Interview with SFWA Grand Master Frederik Pohl

SFWA Grand Master Series LogoToday we are joined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master Frederik Pohl. Frederik was one of those wild-eyed youths who through force of will and determination spread science fiction across the world. Even today, his sweat still marks the hammer and anvil that forged the industry.

Across his career, he helped create the concept of fandom with his participation and organization of legendary clubs such as the Futurians and Hydras. Frederik worked as editor on numerous magazines and books, including his award-winning efforts at Galaxy and If. During his career, he also worked as an agent for some of science fiction’s great authors, including Grand Masters Isaac Asimov and James Gunn.

In addition to all of these efforts, Frederik contributed to our beloved science fiction as a writer. He successfully collaborated with authors such as CM Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, Isaac Asimov, and Lester del Rey. His solo novel Gateway is considered by some to be the greatest example of science fiction ever written. As evidence, it is one of only two novels to win the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards.

Frederik Pohl
Frederik Pohl

Frederik served as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He is a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has won six Hugos, three Nebulas, two Campbells, and so many additional awards that the state of Illinois issued his trophy room its own zip code. Frederik remains the only person to have won Hugos as both writer and editor. Did I mention he is also a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame? When not reshaping society through science fiction, Frederik travels the galaxy, visiting the Seven Wonders of the Milky Way.

R.K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Frederik. Back in your youth, science fiction was still a newly minted term. Society, in general, had not yet taken notice of this genre that today dominates our culture. You were amongst a handful of young men and women who organized yourselves into legendary fan groups such as the Futurians. You even went so far as to create the first fan magazines, editing several yourself. Please share with us about those early days. What was it like being a science fiction fan when the greats of the industry were still just finding their way?

FREDERIK POHL: It  was wonderful.  We kids who were living in that age didn’t know just how wonderful because they weren’t aware that some of the most exciting discoveries in science—the ones that inspired myriad sf stories—were incomplete, and thus gave both scientists and sf writers freedom to speculate.  Venus was covered in clouds no telescope could see through, so stories could be written about the planet as a single great ocean, or an immense forest with the Venusians living in two-mile-high trees.

Unfortunately for our freedom to imagine, most of what scientists learn about the universe limits, rather than encourages our imagination.  When Doc Smith wanted to go long distances in his Skylark of Space he just stepped on the gas and his ship went as fast as he liked to distant stars.  He had no idea that the speed of light was a limiting factor.

ASM: How do you view the importance of fandom within the science fiction industry?

FP: Fandom is where sf writers are born.  A majority of writers start as readers, at some point try writing a story for fun, and sometimes get good at it.

ASM: How have fans changed since those early days back in New York?

FP: Unfortunately quite a few have drifted off to fantasy.  At the same time, even more unfortunately, a lot have abandoned both reading and writing for game-playing and texting, which I deplore.

1939 World's FairASM: This year (2013) your good friend James Gunn will be Guest of Honor at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). You attended the very first WorldCon in 1939, until you were unceremoniously asked to leave. Please tell us how WorldCon was created and what transpired at the original event.

FP: Conventions were basically Don Wollheim’s idea, like many other fan innovations.  (Someone should write a biography of Donald just to show in how many ways that is so.)  In 1936 there was much emphasis on political conventions, probably because there was unusual interest in politics as a result of the Depression and the New Deal; that’s what gave Donald the idea to call the visit of half a dozen New York fans to Philadelphia fandom “the first sf convention.”  Then he got the idea of taking advantage of New York’s upcoming World’s Fair for bigger game.  The Fair would bring millions of visitors to NYC; some small fraction of them would be fans; why not tack on an sf world con with all that raw material floating by?  All of New York’s fans got behind that idea, but then fan feuding messed things up.

ASM: The years before the birth of the Golden Age witnessed a flood of magazines and authors all looking for a direction in which to focus their passion. So many names appeared and disappeared. You were one of the stalwarts who pulled those mismatched pieces into a whole, serving as agent, editor, writer, and fan. Give us a sense of what it was like in the trenches during that revolutionary time. How did you saddle the wild stallion that bucked so many into the dirt?

FP: Just lucky, I guess

ASM: A lot has been written about John W. Campbell and his force of personality. You got to see him through the eyes of both agent and writer. What was it like to work with Campbell?

FP: As an agent I supplied John with more stories for his magazine than all other agents and free-lance writers combined.  The reason for that is that both John and I admired excellence in sf, so we were both attracted to working with the same writers.  That became less true as he drifted into Scientology, but by then we had become pretty good friends.

ASM: Who were some of your clients when you were an agent?

FP: Most of the best writers in the field.  The ones I am proudest of are Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth, but people like Larry Niven, Cordwainer Smith and many others were my discoveries.

Galaxy Magazine October 1962ASM: You started as an editor at a very young age, cutting your teeth on fan magazines. Later you developed into an award-winning editor for both magazines and books. Through your work as an agent and writer you interacted with some of the most well-known editors the industry has ever produced. How would you characterize your style as an editor, and how does it compare to some of the editors you worked with?

FP: I was hard-working.  I did my best to break my writers into fields new to them, sometimes with almost physical efforts.  (Isaac vigorously resisted my selling his first book, which was to Doubleday.  He patiently explained to me that book editors wanted to publish book writers, not magazine writers like himself.  We wound up yelling at each other, I think for the only time in our relationship.)  Others I got into tv or slick magazines.

gatewayASM: For those not familiar with your novel Gateway, please tell us a little about the story and how you came to write such a masterpiece.

FP: I wish I could explain it.  Then maybe I could do it often.

ASM: Many people can point to one story or film that hooked them on science fiction. What was the catalyst that sparked your passion for science fiction?

FP: Just those first few magazines that came my way, and, truth to tell, those early Amazings contained some pretty lousy stories.

ASM: How old were you when you knew you were born to be a writer?

FP: About 14 or 15.  Before that I just hoped I was.

ASM: If someone had made you pick between being an agent, writer, editor, or fan of science fiction, which would you choose and why?

FP: I couldn’t choose to give any one of them up.  That’s why I kept returning to be an editor, etc.

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

FP: Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. wells, Voltaire, Shakespeare and many others.  Maybe all of them.

Amazing Stories 1937ASM: As a writer, you published your first science fiction poem, “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna”, right here on the pages of Amazing Stories in 1937. You published the novella “Fermi and Frost” in 2012. Your poems, stories, and non-fiction works have been in print now for nine decades. How has science fiction and the publishing industry changed since it first took steps as an infant?

FP: It has become professionalized.  Think of John Campbell.  He had never had an editorial job when Tremaine unexpectedly dumped Astounding on him, but he took off running.  In a smaller, less confident way, so did I.

ASM: We have yet to mention your passion for teaching the craft of writing. What do you consider the fundamental lessons every author should know about writing?

FP: Touch-typing, followed by spelling and grammar.  Then just keep on doing these things until they get good.

ASM: Thank you for joining us today. We each owe you a great debt for your part in shaping this boundless wonder known as science fiction. We regret not having more time today to further explore your experiences and wisdom.

Author’s Note: A nasty beasty stalking the internet devoured the original version of this interview. Many thanks to the amazing Frederik Pohl and his wife Elizabeth Anne Hull for providing round two. Frederik will soon be publishing his second auto-biography The Rest of Me, which will contain many of the insights I attempted to pry from him ahead of the editor’s schedule. I hope you will pick up a copy.

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1 Comment

  1. Great interview with Pohl!

    I remember seeing him sitting in the underground labyrinth at the CHICON with “The Tunnel Under the World” on his mind.

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