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Prolific author William F. Nolan lured to Vancouver by an unlikely friendship

By Mary Ann Albright
Published: August 18, 2010, 12:00am

Feb. 28, 2010 — William F. Nolan’s wife tells him he invented the Internet. In Nolan’s 1967 science-fiction novel “Logan’s Run,” a vast computer network called the Thinker controls the world.

“Science-fiction writers do extrapolate. They try to take a trend of today and move it into the future: What would happen if,” the lanky, effervescent 81-year-old said.

Plot twists in his own life — a marriage in need of a tune-up, a professional collaboration that blossomed into a friendship — led the famed and prolific author to move to Vancouver, where he lives in a book-filled one-bedroom apartment.

Nolan has 83 book credits to his name. He’s best known for his work in science fiction, fantasy and horror. In January, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers Association, and he was voted a Living Legend in Dark Fantasy in 2002 by the International Horror Guild. Still, Nolan bristles at being assigned to any particular genres.

“I have too many irons in the fire, too many interests,” he said. “I don’t believe in limits.”

Indeed, Nolan’s career runs the gamut from actor to sports writer to biographer to auto racer, though he got his start as an artist.

Now he’s returning to those roots in a collaboration with Vancouver-based Bluewater Productions, which is adapting “Logan’s Run” and other Nolan stories into comic book form.

It’s a joint effort among Bluewater, Nolan and Jason V and Sunni Brock, husband-and-wife documentary filmmakers living in Fisher’s Landing just minutes from Nolan.

The comic books represent only a few of the projects Nolan and the Brocks have in the mix, and their relationship goes beyond business. The three have developed a deep friendship, despite the age difference, which is why Nolan chose to relocate here a year and a half ago.

Jason Brock is 39, less than half Nolan’s age, but the two consider themselves contemporaries. The staunch vegetarians have dinner together several times a week, and go on road trips to book and film events. Jason Brock and Nolan keep Sunni laughing with stories, impressions and improvised comedy.

“They’re like two brothers,” said Bluewater President Darren G. Davis, who’s become friends with the group through the collaboration on the comics. “They’re like Abbott and Costello.”

Out on a literary limb

Nolan’s never been short on creativity. Born in Kansas City, Mo., he started writing at age 9.

“I wrote very bad poetry. When I was 10 years old, I started writing very bad short fiction about the Foreign Legion, of which I knew nothing, and magicians, of which I knew nothing,” he said.

The longtime Batman fan — he still has a Caped Crusader action figure in his apartment — also tried his hand at creating superheroes. One was the Flaming Scarab, though the young Nolan accidentally spelled it the Flaming Shrab. It’s become an inside joke among his coterie that when someone does something stupid, they’re acting shrabish.

Another of his superhero inventions was The Serpent, a crime-fighting snake.

When he was 15, Nolan discovered horror writing. He spent 50 cents — half his weekly allowance — on the Boris Karloff-edited anthology “Tales of Terror.” From there, he was hooked. Similarly, H.G. Wells was his entree into science fiction.

“It liberates the mind,” Nolan said. “You can go as far out on the literary limb as your imagination will take you.”

Though he loved literature, Nolan soon turned his attention to art. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute and worked as an artist for Hallmark Cards Inc.

When he was 19, he moved to California with his family. One day he sat down, and in an hour produced a short story he sold to Playboy for $500. At that moment, he decided writing, not art, was the way to make money.

In 1952, he moved to Los Angeles to break into television and film writing. There he joined up with a group of writers who would become key figures in the horror, fantasy and science-fiction genres: George Clayton Johnson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, John Tomerlin and Robert Bloch.

The idea for “Logan’s Run” sprung from a lecture Beaumont invited Nolan to give to a class he was teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nolan came up with the concept of a society that euthanized people when they hit 40 years old. He called it “Killer Man, Killer Man, Leave My Door.”

That story would become “Logan’s Run,” which Nolan and Johnson wrote over the course of three weeks at a Malibu, Calif., motel. It was the first novel for both.

Nolan and Johnson made some changes to the initial idea. They decided it would be more dramatic if, at age 21, people were to turn themselves in for termination. “Logan’s Run” centers on a Deep Sleep Operative, or Sandman, named Logan, one of the people responsible for tracking down Runners, meaning those who don’t report for euthanization when their time comes. Logan goes undercover to infiltrate the Runners’ underground railroad but becomes sympathetic to their cause and a Runner himself.

The novel deals with such themes as ageism, assisted suicide, overpopulation and dwindling natural resources that remain hot-button issues today.

“The subtext is you can’t have younger people running the world. You need middle-aged and older people to balance it,” Nolan said.

“Logan’s Run” was a best-seller and was adapted into a film in 1976.

The MGM movie, which starred Michael York as Logan, wasn’t what Nolan hoped it might be.

“It’s a popcorn flick. The movie is only about half of what I wanted it to be,” he said, noting that it deviated too far from the novel. For example, it was set further in the future, in the 23rd century instead of the 22nd, and people were allowed to live to age 30.

Nolan is hopeful that a Warner Bros.’ remake, currently in preproduction and scheduled for a 2012 release, will be better. He hopes to be on the set during filming and write a production journal, “Running With Logan.”

“Logan’s Run” has been adapted to comic book form twice before, but the Bluewater version is the only one that captures the essence of the novel, Nolan said.

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“You need a three-dimensional Logan, not just a cardboard figure running through a future world,” he added.

Bluewater’s “Logan’s Run: Last Day” series launched Feb. 17, and new issues will be released monthly. Nolan and Brock worked with Bluewater on all aspects of the comic, including costumes. Nolan hated that the 1976 movie dressed Logan in pajamas and slippers, and was adamant that the comic show a fiercer Sandman clad in a helmet and body armor. Bluewater also is working on a series based on Nolan’s character Sam Space, and one titled “Tales From William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe,” based on a collection of his short stories.

“Logan’s Run” opened more doors for Nolan besides connections in the film and comic book worlds. It also inspired several follow-ups. Nolan wrote “Logan’s World,” published in 1977, and “Logan’s Search,” published in 1980. He’s finished another, “Logan’s Journey,” though is waiting to release it until the new movie comes out. Nolan and Jason Brock currently are working together on a fifth book in the series, “Logan Falls.”

Nolan usually prefers writing alone, but it’s different with Brock.

“It’s like having two minds in the same body. We think alike,” Nolan said.

‘Super Beaumont’

The two met in 2006, when the Brocks interviewed Nolan for a documentary they were working on about Beaumont. The film, “Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man,” is premiering at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27.

At the time of the interview, Nolan was living in Bend, Ore. About four years ago, he moved up from Los Angeles to give his wife of 36 years, Cam, some space. Despite his success, the couple had been heavily in debt for many years. Being a writer meant good times alternated with droughts. The financial roller coaster took its toll on the relationship. Nolan said they still have a good marriage despite the physical distance, and he hopes to move back down to California at some point to be with Cam.

Being away from Los Angeles helped his marriage, but also gave Nolan the quiet he needed to work on a biography of his idol, author Max Brand. Nolan has 1,200 books by and about Brand. By studying his writing, Nolan said he learned how to use actions to reveal the essence of characters.

Bend was a good respite, but it proved too cold for Nolan. He talked about moving to Tuscon, Ariz., but Jason Brock, who’d become a good friend by that point, thought such a sunny climate was a bad idea given that Nolan has basal cell carcinoma, a slow-growing form of skin cancer.

Jason Brock, a Charlotte, N.C. native, has lived in Vancouver since 1993. He moved here to take a job as a photo technician. Sunni is a native Washingtonian, and was living in Seattle when the two met online. They moved to Los Angeles together, but came back to Vancouver in 2006. The Brocks invited Nolan to join them here, and he accepted.

Nolan’s small apartment seems modest for one who’s talked writing over beers with Stephen King and acted in a movie with William Shatner (“The Intruder,” written by Beaumont). It’s lined floor to ceiling and wall to wall with books, model cars, action figures and little animal figurines.

Both Nolan and the Brocks have a love of critters and creatures. The Brocks’ home also is filled with figurines, as well as skulls and fantasy art. Their “reptile children,” an Iguana named Liz and four diaper-wearing tortoises, roam the ranch-style home freely.

But it’s not just their love of animals and writing that bonds Nolan and the Brocks. Nolan found in Jason someone who reminds him of Beaumont, who was his best friend and died at age 38 of what some speculate was early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Nolan sat down and put together a list of 29 or 30 things about Brock that recall Beaumont, including his intensity, energy, writing talent and penchant for “spontaneous humor.”

“He’s super Beaumont,” Nolan said of Brock. “He’s so much like Beaumont, it’s eerie.”

The two have a number of projects underway. They co-edited an anthology, “The Bleeding Edge,” featuring previously unpublished pieces by Nolan, Brock, Bradbury, Johnson and other writers. The book came out in January and was published by Cycatrix Press, an imprint of the Brocks’ film production company, JaSunni Productions. They’re currently co-editing another anthology, “The Devil’s Coattails,” which also will include previously unpublished writings. The idea is to have authors working outside their usual genres.

Jason Brock, art director and managing editor of the Longview-based magazine Dark Discoveries, is working on a solo novelette, “Milton’s Children,” which tackles environmental issues. He and Sunni, 40, are doing another documentary, about the late science-fiction author Forrest Ackerman, who was Nolan’s first agent. Called “The AckerMonster Chronicles,” the film features Nolan and others talking about the man who created Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Nolan used to write everyday, and though his pace has slowed, he still sits down to write longhand at least once a week. He can never stay away for long.

“I get excited about something,” he said, “and I want to write about it.”

On the Web:

To learn more about writer William F. Nolan, go to http://www.williamfnolan.com.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.