually got him to act! A key scene, about five minutes long. In a key scene they shoot in one take and then do inserts later on, close-ups so they can cut into it carefully. And it was a closed set, nothing but about twenty people there: electricians and carpenters and prop men, and they were just hanging around, they’d seen every film made, no visitors. And after the key scene was shot, Dick Fleischer said ‘Cut!’ and they all clapped. Because he had created, on camera, in front of them… he acted the role as I had told him: he looks at his food and says Yech! What kind of crap am I eating here? It wasn’t in the script. And Chuck Heston, who never knew any better, was just eating this stuff and smiling: It’s very good. He just made Heston act, he built the whole thing, he changed the dialogue as he went along, and it was a good experience, I’ll tell you: you don’t have that sort of thing happen very often.

I didn’t make much money out of it, but I had a good time.

Kim Newman: So now you are Edward G. Robinson’s age…

HH: [Laughs] I’m sorry you mentioned that!

Kim Newman: Do you feel he got you right?

HH: [Incomprehensible mumbling in an Edward G. Robinson voice] He was a great man, a lovely actor. The thing is… the only good thing the screenwriter did was – I wouldn’t do it, it was too clichéd – he wrote in the suicide parlour scene, which worked very well because Chuck Braverman, who did the opening credits, did the shots they showed in the suicide parlour of birds flying and things, and they played Beethoven’s Pastoral over it, and it was really well done.

And they tried to cut it from… even the hard hearts of Hollywood wanted to cut it because he dies before the film was released. But wisdom prevailed, they couldn’t cut it because it was integral to the plot.

PT: I suppose the sickest thing is he went into the suicide parlour and ended up as food for everyone else, but they didn’t worry about that, did they?

HH: Stanley… Stanley what was his name?

Joan Harrison: Stanley R. Greenberg.

HH: Yeah… what a moron! He worked with Seltzer and Heston on three or four films, he was their captive writer, and from my book he wrote the screenplay, and followed the book not that closely, but the basic elements. And they gave it to MGM and MGM rejected it: No one cares about overpopulation, it’s of no interest to the world. In their wisdom. So he went back and had to add a little something… I know, he said, I’ll put cannibalism in, they’ll eat that up! He added the cannibalism, and that’s why they bought it. MGM bought it as a cannibalism movie. Tells you something about popular films!

[Audience laughter]

 

West of Eden

PT: We’ve got about fifteen minutes left, so I suppose we ought to come up to date a little bit…

HH: One year a minute, where are we now about 1965?

PT: Who knows… The things that you’re writing now are way different to the Campbell days. You were writing 60,000 word novels then, and now you’re writing three-book trilogies with huge ideas…

HH: Huge ideas is the word. In the old 60,000 word books you had one idea… a tiny idea was a short story, a larger single idea with inter-related characters with something happening, people changing, saving the world, was a novel, in the old days. But somewhere along the line there I started expanding my… I hadn’t written a short story in years, I didn’t get short story ideas, I found the ideas got bigger and bigger over the years.

When I sold West of Eden I did a year’s work on that and did a big outline, and my agent saw it and said: Harry, you can’t get this in one book. I said: Can’t I? He said: You can get this in three books, and we’ll get a bigger advance! I said: Three books, bigger advance. He was absolutely right! I was about one fifth through the outline when I finished the first book, so I thought I’d better hurry things up a bit. And I discovered that if you get a big idea, for a bigger novel, you can get one big, good book out of it; sometimes you get a second book out of it, or it’s a trilogy because of the size of the idea. And they pay a lot more than for a short novel. And your total writing time is less. Your thinking time might be more, but the total involved writing time is less. And since I’m almost Eddie Robinson’s age I like to do a bigger thing as a unit of work, get a hunk of change for it, so I can take off a little bit of time and enjoy the pleasures of freelance living.

Shall we open for any questions…?

 

Audience Participation

PT: Yeah, if anyone wants to butt in with any questions at this point…?

HH: It may be your last chance before I join Eddie Robinson! … Someone said that old age may be uncomfortable, but it’s better than the alternative!

[Audience laughter]

Audience Member: Like a lot of people I write a little bit, but I find that over time… when you’re younger you tend to write optimistic stuff and you read optimistic fiction, and morality fables where the character always makes good. But I find as I get older that it gets harder and harder to maintain that simple optimism, and the darkness of the real world colours what you write. Have you found that?

HH: In a sense yes… there’s a sense of futility after a while. I wrote Make Room! Make Room! about overpopulation, and I did another one or two short stories on it in the intervening years, and finally I was so fed up that a wrote a short story, and the only short story I ever wrote from a television commercial. It was a pizza commercial in the United States where the Mamma brings in a great big pizza and they say: I can’t eat that, I can’t eat it, and finally the son eats the pizza and says: I can’t believe I ate the whole thing! I used that as a title for a story, which is a bad story about overpopulation, where the good guys lose and the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

No, I mean, you feel the sense of futility once in a while, but I personally like to … if I can possibly find a positive ending to a story or a positive attitude towards a story, then I do. Personally, there are people who start out negative and grow worse, you know. And then there’s Pollyannas, like Larry Niven, who go through life smiling. Keep trying, you’ve got to be a little upbeat. You can’t write utopia novels, they’re too dull… if you ever read Erewhon there’s birds flying around and music broadcast on the radio… you end up doing dystopias, but in a dystopia like Make Room! Make Room! it’s very negative, but it’s a positive book. A reader I met after I came back from New York years ago said: If I thought the world was going to be like that, I’d commit suicide. Good, but don’t commit suicide, work to make sure that the world doesn’t end up like that. You can turn negativity on its head and make it positive by stimulating the other senses.

Audience Member (Bazooka!): I wondered if you’d ever been tempted to do a cross-over story of Bill, the Galactic Hero meets The Stainless Steel Rat?

[Audience laughter]

HH: I did that in one story. Isaac’s publisher for the 50th anniversary, or some anniversary, said: We’re doing a book Friends of Asimov [Foundation’s Friends] and you can use any one of his characters in a short story. Great, I said, I’ll be happy to do it. Dear old Isaac is an old friend… so I had the Stainless Steel Rat meeting Susan whatever her name was in Robotics, and I think it was called ‘The Fourth Law of Robotics’ and the original title when I sent it to Isaac was ‘Robot Schwartzes’ – schwartzes in Yiddish and German means ‘blacks’. The ‘Robot Slaves’ – all the first three laws were about making robots slaves, period. And I changed it and added a fourth law to free the robots. And Jim did it – he was a very nasty character, for some reason he came out much nastier than he does normally. I don’t think you should tamper with these things, they live in separate galaxies, in separate universes and they shouldn’t cross over. Maybe though [looks thoughtful]… no, no!

This last Stainless Steel Rat book… when I wrote the first three or four or five, the hero was getting to be about thirty-five years of age and I had him marry Angelina because she put a gun to his head. They had a couple of kids, and that’s enough and I had the kids growing up in flashback. Then I did a prequel – a prequel is a book that takes place in the interior time of the series, but is written after the first novel. About that time Brian Aldiss said, another great idea, he said: Hey, Harry, you’ve got a good series going, I’m looking forward to Stainless Steel Rat, OAP. I actually wrote that short story. And finally I wanted to wind it up, so I wrote a book called The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus… whenever you write a book, you type in upper case THE END and they take it out, no one wants to publish The End. You write it for yourself – that was four months or a year of my life. But this time I wrote ‘The End’ with a question mark. And they left it in the book. And the readers picked it up and said: Harry, are you going to do any more? What about number eleven? Don’t ask. The End, question mark.

PT: If the movie comes out we’ll have some more?

HH: No, if the movie comes out I already have number eleven plotted out… Copyright law, if you change ten percent of a book, you can get a new title and a new ISBN number. So the first Rat book is just 60,000 words long, I can rewrite to bring it up to date to match the film a little bit and put in a lot of stills from the film, from the making of the film, and that will bulk it up a little bit, and change it by ten percent and change the title to Stainless Steel Rat: The Movie, and put it out and get money back.

Audience Member: Harry, in a drunken session many years ago, you signed…

HH: [Raising whiskey glass] I never touch it…

Audience Member: … You signed my Transatlantic Tunnel with a John W. Campell signature…

[Audience laughter]

HH: I can sign his autograph, I’ll do it for you any time you like. I can do a John Campell signature perfectly… if you have any John Campell books you really want to raise the value of…

[Audience laughter]

He was a good man, a very logical guy, you know? When I finally submitted the final draft of Deathworld to him, I’d never submitted directly to him before, I always did it through an agent, I had no idea how he operated. I sent him the final book in and a week, two weeks later comes the rejection letter, an envelope. And I thought: Christ, he’s not going to buy the book. I opened the letter, and there’s no letter inside, just a cheque for $2,100: explanation enough. Three cents a word, 60,000 words… is that right? 70,000 words.

Let’s have a better question than that, I never drank! [Still holding whiskey].

Michael Carroll: How long have you been not drinking?

HH: Thank you, Michael… I’ve been not drinking since I went into the army. Before I went into the army I’d never had a cup of coffee, I’d never kissed a girl, I’d never had a drink, I never used a curse word worse than ‘damn’. And what the army teaches you, of course, is to chase girls, curse, and drink. There’s nothing else to do in the army. Buggery, perhaps, but I wasn’t into that. But that’s more in the British Army, and the American Navy… the American Army was virulently heterosexual.

After basic training, we’d all been locked in for five or six weeks, and the medical officer comes up and says [nasal US army voice]: Now you’re all going to go out there, and right outside the door are whorehouses and there are restaurants and cafes out there and the waitresses have got clap and syph, you’ll get clapped up and syphed up. You’ve got to not do that, you’ve got to stay away from the waitresses. [Wide-eyed look] Waitresses? We were eighteen years old. They had ‘short arm’ inspection before we went out, you know? Short arm inspection on the army, you wear GI boots and a raincoat like a flasher, nothing else. You open it and they examine your short arm with a flashlight.

In the American Army, the drink on base was only 3.2% alcohol, you couldn’t get enough of it in to get the alcohol out. You had to stand at the latrine pouring it through to get enough… So you’d go out, and luckily we were stationed near Mexico, and it was great there: you could buy booze you couldn’t buy in the States during the war. And one time the only thing we could buy over there was ninety-eight proof alcohol, two percent water. We used to make barracks whiskey with that: you’d burn a little sugar and caramelise it for colour and flavour, and cut it with fifty percent water, and you have one hundred proof whiskey which you can get very drunk on. One guy tried to drink it neat [hoarse whisper] he couldn’t talk for four weeks, cauterised right down!

What else were you supposed to do? It was a permanent party in Texas out in the desert for three years, shooting a gun all day – boom, boom, boom, boom – try it for a few hours and find out how long you don’t drink.

PT: A final question then: What’s next?

 

Stars & Stripes Triumphant

HH: Next?

PT: There’s a book coming out next year, the final one in…

HH: Hopefully next year… I’m doing the final draft of Stars & Stripes Triumphant

PT: Does that not give away the end of the story, that title?

HH: No, no, the end of the story is predicated in the second book. Where Ireland is freed from the tyranny of Brits like him… Good things happen in the third book, as you can very well imagine…

PT: This whole thing starts with the American Civil War…

HH: It’s an alternate history… I’ve done at least one Civil War book and some short stories, for years I used to be a member of the Civil War Round Table in New York before I went to Mexico, this was back in the fifties. I’ve always been fascinated by it, and somewhere along the line I realised it was the first modern war, where trench warfare, repeating weapons, the Gattling gun, breach-loading guns, you know, armour-clads, everything except barbed wire… And I said to myself one day: The American army at their height, in both armies, they had almost 250,000 guys under arms, they could have licked any army in the world, or all the other armies in the world put together. That nestled in my head for a long, long time and that’s basically the plot. I had to resolve the Civil War in the very first year, which was in Stars & Stripes Forever, and it was the old idea which Harry Turtledove re-used, what unites two countries? The Martians invade! In my book I had the English invade, for complicated reasons, which are true basic reasons. So North and South end the Civil War soon after the worst battle, where 23,000 guys were killed in a single day, and turn against a common enemy. And they eliminate the British from the Northern Hemisphere in the first book, and then Lord Palmerston and Queen Victoria – she blames the Americans for killing Albert not the drains in Windsor Castle, which really did kill him – and they try invading America through Mexico. And to get Palmerston and the Queen’s eyes off America, they take over Ireland and throw everybody out and combine the Protestants and the Taigs together in 1864 or 63, which would change the history of Ireland a lot…

But in the third book the English are still being obnoxious and good things happen to them! You’ll read it next year…

Kim Newman: So are you making up for writing that Transatlantic Tunnel book which was about how great the British were…?

HH: There I have George Washington shot as a traitor…

Audience Member: Fair enough, he did take an oath…

HH: He was a surveyor for the British Army… The Brits stay there [in America]… I wrote that after living in Mexico. Of all the colonial powers, if they can be compared on a scale, the British were the best. Not that they were very good, but they were the best. The Spanish destroyed Mexican culture, they were Catholics, you know. You know what the Belgians did in the Congo. You know what the French did in Algeria. But the British, what they did was they ruled from the top, they would go in there and just replace the top people and keep all the civil servants working for them and clean the country out of money. Occasionally they did nice things like wiping out the suttee and things… so I said: What if we had a British-ruled world, what would it be like? And that was the basic plot idea. It takes place today, or roughly today, and not only do the Brits rule America, but all of South America and Europe is still little fighting kingdoms, you know? Once I wrote this thing, I realised I’d written a Victorian ‘Ode to Joy’ and I’d left out Victorian vice and child vice, and all that sort of thing, and after I published the book I had a drunken call from Auberon Waugh [drunken upper class twit voice]: It was the loveliest book I read in my entire life… I may be volunteering for Pseuds Corner, but I had a tear in my eye when I read the wedding… [rolls eyes] Oh, Christ!

So I wrote a Tory book! The Tories never thanked me, except Auberon Waugh, he was the only one. But the Americans never noticed it, not one negative review. Not one bad word. But publish a book with the Brits as the villains… read Amazon, whole paragraphs! [Upper class British accent] I say, they didn’t really do that sort of thing…

PT: British soldiers never raped anyone…

HH: And never got drunk…

PT: No, no, no, never misbehaved… Anyway, we have to wind up, unfortunately because somebody else wants the room. Thanks to Harry…

[Audience applause]

… We’ll be back in fifty years if anyone wants to be here.

 

© Harry Harrison & Paul Tomlinson, October 2001