One of the most outspoken and daring writers alive today, Harlan Ellison has written or edited 75 books, more
than 1,700 stories, essays and articles, two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures spanning the entire artistic
spectrum. Perhaps best known for his works of speculative fiction, which include the classic Dangerous Visions anthologies
he conceived of and edited, he has won the Hugo award eight-and-a-half times, the Nebula award three times, the Bram Stoker
award five times and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement award.
You've been involved with science fiction in some form or fashion for more than five decades, and over the years
have written some of that genre's most influential works. But you reject the moniker of "science fiction writer." Why is that?
I am first of all not a science fiction writer, as most of the people within the science fiction world will tell
you. You see, that's the thing. I have the worst of both possible worlds.
On the one side, I do fiction that is more like Kafka or Poe. I mean, that's what I write. I write, I suppose,
what the Latin Americans call magic realism. That's a lot closer to what I write. Every once in a while I'll do a
story that has one of those pieces of science fiction furniture in it, a mutant or telepathy or a future society -- but
I am not ever a science fiction writer. I'm just a writer who occasionally happens to do science fiction. Most
of my work is way outside the field, yet outside the field I am tagged with that, so my books are reviewed in with
the rockets and spacemen section. Inside the field, I am treated as if I am some kind of parvenu or some kind of
idiot because I don't write science fiction. I mean I don't write Greg Bear, Greg Benford, William Gibson kind of
stuff. I'm not a technocrat. And if you were to talk to Fred Pohl, he would tell you instantly I'm not a science
fiction writer. It's like a guy standing on a street corner saying, "I'm not a rapist. I swear I'm not a rapist." And
people say, "Well, if he's not a rapist, why does he keep saying he's not a rapist?" They cannot seem to understand
the simple reasoning behind not being called a science fiction writer. They just don't get it.
So how is it that you've become so closely associated with the genre?
You've got to understand, when I was a kid, I was a science fiction fan. When my father died in 1949, we
moved from a small town called Painesville to Cleveland. I was a very very clever kid, a smart kid, but I didn't
really have anybody to talk to or hang out with, so I got involved with a science fiction fan club in Cleveland and
helped found the Cleveland Science Fiction Society. That was way back in 1950. When I gravitated toward writing,
which I always wanted to do in any case, doing science fiction seemed the normal thing to do.
But apart from attending a few conventions every year, you have little to do with fandom these days. You've
even said in the past that you despise your readers. What was that all about?
Ed Bryant did an interview, a really fine interview with me about eight or nine years ago. Ed and I are old
friends, so I speak to him very freely. He said, "You seem to have a love-hate relationship with your readers." And
I said, "Well, I came to understand at a very primal level a long, long time ago that one must not only ignore
your audience, you must despise them." And of course that put the cat among the pigeons. Everybody went straight
up the flue on that one. And it's my fault, because I was imprecise. That wasn't a good word to use. What I meant
was "not pay any attention to." Not have any care about what they think. And my explanation for that is that I
looked at writers like Isaac Asimov, who was one of my closest friends for forty years. Isaac cared what his
audience thought. He loved his fans and always tried to accommodate them, which meant that a lot of the things
he might have written that were a lot more cutting edge -- that were a lot further out there, a lot more
daring -- Isaac never did. Because he just was busy doing other things.
So how does this relate to your own writing?
I think you can't hit a moving target. As a writer, I don't want to be in the same place twice. I don't want to chew my cud.
I don't want to have to spit out and regurgitate the same stuff again. I always try to keep ahead of my own abilities
as good or as bad as they are, and I find this annoys my audience. I did "Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man," of
which everybody at the time said, "Oh, nobody's going to like this." Well, it won the Hugo and was the first short
story ever to win a Nebula. So then I did "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" and everybody panned it. They said,
"Oh no, this is not nearly as good as 'Repent, Harlequin,'" which they had said was shit to begin with, right? All
of the sudden "Repent, Harlequin" was a classic, so now "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" was terrible. Well,
when "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" won the Hugo, all of the sudden it became the icon. If you listen to your
audience, you will first go crazy as a soup sandwich, and you will always wind up doing something other than what
your muse orders you to.
The U.S. is currently experiencing something of a Harlan Ellison renaissance, with the ongoing Edgeworks
series of books doing quite an impressive job of packaging and reissuing your out-of-print material. In spite of this,
you're quite hard to find in British bookstores.
I don't know why I'm not published in Britain right now.
The funny thing is, I'm very popular in Russia at the moment.
Earlier this year a publisher brought out a huge unauthorized collection of my work, which they were able to do under
the Russian copyright thing because they didn't subscribe to it until something like 1971, so they could take
anything from before 1971 of mine and they brought out this book. My actual Russian publisher was so pissed off
he said we want to do a major Ellison revival here and do big stuff with it. They published a huge three-volume
thing called The Worlds of Harlan Ellison and it was the best-seller for that publisher in Russia. I'm also
pretty good in France. In France they're just starting up a new program of my work. I do well in many countries, but England...
Why do you think that is? Do you not translate well to British tastes?
The only clue I've gotten is this: Years ago -- and was the last book they published -- they did Shatterday in hardcover.
Shatterday was a book that had introductions to the stories. I got a call from the editor, and he said,
"Do you mind if we don't publish the introductions to these stories?" I said I don't know whether I minded. Why
would you not want to? He said, "Well, you know they're terribly revelatory. They reveal a lot about you. They
talk a lot about the way you think and where you come from, and they're very personal." And I said, "Yes, and this
is not good because...?" And he said, "Well, we British are a little more reserved than that, and I'm afraid they'll
think you're a little too brash, a little too outspoken." Well, they didn't publish the stuff, and my readers over
there, many of them were very annoyed because they thought they were going to get the full book and they didn't. But
this has happened a number of times where my writing, which is very different from the way most British writing is
done, is tagged too ebullient, or too brash, or too outspoken or too coarse or whatever the fuck it is.
Your written work, your short fiction, often seems to have a consistent moral undercurrent. Not necessarily
religious, and perhaps a bit skewed at times, but it's there. What influence does your personal morality have on your writing?
Well I will answer that in a second, but you used the wrong word. I don't give a shit for morality. What I have
in my stories is ethics. Ethics and morality are very different cups of tea. I adhere to a very strict rigor of
personal ethics and I demand it of those around me as well. Which is not to say that I am not flawed, that I don't
make mistakes, that I don't out of either ignorance or misguidedness do something that is not as ethical as I would
wish it to be. But when I learn of my mistakes, I am prepared to take the bone for them.
Okay, ethics, not morality. Please explain.
I operate by a code that makes me responsible for what I do, makes me definitely, directly, genuinely
responsible. I am precisely the kind of person I made myself out to be. You will never hear me whine that "Oh,
gee, my mommy locked me in the basement when I was a kid so therefore I have to become a cannibal like Jeffrey Dahmer." I
am out there standing behind whatever it is I say and whatever it is I do. If you go looking for me, you will
find me. As opposed to these kind of people that play that kind of "Late George Aply" game. There is nothing
hypocritical about me. I don't do that. When I tell you somebody is a scumbag, I tell them that to their face. But
when I tell you somebody is a good guy, I would tell them that to their face, too. I do not play the game of social propriety.
This is another thing that annoys people a lot that gets me a lot of bad press because I just can't be politic. I
never learned how to do that and I don't like doing that. I think it's false.
I think it's distrustful. I speak my mind, as awkward as it may be. I could be wrong, but if I think something
is the truth, that's the way I express it. Then I think I can't go wrong.
Let's test that ethical system. 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..."
I'll give you a for instance. I did a thing that I thought was wrong. No one else thought it was wrong,
but I thought it was wrong. Prior to White Wolf getting the rights to do all of the books that they're releasing
as Edgeworks, I had a verbal deal with a wonderful, wonderful woman, a good friend of mine named Pam
Pia. And Pam Pia worked for Longmeadow Press, the publishing arm of Waldenbooks, the book chain. Pam is a dear
woman and a good editor, and she wanted all these books. They were not going to pay a lot of money for them because
it was a start-up company and they didn't have a lot of money despite the fact that Waldenbooks has all the money
in the universe. But I said OK we would do it, and we started forward doing it. At just about that moment, here
came this offer from White Wolf with an enormous amount of money. And I would have complete control of the cover
art, and the editorial. I mean it was a really terrific package. It couldn't be any better. Well, I hadn't
signed a contract with Longmeadow, and I was not actually committed, but I was committed in my mind, because I had
given my word. I anguished over it for almost two weeks while everybody sat and waited, and I could've blown the whole damn thing.
Everybody said the same thing to me, including Pam Pia. She called me and said "Harlan, you've got to take the
deal with White Wolf. You've got to." And I said "Pam, I gave you my word." She said "That's all right. It's
not going to hurt me any." And I said, "That's not the point. The point is that ethically, I gave my word and I'm
having a hard time reconciling it." Finally, I acquiesced. And I acquiesced and I did it and I begged out with Pam
and I told her I would do another book with her for a third the price of what they would ordinarily have paid for
a book of mine. What happened was, of course, Longmeadow went out of business and we never did anything. But I
still think, even to this day, that what I did was unethical. If you ask me, this is a bad thing I did. And I'm
not trying to tell you that it's justified in any way because of circumstances. What I'm saying is the things I've
done that are worse than that, that are really bad, I ain't gonna tell you.
Let's balance the karma: What's the best thing you've ever done?
Well, I don't know if it's the best, but the most recent is I fought for three years to get A.E. van Vogt
the (Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America) Grand Master Award. He had been passed over for decades on this
thing. I got the backing of all kinds of ex-presidents of SFWA and ex-winners of the Grand Master award from Jack
Williamson on down, and I tried desperately to get it done. But because of the politics, because of the pettiness
of much of this genre, they would not give it to him. They just would not give it to him. And then the man developed
Alzheimer's and he could barely... But he was a dear sweet man, and he wrote stuff that is absolutely seminal. If
not seminal then at least germinal in this field. If the Grand Master award had been given out in say, 1950 or 1951,
before Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov got it, it would've been given to
van Vogt. He was the biggest of the big in this field, and for them to ignore that, and treat him like a spent
force, like an old man, like a throwaway, was criminal to me.
So what happened then?
They said "Well, we'll talk about it. We'll see." They played that shit with me, and I put up with it for almost
two years, letting them jerk me around. Finally I just couldn't take it anymore. I called them and I said "Look, I'm
going on television, where I do my commentaries on the SciFi Channel, on SciFi Buzz, and I'm going to do one
of my Harlan Ellison's Watching commentaries about this, and I'm going to urge people to start writing
to SFWA, to the officers, and demanding that these people get their awards." Well, they got very arrogant, very
high-handed and wouldn't do a thing about it. And finally I went on the air, and the minute I did it they squealed
like stuck pigs. And of course, not liking the message, the messenger became the evil guy. And I caught more of
the shit that I'm always catching. That's okay. I'm used to catching shit, so it doesn't bother me. It doesn't
bother me in the least. I can fight back perfectly well, and I didn't stop. I did four more.
And A.E. van Vogt got his award. He got it because I embarrassed them, I humiliated them. That was a real good
thing. I was on the side of the angels.
For your first book, Web of the City, you passed yourself off as a 17-year-old Italian kid and spent
ten weeks running with the Barons gang in Brooklyn. Would something like that be possible today?
What, for me to pass myself off as a 17-year-old?
I really should have seen that one coming. How about, "Would infiltrating a gang as research for a book be possible
for someone today?"
Well, it's not the kind of thing that's done now. The only kind of person who does that now is George Plimpton,
who'll go three rounds with Muhammad Ali to be able to write about what it's like. There was also still a very
strong Hemingway influence among writers back then. A lot of us grew up during those days when Hemingway was
a great icon, and he said you should never write what you don't know. I was driving a dynamite truck when I was
14 years old in North Carolina. I've worked on tuna boats and in logging camps and I worked in a carnival. I
did all that kind of shit, because that was what the image was of a writer. Every book you picked up, everybody
had a background like Jack London for christsake. And so I thought that's what you had to do. I don't think
that today that's the kind of thing that'll happen. We've lost a lot of the sense of adventure, a lot of the
sense of danger, and also there aren't the venues anymore. I mean, you can't go out hitchhiking. I hitchhiked
across this country five or six times. I rode the rails. I lived in hobo camps. Those things don't exist
anymore. What exists now is a very mechanized, technocratic world in which there are rules and regulations at
every stop. I suppose that's why a lot of people find adventure on the Internet. That's their idea of being
interactive. My idea of being interactive is going on out and doing it on the street. Anybody who would do
it would be remarkable kind of person with a great flair for life and would be somebody I would love to meet.
And this is what you tell aspiring writers?
I must've lectured at 3,000 universities, all over the world, including the London School of Economics,
and Yale and Harvard. Invariably at every single public presentation someone will come up to me the way Willy
Loman asked his brother Ben in Death of a Salesman, "Ben, Ben what's the secret? What's the secret?" and
Ben would say "Diamonds, Willy. Diamonds." Well, they come up and ask me, "What's the secret of success? How
do you make something of yourself?" And I give them the secret.
There is only one secret, and the secret is this: Anybody can become a writer. If you look at bad writers like
Gregory Feeley or Judith Krantz or John Grisham, and you look at the crap that they write, you realize that
things that live in a petri dish, for christsake, can become a writer. The trick is not becoming a
writer. The trick is staying a writer. Day after month after year after story after book. That's the
secret. And if you can do that and produce a body of work, no matter how large or small it is, that is true and
can pull the plow, then you're a writer.
If you are not prepared to spend your life doing that, then, for christsake, don't do it.
What else do you tell them when they want writing advice?
I say, "I'm going to give you the best advice you've ever had. The advice is this: Go become a plumber." And
they laugh, because they think I'm kidding, but I'm not kidding. That's not a euphemism. Go become a
plumber. Or learn electrical wiring.
In the long run, there are very few books in the history of literature that have truly altered the world in any
way. Maybe The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, maybe the Analects of Confucius,
maybe Uncle Tom's Cabin. In every 500 years, there's one or two books that alter the course of human
civilization. If the truth be told, I think it is just as noble and in fact probably a lot nobler to be a good
plumber. Because I've done 70 books, people go, "God, you're so prolific." And I say, "What do you mean
prolific? I've been doing it for 42 years, and I've done 70 books. That's what I do. It's a full time
job. If I were a plumber, and I had unclogged 10,000 toilets, would you say to me 'You're a prolific
plumber?'" No, people just don't equate the two, but I gotta tell you, when your toilet overflows, you do not
need Dostoyevsky to come into your house.
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.
Do you have any idea why this has come to pass in your life?
All my life has been an event. I don't know at what point the persona separated from the body of work, but I
think that, in fact, they didn't. I think that it's fairly obvious if you read the stuff I write, there is the
same -- well they used to accuse me of writing at the top of my lungs. That's what John Clute wrote.
He said Ellison can't write in any way except at the top of his lungs. Well, that's not true. If you
read "Jefty Is 5" or "Grail" or any stories like that, you'll discover that they're written in a much quieter
tone. I bring the same passion, the same commitment, the same determination not to flinch and turn away from the
abyss to my work that I do to my life. I marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. I
worked César Chàvez in the Coachella Valley on the grapefruit strike. I have taken on the
KKK, I spent over a thousand actual hours lecturing for the Equal Rights Amendment during the time we were
trying to get it through the senate. I care about what I do, I believe in what I do and that extends to my
writing. And I guess it seeps though and one's nature splits off, and becomes your doppelganger. There are
some people who just live their lives at a higher degree of activity or a greater level of commitment or
something, and it's possible that I'm one of those. I don't know. On the other hand, it may be something just
as cheap as self-aggrandizement. I don't know. I'm not smart enough to know what the hell motivates it. So
I can't answer the question any better than that. I wish I could. I don't know when who I am either transcended
or split off and ran along side, or whatever, what it is I do for a living. But I think without the one, the
other doesn't mean anything.
(This interview first appeared in the June 2000 issue of the magazine Interzone.)
Copyright © 2000 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in
journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several
in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction
articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia.
His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html