Tom Purdom

Interview by Alyce Wilson

Science fiction writer, classic music critic and freelance writer Tom Purdom published his first science fiction story in Fantastic Universe in 1957. Over the years his short stories and novelettes have appeared in Asimov's, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, Amazing, other SF magazines and various anthologies. He has also been frequently published in business writing, music and the arts. A Philadelphia resident, he's a frequent guest at the annual science fiction convention Philcon, which was where this interview took place.

How would you characterize your stories in the science fiction world? Are they hard science fiction, or is there another sub-genre that you would classify yourself as?

I think of them as the classic science fiction stories, which to me means a story in which the basic dramatic situation is created by some kind of change that could take place in the future. Could be a technical change, a social change, but it's something, you know, that could happen in the future.


And what got you started writing science fiction? Were you a big science fiction fan?

I started reading when I was seven, reading a lot. And I wrote something when I was seven, and I had an aunt who said, "You should be a writer," which I think was probably a mistake on her part, but anyway, this idea was implanted in my mind. I guess it was around eleven or twelve I started reading books from the library on how to write. This was 1949 when I started. I was 13 years old. There were lots and lots of markets for short stories, starting with the slicks that paid a lot of money and then the pulps that paid a cent a word. And all the books explained that what you did was you sat down and you started writing and you started mailing in stories and you collected rejections, the whole process. So I did that, starting with general fiction.

And right about that time, in 1950, I read Adventures in Time and Space, which was one of the first science fiction anthologies. And so I really got hooked on science fiction. And so I started writing science fiction in addition to the other things, sending stories into the science fiction magazines. Eventually, almost everything I wrote after that was science fiction.


Was there a reason science fiction began to dominate? Was there something about that genre that spoke to you?

Yes, I think so. You know, people claim genres don't count. I think they do, because one thing I was doing at that time was reading anthologies from different genres. Like I read sports, history and horror, fantasy. I tried them all, but there were really only two that stuck. One was thrillers, which is distinct from the mystery, the suspense story. And the other was science fiction. Those two stuck with me. I still read thrillers. I still read science fiction. And a lot of my science fiction, I think, is related to thrillers.

But as to why science fiction appealed to me, I'd become interested in space travel as part of it before I had become interested in science fiction. I read a book on space travel, which convinced me that this was a possibility that probably would happen within the next 20 years or less. And it just fascinated me. That's one reason I started reading science fiction.

So first you've got this picture of the universe that we've built up, which is a new one. You know, the whole idea that we live in a galaxy only dates from the 1920s, really. And this picture of a universe with galaxies, plus everything that we've learned, too, about the molecular level about the world. That's one reality.

The other reality is that we live at the beginning of the future. Whatever time you're living in, you know the world is going to be different. Science fictions, in my mind, are just about the only literature in which the characters are always engaged with those two realities. And I think most fiction, outside of science fiction, doesn't deal with that very well. And I think that was part of what appealed to me about science fiction.

Plus, I think when you're young, this is the future, and they're going to live it, right? You're going to live to see Lunar City and be a Heinlein character.


Now, you grew up with a father in the Navy. You moved around a lot. Do you think that influenced anything in your writing?

You know, a lot of science fiction writers were military brats. The thing about moving around, it's more likely to make you a writer, simply because you're thrown on your own resources. One of the things all military brats learn is this military virtue called stoicism. And what it comes down to is never whine, never complain. And what happens is, as you grow up, you seem to be surrounded by people who are always complaining all the time, you know? And so I think one thing that influenced my writing, I just have this feeling life will go on, people will cope. And I don't feel the need to write about really horrible futures. I don't feel, really, the need to write about utopias, either, you know? And I think my futures sort of run some kind of a middle course, and I find I'm happy with that.

I mean, I think the future will be better in a lot of ways. I think we'll live longer. But then we'll have new problems, you know? There's always something new to get upset about, new things to look forward to.


Now your first story, published in 1957 in Fantastic Universe, what was that experience like? It was your first science fiction publication, right?

It was my first publication. Yes, I didn't sell anything other than that. Yes, I'd been submitting since I was thirteen, fourteen. So I'd been at it for seven years.

First of all, I found that it was a totally unsharable experience. Because you run into two things. You know, one of the things is people say, "Oh, you've been published," as if simply publishing one story. I have one story, and it's going to be in a magazine.

And then there's other people, they thought, well, it's only a pulp magazine or you only got paid — I think I got, after my agent's commission, it was $32. Why are you doing that? They don't understand it.

But see, the thing to me was I knew it was my first story. I was planning to spend my whole life writing, and there would be a second and a third and a fourth. But I knew I had at least passed the first hurdle. And I'd proved that I was good enough to sell at least one. And therefore, if I could sell one, I could sell again. I think that was the most important thing to me, just to know I'd reached that point.

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