Harlan Ellison Interview
Harlan Ellison visited
THE BOOK REPORT on September 17 for a, well, provocative interview. None
of his fans will be surprised to know that Ellison gets tired of hearing
the same few questions over and over. So he asked us to do something slightly
unorthodox. We published his answers to a few of his often-asked and least-favorite
questions moments before the live interview began. Ellison calmed, we
continued on with a lovely -- and lengthy -- interview covering everything
from why the web and TV are evil, to why Kull could have been a great
movie, and, of course, why you should read Ellison's books. Hey, anyone
who can write a short story in a day while
Our fearless interviewer was TBR Senior Producer Sean Doorly (BookpgSD). Our exhausted transcriber was Jennifer Levitsky and our intrepid host was MarleneT.
Before the interview, Harlan Ellison asked us to publish his answers to a few often-asked questions. Here are his answers from earlier this evening:
Let me save us all a lot of time, by answering a priori, several of the questions I am endlessly and inevitably asked. In this way, we can open new dialogue, cover new ground, save the whales, clean up your zits, and prevent me from snarling at you for having Failed To Get The Word.
1. THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS (and I truly wish pinheads who are obsessed with the disposition of this project would learn that the word THE precedes LAST) will be finished when I finish it. That was what Michelangelo said to the Pope when he was constantly being nagged about completing the Sistine Chapel Ceiling paintings. I am always astonished at the greedy and sophomoric readers (not all, but some) who can be standing in front of me at a book signing, say at a signing for SLIPPAGE, and be aware that I've had four books published in the last two years, and demand of me, "When will you finish TLDV?" or the novel BLOOD'S A ROVER or the novella "Bring On The Dancing Frogs" or one-or-another project announced prematurely (usually by publishers, not by me). This is an exchange guaranteed to produce serious bodily harm to the questioner. Why? Because...can you not derive joy and satisfaction from the new book in hand, which you haven't even read yet, before your snuffling li'l snouts require something else? The answer to this, and similar question -- you few greedy children who annoy all the rest of us who are sane and patient -- is an follows: I'm dancing as fast as I can.
2. What do I do as "Conceptual Consultant" on BABYLON 5 is this: Any damn thing Joe Straczynski wants me to do. Sometimes I work up a bit of characterization -- such as the time Zack (Jeff Conway) was squirming around trying to get his jacket collar not to chafe, and complaining about not being able to get a decent tailor to do the fitting properly -- and sometimes I create a costume for an alien visitor -- from the 250,000 books in my home library that include many volumes of clothing through the ages -- (see, I don't need the Web, I've got these miraculous information cassettes called books) -- and sometimes I catch a glitch that Joe missed among the millions of bits of minutiae he has to juggle daily -- such as pointing out that the wrong word appears on the crypts: it ain't cryogenic, it's cryonic (look them up, you'll perceive the difference, just as there's a big difference between "in a moment" and "momentarily" which aren't interchangeable) -- and sometimes I provide a line of dialogue that Joe needs, by making a remark that he remembers -- such as saying of someone we mutually know, who did a dumb thing: "He isn't just stupid, he's heir to the Throne of the Kingdom of Stupid." Other times I provide the voice for demented computers, or fill in as a psi-cop when one is needed, or....
Well, you get the idea. I do a hundred little things, most of which you'll never notice, nor do Joe and I remember; but I serve as Ombudsman (another of my ideas, the Ombuds) and running dog; Joe calls me Jiminy Cricket cum mad dog. Does that answer your question? Swell.
3. Go ahead, ask me the dumbest question a writer can be asked:
DUHH, WHERE D'YA GETCHER IDEAS?
My answer is always the same -- since there is no answer to this query. At least neither Plato nor Socrates nor Shakespeare could make the codification. When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, "Schenectady."
And when the jamook looks at me quizzically, and scratches head with hairy hand, I add: "Oh, sure. There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send 'em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas."
And wouldja believe it...there is always some demento who asks me for the address.
4. Did I really throw an annoying fan down an elevator shaft at the Washington DC Worldcom several decades ago? Yeah, sure. And pandas'll fly outta my as...serting otherwise is useless. Fools will believe what they choose to believe.
And now for the live interview:
Marlene T: Hello Sean and Mr. Ellison. Good evening!
Harlan Ellison: I am humbly proud to be a part of this momentous event. And if you believe that...
Bookpg SD: In SLIPPAGE, you write about having a heart attack. Has having a heart attack mellowed you any?
Harlan Ellison: First of all, it could not specifically be called a heart attack. My heart is a strong as a Bessemer convertor oven. The problem is all the arteries leading the heart were clogged like the Holland Tunnel from 50 years of eating nature's most perfect food -- the pizza. It was what the doctors charmingly called a cardiac episode. If you'd like to know how it's changed me, please read the introduction to SLIPPAGE. It's all there.
Bookpg SD: What is a non-book?
Harlan Ellison: A
non-book is a thing between hardcovers that has no intrinsic merit but
as a momentary blip on your emotional radar. Some examples are biographies
of Roseanne, new books by friends of O.J. Simpson. They are celebrated
for nothing more than being celebrated. They have no great accomplishments.
In fact, they're non-celebrities. They are the
Question: At the end of "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," it is subtitled "Shagging Fundoes." What are Fundoes?
Harlan Ellison: Fungos! That's the word. It means batting balls in the outfield for the players to work out with before the game begins.
Bookpg SD: Why do you primarily write short stories?
Harlan Ellison: Because
that's what I do. Why do you keep urinating out of your penis instead
of sitting down? In fact I've written four full length books.I've written
four books, but I like short stories. There is something really great
about being one of only 2 or 3 writers in contemporary fiction -- Ray
Bradbury and Borges -- to have mastered the form. Too many writers
Bookpg SD: Are short stories a dying breed?
Harlan Ellison: The short story will always be great -- the novella is the perfect literary length. Bartleby the Scrivener. The Secret Sharer. The Turn of the Screw -- all are novellas which retain the immediacy and vigor of the short story combined with the freedom and leisurely pace of a monologue without losing the gristle and bone and without losing the fat.
Question: Just kind of wondering, Mr. Ellison, where your true fancy lies. I have read you extensively in the horror field, and your work is found in many horror anthologies. You have also written under many variations of your name. What is your favorite genre?
Harlan Ellison: Let me answer part 2. I have very seldom used a pen name -- not in at least 35 years. In the early days I was writing for magazines and the going rate was a penny a word so you had to write a lot. A magazine would buy a few stories and put them in inventory, but they didn't want to put the same name on the table of contents more than once -- otherwise it would look like one author had written the whole magazine, which I did do sometimes. So various pseudonyms were cobbled up. But they were only a matter of exigency by the editor. Cordwainer Bird is the only one I use on TV -- like for the "birds" or flipping the... when I don't like what they've done with my scripts. They can't have my name if I hate the what they do to the script. My true genre, I don't know what that means, I have written everything -- westerns, love stories, mysteries, noir, detective stories. I like working in whatever form the story of that moment calls for. For the convenience of people talking about you, they have to keep tagging you with a genre name -- western, gay male, scifi, etc. Those are bogus. I seriously resist them. When you define and designate things, you eliminate. You codify in a way that is very limiting. That is the death of the variousness of what you can write.
Bookpg SD: From Nightclown: What do you think of the media's treatment of Princess Diana?
Harlan Ellison: My feeling about the treatment of Diana is that it has reached a level for me at which it is white noise. I was on Politically Incorrect last week and they wouldn't let it rest. She is clearly more important in her death than she would have been if she'd lived. Like Marilyn Monroe -- who would be a withered old lady now. She has achieved immortality, what we all strive for.
Question: Harlan: Can you tell us any good Asimov stories? He told several about you in his autobiography.
Harlan Ellison: Well
Isaac and I were so close that the memories (he sighs heavily with sadness)
impinge on the stories to such a degree. I find it hard to separate them
from the anecdotes. He was one of my dearest friends for 40 years. Not
a day goes by when I don't think of him. I don't even know what story
to tell about Isaac. We met and were buddies like 10-year-old pals for
40 years, even though there was an age difference. Anytime I would need
a piece of science for a story and didn't have time to research it, I'd
call him any hour of the day or night. Isaac knew everything in the universe.
He would tell me and then we would chat and he would tell a few jokes.
I would tell a joke, and then we would be go back to our lives. Janet,
Isaac's widow -- we're very close to her. She was hit very hard by his
death. She's very thin, so I would always say to her: "Are you eating
well?" I would say if you use your microwave, you can eat wonderful
gourmet dinners. She said she didn't have one. Susan (my wife) and I said
we would get her one. She screamed no, I won't be able to use it. I said
I'm a Luddite and I can use it. We bought her one. About a month later
we asked her if she'd used it yet. She hadn't. She was scared of it. For
godsakes, this woman is a scientist. I said, "A woman of your intelligence
should not be flumoxed by a machine like
Bookpg SD: What do you think of the Internet?
Harlan Ellison: Sigh.
I think the Internet is a wonderful invention for doctors who need the
cutting edge of technology, and for people who want to keep their bank
accounts in shape. I despise that element of the web that is given over
to chat rooms, gossip and stupidity that promulgates irrationality and
the practical jokering of schmucks who prefer virtual reality to real
Bookpg SD: Was the story "Keyboard" in response to your thoughts on the Internet?
Harlan Ellison: No.
"Keyboard," which is in SLIPPAGE, is the story I wrote in the
book store window at Booksmith in San Francisco. One of my great joys
is to write stories in bookstore windows. I read something once about
Georges Simenon who -- to celebrate one of the publishing anniversaries
of his publisher -- did the following: They constructed a glass cage in
which he sat and wrote an entire novel in one week. I was astonished by
this. Just blown away by the idea of doing it. The act of writing is very
hard work. It's not greater or nobler than being a good plumber, ballerina,
mechanic, etc. But
Question: Have been a huge fan of your for many years. What do you think of the current state of S-F in the movies and TV, especially with your history of battling the media powers that be over scripts.
Harlan Ellison: I
look at the things in film and I am deeply dismayed. The all-time worst
film (in my many years of being a critic, I've seen every film ever made)
was "Monsignor" with Christopher Reeve. The next was Charlie
Chaplin's last movie. They moved into second and third place after I saw
"Batman and Robin." It's crippling in every way, annoying in
every way. We
BookpgSD: Charlie Sheen? He's been in some pretty bad movies.
Harlan Ellison: A lot of great actors have been in bad movies. I like Charlie Sheen. I like watching him on the screen. His father is also a friend. Whoopi Goldberg -- she's a great actress and has been in some bad movies. Or Robin Williams, one of our finest talents, he's been in some awful movies.
Question: What do you *really* think of the late, great Gene Rodenberry and the Star Trek phenomena?
Harlan Ellison: Anybody who asked that question has clearly not read THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER. Read the book. It's got the whole script and intro that will answer your questions about Mr. Rodenberry. What a joy and delight awaits you! My opinions of Star Trek are well known.
Question: Your White Wolf anthologies are terrific. How many are you planning to do?
Harlan Ellison: I'm
pleased you like it! Just sent the Edgeworks series to the publisher --
20 volumes in all. So there's a lot to come. The third just came out --
they come out every May and October. Book 4 just went to the printer and
will be out next month. It has all the stories with love in the title
in it. We will be doing 31 of my back titles in 20 uniform volumes.
Bookpg SD: Thank you for joining us at THE BOOK REPORT. You were great.
Harlan Ellison: Good night to everyone in the auditorium.
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