Fools Tread Lightly: Harlan Ellison

Interview conducted with Jonathan Callan.

The great Moulin Rouge artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, wrote: "One should never meet a man whose work one admires. The man is always so much less than the work."Legendary writer Harlan Ellison might not be less than his work, but he's not shy about making sure people don't confuse the two. Of course, Ellison will have a tougher time of it over the next year with the release of the new documentary on his career, "Dreams with Sharp Teeth," and a memoir of his life potentially in the pipeline at HarperCollins. The documentary is the result of more than twenty years of footage shot by Erik Nelson (beginning as a school project), commenced when Nelson filmed Ellison as the award-winning fantasist worked at his Olympia manual typewriter. The film, which has been screened to rave reviews at Lincoln Center, the USA Film Festival and other venue, as well as a sold-out week at the New York Film Forum, features interviews with some of Ellison's colossal peers including performer Robin Williams, writer Peter David, television luminary Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica") and author Neil Gaiman.

In conversation with CBR News, Harlan Ellison expressed his reticence about confusing film with reality, the subject of the upcoming documentary, so we instead turned to those objects of his ire and passion , which make Ellison such a fascinating subject in the first place. In this initial installment of a two-part exclusive interview view telecon, Ellison discusses the possibiity of a memoir, the importance of strong friendships, and the danger of confusing the artist with the work.

In May, an announcement was floated about your planned memoir, "Working Without A Net." What's the status of that book?

Well, we're still working on the contract. I have no idea whether we're going to go forward with it or not. Probably not. The book would be with Ecco, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, they've offered a substantial amount of money but the contract is the usual New York publishing boilerplate which gives everything to them and very little to the author. Since I've been doing contracts for more than forty troubling years now, I spent three hours on their initial terms, sighed, hung my head in weariness, and sent them a counter-proposal. We'll see what happens. Not likely.

Credit: Martin Shapiro

The memoir itself is, I suppose, the result of fifty years of writing introductions, articles and interlineations for all my other books. There's practically an autobiography already. Extant; disjointed, but nonetheless published. What I'll probably do is begin writing bridging material for existing pieces from a thousand different sources, over fifty years, and where a certain life experience has resulted in a short story, the short storyitself will follow; a literary-bio chronicle will be established. For instance, the first time I went to jail was in 1947 when I was arrested in Painesville, Ohio for stealing comic book pins out of Kellogg's Pep Cereal boxes. I was twelve-years-old and a big comic book buff and these were a great series of buttons. I was a kid and it was the equivalent of adolescent shoplifting I suppose. So I was dragged off to the Painesville, Ohio pokey and my Dad got me out and from that came a short story called "Free With This Box," which appeared in my book, "Gentlemen Junkie." It's a short story which is in a way, I suppose, a memoir.

And that's the way I'll do it. I'll go through my brief college career, my time in the army, going to New York to write, the various marriages, and the endless adventures and contretemps I've had. It will be a memoir in stories, a memoir with stories. A patchwork, if you will. I expect it to be as improbably snarky, and as cranky and as full of amusing well-told lies and exaggerations, and as thread-drift as my life has been.

In many ways you as an author are as recognizable a character as some of your creations. Warren Ellis has spoken in various works about the construction of identity that allows a writer or a celebrity to be accepted by pop-culture en masse. Would you say you've engaged in actively to a certain part of the construction of the "Ellison Myth" that seems so pervasive, or is it just a natural by-product of what you do?

I suppose, flensed of all the rodomontade you just whipped on me, you're asking: "Are you a media whore? And do you actively promote yourself?" Is that pretty close?

I wouldn't say that.

Well, I know you wouldn't say that but what you said is the equivalent of that. Let me put it to you this way: I have lived the life I've led. Apologies not forthcoming: I yam what I yam, as the potato said. I did not choose to have the attention that is paid to my persona in anyway impinge on the work I do. Yes, like all writers I use material from my past and from my experience to authenticate the times, the characters, or the mood -- flavor --to make up the minutiae of my stories but 99.97% of the characters in my stories, as much as people would like to identify me with them; playing that moronic academic post-modernist "deconstructionist" masturbation, in no way are those characters me. They may have some aspect of my personality, but otherwise they're a fictional constructs. The fact that the life I've led is, to some people, equally (if not more) as important as the work, is not something to which I can pay much attention. If I do, we begin invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and I begin to believe I'm a celebrity... or I believe I'm worth paying attention to. And that way lies madness.

That's why this film unnerves me. Why writing a memoire unnerves me. There are two very separate entities: one is the writer who sits down every day and like a good old mule, he pulls the plow; the other is the me that is a jerkoff jackanapes, an autodidact asshole. I think I'm a pretty funny guy, probably a lot funnier than other people do, but I think I'm pretty hilarious. I'm like my late pal, Dudley Moore, as Arthur in the movie, sitting in the back of the limo with the hooker and he starts laughing and she says, "What's so funny?" And he says, "Nothing, sometimes I just think funny shit."

That's the way it is with me. Josh Olson, who wrote "The Discarded" with me -- the Academy Award nominee who wrote "A History of Violence" -- Josh was told by a friend of his: "The problem with you is that you think everyone is in on the gag with you and they don't know how to respond." Then Josh said the same thing to me and it's absolutely dead-on. That is the core of understanding who I am, nothing more profound.

You remarked in a recent interview that Patton Oswalt said something similar about you.

Yes, I did. Patton and I are friends and Patton and I have discussed exactly this. Everyone says: "Well, what's he really like?" Well, that's what I'm really like! I just think funny shit and sometimes stuff that I think is really, really funny, other people think is in grotesque taste, or it's this or it's that, because they always interpret it as they squat in their tight little box. So I can't be responsive to what other people think of me, I can only be responsible for what I do. I don't know if I'm answering your question but it becomes very, very clear to me now, at age 74, that with great writers being totally forgotten because they had their fifteen minutes in a very narrow venue and now they're gone, gone, gone -- unread, unknown, subsumed by Paris and Sanjaya and scumroaches in the tabloids... . Nobody reads Clifford Simak anymore! Colette. Maupassant. Jim Tully. Gerald Kersh. George Carlson. You can go out in the street and ask a hundred people if they know who Isaac Asimov was, and they won't know that great man any more than they know who Hernando Cortez was or Nikola Tesla. It is a world of increasing stupidity and cultural amnesia, that arrogantly deifies the idiotic and the transitory.

Would one tragic example be Norman Spinrad? Few have read his work but he was one of the influences on the greatest science fiction writers of a whole generation.

Well, I'm not sure Norman, who is alive and well and within arm's reach of you, Mr. Callan, would appreciate being called a fucking "tragic example," which is exactly the cultural amnesia and arrogance I've been railing against in this interview, but yeah. Norman has been struggling to make a living, to keep his name alive. I know writers who literally flip hamburgers for a living because they can't get published. There are no longer magazine markets that pay anything more than a penny or two or three or five cents a word, and you cannot live on that. You certainly can't raise a family on it. These are people with enormous credentials but they will pay a K-Fed or a Lindsay Lohan a high six or seven figures for a biography of a post-pubescent singer who's had nothing but experiences with drugs and bad rap. Meanwhile, many of the really good writers [of this generation] have died destitute. I don't look forward to that because concurrent with my writing, which stands on its own and apparently has some value, I've developed a personality. So in some ways the same kind of fate has befallen me as befell Ernest Hemmingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf or Slyvia Plath. These are all people who did really commendable writing work but their personal lives were of interest to the same people who buy the super-market tabloids.

Do you think you've contributed to that interest in your life through you work? You've had quite a prolific career as an essayist, drawing a wealth of material from your personal life.

I once wrote an essay titled "I Don't Know You, You Don't Know Me." I try to humanize myself as the creator of the work because I think it's necessary for the average reader to understand that this shit is not produced by magicians! It's not turned out on a PC! It's not turned out by a committee! It is the hard work of one person, sitting and typing; and I think it's necessary for people to know that. If the essays, which are on a thousand different subjects, contribute to people saying "Well, that's Harlan Ellison" rather than "that's the work of that author," I can't do anything about it. The other choice is obvious: poverty and oblivion.

Those creators you mentioned who are struggling in their twilight years, what do you think happens that they fall out of favor with popular culture?

I'm seventy-four. I'd like to retire. I'd like to sit down and write a story when I feel like it. But I can't. I have to get up every day and go to work. Why is Gene Colan, one of the greatest artists we've ever been privileged to have grace this ungrateful art-form we call comics, why is Gene Colan struggling financially to survive a major illness? Why did Dave Cockrum die practically destitute? Why are the cream of the crop out there begging at conventions, selling their sketches like mendicants in the Agora, selling their autographs? Because they haven't "fallen out of favor" with anybody except the commercial crap-purveyors who can make afatter buck from selling the scribbles of arrogant post-teen stoners, than by shoring up the careers of old dudes the industry has sucked dry. Because people forget and they need to be titillated every five seconds by some new pop culture garbage. Because... ah, fuck it!

You can either seek the approbation of the monkeys or you can continue to produce your art at the level at which you do it best. And that's what I -- through the anger -- keep trying to do. Every day I get up and I boogie.

Speaking of Gene Colan, a lot of fans appreciate what you and others have done for him as he deals with his health issues.

Well, Gene is good company and it's a shitty world. [His wife] Adrienne is a mess watching Gene go. But it turns out that even as he slides down into whatever he's sliding down into, he's still cogent and he's funny and I tell him jokes and he laughs and spits milk out of his nose. It's good to stay in touch with your pals. I never lose my pals. Every once in a while a friendship will go south like a publisher in the Pacific Northwest whose name will never pass my lips again, but most of the time I'm able to hold onto my friends a long, long time. I've been friends with guys like Lein Wein for more than forty years. Peter David. Jan Strnad. Mike Richardson. Paul Levitz. We have dinner all the time -- Maggie Thompson, Tony Isabella, Joe Straczynski. Mark Waid, and on and on. We had dinner at least twice a month or so.

You know a lot of storied personalities from all corners of the industry, from Walter Koenig to J. Michael Straczynski. Do you keep in touch with all of them?

Oh, yeah! I talked with Walter just yesterday and we were yapping about comic book collecting, of all things. As for Joe, it's like being friends with a hermit who's removed himself from the world! He's got so many movies going and he's so successful that he never goes out, he works 24/7. When he does go out it's because they drag him to Cannes for the premiere of "The Changeling!"

So Susan and I and Joe's wife Kathryn went to dinner, when he got back; I think it was just around my birthday, the 27th of May, and Joe was looking better than I've seen him look in a long time. When you spend all day inside writing, you go to bed at five in the morning and get up at three in the afternoon, your clock is reversed. But he looked good! He looked nice and tanned because he'd been sitting around in a villa with Clint Eastwood, which ain't too hard to take.

So yeah, I'm still tight with the boys! Walter Koenig takes no greater pleasure in this world than yanking my chain and the motherfucker gets me every time. I swear to god he's really insidious in the gags he pulls on me and then I have to get back at him, he takes umbrage and then we don't talk for a week. It's only how many -- forty years we've known each other?

You two have had a few semi-public falling outs over the years.

You know, I hate when that happens. It breaks my heart. But it's only because we're both bugfuck. When you've got a friend of long standing, there's something that either you do or they do -- and I'm not saying that I'm free of stepping over the line -- but the problem is most people don't tell you when you've stepped over the line -- then since I think it's funny, I don't understand why people get pissed off at me -- then they don't talk to me for twenty years and one of us will finally go: "Well, you said blah blah." And then he says blah blah blah. Then we realize neither of us even remembers what pissed us off, and we fall into each other's arms, weeping and puking, and finally I have to explain -- "Well, I didn't really mean that your mother fucked penguins!"

Stay with CBR in the coming days for more with Harlan Ellison.

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