Interview with SFWA Grand Master James Gunn

James Gunn
James Gunn

Today we are joined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master James Gunn (also James E. Gunn). James writes, edits, and anthologizes science fiction and related scholarly books. In 1969, Paramount Pictures adapted his novel The Immortals into a television series for ABC (it first became a television movie, an ABC Movie of the Week in September, 1969, and then a series in 1970-71). The critically acclaimed television show won a Primetime Emmy and was nominated for a Hugo. Over his career James has served as president of SFWA, president of the Science Fiction Research Association, (ensign) with his final position adjutant to the commanding general in the US Navy, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, a playwright, a college professor, and cartographer of the road to science fiction.

His trophy shelf boasts a Pilgrim Award, Locus Award, Byron Caldwell Smith Award, Edward Grier Award, and a Hugo. In August 2013, James will release his latest science fiction novel, Transcendental, and will be Guest of Honor at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention. When not chasing oreads out of his yard in Lawrence, James travels back and forth through time visiting the Ancient Library of Alexandria and discussing psychohistory with Hari Seldon.

R.K. Troughton for Amazing Stories: Welcome to Amazing Stories, James. There is no greater honor in the field of science fiction and fantasy than to receive the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. The list of names who have received the award are legends in the industry. Recipients include such names as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Harlan Ellison, and a certain James Gunn. Please share with us the experience of receiving this prestigious award from your peers and how it makes you feel to be recognized with such an honor.

JG: Mixed emotions: pleasure in having a lifelong commitment to a category recognized by the people who have created it, and humility in being placed in their company.

Transcendental by James GunnASM: During your career you have published more than 100 stories and 41 books. This summer your latest science fiction novel hits bookstores and virtual shelves. Give us a preview of what we will find inside Transcendental

JG: Transcendental is a return to the space epics with which I began my novel-writing career back in 1955 but bringing to it fifty-five years of the reading, writing, and teaching I have done, and the sophistication that has come to the topic in recent years.  In Transcendental readers will find, if they want to look for them, evidences of those experiences, as well as a focus on what I take to be, as Cory and Alexei Panshin pointed out in their book The World Beyond the Hill, the basic concern of science fiction, transcendence. The novel shapes itself around a search for a rumored “transcendental machine” that may lie hidden in a remote area of the galaxy and the spaceship quest by assorted aliens and humans to reach a goal that may not exist while unsuspected forces work to reach the goal first or destroy the pilgrims.

ASM: Back before the SyFy channel and HBO’s Game of Thrones, your novel The Immortals was broadcast across the airwaves on ABC. Tell us how this all came about and how it felt to see something translated from your imagination onto broadcast television.

JG: Some time in 1965 I got a letter from my agent, Harry Altshuler, that a couple of guys wanted an option on my novel, which had been published by Bantam Books a couple of years earlier. There wasn’t a lot of money involved (though more than I had received for “The Cave of Night” when it was dramatized on the Desilu Playhouse a decade earlier), but there was no reason not to go ahead and see what happened.  By the end of the two-year option period, nothing had happened and I hadn’t even received the final six-month payment, so I wrote to one of the two people who had taken the option, Bob Specht, to ask for the money and he informed me that the director who had partnered with him, Everett Chambers, had dropped out, but he (Specht) had tried out the novel with every producer, director, and leading man in Hollywood without success.  But there was a new possibility that might make it work and he wanted to renew the option.  The possibility turned out to be ABC’s interest in starting up its own film program that would be called the ABC Movie of the Week.  ABC (which had decided it could make films cheaper than renting them) needed lots of scripts and, probably, some “concept” films that would attract audiences.  Science fiction and suspense films fit that category.  “The Immortal” was broadcast in September, 1969.  It was scheduled to be the first ABC Movie of the Week but was moved back to second behind a film with Milton Berle called “Seven in Darkness.”

Christopher George as The Immortal.
Christopher George as The Immortal.

Bob Specht later told me that he had been working in Bantam’s west coast office and picked The Immortals out of the eight books that Bantam published each month, and decided that it would make a great movie if he ever got the chance.  A couple of years later he was working for Chambers on a series called “Peyton Place” and talked him into taking the option.

So, a lot depends on chance.  Once filmed, however, it got a good rating from the Nielsens and Paramount and ABC decided to make a series out of it.

It all was exciting, even though the scripts changed my focus–on the social issues of a practical route to immortality–to a search for the immortal man’s blood, and my wife and I sat watching each showing with fists clenched.  It lasted only a single season before it was canceled.  I made a bit of money out of it (enough to buy a new Buick), including writing a novelization of the screenplay when Bantam couldn’t find anyone else to do it, and some twenty years later saw it optioned several times as a possible feature film (because Paramount had decided not to buy the feature film rights when it bought the TV rights).

ASM: For those not familiar with your novel The Immortals, please share with us a bit about the story.

JG: The Immortals is about a man, a homeless drifter, who sells his blood to a hospital and it rejuvenates a millionaire (now he would be a billionaire).  The millionaire begins losing his rejuvenation and searches for the reason, but by the time he discovers the source, the doctor in charge has told the drifter to hide himself and father lots of children. The rest of the novel (in three additional parts, later four when Pocket Books reprinted the novel in the early 2000s) deals with the search for Cartwright and his children by rich, dying people, as society itself is changed by the recognition that immortality is possible, the medical centers grow rapidly, money gets pushed into medical research, and poor people have to sell themselves or their parts (very much like the situation today). In the movie and the series, the producers settled on the search aspect and made Cartwright into a test-car driver (so they could have lots of car chases).

ASM: Part of your legacy that was recognized by your peers is your role as science fiction historian. Your anthology series titled The Road to Science Fiction chronicles the history of science fiction from its birth to the juggernaut it has become today. What was your goal for the series, and what did you discover as you mapped out the road?

The Road to Science Fiction by James GunnJG: I had written Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, in the summer of 1970 as lectures for the science-fiction class I would be teaching (having returned to teaching full-time from my position as administrative assistant to the Chancellor for University Relations), and one day an editor for Prentice-Hall came to my office and asked if I would be interested in writing a textbook about fiction writing. I said I didn’t know enough to write that (much later I published a book entitled The Science of Science-Fiction Writing) but I had these lectures that would make an interesting book about science fiction.  A couple of months later he called to say that he didn’t find any interest in a textbook but what would I think about a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book?  I thought that would be great, and after some delays because of a change of editors, the book was published in 1975 (or it would have been published the same year as Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree).  That got me a number of nice returns, including an award from the 1976 World Convention, the Pilgrim Award from SFRA, and some royalties, but also a call from an editor at Mentor Books, Barry Lippman, who asked if I had any books that I could do for Mentor. I suggested a book of essays about SF, but the editorial board didn’t care for that, so I suggested a teaching anthology dealing with the historical development of SF.  That (The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells) was well received, so I suggested a second volume continuing the historical development into the twentieth century, and before that was done I saw that it was going to be too long for a single volume and persuaded Mentor to authorize a third volume.  Finally, I saw that these volumes had covered the generic aspects of science fiction—that is, what science fiction is and how it came to be what it is–but hadn’t dealt with its literary aspects, and persuaded Mentor to publish a fourth volume, starting in 1950 and tracing the literary development of science fiction toward the present.  I tried to persuade the then editor of the series (I had gone through several already) to let me publish fifth and sixth volumes covering British science fiction and international science fiction, but the sales of the earlier volumes had begun to slow down and rather than shifting from mass market paperback to trade paperback format (which required fewer sales per year to remain in print) Mentor decided to let them go.  Eventually my German publisher, Heyne, wanted to publish a fifth and sixth volumes, and a publisher of games that wanted to get into general publishing, White Wolf, agreed to publish them in the U.S. as well as reprinting the earlier volumes.  When White Wolf lost interest in keeping the books in print, I persuaded Scarecrow Press, which had already reprinted my Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, to reprint the first four volumes.  The permissions for five and six were pretty expensive, and they probably won’t be reprinted.

ASM: Your nonfiction book Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction won the Hugo Award. Please tell us about the book and your relationship with Isaac.

JG: I always considered Isaac a friend.  We didn’t meet often—mostly at conventions or Nebula awards weekends.  The longest such experience was in 1955, when I was in New York and Marty Greenberg invited me to accompany him, Isaac, and Evelyn Paige (Horace Gold’s wife) in his car on a trip to the WorldCon in Cleveland.  But Isaac and I corresponded, and he agreed to let me interview him when I was in New York at a convention.  He said then that I should be writing my own stuff rather than writing about him, but I replied that every academic had to write an academic book once in a while.

ASM: As a scholar you helped establish the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. Last year the Center launched James Gunn’s Ad Astra magazine as a place for science fiction innovation and exploration. What is the purpose of the Center and how can people get involved? 

JG: I created the Center as a way of focusing the various science-fiction projects that I had started in the English Department after I became a full-time teacher in 1970: my SF courses and other courses in futurism, my summer programs including science-fiction writing workshops and the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, our special book and magazine collections in Spencer Research Library, and our outreach projects for taking the science-fiction message to the larger community outside the University.  Since then we have added a sister program—AboutSF—whose purpose is to coordinate volunteer activities in behalf of science fiction, and it welcomes all kinds of volunteers who want to spread the benefits of reading science fiction as broadly as possible.  As I have been suggesting with every e-mail signature for the past decade (with only a trace of hyperbole), “Let’s save the world through science fiction.”  I really believe that science fiction has the power to shape young minds in behalf of a better future and to liberate imaginations from the bonds that keep us tied to traditions that no longer function in today’s changing world. In a few months we hope to launch a fund-raising campaign to increase our efforts and impact.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries First Issue 1939ASM: If we could travel back to your youth, what would we discover was your first exposure to science fiction? What inspired your career in the industry?

JG: I discovered Andrew Lang’s books of fairy tales and Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle books in second grade.  Shortly afterwards I found a stack of Tarzan books in my grandmother’s back closet and took them home with me, one at a time. In 1933 my father brought home a Doc Savage magazine and then a series of hero pulps including The Shadow, The Spider, and G-8 and His Battle Aces.  A year or two later I found a used-magazine store in downtown Kansas City, Andy’s, where I discovered a dusty stack of science-fiction magazines in the back of the store, Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science…, and I could trade two of my hero-pulps for one of these that offered the same kind of adventures but arranged around a kernel of idea that made all the difference.  And finally, in 1939, I came across the first issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries that reprinted science fiction and fantasy from the old Munsey pulps.  My conversion was complete.

ASM: Many authors can point to a moment when they wrote their first story in grade school or later. When did you write your first story, and what was it about?

Thrilling Wonder Stories October 1949JG: I remember writing a story when I was sixteen and sending it off to Astounding.  I know I got it back with a rejection slip but I don’t remember what it was about.  My next story was written when I was twenty-five, with three years of service in World War II, a bachelor’s degree, student publications and a staged three-act play, and some graduate school hours behind me.  I had returned to Kansas City from Northwestern University with the idea of creating a series of radio plays about Kansas City history.  When that got a cool reception, I sat down and wrote “Paradox,” sent it off to Astounding, got a personal rejection, sent it off to Amazing and got a printed rejection, and sent it off to Thrilling Wonder Stories and got a letter one day from editor Sam Merwin, Jr., that said, “I like your story ‘Paradox’ and will pay you $70 for it.”  That shaped the rest of my life.  It was published in the October 1949 issue, although a subsequent story, “Communications,” was published first in the September issue of Startling Stories, a companion magazine to Thrilling Wonder StoriesSo if you don’t count my sixteen-year-old effort, I sold the first story I wrote and nine out of my first ten.

ASM: What authors have influenced you the most over your career?

JG: It depends on what kind of influence: reading, concept, writing…. In terms of reading and concept: Burroughs, Wells, Haggard, Conan Doyle, A. Merritt, all of them enthusiasms of the kind that made me want to read everything they’d written.  As far as writing, Williamson, Simak, Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, Pohl, and many others—mostly authors noted for narrative strategies rather than style.  Style is too individual to be transferred.

ASM: What are you reading today? 

JG: Most of my reading is non-fiction these days, although I do read short fiction for the Sturgeon awards and following the discussions of the Campbell Award committee keeps me up with what is happening in the novel field.

ASM: You published your first story in 1949, and your latest novel will be published this year. Having travelled with science fiction and publishing across eight decades, how have things changed?

JG: When I got into the field, science fiction was largely magazine fiction, and the half-dozen magazines that had survived World War II controlled what got published and what got defined as science fiction.  John Campbell defined science fiction as what science-fiction editors published, and the genre was defined as what John Campbell published in Astounding. It was a small field (some people called it a “ghetto”) that could support only a few full-time writers, so most were part-time enthusiasts who wrote largely out of love.  There were few books (almost none for twenty years between the creation of Amazing Stories and the end of World War II), so everybody had read everything and discussions could assume a mutual experience.  Today there are more than two thousand books published every year, something for almost every taste, but only three magazines of diminishing circulation (but lots of on-line publications), and novels are not only the principal source of reading experience but of income as well, and can support maybe hundreds of full-time writers.  There is something being published for almost every taste, but little that any two readers have experienced or can agree upon as being central.  When you include films, television, and games the experience becomes so diffuse that rather than a readership or viewership one can only describe overlapping fandoms.  The writing itself, at its best, rivals the best in fiction anywhere.  I often have the feeling, however, that the substance, the idea impact, the sense-of-wonder doesn’t match the quality of the writing.  Maybe that’s because I’m no longer twelve, or maybe the big, sense-of-wonder ideas have been used up and now writers are focusing on how to package them better.  Or maybe the writing workshop students have brought their sense of literary values to the field and are thinking in small-scale human terms.  Or maybe the field is waiting for the next transformation.  That used to happen every ten or twelve years with the creation of a new magazine or a new editor.  Once the magazines lost their central influence, change became more difficult.  Cyberpunk was a small-scale explosion and more recent singularity fiction, but the big transformation may be waiting for a writer (or, less likely these days, an editor) who can be the midwife to its birth.

James Gunn in 1975. Photo by Robin Wayne Bailey.
James Gunn in 1975. Photo by Robin Wayne Bailey.

ASM: You helped establish both the Campbell and Sturgeon Awards. How were these awards created, and what do they stand for?

JG: After Campbell’s death in 1971, Harry Harrison, Gordon Dickson, and I got to talking at the Nebula Awards about what might be done to honor his memory.  Harry and Brian Aldiss did something about it and created the Campbell Award for the best SF novel of the year, and it was first awarded at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1973. I became a member of the committee in 1974, when it was presented at the University of California at Fullerton.  Subsequently Harry and Brian took it to Europe, where it was awarded in Oxford, in Stockholm, and in a suburb of Dublin before Brian finally persuaded me to make a permanent home for it at the University of Kansas.  The Sturgeon Award got created after Ted’s death when Jayne Tannehill, Ted’s partner in the last decade or so of his life, approached me at the WorldCon in Atlanta and asked what I could suggest as a suitable memorial, and we agreed upon the Sturgeon Award for the best short SF of the year.  Ted was probably the most talented short-story writer the field has known.

ASM: As an author, historian, scholar, and friend, you have studied and known many of the legends in the industry. Please give us a brief character sketch or memory of the following people.

ASM: John W. Campbell, Jr. 

Lunch with John W. Campbell DVDJG: I didn’t know Campbell nearly as well as the New York writers did who could drop into his office regularly.  I saw him in his office maybe three times and he took me to lunch once; I interviewed him for the “Lunch with John Campbell” film.  Mostly I saw him at conventions.  On those occasions he seemed sort-of Olympian, more at home with ideas than with people. He liked to debate controversial issues, often working out his monthly editorials by discussing them with the writers who visited him during the month, and capable of taking either side.  I got a different impression of him from reading the letters he wrote during the mid-1930s to 1950 or so, recently published in a version edited by Sam Moskowitz.  In those he seemed more experimental, less certain, more human.  He deserves every credit for creating the “Golden Age” by force of idea, will, and effort.

ASM: Robert Heinlein

JG: My experience with Heinlein was mostly centered around the 1976 WorldCon in Kansas City, when Heinlein was guest-of-honor and I was the SFWA liaison.  Jerry Pournelle asked me to act as an intermediary with the convention committee when Heinlein had some issues with it (“Why would they want to insult me by suggesting a ‘roast’ instead of the usual g-o-h dinner?”), and we talked frequently on the telephone.  Heinlein was a formal person (with me—maybe not with close friends): there were proper ways to behave and other ways that were not, and a gentleman knew what they were.  He believed there was a duty of the young to the elder and the strong to the weak; readers got this from his fiction, as well.  Maybe this stems from his Naval Academy training. He brought political philosophy into the field and pioneered the technique of imbedding background into the action.

ASM: Isaac Asimov 

JG: I got to know Isaac pretty well, though mostly at conventions and Nebula Award weekends. We corresponded after the Cleveland WorldCon, he mostly by postcard.  I remember one in which he chortled that he had written a pornographic scene that the postmaster general couldn’t censor (in The Naked Sun Gladia takes off a glove and touches Elijah Bailey on the cheek—pornographic in the context).  Maybe I feel I know him well because I have read all of his autobiographies.  He was a cool, logical person with a great memory capable of great enthusiasm and friendships and loyalty, and he came to glory in what he was, individual peculiarities and all.

ASM: Theodore Sturgeon

JG: Ted was a tremendously talented writer with a charismatic personality. He made a great impression on people by listening to them and eliciting their personal stories in a way that they sometimes interpreted as deep interest in them as individuals. I got to know him at conventions, especially the 1954 WorldCon in Philadelphia, where he enunciated his famous 90% of everything law.  When I started my Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, I asked him to be a guest writer for a week, and he came to Kansas every summer until his death.  I got to know him much better then, his enthusiasms, his quirks, his concerns.  He was well depicted as “Pan” on the F&SF cover of the issue dedicated to him.

Kampus by James GunnASM: Frederik Pohl

JG: I have known Fred for more than sixty years, as agent, author, editor, colleague, and friend.  He knows more about more things than anyone, except maybe Isaac, and even there Fred’s interests were broader, though not as deep in the scientific fields.  Fred made a point of visiting places of technological interest wherever he traveled (and wrote about them), and he traveled extensively.  He blazed a pathway for me as a lecturer on science fiction in Europe for the U.S.I.A.  He served as one of my visiting writers in the SF Institute every summer (except the summer he married Elizabeth Anne Hull) for more than twenty years, and joined with me to help select the Sturgeon Award winners until this year.  We both collaborated with Jack Williamson and together inaugurated the Williamson Lectures at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.  He edited one of my favorite books, Kampus.  And he is a great writer. His and Cyril Korbluth’s The Space Merchants (and later collaborations and individual works) brought social satire firmly into the SF field, and his Gateway married the novel of character to the novel of ideas.  I taught them both in my SF novel class.

ASM: Hugo Gernsback

JG: I met Gernsback only once, at the WorldCon in Chicago in 1952, where he was guest-of-honor.  I had a letter from him a couple of years earlier, after I had written an article about SF for the Kansas City Star and he thanked me for my comments about his pioneer work with Amazing StoriesThat also put me on his Christmas card list, which came in the form of a little magazine with articles about future technological developments.  He was a capable entrepreneur with an enthusiasm for technology and science that sometimes overwhelmed his practical good sense. I have the feeling that he wouldn’t have understood what his scientifiction had become.

Star Bridge by James Gunn and Jack WilliamsonASM: Jack Williamson

JG: I met Jack at the 1952 WorldCon (he was standing behind me in the registration line) and we became good friends.  He asked me to take over his material for Star of Empire, which became our collaborative novel Star Bridge and hasn’t been out of print since (Tor Books will reprint it in 2014).  We saw each other more when I was freelancing in Kansas City from 1953-1955, and he and Blanche came to town once a year to visit her sister. But we stayed in touch.  Jack was named the second Grand Master (after Heinlein) and deserved it, writing through ten decades, adjusting to every new development, and inventing some of his own.  He was like a native flower growing isolated and unsuspected in the New Mexico desert, homespun, unpretentious, loyal, generous, and one of my great honors to have known.

ASM: Looking back on your career so far, what are you most proud of?

JG: It is difficult to single out any one thing—I could say the Grand Master Award but it has been a continuum, a lifetime with science fiction that seems all of a piece, an experience, a way of life, a guide to the world, the universe, the future, and even the past.  Science fiction is, more than anything, a way of thought, and it has been my privilege to have experienced it and had the opportunity to share its benefits and pleasures with others.

ASM: Thank you for joining us today. We have so many more questions we want to ask and stories we want to hear, but, alas, those will have to wait until this year’s WorldCon. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories? 

JG: Let’s save the world through science fiction.

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