Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Lost in the Stars

One of the more significant plateaus an emerging writer reaches is the plateau where the collection of rejection slips overflows to the point where the collector needs something original to do with them.

You thought you were being quite original by using some of yours to paper the outside of a waste basket, nothing with pride that there were no duplications; each slip was from a different publication.  Being invited to another writer's apartment to share a meal of pork chops and sauerkraut, purchased with combined pocket change, you noticed he, too, had papered his waste basket.

After that discovery, you started with the hallway leading from your bedroom to the bathroom, applying the rejection slips in a tight, vertical pattern that came to resemble old barn doors.  The pride in the rejection slips was by no means perverse, they spoke to you being prolific and insistent, two of the many things the emerging writer needs,

Not too long ago, while shuffling through your files here at 409 E. Sola Street, you found a relatively thick folder of rejection slips and what you would call "close, but no cigar" letters, including one of your favorites from the late John Milton, erstwhile editor of your own favorite journal, The South Dakota Review.  "Looks as though you've become one of my regulars,"  he'd written. That meant at least one story a year.  

Like many such plateaus, that had an unanticipated slippery slope.  John was soon dead of a heart attack, and your last appearance in SDR was for a commemorative issue dedicated to his memory.

The other plateau an emerging writer noted with an even more avid sense of arrival is still reverberating in your nostalgia file, thanks to yesterday's reminiscence on how you came to publish your literary agent, Donald MacCampbell.  If you were to add motion picture/television agents to your resume, you'd quickly run out of fingers on which to count them, the likelihood you'd have to take off at least one shoe to keep the count alive.

Luck had it that your first, and in many ways most memorable, agent lived within walking distance from you, 915 So. Sherbourne Drive, Los Angeles.  By the time you'd found your way there and had, indeed, been summoned on a few notable occasions, 915 So. Sherbourne Drive had been given the name Ackermansion.  This was the residence and larger-than-life collection of Forrest J (without the period) Ackerman and his wife, Wendayne.

A tall, soft-spoken man with a fondness for puns and the outrageous, Ackerman beamed friendly amusement through rimless glasses.  You were mostly stunned at his weekend gatherings because you were clinking glasses, rubbing shoulders, conversing and, at times, getting into drink inspired arguments with the mainstream early generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers.

Through another happenstance of being his temporary mail carrier during Christmas vacations, you'd already known who Ray Bradbury was, but now, you'd come face to face with him.  There was also he whom you considered the science fiction force second only to Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein.  

There was also A.E. Van Vogt, Robert A.W. Lowndes, William F. Nolan, and the estranged wife( on whom you developed an enormous crush) of the great science fiction editor, H.L. Gold.  And don't forget Leigh Brackett.  Each of these brought an unworldly energy into the Ackerman living and dining rooms.  You found yourself at times closing your eyes and hearing a clutter of remarkable voices, telling stories, vying for your attention

There were shelves of the grand old pulp magazines, paperback reprints of the classics, sketches and paintings of lunar landscapes, aspects of Jupiter, representations of fictional planets, and portraits of BEM's, bug-eyed monsters, all of these in some way recognizable and familiar to anyone who read Weird Tales, Tales of the Crypt, Amazing Stories, Galaxy, Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Added happenstance would have it that you would later be editor for a number of books written by William F. Nolan who, of all these remarkable individuals, reminded you of an electric eel, sending forth galvanic surges of energy as he began discussing a book project, drawing cartoon figures to illustrate his points, outlining as he went, piling the furniture of intrigue and suspense into a great, shimmering monolith.

Ackerman thumbed through a few of your things, sent one off, then, a few days later, called you to tell you you were now a science fiction writer.  If you were hungry, you could come by for dinner, at which point, your twenty-five dollar check from Amazing Stories  would be waiting.

Even though you lived within walking distance, Ackerman loved the drama of the special delivery letter which, in those days, cost all of twenty-five cents.  As an early precursor to the letter from John Milton informing you of your status with SDR, Ackerman produced the magical sense of what and how it was to be a writer.  

There was one week, one magical week, when a special delivery letter from the Ackermansion arrived with a check.  The amounts never exceeded fifty dollars, but they, and the sales and assignments related to them provided the heady sense of impending adventure and possibility that saw you through the next phase, where you began acquiring television agents and a surreal world that took you well beyond the Ackermansion.

One of your next steps brought you to the office of a producer who hefted your manuscript before telling you, "It's wonderful, you hear?  Wonderful.  But it can be fixed."  Or another producer who wrote notes in ink on the back of his hand, seeming always to forget he perspired to the point where the ink ran and he could not read the notes.  Or yet another producer who told you not to dare to turn in scripts without marking the places for the laugh track to register laughter.

Thinking you were about to shift from the Marx-Brothers-like fringes of the television industry into more substantial drama, you sat in the office of what you considered the pinnacle of agents, Paul Kohner, who represented to you drama, story with significance instead of formula.  Into the office barged a character actor well known to you.  "Oy vey, Paul,"  the man pleaded, "they still hate us.  What did we fight for, that we are treated this way?  They don't hire us because of our background. Oy, vey, Paul,  Some work for me, please.  Some little thing."

Paul Kohner waved him away.  "I'll have you out on an audition soon, Alfred,"  he assured, returning his attention to you, apologizing.  "Poor man,"  he said of the departed client.  "He was a Jew in his last performance.  And now?"  Kohner rocked back and forth in his seat.  "And now, the poor man, he believes he's a Jew."

Over the years, any number of things have had transformational effects on you.  Drinking the difficult-to-identify punch at Ackermansion gatherings, reaching the point where you were not sure if your tipsiness came from alcohol or the spirits of the writers assembled about you, there were moments when you were glad you'd walked, not driven.  You could walk or saunter or possibly lurch a time or two in the clear, moonlight Los Angeles night, looking up toward the stars and planets, looking to see if your future might be somewhere up there, among them.

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