Writing Is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick, and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence
By Jason StarrNovember 3, 2014
IN 2004, AFTER I WROTE an introduction for a reprint of James McKimmey’s 1962 classic crime novel Squeeze Play, I was thrilled when McKimmey emailed me an effusive thank-you letter. Jim (who passed away in 2011 at 87 years old) was a prolific pulp writer who had his biggest successes during the 1950s and 1960s. The author of 17 novels and hundreds short stories, he wrote several outright masterpieces including The Perfect Victim, Cornered!, and Run If You’re Guilty that were on the level of, or even better than, the works of better-known crime writers of his era, such as James M. Cain, David Goodis, and John D. MacDonald. Several of his books were optioned for movies in the 1960s, but none were filmed. Better luck in Hollywood may have garnered more interest in his books over the years, and his work deserves a wider readership.
When Jim contacted me I had written several noir crime novels, and as a diehard fan of pulp fiction it was great to be in touch with such a warm, outgoing writer who was a major player during the Golden Age of the crime novel. In retrospect it seems almost quaint that he contacted me by email, as today he probably would have reached out with a less personal Facebook message or even a tweet.
Over the next several months, we exchanged many emails, mainly discussing writing past and present. In his fiction, Jim’s style was tough and spare, but he wasn’t a proponent of brevity in his emails. Our backgrounds were very different, but his stories about starting out as a writer seemed remarkably similar to my own. He told me all about his current life in Northern California and his years of experience in the book industry. He was kind enough to read a few of my novels, and wrote me effusive notes about them. I imagined if I had been writing in the 1950s and 1960s, I, too, may have been writing for the pulps. I got the sense that he saw me as a kindred spirit, that I reminded him of himself as a young(ish) pulp writer trying to find success in an uncertain industry.
In one email Jim mentioned that he’d had a correspondence for many years with Philip K. Dick, when they were both young, emerging genre writers. He asked me if he could send me copies of the letters.
“Hell yeah,” I responded.
I’d been a huge Dick fan since I saw Blade Runner and then tore through a dozen or so of his novels. Many of his works have become fodder for Hollywood, including Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report. To me, Dick is to science fiction what Jim Thompson is to crime fiction — a true, unflinching original who was prolific and respected, though not fully appreciated in his lifetime. While Dick’s work is full of visionary ideas, I’ve always read him as a pure pulp writer, and have always admired his relentless, paranoid take on the ordinary world.
I was excited about reading the letters, but I wasn’t sure why Jim was so intent on sending them to me. I didn’t know him all that well. I sensed they had a deeper meaning to him that he wanted to share. If he’d simply wanted to preserve the letters, he could have had them archived, or sent them to a biographer. (As far as I know he did neither.) Or perhaps I was reading into it too deeply, and he was simply cleaning out his garage. Maybe he didn’t have a significant correspondence with Dick; maybe they’d just exchanged a couple of perfunctory fan letters.
A few days letter when the letters arrived in a large Priority Mail envelope, I was surprised at the volume. There were nine typewritten letters, all from Dick to Jim, from five to 12 pages long, dated from July 25, 1953, to early 1964. As I read through them, I realized I was in possession of something special — part of a fascinating correspondence that shed light on the changing pulp market of the 1950s and the lives of two prolific practitioners who were just embarking on their careers. The letters include Dick’s poignant observations about publishing, writing, politics, religion, and glimpses into an increasingly dark, paranoid mind.
They were indeed big admirers of each other’s work. The letters include lots of praise for Jim, as well as Dick’s ongoing assessment of the book industry, from agents and publishers to short story fees.
Dick is candid in his opinions, especially those concerning other writers. In his first letter to Jim on July 28, 1953 (when Dick was 24 years old), he blasts the materialism of his peers:
They are in writing to be successful, in the good old Hollywood sense of the word. Fame, influence, high standard of living.
Dick often praises Ray Bradbury, though, a hero to both men:
I have heard STF [science fiction] editors rave against him; they’ll hope he’ll shoot his wad fast and disappear….The main thing they fear is that Bradbury is influencing the youth and therefore in a position to create the main trend in STF.
The letters are most profound when Dick offers observations on writing, which seem startlingly poignant for someone his age, and a peek into the psyche of a burgeoning master.
A good story is a good story. It, like math, is a self-contained world. It validates itself. You don’t have to look outside to find out if it’s so. The impact of good writing is the test; political opinions come and go, but once you do a good yarn, it’s a living thing.
The young Dick sees himself as an artist, first and foremost, more concerned with the craft of writing than publishing trends. He makes it clear that he isn’t out for the quick buck.
My main reason for writing is basically simple. I want to react against society; I’m after impact, not money. The influence I’m after is strictly intellectual; I want my ideas to circulate—against the general ideas in circulation. STF is a good medium for intellectual ideas.
Indeed, Dick became a master of injecting his ideas into so-called genre fiction, and seems to predict — correctly — that someday his science fiction novels would be taken seriously as literature.
With similar wisdom, Dick seems aware that he’s at the early stage of a long career when he writes:
I have to live, of course. But, frankly, there are so damn many things I need to learn about the sheer art of writing that I just can’t spend my time sweating over sales. I love to write. If a few days go by in which I don’t write (being uninspired) I get physically sick.
At times Dick’s letters read like outtakes of his books, with allusions to alternate realities merging with accounts of everyday life. In December 1953, Dick laments an influx of stories about mutants in the pulps, in what reads like a passage from Dick’s later novel Time Out of Joint (1959).
I frankly consider myself one of the mass men that mutant stories constantly knock. To be honest, I’m not telepathic, psychokinetic, or anything else. I can’t teleport myself, read tomorrow’s newspapers, or turn lead into gold. I can’t read minds, I can’t lift dice at fifty paces—I can’t do anything but ride the street car, read pulp magazines, listen to the radio, and do all the rest of the things mass-men do.
About a month later, Dick was in the midst of writing a sci-fi novella called Thimble-Rig (which was published in 1955) and was depressed about the state of the fiction market. In a rant that could’ve been written today about ebooks’ assault on physical books and a changing industry, he rages:
Have you noticed we don’t have any market any more?...Fantasy is completely gone; as far as I know no fantasy mag is buying..…I don’t want to be a p. of d. (profit (sic) of doom) but it looks bad. I think people will keep on reading when the depression really hits, but the good living I had been making in this business has done fled out the window.
While Dick was pessimistic about the future of literature, he is optimistic about Jim’s writing. His praise doesn’t read like formal, perfunctory commentary; he seems to truly admire the work.
You have a genuine high-type style which I much envy. It’s terse, almost cryptic. A modern underwritten style, good command of words…You know how to CUT, which is, I think one step up from knowing how to put the stuff down in the first place.
Was Jim proud of the praise from Dick? Was that one reason why he wanted me to have the letters? Perhaps Jim felt he had even influenced Dick’s writing. Regardless, recognizing the importance of cutting is a gem of writing advice, which Dick was implementing himself, as his prose became leaner and sharper during this period. He hadn’t written his classic novels yet, but he would soon. Perhaps Jim had in fact helped propel Dick to the next level.
Regarding his own writing Dick adds:
After I write a really successful story I always say to myself, “By God, now I can die happy!”... The process of life goes on; I change, the world changes; new combinations arise and the old ones are lost. But here on this handful of paper is one of these combinations, my reactions and responses, the sum of my personality and character as it interacts with a particular idea-experience. The idea never came to me before; it’ll never come to me again. But look, man. Here it is!
During this period of his life, the act of writing brought pure joy for Dick, perhaps because he was writing for himself, for the sheer pleasure of personal expression, and wasn’t writing to trends or to please the masses, a fate he dreaded. This was certainly the happiest period of Dick’s writing life, before the demons of mental illness began to haunt him.
On April 6, 1954, Dick hadn’t heard from Jim in a while and begins with gloomy sarcasm:
I was glad to get your letter; I was beginning to fear you’d folded along with the s-f and fantasy market.
In perhaps the most shocking revelation in all of the letters, Dick, who is now one of the most well-known science fiction writers of all time, goes on to admit that he wasn’t a fan of the genre.
I have some strong notions about s-f, and none of them are complimentary. Science Fiction is really a dark, ugly, ominous world, and I had stopped reading it in my middle teens; I read it now only because I write it.
Was Dick serious? What about his view that sci-fi is the perfect medium to explore intellectual ideas? Dick was a man of contradictions and mystery. It’s possible that he was in a mood that day, and wasn’t actually dissing his own genre — he was a huge Bradbury fan after all — but it’s clear that he was pessimistic about the future of writing, and so concerned about future income that he invited Jim and his wife to move in with him and his wife.
We have a big old house, which we’ve paid off; no monthly payments….It’s something you might think about, as times get more severe…four can live more cheaply than two.
If Jim didn’t want to move in, Dick encouraged him to at least visit. He seemed to crave the camaraderie of his writer colleague and friend.
I don’t know how writing sits with you, but to me the big problem is that the writer must cut himself off from others; he sits at home writing while the world goes on beyond the limits of his little home. It is a lonely business; much of the satisfaction is destroyed by this lonely, monastic aspect.
The two couples never lived together, but Jim told me that they did socialize several times.
Later, in 1954, Dick congratulates Jim on his “slick sale.” (Slick was a term for mainstream fiction.) But the compliment is tempered with Dick’s feelings about what he probably considered to be lowbrow writing:
I would hate to see the wonderful style and sensitivity you’ve developed turn into a merely polished presentation of the old bilge the slicks serve up.
Dick stuck to writing science fiction, writing longer works, but he felt the decision to write novels was backfiring. In May 11, 1955, he writes:
I ceased writing s-f shorts and am doing only novels and financially the switch has been a catastrophe.
Dick had written six novels and only one had sold: Solar Lottery. He didn’t receive review copies and knocks publishers, complaining to Jim:
As you have certainly discovered, the writer is a low man on the totem pole.
Dick’s writing is more tangential, and there are more pro-socialism/anti-capitalism rants in these letters. He is becoming more paranoid. He’s losing touch with reality and seems aware of it, writing:
Rave, rave, Jim. I’m going mad.
Dick’s career seems to be unraveling. In May 14, 1958, he writes that he hasn’t sold a major new work since 1956, but is excited about a new science fiction novel, Biography in Time, which Dick wrote in 17 days. Although he was proud of The Man Who Japed, it hadn’t made much money, and he was nearly broke.
His fiction career became so bleak that Dick had to support himself by writing scripts for a local radio show. He quit the job because it wasn’t paying enough, but it illustrated how dire his financial situation had gotten.
Jim had suggested collaborating on a book with Dick, perhaps to help out his friend financially, but Dick wasn’t very into the idea.
As to the collaboration, the idea appeals to me… Problem on col. Is that I don’t really write stuff that anyone else could make heads or tales [sic] of. I don’t mean my s-f, which is done to fit a market. I mean my “serious” stuff. You have never read any, so I feel the need of warning you. It’s hopeless. It’s dreary. It’s meaningless. It’s a mess. But I love it. Try reading Sam Beckett’s Malloy and ask yourself if you would have wanted to collaborate (that book is what, if I had my choice of contemporary books, I’d like to have been the author of) on it…And—it didn’t pay. You’d be wasting your time money-wise. Also, I’d want to write all the sex scenes.
He ultimately rejects the idea, concluding:
I’m just too devoted to certain small offbeat stuff.
In the 1960s, Jim’s and Dick’s careers took upward swings. The former fledgling writers were now hitting the big time, writing some of their most successful books during this period. In an undated letter probably from early 1964, after Jim and Dick had fallen out of touch for several years, Dick begins:
Jim, I wonder if you remember me. You and I used to correspond.
Dick tells Jim about the Hugo Award he won in 1963 for The Man in the High Castle. Then Dick writes about JFK’s assassination and the profound effect it had on him:
My wife and I own a 4,000 year old oracle called the I-Ching; just before Kennedy’s election we asked it what sort of President Kennedy would make. It’s answer: no kind, since he would be assassinated. My wife wanted to write Mrs. Kennedy and warn her, but I persuaded my wife that we were a couple of nuts and ought to forget it.
The idea that Dick feels he could have prevented Kennedy’s assassination shows an emerging grandiosity in Dick’s psyche. Perhaps his use of the word “nuts” isn’t incidental, as he seems to be aware of his deteriorating mental state. In a long paranoid rant, Dick goes on about the effect the assassination has had on his overall mood, and opens up to Jim about the depression that would torment him in upcoming years.
I have been, for several weeks now, in a state of deep grief, including long mysterious — get this — crying spells — for no reason I consciously knew….When I heard about Kennedy’s death I completely collapsed…I feel separated from every other living thing. Even from my family…Why is this? Schizophrenia?…I didn’t ask for this growth of consciousness; this emphatic involvement in the fate of all living things — but here it is. So what next?
Their correspondence apparently ended at this point. Life took the men in other directions, and Dick channeled his anxiety and paranoia inward, into his novels.
Over the past several years, I’ve read the letters many times, always finding them to be a great source of inspiration and intrigue. I’ve come to understand why Jim wanted me to see them — to share the connection he’d felt with Dick, to understand that writers reaching out to one another for support and inspiration can be an important, perhaps necessary, part of the business.
In Dick’s first letter to Jim he wrote:
I was quite pleased to get your letter, because as you yourself put it, writing is a hell of a lonely business and there’s nothing like breaking through to somebody else doing the same type of material.
Dick was correct, of course — writing is a hell of a lonely business. In the 1950s, two writers had the need to reach out and connect, to lament and prognosticate, and to share the ups and downs of their craft, and in 2006 not much had changed. I never met Jim in person, but I’ll always value the connection we made by email, and if we’d met at another time and place I have no doubt we would have been great friends. In the end, though, I feel fortunate and grateful to have corresponded with him, and for the invaluable gift he gave me.
Jason Starr is international bestselling author of many crime novels and thrillers including Twisted City, The Follower, and The Pack. He also writes screenplays and comics and graphic novels for DC, Vertigo, Boom Studios, and Marvel. He lives in Manhattan.
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