PW: In Master Storyteller: An Illustrated Tour of the Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, you tell your subject's life story via a bookful of nostalgic magazine art. When did you become a Hubbard fan?
William J. Widder: In 1936, when I was 10 years old and living in New York City, I bought a pulp magazine, Mystery Novels, with a story by L. Ron Hubbard. It was called "The Death Flyer," and I read it in its entirety walking home. That was the beginning. I started to follow his fiction.
PW: Weren't you one of the first to take an academic interest in Hubbard?
WJW: At Columbia, where I did my undergraduate work in science and got an M.A. in comparative literature, I included Hubbard in my master's thesis on metaphysical imagery. I called it "The Tale of the Dragon," taking the title from an image in his novel Slaves of Sleep.
PW: What did your instructors think of pulp fiction?
WJW: It was an interesting faculty, Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, giving you latitude rather than restricting you.
PW: In 1937 Hubbard published his first hardcover novel, a western called Buckskin Brigades.
WJW: One of the first novels to present a sympathetic and accurate view of Indians. Buckskin Brigades is a western in the same way Moby-Dick is about the sea.
PW: Why didn't he follow Buckskin Brigades up with more hardcover novels?
WJW: I think because he was so busy, writing over 100,000 words a month for the pulp magazine market.
PW: Tell us about Hubbard's relationship with the greatest SF magazine of the pulp era, Astounding.
WJW: When Street and Smith bought Astounding and brought John W. Campbell in as editor, they realized something was missing. They knew Hubbard's work and that he was strong on character-driven plotting. They called him. He responded, "I don't write about robots and rockets." They told him they were looking for people-driven stories. His first story, "The Dangerous Dimension," appeared in July 1938. I think it began to change the direction and scope of the genre of science fiction.
PW: Yet some of Hubbard's classics were fantasy.
WJW: Yes. Campbell realized Hubbard needed a fantasy outlet and he convinced Street and Smith to publish Unknown. That produced an annus mirabilis for L. Ron Hubbard, a kind of year every author wants. Fear, Final Blackout, Typewriter in the Sky, The Indigestible Triton and Death's Deputy. The book reproduces that fabulous Edd Cartier cover for Death's Deputy. After World War II, Astounding printed Ron's return to science fiction, The End is Not Yet, a tale of alternate worlds with a Columbia University professor.
PW: What led you to write this book?
WJW: My research for Master Storyteller began with my Hubbard bibliography in 1994. An otherwise favorable review regretted the lack of any magazine art, so that is what this book has, all the illustrations.
PW: When did the Writers of the Future program begin?
WJW: Actually, Ron was always encouraging authors. In 1940, having gained a Master Mariner license, he took his boat to Alaska. He ran a radio show there and encouraged people to write. It was an adumbration of the Writers of the Future contest he established in 1983. It is 20 years now, and I know because I was part of its launching. Illustrators of the Future began in 1988.
PW: Did you ever meet Hubbard?
WJW: In 1950, I was starting on my graduate degree, and also running the night news desk at International News Service downtown. There was a podium in front of the library, and an enormous crowd of students. I recognized the speaker from pictures, his red hair and broad shoulders. I made my way up to him to tell him how much I appreciated his work. He smiled, and I didn't realize until I was back in the news office that I'd forgotten to ask him for an interview!