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Friday, August 6, 2010

"I think I said it would be tossed in the East River"

Dell editor David M. Harris discusses his experiences in getting Illuminatus! into print

Robert Anton Wilson was not particularly gracious in discussing his experience with Dell Books, which published ILLUMINATUS!, alleging that large sections of the manuscript were cut before the trilogy was published. He also has said that getting the book into print was a struggle that took place over several years.

There is, however, another side of the story which I don't think has been reported. What about the editors at Dell who worked to get the novel into print and help it gain a foothold in the literary world? The unusual book, which made Wilson and Robert Shea into at least minor literary stars, must have been championed by some of its editors. This is a story that has not been reported, and I am researching it. I plan to write an article, but in the meantime, I will share the fruits of my research on this blog.

David M. Harris is a longtime editor and writer. He edits the Rat's Ass Review, an online poetry journal. He was a science fiction editor at Dell Books in the 1970s, when ILLUMINATUS! was pulblished.

When I wrote to Mr. Harris, he explained that he was not the acquiring editor, the editor who bought the book. (I am still chasing that point down.)

"I was, however, the editor who got the book into the schedule and through most of production (I numbered the pages, among other tedious jobs). If it wasn't Jim [Frenkel] who oversaw the end of that process, it would have been Fred Feldman, who was the science fiction editor between us," Harris related.

Mr. Harris kindly agreed to answer my e-mail questions about the publication of ILLUMINATUS!

Q. What had to be done to get the book ready for printing? Do you remember anything about any cuts that were made, or any requests that were made to the authors for revisions?

A. I don't recall any cuts in the manuscript, but we did have to divide it into three volumes. It was originally signed as a single book, I think, and I had to sell the idea of three books to the editorial Powers. I also had to get agreement from the authors. Shea was no problem; I think he was still working for Playboy at the time, in Chicago. Wilson had left, gone to Berkeley, I think, or somewhere near there, without a telephone. In those days, long before email, a lot of business was done on the phone, and it was rather a pain to have to do everything by mail. I was trying to move the book along before the corporate enthusiasm, never very great, disappeared. Wilson was not much interested in cooperating with any of my ideas until I put it to him that I was his only friend in the company, and that if I dumped him his manuscript would be put on a shelf to die. (Actually, I think I said that it would be tossed in the East River.) He finally agreed to the three-volume idea, and I got it into the schedule not long before I left Dell, which would have been October of 1974. I don't believe I was involved in the cover copy or design. If I did ask for revisions, they must have been minor, since I have no recollection of them.
Q. What were Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea like to work with? Has any of the correspondence between them and the editors been preserved?

A. When I left, all my files belonged to the company, so they stayed there. (Again, it was all on paper; making copies would have been prohibitive.) If they still exist, it would be in the archives (if any) of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell.

I do clearly remember Bob Wilson as one of the most difficult authors I ever worked with. He seemed to think of me as his enemy, rather than his ally in getting the book into print. Fortunately for me and the book, Shea was more easygoing -- in those days I would have said rational. We had lunch once when he was in New York, and had a nice time as I recall. Again, no details remain in my memory, just a sense of a pleasant meal.

As it turned out, of course, it was one of the most successful projects I was involved with at Dell (its only serious competition would be Venus on the Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout). Not many books stay in print for thirty-something years. Of course, I don't know that Illuminatus! is in print, but at least people are still interested in it.
Q. I'm not quite clear on why you decided the book had to be published in three volumes. Can you explain that to me?

A. The book had to go into three volumes because in those days you couldn't publish category fiction longer than about 75,000 words. I published a lot of novels that were only 50K, or even less (unthinkable now). That's why Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, too; no one would buy a fantasy novel that long, or pay the cover price for a single book that big. (Something like Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was notably large, but remember that it was a big best-seller, not genre fiction.)
Q. You were "trying to move the book along" before corporate enthusiasm disappeared. Do you believe that if you hadn't pushed to get the book into print, it might have been shelved forever?

A. If I hadn't gotten behind the book, it would have been shelved at least until the next editor came along. That turned out to be not so long, and it's possible that Fred or Jim would have plucked it off the shelf and put it into production. I wouldn't say that I was indispensable to its fate, but I happened to be the guy who did it. The book has considerable merits of its own. [Editor's note: Mr. Harris is referring to Dell editors Fred Feldman and Jim Frenkel.]

Q. Wilson has claimed that large sections of the book were cut before it was published. If there had been large cuts, would you have remembered it? Or could the cuts have been made before you came on board?

A. Shea and Wilson had very different attitudes toward the book, as well as toward me. Shea told me that it started as a joke and, as far as he was concerned, stayed that way. Wilson decided it was a statement of faith and philosophy somewhere along the line. So it's possible that I asked for (or made? less likely) cuts and don't remember them, and it's possible that the original editor demanded cuts, and it's even possible that Shea made them. It's also possible that Wilson misremembered or made it up. At this point, I have no way of knowing. Remember, when I was working on the book it was a science fiction trilogy, not the focus of a worldview. I did a bunch of trilogies and series, including stuff by Lin Carter and Jack Vance. This was wild and goofy and a lot of fun, but just another trilogy.


Eric Wagner said...

Great, great, great, great! Thanks for this original research.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

As a footnote, Venus on the Half Shell actually was written by Philip Jose Farmer, a writer RAW apparently admired (citation, AN INSIDERS GUIDE TO ROBERT ANTON WILSON.)

michael said...

What a BOON to us RAWilsoniacs, T-Jack! Please keep up the sleuthing/edito-archaeology.

RAW on Farmer, from 1981 Heavy Metal (

quackenbush said...

Wonderful interview, Tom. Thank you.

It's great to get another perspective on the saga of Illuminatus! and Harris maintains a nice, balanced perspective. I think it shows a more human side to Wilson, and that he truly could act like a "damned old crank."

In one of the MLA classes, probably the Illuminatus! class, Wilson claimed that the novel was split into three so that Dell could minimize the risk. If the first bombed, they saved the cost of printing the other 2/3rds.