Laurie Powers has a passion for old tatty covers, mouldy smelly paper, sun bleached artwork and words composed by long dead writers. Like an archaeologist, a literary Indiana Jones, rooting about in ancient tombs she excavates the stories of the pulp writers of old, writers who would be forgotten were it not for the efforts of people like herself. She has seen her grandfather’s autobiography entitled, Pulp Writer: 20 years in the American Grub Street, through to publication.
She produces her popular Blog which can be read HERE and regularly gives talks and presentations on the history of the pulp publishing medium. Her interest stems from the fact that in 1999 she discovered that her late grandfather, Paul Powers was a pulp fiction writer with credits in some of the more iconic magazines of the early pulp period.
“That’s where it started. I really didn’t know much about it at all until I started my research into his (Paul Powers) life. Then the more I looked into it, the more interested I became. I guess what really intrigued me, and still does, are the histories of all of the so-called unknown writers, like my grandfather, who wrote for the pulps, typed out story after story week after week, but never got the acclaim other writers like Dashiell Hammett, F. John Daley, Frederick Faust and others did. What happened to all those writers?”
It was Laurie’s determination to find out more about her grandfather that sent her on several avenues of research and thankfully, for us, she has decided to share her findings with the world. I asked Laurie to tell us more about her grandfather.
“My grandfather began his writing career in the early 1920s. The first stories he wrote were actually horror stories that he sold to Weird Tales in 1925. But he needed to make more money than he was making writing for Weird Tales, so he began to write Westerns and sold his first stories to Wild West Weekly in 1928. From 1928 to 1943 he wrote almost exclusively for Wild West Weekly. For those fifteen years, he carried at least four heroes, Sonny Tabor, Kid Wolf, Freckles Malone and Johnny Forty-five. He also wrote King Kolt stories and many many short stores for the magazine. He wrote stories for the first three characters under the pseudonym Ward M. Stevens, the fourth under the name Andrew Griffin.
Both Sonny Tabor stories and Kid Wolf stories were later compiled and turned into books. At least five of his stories were also reprinted as Little Big Books published by the Saalfield Company.
All in all, my grandfather wrote at least 440 stories for Wild West Weekly from 1928 to 1943. During those fifteen years, he and his family moved all over the Southwest, from Kansas to Arizona, to Long Beach, back to Arizona, then New Mexico and back to California. Over those fifteen years, he moved his family at least fifteen times. I guess you could say he was a restless soul.
After Wild West Weekly shut down in 1943, he spent the rest of the 1940s writing for other pulps and also wrote a Western novel, Doc Dillahay, which is loosely based on the life of his father.
I didn’t know about my grandfather’s career as a pulp fiction writer until 1999. He had died in 1971, and his remaining children had drifted away in the 1960s, so his entire history as a pulp fiction writer was lost until I discovered it again in 1999 while doing research for a college paper. During my research, I was able to track down his daughter – my aunt – and when we reunited in the summer of 1999, she and I went through his personal papers, which had been stored away since his death. In those papers was his memoir about being a pulp fiction writer, Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street. “
The term “PULP FICTION” has often been used in a derogatory fashion, suggesting that the works churned out by these hard working writers of old were somehow sub-standard, writing for the uneducated masses to earn a fast buck but the term actually comes from the old low quality pulp wood paper used to produce the books. These days the Internet has become the home of pulp fiction. I asked Laurie about this.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘home.’ As far as a center gathering place for people who are interested in pulp fiction, I think it does. It’s been a blessing, I think, to many like me who really felt disconnected from other enthusiasts and historians before. I wish I would have known about some of the online groups when I first started out in my research 8 or 9 years ago. They probably were around, but I didn’t know about them.
Now, if you mean by “home” a storage archive for the old pulp fiction stories, that’s another story. The pulp fiction phenomenon began in the 1890s and was at the height of its popularity in the 1930s. That means that the majority of magazines are now at least 70 years old and they weren’t meant to last longer than a few years – at the most – in the first place. And over the years many magazine copies were lost or thrown away, further reducing the number of stories that survive. So using the Internet as an archive for these old stories is good – as long as no copyright laws are being violated. Many of these stories have been in the course of being reprinted and anthologized for many decades now, so I don’t think they would ever have been completely lost, even if the Internet hadn’t come along. But many of these stories, especially those written by lesser known authors, might never make it into anthologies or reprinted. So the Internet is a place that might be the salvation for many of these stories that would never have made it into anthologies.
But to read a pulp fiction story without the benefit of holding that fragile paper in your hand, without knowing the musty smell, the color of the yellowed paper, the glossy cover, is missing a huge part of the experience. By reading a story within the actual pages of one of the magazines, you can experience what it must have been like to read that story in 1935. It’s one of the few mediums I know of where the actual physical format of the magazine – the type of paper, the covers, the nature of its fragility – gets almost as much attention as the stories themselves.
As far as the new pulp fiction that’s being produced now, I’m finding a lot of great sites that provide new fiction. Beat to a Pulp is a great example. The only problem is getting the word out to people that these sites exist so they will attract bigger audiences. How these web sites play out in the next few years is a pretty interesting question. But then we’re all wondering how the entire publishing industry will fare in the next few years.”
To the modern eye the life of the pulp writer of old is very romanticised – we imagine these men and women hunched over archaic typewriters, bottle of scotch on the desk, cigarette burning in the ash-tray while they produce their quota of words for the day. I wonder what life must have been like for these writers?
“I don’t want to make any generalizations, but I think it’s probably safe to say that it was pretty much what it’s like now for many writers: Isolating. Hard. Requiring a lot of discipline and guts. Of course they didn’t have the luxury of computers and didn’t have the luxury of being able to go back and edit like we can now. But then, they didn’t have time to edit back then! They were paid by the word, most of the time pretty cheaply, like a penny a word. So that meant that in order to make a decent living, they really had to pound out thousands of words every week, week in and week out. Get the story down, put it in the envelope, mail it off to New York, and start on the next one – pronto. There was no time for lolly-gagging around and revising and rewriting, so the modern day computer amenities would have been lost on them. I never would have made it as a pulp writer. I would have starved after the first story.
Burn-out was another issue, because of the sheer number of stories you had to write, and the strict plot lines and formulaic nature of many of the pulp stories. At least I know it was for my grandfather. He started writing the Sonny Tabor and Kid Wolf stories in 1929; by 1933, he was already pretty darn tired of writing these 12,000 word stories every six weeks for these characters, and most of them had to follow a prescriptive set of rules. But he had to make each one sound pretty damn original. So it was no surprise that by 1933, 1934, he was starting to stall in getting his stories in. The editors continually had to send him letters asking for the stories and admonishing him because he was late. And he had another 10 years to go. Good thing he didn’t know that at the time.
I know the isolation must have been hard – pulp writers were spread out over the entire country, some of them living abroad, too. I know there were some communities of writers around, but they were probably in the minority. I know my grandfather had to deal with the loneliness – he doesn’t talk about it too much in the memoir, but it’s underneath the surface.
He did complain – a lot – about how little respect pulp writers got. Many people who didn’t understand the discipline or the training necessary to write these stories – and yes, it took some training – dismissed these writers as hacks. It got to the point that he would end up lying when people would ask him what he did for a living. I guess the money they made, which could be significant, was a consolation.”
So, excluding her grandfather, what pulp writers does Laurie particularly like?
“For Westerns, I love Walt Coburn. Chuck Martin, who never got much attention, is another favorite. I have some letters from him that he wrote to my grandfather. He wrote letters that made you think that he was living the cowboy dream, living large. Maybe that’s why I’m fond of his stories.
For other genres, quite frankly I never had a chance to read a whole lot of crime or detective stories for a long time because I was so busy reading and studying Westerns. Of course I’ve always liked Raymond Chandler’s stories, but now I’m investigating Frank Gruber. I read Gruber’s memoir The Pulp Jungle several years ago, and it’s fun now to read his stories.”
Laurie gives presentations at libraries to promote her book about her grandfather as well as the history of pulp writing in general. I ask her to tell us how these presentations work?
“I have to say that they have been one of the most important part of my marketing Pulp Writer. I started making library presentations because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get anywhere with book stores and getting them to let me come in for book signings. They want you to have a following in order to have a book signing at their stores; but if you’re a new writer like me who has no following, how are you supposed to get one without doing book signings? I also realized that I wasn’t really interested in just sitting at a table and signing; I wanted to talk about this subject. I felt, and still feel, that there is so much misinformation out there and a lack of knowledge about pulp fiction that I wanted to give lectures about it. I felt that I knew enough to give a general overview of the topic. Most of the public nowadays knows so little about the subject that even what I give them in an hour, which is barely touching the surface, is more than they knew before.
So I took a few weeks and created a power point presentation and then started calling libraries – both locally and out of state in places like Arizona and New Mexico – to see if they would be interested in me coming and giving a presentation about Pulp Writer and a general overview of the history of pulp fiction. Their reaction was the exact opposite of the reaction I received from book store owners. About 90 percent of them asked: how soon can you come?
I don’t charge anything; most libraries don’t have much money anyway. I just ask if I can sell copies of Pulp Writer afterwards. Some libraries will give me an honorarium of maybe $100 or so, which last year would have barely covered my gas. But it’s okay, because I have really come to love doing these.
A week before the presentation, the library will put in an announcement in the local paper of the presentation, which is great, because sometimes that’s more publicity than a book writer would normally get. I also sent out a mess of press releases when the book came out, and that also generated some articles about Pulp Writer. I worked it out with the reporters to publish the articles just before the library presentations. That really helped raise the number of people that would turn out.
The turn-out numbers vary. It can be as few as 10 people or as many as 40 or 50. The most has been 70. The majority of people know little about the subject, but once in a while collectors or other historians will show. It’s great having them, because they will offer information and their own stories during the presentation. The presentation is about an hour. I talk about how I found out about my grandfather’s career, and then give a very basic overview of the history of pulp fiction magazines. With an hour, which is as much as people can last and without me losing my voice, I can give them the basics without getting into too much trouble.
I love doing these, and it’s a good thing, because it has not been a great venue for selling copies of the book. People don’t come to libraries to buy books, so they aren’t as motivated to open their wallets, I guess. Or maybe it’s because I’m a lousy salesperson. But I’ve met a lot of great people, some of whom have turned into either friends or valuable contacts, and giving the lectures keeps my skills sharp.”
Lately there have been some great pulp collections hitting the book shops. I ask Laurie if there are any she particularly likes?
“It seems that most of the anthologies focus on one genre. Back in 1970, Tony Goodstone put out The Pulps, an anthology that covered several genres. Right now, I think the most famous one is the Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Ott Penzler, that is a collection of crime and noir. Delicious!
But I jump around. Right now I’ve got a Famous Fantastic Mysteries anthology on my table, a Shadow of the Lariat anthology, a Weird Tales collection that came out in 1997, and the Black Lizard book. So depending on my mood, a good story is only an arm’s reach away. I would love to get my hands on anthologies of some of the more obscure genres, like the Sea Stories or Jungle Stories or the Battle Aces stories.”
So Laurie tell us about your own writing?
“You mean I have to keep writing? I thought I was done. I am the best procrastinator in the world, although I know some writers out there will beg to differ with me, so it seems that I have been spending most of my time lately writing on my blog.
I found out from writing the prologue and epilogue of Pulp Writer that I love to write about historical subjects. But I am struggling right now with what my next project is. I’m restless; I want to write something, to get my hands on something that will swallow me up for a few years, but I just don’t know what it is.”
And finally to end the interview I ask Laurie for her desert island western?
“I have to say that it would be a more modern Western: Lonesome Dove. I have never been so upset to see a book end. I normally don’t read a book more than once, but I know I could read that one again and again. Films are tougher to pick. I would like to say The Ox-Bow Incident, but it’s also pretty depressing and I’d probably kill myself if that was the only movie I could watch. I’d say Red River.”