The following is a chapter excerpted from the biography The Last Cavalier: H. Beam Piper, by John F. Carr. Copyright © 2007 by John F. Carr.
An earlier article on writer Michael E. Knerr was posted 03-29-07 on the Mystery*File blog.
Mike Knerr was now a published author and when he lost his technical writing job, he decided to move to California to write books:
In California, it was my turn to starve as a writer; it was a good experience—something like surviving World War II—and it made me think. I’d been promised $500.00 on the publication of my latest book and had given my notice to the landlord. I was ready to go back east, having secured Ken White as my agent. Unfortunately, in publication, the glue didn’t hold on the books and the pages fell out. The editor said it would take a month before I got my check.
The money ran out. The food ran out. My time limit on the apartment was running out. The only thing that didn’t run out was a nearly full, one pound can of Brindley’s pipe tobacco, and that kept me from going insane.
Food was two cans of cranberry sauce, a box of cracker meal, a box of Hershey’s cocoa and a box of white icing mix. Like Beam, I made do. I mixed the cracker meal with the cranberry sauce—have you ever tasted that crap—and a couple of spoons of icing mix, with the cocoa and filled the cup with hot water for a drink.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach squeezing and un-squeezing itself. Then I’d shovel some more of the cranberry junk down and try to sleep. In the daytime I worked on my new novel, The Violent Lady. Concentrating was next to impossible. Bill Stroup, who had the apartment below mine, sensed something was wrong and he did what none of us would have dared do to Beam when he was hungry—even if we had known ...
Bill had given up writing to become a taxi driver and now had his wife living with him. He came in one day, said hello to me and went out in the kitchen. He looked in the refrigerator, slammed cupboard doors and stalked out. That evening his wife, Yoko, telephoned to invite me to dinner. I tried to be blase about it, but in the end I went.
It was delicious, too.
While Beam was getting a few chapters on Fuzzy Sapiens ready for Avon, I had loaded my 1954 Plymouth and driven back to Williamsport. I’d wanted to see him as soon as I reached town, but I couldn’t. I’d driven from LA to Topeka, Kansas, non-stop and collapsed at my aunt and uncle’s house. Then, dummy that I am, I proceeded to drive non-stop from Kansas to Williamsport and fell in the door of my mother’s house. I didn’t get down to Beam’s place until July 22nd and the two of us had a long awaited bull session.
“I thought you were in California,” Beam said, wide-eyed, as he swung the door open. I followed him into the gunroom and handed him a bottle of Myers Rum. “The ground shakes too much out there,” I told him. “You got any 7-Up?”
“No. Can you drink it straight?”
“I can, if you can.”
He got out a couple of glasses and poured a healthy dollop apiece and handed one to me. I gulped a swallow and it hit my stomach like a load of napalm. I kept it down and Beam, watching me carefully, was delighted.
“By Gawd,” he laughed, “anyone who can drink Jamaican rum straight has got to have a pirate somewhere in their ancestry!”
He proceeded to add more to an already loaded glass.
We talked ‘shop’ for a while, then I gave him copies of the half a dozen paperbacks I’d published during my year in Los Angeles. He looked them over and I explained to him what they were all about.
The pulps that had launched many a career were all but dead by the early sixties and a writer couldn’t get an agent until he’d done something—anything. It had reached the point where agents didn’t want to look at a short story and writers had to start somewhere. It was the so-called sex market. By the modern standards of such novels, you could have read the ones we wrote back then to your kids. There was a gang of us whacking out this stuff on the West Coast—Bill Stroup wrote a few, aand there was Charles Neutzel, George H. Smith, Jim Harmon and even, I’d heard, (for Essex House) Phillip Jose Farmer.
The books cost 50 cents, the ‘publishing company’ generally operated from a kitchen table, or a hole-in-the-wall office, and the writer was usually paid $500.00—on publication—for roughly 50,000 words.
As one we would guess, in this market it was once through the typewriter with the plots lifted form TV Guide. Still, for all it was the world’s worst writing, it served the purpose of teaching a beginner how to work under pressure and how to survive via the typewriter. There were no contracts: everything was verbal, and there was at least one editor who had a habit of not paying. He’d promise $500.00, then when the book came out he’d say it wasn’t that good and offer $250.00. He did that with one of my friends, then tried the same thing on me.
“You said five hundred,” I told him over the phone.
“I know, but that story of yours is only worth two-fifty.”
That made me mad. “Now you hear this,” I told him, in my best John Wayne voice. “I’m hanging up this phone, jumping in my car and I’m coming down there. When I get there, there had better be a five hundred dollar check in my hands, or I’m gonna throw you and your goddamn office out in the street!”
I slammed the phone and grabbed my jacket. Bill Stroup was staring at me. “You can’t talk to a publisher like that,” he said.
“The hell I can’t. I’m gonna get that full amount, or I’m taking two hundred and fifty out of his hide.”
When I got to the office, I was even more ticked off. I went through the door like Davy Crockett barging into Congress and the door to the ‘great man’s’ inner office was closed. His secretary stopped me the only way I could be stopped—she gave me a check for five hundred dollars.
“You certainly get mad, Michael,” she said.
I put the check in my pocket. “I’m cashing this check right now, lady. You stop payment on it, and I’ll show you mad.”
Beam roared with laughter when I told him. He thumbed through the paperback “sex” novels I’d brought him and handed them back to me.
“I want you to autograph them,” he said.
“All of them?”
He was loading his pipe. He laughed and slammed his plastic tobacco pouch down on the desk. “Yes!”
Every fucking one!
Then he refilled our glasses.
A few months later in Williamsport, I met him strolling up Fourth Street. Beam used to mumble to himself on his walks, trying to figure out what to do with whatever story he was working on. I grabbed him by the arm to get his attention, and told him that I’d just picked up a copy of Space Viking at Cady’s Newsstand. He had been unaware of the distribution and promptly went up to buy a couple of copies.
I went home to enjoy one of my favorites of the Piper books, and I liked the original cover better than the one that now is in vogue. ‘By the light of burning worlds’ the blurb read, and I devoured it—probably because I’m half Viking myself. The damned book is packed with Piper, as well as Piper’s oddball sense of humor. My girlfriend pointed it out. Beam comes up with character names like Sir Garvan Sapsso, Baron Boake Valkanhayn, or Lucas Trask, Prince of Traskon and, of course, Otto Harkaman … and to a litttle princess, the ridiculous moniker of Myrna. Great Dralm, Piper! Or as Harkaman would probably explode, “The Gehenna you say.”
On the 24th (January 1964), I dropped by his place again to give him a copy of my new book, The Violent Lady, and we talked awhile. Beam seemed fine, but his diary mirrors his concern. “No more work done today. Letter from Betty—she will be in New York, en route to visit her mother, on February 13, and I won’t have any money and won’t be able to get to New York to see her.”
I had been working in a local bakery for several months, writing on the side, and on the 28th I took a job with the Shamokin Citizen as a reporter-photographer, a weekly newspaper located about fifty-odd miles south of Williamsport. While the job was an absolute necessity, it limited my visits with Beam to the occasional weekends that I could drive up. It also put a semi-colon, if not a period, to my somewhat shaky career as a writer of fiction. Ken was still my agent and peddling two historical novels for me, but the pressures of reporting eliminated anything else.
Beam was entering into one of the worst financial depressions of his writing career during the summer of 1964 and, I believe, a great deal of it had to do with his age, the situation with Betty, his ex-wife, and his ability at the typewriter. Through our various conversations, I’d always gotten the feeling that he knew that he couldn’t produce forever, but I believe that he still held out hopes of getting together a real best seller that would pull the ‘fate’ of old age out of the fire.
By the middle of April, with $173.12 to his name, he ran into an Income Tax problem that even today rankles me more than what I consider his untimely suicide—and I’ll be damned if I’ll forgive the government for it. That was the estimated income tax writers were supposed to pay in advance for being self-employed. “Income tax,” he wrote, “Amounts to $479.04—couldn’t pay it—I’d misunderstood quarterly-payment system, that is for advance for next year. Don’t know what I’ll do—that is putting it mildly.”
The first year I wrote, I was told by the Income Tax character that I had to do this estimating sort of thing. Being the hothead that I was, I told him to jam it; that I’d pay my taxes when I got paid and not before. Of course, he told me that I’d go to jail. I never did, and I paid my taxes at the end of the year. Beam, however, for all he bitched about the government, was so damned honest it used to make me mad.
That same adherence to stupid rules caused him to starve, shoot pigeons and suffer. At a time when politicians were writing off bill for $10,000.00 for paper clips and stationary, not to mention their salaries, Beam ate tapioca gruel. Without paying those taxes, he could have made it awhile longer… While Beam slaved for pennies, Williamsport had second-generation families on welfare who never missed a meal.
Not Beam. Jerry Pournelle said it: ”He was a cavalier.”
At the moment, he was a “cavalier” in a lot of financial trouble. Besides the income tax, he was two months behind in his rent and he owed gas, water, electricity and telephone bills. He found himself $430.30 in the red and commented at the bottom of the page: ”This looks like Piper is in a jam.” He sold a couple more pistols for $100.00, but he was still over $300.00 in the hole.
This sort of living, by now, was beginning to wear a little thin for Beam, and on several occasions he and I had discussed the idea of becoming ‘written out.’ It’s a possibility that all writers have to consider, and it isn’t an easy thing. At the age of twenty-eight, I thought about it, but it was about in the same abstract way that I thought about death.
“You think you’ll ever get written out, Beam?” I asked one evening.
“Yes,” he said flatly, without hesitating.
“What’ll you do?”
He made his right hand into a ‘gun’ with the index finger representing the barrel and stuck it in his mouth. He laughed.
“Jesus. That’s messy.”
The grin stayed on his face. “Someone else will have to clean up the mess.”
He was right.
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