Back in the early 1970s, before it was published, Illuminatus! was a manuscript of hundreds of pages, sitting in a corrugated cardboard box in the offices of Dell Books in New York City.
The Dell editor who edited Illuminatus! (or at least did most of the editing -- see below) was a guy named Fred Lawrence Feldman. About a couple of years ago, I tracked him down and he agreed to let me interview him. As you're about to read, Feldman also is the guy who introduced Wilson and Shea to Al Zuckerman, who became their agent. (Mr. Feldman is not a philosophy professor or a Marxist activist, so he is neither of the “Fred Feldman” listings in Wikipedia.)
Although Dell editor David Harris apparently made the decision to separate the book into three parts, turning it into a fantasy/SF trilogy, a format familiar to readers of the genre, most the editing of the book apparently was done by Feldman. At of this late date, my interview with him apparently is the best record of how much editing (and cutting) was done.
Unfortunately, one question that my interview doesn’t answer is who acquired the manuscript for Illuminatus! When I interviewed David Hartwell, he thought it was Feldman. Feldman, however, insists that someone else had acquired the book before he began work on editing it.
I interviewed Mr. Feldman in November 2010, recording the interview using Google Voice. I am sorry that it has taken to so long to publish highlights of the interview, but transcribing interviews is a long, hard task. This is not the whole interview, but I’ve attempted to transcribe everything that would be of interest to RAW scholars. I hope you will enjoy it as a look at the Illuminatus! editing process, and how the books fit into the publishing world of the 1970s.
For more insight into the editing of Illuminatus!, see my interview with David Harris. For other interviews with editors who worked with Robert Anton Wilson, see my James Frenkel and David Hartwell and Teresa Nielsen Hayden interviews.
Feldman has written a number of novels and now works with nonprofits in their fund-raising campaigns.
“It’s a fancy way of saying I’m responsible for a lot of the junk mail you get,” he said.
How to Save the World on $5 a Day.
I opened my interview by asking Feldman how he became the editor who handled Illuminatus!
Tell me just a little bit about yourself. When did you work at Dell, and how did it come about that you published these books?
I graduated from college in '72 and traveled for awhile. Had some friends in New York. I knew kind of that I belonged in New York.
I was always a writer/English major kind of guy. So I went to New York and looked for some jobs -- you know, first job out of college, real job. The one that I got was an entry level position as publicity associate at Dell Books. I worked there for about a year, publicity, and became friends with a guy named David Harris, who was a science fiction editor there at the time.
I've interviewed Mr. Harris, too.
Cool. I think he must have acquired the Illuminatus! manuscript because it was there when I got there. But anyway -- David told me -- I'm pretty sure we became friendly. I think we ate lunch together. It was so long ago. I’m pretty sure we became friendly. He told me was about to leave Dell, was planning on leaving Dell.
I made it known -- I had gotten pretty close to some of the editors. They were kind of mentors to me. They were older guys but they were mentors. I said I would be interested from moving from publicity to editorial. I got that job, I got David's job.
This is interesting, because I had understood you were the acquiring editor --
No, no, it was definitely there. It's my recollection that it was there. When David was showing me around his office, which was going to be my office, which was windowless and like an elevator… he was showing me around and he said, "And then in this box, there's this." It was like God only knows, 1,500 pages of manuscript, Illuminatus!.
I can't tell you how that book got to Dell. I really do not know.
Is it possible that literary agent Henry Morrison's wife bought it when she was running the department?
Who was she? What's her name?
I think her name may have been Gail.
I'm trying to think of who was running the editorial department. I think it was a woman named Robin Kuriakis [I'm guessing at the spelling here, can anyone help? -- Tom] , for some reason, rings a bell..... I can name some of the editors there. There was a guy named Bill Gross. There was a guy named John Boswell. Bill might have been senior executive editor.
I can't tell you. I really don’t know. I just seem to remember there was a box, there was a corrugated cardboard carton on the floor. There were a lot of pages in this thing. We need another source to explain that deal.
Mr. Harris told me that he did a lot of the production work. He told me he made the decision to split the book into three parts.
I don’t who who did that.
I’ll tell you this. Obviously, there was no way a book like this, a genre book, would be published this large. The largest book at the time, and it was precedent setting, it was the history of Germany, I can’t remember the title -- “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
Here’s the deal -- you have to remember back then how this business worked, the mass market paperback business. There were approximately 26 titles a month put out. That sounds like an incredible number of titles. We put out that many. There were tons of category books. Again, you have to remember -- no Internet, no Walkman, no alternative portable entertainment except the paperback book. And they were cheap. 95 cents, a buck and a quarter, a buck fifty. You could buy them in multiples even then.
Men bought science fiction, westerns, mysteries. I don’t mean to generalize, but the market being what it is, men bought those kinds of books, more masculine books, soft core, risque, R-rated kinds of books. Women tended to go with historical romances, Regency romances. And this was how you filled out your list. You had a lead title, you had several secondary titles, you had one each of these titles.
And publishers had to do this to protect their rack space.
Today, when you go to the supermarket, Pepperidge Farms might have 18 different kinds of bread. They don’t have those 18 kinds of bread because they want to have those 18 kinds of bread. They have them because they have to protect their shelf space. If they don’t fill up their quota of shelf, other brands will encroach upon them.
That’s how the paperback business worked. There were no Borders, no Barnes and Nobles. We had third party distributors who would take books on consignment.
And they’d send out salesmen who went around to drugstores and what have you, and filled up what they called pizza racks, which were these rotating racks with paperbacks, and at the end of the month, they’d come back and take them back. You sometimes used to see, you don’t see it much anymore, paperback books with no front cover. Because you didn’t really need to send back the whole book to get credit from the publisher. All you had to do was send back the cover. And sometimes, less than scrupulous people would resell them on the secondary market.
In one of those pizza racks, if you tried to put, I’m looking at my three copies here, you could maybe get two or three copies of a book like Illuminatus! in. Those two or three copies may or may not sell, but once they were gone, nobody would remember what was there. To protect ourselves, and to get a sufficient number of copies of the book into the wire rack, we had to make it thin enough to fit multiple copies. So that’s why we did it, and also it filled up space. If you can get three months of science fiction product out there, versus one month, that’s what you do.
Mr. Harris, when I interviewed him, he remember clearly making the decision to divide it up into three books.
He may well have.
He said he had to argue with Robert Anton Wilson to persuade Mr. Wilson that publishing reality being what it was, that was the only way they could do it.
I suspect he’s right when he said that. Robert Anton Wilson was not trusting -- I don’t think he was happy .... I seem to remember it was a struggle to get him to get on board with the way we were going to produce the books.
Do you remember if you had to make cuts in the manuscript?
Oh yes. I remember that. I dove into that with all of the enthusiasm of a guy like a first lieutenant. I dove in. I was totally confident I could do it. I felt very good about my abilities. I just felt I could do it, I felt like I was the right guy to do it. I had hair in those days and I was in the counterculture with the rest of them. I felt like, I’m the guy to do this. I don’t remember having any qualms about doing it. I just felt that I had to shape this into a story -- a beginning, middle and end story. I felt that very strongly. I may well have looked to advice from some of the guys who were mentoring me, like I told you. I remember definitely cutting, and I think that might have been a sore point with Robert Anton Wilson, not so much Robert Shea.
I introduced both of these guys to, at the time, a new agent who I had become very close to ----
Would that be Al Zuckerman?
Al Zuckerman, right.
Now, of course today, Al is one of the premiere agents in the business. He had a new client at that time, a young untested British guy by the name of Ken Follett. That seems to have worked out for them. Of course, Al has many other very important clients, a thriving agency, Writer’s House, and I think is a patriarch of the business at this point.
But at the time, he didn’t have any clients. At the time, believe it or not, I’d sometimes vacate my office for a little time so he could use my phone. It was just a different time. He was just starting out. He got his first office, Writer’s House, and I remember going over to see it, I was so pleased. He’s older than me. He came from an academic background.
But anyway, I introduced them both. I remember Bob Shea remembered doing a couple of historic Japanese sagas with Al that did very well, and then I kind of lost track of him.
[As I wrote in this blog post on August 29, 2012, I eventually got Zuckerman on the phone and asked the famous literary agent who bought Illuminatus! He replied, “Fred Feldman.” When I explained that Feldman said it was there when he got there, Zuckerman said, “Then I don’t know.”]
Do you remember what changes you made in the book or what you felt you had to cut to shape it into a publishable work?
Do I remember?
Do you remember what kind of changes you made --
I think I was probably motivated, as I said, by trying to develop some sort of momentum, a plot momentum, so that it had a plot. I probably felt that I needed a beginning, middle and end, so that if somebody bought the first one, they’d want to buy the second one, and the third one, to know what was going to happen. I think that was probably the weakest part of the raw manuscript, of forward story momentum. I probably tried to bring a little of that to it.
You have to understand, when one does this, one has page limits. There are so many signatures you can have. I was probably driven by working with the copyeditors to make sure each book fit into the quota for paper. You have to buy paper. You just can’t go on forever. There’s a certain amount of paper you have.
I was probably driven by both practical and aesthetic reasons to edit the way I did. But specific editing choices I made, I could not tell you …..
When you read the book in places, it reads like sort of like a late Robert Heinlein novel. The characters are giving some pretty long speeches and lectures.
That’s part and parcel of what it is. It’s a philosophical, it’s like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, if you know what I mean. It is a fairly didactic book, as I flip through it. I probably tried to keep it moving, but I wasn’t going to change what those guys wanted to say, although I probably rewrote a little bit. I can’t remember. I won’t say I rewrote.
It’s the nature of line editing, which is what I did. I was not a copyeditor. We had a whole staff of folks who knew like i before e except after c, and where the colon goes, and all that stuff, when it’s a semicolon, when it’s not. I don’t know any of that stuff, I never did.
I was the guy who would, you know, go out, buy a paperback original, punch up the sex scenes, punch up the violence. That’s what a line editor does. A line editor makes it a good read. There are other folks who do the proofreading and the queries and make sure that it’s fairly close to real English. A lot of times they want to change it into real English, and a guy like me, the line editor, the acquisitions editor, says no, this is how we want it to be, because it’s a better read this way.
Do you remember at this late date, and of course it’s been more than 30 years, whether you had to make really substantial cuts and take a lot out of it, or just a little bit.
I seem to remember there might have been some arguments with those guys. I don’t know if both guys, or just Wilson. But I do think I probably had to make significant cuts. I won’t say substantial but significant.
Do you remember anything at this point about whether Mr. Shea was easier to work with than Mr. Wilson?
I don’t remember Mr. Shea being even that involved. I do think I met him once or twice. I seem to think I did. I probably took him out to lunch because that’s how I ate. I was making like nine grand a year, but I did have an expense account. So I tried to book as many lunches as I could ….
What do you think about the fact that this book that you worked on so long ago has remained in print? You could probably go to your local Borders and there’d be a one volume omnibus of it. What do you think of the fact it’s been able to last for so long?
I just think it’s funny. Your know, it’s ironic. Go figure. You never know what’s going to work out. I take pride in it. I take pleasure.
I rarely run into anybody who knows about it. It’s a cult thing. It never comes up in my life. I never run into anybody who knows about it.
I just never have. I’m touched by your letter to Al Weatherhead, I think you said people know who i am, attached to this. It never even occurred to me anybody would have know who I was.
I gather by the time the books you came out, you were the guy in charge, and Mr. Harris had left.
Harris left before we started editing, as far as I know. Now if he says differently, he’s right. I’m only telling you to the best of my memory something that was a long time ago, and was not that significant at the time.
I seem to think I edited the raw manuscript. If he had already taken a chop at it, and he says so, then he’s right.