Robert Weinberg has been collecting rare books and science fiction and fantasy artwork for his entire adult life. We can thank his large collection of Virgil Finlay originals for the existence of The Collector’s Book of Virgil Finlay. This interview was supposed to be about that project, but once I started doing more research on Robert, I couldn’t help but ask questions about other aspects of his amazing career. Robert sold his first science fiction story in 1967, and has been steadily publishing and editing anthologies ever since, writing more than 30 fiction and non-fiction books, publishing over 150 short stories, and editing over 200 anthologies.
Read on to learn more about his amazing collection and career!
Andrea Johnson: Congratulations on the recent publication of The Collector’s Book of Virgil Finlay, which wouldn’t exist without your amazing collection of Finlay originals. Some of our readers may not know who Virgil Finlay is, so can you give us some background on his artwork?
Robert Weinberg: Virgil Finlay was perhaps the most popular science fiction artist of the 20th century. Mostly self-taught, Virgil got his start by submitting illustrations to Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s, feeling he could do as well as the professionals working for the publication. He was right, and soon readers were clamoring for his art. Finlay soon was illustrating for all the science fiction magazines of the time, his work was so popular that several magazines issued portfolios of his work from in their pages. In the 1950’s and 1960’s SF magazines changed format, Finlay changed picture size to follow them. Unfortunately Finlay was a heavy smoker and he died of lung cancer in 1971. Over a 35 year career, Finlay drew well over 2,000 published illustrations for the SF, fantasy, and horror fields.
RW: Finlay’s art appeals to me as it did to so many others through his incredible attention to detail, and his magical use of a stipple pen. Among my favorite works of his are the piece “Daemon” and the five illustrations he did for the Memorial hardcover version of “The Ship of Ishtar”.
AJ: Something that makes The Collector’s Book of Virgil Finlay so special is that the artwork in the book was reproduced from originals, rather than from prints or publisher proofs. Did you run into any technical challenges (photography, scanning, transporting artwork, etc) while putting the book together?
RW: Bob Garcia handled all the technical aspects of the book, from scanning, photographing, etc. etc.. Doug and I merely and our wonderful spouses did the busy work of taking the artwork out of their frames so they could be scanned. It took plenty of time to get everything done just right but we think that the time involved was well worth it to publish the art the way it was intended to be seen.
AJ: The production of the book was funded via Kickstarter, and the project received over four times the requested amount. How was your experience with Kickstarter? Would you do a crowd funded project of this nature again?
RW: Again, Bob handled most of the Kickstarter campaign. I think all three of us were astonished at the response the book received. If we ever do another artbook I suspect it will be financed in the same manner.
AJ: Where can people learn more about The Collector’s Book of Virgil Finlay and purchase a copy?
RW: Just check out the home page for American Fantasy Press.
AJ: You have an amazing collection of over 4500 rare books, including more than 1700 signed books, and I’d like to ask you a few questions about your amazing collection. How did you start collecting rare books? When did you realize you had become a collector as opposed to someone who owned a few special books?
RW: I guess I always have had a packrat personality. When I was young (8-9 years old) I remember collecting old comic books. I bought them in used book stores for a penny each (this was back in the early 1950’s before comics became collectible). When I started reading SF in the late 1950’s, I started accumulating old paperbacks I bought in those same used bookstores at 3 for a quarter. Needless to say, paperbacks led to hardcovers, and common hardcovers led to rare hardcovers. So, I sort of slipped my way into being a rare book collector!
AJ: I’m also interested in the technical aspects of owning so many books. Do you simply own a few houses full of bookshelves? Do you keep certain books in plastic, under glass, or in humidity/temperature controlled environments? Many of our readers hope one day to have a collection half as large as yours, and I know they would appreciate a few tips on taking care of signed and rare books.
RW: I like to put the dust jackets of my books in plastic covers so that the jacket is protected from being ripped or torn by accident. I try to keep certain publishers together as they display nicely. I really don’t worry about temperature controlled environment, but neither do I allow my books to be kept in rooms that I would feel uncomfortable in. I treat them like special friends, I suppose, as that is how I think of them – my special friends.
AJ: You sold your first story in 1967, and been writing and editing ever since. What are the biggest changes have you seen in the publishing industry in the last 40 years? What changes have you seen in fandom?
RW: Fandom has gotten HUGE! When I first got involved in fandom in the 1960’s, most well-known fans knew each other and saw each other at major conventions. And major conventions meant hundreds of people attended. Now, a major convention has thousands of people in attendance and few of them know anyone else. How has the SF publishing field changed? More hardcovers, less paperbacks, less interest in trying to produce books that sell a reasonable number of copies instead of making every book a best seller.
AJ: You’ve edited more than 200 anthologies, often putting out five or more anthologies in a given year. How in the world are you able to get these completed so quickly?RW: I have an exceptional memory, so if you name a topic in sf, I usually can rattle off the names of bunches of stories on that subject without breaking into a sweat. So putting together theme anthologies is easy. Assembling a best-of-the-year book is just a matter of taste. Editing is fun, at least in most situations.
AJ: The thousands of books on your shelves are joined by a number of awards, including two Bram Stoker awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and a special committee Award given by the World Science Fiction Convention in 2012. Can you tell us a little about your experience being awarded a special Hugo for your contribution and service to science fiction, fantasy and horror?
RW: Unfortunately, Worldcons are no longer able to give out special Hugo’s. The award I received from Chicago Con was just that – an award from the committee of the convention for my contributions to the field. I was happy to get it whether it was a Hugo or not. Add to the situation, I was exhausted from bad health and being on kidney dialysis three days a week, so I didn’t even make the Award ceremony. My good friend, Jane Frank, accepted the Award for me.
AJ: You’re currently involved with Arkham Entertainment as a story consultant. In what ways is working on a screenplay different than working on novels and/or graphic novels that you’ve worked on?
RW: My work for Arkham Entertainment involves finding stories for them to develop into movies and TV shows from the Arkham Library. I really can’t discuss it more than that other than to say, Keep Watching the Skies!