My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Delightful memoir of a life well lived. I’ve not read much of Mr. Harrison…always found somebody else to read, but I recently read the first of a trilogy I found at an antique shop and now I want to read more (as time permits…I only have so many books left to me!) I’d read Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers long ago and reread it in 2016, but never picked up the Stainless Steel Rat, or his Edens, or really any others.
Harrison had a wit. I didn’t know he was an Esperanto aficionado (“I speak Esperanto like a native, or as Damon Knight once said, ‘Harry speaks the worst English and the best Esperanto I have ever heard.'” – “native”!) And picked up many languages in the countries he lived in. Amazing and envious ability that.
Harrison has words of wisdom for writers plying their trade:
This is the craft of writing: knowing the market and writing just what the market wants. It’s a win-win situation. You have discovered what certain editors and readers want. You have satisfied that need and earned a few bucks in the process. There is certainly no shame involved. To put it simply: writers write. But how is this done? First you must face the truth that writing is a conscious craft. Yes, the good old subconscious works and inspiration helps. But as a wise man said, “Writing is 1 percent inspiration— and 99 percent perspiration.” It is very hard work.
[and for specific writing…]
I have written and sold such diverse items as men’s adventures, Westerns, a small biography of Lena Horne, and detective stories, each with its specific needs. That’s the secret of genre writing: study your market.
And wisdom of the image writers face… When freelancing and living with his in-laws after a time living in Europe, interruptions would ruin a day’s writing because the thoughts would fly:
The door never opens while I am at the typewriter. Joan knew that— the children imbibed that knowledge with the first air they breathed. Still the door opened, my fingers froze, my jaw gaped wide. My mother-in-law looked in and said: “Harry, since you are not doing anything, would you go to the store for me?” What a storehouse of content, meaning, and attitude in that single sentence. How neatly it summed up the nonwriter’s attitude toward the writer’s craft. This sentence was so perfect— of its kind—that I have passed it on to many other writers. Years later it was quoted back to me; now part of the Apocrypha of our trade.
“since you’re not doing anything…” Sigh.
The Harrisons moved a lot, and having escaped the in-laws with a move to California, Harry found himself a surprising island of reason in Coronado:
The politics got right up my nose too. That part of the world where we were living was very right wing— they’re all ex-navy and it’s in their blood. It made for an uncomfortable environment. On an earlier visit to America, my cousin Debbie had thrown a party. She was an accountant and all her friends were in the same trade. I was chatting with one, an ex-navy man now employed by H& R Block. Which says a lot. The conversation went: “So you’re Debbie’s relative?”“First cousin.”“Great to have relatives you get on with. You still live back east?” (The following conversation is quoted verbatim.) “No. In fact I live overseas. In Denmark.”“So you’re a commie.”“Sorry…?”“You have socialized medicine, don’t you?”“Yes, but—”“So you’re a commie.” He turns about and leaves. No attempt to listen to the benefits of the Danish medical system. How happy we are to use it. How capitalism and socialism mix easily to all our benefits. What had happened to my country? Had big drug and big pharma worked such a mind-blowing change?
Sad, and nearly true, but not all Navy are that way, Mr. Harrison…not all Navy. Still, when Brian Aldiss visited him, he observed
Brian enjoyed the frontierlike quality of Imperial Beach but, sadly, it was time to leave . Brian and I were enjoying a last beer when he hesitated— then said with feeling, “I’ve enjoyed every moment— so don’t get me wrong …“But I do feel that you are knee-high in a waist-deep culture.” He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t have to.
I wonder what Mr. Aldiss would say about the depth of today’s American culture?
I was glad to see Harrison’s – and the class he was teaching – assessment of E.E. “Doc” Smith:
We came to the conclusion, after a lot of discussion, that the readers of “Doc” Smith were all prepubescent little boys, and not only that, but the Gray Lensman was also a prepubescent little boy— you take down his zipper and it’s smooth, there’s nothing underneath it at all! E. E. Smith had a PhD —he worked as a chemist in a donut factory.
And Harrison thought him a nice guy…just not a writer. And yet
I have a letter in my correspondence file from Terry Carr saying how terrible “ Doc” Smith is. I said, “How old were you when you read it? ” He said, “I was twenty -one.” I was eight years old, and let me tell you, when you’re eight years old it reads pretty well. It’s age-dependent, bad writing and stupid plotting, and a lot of juvenility.
On the atrocity his story Make Room! Make Room! became, “Soylent Green”, and the filming, he said of one scene
Then [Edward G.] Robinson took this really dreary, badly written scene and before our eyes built a new scene that embodied the essence of the book and the film. Old wooden-faced Heston had to actually act a little bit—
More on writing, Harrison says of peer reactions to his Stainless Steel Rat series
The problem is that fast-paced humorous adventure stories are rarely taken seriously. Books that appear to be written quickly are actually harder to write. The story moves at a faster pace, but only because of the work the author has put in. Sentences are shortened and paragraphs have fewer sentences. Punctuation becomes simpler, with commas dropped so that the reader zips through the sentences. Dialogue is punchier. It is disappointing when critics say “he writes hastily.” I still have to do my homework and get my facts right.
And his essay on how he developed West of Eden (not included in the main body of the book because Harrison died before they could work it in)… a lot of getting facts right. Impressive, he says he had 30,000 words of notes before even starting the novel!
In addition to more Harrison books on my horizon, he also mentioned a book by Chapman Cohen that I have to hunt down. Meanwhile, full circle, a delightful read.