David Hartwell interview, Part II
Q. David, you mentioned that you thought Schroedinger’s Cat would do well. How well did it do, not just in terms of sales, but did it get the kind of reviews and kind of reception you were hoping for?
A. Actually, unfortunately, it didn’t. It got some favorable attention, it got some good reviews, it had decent sales. Obviously, not for me to continue. But by the end of the several book publishing program, it didn’t look economically feasible to buy further books. So we ceased with that one.
I remember particularly liking the covers. Maybe I was wrong, maybe they weren’t commercial enough, I don’t know. But I liked them myself. I thought they were attractive books. (1)
Q. When you say, it wasn’t economically feasible to continue, would there have been more Schroedinger’s Cat books if the books had done well?
A. He was able to spin things out when he wished. If they were not Schroedinger’s Cat books -- my memory may fail me here — there may have been more Babcock books in the pipeline, possibly. [I believe Dr. Hartwell is referring to the Historical Illuminatus series, which was indeed left unfinished. -- TJ]
Q. Schroedinger’s Cat has stayed in print since then, as an omnibus edition where some of the original material was cut. Did you have anything to do with the shaping of that edition?
A. I did not. It was done after my time.
Q. Let me ask about your other two books.
Masks of the Illuminati, some Robert Anton Wilson fans think that is the best introduction to his work, since it is a relatively “normal” book. What is your opinion of Masks of the Illuminati, and what do you remember about it?
A. I’m embarrassed to say that I remember very little about it at this point, simply that I liked it and I was pleased to publish it at the time.
Now, when I say that we couldn’t continue to publish him, there was a particular moment in the history of mass market publishing that was called the romance boom. The war between Silhouette romances and Harlequin romances consumed the attention of the mass market distribution system for nearly two years, during which time, the distribution on all other genre fiction was cut, sometimes significantly, in some wholesale areas.
Mass market books as you know used to be sold predominantly on racks in drugstores and places like that up until the early 90s. Now, that’s not true anymore. It used to be that the huge majority of those books were sold in small accounts. Now they’re sold in large accounts.
When the romance boom was happening, the shelves of the wholesalers were filled with cartons of romances that were their higher priority in distribution items. We were sometimes getting unopened cartons of returns of other books.
I’m not blaming this specifically on Robert Anton Wilson or his public appeal. I’m talking about a market condition that obtained at that moment.
Q. I guess you’ve explained to me why some of the science fiction paperbacks that have meant the most to me, I was able to find in a rack of the supermarket, and I can’t find those kinds of things anymore.
A. That’s correct. There have been continuing changes in the distribution systems of mass market books. The most revolutionary and to my mind, unfortunate one, happened in the mid-90s when under pressure from supermarket chains, the distributors had to consolidate from approximately 400 nationwide to approximately six. This caused the remaining very large distributors to consolidate their attention on a very few successful books per month, rather than the entire range of the publishing industry. The feedback loop that created made us publish fewer and fewer mass market titles. And that is the case today.
Q. Let me ask about the other Wilson book, Cosmic Trigger, the Final Secret of the Illuminati. Charles Platt kind of had some fun with that when he interviewed Robert Anton Wilson for “Dream Makers,” and went so far as to imply that perhaps Wilson was crazy. Do you remember anything about that book, and what did you think of the book at the time?
A. That’s another of the books that I don’t have an opinion on that may actually have been in production at a time before I was fully in charge of the line. I’m not sure I actually read that book. (2)
I do remember Charles and Dream Makers. One of the things that Charles, who is a good journalist, used to do is question people on the things that other people, particularly unsympathetic other people, had gossiped about. (3)
Q. To give them a chance to reply.
A. And give them a chance to reply.
My wife and I are old friends of Charles Platt, and my wife described Charles as our only friend who will come up to you and as an opening line, ask you about the worst thing anybody said about you in the last six months. Once you’ve gotten past that conversational opening, everything’s fine, but some people are completely blown away by it.
Q. You’re a big Philip K. Dick fan.
Q. Philip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson liked each other and were both kind of oddballs that didn’t look at things maybe the same way as other people. Was your interest in Dick something that made you be more open to Robert Anton Wilson’s writings?
A. Yes, I believe so. I do believe so.
I mean, I’d read Charles Fort, too. I guess I’d have to say a little of Fort goes a long way. 200 pages of Charles Fort is not any better than 100 pages of Charles Fort But the first 100 pages are cool.
Q. When you were editing Pocket Books and publishing Robert Anton Wilson, you were already a pretty well known editor.
A. I was.
Q. You had edited Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Philip Jose Farmer. Did Wilson show any interest in you, and ask you any questions about yourself, or about the other writers you had edited?
A. You know, he did not. He did not show a whole lot of interest in being a social member of the science fiction field, and part of the science fiction community of writers.
It wasn’t an antipathy. It was just that a lot of his interests simply were elsewhere.
As I say, I first met him at a [science fiction] convention. He had been invited by that convention, along with every other writer in the Bay Area, and in northern California. Since he had no antipathy to it, he came. He got together with Phil Dick and they would talk. He was around all weekend. It was fine.
Q. Do you have any suggestions on other people I can interview to find out about Robert Anton Wilson, and his relationship with editors? I have interviewed David Harris, I’ve interviewed Jim Frenkel, I’ve interviewed Teresa Nielsen Hayden. I’ve tried to call Al Zuckerman and I’ve tried to call Henry Morrison’s wife, and they didn’t get back to me.
A. Was Henry Morrison his agent at one point?
Q. No, but Henry Morrison’s wife may have been the acquiring editor for ILLUMINATUS! I have not been able to pin down who at Dell actually bought the book.
A. I remember the fellow, but I don’t remember his name anymore. I remember his physical appearance, the editor before David Harris, who had acquired that and other things.
Q. Was it the guy who basically disappeared from the publishing business? I have his name in one of my interviews. [In a follow up email, Dr. Hartwell confirmed that he was referring to Fred Feldman, who now lives in Massachusetts and became an author himself. Feldman says, however, that although he helped edit ILLUMINATUS! he did not buy it for Dell and in fact inherited the project.]
A. He was a nice enough guy, but he [Feldman] was not somebody who liked genre science fiction very much, so he tended to buy things that were somehow outside it. This was a viable short term strategy in the early 70s, because the field was pretty wild then. It was not a viable long term strategy.
Q. Obviously, you have edited a lot of books. And you have edited more good books than I would have time to read for the remainder of my life. Are there four or five books that come to mind that you published that you wish you could get everybody to read, or everybody to try?
A. That’s an interesting question. I guess the easy answer is really the true answer.
I would like people to read the collected stories of Alfred Bester that I did in two volumes for Berkeley. I think everybody should read that. They vary in quality, but the best are superb.
I wish everybody would read Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer. Many people have. Nevertheless, I think everybody should. I think it’s a marvelous and unique book of fiction.
I think Gregory Benford’s Timescape, the book that I finally I named my imprint after, is a science fiction novel, and a work of contemporary fiction, that everybody would profit from reading, that they would have a higher estimate of the potential of science fiction, especially hard science fiction, if they read that book.
Those are easy and old examples, but those three I can pick out of the air.
There are many more books that I’ve done that I like very much. I wouldn’t have done damn near any of them if I didn’t want people to read them.
Q. I’m glad you mentioned The Book of the New Sun, because I’ve read most of Gene Wolfe, but those particular four books, to me, they were the ones that he was born to write, and they have had a huge impact on me.b
A. I love them myself. I am a great personal fan of his writing.
I think that, in his own way, he is the most important science fiction writer since Ted Sturgeon, simply in terms of the craft examples he gives to other writers, which is one of the things Sturgeon did. [The next section of the recording is particularly noisy and difficult to transcribe word for word, but Hartwell added that Wolfe had shown the ability to write fiction of great “complexity and complication and detail, but that nevertheless has great impact.”]
Q. Are you a fan of Iain Banks? I can’t figure out why he isn’t as huge over here as he is over there?
A. I am.
(1) Cover credits for the three original Pocket Book editions of the "Cat" novels are as follows: The Universe Next Door, "Cover photo by Janet Belden Beyda from Cher Amis;" The Trick Top Hat, I cannot find any credit anywhere for the illustration of a woman with red hair, dressed in a sexy outfit, sitting on a lion -- can anyone help? The Homing Pigeons, "Cover photo by Janet Belden Beyda from Cher Amis"
"BEYDA, JANET BELDEN [1917- ]
Janet Belden Beyda with Frank Beyda. Chers Amis. New York: Pomerica Press Limited, 1977. [First edition; "photographs and text by Janet Belden Beyda"; introduction by Nicholas Meyer; illustrations consists of anthropomorphic photo-composites (animal and human montages) in full color, and accompanied by narrative statements which are often of the "tongue-in-cheek" variety; hardback, 72 pages, 29 cm., 75/100] "
(2) Cosmic Trigger was copyrighted in 1977. The first printing by Pocket Books was in March 1978. Hartwell did not take over at Pocket Books until 1978.
(3) Dream Makers Volume 2: The Uncommon Men and Women Who Write Science Fiction by Charles Platt (Sept 1981), ed. Charles Platt, 1983. pp.141-150. Citation taken from rawilsonfans.com.