Interview with SFWA Grand Master Harlan Ellison®

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Logo created by Aaron Dale.

Author’s Note: In March 2014, I was gifted the amazing opportunity to interview the great Harlan Ellison by phone. My nerves sent my fingers quivering as I punched in the numbers. It was my very first phone interview, and I felt exposed without the cool comfort of my keyboard to hide behind. When Mr. Ellison came to the phone, I was happy to discover he was an old pro at phone interviews and made my job so much easier with his patience and instruction. I want to thank Harlan for sharing part of his day with me. He has always been, and still remains, one of my favorite authors. I hope you enjoy my interview with SFWA Grand Master Harlan Ellison.  

Today we are joined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master Harlan Ellison. Across his long and prolific career, Harlan has found himself at the center of more than one controversy. He has never been one to shy away from a fight, nor has he allowed himself to be constrained by the boundaries of polite society. While his larger-than-life personality has made him one of the most polarizing figures in the industry, Harlan’s natural talent for storytelling is legendary. His fiction defies classification, often thumbing its nose at those who might attempt neatly to box it and place it on a shelf. Readers of every genre have found his works to be entertaining, thought-provoking, haunting, liberating, and challenging. With every letter and every word, his stories paint the human condition.

Harlan has written almost 2,000 stories, essays, editorials, screenplays, teleplays, comic books, computer games, and any other form of fiction or non-fiction that allows him to express himself and his ideas most fully. His amazing writing is so powerful that every group and genre scrambles to claim him as their own. He has been recognized for his excellence in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, amongst others. His awe-inspiring trophy case includes eight and one half Hugo Awards, two special Hugos, five Nebula Awards, eighteen Locus Awards, four Writers Guild of America Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, two Edgar Allan Poe Awards, and so many more that a Martian Temple can barely contain them.

Harlan has been recognized with the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in Science Fiction, the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award, and membership in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Already in 2014, he appeared as himself on an episode of the Simpsons, and his graphic novel 7 Against Chaos graced the New York Times Best Sellers List. Works from his Olympia manual typewriter are considered by many to represent some of the best examples of American Literature from the last century. When not demanding equality for all of humanity, Harlan spends his time gathering kindling for his unpublished manuscripts.

R. K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Harlan. I recently watched an interview that included you, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Wolfe. In the discussion you asserted your firm belief that humanity is inherently good. Across your career, you’ve argued against mindless television and fiction that neglects to nurture the human mind. You’ve spoken and written at length about your desire to drag the human race along into a better place where the weak can become strong. Please discuss this desire you have to strengthen the minds of readers and where this desire originated.

Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison

HARLAN ELLISON: What is the essence of my being, my approach to the human race, my feeling about the human race, my mantra as a reader?

First I will quote to you from a man who is not a “Grandmaster”, but who is a “Grand, Grand Master”.  James P. Blaylock, from his book Knights of the Cornerstone in 2008, wrote what I think is probably the truest thing that can be said about any member of the human race, including you, and maybe not me. Why I write the way I do, and I live the way I live. “A man who can be bought thinks that all men can be bought.  And if they can’t be bought, then they can be threatened.” We live in a time where True Life has become television. That’s a trope I’m using, and I will explain it. Television has done something that has never been done in the history of art—all the way back to hominids scraping images on glyphs on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave. Never done in art, never done in paintings, never done in books, never done in music, never done in ballet, never done in comic books, never done in anything, until television set up a system of three lines.  All sitcoms are setup for gags in three lines; and now all movies are done in three lines.  And they are all done this way:

Line 1:  They tell you what they are going to tell you.

Line 2: Then they tell you what they’re telling you.

Line 3:  Then they tell you what they just told you.

This is what is going on.

So everybody you meet today, except for a very few people, when you say anything to them, such as “You can’t park there,” or “Would you like another helping?” or “May I assist you?”—anything—they will give you one of these answers: “Huh?” “Wha?” “Duh?” (which is another “Wha?”) “What did you say?” “What did you mean?” or “Who are you?” Everything is road rage. Everything is silence.  Everything is ignorance, instant confusion, or animosity.

I want to say what Ibsen said: “To live is to war with trolls.” “There is a foolish quarter in the brain of the wisest man,” said Aristotle.  And Mark Rothko noted: “Silence is so eloquent.” What I’m trying to tell you is that the world today is a mishmash of a lot of people all talking at once, desperately in love with Twitter, Facebook, email, iPad, and Babble, and no matter what you say to them of a staunch nature, such as the Blaylock quote, they don’t get it, because they’re involved with themselves and trying to figure out why 12 Years a Slave won for Best Picture, or whatever they saw on television last night. We have become complete and total suckers to the electronic medium, which they now call the “social media.” But it is not social. A piece of paper with a Tweet on it, that makes no sense out of context is as incomprehensible as pulling up behind a car with a bumper sticker that says, “Yeah, and they will, too!”, and then there’ll be a green flag or a red flag or a cross, or something, and you’ll say what the %@$! does that mean?  People speak in chunks now.  Many storytellers writing bad stories speak in chunks, abbreviations, half thoughts, and don’t have the background or the interest in getting the background to write a deep story.  So a great deal of what we read is shallow.  Like The Hunger Games, and nine out of ten movies.  Samuel Johnson said…I’m a big quoter of smart people…far smarter than I.  Samuel Johnson said, “Knowledge is of two kinds.  We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”  You cannot go to the Encyclopedia Britannica, because like Amazing Stories, the Encyclopedia Britannica has gone online.  Wikipedia—which is utterly unreliable and is frequently wrong and rife with mean-spirited tenth-handed gossip masquerading as valid data—can be changed by any pinhead who has an axe to grind or an opinion to share.  And they claim this is the freedom of the masses, and I agree. It is freedom of the masses.  And I am foursquare for freedom and freedom of speech. Thus, just as everyone has an asshole…everyone has an opinion. Idiots, savants, bigots, children.

The Essential Ellison by Harlan EllisonI’m two months shy of 80, and I have lived through the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the Millennium, the 2000s, and the teens.  I’ve written over a hundred books.  My 101st book came out a couple of days ago (as of the date of the interview).  I’ve written 70 movies, 1700 or 1800 stories, articles, essays, etc., etc., etc.  I’ve done a lot of work.  I’ve read a lot of books.  I’ve read the words and the wisdom of the great, the near great, and %@$!&#+ fools.  And I agree that language is one tool that “enables us to grasp hold of our lives and transcend our fate by understanding it”. This was said by Molly Haskell, who was a great film critic.

Yesterday I was called by a famous person.  He said, “You have reached the age where you can truly be called cantankerous.  I like to think that cantankerous is a proper word for me—I am.  But I never lie, I always tell the truth, which is awkward, and I’m a professional liar.  I’ve been paid to tell lies all of my life, and I tell them very well indeed. But when someone asks me one of those great drifting questions: “You have done this all of your life…”, “You have done that all of your life…”, “How do you feel about this?”, “How do you feel about that?”.  What you’re asking me is to look out of your office…where I’m sitting right now, on the second floor of the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, which is my home, on a mountaintop overlooking 200 acres of watershed land, 40 miles from the San Bernardino Mountains…and tell me what is?…what’s the answer? And I could sit there on a floating rug, like Magic Man, at the top of Mount Everest, and say, “Life is a fountain, my son…”. You know the gag?  The gag is the guy who has lost his wife and children and his career and everything else, and in 30 years has crawled across every continent, and finally has found, through voodoo men and ancient texts and witch doctors’ references, to the great and wonderful wizard who sits atop Everest.  And he goes there, blue and dying, fingers frozen off from frostbite, and he crawls to him and says, “What is the secret of life?”. And the old man floating on a rug says solemnly: “Life is a fountain.” And the dying guy looks up and bemoans everything that’s befallen him, where he’s come from, how far he’s come, and he says, “Life is a fountain? That’s the answer? Life is a fountain?” And the old man looks down and says, “Life isn’t a fountain???” That’s one of the great gags I learned when I was doing standup as a very young man.  And I learned it from a famous comedian, and he said that is one of the truest things anyone ever said.  And so when you ask me now, in 2014, “What is the secret of life?”–which is the essence of what you asked me, I think, unless I’m inflating, I think you’re asking me, “Tell me what you know”–I just told you what I know.

ASM: Do you think it is the responsibility of writers to attempt to strengthen minds?

HE:  My answer is very simple, as Spider-Man learned, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  People tell me I have great power—that I’m a fine writer. I feel one should never write down to the audience.  If they don’t know, let them go and look it up. If I use a word, and they don’t know it, go find the Encyclopedia Britannica, or if you’re pressed to it, Wikipedia, or a dictionary.  Look it up.  I use the right word at the right time.  I produce what I can produce, full out, full bore, all of the time.

In 1964, Irwin Shaw opined (when summing-up a writer’s work): “The explanations a writer gives himself for having written any particular book are often not the real reasons why that book has been written. Honesty is not the issue.  Understanding is.  A man does not write one novel at a time or one play at a time or even one quatrain at a time.  He is engaged in the long process of putting his whole life on paper.  He is on a journey, and he is reporting in: ‘This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today.’”  And your career is not an even plane.  It starts out at level.  Then you do an incredible short story, and it rises a little bit.  And then it goes along for a little while at that level, and then it rises to another plane, or it drops into a valley, and you write a substandard story, but you’re doing the best you can.  And then you write along for a long while, and it’s another plane or level of mesa, or whatever, and then suddenly you rise to the mountain peak, and you do an Anna Karenina, you do Moby Dick, you do Gravity’s Rainbow, and then you take a deep breath and settle back and do a second book, not quite as good as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but you do The Three Musketeers, for instance.  And you keep going as long as you can go.  And the secret is not to do one story, one play, or one quatrain; it is to do book after story after year after movie after year after year.  And near the end, R.K. Troughton calls you and asks you to “tell me where you have been,” “what you have done,” and asks if it is “your job to uplift the spirit?” And I say, “Yes, it is exactly that.” Samuel Johnson again: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” And Joseph Pulitzer said, “The business of journalists is to afflict the comfortable.” To which I add, “to comfort the afflicted.” It is my job, my obligation, at the core of what I am as a writer, Grandmaster, hack, worker…writing a TV sitcom, or whatever I’m doing, it is my job to absolutely be the best storyteller I can be.  To put whatever I have learned in this life into every story in some small way, or some large way, and to bring the audience with me so that they are touched.  Whether to smile or cry…as the great English novelist Charles Reade said, “Make em laugh; make em cry; make em wait.”

Web of the City by Harlan EllisonASM: Famously, you left home at age 12 to travel the shadowy pathways of the world and find your own survival adventures. Some might suggest that many of the greatest writers originated from these dramatic life experiences. This can be seen not only in writers of imaginative fiction, but across all genres. Writers from both the Golden Age and the New Wave have lived life, fought in wars, protested oppression, and savored the horizon. Have modern writers lost the edge that only comes from walking barefoot across the burning coals of the world?

HE:  Some of my best friends are very famous writers, some of them are Grandmasters, and they travel a lot.  I think there is a great difference between travelling and being a famous person and having people ask you, “Are you Harlan Ellison?”, “…Robert Heinlein?”, etc., and actually being on the road, having to scuffle for your dinner, having to earn your living by pennies, being among people, hearing the cadence of their speech, reading the tells in their faces…which is the most important thing as a writer you can learn…be a reader of tells. Watch people, watch the creases in their foreheads, watch the way they fold their arms, the way they lean forward.  Be Sherlock Holmes.

When people ask what books they should read, I reply that they should read the Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes canon. All of it, not just The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the entire canon, to learn the methodology of Sherlock Holmes, of not just seeing, but observing: ratiocination! Which is what all TV series are today.  They’re nothing but Holmes, even when they’re doing something other than Elementary or Sherlock Holmes.  If you can read the tells, you can create a character.  If you can create a character, you can put that unique character into the jigsaw structure of a solid narrative. Do so-well–and that limned character will take you where the story needs to take you.

One of the good things you learn: carry your own water.  Keep all secrets.  Be the vault.  Be the tomb.  Be the reader of tells and the keeper of secrets, so people come to trust you.  If they trust you, when you ask them a question, they will tell you more about themselves than you will tell them about yourself. Then integrate it, store it, and use it. Let me give you a show’n’tell example:

A well-known writer, living in an eastern American city in an apartment, was having a party with take-away to be picked up from a small Chinese restaurant a narrow mom’n’pop with 2 tables and a counter—dinner for about 12 people, 4 salon dinner bags.  As this person was writing the check, s/he was distracted by movement to the left…looks…and sees a rat scuttle under the floor molding.  Both the owner—an aged little man–and the writer were frozen in amazement….a nano-moment later, the famous writer takes all four bags, says thank you very much without paying, and walks out the door with the little old owner still standing there frozen, disconsolate. (This was braggingly told by the writer to a mutual friend [another famous writer] who told me.)  I had, not very long before that incident, stopped dealing with said writer, who had double crossed many people; then s/he made the mistake of crossing me, and I outmaneuvered her/him, made $50,000, and stopped dealing with her/him.

Deathbird Stories by Harlan EllisonI don’t go after them, but I don’t forget. They only have one chance, then it’s lost trust forever, and that person no longer exist in my universe.  If at some point our paths cross, or by uttering a word, by smiling, or by saying “good choice” I could help them, I don’t.  That’s as far as I go into revenge now.  Anyone pushes me further, they get what they asked for.  As Super Chicken said to Fred when Fred would complain about cleaning out the dog poop or tying up a villain, Super Chicken would look innocently and say, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” People who get in business with me know that I am honest, will not cheat, and will never desert a friend.  Never. Crawl through the eighth and inner circle of Hell, through ashes and lava to pick them a daisy, I will never desert a friend.  When someone betrays me, I don’t become their enemy, I become invisible to them. Absolutely non-happening.  But, until that time it is my job, to quote Joseph Pulitzer commingled with Spider-Man: “…to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” To tell the very best stories I can.  Sometimes I’ll write The Deathbird, sometimes I’ll write a pulp story around that horrible Amazing Stories cover with the giant praying mantis, which keeps being reprinted.  I called it originally The Air from the Past, and it was published originally as “The Slobbering Horde,” or something like that.  It was an Amazing Stories cover.

ASM: Over your career, you have raised your voice on nearly every subject. You have taken a stand to express your true opinion no matter who might take offense. Because of your forceful nature and sharp wit, many people overlook your passion for human rights and freedom of speech, focusing instead on the controversies. You famously joined Martin Luther King in his march from Selma to Montgomery. You stood up to the KKK. You spent more than a thousand hours speaking for the Equal Rights Amendment for women. You’ve raised money for terminally ill writers. Some might suggest that you are the living embodiment of the 1960s era of protest. What influence did the age in which you were growing up have on your fighting spirit and on your storytelling?

HE:   If I’ve done good, I’m glad.  For the bad I’ve done, I’m regretful, but I own up to it.  I never pass the buck.  Most of the stories told about me are true.  A few of them are not true.  I can’t stop those rumors.  It’s as Howard Hawks said, “Between the history of the West and the movies. If it’s the truth, print the lie.” People would rather believe I threw a fan down an elevator shaft than believe that I actually shot to death a Ku Klux Klansman.  Maybe they believe both.  If anybody has paid any attention to what I’ve done, I’m delighted…if it’s the right thing that I’ve done.  If I did a bad thing, and somebody has followed my example, and it’s hurt their career: and they’ve lost their job….I’m sorry you thought mine was the way to go.  I don’t back down. I can’t be bought, and I can’t be threatened.  I can be rented, but I can’t be bought. And I always tell the truth, as I know it, wrong or correct. If anybody has picked that up, and they live their life by that, I’m pleased.  Do I think I’ve had any effect?  Well…Simon Bolivar, Miguel de Cervantes, Eleanor Roosevelt…I think I am a blip on the radar screen. I have awards from one end of this house to the other.  I live what everybody calls “The Good Life”.  I’ve been 30 years married to what I think is the single most beautiful woman in the world, Susan, The electric baby. (I’ve been married five times.) I live in a very large house filled with books and art we call the “Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.” If you were to come here, your mouth would hang open from the moment you walked through the door, which was designed by Mabel and Milon Hutchinson, who were the teachers for America’s greatest female sculptor, Louise Nevelson (whose face you can find on a US Postage commemorative stamp), the front door of my house, before you ever get in.  And there’s a sign above it that says, “Nobody gets to see the Great and the Wonderful Wizard. Not nobody. Not no how.” And the theme of the house, in a framed plaque by the entrance, “Dig or split”. And the religious motif of the house is inside the kitchen, “King Kong died for our sins”.

For those reading the interview, if they get the message, however good or bad it may be, then I will have an effect. If not, then I’m a blip on the radar.

Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman by Harlan EllisonASM: You have created some of the greatest episodes of science fiction television ever written, winning Writers Guild of America awards for episodes of Star Trek, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and The Starlost. A couple of those were even produced as you had written them. You also worked as a consultant on Babylon 5 with J. Michael Straczynski. Recently Michael optioned your story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman for a motion picture. What can you tell us about this latest deal and your relationship with Joe Straczynski?

HE:  Joe Straczynski and I are very old friends, very close, and I trust him 100 percent.  There may be 12 people in the world that I trust 100 percent, and Joe is at least four of them. “Repent, Harlequin!” is, I am told by academics, one of the ten most reprinted stories in the English language, which means it has been translated into about 127 languages, including Esperanto, etc. (I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is one of the others, I can’t remember which.) Till now, I have turned down every offer…in 52 years, I’ve had perhaps 200 offers from film companies and television studios and production companies to do “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, and I have turned them all down.  I turned down six figures from Michael Jackson, who wanted to do it as a movie.  Not that I didn’t like Michael Jackson—I liked Michael Jackson very much when he was at his peak, but he had done the Scarecrow in The Wiz, and that is as close as I needed to see him do my story.  And I’ve always turned down all requests.  I’ve given out options for tens of thousands of dollars, but they’ve all stalled to silence, rights reverted, la-de-dah.

When Joe came to me and said, “Look, I think it’s time to do “Repent, Harlequin!” and I’d like to do it” I said, “Take it.”  And he said, “Well, how long an option, and how much do you want?”  I said, “Take it.”  And that was it.  Joe and I looked at each other.  We didn’t even shake hands.  We just looked at each other. That’s when you trust someone 100 percent, when someone is as close as your heart.  Someone is a brother-from-another-mother.  And Joe took it, and he wrote a great script.  And that was about a year ago.  We had a “lub-dub,” as the heart says.  A systole-diastole. We had a lub-dub like that, a toe stubbing, about a year ago, that put the project on the backburner for a little while.  That toe stubbing turned out to be less than a blip on the radar.  And only somebody who is completely obsessive will try and find out electronically what that lub-dub was.  I know that there is no way of stopping some of those Pecksniffs (from Dickens) and doryphores.  They can look it up to find out what these words mean.  There is no way of stopping these obsessive Internet electronic trolls and curious %@$!&, and they waste your time night and day. But that blip passed on the radar, and Joe got renewed interest in “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman because somebody, somewhere, read it in one of its million reprint reincarnations, and they said this is up for a movie, and the film offers have been pouring in, from five different countries.  Looking at my desk right now, I have an option offer from England. Underneath it is one from Italy, and it may well get made as a good picture.  Who knows?

John O’Hara was once approached by a fervent fan while he was sitting at his desk in his office. They had made, around that time, a movie of one of his most famous books; and it was not a good movie.  It made a lot of money, but it was not a good movie.  And this fan came in, lamenting to John O’Hara, saying, “Did you see what they did to your book?” “Did you see what they did to your book?” And John O’Hara smiled and turned around and pointed to the bookshelf.  He said, “They didn’t do anything to my book.  It’s sitting right up there on the shelf.”  And that’s the way I see it.  “Repent, Harlequin!” is what it is.  It’s my take on 1984, Brave New World, and a statement about the world today. When I wrote it, it was a statement about the world to come that no one could have predicted, because when I wrote it, there was no Internet, no such thing as an iPad app for leprosy-to-order. A person hoeing up yams in Tierra del Fuego did not have to worry about being liked on Facebook in Ulan Bator.  I sit up here in the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars talking to R.K. Troughton on the 4th of March 2014, and answering the Great Questions of the World as embodied in my life as they may be, for ill or for nil.

Harlan Ellison at BYOB-5 in 1975. Photo courtesy of Keith Stokes.
Harlan Ellison at BYOB-5 in 1975. Photo courtesy of Keith Stokes.

ASM: Having worked so many years in Hollywood with both good and bad experiences, do you have any advice for writers who might want to roll the bones in Tinsel Town?

HE:  Yes, I do.  I have one, absolutely one sentence.  And it was given to me by one of the three or four greatest fantasists I’ve ever known, Charles Beaumont; and as good as I am, Chuck was better than I.  And Chuck Beaumont said something to me, on the first night that I’d come out here, (which was January 1, 1962–I had exactly ten cents in my pocket—it sounds like a Horatio Alger story–I had ten cents in my pocket, and I used that dime to call Chuck Beaumont, and he said, “Come on out to the Valley, and we’ll shoot some pool.”  And I had just enough gas in my car.  I hadn’t eaten in two days, and I had just enough money to get out to Sherman Oaks to Mother’s Pool Hall, and Chuck Beaumont and I shot pool, and they had a hot dog machine.  And I had seven hot dogs, one after another.)  And he was a great “reader of tells”, and he told me two things about working in Hollywood that have never left me, and they have been my….You know I’m full of quotes. I’m full of quotes because I pay attention…You’ve got to pay attention.  Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  So many people just say %@$! to escape criticism, to do nothing, to say nothing, be nothing. Chuck Beaumont laid down his pool cue and came over and put his two hands around mine, and my two hands were around his, so that we were joined around the spire of a pool cue, and he said, “Achieving success in Hollywood is like climbing an enormous mountain of cow flop so that you can reach the summit and pluck one perfect rose from the top.” He paused, then added, “And after you have made that hideous ascent, you find that you have lost the sense of smell.”  That’s a great quote, and I can think of nothing better to close this.

ASM: Thank you for speaking with me today. We know the flames of creativity burn eternally inside you. We appreciate your stand for humanity and savor the works of your harnessed imagination.

HE: Aw, shucky-darn. (Exits left, smiling.)

Copyright © 2014 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.


Author’s Note: If you have never read anything by Harlan Ellison, it is time you did. You can find his work everywhere, including the following websites.

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  1. Too bad you couldn’t get him to open up. It must have been hell transcribing it all. A great writer and even more the last of the thinkers. He summed up current times quite well– the three line system. The animosity and rage. Nice job.

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