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A Conversation With Harlan Ellison
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke

© Chris Cuffaro
Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison
For more than 40 years, Harlan Ellison's writing career has won him more awards for his dozens of books, thousands of stories, essays, articles and newspaper columns, two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures than anybody we can name. In 1993, he received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He has served as Creative Consultant on The Twilight Zone revival and was Creative Consultant for Babylon 5.

Related Links
Harlan Ellison Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Edgeworks 4
SF Site Review: Slippage
The Islets of Langerhans
Ace's Ellison Homepage

The Essential Ellison
Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man
Angry Candy
Edgeworks 1
Edgeworks 2
Edgeworks 4

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... I dunno.

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..."

Such as?
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

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