Rekindle Elegy for a Journeyman
Author Frank M. Robinson shamelessly proselytized great literature he loved.
When the pulp author Frank M. Robinson learned I wanted to be a writer, he told my dad to break my fingers. I’m still unsure whether this startling directive from an ordinarily gentle man was intended to save me from myself or nip competition in the bud, but it was repeated often throughout the ensuing years.
Robinson and my dad met four decades ago, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Robinson was an avuncular figure to me until I was ten; then he became my mentor. We corresponded regularly until he died a couple years ago.
It didn’t occur to me at first that Robinson was famous, and I knew nothing about his past. He was just Frank—irascible, self-deprecating, a little melancholy, and endlessly kind. He patiently read and systematically tore apart my stories and plays—never cruelly, but with dispassionate expertise, even when I was ten.
“I don’t fuck around with my profession,” he told me when I complained. “I became a ‘professional’ storyteller by rewriting the same story eight times over one summer for a writer-friend of mine who would read the draft, criticize, and ask for the new version.” He never talked down to me or minced words. He pushed me to be better.
Forrest, you ought to finish something. Fragments and three or four pages of a story are designed to elicit praise. I’ve already told you that you can write. I’m not yet sure that you can tell a story. It’s not expected that first one off will be great. It is expected that you’ll improve after that. Giving you advice on a completed effort is much different—and more helpful in the long run—than giving you advice on bits and pieces.
So. What exactly did you send me?
I love you, you’ve got talent, but the only thing that really counts is the completed whatever.
Little by little I improved. I got less arrogant about my ability to put words together (an exciting thing when you’re young) and focused on learning how to tell a story. This was Frank’s wheelhouse. He loved stories above all else.
Robinson was born in 1926 in Chicago, and grew up during the golden age of science fiction. He was ten when the first Flash Gordon film serial appeared, twelve when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre broadcast The War of the Worlds, sixteen when Isaac Asimov began writing his Foundation stories. He was raised in a Middle America of Radio Flyers and baseball games and adolescent geeks who “made model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper and rubber bands, telephones out of string and two tin cans,” as he wrote in his Science Fiction of the 20th Century .
As soon as he was old enough, he started working as a copy boy at Ziff-Davis, publisher of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories . Robinson wrote stories of his own, then befriended experienced authors and sent them those stories and demanded criticism with almost masochistic tenacity. He wasn’t interested in poetic turns of phrase. He’d been reared on the pulps, and what was important in the pulps was to keep the reader hooked from the first word to the last. That was Robinson’s goal: keeping the reader captivated and spreading the joy of a good story well told. He devoured the stories of Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes, but it was science fiction that drove him.
“We wanted other people to love it as much as we did,” he wrote. “We were dazzled by the wild ideas and the lurid artwork, we thought it was great literature (in some instances we were right), and we proselytized for it shamelessly.” There was another reason, too. Robinson, who was uncomfortably gay, found refuge in speculative yarns. When dealing with three-legged aliens from Mars, human sexual orientation suddenly seemed a lot less important.
He sold his first story when he was twenty-four, between naval tours in World War II and the Korean War, and during the next five years sold over thirty more. He published one novel, The Power (later adapted to both film and TV) in 1956. Despite these successes, freelancing wore him down. Looking for stability he landed an editing job at Science Digest , replacing noted fantasy author Fritz Leiber. When the magazine relocated to New York, Robinson stayed in Chicago. Bill Hamling, who he knew from his Ziff-Davis days, offered him a job at a fledgling Playboy competitor called Rogue (“Designed for Men”). Robinson spent the next fifteen years working at various Chicago skin magazines. He didn’t write much of his own, but as the founding editor at Rogue he published pieces by Alfred Bester, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, and countless other luminaries. (Amusingly, he later worked as the “ Playboy Advisor.” He summarized his professional advice as: “Relax and enjoy it.”)
Things changed in 1973. A friend of his, Tom Scortia, had an idea for a book, and did he want to help write it? It would be a disaster thriller about a fire in a skyscraper. Robinson, looking for an excuse to quit Playboy , thought it was a great premise and moved to San Francisco to collaborate. Unfortunately, the premise was so great that an author named Richard Martin Stern had come up with the same one. At almost the same time Robinson and Scortia published The Glass Inferno , Stern put out a book with virtually the same scenario called The Tower . This wasn’t a problem for film producer Irwin Allen, though. He bought both properties and merged them into the 1974 smash The Towering Inferno , starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and, it seemed, half of Hollywood. “The tallest building in the world is on fire,” promised the poster. “You are there with 294 guests. There’s no way down. There’s no way out.” It made $116 million on a $14 million budget.
Robinson used his cut to buy a house in the Castro, where his life would take an abrupt turn. While out for a walk he met Harvey Milk. A former insurance actuary, gay rights activist, and burgeoning politician, Milk had just lost his first bid for City Supervisor and was preparing to run again. When he learned that Robinson was an author, Milk asked him on the spot to be his speechwriter. “It’ll be a hoot,” he urged. “We’ll stir some shit.”
Robinson, closeted and perpetually fearful of the consequences of coming out, saw in Milk the potential to change the status quo. He recognized in himself the capacity to help through storytelling—the one thing he knew unambiguously that he was good at. He took the job. Robinson penned Milk’s rousing “Hope” speech , one of the cornerstones of his 1977 campaign. The speech encouraged optimism for a better world and a better tomorrow—a classic science fiction sentiment, incidentally. Winning the election would “mean that a green light [had been] lit. A green light that says to all who feel lost and disenfranchised that you now can go forward.”
When Milk was assassinated in 1978, he left behind a will suggesting Robinson as his political successor. But Frank, still closeted and still shy, refused. (Years later he consulted on and cameoed in Gus van Sant’s Milk —an experience he found hugely moving and cathartic. I went with him to the New York premier. He’d characteristically forgotten his “fucking hearing aids,” so I spent the evening translating for him. Before the screening, the head of Focus Features took a moment to acknowledge the “real-life American hero” present that night: Frank. As the audience applauded him, he demanded what was going on. I shouted the upshot into his ear, and he shouted back in genuine shock “What?! You’re shitting me!” The crowd clapped louder.)
In the following decade, Robinson watched his closest friends die of AIDS—a disease for which he, made uncomfortable by physical or emotional intimacy, was at little risk. During this time he began work on a novel, his first solo effort since 1956, and his first piece of pure science fiction in almost as long. The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991) is about Sparrow, an immortal man surrounded by mortals on a spaceship looking for extraterrestrial life. The ship has been travelling for two thousand years, in which time it has evolved a near-utopian culture of its own. Sexuality is fluid, children are raised communally, and death is engineered into the life cycle. Sparrow falls in love with each successive generation of the crew, but they grow old and die while he stays just the same—lonely and seeking. The Los Angeles Times called it a masterpiece; it was nominated for a Hugo award and won a Lambda. Two more novels followed, as well as Science Fiction of the 20th Century , a Hugo-award winning coffee-table history. (A posthumous memoir is coming next year.)
Frank’s prose is straightforward and unadorned. It doesn’t have the crisp snap of the great newspapermen or the blunt force of the pulp masters—it gets the job done and nothing more. He frequently referred to himself as a journeyman author, and in the strictest sense of the term that’s probably true. His books aren’t quotable and most of his speeches for Harvey Milk don’t have the rhetorical brilliance of classic oratory. But he was the kindest man I’ve ever known; and when all was said and done he had the sort of no-nonsense career that many authors long for. He published several competent thrillers, an indispensable cultural history, and one truly great work of science fiction. He also taught a kid from Alaska how to tell a story, and wrote speeches that changed the world. Not bad for a journeyman.