Monday, November 22, 2010

How Not To Have a Harlan (Ellison)

Today’s topic is rage because when I went to sleep 60+ days ago rage was, indeed, quite the rage. Especially political rage.

It is impossible for someone like me who is Van Winkled to know, but I’m going to assume that the little ol’ thing we called the mid-term elections didn’t quite get all the vitriol out of both sides' systems. In fact, there now may be new things to be enraged about. If our country has a personality of late it’s one with a scowling face and a finger that’s ready to jab at its neighbor and the voice is being raised to a hoarse bellow.

Last week I saw a bumper sticker that insisted that everyone do the following.

Because of my newsless state, I have no idea of what I'm supposed to stop the Speaker of the House from doing. Pounding her gavel? Getting her hair done once a week? Shopping for Christmas presents for her grandkids? I suspected it was likely more serious than that in the mind of the person who applied bumper sticker indelicately to pickup truck. With just two words their raging outrage was manifest.

All this leads me to wonder how my old acquaintance, the writer and provocateur Harlan Ellison , is faring these days.

Who Is This Guy?
I must say that Harlan Ellison is the angriest person I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I mean pleasure without irony. The man is a force of nature. Just to be in his presence and listen to him is the equivalent of glimpsing a razor sharp mountain peak I"ll never climb, like staring into the molten mouth of a churning volcano. All that's impressive before I remember here's a man who has been writing for 50 years and who has over 1000 short stories as well as novels and novellas that have emerged from his manual typewriter (he'll never use a computer), not to mention essays and key episodes for the Twilight Zone (80s version) and Star Trek.

H.E. circa 1980 with his trusty Olympia manual typewriter.
 It was the spring of 1982. I remember the year well because my first novel had just been published. I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and an editor at The Daily News called me up and said, “Harlan Ellison is coming to town to give a talk and we thought it would be neat to have a young writer interview an older one. He writes different stuff than you, science fiction, but do you wanna give it a shot?”

Well, in high school I had been editor of the East Anchorage High Echo, so why not? I hadn’t heard of Mr. Ellison and I had never gotten around to dipping my oar into sci fi, but that left me with something to learn which is always a good thing. I said yes.

The Interview

Hotel Captain Cook, lovely view of Mt. Susitna...
 I met Ellison at the Hotel Captain Cook downtown where he turned out to be a short, youthful looking man with the original Rod Blagoajevich hairdo. He was moving fast. The first thing he did was give me a typed handout about the facts of his life and how he preferred to be portrayed in print. It began with.

“Never refer to me or my writing using the hideous neologism science fiction…”

That’s when I learned. Ellison, though he had won Hugos and Nebulas and virtually ever sci-fi and fantasy award known to humanity, was not as he saw it a "science fiction writer." He was a “speculative fiction” writer, or better, just a writer. He rightly believed that “science fiction” was a term developed to lump a group of hard-working, brilliant writers into a category widely regarded as low-brow (like “romance,” “mystery”), thus ensuring that very few of them would ever be granted respect on par with the John Updikes and Joyce Carol Oates of the literary world.

In the hotel room, Ellison banged through the door, saying to me over his shoulder, “I always do two things when I go into a room.”

He proceeded to...

1) Turn the TV around so that the screen faced the wall.
2) Find the Gideon Bible in the night stand, seize it as if it were a radioactive brick, open a dresser drawer, and throw it violently all the way to the back, slam the dresser drawer shut.

“Now do you want to interview me, kid?”

Writing a short story in book store window
while the world looks on.
But how can I explain it? Ellison wasn’t a crank. His eyes were twinkling. He was trying to make an impression the same way he wowed fans by breezing into a book store, setting up his typewriter in the front window, and while people looked in from the sidewalk, he wrote a short story. At the end of several hours he came out and stood in front of the dedicated and read his new work to them.

Chuck E. Cheese is a Nazi!
I remember one of the first things Ellison told me when we sat down and began talking. He said he had been angry in the sixties, oh, very angry! but he had reached a new level. Twenty-eight years later his words are still burned into my mind.

“These days I’m a walking boil.”

We were living in the first years of the Reagan Administration. The politics of the time did not suit Ellison who had once marched along with Civil Rights leaders,who in the '70s warned audiences in advance he was about to use a “dirty word” then said, Nixon. Was Ellison a liberal? Probably more like a radical. He also bore with him a fist slammed into the gut critique of the triviality of our consumer society.

We went driving around Anchorage and he was shocked to see what had arrived on the Last Frontier. We passed a new Chuck E. Cheese. “You been in there? The kids are standing hypnotized in front of the games and there’s this robot rat.” I hadn’t been yet. “It’s like Belsen,” Ellison assured me, referencing the World War II concentration camp.

Over 6 billion "toadburgers" sold!
We passed a McDonalds. “You know what I call what they serve there? Toadburgers!”

And you didn’t want to get him started on society in general. Ellison thought we lived in a nation run by the military industrial complex at the behest of a narcoticized electorate who couldn't tell reality from unreality; that the religious were Puritan fools who were missing out on the free love he embraced (he's now been married 5 times); that all gods were human inventions who eventually die and are replaced by new ones; that TV, as pointed out in the intro to his story collection, Strange Wine, was "soul deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way;" that George Orwell's 1984 had already arrived; and now we had the kind of president we deserved, a third tier Hollywood actor! and so on.

But here comes the paradox. Was this "walking boil" a horrible person? Did he hate everyone including me? No way. He was charming, even kind. He generously helped me with the interview when from his point of view what I wrote about him would hardly matter as others had already profiled him hundreds of times. The next day he went to the bookstore, bought my novel, and he asked me sign it. He said, "You're doing good, kid. You were in The New Yorker. They'll never publish me." Then he promised to send me some of his books. Which he did a few weeks later, inscribing one of them this way.

Note: I've smudged out my name since it's besides the point.

State of the Angry Nation
I think there’s always plenty of anger to go around. Using one of those lazy essayist’s statistically insignificant pieces of datums called a "Google search," I find these result totals for the following key words:

angry:                   102 million
angry politics:        41.5  million

But it should also be noted that the Internet reveals another cross-section of humanity’s heart.

love:                      1 billion 770 million
happy                       569 million

Harlan Ellison is 76 now and he’s still writing. I read a testimony by someone who stood in line at a book signing and when he told Ellison, “I want to be a writer,” Ellison shook him by the shoulders, crying, “Don’t do it! Become a plumber instead. I’m serious. You’ll starve.” Then Ellison slapped the man. The man went away stunned. The man hit me! But he went back later to show Ellison he’d bought a book on DIY plumbing. Ellison roared with laughter, hugged the guy, and immediately wanted to send him some signed copies of rare editions of his books. Harlan is, as I saw for myself years ago, both lion and lamb.

Which is the point: If you're going to be angry, the lamb seems to me to be necessary. Otherwise how will you avoid biting everyone's head off and soon even your own? Without the lamb, self immolation becomes a real danger. For that reason, all angry persons might want to pull back from their flame-throwing mode from time to time. Like Harlan Ellison whose bark is somewhat worse than his bite. But howl he must if he's to have any hope of getting our attention. May this ageless maestro keep on pulling the words out of the carriage of his crusty typewriter. Last time I checked the toadburgers still need a lot of improving. - V.W.



  1. Al, this is the best entry yet!! What a treat to read this--this guy sounds like a trip. I can't believe he hit that guy!

  2. I love checking in to see if you have written any new blog posts. I'm following all the way from Virginia. :)