Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Philip José Farmer - Trip Report

Earlier this month, on very short notice, I was invited to visit Philip José Farmer and his wife, Bette. Fortunately I was able to accept the invitation.

It was a pleasure meeting Art Bollmann on my Chicago layover and I am glad that we had almost two hours to chat, non-stop.

Peoria was great. The Farmers are extremely gracious people. When they heard I was willing to travel there just for a 4-hour visit on July 5 (but arriving in Peoria on the night of July 4), they revised their invitation, suggested I come in a little earlier on July 4... And stay over at their house. Which Mike Croteau (of www.pjfarmer.com) and I, of course, gladly accepted. :-)

The original plans called for taking Phil and Bette out for dinner, or at least for Mike and I to get to take-out and bring it to their house. Instead, we arrived to discover that Bette had cooked a full meal for us. (!)

Phil really appreciated the card that some folks contributed to – thanks again to those folks who sent something on very short notice. Phil very carefully read the card with all the comments, and Bette was very pleased: "Is this for us to keep?"

After arriving to Bette's surprise dinner, we all sat down to chat a bit. Phil is a very quiet man, but he was obviously interested in our conversation. Bette is talkative and vivacious.

I noticed that most of their DVDs were of classic comedy (Marx Bros, 3 Stooges, etc.), so when Mike gave them a complete set of the Jeeves & Wooster television episodes, they were thrilled. We watched the first episode, and Phil had a grin on his face the whole time.

I gave Bette and Phil the new Zorro novel by Isabel Allende on CD, and Phil was fascinated reading the cover description. When I told him that Zorro had been incorporated into the WNU, he said, "That's a good idea!" and then half-jokingly grumbled, "I should have thought of that."

Of course, Mike and I are younger guys, so after Phil retired for the evening, we stayed up about another hour talking with Bette. After that, Mike started going through material in the basement, looking for the odd gem here or there.

(This is all with Phil and Bette's knowledge and blessing -- she told him which boxes to look in. Whatever Mike finds of interest, he works with Phil and Bette to determine what to do with it; post it on www.pjfarmer.com, put it in the new upcoming fanzine, FARMERPHILE; list it for sale; etc. Farmer fans can always find items of interest on Mike's website; just check regularly at www.pjfarmer.com.)

Meanwhile, I was let loose in another part of their basement, the room that has all Phil's books, and originals or prints of his various book covers.

We finally crashed about 2:00 am, and roused around 8 or 9 (I was too groggy to note the time with any degree of precision).

The morning saw us chatting us bit more with Phil and Bette. The flow of conversation didn't really allow me to address specific questions, and most of Phil's answers are open-ended anyway. ;-)

One that I did have a chance to ask, was the Lois Lane reference his DOC SAVAGE biography. Did he really mean to incorporate Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and even Superman? Answer: it was a joke.

Speaking of jokes, Phil has a very sharp sense of humor, and even though many of his answers were, short, or cryptic, they were almost universally humorous. We also discussed how, in the end, the bios are a grand example of tricksterism, in that TARZAN ALIVE starts out very seriously, drawing the reader into the Game ("this is all real"), and by the end of DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, we have a talking dog in the Wold Newton Universe (WNU). Phil got a chuckle out of that.

I learned that Phil was one of the sci-fi writers approached by Gene Roddenberry to help shape STAR TREK. Unfortunately, Phil's ideas were *too* realistic. According to Roddenberry, TREK still needed to be accessible to the "grandmothers in Iowa," and Phil's concepts would not have "made it so."

However, both Phil and Bette acknowledged that STAR TREK turned out pretty well, all things considered (network issues, ratings, mass appeal considerations, etc.).

We also got on the topic of some of our favorite British TV, both comedy and genre. When I mentioned that THE PRISONER was very well done, and one of my all-time favorites, Phil nodded vigorously in agreement.

That, along with a letter Phil wrote to the BAKER STREET JOURNAL back in the early '70s in which he indicates his familiarity with, and some degree of fondness for, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., was personally gratifying, since I put in THE PRISONER and U.N.C.L.E. in very early rounds of the WNU Crossover Chronology.

After heading back to the basement for another round of looking for goodies, Bette made us lunch, and we spent the rest of our time talking on the enclosed back porch. Phil graciously signed my TARZAN ALIVE and DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, and before we knew it, it was time to go.

When it came time to leave, we had one stop to make on the way to the airport (well, not quite "on the way" :-). We went by Phil's alma mater, Bradley University, as apparently there was a trophy in the Field House that Phil had won. We found the trophy (second place for the track team, 1940, along with a group picture in which we found a youthful image of Phil).

It was the trip of a lifetime.
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