Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2007

Under a different title, this article was originally published in Fladnag, a genzine edited by Stven Carlberg. I've done some minimal editing to my horribly florid introduction, and added a postscript, but mostly, left it as I wrote it, and Bester said it. Years have passed, and so has he, but my admiration for "Alfie" has diminished not a whit.

What's it All About, Alfie?
An interview with Alfred Bester

by Guy Lillian III

What follows is a transcript of a most remarkable conversation. Its genesis was as follows: as part of my research, in the fall of 1974, for an article on comics editor and onetime SF agent supreme Julius Schwartz, I called upon Alfred Bester at his Madison Avenue apartment. Julie, gruffily meddling in my efforts to immortalize him in The Amazing World of DC Comics, had insisted that in addition to those I already planned on contacting, I glean the opinions of three people: Mort Weisinger, his lifelong friend and fellow editor ... Gardner Fox, the immortal comics scripter who had written hundreds of stories for Schwartz's blue pencil (actually, Julie edited with red ink) ... and Alfred Bester.

Out in the crowded microverse that is science fiction fandom, the name of Bester is instantly recognizable. "Imagination" and "Creativity" suggest themselves as qualities for the man, nay, even "genius" ... and in the fall of '74, here is Lillian, imagining the creativity with which this genius would turn down any request for his valuable time, even for such a worthy purpose as honoring Schwartz.

But approach him I did. Such a mellow, musical tenor over the telephone, agreeing most expansively to an interview. So I gulped back my insecurities and, after work one memorable day, hied self and tape recorder to a doorway on busy, bustling Madison Avenue. "Fifteen minutes," I told myself, "or half an hour. Then get the hell out of there! You'll only embarrass yourself!"

Hoohah ... two hours later, when Alfred Bester finally let me leave ...

To describe Bester the man? "Gracious" leaps up and begs for favor out of all the adjectives that could apply. Physically, tall, slender, graceful (that root again!), a man with style. If you insist on particulars, deep eyebrows, an eternal smile amidst a natty gray goatee; a snappy satanic laughing look he has to him. A rapid, enthusiastic, involved voice, a manner which drew one out of whatever shell one had entered for protection against the blazing light of excellence. And why not? Bester had recently retired as an editor of Holiday, where one of his duties was writing interviews -- with Heinlein, among others. He had the touch. He could draw Napoleon forth from his tomb for interesting conversation.

We settled in his living room and I propped the mike on the bridge of one of his spectacles. And enough ado ... Here's what we said, punctuated every few minutes by the exquisite chimes of his $600 cuckoo clock ...

I'm leaving out most of what Bester had to say about Julius Schwartz, as that material was used in my article "Strange Schwartz Stories" in Amazing World of DC Comics #3 [reprinted in Challenger #20]. One item, however, proved itself of such pivotal importance to Bester's career that it bears fuller mention here ...

 

GHLIII: Which stories of yours did Julie sell?

BESTER: He sold the most important one as far as I was concerned. He sold a tremendously long fantasy to Campbell for Unknown. This was an electrifying experience for me because it was more or less an accolade to be accepted for Unknown. That was the big sale. He sold a few other cockamamie things. The Campbell one was "Hell is Forever". I was quite astonished.

Putnam is bringing out a collection of my short stuff [The Light Fantastic and Star Light, Star Bright, 1976], and I thought this might be included since they want a hundred thousand words of my material. The guys at Analog were very kind; they went through the files -- it took'em weeks -- and they finally dug out the copy it appeared in. I asked them to have it photostatted for me since I didn't have a copy of it. The file copy of the magazine was so fragile that they could only photostat the facing pages -- they couldn't overleaf the overleaf side; they were afraid they'd break the magazine to pieces if they did that. One of the editorial assistants very kindly typed up every odd page for me. You can imagine the length of the story, 'cause the odd pages came to 70.

Then of course came the moment to reread it. The story had been written, goodness knows, thirty years earlier. I thought, "It must be a piece of shit; it just has to be!" So I sat down to reread it, and you know, it wasn't all that bad, not half as bad as I'd expected. I retyped it myself from the photostats and her typescript, and had the good sense to cut it a little bit. As a young writer, you have the tendency to overwrite very badly. I had a nice opportunity to edit myself, with a thirty-year gap between us. I enjoyed it very much -- also worked very hard; it took me a week solid.

Anyway, Julie sold that one, and that was the big, big step up in my confidence. I thought, "Well, by God, if I can make it with Unknown, then maybe I'm a writer after all." The only way you know is the pat on the back of having other people approve of what you've done.

GHLIII: And how'd you get into comics?

BESTER: Oh yes. I had been writing science fiction -- not many stories, perhaps half a dozen at the most -- for Standard Magazines, where I had met Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff. They were brought over to Detective Comics, because the comic book boom had just begun. There was a desperate search for editors, so these two guys were stolen from Standard Magazines and they brought me along with them -- because there was also a desperate need for writers. I knew absolutely nothing about comics; I'd never even looked at one in my life. They gave me a batch which I read through -- they didn't know anything either, for God's sake. We all learned together.

There was a writer there who was a marvelous comic book writer; he probably invented the whole script system. His name was Bill Finger. Bill was extraordinarily kind to me; he did something which, as a colleague, I really appreciated so deeply. It was a Saturday morning -- I've never forgotten that was a Saturday morning and it was raining -- Bill took me in hand and said, "I'm going to teach you how to write comic books." He paced up and down in an office with the rain beating against the panes, telling me -- and I absorbed every word -- about comic books and comic book writing. And of course Mort and Jack and Murray Boltinoff, who was already with'em -- the three of them just sat on my tail and beat the shit out of me and knocked me over the head.

I had two or three years of apprenticeship and they were the best, luckiest years I ever had. George Burns once said about the death of vaudeville that it was a shame, because there just ain't no place for kids to be lousy anymore. Well, comics gave me the chance to be lousy. For two or three years I got a lot of rotten writing out of my system. I learned how to write -- learned economy, dialog, visualization, so forth and so on. It was only natural that I should jump from those years of training to radio, and from radio to television.

GHLIII: What sort of characters did you handle?

BESTER: Let's see ... The Green Lantern, of course -- but that was later on. I wrote a frightful thing called the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy ... oh God, there were so many. I know I did invent a strip of my own, that ran for about six months or so, called Genius Jones.

GHLIII: How long were you in comics?

BESTER: I was in comics '38 or '39 to '41 or '42. I left just after we banged into the war.

I had one funny experience during that time that I was writing comics. I also ghosted Mandrake and The Phantom for Lee Falk. Lee and I got together and he was telling me how one of the Sunday pages from Mandrake sold at auction in Paris for three hundred dollars. I told him, when we moved into our brownstone at 68th Street, the old Stephen Vincent Binet house we managed to get, I papered one entire wall of my workshop with the silver prints from Green Lantern. And he said, "My God, they're worth a fortune today, do you still have them?" I said "No, when we moved out I just left'em behind; I just put'em up with carpet tacks." I had no idea then that there would be this tremendous nostalgia vogue for the old comics. Had I but known ...

(Our talk moves away from comics, amidst the wee-waw of NYC sirens from the street and the regular chimes of that beautiful clock.)

GHLIII: I have a question about The Demolished Man, something I've wanted to ask you for years. What happened to the prologue in the magazine version? It ain't in the book.

BESTER: Space. New American Library told me, "Look, our maximum is 70,000 words, and you run over 70. We can't cut the novel because we'd have to say on the cover 'Cut', 'edited,' if we do." They were afraid that would kill sales. "But we can drop the prologue without being forced to put that on." So I said "Okay, drop the prologue."

GHLIII: I liked Ben Reich.

BESTER: Yeah, I did too. I've always, of course, since those days in radio and even before, been dedicated to the anti-hero. I've always hated heroes. I'm rather amused to see that today everybody is writing anti-heroes -- there's no such thing as Jack-Armstrong-All-American-Boy left.

GHLIII: Another dumb fan question. In The Stars My Destination, when you put those typographical bits like "A beam of light attacked" into the story, how did you put those tricks on the page?

BESTER: The "beam of light attacked"s I had to do in longhand. The other stuff -- "He was on the brawling Spanish stairs," etc. -- I did on the machine.

The funniest thing about [typographical trickery] was in The Demolished Man. It was a scene in which I had to give a party, an esper party. I thought, it's gotta be different, they just can't stand around drinking drinks. I spent a whole day, really, 24 solid hours, counting a few naps and a little sleep, trying to figure out how to make the party different. So finally it came to me -- I'd do it with patterns. I was delighted, I was able to go to bed, and I got up and I thought, "Well, we're in, kid!" But then came the moment when I had to start doing the patterns ...

Well, that took four days, to do that one page, to get everything to interlock completely, and oh God it was a terrible ordeal. When you think, "Ah, the hard work is over," that's when the hard work really begins.

(Discussion of The Demolished Man leads me to inquire after the book's Hugo Award, and the recorder goes off while we go in search of the trinket. It is found on a shelf in the author's work room. Our talk turns to Robert Heinlein's speech at the New York YWCA in 1974 -- and a reversal of our roles. Bester asked the first question.)

BESTER: So what kind of a guy did you think he was?

GHLIII: Well, growing up when I did -- and I hope you'll understand this -- I expected some sort of benighted fascist. What I met was something entirely different -- something much, much more -- a very nice man.

BESTER: Yes, he's a darling guy, he really is. He's the essence of courtesy and good will and good temper. I had it out with Robert when I did a short interview with him for Publisher's Weekly, and I brought that up. I said, "Robert, this is a professional interview and I'm going to be an interviewer, and forget about friendship. You have often been accused of being a fascist, of rooting for villainous types, and I want your answer on that." And he said, "Aw, Alfie, now come on! I've never deliberately written a villain, you know that. Oh. I've occasionally written a cardboard villain, when I needed one, but not very often. Quite frankly, no man is a villain unto himself. So some of my characters will do bad things, but they're not villains. They don't realize that they're bad."

Which of course is a perfectly reasonable point of view. On the other hand, don't forget that Robert was trained at the Naval Academy, and it's left a stamp on him that cannot be measured. He read me a portion of the speech he was going to deliver down at the Academy. He was on the kick of his contempt for Dr. Johnson, who said that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel ... He began to cry. He was so sincere that he began to weep. He's a devout believer in patriotism and in his idea of what civilization is, and his idea of civilization is "Women and children first."

He is the epitome of the Aristotelian thinker, the yes/no, two-valued thinker. With him it's right or wrong, yes or no; multi-valued judgments are impossible for him. Which is why Robert, for all his charm and brilliance, is really terribly dated. He's practically petrified, almost a fossil. We must be capable today, in the world in which we live, of making multi-valued judgments of each situation, realizing that there is no Right nor Wrong, there is only what is right at this particular moment for oneself or for whatever one is working. Something may be right today, then wrong tomorrow. Not for Robert; Robert has to go right down the line with what he thinks is right. He cannot waver one iota.

GHLIII: He's the kind of man someone my age has to live up to, eventually. The model he gave me was an impressive and not negative one. That kind of dedication to himself -- he stood up there [at the YWCA] like steel.

BESTER: Yes, he does that when he gets self-conscious. He's very shy.

GHLIII: He apologized for stammering, and said "Please laugh at me!" He was really quite nice. Except when he met Alexei Panshin ...

(At this point I described the fabled, horrible encounter between author and subject of Heinlein in Dimension -- a subject for another time. But Bester's response can't wait...)

BESTER: Oh my God, I knew it would be a disaster, but I didn't think it would be a catastrophe!

GHLIII: Daniel F. Galouye once told me that if Heinlein had gotten into mainstream writing, and had its extra pressures, he could have turned out to be as excellent a writer as Hemingway.

BESTER: I'll go even further than that. With all his faults, he could have made another Kipling. And the only one who has ever done more than Kipling with the language was Joyce.

(The discussion moves through Shakespeare onto The Computer Connection.)

BESTER: My agent and I planned how to handle it. We thought that the first step would be Analog for magazine publication, simply because that's the most prestigious of the science fiction magazines. Ben Bova bought it and made some suggestions for revisions. It was up to me whether or not I would accept them. But Ben is a marvelous editor -- one of the few editors, outside of myself, that I respect. Those touches turned the book from a good book to a damned good book.

GHLIII: Bova really turned Analog around.

BESTER: Of course, I hardly knew [John W.] Campbell at all. I only met him once or twice, and we fought like cats and dogs. No, not like cats and dogs, it's just that we made each other's hackles rise. The couple of times I met him, Campbell pontificated, and I was not going to stand for that. I kept cutting him down, and he didn't like that, so it was just a question of who would shoot first, that's all. Fortunately there were only those two meetings and they were not very long. I did not like Campbell. I did like his magazine, very very much.

Oh God, I remember one summer -- my wife was working in a summer stock company, and I spent a long hot August weekend up in our apartment on 106th Street. I had gone to a secondhand magazine shop and bought a batch of old Astoundings, including the three that contained Slan. And I spent the weekend reading Slan. My God, what an experience!

But it doesn't hold up! I had to reread it when I was doing book reviews for F&SF, in a reissue ... Mr. Lillian, you must never go back, you must never go back. Just hold on to the old illusions. Twenty years after the fact, I looked at it with the eyes of a man twenty years older, with twenty years more experience.

I just had the same experience with one of my favorite novels, a great theatrical novel, which we were all enchanted with when we first read it. I had to take a quote from it, and went back and looked through it, found the quote ... in the course of looking through it I began to read passages, and then chapters, and sort of reread it very rapidly. Speed-read half the book ... and it was pure soap opera! It couldn't stand up today. And I was very sorry.

The same thing happened to me with Ulysses. God in heaven, I can't tell you how my life was racked up by Ulysses. The last year that I was with Holiday, we did an issue with a photo essay on Bloomsday in Dublin. I had to do the caps for the pictures, and in capsule form tell the entire plot of Ulysses, which I had only read about fourteen thousand times. I had to refresh my memory, so I reread it, very rapidly. It's not that the book didn't stand up, it's that we had grown apart. It's a young man's book, Mr. Lillian. When you're older, and more mature, and more interested in subjectivity, how can you possibly be as captivated by this book, which is the epitome, the last word in objective writing? It's like a surgeon's scalpel, it's that cold-blooded, and brilliant in its analysis. I need warmth when I read. And that's why I say that the book did not stand up for me -- only because we'd grown apart.

GHLIII: It sounds like something I'll have to live with, when it happens.

BESTER: No, don't go back, that's all. Never go back -- just hold on to that first impression.

 

AFTERWORD, 2007: And so it went. Bester showed me his workshop -- actually, the apartment above his living quarters. I glimpsed the manuscript of A Tender Case of Rape -- eventually published as Tender Loving Rage -- sitting on a desk. His wife Rollie came home, and looking me over with a professional's eye, said "What a handsome young man!" She was just being nice, of course, but ... wow, what a compliment. Before I left, Bester gave me some presents -- a Japanese edition of The Dark Side of the Earth and, for some reason, a huge packet of parchment. It was quite some hassle getting it home. I still have the Japanese book, but the parchment? Who knows?

I was told that Bester liked the article I wrote about Julie Schwartz -- in fact, I was told he said that if he'd still worked at Holiday, he'd hire me. Talk about compliments! I saw him twice more -- once when he came to the D.C. Comics office to discuss the Superman movie (wowing my boss, Carmine Infantino, who was not easy to wow), and two years later, at MidAmeriCon. He gassed the crowd "talkin' shop," and I got to repay him for his kindness of two years previous by introducing him to R.A. Lafferty. Bester died in 1987, shortly after the world science fiction convention at which he was supposed to be Guest of Honor.

At one point, when we were talking about Julie Schwartz, he warned me -- as an interviewer -- not to get too close to my subject. "It's obvious that you love the man so much that it's bound to cloud your judgment," he said. True enough. Happened here, too. When I look over this article now, 33 years after the conversation, I am aghast at the opportunity I let slip. I was so impressed by the man I was speaking with that I didn't ask him the questions I would now ask any serious writer: what haven't you written that you always wanted to write? Why not? Is there anything that you feel is beyond you?

Well -- he was right when he advised boy GHLIII to hang onto first impressions. Here's mine. Alfred Bester wrote The Stars My Destination. And he was kind to a kid in 1974 who has always remembered it, appreciated it, and loved him for it.

 

[ HOME ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2003-2007 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.