Friday, June 9, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber

When I read Frank Gruber’s retelling of his days as a struggling then successful pulp fiction writer from the 1930s, I realized something important: I don’t have it so bad here in 2017.

Frank Gruber was one of the more well-known and prolific authors to emerge from the pulp fiction years from the 1920s through World War II. By his own estimates, Gruber wrote more than 300 pulp fiction yarns, 60 novels, and more than 200 screenplays and television scripts. THE PULP JUNGLE is his retelling of his time as a writer, how he started, how he persevered, the decisions he made, and how it all turned out.

In a word, it is a sobering read.

Like many of the successful pulp writers in the depth of the Great Depression, Gruber wrote everything. A ledger from the months August 1932 to June 1934 indicated he wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

But he persevered. His move to New York in 1934 proved to be the kind of starving artist story that sounds good when you’ve made it but horrible at the time. He arrived in the Big Apple with the Remington, clothes that fit into a suitcase, and $40 after paying rent. And “I had something else…the will to succeed.” But those early New York years were bad. He “existed. Some days I had a single meal, some days I tasted no food at all other than the tomato soup at the Automat.” The tomato soup in question is actually warm water (which was free), catsup (also free), and crackers (free). That was the “soup.”

Gruber got two breaks that helped him on his way. One came from honesty. He had been paid twice for a single story and, reluctantly, Gruber had sent the second check back. That ended up paying dividends when the editor of Writer’s Digest came calling to see the man who had returned that check. The editor paid Gruber to be a contact in New York.

The other break—The Big Break—came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

From that moment on, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. He cracked the big dog on the block—Black Mask—and kept going. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. Not like today. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

THE PULP JUNGLE is chock full of great little nuggets of truth. Writing to market is a growing aspect of indie writers, but Gruber and his pals did it back in the 1930s. They had to or they didn’t eat. Another modern trend is books or courses or classes on writing. Yes they serve a valuable purpose—I greatly benefited from two online courses with Dean Wesley Smith late in 2016—but constant writing means a writer is constantly improving his craft. By definition, each story or book is better than the previous. I can attest to that as well.

For any person who dreams of a full-time writing career in 2017, that dream is still attainable. But what the story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests is that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (or insert your own personal challenge here)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes” and then he delivered.

You can, too.

Reading THE PULP JUNGLE is a great snapshot into the life of a real pulp fiction writer and might be essential reading for any writer who is considering the professional writing life.


Chap O'Keefe said...

"Writing to market is a growing aspect of indie writers, but Gruber and his pals did it back in the 1930s." That's very true, and Gruber and company did face some hard economic times. What they did have was recognizable paying markets, and that was still true to an extent when I began my career in the 1960s. It isn't today ... not unless I'm looking in the wrong places.

When I wrote the article "Detectives in Cowboy Boots" for the online magazine Black Horse Extra (you can still find it at I made mention of Frank Gruber's work and wrapped up with a lengthy quote from one of his seemingly timeless articles of advice for Writer's Digest. It had first appeared in January 1941. See if you think it still holds true today.

And Scott, I like your masthead tagline "Old-Fashioned Escapism for the 21st Century." I run something similar on the covers of the Chap O'Keefe ebooks for the Kindle: "Western Fiction for Today's Readers."

Scott D. Parker said...

Chap (or do you prefer Keith?),

There's a moment, late in your excellent article, where you write "To compile a complete history of the parallels between hardboiled detective stories and westerns would be beyond my capabilities and take space unavailable here." After reading your piece, I contend that it is not beyond your capabilities. That was an excellent piece! Thank you for the link.

And, yes, to Gruber's quote. Funny that a guy, writing in 1941, hits the nail on the head for how to stand out in a crowded field: theme and invention. I have a Word file at home that I created with all my notes from The Pulp Jungle. That quote is in there.

Thanks again for the link. And, after reading about Joshua Dillard, I went out and picked up BLAST TO OBLIVION.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Chap? Keith? Either is fine, Scott. The pen-name was adopted simply because I thought it went better on the covers of Black Horse Westerns, which at that time were also reprinting classics from the likes of Ernest Haycox, Les Savage Jr, and William Colt MacDonald. Although I'm happy enough with my real name, it didn't look quite right in such illustrious company! I hope you enjoy BLAST TO OBLIVION.