Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Conversation with William F. Nolan

Recently, we were fortunate enough to correspond with legendary author William F. Nolan. Nolan was a core member of the Southern California School of Writers in the 1950s and 1960s, having collaborated on numerous occasions with his close friends and Twilight Zone writers Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and John Tomerlin.

Nolan is the author of the 1967 dystopian novel Logan’s Run (written with George Clayton Johnson), which has been adapted into a film, a television series, multiple comic books series, and followed by two Nolan-penned sequels, Logan’s World (1977) and Logan’s Search (1980). He is the author of a highly regarded body of short fiction, primarily in the horror, fantasy, science fiction, and suspense genres, which have been collected across several volumes including Impact-20 (1963), Alien Horizons (1974), Things Beyond Midnight (1984), Night Shapes (1995), Dark Universe (2001), and Like a Dead Man Walking (2014). His novels include The Black Mask series, the Sam Space series and the horror novel Helltracks (1991), among many others.

Nolan’s work in film and television is showcased in his collaborations with director Dan Curtis, which includes screenplays for The Turn of the Screw (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), and Trilogy of Terror II (1996). 

Nolan is also an accomplished editor, having compiled such anthologies as The Pseudo-People (1965), Man Against Tomorrow (1965), A Wilderness of Stars (1969), A Sea of Space (1970), and, with Martin H. Greenberg, Urban Horrors (1990) and The Bradbury Chronicles: Stories in Honor of Ray Bradbury (1991). With William Schafer, Nolan compiled the essential Group anthology, California Sorcery (1999). In recent years, Nolan has worked closely with author, editor, and filmmaker Jason V. Brock on such projects as William F. Nolan: A Miscellany (2011), The Bleeding Edge: Dark Barriers, Dark Frontiers (2009), The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier (2011), and the comic book series Tales from William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe.

Nolan’s work in non-fiction fields is equally accomplished and includes such essential volumes as The Ray Bradbury Companion (1975), The Work of Charles Beaumont: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide (1986; 2nd ed. 1990), and Nolan on Bradbury (2013). He has written essays on such science fiction luminaries as Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Chad Oliver, and Philip K. Dick, as well as book-length biographies of Dashiell Hammett, Steve McQueen, and John Huston, among others. He is the author of two books on writing, How to Write Horror Fiction (1990) and Let’s Get Creative: Writing Fiction That Sells (2006).

Nolan’s output also includes poetry, art, articles, teleplays, and books on a variety of subjects. Of particular interest are his two books on automobile racing compiled with Charles Beaumont, The Omnibus of Speed (1958) and When Engines Roar (1964). Nolan has won multiple Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association, including a Grand Master Award in 2014. He won the International Horror Guild’s Living Legend Award in 2001 as well as the World Horror Society Grand Master Award in 2015. Nolan’s accolades also include awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the World Fantasy Convention.

Mr. Nolan was kind enough to talk to us about his time with the Group, his assessment of The Twilight Zone, and his long and successful writing career.


Vortex: You were a core member of the creative group which produced so much of the material seen on The Twilight Zone. What was the feeling amongst members of that group during production of the series?

Nolan: They were proud to be a part of what they came to realize was a unique series. Everyone admired Rod Serling, but none of us realized the impact that the show would have. We just thought it was another TV series. At the time, they greatly appreciated having their scripts shot exactly as written. Most shows would make significant changes, but most of the Twilight Zone episodes were shot pretty much as they were imagined by the writers.

Vortex:  Can you talk about your Twilight Zone story, “Dreamflight,” written with George Clayton Johnson?  What was it about and why did it go unproduced? Were there any other Twilight Zone stories which you wrote but were never produced?

Nolan: It was a modern version of Sleeping Beauty. In our take, an airliner suddenly lost all four engines and was headed down for a fatal crash. Then, at the last minute, a young man stepped up to a still sleeping girl and kissed her goodbye. Instantly, all four engines roared back to life, and the plane was saved. Saved by a magic kiss.

Rod liked it, paid us for it, and I’m sure would have produced it. But by that time, Twilight Zone was headed into its next season with hour long episodes. Written to a half-hour format, “Dreamflight” didn’t fit. “Dreamflight” did get printed in the 2006 anthology, Forgotten Gems from the Twilight Zone, Volume 2. This was my one and only teleplay for the series. Alas, I was too busy to write other episodes for the show.

Vortex: One of distinguishing characteristics of the Southern California Group of Writers was the willingness to collaborate on a variety of creative projects, from novels and anthologies, to television and film scripts. What fostered this desire to work together? How did close friendship affect the creative process?

Nolan: We in the Group were all close friends: Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Chad Oliver, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, John Tomerlin – all of us were close. We enjoyed working with one another, as we felt we were getting a bonus in doing this; that two sets of imagination added to every collaborative project. After all, two heads are better than one. Logan’s Run was better with Johnson’s contribution.

We also criticized each other’s work relentlessly, sometimes spending all night at a coffee shop doing so. But it made us each a stronger writer than we would have been alone.

Vortex: How would you describe your style of writing?

Nolan: It varies considerably. My Logan novels are swift and direct, never a wasted word. Extremely fast-paced. Hard edged. I’ve used many styles over the years with my work. Depending on the kind of story I’m telling. Plot and character dictate how I write. To sum up: I have no primary writing style. This way I stay fresh. My cardinal rule: never bore the reader. I do my best to follow this rule.

Vortex: Your best known work is the novel Logan’s Run but a large portion of your career has been dedicated to the short story form, including much of your finest work. What continues to draw you to the short story form and how has your approach to short story writing changed over the course of your career?

Nolan: The short story is, to my mind, the purest form of fiction. They demand a tight structure, sharp dialogue, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. They are direct, akin to a one round knockout punch in a fifteen-round bout. With each new story, I attempt to “push the envelope” – to do things I’ve never done before. I love writing them.

Vortex: You produced an influential body of work for film and television, particularly your work with producer/director Dan Curtis. Can you talk about how you broke into film and television? What do you feel are your most successful forays into those mediums?

Nolan: Back in 1959, Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin both allowed me to co-write teleplays with them under their by-line. That’s how I learned how to write for television. By 1971, I was able to strike out on my own when I adapted my story “The Joy of Living” for Norman Corwin’s Canadian television series, Norman Corwin Presents. Among my most successful projects for television: The Norliss Tapes, The Turn of the Screw, Trilogy of Terror – and for film Burnt Offerings – all with my friend, the late Dan Curtis, who produced and directed them. Dan was a very talented guy, and I was recommended to him by another good friend, the late Richard Matheson.

Vortex: Another interesting aspect of your career is the large body of essays, biographies, catalogues, and bibliographies you’ve produced, much of it exploring the careers of your contemporaries in science fiction and fantasy. Can you tell us about this dedication to cataloguing and commenting upon the work of your contemporaries?

Nolan: I’ve always been very interested in what my fellow writers do. I enjoy exploring their output in bibliographic form. Very satisfying, and I feel of real value. Plus, it offers a nice break from my fiction.

I guess I’ve always had a preoccupation with list making. In the Group, they called me “the old indexer.” I felt it was important to record people’s accomplishments, even when they didn’t think so themselves at the time. Sometimes, when asked about when a certain story appeared and where, even Richard Matheson would say, “Go ask Bill. He knows more about my work than I do.” I’d always have the answer.

This interest also led me to create the Ray Bradbury Review, the first critical treatment of Bradbury’s work. I went on to do other bibliographies and several full biographies. I have even kept a month-by-month journal of my own life since my birth in Kansas City. Right now, I am working on my memories as I push 90 years of age.

Vortex: One of the writers to whom you dedicated your career retrospective, Dark Universe, was Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s work has been kept alive largely through his association with The Twilight Zone but also by a dedicated group of readers and by Beaumont’s close friends such as Ray Bradbury and yourself. With his inclusion into the Penguin Classics line of books, Beaumont’s work has reached new heights of accessibility and respectability. How did Beaumont’s work strike you at the time it was being written and what do you feel is the quality of the work which elicits such devotion from its readers?

Nolan: Charles Beaumont was indeed a fine writer. One of the trailblazers. His work had a lyrical quality and always dealt with humanistic concerns. He was a superb storyteller, and my dear pal. In many ways, I owe my career to him. I speak about him at length, and so does Bradbury, Matheson, Johnson, and others, in the documentary Charles Beaumont: The Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man. Of everything out there, I think that film most closely captures the essence of why Beaumont was an important figure in all our lives.

Vortex:  Charles Beaumont’s excellent fourth season episode “Miniature” related to your own life at that time. Could you tell us the story behind that episode?

Nolan: Well for one thing, the character was shy around women and Chuck (which is what we called Beaumont) was well aware of this. It was partly his way of ribbing me, but I also have always had a thing for miniature figures and models. Maybe it’s because my eyesight – I am near-sighted in one eye, and far-sighted in the other – prevents me from really seeing large objects in 3D. But a small object that I can hold up in front of my face can become a whole world to me.  I can see it in its totality and study it. It fascinates me. Chuck was one of the only people who knew me well enough to pick up on this and used it in the story.

Vortex:  You recently won a Bram Stoker Award for your book, Nolan on Bradbury: Sixty Years of Writing about the Master of Science Fiction. Before that you created publications such as The Ray Bradbury Review and The Ray Bradbury Companion. Although Bradbury only saw one teleplay produced on The Twilight Zone, his influence can be felt in everything seen on the series. Can you tell us what Bradbury’s work and friendship meant to you personally and to the Group as a collective?

Nolan: Well of course, Bradbury was the master, the role model for us all. He had a tremendous influence on modern literature around the world. To the Group, he was our mentor. To me, a deeply valued friend as well. Bradbury was generous to all of us. He spent time with us and helped us with our problems. Even when we interrupted his writing, he was never angry or impatient. He gave his time and advice freely and he helped all of us with our careers.

Vortex:  I feel that The Twilight Zone was the purest creative expression of the Southern California Group. What do you feel are the qualities of the series which causes it to endure and renew itself with each succeeding generation?  

Nolan: The Twilight Zone told human stories, no matter how fantastic the basic concept might be. It used fantasy and fable to illumine human character. Rod Serling deserves much credit for the creation of a truly memorable series.

Thank you again to William F. Nolan and a special thanks to Sunni Brock. 

Visit William F. Nolan’s official website
View William F. Nolan’s listing on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database

A William F. Nolan cover gallery:


  1. It's great that you were able to interview Mr. Nolan. I enjoyed reading what he had to say and learned some new things about what he has done.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jack. It was great to be able to talk with him. He's had such an amazing and prolific career and he's been such a keen observer of the science fiction and fantasy fields for many years that unfortunately I was only able to show but a small sample of his knowledge and memory of experience.