Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plot-Driven and Fast, No Question About It

The man seated across the desk from you wore a suit and tie.  You cannot recall ever seeing him when he was not wearing a suit and tie.  At the time you have in mind, you were wearing a suit and tie; you often worse suits and ties during those days, or if not a suit, a sports jacket.

Some time earlier than this particular day, the man in the suit and tie had given you a book which he inscribed to you, "To Shelly Lowenkopf, a Horatio Alger boy in a Brooks Brothers suit."  The book he gave you was a limited edition, one of seven hundred fifty books, Horatio Alger, Jr: A Biography and Bibliography.  

You did not wear Brooks Brothers suits; yours were from the longstanding rival, J. Press, thus were you in a way taking part in a rivalry between haberdashers for Harvard and Yale, neither of which you attended or had any wish to attend.  

The man seated across the desk from you, wearing a suit and tie did not, so far as you were able to discover, go to a university of any sort; he was too busy writing short stories and novels, and by the time your paths had crossed, he'd turned his attention to motion pictures and television.

Another man who sat across the desk from you and whom you'd never seen wearing a suit or tie, a man whose name is William Francis Nolan, was interested in writing a biography of considerable interest to you, which he proposed to call King of the Pulps.  For a number of reasons, this biography, which would have been the biography of a man born as Frederick Schiller Faust, was never published.  

At least for the scholarly record, such a book should be published.  If it were written by William Francis Nolan, there are strong possibilities it would earn its cost and keep; Mr. Nolan has the ability to cause such things to happen.

Mr. Nolan in fact wrote a number of books for you, including two biographies, two novels of mystery, and at least three science-fiction anthologies.  But the biography of Frederick Schiller Faust remains unwritten (although that opened the doorway to an irony for you), and so far there has been no thought of a biography of the man in the suit and tie who sat across the desk from you on the day of which you speak and on a number of subsequent other days.

The man in the suit and tie, seated across the desk from you, looked at the neat, tidy box you presented him.  "What,"  he said, "is that?"

You told him it was the edited manuscript of the first of four books of his you would publish.

He pushed the box back across the desk.  "Kid,"  he said, "no one edits me."  At the time, he was the story editor of two ongoing television series, to which he'd contributed nearly two hundred scripts.  "I edit people.  People don't edit me."

Unlike a number of individuals with whom you'd had similar conversations, the man in the suit and tie did not project any hint of hubris or bristly defensiveness.  You remained on a friendly working basis until you left the publisher where you acquired the beginnings of a biography, The Pulp Jungle, and collections of his short stories, containing biographical Prefaces.

The man in the suit and tie was Frank Gruber, (1904--69), who was by most accounts a plot-driven writer and who actually listed in The Pulp Jungle his own candidates for the basic story types.  The list of his work is staggering.  

For all Frederick Schiller Faust produced a cornucopia of story, Gruber may well have surpassed his output, his mind cranking out adventure after adventure, whether in the mean streets of Times Square and lower Manhattan or the Old West.

"When I came up,"  he told you, "the pay was awful, sometimes as little as a quarter of a cent a word.  Even then, you had to go to the editor's office and sometimes threaten to punch him in the nose to get your check.  You had to make every moment and every word count.  You had to get up in your cheap hotel room and start typing the minute you had your coffee.  You had to be fast and get it all by the second draft or it was the French key (the hotel or rooming house manager inserting a lead key in the front door lock, then snapping it off to stop the delinquent renter from entering, packing his things, and taking off into the night)."

After Gruber's novel, The French Key, was published, then made into a movie, he never again had to worry about paying the rent.

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