The Runner Who’ll Never Die: An Interview With William F. Nolan (part one)

by Michael McCarty and Connie Corcoran Wilson

When William F. Nolan was born seventy-eight years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, the world was a very different place than it is today. However, Nolan managed to distill the essence of man’s primary personal concern – his preoccupation with and fear of death – into a classic science fiction novel that transcends time. The idea that people could be terminated (i.e., killed) at a certain age went right to the heart of man’s deepest, darkest fear.

Logan’s Run, the first version of which was written with collaborator George Clayton Johnson in 1963, has been entertaining audiences in book form and onscreen for well over forty-three years. The 1976 MGM film with Michael York as Logan and Jenny Agutter as Jessica changed the age at which runners would die from twenty-one (as in the novel) to thirty, to accommodate the actors who would play the parts and made several other condensations and adjustments to the plot. But the reality is the same and the movie, like the book, was hugely successful. Man is fascinated with and preoccupied by his own mortality; Logan’s Run tapped into that. And will again, if the rumors about a new film version of the book from Warner Brothers, with Bryan Singer attached as Director, are true.

Nolan has authored more than 150 short stories since 1956, when he became a full-time writer at the age of twenty-eight. An accomplished artist, he attended the Kansas City Art Institute and San Diego State and worked for Hallmark Greeting Cards and as an illustrator for Disney. Nolan moved to California with his family in 1947 at age 18, and there fell in with the group of writers that became known as the Southern California Group. This group included Ray Bradbury, who would become his good friend and about whose work Nolan is an expert. Bradbury introduced Nolan to artist Charles Beaumont and others. The rest is history. And lots of it.

Reflection’s Edge: You collaborated with George Clayton Johnson on the original Logan’s Run, but then went on to write Logan’s World, Logan’s Search, and Logan’s Return on your own. The writing in the Logan stories is much more terse than in some of your other stories and novels. Do you think this is a function of the fact that the original book was a partnership? Was this a conscious choice, or did it just happen that way?

Nolan: The terse, fast-moving style of Logan’s Run is typical of much of my work and was a conscious choice for the Logan novels. Logan needs to run, which meant speed of narrative. But, the style was mine, not Johnson’s. Most of the final writing in Logan’s Run is mine. George did 50% of the plotting, but I did 90% of the writing. I’m a fast-action writer.

The key word here (in your question) is “some.” True enough, not everything I’ve done is bullet-swift Logan-type writing. But, then again, much of it is. The Logan style is, and has been for many years, my “signature style.”

RE: The last I heard, Logan’s Run was going to be directed by Superman Returns and X-Men director Bryan Singer and produced by Joel Silver. Is it back on the shelf or is it in pre-production?

Nolan: Singer has pulled out (after 2 ½ years of prepartion) to direct another Superman film, so Logan is back in limbo. When a new director is found the film will be made. Joel Silver is very high on it. The question is: when.

RE: Themes that used to be the driving force of much Science Fiction of the Golden Age, like interstellar travel, seem to have lost some of their appeal. Do you agree or disagree? And what do you think are the main preoccupations people want Sci-Fi to reflect nowadays?

Nolan: I’m a Golden Age guy. [Robert] Heinlein, [Arthur C.] Clarke, [Isaac] Asimov, [Clifford] Simak, [Ray] Bradbury, [Robert] Silverberg, [Philip K.] Dick, these are science fiction to me. I don’t read modern SF since it has largely evolved into high fantasy. Swords and dragons and demons and magic: that’s what publishers call SF today. The old forms of SF barely survive. The science fiction “sense of wonder” (reflected, I think in my Logan novels) has been replaced with fantasy, and, for me, that’s a great loss.

RE: What are you currently working on?

Nolan: Three Logan “prequel” novels, setting up the world of Logan’s Run. A bio of Max Brand (who wrote Dr. Kildare and Destiny Rides Again). Another (definitive this time) book on Dashiell Hammett. A book of horror tales, Nightshadows, for a small press called Fairwood. And, always, new short stories. I keep busy.

RE: Can you expound a bit on another of your areas of expertise: sports car racing.

Nolan: I have not been into sports car and Grand Prix racing since the early 1970s. Prior to then, I wrote and sold eight books on auto racing and over 150 magazine pieces. I won a trophy racing my modified Austin-Healey at the hourglass circuit near San Diego, and covered GP and sports car racers around the world for Road & Trade and Car and Driver. Riverside, Nassau, Sebring, Pebble Beach, Monte Carlo, etc. I watched James Dean and Steve McQueen when they raced sports cars.

But that’s all in the past. Today, I don’t follow the sport, and I don’t even know who the current GP World Champion is. I still drive a classic car – a 280 Mercedes-Benz – but that’s about it.

RE: You wrote your first published short story, “The Joy of Living,” which saw print in 1954. Nine years later, in 1963, your first short story collection, Impact 20, got published. In 1967, Logan’s Run was published. Nine years later, in 1976, the book would become a movie. Is nine your lucky number?

Nolan: No – “6″ is my lucky number. I was born on March 6, and my phone number in Kansas City (where I grew up) was Logan 6466 (I took Logan as the name of my Sandman hero!)

RE: Impact 20 was re-published 40 years later by Gauntlet Press. How did it feel re-reading and revisiting these stories again? And why the title Impact 20?

Nolan: I was pleased (and rather amazed) at how well the stories held up after 40 years. Sure, a couple of them were weak, but most remained strong and affecting.

The title arose from the fact that the original book contained 20 “stories of impact.” For the revised edition, Gauntlet added three more (written back in the early period) and listed these as “Other Impacts.” [Ray] Bradbury, my dear pal, wrote the intro. I’m still proud of that book, the first of my 22 collections.

RE: If you had to choose only three favorites from the Gauntlet Press edition of Impact 20, which three would you choose and why?

Nolan: The three I added to the new edition ["Ask the Man Who Owns One," "Maybe It Was Joe," "Some Time in Kansas City"] – because they are emotionally deeper. But I like almost all of the stories.

RE: In the introduction to Impact 20, Ray Bradbury wrote:

“He got around to jumping off the end of the board, nose held, in the year 1956. At twenty-eight, he quit a good paying job, bought himself a ream of paper, and began to write full time.”

Was that a scary thing to do at that time in your life?

Nolan: Are you kidding? Jumping into the sea of full-time writing (where only about 2 percent of all pro writers make their living strictly from words, without having to hold down a second job) is terrifying. You never know if you’ll be able to survive. I’ve done nothing but write now for almost 50 years, so I’m one of the few lucky ones. It’s a great life, but emotionally it’s one long roller coaster. Up and down. Up and down. I would never advise anyone to become a full-time writer unless he or she is compelled to write every day. It’s a tough game.

RE: Helltracks was originally a short story, “Lonely Train A’Comin’.” This story was based on a dream you had. How did you know that short story had enough material to become a novel?

Nolan: It took me several years to figure out how to turn my short story into a full novel. Finally, I got the answer: I made it a two-part book, intermixing the diary of a serial killer with the short-story plot of a killer train. That gave me enough material for the novel, but it wasn’t easy.

RE: If you could be any monster, which monster would you be?

Nolan: Count Dracula, of course. He gets to sink his fangs in all those beautiful women.

RE: Last question – Dan Curtis passed away earlier this year. Nine of your produced scripts were directed by Dan Curtis. You’ve worked so well together and he was a friend of yours as well. Can you give us a Dan Curtis anecdote?

Nolan: Dan’s death was a terrific shock to me. (He died of a brain tumor). We were a great team. I worked on 15 film/ TV projects with him over the years from The Norliss Tapes to Trilogy Of Terror II. Six of our planned projects (me as writer, with Dan producing and directing) never got made, sorry to say. Dan was a dynamo of a man, and I can’t believe he’s gone. We shared a lot together.

As to a Curtis anecdote: When we were shooting my teleplay, Melvis Purvis, G-Man, up in Sacramento, California, I played the minor role of a gangster that Purvis kills on the roof of a tavern. The scene went on and on, and finally I lifted my head to see if Curtis had finished shooting the scene. He had not. Dan yelled at me: “Nolan, damn you, keep your head down! You’re supposed to be dead.”

We had a lot of laughs over that.

[Continue to The Runner Who'll Never Die: An Interview With William F. Nolan, part two]

Michael McCarty is a former stand-up comedian, musician and managing editor of a music magazine. His books Giants of the Genre and More Giants Of The Genre (Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Book of the Year) are collections of interviews with the greats of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. In 2005, Wildside Press published his first fiction collection, Dark Duets. In 2006, he wrote an article for Writers Digest Books' On Writing Horror (edited by Mort Castle), and appeared in the Cemetery Dance anthology In Laymon Terms. In April 2007, the novel Monster Behind the Wheel (co-authored with Mark McLaughlin) was published in England by Sarob Press. More on Mike can be found at geocities.com/mccartyzone and myspace.com/monsterbook. He can be reached at monstermike69 (at) hotmail.com.

Connie Corcoran Wilson is a writer, teacher and businesswoman. Connie has written for five newspapers, serving as the book and film critic for the Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa) for 12 years and also conducting interviews for the Moline, Illinois Daily Dispatch. Her most recent book, Both Sides Now (2004), is a humor anthology of her previously-published newspaper columns. Mrs. Wilson has taught composition and literature classes at Black Hawk Junior College, Augustana College, Marycrest College, St. Ambrose University, Kaplan University, and Eastern Iowa Community College.

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