Beginning writers are advised to 'write what you know'. But if you're a writer of science fiction, where the environment is necessarily something different from the everyday world of now, how can you do this? For those who have read Heinlein's fiction, this book will provide some insights into just how this feat is accomplished. Within these pages you will find the genesis of: The detailed space-suits of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel from his period of engineering research work on high altitude pressure suits during WWII. How to build plumbing, bomb shelters, and move boulders from his work on his Colorado Springs house (Farnham's Freehold). The marvelous characters of the cats that appeared in Door into Summer and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls from the cats that at various times in his life were co-owners of his habitats. The knowledge of fencing so evident in Glory Road from his time on the fencing team at Annapolis, and the entire cadet experience that became part of the 'Lazy Man' episode of Time Enough for Love. These are just a few of the examples of where incidents in Heinlein's life became part of his fiction, giving it that 'true to life' feel so common in his works and so rarely found in other SF writers of his generation. But this book is not a well laid out autobiography, but rather a collection of his letters to various people, mainly his literary agent, and often the items described above are included as an aside to the main subject of the letters. Most of the material concerns itself with the details of how each of his stories was generated, the arguments he had with various editors (especially a certain one at Scribners), his working habits and the problems that prevented him from working at various times. For the Heinlein scholar or fan, this is a gold mine, providing much insight into almost all of his work. And Heinlein's own character shines through these letters, a proud, patriotic, self-disciplined, stubborn, highly opinionated, occasionally abrasive man who knew the worth of his labor and his effect on literally millions of his readers. The letters are organized by theme (Beginnings, Juvenile Novels, Adult Novels, Travel, Fan Mail, Building, etc) and this easily allows the reader to see the progression of ideas and events within each of these subjects. But it has a downside in that items referenced in, say, the Building section have direct impacts on his writing schedule for a book covered in the Juvenile Novels section. Sometimes these relationships, while important, are not obvious to the reader due to this structure. After reading this book twice, and seeing just how much this type of thing occurs, I think I would have preferred having the letters organized in pure chronological order. This is not a book for someone who has not read at least a few of Heinlein's fiction works, as the material will hold little interest other than some points on how the publishing industry works and just how this particular writer worked (which is not the writing class recommended method). But for those who, like myself, have read all or most of his works, this book can add a richness of background to his fiction works, a sense of 'growing closer' to the man who many call the greatest writer of science fiction, ever.
I bought this book because it was recommended in Bud Webster's excellent "Past Masters". I have not read much Heinlein other than several of his most well-known works, and those not for some years, so I'm not a serious fan, but I did enjoy this more than I expected, both for the insights into the man himself and for his relationship with his various publishers. I was particularly interested in the letters that document his changing relationship with John W. Campbell Jr.. However, I should warn the reader that most of the book is made up of letters to his agent (and good friend) Lurton Blassingame, though these are interesting nonetheless.
Main interest of this book for me is that underneath the slick Heinlein books that I enjoyed as a kid (and stopped reading in the post "Starship Troopers" phase), exposed for all to see, are the fascinating underlying machinations of the book editing industry. As one who spends his time pounding the keyboard for a living, I found this, and the bitchiness of his editor Dalgliesh telling the man himself how to suck eggs fascinating as well as depressing. I sympathise with RAH.
What irony that the apostle of rugged pistol packing libertarian freedom had his scribblings supervised by school-matronly puritanical editor Dalgliesh. Maybe RAH was thinking of Dalgliesh when he had the loudmouth nag in Starman Jones removed from Max's Captain Table (and a similar episode when another loudmouthed nag emigrating to Ganymede in "Farmer to the Sky" was unceremoniously dumped from the colony ship and story line).... Perhaps the lurid excesses of the "I Will Fear No Evil" phase was merely the cathartic reaction of the schoolboy escaping from Dalgliesh's clutches and constant re-editing of his essays.
So we see "writing on spec" with formulaic plots and character excision existed before Star Trek. So much for artistic freedom and rugged individualism. :(
Grumbles indeed, as one sees the more grumbly nature of the man himself and his political dogma. The book further shows RAH's visceral anti Russianism, no doubt fruit of the generalised ideological flavour prevalent in the cold war years (or could it be personal?); his trip there doesn't seem to have opened his mind; not surprising being encased in a package tour cocoon with libertarian baggage in tow.
Oh well, no one's perfect, so best not to peer too closely. I'll keep the juveniles and donate this to a used bookstore.