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Saturday
Jan142012

Harlan Ellison

How did you become a writer? I always was. I came out of the womb a writer. I didn’t realize that everybody couldn’t write. Writing was my natural form. I didn’t become a writer, I was a writer.

Name your writing influences: writers, books, teachers. Mark Twain, Gerald Kersh, Clark Ashton Smith, Joseph Conrad, comic books, Big Little Books, radio drama (especially “The Shadow”) and the best writer in America today, Paul Di Filippo. I wish I could write 1/20th as well as Paul Di Filippo. If you’ve never read him, get a book called Lost Pages. Read the first story, which is called “Anne,” and if it doesn’t break your heart and make you weep, I don’t know what will.  Also Donald Westlake. Particularly the Richard Stark novels. You can learn more from the chapter in The Outfit where he goes down south to buy the car . . . self-contained. I think it’s the third chapter. I teach it in writer’s workshops. I say, “I’m going to read, just sit and listen.”

            I also learned from Frederic Prokosch. Got a paperback of The Seven Who Fled . . . it was the 1937 Harper Prize-winning novel, but I’d never heard of it. I liked the cover. The next thing I knew I was ensorceled. It’s seven people fleeing a Chinese war lord across the Gobi Desert. That’s all it is. Listen to this, from the section called “Desert”: 

Toward evening the world began to resemble a star; spent, lifeless, purposeless. Nature lay there in front of them quite hideous and exposed, all of her pointlessness and boundlessness at last unmistakably obvious. Any heat, any cold, any sort of sterile frightfulness seemed possible here. There existed no sort of mitigation.

            The men that day became effigies, horrible dolls. Dr. Liu as well as Mme. de la Scaze rode all day beneath curtains, in a kind of impromptu howdah. The porters covered their heads and faces. They moved like dolls, as if their dark limbs were half unhinged. Their eyes peered through toward the east, embers half-dead glowing underneath the aching purple eyelids. They didn’t speak. There was no motion, no gesture except the monotonous trudging, the swaying back and forth on the camels’ backs, the limp and weary swaying of dark arms.

            An empty world. No more hills, no insect, no life at all, not even any colors now, no shapes except the accidental curves of the centuries, no sound, no smell. The utter desert this was indeed, far more lonely than a sea of pure sand, just as a limitless bog is more lonely than the Pacific. A yellow naked body, grotesque and charred; yet possessing, cupped in its hollows, the unspeakable years; on intimate terms with the sun and nothing but the sun, giving its shrunken secrecies daily to the sun, smelling of nothing at all except the sun, each stone palpably adoring the sun and indifferent to everything except the sun.

            Desert: a feeling for which no word could exist. Sensations were nameless, energy was uprooted. The land was measurable, yes: but it might as well have been boundless, and as far as the spirit could encompass it, it was indeed boundless! No mind, reflected Layeville, could stand it here except those who, like plants and animals cast into the wilderness, had thrust aside all recollections of home, of human faces and habits, and had at last grown totally new senses and new ways, having intuitively likened themselves to their scenery.

            But the others felt fear. Layeville saw that day how a certain specialized sort of fear tore at them constantly. Fear of each passing mound, each curiously shaped rock, and most of all, of course, the sun. During that one day their faces grew hollow, hateful, really evil. Once there was almost a fight between two young porters who were inseparable friends. One man moaned all day. Another tried to flee. One night he was gone, but the next morning back again.

            “Where do you wish to go?” asked Dr. Liu, wearily. But the poor wretch didn’t know, of course.

            And they all grew anxious lest they should be attacked, now that they were approaching An-his and the southern edge of the Gobi. They were shuddering with nervousness as dusk approached.

I read this book with amazement. That the human mind could write this way . . .

How old were you when you first read it? I bought it in 1955 or ’56, when I would have been 20 or so. I was already writing.

How did it change you? I understood what poetry was. See, I cannot write poetry. I’ve never written poetry. The only poetry I’ve ever written is:

Always look up

Never look down

All you ever see are the pennies people drop.

I simply cannot write a poem. Many poets that I’ve known, from Galway Kinnell to, you know, everybody, have assumed that because I write so poetically, with such onomatopoeia and such cadence and such a voice, that I should write poetry. “Why don’t you write poetry?” Because I can’t write poetry. Because I just can’t write it. And Tom Disch, Thomas Disch, said to me—if anyone could write poetry, Tom wrote it beautifully—Tom said, “Any person who can’t write poetry should take up the accordion.” Then he said, “Write me a poem. I’ll tell you whether you have talent or not.”

            So I worried it and worried it and worried it like a puppy with a Christmas slipper, and I sent it to Tom. Weeks went by and I finally got a note from him saying, “Take up the accordion.”

            The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch taught me the poetry of writing. I’ll be writing about something else entirely like [reading at random from the copy of The Los Angeles Times on the table in front of him]: “A man who left a woman in a coma and brain-damaged after punching her in a fight over a parking space went free Monday after jurors failed to reach a verdict in his assault trial. Prosecutors said they plan to try the case again.” And he heard the sound, the sound, that sound again.

When and where do you write? Everywhere and all the time. I’ve written, famously, in book store windows, I write on airplanes . . . anywhere. I always use an Olympia manual typewriter, either an office model or a portable. That’s all I use. Book face type. I do not use an electric because I type too fast. The ball can’t keep up with me. I use two fingers, 120 words a minute, no mistakes. I can’t use a computer. Despise it. It’s like another entity trying to get in my head and interfering and bothering me. Everybody wants you to keep up with the technology, not because they want you to, but because they feel like such suckers for being sold this shit and they don’t want to be all alone. So they try and make you go along with it. Nobody pushes me into doing what I don’t want to do. I’m a happily 20th-Century man. I use two Dixie Cups with a wax string between them. I have a very low, what Hemingway called, “bullshit threshold.” I think that was one of the great things ever said, by the way. “A writer needs a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.” That’s exactly right.

What are you working on now? Surviving. Literally surviving. I have a million different things that I’m writing, I have a hundred stories that are half-written, some of which are twelve, fifteen years old. People say, “How can you pick up a story that you started twelve years ago and finish it?” and I say, “Because I have an onboard computer and I can go back years later and begin writing the very next word, exactly where I left off.” It’s a talent that I have. I’m 77. I never expected to be 77. I expected to buy it at about age 14 dueling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, but it didn’t happen that way. As Sophie Tucker said, “Old age and illness are not for pussies.” And I have an illness. And a lot of weaknesses and a lot of laziness. I’ve always been lazy. For all the work I’ve done, I feel guilty because I know I could have done 500 times as much work. I could have turned out 200 books, 300 books, just like Isaac Asimov.

Three hundred books, instead of a mere hundred? Yeah. A hundred books is a lot. Plus 150 television shows, 25 movies, and on and on and on, but I could have done more.  Should have done more. What can I tell you?

You mentioned Asimov; he used to say that if he got stuck on a piece of writing he would switch to something else and let his unconscious solve the problem. But are you saying that you’ll come back to something a dozen years later and continue writing without having thought of it in the meantime? Yes, with the very next sentence. The very next word. I love to finish the job. That’s the reason I’ve written so many short stories.

And why you’ve said, “Writing a novel is like going a great distance to take a small shit”? Exactly. I love people who take one cornball idea and write tetralogies about it. That’s like chewing the same goddam food over and over. Once you get the gag, it’s jump the shark. That’s why I don’t watch television: I can’t stand it because I’m a writer and I can figure it out ahead of time. I say, “Oh, Christ.” I make Susan nuts when we watch CSI-something and within four minutes I tell her who the killer is and she says, “Don’t do that to me, I can’t watch the show!” So I try not to do it.

Have you ever had writer’s block? Oh, I absolutely have.

Really? When? From four until about five o’clock on a Wednesday in January of 1973.

How did you cure it? I went to sleep. Went and got laid. Went and had a Pink’s hot dog. Came back, sat down, finished writing. What’s sad about writer’s block is that you forget what you were going to write about. Sometimes I’ll look at a story and say to myself, “Oh, I've got a perfect ending” and then make the mistake of forgetting it. It only happened to me twice with stories I had to finish because I was on deadline. I’ve looked at those stories since and wanted to do them over because I knew I had a better ending. The endings are perfectly fine and nobody notices, but I know the difference between good and bad.

            Imagination is ephemeral. It can be affected by things as miniscule as a cold or as serious as a divorce, or as dementing as becoming a creationist. You go crazy and you believe crazy stuff. Imagination takes what Balzac called “clean hands and composure.” There’s a difference between writing and pretending to write. If you’re a good writer you know when you’re doing it and when you’re only play acting.

Would you include alcohol on the list of things that affect imagination? Well, I don’t drink, so for me to talk about booze is like a Martian trying to talk about shooting craps. I don’t know much about it because I don’t like ever letting go of my sensibilities. My mind does what it needs to; and to do that I've got to have all my senses about me. That’s why I’ve never used booze or drugs. I've been on the road ever since I was a kid and I've always known what booze could do to people. I try to stay in possession of my faculties because I’m already completely crazy. I think you have to be something to be a writer. I’m astonished by writers who are quiet people, who speak softly, who are rational. I look at them and I say, “What the fuck is this creature?” You have to be mad to write. If you’re not mad in one way or another, what you’re writing is boring. Boredom is a kind of long death. I don’t fear death, only boredom. And incontinence.

Have you never had the desire to escape your own consciousness, to get out of your own skull? I get out all the time. When I write a movie, I close my eyes and I look at the movie. When I watch the movie I look at the angle it’s shot from. I say, “Oh, this a low shot from across a darkened room looking to a table where there’s a telephone and a glass of wine. And as the telephone rings the glass of wine vibrates.” And I write that. Everybody laughs at me because I write very complete scripts. Most people write master scenes, but I don’t do that. I write what I see, what I hear, what I feel . . . it’s all in the music. Outside the inside of my own skull.

What’s your advice to new writers? Get a day job, make your money from that, and write to please yourself. And don’t be a whore. Don’t be a whore! Everybody works for the dollar. You work for the dollar, I work for the dollar. Everybody works for the Man, whether you work for Verizon or you work for Geico or you work for Bank of America. We all work for evil masters on far glass mountaintops and they will get their teeth into your pocket one way or the other. Spend 90 percent of your day not looking into a screen and spend it on yourself, living life, making friends, actually talking to people, doing things. Ten percent of your day, give to the Man. Ninety for you, ten for the Man. Otherwise, you’re nothing but a whore. You’re nothing but a beanfield hand. And when you get to a certain age you retire. To what? You’ve spent all your energy, you’ve spent all your imagination, you’ve spent all your fire . . . you’ve spent all your bravery. Do not be afraid to go there. That’s my advice: Do not be afraid to go there. Wherever “there” is, don’t be afraid to go there.

 

Harlan Ellison has been characterized by The New York Times Book Review as having "the spellbinding quality of a great nonstop talker, with a cultural warehouse for a mind." The Los Angeles Times suggested, "It's long past time for Harlan Ellison to be awarded the title: 20th century Lewis Carroll." And the Washington Post Book World said simply, "One of the great living American short story writers."

He has written or edited 99 (and counting) books; more than 1700 stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns; two dozen teleplays, for which he received the Writers Guild of America most outstanding teleplay award for solo work an unprecedented four times; and a dozen movies. Publishers Weekly called him "Highly Intellectual." (Ellison's response: "Who, me?"). He won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award twice, the Horror Writers' Association Bram Stoker award six times (including The Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996), the Nebula award of the Science Fiction Writers of America four times, the Hugo (World Convention Achievement award) 8 1/2 times, and received the Silver Pen for Journalism from P.E.N. Not to mention The World/Fantasy Award; the British Fantasy Award; the American Mystery Award; plus two Audie Awards and two Grammy nominations for Spoken Word recordings.

He created great fantasies for the 1985 CBS revival of The Twilight Zone (including Danny Kaye's final performance) and The Outer Limits; traveled with The Rolling Stones; marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery; created roles for Buster Keaton, Wally Cox, Gloria Swanson and nearly 100 other stars on Burke's Law, ran with a kid gang in Brooklyn's Red Hook to get background for his first novel; covered race riots in Chicago's "back of the yards" with the late James Baldwin; sang with, and dined with, Maurice Chevalier; once stood off the son of the Detroit Mafia kingpin with a Remington XP-100 pistol-rifle, while wearing nothing but a bath towel; sued Paramount and ABC-TV for plagiarism and won $337,000. His most recent legal victory, in protection of copyright against global Internet piracy of writers' work, in May of 2004—a 4-year-long litigation against AOL et al.—has resulted in revolutionizing protection of creative properties on the web. (As promised, he has repaid hundreds of contributions [totaling $50,000] from the KICK Internet Piracy support fund.) But the bottom line, as voiced by Booklist, is this: "One thing for sure: the man can write."

And as Tom Snyder said on the CBS Late, Late Show: "An amazing talent; meeting him is an incredible experience." He was a regular on ABC-TV's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.

In 1990, Ellison was honored by P.E.N. for his continuing commitment to artistic freedom and the battle against censorship, "In defense of the First Amendment."

Harlan Ellison's 1992 novelette "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" was selected from more than 6,000 short stories published in the U.S. for inclusion in the 1993 edition of THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES.

Mr. Ellison worked as creative consultant and host for the radio series 2000X , a series of 26 one-hour dramatized radio adaptations of famous SF stories for The Hollywood Theater of the Ear; and for his work was presented with the prestigious Ray Bradbury Award for Drama Series. The series was broadcast on National Public Radio in 2000 & 2001. Ellison's classic story "'Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman" was included as part of this significant series, starring Robin Williams and the author in the title roles.

On 22 June 2002, at the 4th World Skeptics Convention, Harlan Ellison was presented with the Distinguished Skeptic Award by The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) "in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the defense of science and critical thinking."

To celebrate the golden anniversary of Harlan Ellison's half a century of storytelling, Morpheus International, publishers of THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON: A 35-YEAR RETROSPECTIVE, commissioned the book's primary editor, award-winning Australian writer and critic Terry Dowling, to expand Ellison's three-and-a-half decade collection into a 50-year retrospective. Mr. Dowling went through fifteen years of new stories and essays to pick what he thought were the most representative to be included in this 1000+ page collection.

Among his most recognized works, translated into more than 40 languages and selling in the millions of copies, are DEATHBIRD STORIES, STRANGE WINE, APPROACHING OBLIVION, I HAVE NO MOUTH 84 I MUST SCREAM, WEB OF THE CITY, ANGRY CANDY, LOVE AINT NOTHING BUT SEX MISSPELLED, ELLISON WONDERLAND, MEMOS FROM PURGATORY, TROUBLEMAKERS (a Young Adult collection), ALL THE LIES THAT ARE MY LIFE, PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES, SHATTERDAY, MIND FIELDS, AN EDGE IN MY VOICE,

SLIPPAGE, and STALKING THE NIGHTMARE. As creative intelligence and editor of the all-time bestselling DANGEROUS VISIONS anthologies and MEDEA: HARLAN'S WORLD, he has been awarded two Special Hugos and the prestigious academic Milford Award for Lifetime Achievement in Editing. In 2006, Harlan Ellison was named the Grand Master of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America. In May 2009, he turned down the Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

In October 2002, Edgeworks Abbey and iBooks published the 35th Anniversary Edition of the highly acclaimed anthology DANGEROUS VISIONS.

In the November 2002 issue of PC Gamer, Ellison's hands-on creation of the CD-Rom game I HAVE NO MOUTH, AND I MUST SCREAM, based on the award-winning story of the same name, was voted "One of the 10 scariest PC games ever." ("I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is one of the ten most reprinted stories in the English language.)

June 2003: A new edition of VIC & BLOOD, published by 'Books in association with Edgeworks Abbey, collected for the first time both the complete graphic novel cycle and Ellison's stories including the 1969 novella favorite from which the legendary cult-film A Boy and His Dog was made.

December 2003: Ellison edited a collection of Edwardian mystery-puzzle stories titled JACQUES FUTRELLE'S "THE THINKING MACHINE," published by The Modern Library.

October 2004: A new edition of STRANGE WINE, published by iBooks in association with Edgeworks Abbey.

May 2006: Ellison and Oscar nominee Josh Olson (for his adaptation of A History of Violence) collaborated on a teleplay "The Discarded" (based on Ellison's short story of the same name) for the ABC television series Masters of Science Fiction (currently available on DVD.)

November 2006: A new edition of SPIDER KISS, published by M Press, in association with Edgeworks Abbey. The second book in the M Press/Edgeworks Abbey series, HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING, was released in a new edition in 2008.

March 2007: Based on Ellison's work, HARLAN ELLISON'S DREAM CORRIDOR (Volume Two) is released. Ellison introduces a dozen tales in this new collection, featuring adaptations of some of his greatest stories by some of the most respected names in comics: including Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Richard Corben, Paul Chadwick and the very last work by the late, great Superman artist, Curt Swan.

April 2007: A special world premiere screening is held of Dreams with Sharp Teeth. For more than twenty-five years, documentarian Erik Nelson (Grizzly Man) has been interviewing Ellison and friends [including Josh Olson (A History Of Violence), Neil Gaiman (ANANSI BOYS), Dan Simmons (THE TERROR), Peter David (Fallen Angel), Michael Cassutt (TANGO MIDNIGHT), Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Caprica), and actor Robin Williams] to produce a feature-length look at the life and work of Harlan Ellison: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. In 2008, the documentary was featured at The South by Southwest Conference and Festival, The Edinburgh Film Festival, The Independent Festival in Boston, and opened both at the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York and The NY Film Forum.

In celebration of his 75th birthday (May 2009) Dreams with Sharp Teeth premiered on the Sundance Film Channel with a simultaneous release on DVD.

A new series of Harlan Ellison books was published for online purchase in 2011 as part of the Publishing 180 program as HARLAN 101: ENCOUNTERING ELLISON and BRAIN MOVIES collections. A mixture of classic stories and essays, and original never-before-available teleplays.

Also a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Ellison has voiceover credits on many shows including Pirates of Darkwater, Mother Goose & Grimm, Space Cases, Phantom 2040, The Sci-Fi Channel and Babylon 5 (in the episode titled "Ceremonies of Light and Dark" Harlan plays the Voice of the 85 computer, and in the episode "Day of the Dead" you can hear him as "Zooty"). Ellison's first TV appearance as a fictional character was also on Babylon 5 in the episode "The Face of the Enemy." He played a Psi-Cop opposite Walter Koenig as "Bester." In a subsequent acting role HE was the mysterious "Grifter" in the series Psi Factor. Mr. Ellison has also done a plethora of spoken word recordings, including his ON THE ROAD series, and short story collections such as the VOICE FROM THE EDGE albums. He has twice been a Grammy finalist for his recordings. For six years, he was the weekly commentator on The USA Network with his controversial HARLAN ELLISON'S "WATCHING" editorial comments.

On 30 April 1999, Mr. Ellison won two Audie Awards (presented by the Audio Publishers Association to honor the best in audio recordings) in the categories of Solo Narration, Male, for reading Ben Bova's CITY OF DARKNESS (published by Dove Audio) and Multi-Voiced Presentation, as part of an all-star cast reading THE TITANIC DISASTER HEARINGS: THE OFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT OF THE 1912 SENATORIAL INVESTIGATION by Torn Kuntz (published by Dove Audio).

Ellison won a Bram Stoker award for his collection of stories THE VOICE FROM THE EDGE (Volume 1: I HAVE NO MOUTH, AND I MUST SCREAM). The award-winning audio was followed up by two more VOICE FROM THE EDGE collections: MIDNIGHT IN THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL and PRETTY MAGGIE MONEYEYES.

In the new animated Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated television episode titled "The Shrieking Madness," Ellison gets to play the familiar character of Harlan Ellison!

In February 2011 the University of California, Riverside gave the prestigious J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award to Harlan—only the fourth of such Lifetime Achievement awards ever bestowed.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) awarded Ellison the fourth of his Nebula Awards. This time, for the short story "How Interesting: A Tiny Man." Ellison is the first SE professional ever to win three times In the short story category, beginning with his claiming the very first Nebula in 1965 for his classic "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Ellison's latest "wish-list" book, BRAIN MOVIES: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAYS OF HARLAN ELLISON': VOLUME ONE, (published by Publishing 180) is the culmination of 35 years writing television. This is the first time his original scripts have been collected in book format. Volume One contains: two drafts of "Memos from Purgatory (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), "Soldier" 81 "Demon with a Glass Hand" (The Outer Limits), "Paladin of the Lost Hour" & "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich" (The Twilight Zone) and "The Face of Helene Bournouw" (The Hunger).

This past year (2011) saw the publication of 6 new books by Ellison. BRAIN MOVIES: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAYS OF HARLAN ELLISON® VOLUME ONE (Introduction by J. Michael Straczynski), BRAIN MOVIES: THE ORIGINAL TELEPLAYS OF HARLAN ELLISON® VOLUME TWO (Introduction by Patton Oswalt,), HARLAN 101: ENCOUNTERING ELLISON (Introduction by Neil Gaiman), and HARLAN 101: THE SOUND OF A SCYTHE AND THREE BRILLIANT NOVELLAS SPANNING ELLISON'S CAREER (Introduction by Ronald D. Moore), BUCKF#CK: THE USELESS WIT AND WISDOM HARLAN ELLISON and (for the first time together) THE GLASS TEAT & THE OTHER GLASS TEAT OMNIBUS.

This year (2012) will see the publication of the expanded SEX GANG book (first published in 1959 and up to now, never before reprinted). This two-volume set will be titled: PULLING A TRAIN and GETTING IN THE WIND.

He lives with his wife, Susan, inside The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, in Los Angeles.

Reader Comments (4)

Epic interview. And very helpful. I wish I could be half as productive as Ellison…

January 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Simply amazing. I've been a fan of your work since I was a child. Thank you for this interview.

January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Rachel Barrett

I love this interview so much I have saved it for posterity in Evernote. Many thanks for posting it.

March 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Ahearn

120 words a minute, no mistakes, using just TWO fingers? I guess I must have a low bullshit-threshold too..

April 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAbdulj.

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