I had never heard about this book before I came across it while browsing at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale, but I had certainly heard of the author. Even before I took a science fiction literature class during my year at Santa Clara University, decided I wanted to be a writer, and began avidly reading science fiction, I had heard of Heinlein.
My first encounter was through a boxed set of Heinlein novels that my maternal grandmother gave me one year for Christmas. I don’t remember all the titles, but the terrific adventure of a community of people with a genetic predisposition towards longevity escaping into space “Methuselah’s Children” was one of them. I don’t know if I’ve ever read it since then, but some of the exciting sequences are imprinted in my mind as freshly as when I read it as a young teen. There was also the creepy horror alien invasion novel “The Puppet Masters,” which was scary enough to be memorable. Yes, Heinlein had quite an impact on me at an early age.
But it was nothing compared to what happened when, as an older teen, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land.” What an experience! It was adventurous and awesome and mind-expanding and risqué and flamboyant and wonderful. I have read it several times since, but I still have a vivid memory of how it felt to read parts of it for the first time. It became one of my germinal coming-of-age books, fitting in as it did with the hippy counterculture in which I was becoming enmeshed. It’s still one of my favorite novels of all time, although I prefer the shorter version which was the only one available for decades to the longer “uncut” version that was recently released. I’ve already written about that elsewhere, so onward.
Heinlein died in 1988, and his wife Virginia published this book in 1989. He had planned a book of his letters with this title while he was still alive, but never got around to creating it.
The letters are not chronological, but rather divided into sections according to subjects, such as his beginnings as a writer in the early pulps, his sales to slick magazines, his juvenile novels, his adult novels, writing, house building, traveling, and more. The last two sections are devoted to the writing of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and the literary world’s reaction to it.
Although Heinlein refused to rewrite his work unless guided by an editor who had already bought it, he did a great deal of cutting and polishing before releasing his novels. These letters though, are rough-edged, but that is not to say they are not erudite. They are a fascinating behind the scenes look at his interactions with his agent, his editors, and others with whom he communicated professionally. It never lags; it never bores. Even the bits about his household and cats and intricacies of constructing his homes from scratch are interesting.
Every writer is different, of course. To attempt to search for patterns in the lives of such an idiosyncratic group as writers is an exercise in crazy-making. Some writers, like Jack London for example, struggle in poverty before achieving success, but with Heinlein it was different. He sold a story in his first shot to John W. Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction back when it was the most prestigious science fiction market. He subsequently sold almost everything he wrote, and so had little tolerance for self-failure, often threatening to quit writing if his terms were not met. In that way I couldn’t much relate to him, as I have had to scrape and struggle every inch of the way for my own meager successes as a writer. He made a lot of money off his work, and attracted swarms of devoted fans without trying to cultivate them. In fact, he often got fed up with all the uninvited guests, obscure and famous, that continually appeared at his door, especially after the publication of “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In his later years, burdened by one illness after another, he was forced to slow down, so that most of the correspondence in the book is from the 1960s and earlier.
Like I said, it’s a collection of letters so the prose is not great art, but I still recommend the book as a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes in the life of a great writer.