Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The David Hartwell interview, Part I


Five of Robert Anton Wilson's most important books -- Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, Masks of the Illuminati, and the three Schroedinger's Cat books (The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat, the Homing Pigeons) were published by Pocket Books from 1978 to 1981. Prominent science fiction editor David G. Hartwell served as editor of Pocket Books from 1978 to 1983.

Publication information and Hartwell's own recollections suggest that he played little role in the editing and publishing of Cosmic Trigger, but he apparently was an active editor with the other four.

When he became Robert Anton Wilson's editor, David Hartwell already was an important science fiction editor. As the editor of Berkley Putnam's science fiction line from 1973 to 1978, Hartwell edited and published books by such authors as Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny and others.

Hartwell is arguably the most important science fiction book editor of his time. Along with editors such as Terry Carr and Jim Frenkel (a great champion of Robert Anton Wilson whom I interviewed earlier), he is inarguably an important figure. At age 69, Hartwell is still a very busy editor at Tor Books (he published and edited the new Heinlein biography), and has continued to publish the monthly journal The New York Review of Science Fiction, which was founded in 1988 and since then has maintained an incredible monthly publication schedule.

My interview with David Hartwell was recorded on August 30, 2010, in the dealer's room of the 2010 World Fantasy Convention held in Columbus, Ohio.


Q.When I looked at my Robert Anton Wilson shelf, I noticed five books published by Pocket Books — the three Schroedinger’s Cat books, Cosmic Trigger, the Final Secret of the Illuminati, and Masks of the Illuminati. Are those the books that you acquired and edited?

A. In fact, I inherited the books. The books were acquired by the Pocket Books editor just previous to me. And there was a lot of inventory at Pocket Books when I arrived, and I found out that I was going to be the publisher of Robert Anton Wilson.
Now, I was aware of the Illuminatus trilogy at Dell, and that it had been successful and popular.
I can’t remember the order at this late date at which I scheduled them, but I scheduled the Schroedinger’s Cat books.
I was a fan of Phil Dick’s at that point and was just about to become Phil Dick’s editor as well. I thought, this was kind of Phil Dickian. I liked kind of Phil Dickian.
I didn’t know Wilson personally at that point. I had heard of him, had not been at the same place at the same time.
About the time the first of the books came out, I went to a convention called Octacon, in California, Santa Rosa. And Wilson was there and I met him. And Phil Dick was there.
And I had a small party in my hotel room, and there were six or seven people. It got down to Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick talking. And at a certain point, I could not follow what they were saying, and so I just left and went out and got a beer and came back later. They were still talking. [I corresponded with a Philip K. Dick fan, Thom Stark, about this, and I believe the convention was in October 1978 -- Tom]
Q. Who was the editor at Pocket Books who acquired these five books that you inherited?
A. I believe it was Adele Leone. Adele Leone became an agent after she left Pocket Books and is deceased. She died in her forties, unfortunately. Nice lady.
Her first significant job was editor at Pocket Books. She was an office assistant. In those days, an office assistant could be promoted to editor of science fiction, just by being the only one in the pool who liked and read it. This happened more than once in the 1970s. But this was what happened to Adele.
At a certain point, Adele really felt she was getting over her head, and had to leave the job. But she became a pretty good agent.
Q. David, had you read the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy and were you familiar with that when you were working on Wilson’s other books?
A. I was not. I had not read it at that point.
I had some friends — at the time, a distant acquaintance, Arthur Hlavaty — I know Arthur much better now — but he was very high on it, and I read some fanzine stuff by Arthur.
I was interested in the kind of secret history aspect. I think secret histories have now been perhaps been overdone in fantasy and science fiction, but at the time, they were scarce on the ground.
I also liked the kind of oddity aspect of it. I am having a kind of half senior moment, there’s a familiar name there, the fellow who wrote the books about odd coincidences, several volumes of them — Charles Fort. I saw Wilson in the tradition of Charles Fort.
Q. So you eventually got around to reading the ILLUMINATUS trilogy?
A. I never read it carefully. I just skimmed it. There are many fine books that I intend to read some day. I have 40,000 of them in my house.
Q. We are all like that.
Did you have the authority when you became the Pocket Books guy to say, ‘No, I am not going to publish these Wilson books.”
A. Oh, yes! Certainly!
Q. So you liked them, too, or you would not have —
A. Yeah, oh no, I did like them. There were four or five books when I got in where I said, “Sorry, no way.” I was not going to publish them. And I got permission to write off the initial advance that was paid and did that. I wasn’t going to do that with Wilson.
Q. Let me ask you about Schroedinger’s Cat. It’s an unusual body of work. Those are in my opinion some of the most radical and unusual of his books. What did you think of those three novels?
A. This is going to sound kind of old-fashioned hippie, but I thought they were psychedelic. The pleasure I had was kind of the pleasure of the play of the text. I found them playful and interesting.
I thought they were outrageous. I thought they were making connections that were artificial, and that would not hold up to actual scientific examination, but were intriguing. Which is the kind of thing Charles Fort did. Charles Fort was intriguing and provocative. They tended to shake you out of your normal thought patterns. His process of association was what entertained me.
Q. There is very unusual plot line in Schroedinger’s Cat about a severed penis called Ulysses that travels around the world and then returns to its owner. And so alludes both to Homer and to James Joyce. Did this aspect or any other aspect of the novels make you think, “What am I doing publishing this as part of my commercial science fiction line?”
A. I would not have published it if I didn’t think it would sell.
And in fact, that kind of sexual play was uncommon in fantasy and science fiction at that time. And while it was risky in terms of mass market distribution systems in some parts of the country, it was also a big advantage in other parts of the country. And I thought that balanced itself out.
The head of sales I recall — I was trying to explain what these books were like — the head of sales borrowed the manuscript for one of them.
“My God! This is all about fucking!,” he said. “It will sell!”
OK, all right, you know?
Q. Do you remember if you requested any major changes in Schroedinger’s Cat, or anything about the process of getting it prepared for publication?
A. In fact, I found them loosely structured, and I therefore did not feel I had to make any suggestions to correct the structure. As I say, it was done by a kind of process of association, and you don’t criticize somebody’s process of association, you simply follow it. So I didn’t feel that needed that kind of editorial work. I’m perfectly capable of doing that but I didn’t feel it was necessary in that case. In other words, I didn’t think something I would suggest would particularly improve the work and therefore I didn’t want to tinker.
Q. What was Wilson like to work with?
A. He was perfectly cooperative and pleasant. He was kind of distracted. He was not intimately personally interested in the publishing process. He just wanted his books out.
[At this point, literary genius Gene Wolfe arrives with his wife, and the interview pauses so that Hartwell can greet them and put Wolfe to work autographing books. Part two of the interview, which resumed an hour or two later, will run tomorrow.]