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What was Jerry Pournelle really like?
by John F. Carr

I worked with Jerry Pournelle in his home/office in Studio City for over twenty years. During those two decades, I believe I got to know him better than anyone outside his family except for Larry Niven. I saw Jerry at his best, at home and relaxed, working feverishly to deadline, excited about a new project, scientific discovery or space flight, as well as down in the dumps when once again he and Larry were passed over for another Hugo Award. Does anyone today even remember the novel that beat Lucifer’s Hammer and won the Best Novel Hugo of 1978?

There’s even a Chilean heavy metal band named Lucifer’s Hammer—although I suspect that Jerry wouldn’t have viewed their homage as flattering.

Even Jerry realized that while he had many fans in the science-fiction community, there was a significant portion of fandom that disliked him—in part because of his politics and in part because of envy. If that hurt, Jerry never showed it. In fact, he reveled in it, calling himself out as being “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan!”

I do know that every time I went to a science-fiction convention, Science Fiction Writers of America Nebula Award event or writer’s gathering, people would come up to me and ask: “What is Jerry Pournelle really like?”

Before I answer that question, let’s take a step backward and let me tell you a little about myself and my background. Jerry was an only child, while I came from a family of five children, four boys and one girl, with me the oldest. My father, John L. Carr, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and like Jerry was a veteran; he was stationed at the Desert Training Center in Indio, California, where he underwent extensive training with the US Army Tank Destroyers for the North African Campaign.

My dad never made it to the North African theater. During a ten-mile hike, with full backpack and kit, in 110 degree heat, my father collapsed—he’d had a heart attack. He was taken back to the base, revived and decommissioned. Until his dying day, my dad always felt as though he’d let his unit down. Before he joined up, he’d worked as a machinist; so in Philadelphia he went back to work making the tools of war. After the war, he ran into one of his fellow soldiers, who told him all their training in the heat had been in vain; instead his battalion had gone in first at Anzio, Italy, where they suffered losses approaching sixty percent.

I was born on Christmas Day in 1944, which leaves me thankful for my dad’s heart attack! Life certainly has some odd twists and turns. My parents left Philly in 1948 for San Diego; three of my uncles had been in the merchant marines and based there. To them, compared to Philadelphia, it was paradise. My dad went to work for the Naval Electronics Lab in Point Loma and we moved to Pacific Beach. His next move was to Convair which was building the Atlas missile; his abilities were quickly noted and he was promoted to engineer without the prerequisite college degree. He continued working there even after Convair was bought out by General Dynamics.

I first went to work for Jerry on a trial basis in 1975. Jerry was looking for someone to help him organize his office; the growing success of The Mote in God’s Eye had left him swamped with paperwork and demands on his time. He had hired the son of one of the professors at Pepperdine University, where Jerry had taught political science. At the University of Washington, Jerry had earned master’s degrees in experimental statistics and systems engineering, as well as PhDs in psychology and political science. Jerry quickly determined he wasn’t suited for academic life as a professor and left Pepperdine to work for the reelection committee of Sam Yorty, mayor of Los Angeles, as his speech writer. This gave him a lot of insight into the political world, which he later used in his books, but when the campaign was over and they promoted him to a desk job—he quit.

The professor’s son turned out to be a dud. Instead of sorting Jerry’s mail, he tossed it into banker boxes which he didn’t even bother to label. Jerry got hold of me through Steven Goldin, the then editor of The Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin. I was assisting Goldin as junior editor—which means I did most of the scut work, but I learned a lot. By this point, Jerry decided he needed help from someone who knew something about writing and the writing life. When Jerry called Goldin and asked if he wanted to work as his assistant, Steve turned him down as he had just signed contracts with Laser Books for several novels. He mentioned I was a published author—my first novel, The Ophidian Conspiracy, had just come out—and that I was helping Steven edit and publish the SFWA Bulletin; he told Jerry I was an ideal candidate for the job.

By this time, I had read A Spaceship for the King and some of Jerry’s Falkenberg novellas and was a dedicated reader of Galaxy Magazine and very familiar with Jerry’s “A Step Farther Out” columns. And, of course, The Mote in God’s Eye had made quite a splash; many were calling it the best first-contact novel ever written. Plus, Jerry was heading up the Los Angeles area SFWA meetings and organized several outings to Pepperdine University in Malibu where we were given talks on campus by prominent scientists Jerry knew or had worked with. The clincher was lunch at a Malibu bistro which served deli sandwiches and Heinekens. No SF writer worth his salt has ever turned down a free lunch.

In those days, Jerry called himself a writer in the Hemingway tradition and he meant it. He typically wore a tan bush jacket and cargo pants, even around the house; he also smoked a pipe and was a two-fisted drinker. My favorite picture from that era was a large black & white photo of Jerry, dressed in his bush outfit, sitting in a rattan chair and cradling a Samurai sword.

Jerry was a large man, six feet two inches tall and just south of two hundred pounds; he dominated every gathering, especially the scientific and science-fiction circles he moved in. He spoke in a loud, booming voice with a trace of a Southern accent. With his encyclopedic knowledge, advanced degrees and great recall, he was completely at home whether talking about the latest scientific development, space research, publishing trend or political event. He was not a man to be trifled with; nor did he suffer fools gladly. His debating skills were second to none.

When Jerry called and asked if I was interested in helping him clean up his office for a few weeks, I immediately agreed and met him the next day. His office was a mess; overflowing banker boxes covering most of his office surfaces, including the floor! I went to work, sorting out the contracts, checks and critical correspondence from the “gubbage,” as Jerry would call it, as well as the usual junk mail. During my stay, the professor’s son showed up to pick up his unearned paycheck. I noted that his eyes were red and he carried the stench of a dedicated pot smoker, which explained a lot.

After several weeks of cleaning up the office mess, I went up into the attic—where Jerry kept his important files—and organized them as well. He had banker boxes stuffed with research papers with names like “Revolution Study,” “Pepperdine,” “Mars Study,” “Mathoms,” etc. I left on good terms and he said he’d call me again if he got into another bind.

Well, it only took about three weeks before chaos began to reign in Jerry’s office once more. This time Jerry offered me a steady position as his assistant with an increase in salary. Jerry enjoyed having a staff, even a staff of one. As a beginning writer, I liked the financial security of a steady job; plus, it was a job with a writer who was going places. I figured I could learn a lot working with Jerry, and I was right. It was like getting paid while working toward a graduate degree.

It worked well right from the beginning: I opened all of Jerry’s mail and, as a fellow writer, I knew automatically what was important and what wasn’t. I even answered all of his noncritical mail, such as membership requests, speaking requests from con committees, letters from publicists and letters from his speaking bureau; all the things that eat up time. I became the master of the one-page letter. I started helping with the anthologies early on, managing the contracts for his Black Holes anthology. When the book was published, I took note of the advances to be paid, wrote out the checks for Jerry to sign and answered the publicity requests from the publisher.

Meanwhile, Jerry was working on Inferno with Larry and things were hopping. The interesting thing about The Mote in God’s Eye was—while it never reached any bestseller lists—it just keep selling: like the Energizer Bunny it just kept going and going!

Before I started working for him, Jerry had signed a number of contracts with Laser Books, a new SF line under the Harlequin Romance imprint. Before the line went belly up, Laser Books published two of his books, West of Honor and Birth of Fire. They also held a contract for Space Viking’s Return, the sequel to H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking.

Jerry was having problems with the Space Viking sequel because it was a deceptively simple work: an action-adventure novel taking place in what Piper called the Old Federation. True, it was an action-packed space opera, but it was filled with military, historical and planetary details that had to be taken into consideration for the sequel to work. And, Jerry just didn’t have the time to spend studying Piper’s book.

So Jerry asked me to do a detailed study of the book, with notes and a detailed chronology. I’d always loved the book and getting paid to study and dissect it was like being given an early Christmas present. Of course, this fired up my collecting instincts and I went on a mission to locate every Piper story ever published, since many of them were part of the Space Viking future history, which I later named the Terro-Human Future History. This was before the Internet, and finding out-of-print books was a major chore. The Collector’s Book Store in Hollywood, which was crammed to the rafters with movie memorabilia, rare books, photos, paintings and pulp fiction, was the answer to my prayers.

When I became SFWA Bulletin editor in 1978, Jerry realized that he not only had a valued employee but a fellow editor. Jerry edited books, not for the money, but because he wanted to pay forward the time and education about writing he’d been given by Robert A. Heinlein and H. Beam Piper and pass it forward to new writers. It also explains why Jerry was one of the judges of the Writers of the Future contest right up until his death.

From that point on I became his associate editor and we started editing a number of anthologies, The Endless Frontier series, Survival of Freedom, the Imperial Stars series and the military SF series There Will Be War and War World.

So back to the original question: What was Jerry Pournelle really like? First of all, he was one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met; he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the damndest things, both practical and fantastic. He didn’t put up with nonsense from anyone, no matter what their reputation; he had an engineer’s laser-like focus and was able chop logic like a butcher! You didn’t want to debate Jerry—who had been on debate teams in college—unless you had all your ducks in a row, and even then you’d probably learn, to your chagrin, that some of them were dead ducks, when Jerry shot them down.

Jerry was well-aware of his “gifts” and he took full advantage of them. He used to sponsor parties at the annual meetings of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) so that he could introduce scientists from different disciplines to each other. He was quite proud of this, and saw himself as sort of a bumble bee of science pollinating the different disciplines. With an open bar these soirees were always well attended; Jerry’s sponsor for these meetings was the Vaughn Foundation.

Jerry first met James Vaughn when he was a professor of political science at Pepperdine University. Mr. Vaughn represented a group of Texas millionaires who, due to the political upheavals of the late sixties, were worried about the fate of the Republic and paid Jerry to do a study which he called “The Revolution Study.” Jerry’s final conclusion, as told to me when I asked, was that the Republic would survive the political issues of the day and that a successful left-wing revolution was unlikely.

Jerry’s favorite Mr. Vaughn (he always referred to him as Mister) story was at one of the AAAS parties—Mr. Vaughn liked to rub shoulders with important and famous scientists—when Jerry introduced him to one of the scientists as a “Texas millionaire,” and Mr. Vaughn quickly interrupted with, “No, I’m a Texas multimillionaire.” We had a good laugh over that one.

Once of the things Jerry told me when I first went to work for him was that he was a terrible manager of people. In the past, underlings had complained he was a hard task-master and demanded perfection. Plus, he yelled a lot; not on purpose, but his hearing was bad due to spending too much time near ear-bursting artillery shells during the Korean War. Jerry left Boeing when his job of stress-testing the astronauts ended because they promoted him to a managerial position. “I’m the worst damn people manager you can find,” he told me. “I’m hiring you because you know what I want, even before I do.”

I took that as a high compliment, but it was a skill I’d developed while growing up with my own highly demanding father.

Jerry always treated me like a colleague, rather than an employee. He was the best boss I ever had: before working for Jerry I had worked as an assistant department store manager, a bookstore clerk, an expediter and record store manager. From the beginning, we got along like gangbusters. In the twenty years I worked for him, I can honestly say he never once either raised his voice to me, or got angry at me. And that’s saying something!

I told this to fans, colleagues and friends, many of whom had a hard time reconciling this with what they had “heard” about Jerry and his larger than life public persona. But, when Jerry was at home in Chaos Manor, he was at his best, doing whatever it was he wanted to do. And I was at his side making sure he wasn’t bothered by interruptions and nonsense.

When I learned that Harlan Ellison had just died in July of this year (2018), it hit me that the two most brilliant, outrageous and outspoken SF writers in the field had left us. Both of them, despite their opposing political viewpoints, respected each other a lot. In public they might spar for the benefit of the crowd, but in private they were friends. Our field is much smaller now with their loss. We will not see their like again.

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