Friday, June 29, 2018

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

"I almost died and it's all your fault!"

Harlan Ellison's phone calls are legendary. For a brief period, I received them on a regular basis. Some went well, some, like the one the quote above came from, went not-so-well. But they were always interesting. Harlan died yesterday at the age of 84. There will never be another Harlan phone call.

I never knew him well enough to call him a friend, but I think he might allow me to claim acquaintanceship. There are a lot of strong opinions about the man held by many. I experienced a bit of his cantankerous side. I never witnessed the boorish behavior he could be accused of. I did witness a masterful amount of self-control on his part when attendees at a convention one time went out of their way to attempt to provoke him. I once saw him instantly become gentlemanly and deferential when Ardath Mayhar walked into the room. That was nice. I'll never forget the respect he showed Ardath.

I first fell into Harlan's orbit in 1997. I'd published my first story or two, and casting about for a way to keep my name in print as the rejection slips continued to pile up, I hit upon the idea of conducting interviews. Worldcon was coming up in San Antonio that year, so I went down the list of author guests and fired off letters asking if Writer X might find an hour of their time to sit down with me for a conversation. A week later, my phone rang.

"Jayme? Harlan Ellison here..."

That was the first of many times I'd hear that phrase. The Wife heard it quite a bit, too. Turns out, Harlan wouldn't be in San Antonio. He'd had a falling out with the convention.

"Tell ya what, kiddo," he said. "Think up some questions I haven't been asked a million times before, and call me back in a week. I'll talk to you then."

It had not been my intention that Harlan be my first professional interview. I was terrified. Intimidated would be a huge understatement. But in the interim I read every interview of his I could get my hands on, and vowed not to ask any of those questions. Which meant no "Last Dangerous Visions" questions, of course. I called him back a week later, and we started slowly, with... maybe not questions he'd never been asked before, but variations on certain themes, coming at them from different angles. Then I hit him with the following, which stopped him dead in his tracks. The pause doesn't come through in print, but he hadn't been asked this before, and it made him think:

What's the worst thing you've ever done?

There are things that I have done that would stun a police dog if I spoke of them, so obviously I'm not going to speak of them. My friends know, and my wife knows, and they seem to forgive me. That's the interesting thing. The things that I would pillory myself for having done, where I would say "Shit, I never really should have done that," they will all say "But you had to do that because blah blah blah..."
Yes, I put him on the spot. Made him uncomfortable, for just a little bit. But it made for a distinctive interview. Still, he'd challenged me, hadn't he? Put me on the spot? So I played dirty. That question, good as it was, still fell within Harlan's wheelhouse. My follow-up, he outright stumbled over: Let's balance the karma: What's the best thing you've ever done?

By then, I knew I had control of the interview. It wasn't going south, it was going where I wanted. I had Harlan's buy-in. He wasn't bored. This was huge for me--I'd interviewed hundreds of people as a journalist for newspaper stories, but this was different. It gave me a shot of much-needed confidence that resulted in 40-plus additional interviews over the ensuing decade. By the time we approached the end of the interview, I was ready with the question that, I believe, encapsulates the interview overall:

When did Harlan Ellison the writer become Harlan Ellison the event?

I don't know. I've studied the lives of a number of different writers -- Emile Zola, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. These were people who wrote important things, but when you talk about them, people know that Scott Fitzgerald sort of was the king of the Roaring 20s and danced his way through that whole period of bootleg gin and his wife wound up in a madhouse. People know Hemingway was a great adventurer who lived at the peak of his macho ability and then finally blew his brains out with an over-and-under shotgun in Wyoming. And Zola is only known for the Dreyfuss case. But and I think there are some writers, as there are some politicians there are some adventurers there are some scientists whose lives apart from their achievements, their lives themselves are eventful. They live life more fully, they live life with a greater commitment. Now I am not extending that to me. Please be careful when you write this. I do not want people to think I am demonstrating that kind of hubris. I'm trying to answer your question as honestly as I can, and I don't think I can get any closer to it than that.

Harlan Ellison was very much like a singularity in our field. His presence and influence was undeniable. Even people who'd never met him, or didn't like him, still felt his pull. He was massive. And now he's gone, just like that. A sudden void that was once so intensely, ferociously occupied. The universe is a little smaller today.

My complete interview with Harlan Ellison may be read at

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