Master Class

by David Morrell

Posted with the permission of David Morrell, originally appeared as the introduction to Dancing Naked

To William Tenn Home Page * * Comments to Laurie Mann

A consummate, compulsive teacher. In that regard, and in so many others, Philip Klass changed my life. I don't necessarily mean a teacher by profession, although Phil certainly was that. What I'm talking about is a generosity of spirit, a delight in communicating, a need to explain how things work and what the pitfalls are and how to get where you want to go.

Certainly, I was in need of that in 1968 when our paths first crossed in the mail room of the English department at the Pennsylvania State University. He and I had both arrived at Penn State a few years earlier, he to teach writing, I to attend graduate school in American literature. But what I was burning to do was write fiction. The trouble was, my only models were the novels I studied for my classes, and my resultant fiction was a stilted version of Faulkner and Melville. One day, a journalism student told me about a course he was taking from a fantastically energetic writing teacher named Philip Klass. Months later, I happened to bump into a short, stocky man in the mail room. He wore a dark, rumpled suit. He had wiry, salt-and-­pepper hair and a matching goatee. One hand gripped a coffee cup, the other a pipe, while an arm held a book and a bunch of letters under it. At least, I hadn't made him spill his coffee or drop anything.

"Excuse me," I said.

"My fault." His nimbly sonorous voice was out of proportion to his size.

A professor friend who was also in the mail room said, "David, I don't know if you've met Philip Klass."

My heart beat faster. Grateful for the serendipity, I walked down a corridor with him, explaining the problems I was having with my fiction, asking for advice. He politely suggested that I register for some of his classes. Frustrated that the start of the next term was a couple of months away, I asked if there was any way he could give me one-on-one advice during his office hours.

And by God, he agreed. (He said "By God" a lot.) Only someone who loved providing information would have accepted the extra burden of advising a stranger. I soon learned how major his commitment to teaching was. Week after week, what I assumed would be fifteen-minute conversations often expanded to more than an hour, but at the intense speed with which ideas and anecdotes rushed from him, one hour was really the equivalent of two, and meanwhile, he had a ton of registered students who also wanted his advice.

Belatedly, I discovered that Philip Klass not only taught writing but that also, under the pen name of William Tenn, he was a legendary science-fiction writer who had earned his reputation during the genre's Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s. His contemporaries were supernovas such as Fritz Leiber, John W. Campbell, Jr., Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Silverberg. He had been instrumental in encouraging Daniel Keyes to argue against a magazine editor and preserve the powerful conclusion to the classic "Flowers for Algernon." Among his own stories, "Child's Play" was close to being the most anthologized of all science­-fiction tales. His science-fiction anthology Children of Wonder (1953) was one of the first major theme compilations in the genre. His work had been published in eighteen languages. And now, by God (it's catchy), I discovered that nearly all of his short stories and a novel Of Men and Monsters were being released in a six-volume paperback series by Ballantine, not to mention that a novella A Lamp for Medusa (1951) was simultaneously appearing in a reprint by another publisher. I'd had no doubts to start with, but now it was official—Philip Klass was the real thing.

Over a year of intermittent powerful conversations, he whipped me into shape. I never did register for one of his courses, and that's important to emphasize—he didn't have a responsibility to advise me. He wasn't contractually obligated, but he worked with me anyway because he had a passion for teaching writing and compassion for anybody determined to write. These are some of his lessons:

There's a lot more where that came from, and after more than thirty years of my Philip-Klass-generated career, I eventually wrote Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, in which I told the whole story of what he taught me and how much I'm indebted to him and the excitement of a memorable work session that went from four in the afternoon until four in the morning. What I didn't include were the Saturday-night poker games that he and his wife, Fruma, started inviting my wife, Donna, and me to and how the conversation flew faster than the cards, each of his fascinating, instructive accounts about writers he had known preceded by "Incidentally" or "By the way," always a signal that something important was about to be said. Nor did I include the time he bought a house (his first) and gave a housewarming party to which he invited his agent, Henry Morrison, and a fellow writer, Donald E. Westlake, and how he insisted that they sit on the staircase with me and let me describe my current fiction project. While inebriated guests climbed past us and over us to get to the second-story bathroom, I told Henry and Don the idea for a novel that I eventually called First Blood. That's how I got my agent. Generous doesn't come close to describing Phil's commitment to his students.

One day, he showed me a non-science-fiction story called "Round Robin," which took the form of a series of letters that members of a small group wrote to each other. Its inventiveness (it had an unusual structure and was outside his genre) surprised me, but he soon had yet another surprise in store when he showed me an essay he'd written, "Mr. Eavesdropper," ["The Bugmaster" in this collection] that had been published in True magazine and reprinted in Best Magazine Articles: 1968. My eyes widened from the astonishment of learning that this teacher and fiction writer whom I worshiped was also stunningly adept at writing non-fiction. The article depicted an electronics expert who designed ingenious "bugs" (at a time when devices of this sort were unheard of). It was flip-the-pages fascinating, its bounteous information so cannily presented with dialogue and description that I felt I was reading a story. Phil presented Mr. Eavesdropper with such Windex-clean immediacy that I seemed to be standing next to the bugmaster at his worktable.

To my pleasure, I eventually learned that Phil had written many other non-fiction pieces. Collected here for the first time, they reinforce my admiration for him as both a writer and a teacher. These pages are full to bursting with his passion to tell us the exciting things that he discovered throughout his life—what it was like growing up in a Marxist house in a Brooklyn slum in the 1920s and how his pacifist father wept when he saw Phil in a military uniform during World War II. Or how the radical politics of young people in the 1940s and '50s contrasted with the student protests of the 1960s. Or what it was like working with such legendary science-fiction editors as Campbell and Horace Gold or being friends with such greats as Sturgeon, Judith Merril, and Poul Anderson. This book is at once an inspiring, smile-producing semi-autobiography and an informal history of science-fiction from an author whose trenchantly amusing stories contributed to that history. With the insight of an insider, he analyzes the first reverse time-travel novel, Twain's A Connecticut Knight in King Arthur's Court. He wryly discusses what Welles brought to Wells in the panic that resulted from the radio dramatization of the latter's The War of the Worlds. Mary Shelley. Ursula Le Guin. The irony that science fiction was once a ghetto genre and now it's so respectable that even academics teach it. These and other engaging topics await you. The Latin poet Horace once said that the purpose of literature was to teach and delight. In these collected essays, this lifelong teacher and master writer has given us a garden of delights.

© 2004 by David Morrell.

To William Tenn Home Page * * Comments to Laurie Mann