Two months ago, I shared a stage at the Belmont CA library with Robert Silverberg, the legendary science-fiction Grand Master. While Bob and I found success in different genres, we shared a past in the overwrought field of Midcentury Erotica, and that’s what we mostly talked about that night.
This morning, my publishers at Mulholland Books posted a transcript of the first half of our conversation on their destination website. So it seems a particularly appropriate time to give y’all an idea of what these books were, and the sort of experience that writing them constituted for a Very Young Man. And why not begin at the beginning, with my first published novel?
In the summer of 1958, my buddy Steve Schwerner and I flew from New York to Houston, hitchhiked to Laredo, disported ourselves across the river in Nuevo Laredo, took a bus to Mexico City, did some more disporting, and took another bus to Guadalajara, where a right–wing political party staged a riot while we were trying to get back to our hotel after dinner. A pair of enterprising cops arrested us, threw us in jail overnight, and played bad cop–worse cop with us until we signed over all our traveler’s checks, whereupon they put us on a bus back to the border.
So I got home a little earlier than I’d planned.
And one of the things waiting for me at my folks’ house in Buffalo was a letter from Henry Morrison, who was then my agent at Scott Meredith, where I’d been lately employed. “I hope you know what a sex novel is,” it began, “and how to write one, because we’ve got an assignment for you.”
Now I’d already written a novel, about a young woman’s sexual identity crisis in Greenwich Village; Henry had read it, and sent it over to Crest Books, then the country’s premier publisher of lesbian fiction. They would in time accept it, and publish it as Strange Are the Ways of Love, but that lay in the future. For now, though, Henry knew I could start writing a book and get to the end of it, and that was enough to get me this assignment.
The note went on to explain that a fellow named Harry Shorten, who’d created the cartoon “There Oughta Be a Law,” had started a publishing house called Midwood Tower. He was looking to develop a line of erotic paperback novels much like those of Beacon Books. And Henry had picked me to write one for him.
Well, okay. I went out and picked up one or two Beacon novels, and if I didn’t exactly read them I did look them over enough to see what they were. They didn’t require scrutiny. Because I did know what a sex novel was, and I seemed to know how to write one.
So I went ahead and did just that. The protagonist’s name was Carla, and that was my title. Carla, by Sheldon Lord.
It never occurred to me, not for a moment, to publish the book under my own name. I wasn’t ashamed of it, I didn’t think my writing it was evidence of moral turpitude, but neither did I entertain the notion that it was a contribution to the world of literature. It was a sex novel, for God’s sake, and it was to be published by a publisher of sex novels, and what kind of a ninny would put his own name on such a thing?
(Well, Charles Willeford would and did, as I was to find out years later. Some low–rent paperback houses, Beacon among them, published early work of his, and he used his own name. But Charles was one of a kind, a man who had elevated not giving a rat’s ass to the level of an art form. Never mind.)
The name I chose was Sheldon Lord.
Now Carla was not the first book I wrote, but it was the first book I sold, and the first to be published. It was not, however, Sheldon Lord’s first appearance in print. I’d first used the name when I had two stories slated for the same issue of one of the digest–sized detective story magazines. The editor wanted to use a pen name on one of the stories, and I came up with Sheldon Lord.
(Richard Stark, the name Don Westlake used on all his hardboiled Parker novels, had a similar origin. Don was sleeping, and a call from his agent awakened him albeit barely. He had two stories in the same issue of a magazine, and what name would he like on the lesser story? “Richard Stark,” Don snarled, and went back to sleep.)
Sheldon Lord. And where did that name come from? Well, I’d known a girl at Antioch named Marcia Lord, and I really liked her last name. And I liked the name Sheldon, too, though I can’t offhand think of anyone who bore it. Sheldon Lord. I used it on that second short story, and I used it on a batch of articles I wrote for a couple of male adventure magazines. (I mean, would you want your own name on “Reinhard Heydrich, Blond Beast of the SS?” Well, neither would I. There was one similar article I wrote that purported to be an as–told–to piece, and my byline on that one was “by C. O. Jones as told to Sheldon Lord.” The editor got the joke and spiked it, changing my evanescent collaborator to C. C. Jones.)
Carla, by Sheldon Lord. I sat down in my bedroom on Starin Avenue, at the same maple desk on which I’d written Strange Are the Ways of Love a month or two earlier, and I wrote the book and sent it off. Harry Shorten loved it, Henry wrote, but the book wasn’t long enough. It needed another chapter. Could I write another chapter to be inserted anywhere in the book?
So I wrote the chapter in which Carla goes on the prowl and winds up with Lou, and we have to all the way to the scene’s end to realize it played out a little differently than we’d thought. I sent it in with a note saying that here was a chapter, and it could be inserted anywhere in the book.
The book’s set in Buffalo. I was born and grew up in Buffalo, and lived there briefly on a couple of occasions after college, but I haven’t set much fiction there. Buffalo street names can be found in several of my stories about the criminous criminal lawyer Martin H. Ehrengraf, although their setting remains unspecified. A lost crime novel, one I called Sinner Man, had a Buffalo setting; it was sold, after many turndowns, but doesn’t seem ever to have been published, and its setting might as well have been the Bermuda Triangle. The only book in which a Buffalo setting carries any weight is A Week as Andrea Benstock, which bore the name Jill Emerson.
Is it significant that my very first published novel takes place in Buffalo? I don’t think so. It was a locale of convenience; I was in Buffalo as I wrote the book, so what was more natural than to set it there? The book itself took the sort of situation James M. Cain and his many imitators used all the time: a triangle, with a rich old husband, a hot young wife, and a youthful lower–class lover. Nothing original there, and certainly nothing that screamed Buffalo. I didn’t know any people like that, in Buffalo or anywhere else.
By the time I headed off to Antioch in September, I’d begun to wonder if I was making a mistake. What did I need with college?
I’d just had a year off. When I landed an editorial job at the Scott Meredith agency the previous summer, I’d realized there was more to learn there than on campus, and I dropped out. By the following spring I’d been there long enough, and was ready to go back to school.
But now I’d not only published a slew of short stories and articles, but I’d actually written two novels and sold one of them, and the guy who’d bought Carla was hungry for more. He wanted another book, and seemed likely to want more after that.
(What sold Harry Shorten, it turned out, was the scene in the grease pit, which gives down and dirty a whole ‘nother meaning. When I actually met Shorten, a couple of books later, he kept talking about the grease pit scene in Carla. Now I don’t think I’d ever seen a grease pit. I just sort of knew that they had them in service stations, so the grease would have someplace to go. You know what they tell you about writing what you know? Well, the hell with that.)
All I wanted, all I’d ever wanted, was to be a writer. Not a journalist—I knew I didn’t want to have to ask people questions they didn’t want to answer. I wanted to make things up. I wanted to write novels, and get paid for them, and have people—women, in particular—read them and admire me.
Well, I wasn’t sure the best way to win female admiration was by writing about Carla and the grease pit. Still, as I braced myself for a class on the Eighteenth Century English Novel, I couldn’t help but wonder: What the hell was I doing back here?