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Interviews

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT BLOCH

Will Murray


Back in October 1975, I was covering the First World Fantasy Convention for Mediascene magazine, now called Prevue. During the course of that wonderful weekend, Robert Bloch was kind enough to consent to a brief interview. So, while agent Kirby McCauley hovered in the background, vainly attempting to get us to stop (he wanted Bloch's voice to be in tip-top shape for a speech later) we discussed his career. Only a few Bloch quotes made their way into my Mediascene article and that never saw print because the editor kept rescheduling it until it was ultimately too dated to print.

Murray: What are your feelings about the First World Fantasy Convention so far?
Bloch: I think it's one of the nicest conventions that I've attended in many years. Initially, when these affairs began, the purpose was to enable writers and artists and editors and publishers to actually have an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. And in those days, transportation was difficult. There was not that much communication. There were not that many fan clubs. Fandom was disorganized. And as a result, it was quite a rare occasion when all these people could convene. Initially, conventions were made up of 150 to 200 people. Later, they grew to three or four hundred. As long as it stayed within those limitations, we had a situation very similar to what we find this weekend. Enough people present so that there is a variety of interests represented, and yet a facility for meeting those people. You don't get lost in group of three or four thousand. I attended this July a Star Trek convention in Chicago in which sixteen thousand people had gathered. You couldn't find anyone. You couldn't spend any time with anyone. If you wanted to get from point A to point B, you were so mobbed by people asking questions or autograph seekers, that it often took an hour just to travel 50 or 75 feet! And to me this destroys the value of conventions, which is communication.
Murray: Why do you think it has taken this long for the fantasy enthusiasts to get together in their own convention?
Bloch: Well, first of all, Fantasy has been sort of an idiot brother to Science Fiction, some aspect of Science Fiction which orthodox Science Fiction writers and fans have tried to keep concealed in the attic where he can rave and scream without harming anyone. And as long as this was the situation, and the idiot brother was willing to be confined, there was no problem whatsoever. It took short shrift as it were from Science Fiction conventions. Then came the point where fantasy began to receive more critical attention, particularly the Lovecraftian Fantasy, and as a result it inspired some people to think about forming a convention. And we finally had to wait for a real yo-yo to come along that would do this sort of thing. Somebody who was rash enough, who was bananas enough, to take this upon himself. Someone like Kirby McCauley. And he is the guy who gave us this convention, to whom I think most attendees are going to be forever grateful. I know I am.
Murray: You've probably answered this question many times, but how strong an influence has Lovecraft had on your writing and on your life?
Bloch: Well, he had every influence possible. He was the man who I most admired in Fantasy, next to Edgar Allan Poe. He is the man who suggested that I write, encouraged me to write. He is the man responsible for my writing career. And I would say he is probably the strongest formative influence -- outside of my own parents -- on my entire life.
Murray: Yet you never met him.
Bloch: Never met him, but I feel that I know him quite well through the five years of correspondence we had from the time I was 15 to the time I was 20.
Murray: I know that many people who read Lovecraft's letters, whether they were addressed to them or not, are very strongly influenced by them. After reading a volume or two of his Selected Letters, they start writing letters like that and in that style. What do you suppose triggers that in a person?
Bloch: The desire to communicate. The same thing that causes people to write fiction, or non-fiction, or paint pictures, or compose music, or work in the plastic arts. There's a great desire to communicate, I think, on the part of all of us. And if we are in situations where the communication is difficult due to difficult circumstances or shyness or an introversion, this is a wonderful outlet. And a direct one.
Murray: You wrote for the pulps for years. Did you make a living at it?
Bloch: I made a living in the pulps from a period of 1935 to 1942 simply because in those days a living consisted of perhaps a hundred to two hundred dollars a month. You could live adequately. Because so many people in the so called straight area were making 15, 18, 20, 22 dollars a week as truck drivers, behind the counter in stores, in general occupations that didn't require any high degree of skill. In 1942, during the course of my marriage, my wife, who had suffered tuberculosis of the hip, had a recurrence of it. I needed more money for medical expenses. In '43, a daughter was born. Consequently, I had to augment that living. I went to one advertising agency and wrote copy. I did so with the understanding that I could do my own writing on the side. And so for the next eleven years, that's what I did. In '53, I left the advertising agency when my wife's condition was worse. Went to her home town, so in case she was incapacitated, she'd be with friends and family, and went back to full time writing. And of course I've managed to exist on that ever since.
Murray: When you were writing for the pulps did you have to turn out a great deal of material in order to be comfortable? I know that many of the minor pulp writers, the pulpeteers, the penny-a-worders, as it were -- sweated blood getting stories out and staying above water. Did you have that same kind of problem?
Bloch: Well, a cent a word was the standard rate, In many cases, a half cent a word, and I've heard of cases where a fifth or a tenth of a cent were paid. You were very fortunate when you hit a market that paid a cent and half or two cents a word. It wasn't all that frequently that one did so. Particularly if one was not in New York. In New York, certain writers had advantages. They could sit face to face with an editor over the lunch table, or over the bar, and discuss stories. Editors developed a clique of writers on whom they would rely and if they had a six thousand word hole in a magazine -- and remember too, that many of these editors had a whole chain of magazines, and consequently they didn't keep too close a watch on each individual issue -- if a six thousand word hole was there that needed to be filled by the end of the week, naturally, they'd pick up the phone and call somebody who was right at hand, on whom they could rely, and say, "Hey, will you knock out a six thousand worder?" Whereas we in the midwest were at a tremendous disadvantage. So I had to work rather hard in order to exist,; if I was going to make 250 dollars a month, I was going to have to sell 25,000 words. Which was a third of a novel. In order to sell 25,000 words, I might have to write more than that, because there's no telling whether or not everything I wrote would be accepted.
Murray: What percentage of returns did you have?
Bloch: Oh, I'd say at that time, about 20 percent. There's very little, however, that through the years has not eventually been sold. I was very fortunate though, because in many cases from what I've heard the percentage was much higher. The percentage of non-sale of material.
Murray: Everybody who lived through it has a slightly different story explaining why the pulps died. What's your theory?
Bloch: I'd say first and foremost came the paperback invasion. Paperbacks replaced pulps I don't think necessarily so much in the affections of readers, but in the affections of news stand dealers. You could put far more paperback books in the same space formerly occupied by pulps. So for purely utilitarian considerations, the dealers and distributors favored paperbacks. Secondly, the paperback offered a great market for the novel length work with possible royalties and reprint editions abroad. And so the professional writer began to see the advantages of this. Rather than sell a story, which might or might not turn up umpteen years later in some anthology for very little money, here's a chance to sell an entire novel and perhaps if one was fortunate, get royalties and reprints of it. And have foreign sales.

The second thing, of course, was the advent of television. And television was the boon to all people who had loved the comic book. It was something you could absorb without having to move your lips! I think that the combination was what did in the pulps, plus the increasing cost of material -- paper and binding and printing.

Murray: That hooks into my next question. Do you suppose the death of the pulps seriously cut into the viability of the short story?
Bloch: Absolutely. Because there just weren't that many places where you could find an outlet for your material. I, this year, decided that I would do so more. So along about spring, I did about ten short stories, and seven of them have been placed. But they were all over the place! They're in magazines. They're in hardcover anthologies of original stories, and a person who is interested in the field is going to be lucky if he or she finds one or two. I don't think there's anyone at this convention who knows that I have a horror story in this month's Gallery because that's a little bit off trail reading for many of these people. Or that I will have one in an English hardcover anthology, a British paperback anthology, a Terry Carr hardcover anthology, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fantasy and Science Fiction, they'll probably see. And that's the way it goes. But I want to do more short stories because I have an affinity for them. And eventually I'll make a collection out of them and perhaps in that way they will reach the readership for which they were originally intended.

This interview was originally published in The Crypt of Cthulhu #40 (1986), and was reprinted with the kind permission of Will Murray. Information about Will Murray and his current activities can be found here.