Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Peter Israel on how he became editor of two science fiction classics by Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein

During the next year two landmark works of science fiction celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their publication. In June 1961 G. P. Putnam’s published Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which won the Hugo Award and became a cult classic. The following summer Putnam’s published The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which won the subsequent Hugo Award and is considered by many to be, in the words of the New Statesman, Dick’s “most finely wrought work.” Both novels are famed for having been extensively reworked from their original manuscripts prior to publication—and both had the same editor: the young Peter Israel, who would go on to become president and chairman of Putnam’s. Here Israel offers his reminiscences of working with two legends.

Guest blog post by Peter Israel:

Phil Dick? Philip K. Dick? The Philip K. Dick? Now there’s a name out of my past! Let me explain. Once upon a time (as though in a galaxy far, far away), when—oh, say, a mere half-century ago—I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons and hungry for new authors, an enterprising young agent in Scott Meredith’s office, Henry Morrison, sent me a manuscript called The Man in the High Castle by a little-known writer, also young and aspiring. Although, as I learned, he’d already published several science fiction novels and tons of short stories, I’d never heard of the author.

At the time I was not a particular fan of the genre. True, we’d recently begun publishing one illustrious science-fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, but even that had come about in an odd way. Publishing science fiction in hardcover in the 1960s was a marginal proposition, the sales modest, limited mostly to libraries. The true market was in rack-sized, mass-market paperbacks, the readership mostly young. Even classics-in-the-making—I’m thinking, for example, of Frank Herbert’s Dune—had trouble finding a home in hardcovers. (Dune, which also won a Hugo, would finally be published in 1965 by Chilton, a publisher that specialized in automotive manuals!)

No matter. I was enthralled to discover The Man in the High Castle. Frustrated by it too. Gripping as its central concept was—what would life be like in America if the Axis powers had triumphed in World War II? (doubled, so ingeniously, by a “science-fiction” novel-within-the-novel which presupposed the opposite!)—the narrative seemed to wobble the further it went. The second half of the script, though highly readable (as Phil Dick’s work always was), hardly seemed to hold together.

No matter indeed. Wasn’t I, after all, the boy-genius editor, hungry for new talent? So we acquired the book for Putnam—the advance, I seem to remember, was on the order of $1,500—and set to work on a revision, particularly of that problematic second half. Far be it from me to remember the nuts and bolts of all the changes after all these years, but for once the author-editor collaboration bore fruit. At his end, Phil showed a remarkable ability to edit and rewrite his own work. I also think he was grateful to have found an editor who cared enough to go through the editorial process with him. At my end, I was convinced that if we could present the book as a thriller rather than as an exceptional genre novel, we might find a larger audience for this most interesting writer.

In this, of course, I was dead wrong, at least as far as sales of the hardcover in book stores were concerned. I doubt the net sale of our edition reached 1,500 copies, a decidedly money-losing proposition. On the other hand, the book was adopted by the Science Fiction Book Club, the paperback rights were sold (if for a modest advance), and the Hugo Award followed. In its Berkley paperback edition, the book has never been out of print, not even fifty years later. As for me, in my wisdom, I declined Phil’s next book, and he went on to write dozens of other works, all, alas, published elsewhere. But I am pleased to see his prolific, almost legendary career culminate, if posthumously, in the exalted sphere of The Library of America.

Meanwhile, I survived the publishing wars—in France and then again in the U.S.—and though I never did become a dyed-in-the-wool fan of science fiction, it was my privilege, ironically enough, to have published three of the great luminaries in the field: Phil Dick, Bob Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. The latter two, in later years, became personal friends, but Phil is the one I look back on still with a young editor’s pride and immense enthusiasm.

I mentioned above that Robert Heinlein landed at Putnam in an odd way. I might have said in an Alphonse-Gaston way. This is what happened. At the time Bob had two publishers—one for his adult novels, one for his juvenile. He submitted a manuscript which his adult publisher (I seem to remember it being Doubleday) said wasn't "adult" and which his juvenile (Scribner's maybe?) said didn't fit their category either. Perplexed, he and his agent then offered it to us. We said we didn't care what it was, we'd happily take it on, and its author with it. And so it came about. The book in question was Starship Troopers. It too has never been out of print.

Could I take this opportunity to set the record straight on one other aspect of my work with Bob? My protestations to the contrary, he always credited me with having come up with the title of his most famous work, Stranger in a Strange Land. This is what actually happened. When Bob’s agent, Lurton Blassingame, delivered that extraordinary manuscript to Putnam, it bore some impossible title. (It may have been something like The Heretic, but I seem to recall that “groking” was a part of it. At any rate, it simply wouldn’t do.) Now my editorial mentor, in those far-off days was our hugely gifted, if rather quixotic, editor-in-chief, Howard Cady, and Howard always kept a folder on his desk of “eligible” titles. That is, whenever he ran across a phrase or a quotation that, one day, might make an excellent title for this or that needy manuscript, he jotted it down and stuck it in the folder. And it was there, as I was grasping desperately for straws trying to find a substitute for the “groking” one, that I found Stranger in a Strange Land. So thank you, Howard, wherever you are. And Robert, kindly accept this belated corrective.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)

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