More About the Author
Norman Spinrad is the author of over twenty novels, including BUG JACK BARRON, THE IRON DREAM, CHILD OF FORTUNE, PICTURES AT 11, GREENHOUSE SUMMER, and THE DRUID KING.
He has also published something like 60 short stories collected in half a dozen volumes. The novels and stories have been published in about 15 languages.
His most recent novel length publication in English is HE WALKED AMONG US, published in April 2010 by Tor in hardcover and April 2011 in trade paperback.
He's written teleplays, including the classic Star Trek, "The Doomsday Machine," and two produced feature films DRUIDS and LA SIRENE ROUGE. He is a long time literary critic, sometime film critic, perpetual political analyst, and sometime songwriter.
He's also briefly been a radio phone show host, has appeared as a vocal artist on three albums, and occassionally performs live. He's been a literary agent, and President of the Science Fiction Writers of America and World SF. He's posted 28 YouTube videos to date.
He grew up in New York, has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and Paris, and travelled widely in Europe and rather less so in Latin America, Asia, and Oceania.
AN EXPERIMENT IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Norman Spinrad
Although it presents certain technical difficulties, maybe you
shouldn't write an autobiography until you are dead.
The story of a life, even if your own, published for the benefit
of readers, becomes, well, a story. And true or not, a good story
requires, if not necessarily a traditional beginning, middle and end,
then at least certainly some sort of structure leading to a sense of
satisfying resolution at the end of the reading experience.
But since I'm 53 years old as I write this, not exactly on the
brink of retirement, I can hardly be expected to bring this story to a
successful thematic closure in any of the usual manners.
Then too, while "write what you know about" may be the hoariest
of literary maxims and autobiography seemingly the ideal exemplar
thereof, upon a moment's uncomfortable reflection, maybe not.
Sure, you know the sequence of events better than you know
anything else, but it's no easy task to negotiate the treacherous
literary waters between the Scylla of the extended brag and the
Charybdis of a deadly dull recitation of the complete bibliography and
So what I've opted for here is a rather experimental form, itself
perhaps a bit of autobiographical characterization, since fairly early
on in my career I came to the realization that form should be chosen
by the requirements of content. And this particular content certainly
seems to call for something rather schizoid--a montage of split points
of view, persons, that is, in more than the usual technical sense.
So this autobiography is divided into three clearly-labeled
"Continuity" is, as Sergeant Friday would have it, just the
facts, Ma'am, written in third person as if "Norman Spinrad" were
someone other than the author thereof.
"Flashbacks" are little novelistic bits and pieces designed to
illumine some of the events of "Continuity" with some more intimate
visions of what the character in question was thinking and feeling at
"Frame" is what you are reading now--the author and the subject,
the novelist and the literary critic, speaking to you and maybe myself
as directly as I can manage under the circumstances, and trying to
extract some overall meaning from it all.
Norman Spinrad was born in New York City, on September 15, 1940,
the son of Morris and Ray Spinrad. Except for a brief period in
Kingston, New York, he spent his entire childhood and adolescence
residing with his parents and his sister Helene in various locations
in the Bronx, where he attended Public School 87, Junior High Schools
113 and 22, and the Bronx High School of Science.
In 1957, he entered the College of the City of New York, from
which he graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Science degree as a pre-
I was a subway commuter as a college student, living in the
family apartment in the Bronx, hanging out in Greenwich Village on the
weekends. My father, eldest son of a family of five, had never finished
high school, having left to earn family bread, and only after serving
as a medical corpsman in the Navy during World War II, did he realize
that medicine would have been his calling, and by then it was much too
late. Like many such children of the Great Depression, he wanted
nothing more or less for his son than a secure professional career,
ideally the one he wished he had been able to have.
So I was always under pressure, not just to perform
academically, but to follow a path towards the bankable sciences. I
passed the stiff entrance test for the Bronx High School of Science,
graduated in 1957 at the age of 16, and, at the behest of my father,
seeing as how medicine obviously actively turned me off, entered City
College as an engineering major.
This lasted about a term and a half, terminated by my
confrontation with the horrors of pre-electronic-calculator calculus.
Okay, said my dad, what about chemistry? You don't need so much math
for that. So I became a chemistry major long enough to convince me
that I had no genius for the subject and less interest in it as a
Okay, said my dad, with less enthusiasm, what about, uh,
psychology? He seemed to view the vector from medicine to hard
engineering through stinky liquids into the murk of the social
sciences as a kind of intellectual slippery slope.
What did I want to do with my life at this point?
Hey, come on, I was about 19 years old!
Although it's common enough for one's parents and guidance
counselors to demand that one get serious and make a commitment, it's
both cruel and naive to suppose that a 19 year old kid is
intellectually or emotionally equipped to decide what he's going to do
with the rest of his life.
What did I want at this point?
I didn't really want to be in college at all. I didn't want to
be living en famille in the Bronx until I graduated. What I wanted
was la vie boheme in the Village.
What is included here and what is left out:
Unless you've lived an extraordinarily dull and uneventful life
under a bell jar with your typewriter, and I haven't, you will have
broken hearts, had your own broken, and engaged in any number of acts
sexual and otherwise, that were politically incorrect at the time or
in hindsight, illegal, or even the sort of thing your older and wiser
self may now find immoral.
Then too, my life has intersected, in various degrees of
intimacy, the lives of many people of more than passing literary
interests--Philip K. Dick, Timothy Leary, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan
Ellison, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Michael
Moorcock, to name a random sample of a long, long list.
Some of these luminaries were or are real friends, others
acquaintances of one degree or another, I've written about many of
them extensively in various places already, and so you must take my
word for it that it's length limitations rather than ego that limits
mention of them in this compass to the effect they may have had on my
life or career.
I have been commissioned to write a short literary autobiography,
and as I interpret that commission, this is supposed to be the story
of Norman Spinrad the writer, not a juicy expose of my private life,
nor of the private lives of people who may have been involved with it.
However, are times when such matters do impinge on what gets
written, and I am trying to tell the true story to the best of my
ability, so when they do, I guess I'm going to have to try to bite the
The Village, circa 1959, pre-Beatles, the Beat Era. Coffee
houses. Craft shops. Folk music. I remember seeing a fat-faced kid
from Minnesota performing for free at a Monday amateur night at
Gerdes' Folk City. Name of Bob Dylan. A hot act was the Holy Modal
Rounders, a bluegrass group which later metamorphosed into the Fugs.
One of its members was Peter Stampfel, who is now a science fiction
editor at Daw Books. Another was Ed Sanders, who was to cover the
Manson Family trial in Los Angeles for the Free Press while I was
writing for the same paper.
But in 1959, I never knew Sanders, and Stampfel, who I did party
with upon occasion, would not remember the me of that era. They were
culture heroes, and I was just another day-tripping college kid.
Another culture hero of sorts in this space-time was Bruce
Britton, proprietor of the Britton Leather Shop. Bruce was a famous
sandalmaker. Bruce Britton was a charismatic party animal, and the
Britton Leather Shop was a major party scene. When work was done,
(and sometimes when it wasn't), it became an open house, and also a
place where you found out where the other parties were.
The Britton Leather Shop became my central week-end hangout, and
Bruce became my friend, an older role-model of sorts, and later one of
the earliest patrons of my writing career.
But I didn't aspire to a writing career at that point. Truth be
told, and my father not, I didn't aspire to a career at all. From his
point of view, what I aspired to was quite appalling, namely to spend
all my time the way I spent my weekends--as, well, a beatnik in
Beatniks, even teenage wannabee beatniks living with their
parents in the Bronx, did drugs. Mostly pot, which was readily
available but I was introduced to consciousness-altering chemicals
with rather stronger stuff, namely peyote, and which I had experienced
before I so much as puffed on a joint.
Ah yes, we've all committed our youthful indiscretions, why even
President Clinton has copped to tasting the Devil's Weed, though since
he didn't inhale, he didn't enjoy it. I, however, did inhale, and
therefore did get off. Often. And to my creative advantage. Nor do
I regret it.
If there's one gaping void in the story of American literary
history in the second half of the 20th century as currently
promulgated, it's the influence of grass and psychedelic drugs, not
only on the lives of writers, but on the content of what's been
written, and on the form and style too. It's hard to be critically or
biographically courageous when so much creative work was done under
the influences of jailable offenses.
In the Beat Era, however, the literary culture heroes of
bohemia--William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, & Co.--were
not only entirely up front about it, but openly advocated the chemical
enhancement of consciousness as a literary, spiritual, and cultural
virtue. And wrote much stylistically mighty work under the influence
to prove it.
Even a mainstream literary lion like Norman Mailer wrote a famous
essay called "The White Negro" extolling the Hip world of sex, dope,
and transcendence over the "Square" workaday world of the Lonely
Crowd, though elsewhere he was to correctly opine that writing final
draft stoned was maybe not such a terrific idea.
I raise this issue now because I would be lying shamelessly if I
denied that I was a devotee of this tradition or renounced herein my
belief that on the whole a bit of grass and a more significant trip
now and again is beneficial to the creative juices. Nor could the
story of the sort of writer I became make much sense in the absence of
For most writers of science fiction, at least prior to the New
Wave of the 1960s, emerged as writers from a formative adolescence
immersed in the hermetic subculture of "science fiction fandom,"
reading science fiction obsessive, attending science fiction
conventions, writing letters and articles in science fiction fanzines.
SF fans even have an acronym for it, FIAWOL--Fandom Is A Way Of Life.
Not my teenage planet, Monkey Boy. I didn't even know that this
subculture existed until after I had published about a dozen stories
and a novel. Yes, I read a lot of sf-- Sturgeon, Bester, Dick,
Bradbury, being early obsessions-- but I was just as deeply into
Mailer, Kerouac, William Burroughs, and their precursor, Henry Miller.
And theirs was the subculture I wanted to grow up to live in
before I even had any serious thoughts about a writing career--the Hip
world of free love, pot, psychedelics, literary and personal
transcendence--all that which, with the addition and via the medium of
rock and roll, was to call into being the Counterculture half a decade
This was something I could hardly admit to my parents, the
guidance counselor, or even quite to myself at the time. And at least
being a psych major was something I found far more congenial than my
previous provisional career choices.
However two unpleasant academic satoris were to convince me that
this was not to be my planet either.
I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a section in
Motivational Psychology taught by Dr. Kenneth Clark, who, among other
things, had written part of the brief in Brown versus Board of
Education. There were no tests. You discussed texts that had been
assigned for consideration in class and you wrote three papers, and
Clark marked you on that.
At the beginning of the term you were handed a list of the books
and papers that would be discussed. In addition to the expected
scientific treatises, there was a five-foot shelf of novels, plays,
and assorted literary works. How could anyone be expected to read
through all that in a term? They couldn't. Clark believed that any
college upper classman who hadn't already read most of this stuff
didn't belong in a class on this level in the first place.
I loved this class. It was worth the price of admission. Clark
was brilliant and witty and brought out the best in his students. The
class was educational, but it was also a kind of high intellectual
All during the term Clark complained of the conventionality of
the papers students were turning in. Can't you give me something
I admired Clark greatly and for my final paper I determined to
write something that would pay him back intellectually and knock him
out of his socks in the bargain.
I had read my way through all Kerouac, Ginsberg, and through that
on into Herman Hesse, Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, a common
intellectual vector in my Village extracurricular circles, and so I
knew quite a bit about Buddhism.
So I wrote a paper comparing Buddhism and Freudian theory as
systems of psychology.
This is brilliant, fascinating, Dr. Clark told me after he had
read it. I glowed.
"But I can only give you an A-."
He shrugged. Because I don't know enough about Buddhism to judge
whether you really know what you're talking about, he admitted.
And had not been willing make the intellectual effort to acquire
the necessary background.
Another required course that I had to do a term paper for was
Abnormal Psychology. I suggested to the professor that I do it on the
mental states induced by consumption of peyote. He seemed quite
"But as far as I know, there's not much source material in the
literature," he added dubiously.
"Don't need it," I assured him. "Not only do I have plenty of
primary experimental subjects to interview, I have first-hand
Did he gape at me as if I was some kind of crazed dope fiend?
That wasn't what made him refuse to consider the subject
appropriate for a term paper in his course. If I could have rehashed
secondary sources and studded the paper with appropriate footnotes, no
problem. But original research in the form of direct reportage of the
mental states in question was not academically acceptable.
In his senior year at CCNY, he took two courses in short story
writing and made his first submissions to magazines. Having secured
entry to Fordham University law school, he spent the summer of 1961
traveling in Mexico with friends.
By my senior year, all I really wanted was out--out of college,
out of my parents' apartment, out from under their pressures
influences, out of the Square world and into the Hip.
But I still had it in my head that I had to get a degree to
please my parents. By this time, I had changed my major so many times
that the only way to graduate was to lump together what I had already
taken with a few more random courses, call it a "Pre-Law Major," and
bullshit it past the guidance counselors by being admitted to law
One course I took, in short story writing, was formative. It was
taught by a writer named Irwin Stark who had sold fiction to magazines
and had not lost the habit of submitting. Stark, like Clark, bitched
about the conventionality of what the students were writing, and I
took another shot at taking a teacher at his word.
I wrote a story called Not With A Bang, in which a couple finds
true love screwing in a bathtub full of chocolate syrup during a
nuclear apocalypse, good enough to eventually sell to a low-grade
men's magazine about a decade later.
The look that Stark gave me when he handed back that week's
assignment was choice.
"I can't have you read a thing like that in class," he told me in
his office later.
"Why don't you submit it to Playboy?"
"Yeah, it's a long shot, but they're the top market, and if you
to start at the top and work down, can take you the first offer you
get for a story and know it's the best you can do."
And he told me how to submit stories to magazines, stick them in
an envelope with a self-addressed stamped return envelope and a cover
letter, and drop 'em in a mailbox. If you get a check, cash it before
it bounces. If you get a rejection, submit it to the next best
I submitted Not With A Bang to Playboy. They didn't buy it, so I
sent it elsewhere. And elsewhere. And wrote some more stories. And
started submitting them.
And that's how I became a writer. Not yet a published writer,
that was about three years in the future, but by the time I graduated
from CCNY, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and how one went
about doing it. You write 'em, you drop 'em in the mail, you wait.
Best advice I ever had. Best advice any would-be writer can ever
get. It's ultimately all you need to know. The Big Secret is that
there is no Big Secret. It drives me crazy how many wannabee writers
just won't believe it.
Upon returning to New York, he decided not to attend law school
but pursue a writing career instead. He rented a cheap apartment in
the East Village, secured part-time employment in a friend's leather
shop, wrote a first novel which has never been published and about a
dozen short stories, finally making his first sale to Analog in 1962.
The story, THE LAST OF THE ROMANY, was published in 1963.
Actually the thought of entering law school in the fall of 1961
was filling me with nauseous dread before I even graduated. By this
time I knew I wanted to be a writer, but what I lacked was any notion
of how to support myself while doing it, plus the courage to make such
a beatnik move sure to outrage my parents. The road trip to Mexico in
a rotten old car (never buy a car from a relative!) with two college
friends, Marty Mach and Bob Denberg, was part temporary escape from
this dilemma, part personal vision quest, part hopeful emulation of
Huck Finn and Kerouac.
When we finally managed to coax the wretched clunker back to New
York after an exhaustive education in automotive Spanish, the
Greenwich Village outdoor Arts and Craft Show was in full swing. One
weekend afternoon, I took over the Britton Leather Shop's table as
relief for an hour and moved $200 worth of goods, about what they had
done all week.
Bingo! I had a part-time job. Bruce Britton, and later, his
partner and successor at the leather shop, Ken Martin, supported my
writing ambition, and more or less let me make my own hours. And my
own wage, since what they were paying me was a commission on sales.
I found a foul little apartment in the East Village that I could
rent for $36 a month. meaning, what with food, and utilities, I could
survive on about $120 a month, and in a good week I could make $40 at
the leathershop working 20 hours.
I could survive, more or less, as a would-be writer.
My naivete was total. I knew no other writers, I hadn't
published a thing, and my brilliant notion was that I would support
myself writing short stories while working on my first novel. I wrote
an unpublishable novel, which, years later, I was to some extent to
cannibalize in the writing of BUG JACK BARRON. I wrote stories and
sent them off to magazines, mostly science fiction magazines.
When I finished the novel, I knew nothing better to do with it
than pay my $35 to have it "evaluated for the market" by the Scott
Meredith Literary Agency, who advertised this service in various
magazines. They rejected it, as they did 99% of such fee submissions,
as I was soon to learn in another incarnation, but the "agent" who
wrote the rejection letter over Scott Meredith's signature met me in
secret, praised my talent, and wised me up to the SMLA fee-reading
scam, strongly suggesting that I not waste my money on it again.
Nor had I sold anything. And the final turn of the screw was
that Analog had been sitting on "The Last of the Romany" for an
unconscionable six months.
What I didn't know was that the reason for the delay was that
John W. Campbell, Jr., the legendary editor thereof, had discovered
the lion's share of the major science fiction writers of the last
quarter century or so by the tedious and time-consuming process of
reading his entire slushpile himself.
Needless to say, when his acceptance letter arrived in the mail
all was forgiven.
He sold several more short stories during the next year or so, on
the strength of which he secured a professional agent, the Scott
Meredith Literary Agency.
I had been dead broke before I sold a novelette to Campbell for
the princely sum of $450, so broke that I had taken a job as a Welfare
Investigator in Bedford-Stuyvesant for a month to keep me going.
When I made my third magazine sale, I wrote a letter to Scott
Meredith, the only agent I knew, and was accepted as a client on a
Meanwhile, an ulcer I had developed under the pressure of
adolescent angst and no doubt exacerbated by eating all that cheap hot
stuff in Mexico landed me in a hospital for an operation. The
operation was successful, but the patient should have died. They
screwed up bad and infected me with something called toxic hepatitis,
supposedly universally fatal. I ran a fever of about 106o for days.
I lost about 25 pounds. I survived. Still running a fever and
looking like death warmed over but not by much, I took a cab directly
to the Draft Board and got myself re-classified 4-F so it wouldn't be
a total loss.
A prolonged ultra-high fever, aside from usually being fatal,
makes a 1000 mike acid trip seem like a warm glass of 3.2 beer. I was
not only hallucinating, I had...Powers.
Laboring under the hallucinatory delusion that I was being
tortured for secret rocket fuel information by spies, I had the
hysterical strength to snap the bandages tying me to my deathbed, yank
out the IVs, and hold off a squad of interns while I used another
Power on the bedside telephone.
It was the wee hours of the morning. The hospital staff must've
thought I was raving into a dead phone, understandable considering
what they were hearing on my end.
Somehow I had fixated on the name of what turned out to be a real
Air Force general. I got an outside line. I got a long distance
operator. I made a collect long distance call to said general at the
Pentagon. He had long since gone home to bed. I did...a thing. I
ordered the Pentagon switchboard to patch me through to his home
phone, validating it with a blather of letters and numbers that was my
Top Secret command override code. They did it. A bleary general's
voice came on the line.
I start babbling about spies, rocket fuels, send a rescue squad
"Huh--? What the--?"
At which point, the interns jumped me from behind and hung up the
phone on the sucker.
By the next morning, my fever had broken.
And the hospital had some tall explaining to do when the Pentagon
traced the call back.
Que pasa? I've contemplated that question ever since, my best
take on being the story CARCINOMA ANGELES, a literary breakthrough for
me which I wrote about three years later, and which, long after that,
seems to have been picked up by a doctor in Texas as a treatment for
As on an acid trip, only more so, I think the fever warped me
into a metaphorical reality in which the disease ravaging my body was
transmogrified into a paranoid image-system overlayed on actual real-
world events. By giving that story the ending I wanted, by actually
waking up the general, I somehow was able to triumph over the
infection for which the whole thing was metaphor.
Unless you've got a better explanation.
The facts are that I survived a fatal disease, that this
experience, whatever it was, later was the impetus for the story that
was the real take-off point for the writer that I was to become, and I
don't think I was the same person afterward.
SMLA made no sales for him during the six months , and he was
economically constrained to seek full-time employment.
He answered an ad in the New York Times offering an entry level
position as an editor. When he took the test for the job at the
employment agency, he realized that the prospective employer was his
own literary agent, Scott Meredith. Armed with this knowledge, he did
very well on the test and was tentatively offered the position by the
As I client, I had never even met Scott Meredith. When I showed
up in the office as a job applicant, he was non-plussed. Many writers
who later became clients had worked for him, and many people who had
worked for him later became clients, but Scott had never hired one of
his own writers through the employment agency cattle-call and didn't
want to do it.
"What do you mean, you won't hire me?" I demanded. "The only
reason I need this damn job in the first place is that you haven't
sold a thing for me in six months!"
Having never confronted this argument either, Scott relented.
Voila, the 24 year old kid whose own stuff wasn't selling had a job
anonymously representing a list of something like a hundred
established writers, some of them, like Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose,
Frank Herbert, John Brunner, and Jack Vance, among others, literary
idols of mine at the time, and people who were later to become my
The pro desk at SMLA was an excruciating experience. Scott
Meredith was a genius at squeezing work out of his peons by force of
paranoid pressure, and after a full day's work writing letters under
his name to authors, sometimes typing them over and over again until
he was satisfied, you had to read manuscripts on your own time at
home. It was like being back in school. It was nearly impossible to
get anything of my own written. And there I was, agenting stories and
novels anonymously for the very writers whose illustrious company I
longed to join myself!
On the other hand, it was a crash-course in the realities of
publishing from the inside out, and the bottom up. By the time I was
25 I had more publishing street smarts than venerable greats twice my
age, and before I was 30, found myself playing the strange role of
career advisor, father-figure even, to my own literary idols, like
Theodore Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick.
While working at SMLA in various capacities in 1964-66, he
continued to write stories, some of which sold, and completed THE
SOLARIANS, his f