Thursday, September 20, 2012

Interview with Charles Boeckman

*It is quite an honor to interview pulp legend Charles Boeckman, aka Charles Beckman, Jr.

Tell us a little about SUSPENSE, SUSPICION, & SHOCKERS.

Thank you for asking me to do an interview. I am pleasantly surprised at how much interest there is these days in the “pulp” type stories of a bygone era.

My anthology grew out of having learned for the first time in the last couple of years that there are actually current pulp fans who love those vintage stories. When my wife began searching the Internet for groups of pulp lovers and found how active they are and how they are writing original stories using the classic style of writing them, I realized that some of those fans might enjoy stories from an authentic pulp author of yore. That’s me. So I dragged out my box of those old magazines with my stories and decided to put some of them together in an anthology.

I specialized in suspense, detective, mystery, surprise endings, noir, and westerns. I decided to concentrate on the first five categories for this anthology since they share similarities in SUSPENSE, which grows out of conflict and drama. There are no ends to the different kinds of conflict. It can be between two or more persons, a love triangle, the attack of a vicious animal. It can be the inner struggle of a character between his conscience, and his animal instincts, and sinful nature. The stronger the conflict, the stronger the suspense and the heightening of the drama.

Next SUSPICION. The element of mystery. A murder has been committed. Maybe the butler did it. He had the motive. The detective is suspicious , as is the reader. Or a major character suspects his wife is playing around with a lover. Maybe certain things in her behavior arouse SUSPICION. Or it could take another form. A business man suspects something is wrong about his bank balance. Has his bookkeeper been cooking the books?

Finally, SHOCKERS. This is an element I do well. The ending of the story comes as a complete shock and surprise. You’ll never guess how my first story, Strictly Poison, will end. Whoa! No peeking!

Thus, the title SUSPENSE, SUSPICION & SHOCKERS. First, obviously, there is the alliteration that grabs the reader’s attention, but more than that, the title is an element in the plot of all twenty-four stories in the collection.

When and where did you publish your first short story?

I made the decision when I was in high school to find a job after graduation that would make me my own employer and give me the freedom to travel and live where I chose. I ran across a publication, “Writer’s Digest” that contained articles about how certain publishers paid money for stories. (Something my school teachers hadn’t told me). I had a talent for telling stories. I often entertained neighborhood friends in the back yard at night with ghost stories. They were so convincing one little kid ran home crying.

I grew up in the Great Depression. We didn’t have money for college, although my mother did save enough for a one-year business course. What I mainly gained from that was polishing my typing skills. I could do 100 words a minute with no errors on a mechanical typewriter. (There were no electric word processors in the 1930’s.)

We also didn’t have money for music lessons so I taught myself to play the clarinet and saxophone.

When I left home, I had $30 in my pocket, a used portable typewriter and some musical instruments I had bought in a pawn shop. I always liked the seashore so I took a bus to Corpus Christi, Texas. The day after I arrived, I got a part-time day job and a week-end music job with a band. Then I began furiously writing short stories for the pulp magazines. I submitted them to suspense and western pulp magazines. At first they came back with rejection slips as fast as I sent them out. I continued studying the genre. It finally paid off. Growing up in Texas, I knew something little known about rattlesnakes that could be used as an unexpected twist in a yarn. That struck me as good material for a suspense story. In 1945, I submitted that idea in a story, Strictly Poison, to Mike Tilden, editor of Detective Tales at Popular Publications. I promptly got a nice letter from Mike saying he liked the story and a check was forthcoming and did I have any more? When I was assembling my published short stories for my current book, SUSPENSE, SUPICIONS & SHOCKERS (on sale at Amazon. com) I was able to locate the original edition of Detective Tales that carried the story “Strictly Poison” in 1945, and it is the first story in my collection.

That first sale opened the door to the pulp market field. In those days they paid one cent a word. It was possible to make a living writing stories if one could write a lot of them. I wrote all my stories first draft (had to get it right the first time. No time for revisions.) I could write a 5,000 word story in a day. Once I wrote a 9,000-word novelette in a day. In the 1940’s I was pouring out stories and could quit my day job. I realized my dream to live where I wanted. I moved to San Francisco and then to New Orleans for a while. But I have always kept my house in Texas. The favorite city where I lived was Manhattan, the heart of the publishing business. I could make friends with my editors and with many of the big name pulp writers. It was an exciting time, like being part of an exclusive club.

Do you care to mention any famous folks you knew during that golden era?

When someone asks me that question, I always say, “Well, there was the night I touched Elizabeth Taylor’s bare back,” which always starts a conversation. At that time I was living in Manhattan. My first wife and I were invited to a party of well-known stage and screen stars. At that time Elizabeth Taylor was married to Mike Todd. They were seated at the next table. When we all got up to dance, we passed close to Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd, who were also on the dance floor. Lord, she was beautiful. We made a turn close to them and my hand brushed Elizabeth Taylor’s bare shoulder. I didn’t wash my hand for a week.

Most of the famous folks I knew well were in the writing and music business. I wrote a book, Cool, Hot and Blue, a history of jazz for young people. It was a popular book and I met a lot of famous musicians of that era who autographed it when I met them. On the inside cover are the handwritten words, “To Charles From Louis Armstrong, Satchmo.” Another autograph is from Pete Fountain. He knew that I, too, played clarinet. He signed , “To Charlie from one stick man to another, Your Friend, Pete Fountain.” Other autographs are from Al Hirt, “ To Charlie Boeckman, Duke Ellington,” “ Earl Fatha Hines,” “Bennie Goodman,” and “Stan Kenton.” Actually, we had supper with Stan Kenton. His band was playing at the Texas Jazz Festival and the next day some musicians and Patti and I had dinner with him.

In the writing field in those days, we had a three-day South Texas Writers Conference in June. I was on the speakers’ panel along with J. Frank Dobie. Also, at the writer’s conference I shared the speaker’s stage with Fred Gipson, author of Old Yeller and Hound Dog Man. Both became popular movies. Fred lived in Corpus Christi for a while before moving to the hill country north of San Antonio. Annie Lauri Williams, owner of the New York writer’s agency that sold Gone With the Wind, was a speaker at the conference We became good friends when I was in Manhattan, both of us being displaced Texans. We often had lunch together, although she never did represent me. I had another agent who was doing a good job for me.

I knew personally many of the editors of the big pulps during the 1940’s and 1950’s. One of my friends was Mike Tilden, a well-known editor of Popular Publications. He kept asking me for more stories. I was also good friends with Ejler Jakobsson, editor of New Detective. He always put my name on the cover when I had a story in his magazine. We often had lunch together. Harry Widmer, another editor of Popular Publications, which put out westerns and some suspense, was another friend.

In the early 1950’s a number of top name pulp writers settled in St. Petersburg, Florida. I spent several weeks with the group and became good friends with Talmage Powell, Day Keene, Harrry Whittington , Gil Brewer. Those were names on the pulp magazines every issue. Once a week we all met at Day Keene’s home to gossip about stories, writers and editors. Whether anybody today recognizes the names of these individuals, I don’t know.

Those pulp names are still well known, Charles. I have to ask you about Day Keene and Gil Brewer, two of my favorites. What were they like in person?

I’m delighted to write some anecdotes about Day Keene, one of my special friends. (You no doubt know his real name was Gunnar Hjerstedt, but every one knew him as Day Keene.) I’m also pleased to know that guys like Day Keene and Gil Brewer are still known to collectors like yourself. I had the feeling that writers of my generation have been forgotten, but it turns out the group that gathered at Day’s home in St. Petersburg in the early 1950’s are still well known in the fiction world.

Gil Brewer was one of the writers who gathered in the St. Petersburg Florida area. Bill Pronzini has had a biography published about Gil. Bill is of a younger generation and didn’t know Gil Brewer personally but was familiar with Gil Brewer’s stories and tragic life.

As for Day Keene, where to begin? He was in vaudeville until it died. He flipped a coin to see if he wanted to go to Hollywood for an acting job or make a living writing stories. Fortunately, it came up “writer.” He began by writing for radio, “The Kitty Keen” series and “Little Orphan Annie.” Then he moved into the pulps. Day was not an alcoholic like Gil Brewer, although he did his share of hitting the bottle. He was more of a binge drinker. He tells the story on himself when he went on one of his binges and woke up in a hotel, not knowing where he was and so broke he couldn’t pay the hotel bill. He called downstairs asking that a typewriter be sent to his room. As soon as he got it, he whipped out a story and air-mailed it to his agent. (No email in those days) He was so well known his agent immediately air-mailed him a check to bail him out of the hotel.

Day’s wife, Irene, was a retired school teacher who edited Day’s stories. All writers should have a wife who has been a school teacher. My wife, Patti, has a master’s degree in English. Fortunate for me because my agents made numerous, insulting remarks about my grammar. (But that didn’t stop them from selling the story!).

Irene was determined to put a lid on Day’s drinking. He figured ways to get around that. He made a deal with his favorite liquor store to bury a couple of his favorite brand of liquor in his flower bed early in the morning before breakfast. Irene later told Talmage Powell that she was so proud of Day because she saw him often working in their flower bed.

Day made a very good living as a free lance writer. They lived in an upper scale home and Day had a nice fishing boat. He and Talmage often went fishing in his boat. One day on the way home from a fishing trip, Day pulled into a dock at a small town before they got to St. Petersburg. He went into a bank in the town, and when he got back to the boat he told Talmage that he had instructed his agent to send the money any sales for less than $500 as deposit in Day’s name in the small down bank. He told Talmage that was his drinking money and Irene didn’t know about this checking account. Irene once bragged to Talmage that Day never sold anything for less than $500.

I was married to my first wife when we spent time with the writer colony in Florida. We stayed with the Powells during our stay in St. Petersburg. One night Talmage and his wife Mildred (“Mimi”) took us to an evening meal at a colorful section of Tampa called Ybor City. It was largely populated with Cuban immigrants who made their living rolling Cuban cigars. (That was before Castro.)

When we got back to Texas I decided to write a story with an Ybor City background. It sold to Manhunt. (It is one of the stories included in my anthology of short stories.) When the Manhunt story came out, I got amusing letter from Day Keene. He said, “You blankety-blank Texan. You come to Florida, drink our beer, enjoy out conversation, then steal one of our settings for a darn good story!”

Gil Brewer was an excellent writer but led a tragic life, a slave to liquor and drugs. He once said, “I cannot write a story unless I’ve had plenty to drink. (I sometimes have a few snorts when I’m playing a jazz music job. I think it improves my clarinet playing or maybe it just sounds that way to me. I never had a drink when I was writing a story. I needed a clear mind.) Talmage Powell told me he never touched liquor. It made him depressed. Cigarettes killed him at 80. Most writers I knew were heavy smokers. Talmage was a chain smoker as was Day Keene and Robert Turner. For various health reasons, I never took up smoking.

I don’t think Talmage Powell gets the attention or reputation he deserves. He certainly was one of the heavy producers of pulp stories and novels in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. He married his school-girl sweetheart, Mildred, and became one of the youngest writers on the big name pulp scene. We were friends from the start of my career. His help and advice got me into the world of pulp story writers. His name was on the cover of most of the leading pulp magazines. His agent, Scott Meredith, got him a job in Hollywood and Talmage took his wife and young son along to Hollywood for several years where he pursued various TV and movie writing jobs, including the script for an Alfred Hitchcock TV movie. In the 1950’s he wrote a series of detective novels for Gold Medal. When they came back from Hollywood, they bought a large home in Asheville, North Carolina, and paid cash for it. We visited them in those North Carolina mountains. Incidentally, Talmage also played clarinet and saxophone. I took my horns along and played some music jobs on Talmage’s band. Our young daughter called them “Uncle Talmage” and “Ant Mimi.” Talmage, too, was a close friend of Day Keene, Robert Turner and Harry Whittington.

When did your love for jazz begin?

I came from a musical family. My brother, Roy, was 15 years older than I. He moved to San Antonio and started playing on jazz bands. When he came home for a visit, he'd bring jazz records and made it a point for me to listen to good New Orleans jazz by Satchmo Armstrong, Couunt Basie, all the great big band musicians like Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw. He made a point of teaching me to distrngish between square, commercial music and good jazz. My sister, 18 years older than I, was an accomplished pianist. She married a clarinet player and they played for dances on week-ends. My mother gave piano lessons. She tried to start me on piano, and I have regretted all my life that I didn't keep up the piano, but I wanted to blow a horn and taught myself clarinet and saxophone. I played with swing bands and eventually had my own traditional jazz band that became famous locally. In 2009 after I'd been playing professionally for 70 years, I was awarded a star in the South Texas Music Walk of Fame. You can fine me listed on the Internet at "South Texas Musicians Walk of Fame."

Recently, I wrote an amusing novel, The Last Jazz Band about some goofy musicians who came back from World War II to form a Dixieland jazz band.

I often use a jazz music setting for my suspense pulp and character stories.

What's next for Charles Boeckman?

I will be publishing more books filled with stories I have written. That will include a collection of western short stories and novelettes. (I've already started on that.) Then possibly a second edition of my short stories. I had too many for the current anthology. I have an excellent staff that will be a big help in self-publication. A lady who has the knowledge and equipment that can rapidly scan a published book or story, converting it from the printed page to editable format. I became acquainted with a splendid artist who does great job on pulp era art work. She did the image and design for the cover of my current collection ,SUSPENSE, SUSPICION & SHOCKERS. I have gotten all kinds of compliments on her artwork on the current cover. And let us not overlook my wife, Patti, who is as good a writer as I am and understands the internet and graphics better than I do!

Before ending this conversation, I have given some thought to [the previous] subject, my interest and career in jazz music. I do need to add that classical music means as much to me as jazz. I consider jazz music for the heart and the classics music for the soul.

I do not play classical, symphonic music because I do not have the training but I have a large library of recordings of my favorite composers and we have an excellent symphony orchestra here. I don't think an individual is fully cultured unless he knows something about the great composers and their lives and careers.

Following is a list of some of my favorite composers and their compositions: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (his 40th symphony) Ludwig von Beethoven (his 5th, 6th and 9th Symphony). Then the list of the romantic era composers: Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz, Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff , Claude Debussy.


Randy Johnson said...

Great interview. Love all those tidbits of folks he knew, his own careers, both in music and writing. I've already added his collection and novel to my wish list on Amazon and will pick them up next month.

Good job.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, really enjoyed it. Wouldn't it have been fun to sit in on one of those sessions with Keene, Turner, Powell, Whittington, Brewer, and Boeckman?

Matthew P. Mayo said...

A fine interview, gents! I look forward to reading Mr. Boeckman's collection.

Paul D Brazill said...

Great stuff to hear things from the perspecteive of someone who was there, back in the day and continues to publish.

Another writer for the TBR pile!

By the way, David Rachels has a guest blog about Brewer over at my place, if you're that way inclined:

Larry D. Sweazy said...

Looks like a great collection that would have passed me by if not for this interview. I'm with Bill. Put me in that smoke-filled room and let me listen to the masters...

Peter Brandvold said...

I recently read HONKY TONK GIRL and thought it was several cuts above the usual hardboiled crime fair. And I could tell the descriptions of the music had been written by a true musician. I don't think I've ever heard music described in a way that I could actually see it!

I'll be reading much more.

Thanks for doing the interview with Mr. Boeckman, David.

Pete B.

David Cranmer said...

Paul, Thanks for adding that link.

Larry, Yes that would have been nothing short of amazing.

You bet, Pete. A great pleasure to talk to Charles and his wife Patti.

James Reasoner said...

Fantastic interview. I'm going to have a post about HONKY-TONK GIRL on my blog tomorrow.

Naomi Johnson said...

What a great interview! I think Mr. Boeckman should consider writing a memoir because clearly he has a wealth of knowledge about the pulp era and his life sounds very interesting. I can't wait to read this collection.

Oscar Case said...

I'm with Naomi Johnson, a memoir would be great reading with all the folks he knew, knows, and played, plays with. Enjoyed the interview!

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks, David, for the great interview. Boeckman is one of those people you could sit and listen to for hours, even if you didn't read pulp or listen to jazz. He'd get you wanting to...I'm wondering how much his sobriety kept his memory of all those years so sharp...Looking forward to his western collection.

Charles Gramlich said...

Delightful interview. I did not know much about Boeckman, now I'm gonna try to find out more.

David Cranmer said...

Ron, I could have asked him about the old pulp days for another hundred questions.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview, a credit to both of you. Will be looking up this author's work and future collections. I agree, a memoir would be fascinating. Great job and the utmost respect to Mr Boekman

Anonymous said...

Great interview, David. Thanks for posting it. As soon as Suspense, Suspicion & Shockers is available for e-readers, I'll be loading it up!

Dan_Luft said...

I've left this post up on a tab all week and finally read it today (both kids sick, no time alone). Fabulous stuff. Ive never heard of Boeckman but if he's as good as his friends, I'll snap up whatever h reprints. Thanks.

Naomi Johnson said...

So I'm a bit under the weather today, and I started reading SUSPENSE, SUSPICION, & SHOCKERS. These stories are so good. How good? Well, I've just been reading the 2012 edition of Best American Mystery Stories, and Mr. Boeckman's first two stories top all of the stories I've read (6, so far) in the BAMS. That good.