Harlan Ellison: “Life to me is a great ironic joke”

Author Harlan Ellison talks about his new graphic novel, his "Simpsons" episode and whether he's really a jerk

Topics: harlan ellison, science-fiction, Fiction, Writing, Editor's Picks,

Harlan Ellison: "Life to me is a great ironic joke"Harlan Ellison, with his wife Susan. (Credit: Mark Barsotti)

For more than fifty years, Harlan Ellison has entertained, and sometimes enraged, audiences with classic short stories, TV or film scripts and live appearances that mix foul-mouthed Lenny Bruce stand-up, barbed social  critique and comic voices that would do Mel Blanc proud. A natural performer, he’ll stretch out uncommon words like Silly Putty, enunciating each syllable, and then unleash a stream of invective at a machine-gun pace that would weary his pal Robin Williams. His treasure trove of anecdotes feature everyone from Dorothy Parker to Patton Oswalt, all starring the once runty kid from Cleveland whose life, if written as fiction, no one would believe.

Ellison has always danced at cliff’s edge. He marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama. He’s assaulted TV executives, sabotaged William Shatner’s toupee, and had his choice of footwear questioned by Frank Sinatra. Many colorful words have been used to describe Harlan, but the best remains writer — of 1700+ published stories, screenplays, reviews, essays. Awards? Start with 8½ Hugos, four Nebulas, four Writers Guild of America Awards — the list runs the length of a Manhattan phonebook. His new graphic novel “7 Against Chaos” prompted my talk with the elder statesman of speculative fiction.

Do you still bristle at being called a “science fiction” writer? Is “fantasist” better, or does “writer” sum it up best?

Given my druthers I would just rather be called a writer, which is a great blue-collar way of describing the day-by-day pulling-the-plow work that a writer does. I’m a storyteller. If I have that on my précis when I go, Storyteller, I’m satisfied with that. The minute you start calling someone a “Western writer” or a “science fiction writer” or whatever, you limit them in terms of what their imagination is capable of. I don’t think I’ve ever really been a science fiction writer. I’m closer to a fantasist, speculative fiction, whatever, but labels are ultimately derogatory, and I eschew them as best I can. But look, I’m 79 and one of the Great Assholes of the World. I admit to it. And I cop to virtually everything of which I am accused. There are [some] things, not many, maybe two or three, that I never did, and I rail at those…

Like pushing a fan down an elevator shaft.

Yeah, I never threw a fan down an elevator shaft. Otherwise I’d be in prison.

At the MadCon SF convention in 2010 you famously told the audience, “I’m dying.” Since then you’ve won another Nebula, “Bugf#ck: The Useless Wit & Wisdom of Harlan Ellison” was published, “Phoenix Without Ashes” hit the New York Times best-seller list, two collections of your early pulp stories came out last fall, and D.C. Comics just published “7 Against Chaos.” How much are you enjoying what you’ve call the “third act” of your career?

As Mark Twain said, “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” How it came to be, that I announced that I was dying was that three years ago I was quite ill. Didn’t know what it was and since I had a quadruple bypass about fourteen years ago and a stent about eight years ago, I’ve been remarkably free of illness, with the exception of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Around the time of MadCon, I began to feel terribly depressed, very, very low, the worst, the lowest point in my life. I was scheduled to go into Cedars-Sinai and was bedridden. I called John Manzo at MadCon and said, “I’m not gonna make it but, if you put a microphone on the stage I will answer all questions from my hospital bed. Just put up a big sign: ‘Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.’” And they put up a big poster and an ad saying, “Harlan Ellison’s Last Big Con,” so if anybody wanted their money back, they could say, “Ellison conned us,” and I’d take the rap. About three days before (the con), John took a red-eye and appeared at the end of my bed with 200 copies of the “Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin” book, and I was lying on my back signing them, for a day.

Then my adrenalin kicked in and I went to the convention, but it was a nightmare. I went blind in one eye, I actually attacked two people, and just prior to going I got a call from an interviewer in Madison, who said, “I hear you’re not coming, what’s going on, what are you sick with?” And he kept after me and wouldn’t stop harassing me until finally, in frustration, the nasty side of my nature, which you know is there, Mark, kicked in and I said, “What part of ‘I’m dying here’ don’t you get, you asshole?” And he of course ran with that as the headline.

Sure.

Because it had gone viral in the interim I had to address it. So I, quote, “famously said I was dying.” Well, (afterwards) things went from bad to worse. There were several hospitals, things got about as bad as they could possibly get, short of being plowed under with a backhoe. I drifted into the embrace of the Wizard of Oz, a neuropharmacologist who figured out I had clinical depression. And they put me on drugs, after a life of abstinence in which I do not drink, do not use dope, and I have now become someone who is Big Pharma’s…

Poster-boy?

…response to the W.C. Fields question, “Ain’t there a sucker born every minute?”

Did I miss any milestones in the last three years?

I’m on the New York Times best-seller list with “7 Against Chaos,” and that’s a hell of a milestone because Paul Chadwick, Ken Steacy and I worked on that project for ten years. But if you go to HarlanEllisonbooks.com, which I hope you mention in this interview prominently, you will see a series of books we’ve been publishing.

Insert plug here.

We’ve done four volumes of my screenplays called “Brain Movies,” the most recent, “Cutter’s World,” it’s never been seen before. And to come full circle to how am I handling this third act, I’m sitting here midway between drenched in hubris and gloating that I have sustained a career for 60 years, but feeling a lot like one of the survivors of that downed aircraft on “Lost,” sitting on the beach watching the waves roiling in and out and then idly turning around and noticing that an entire continent has grown up behind him. I’m getting love letter reviews on my first (recently republished) novel, “Web of the City,” they’re saying that even at age twenty this guy had chops. You’d have to be a real schmuck not to gloat over a four-star review but there’s always that nagging little imp in my mind that says, “Where the fuck were you when I needed you?” at the beginning? ‘Cause it was hard times then, writing for a penny a word. Does that answer your question?

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Yeah. You recently had a birthday. I’d imagine it must freak you out to realize you just turned 79. 

Well, since I always thought I’d buy it at age 13, dueling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, to find myself at age 79 is really to find myself between a rock and a hard place. I think it was George Burns who said “When you see a dog standing on its hind legs, dancing around and whistling, it’s not amazing how well he does it, but that he can do it all at.” And I see me at 79, no heart problems, no cancer, except (for) the clinical depression and the eleven pills I take a day, I’m in perfectly good health and my brain does seem to be ratiocinating in the usual manner.

Do you feel any different, internally, than you did at 19?

Apart from the knees and the usual bowel things, I don’t feel any different. I’m not as jaunty as I was. I suck wind during the day. William Goldman said, “Nobody ever said life was fair. It’s just fairer than death.”

Any date for your “Simpsons” episode?

The “Simpsons” episode, in which Harlan Ellison appears as Harlan Ellison, will be early in the next season. And it’s called, “Married to the Blob.”

Let’s talk about “7 Against Chaos.” Can you give us an overview? 

It’s an idea that I had more than 20 years ago, a large cultural idea in the sense of classic storytelling, great adventure, and I patterned it after one of my favorite movies, Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” I put together a “Mission Impossible” team of highly disparate beings — human, alien, android — and I have them on a mission through all of time and space to avert the disruption of reality and the world as we know it. They have to go back to a transfer point in time where the fate of the human race was in danger from another species, ah, I don’t want to be a spoiler… I was asked by a number of film studios to come up with a big idea, and being greedy they say, “Give us everything you’ve got,” and I handed in a bible for “7 Against Chaos.” They looked at it, blanched and said “We can’t afford this, it would cost us 600 million dollars,” and of course every studio passed.

So it sat in my desk for ten years, until Dan Didio at D.C. Comics called and wanted me to do a big summer arc for them. Well, “Chaos” rose to the top of the swamp of my mind and I said, “How ’bout this?” He sparked to it and said, “Who do you want to illustrate it?” and I said Paul Chadwick instantly because I loved “Concrete” and (we’d) worked together before. And who to color it, well, Ken Steacy. We’re all great friends, so we became the Athos, Porthos, and Aramis of this endeavor. We worked for ten years on it in very, very close contact: conference calls, Paul mailing me penciled pages, us filling in things that had not been in the (film) bible. Paul did a lot of the dialogue, then Kenny brought his magnificent pallet to it, and you have the hard-covered novel that is on the New York Times best-seller list.

Beyond your health, did anything else lead to the long gestation period? 

No, it was a matter of time and circumstance. Nobody escapes age and gravity. I had no idea it was going to get done. If three years ago, when I was at the absolute nadir of my strength and will to live, somebody had told me that “7 Against Chaos” is on the Times best-seller list, I’d have said…

What are you smoking?

That can’t be and it will not be. I was entering darkness, feet over the edge of the abyss. But my gorgeous wife Susan and my friends brought me back.

The character Hoorn’s cynical, wise-cracking persona struck me as being closest to yours. Fair observation?

Fair, and probably on target because Paul and I are very close friends. [He] knows my pace of speech intimately. So anyplace where it sounds like me speaking is either taken from my original outline [or] it’s Paul mimicking my style.

In the changing versions of Earth, one mammal, one reptilian, there’s a panel of a woman walking down the street, high heels changing from alligator to mammal skin, described as “freckled and furry pumps.” That made me laugh. There’s a lot of humor in a serious story, one line near the end, I won’t give away the context, “It seems…he had a heart…after all.” Very funny. Did you consciously think about injecting humor? 

It just comes out automatically, and [usually] it’s misinterpreted as being either ironic or mean-spirited or contentious or fractious. I don’t mean it to be, it’s just that life to me is a great ironic joke. That we are given these enormously effective tools, to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and put someone on the moon, you know, create moo goo gai pan, and yet all we do is fight with each other and produce Dick Cheney.

And reality TV.

So the humor is always an underlying Cyrano-like light-heartedness underneath the chrome-steel of the human spirit.

You’re an atheist but a strong through-line of morality and ethics runs through all your work. You have the robot Urr say, “Awareness is the only sacred thing.” Do those six words sum up your moral philosophy, what’s important about being a conscious being faced with what Warren Zevon called “the vast indifference of heaven?” 

Yeah. I probably would alter that now. I mean, I wrote that twenty years ago.

What would the update be?

The update would be kindness. Awareness and kindness are the only sacred things.

There’s a line about the “rarity of privacy.” We live in an ever-expanding National Security State. What are your thoughts on Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden? Paul Revere patriots or terrorist-enabling traitors? 

Neither of those extremes. On the one hand I’m sorta glad they did what they did, on the other hand, I think they’re assholes. Their naiveté is monumental.

You found the love of your life on your fifth marriage. You and Susan are going on 30 years now. Say something about Susan.

What is there to say about Susan, he said wistfully, sighing and smiling. She is the morning sun and the evening moon. I, who am the hardest creature on the planet to live with: irrational, capricious, ah, multi-mooded and self-involved to a truly agonizing depth… She supports me, uplifts me, enriches me, informs me, and keeps me sane. She is the reason, truly at core, that you are talking to me today. And gorgeous beyond belief.

You’ve instructed her to destroy all your unfinished manuscripts when you ultimately leave the scene. I think that’s because no matter how good or bad, someone finishing your work, it wouldn’t be your words. 

That’s absolutely apt. I, never having written a sequel, understand that you chew your cud once. It’s just hoeing the same ground until what you’re producing is just like everything else you’ve produced. And my mind is much too wild for that, so even if it’s the greatest writer in the world…it’s not, [as] Gulley Jimson said in “The Horse’s Mouth,” “It’s not the dream I had.”

Any unfinished stories you hope to complete?

Yeah. I’m not prescient. I could get hit by that thunderbolt in the ass tonight, but there are at least fifty unfinished projects sitting in my office, and every day they sit there, winking up at me…

Calling you to the typewriter.

Like the ghosts of Christmas past, they do not let me rest. I write them in my head, I know what the next lines are, what the endings are, it’s just getting up the strength to do those foot-pounds of energy at the typewriter.

Let’s talk about your public appearances. You recently did a book signing in LA for your early gang stories… 

What a great day that was!

Before the signing, you publicly got a pompadour haircut, switchblade in hand. What’s the difference between the solitary scribe, doing battle at the Olympia typewriter, and Ellison the showman — or has there ever been any difference?

I am a very flawed human being. The gifts that came with this package hag-ride me, so the inadequate little guy from Painesville, Ohio, who has done these wonderful things, is a doppelganger of me. We all want attention. Inside each of us is a five-year-old, coming down in the middle of the party in our pajamas and peeing on the floor so that Mommy and Daddy will pay attention. I’ve been on the stage since I was very young. There’s always been a public component to me, a storytelling component that likes to get out like Chaucer did and read his stories to students. Or sits in a bookstore window writing stories, so people can see it’s a job of work, to demythologize it. It’s all of a piece.

You’ve walked away from a lot of high-profile projects over the years because of creative differences. 

Yep.

You’d be richer and more famous had you, on occasion, taken the path of, not least but maybe less resistance, and taken the money. What are your biggest regrets over projects you’ve bailed on, not because of money lost, but because of projects that never got made? 

I don’t have many regrets because as I told Ron Moore of “Battlestar Galactica,” never whore yourself. There’s some things that no amount of money can get me to do. And I cannot be scared because I have a very low bullshit threshold and a very high fear factor. So I can walk away from things and not be afraid, “Gee, I’m going to lose two million dollars.” I suppose one would be when Ridley Scott wanted me to adapt “Dune” as a film. I said to him, “Why make ‘Dune,’ we’ve already seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’” I loved the “Dune” movie, [but regret] I didn’t take a shot at it. That and the fact we never got the chance to make “Mefisto in Onyx.” Samuel Jackson was going to star in it, [but] as great an American actor as he is, he’s not who I wanted. I had written it for, oh God, this is terrible…he won the Academy Award for playing Idi Amin.

Forest Whitaker.

Forest Whitaker! I wrote that novella with Forest Whitaker in mind, and I…

Held out for Forest?

I held out for Forest and that didn’t happen, so that’s a regret. But other than that, man, I’ve got no beef comin’. If anybody has got no beef coming in this life, it’s me.

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