Harlan Ellison, Part One
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It's a mark of Harlan Ellison's personality that even at age 74, he still gets referred to as an enfant terrible. The phrase crops up over and over in reviews of Erik Nelson's Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a new biopic that examines Ellison's life story, from his days as a bullied kid in Painesville, Ohio to his early literary success and vast collection of writing awards to his current life in L.A., as an irascible curmudgeon still endlessly furious at the stupidity of the world. In the film, interviewees including Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, comics writer Peter David, and The Village Voice's Carol Cooper attempt to describe his notoriously prickly personality while communicating their respect for his talent and intelligence.
In this first half of an extensive two-part interview, Ellison reacts to the film, how it portrays him, and how it reflects or doesn't reflect his self-image. On Monday, the second half of the interview delves into Ellison's thoughts on his legacy, how his personality has overshadowed his work, and the best and worst encounters he's ever had with strangers.
The A.V. Club: What was your reaction to the film when you first saw it? Was it what you expected?
Harlan Ellison: This is the most frequently asked question since the film was made: "How do you react to the film?" It is a complex answer. [Laughs.] When you to talk to someone about whom a movie has been made, they always sound like a basketball player being asked, "Why didn't you win?" "Well, we have to bring our game, and we have to shoot better, and we have to pivot better." I was not aware of the film for a long while. It was Erik Nelson had started being interested in me, if that's the proper term, about 20 years ago. And he would show up at signings or at public appearances or lectures or whatever, and he always had either a cameraman with him, or something like that. And I was unaware of him as a serious filmmaker with credentials. I always thought this was just another, for want of a better term, fanboy, with some little obsessive home project, or a maybe a college student who was gonna do it for an audiovisual class. So I was not cognizant of the fact that a documentary was being made, and I'm not even sure Erik thought that he was going to be doing that when he started. But as the years went by and he became a familiar face to me, he would show up and I would say, "Hi, Erik," and he would have a cameraman with him. And he would always very politely ask, "Do you mind if we shoot some footage while you're signing, or while you're talking?" Or, "Could I ask you a couple of questions?" And I said, "Fine." It was no strain. But it was also very ingenuous, because I didn't know there was anything serious being done. So I was not on. Am I beginning to make any sense here?
AVC: So was there no point at which—
HE: Well, wait, wait, wait. Let me proceed. Because I'll answer the next question that I know you're gonna ask. At some point, Erik started coming over to the house. His studio, Creative Differences, is in the San Fernando Valley. And I became aware that he was a serious filmmaker. He'd made hundreds of hours of documentaries for The History Channel and for various other serious channels. And then I saw his credit [as producer] on Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, and I thought, "Whoa, this guy is serious." And at that point, Erik confided in me that in fact, he was doing a film. He had figured that there was enough material and that I was interesting enough for him to do it. And I kind of laughed, because I thought, "Well, the most that will ever happen with this is, at best, he may be able to sell it for a documentary on the Wannabe Channel or something."
And so I still tolerated it, and it didn't cross the horizon of my attention, really. Well, finally, about a year ago, maybe a little more, Erik came around and he said, "Listen, it's about time you knew, we've put together a film. We've put together this documentary. And we'd like to have some of your old tapes that we can cut in." And I said, "Fine." So I gave him a whole batch of stuff. I gave him a couple hundred hours worth of interviews with Tom Snyder, and doing Bill Maher, and on and on and on, all the way back. And when [Dreams With Sharp Teeth] finally got made, it was an epiphany. The trope I've been using, since I've been asked this question so many times—I'm like one of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, sitting on the beach of the Lost island, watching the tide come in and go out without realizing that there's a continent building up behind me.
Which is to say that I've been busy living my life, and I always have. And the film is very specific about me constantly saying, "I am responsible for myself. I am exactly who I eventually wanted myself to be, I guess, without consciously knowing what I wanted me to be." And when I look at the film, it's like an out-of-body experience. It puts me in mind of the scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom and Huck are supposedly drowned, and they sneak back into the loft of the church during the funeral for their drowned bodies, and they hear everybody saying all these wonderful things about them. And I get that same feeling, that it's not so much me as it is this funny weird old guy, Harlan Ellison. And I watch the movie and I laugh, 'cause it's a funny film, and I say, "That's a funny guy! I'd love to have lunch with him sometime." And then at some point, everybody starts applauding, and I stand up, and there's the connection made. But there's a great innocence of childhood or nature that I've managed to sustain in relation to this film, and the more kudos it gets, the more accolades it gets, the more important it seems to be—I mean, here we were playing Lincoln Center, for God's sake—the more I have to keep in check my feelings about it, because I know who I am, and I know I'm essentially a silly goop.
This is my self-image, and I've got examples of it all around the house. I love Jiminy Cricket. Jiminy Cricket is one of my great role models, 'cause he represents conscience, loyalty, courage, friendship, all the things that I think are valuable traits in people. And Zorro! In fact, they did a little sculpture of Jiminy Cricket as Zorro. And Zorro, when I was very, very, very young—and I mean before I was in my teens, so I've gotta have been about 9 or 10 years old. We lived in Painesville, Ohio, and my dad would send my mother to Florida on the train, for her health, you know, "You can get away for a couple of weeks." And my mom and I would travel on the train down to Miami Beach. Well, it was during World War II. And I became friends with the soldiers who were running the obstacle course on the beach. I would jump the stiles and crawl under and climb the rope, and they took me on as their funny little mascot. And one of them one day said to me, "You know, tonight they're showing a movie in the park. If you can come, come." And I said, "Ooh, yeah. I'd love that."
And my mother, of course, put her foot down and said, "You are not going any such place. You are going to bed." She was going out to play mahjongg, or whatever the hell it was. And she put me to bed in the hotel. And I, of course, was fully dressed under the covers. And we were on the third or fourth floor of the hotel. And there was a palm tree that was bent, and if I stood on the edge of the window, on the sill, I could jump and grab onto the tree. And I did. And I slid down three stories and ran off into the park, where they had hung a sheet between two palm trees. And there must have been 200 or 300 airmen and soldiers sitting there, and I saw, for the first time, Tyrone Power in The Mark Of Zorro. Now here I am, sitting among heroes, all these young men going off to war. And I was a big buff of airplane spotting, you know, I had all the cards with the silhouettes on them. And here I am, sitting in this magical venue, and watching someone use their skills for good—with great power comes great responsibility. And it made an enormous impression on me. And The Mark Of Zorro became another one of my touchstones.
All my life, I have tried to help people. I don't talk about it much, 'cause that kind of thing only leads to people sending you letters saying, [Adopts nasal voice.] "I understand that you will help out people in distress. I need money to raise marigolds." So I don't want that. I don't want mooches. But I perform six miracles before breakfast every day. And it's part of my responsibility as a member of the species, I guess. Which sounds so fucking pompous and noble when you put it into words—particularly when you put it into print, so I urge you to be careful about it—you sound like a goddamn fool. And it makes me nervous when I sound like a goddamn fool. I don't mind being a goddamn fool. [Laughs.] I just don't like sounding like a goddamn fool.
AVC: Do you think the disassociation between your self-image and the man you see in the film is because the film portrays you inaccurately in any way, or is it just like hearing a recording of your own voice, where it never sounds right to you?
HE: No, the film is dead on. [Laughs.] When the film was in one of its final stages of editing—it was originally something like 116 minutes, and Erik took it down to 96—Erik said to me, "Are there any things that bother you?" I had just corrected the punctuation and the accuracy of the Chyrons. I went over them all, because they had made a number of miniscule, niggling mistakes, you know, dropping a comma or adding an apostrophe. So he said, "Is there anything missing from the film? Is there anything you want? Is there anything you'd like?" And he was punctilious; Erik as a filmmaker is absolutely sedulous. For instance, my story "Repent, Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman"—academics had told me that it was one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I had always patted myself on the back about this and blustered about this, bloviating asshole that I am, from the lecture platform. And I had said it on camera, and Erik had it as one of the Chyrons, but he could not find the documentation of that. So I assume it's true, I'd like to assume it's true, I'm not gonna say it isn't true, but he could not find—he was like a fact-checker for The New Yorker—he just absolutely made sure that everything was dead real and verifiable.
So he came to me and he said, "Is there anything missing, or is there anything you'd like to change, or is there anything misrepresented?" And I said there were only two things that bothered me. One of them was that there were not enough women speaking in it, because at least half my friends are women, and I said, "There are not enough people of color." At one point in the film, Erik was filming while a bunch of friends and I were having dinner with my wife Susan at an Argentinean restaurant that's one of my favorites. And I'm sitting there stuffing my gob with black sausage and skirt steak, and the writer Steven Barnes, who is Afro-American, and his wife Tananarive Due, who is also at the table, they don't actually say anything. So I was troubled by that, and I was troubled by the scarcity of women.
And almost like a plum falling from a tree, the Village Voice cultural critic Carol Cooper, who way back in the day was one of my students at a writer's workshop—Carol had been following my career. She heard about this and volunteered to do an interview, without his even asking. So Erik sent a crew to New York, and Carol now becomes a major linchpin [of the film]. So apart from those two things, I said, "The only other thing that troubles me is that everyone is praising me." I mean, they all manage to say that I'm a pain in the ass, which is absolutely true. [Laughs.] They all say, "Oh, he's a wonderful guy, but oh, God, he's like a cold you can't get rid of." And I'll go along with that. If they think it's hard for them to be my friends, think how hard it is for me to be me! But I said, "You know, you've got all these people saying good things about me, and that doesn't seem balanced. You really oughta go and talk to some of my enemies." I said, "There are people out there that just fuckin' hate me! Most of them for some picayune irrational thing, but they hate me, and they have been lifelong enemies, and would be happy to see me planted, so they could piss on my grave." And Erik looked at me and he said, "Well, we don't really need to go find any of your enemies, Harlan, because you're your own worst enemy."
And the film definitely shows that. It is warts-and-all. I mean, it opens with my voiceover saying, "All right, are you done filming? Turn that fucking thing off me." And I go on from there. It's a very representational film. There is no glossing. It is not an apologia. I think it's a very accurate portrait.
AVC: There are several points in the film where people speak for you, essentially, where they try to explain you. One of the broader theories came from Carol Cooper—she said you identify with science-fiction fans, but you're frustrated by them not living up to their potential, which causes a lot of the friction you've had with them over the years. Do you think that's an accurate description of the relationship?
HE: Well, I suppose I agree with that, but with this proviso—it's not just science-fiction fans, it's the whole human race. As an outsider, I look on the human race as highly flawed. My feeling is that any species that can paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and write Moby Dick and put someone on the moon does not have to settle for McDonald's toadburgers, novels by Judith Krantz, and American Idol. I get very annoyed at the potential that is in everybody, and how little people will settle for, and how easily they are turned away from their true purposes that can enrich them, by the most transitory silliness! Whether it's Paris Hilton or KFC food! [Sighs, pauses.] It's a frustration, and it's one of my most serious flaws. And they touch on it pretty well in the movie, that it keeps me in a constant state of submerged rage. I don't want to get into that. The movie does that well enough. I don't have to get into it.
AVC: In the same way, Peter David says in the film that you'd stand by a lot of what you've said and done over the years, but he's sure you sometimes say, "My God, what was I thinking? Why did I do that?" Is that true? Do you have regrets?
HE: Oh absolutely. Listen, because of my Christ, talking about yourself is a bore. Um one's makeup, one's gestalt, is formed over a period of years of nature and nurture. Because I was on the road at 13 and supporting myself, and living off my wits, riding in boxcars—I was one of the young hobos, I was a gentleman of the road, sleeping under trestles and drinking gypsy coffee out of a tin can—these were things that I, as an adolescent, thought one had to do to be well-formed. And I had a great sense of rambling, and of my unity with the rest of existence, with the rest of the world. There was nothing yin-yang about it, there was nothing Eastern philosophy about it, it was just, I was one of those kids, like hundreds of thousands of kids, when I was—I mean, I'm gonna be 74 on Tuesday, for Christ's sake. I'm talking about my childhood in the '40s. And that was just after the Depression, and there was a lot of open road out there. There were a lot of Shangri-Las, a lot of undiscovered places. My idols were Tyrone Power as Zorro, and Errol Flynn as the Sea Hawk. So I did all of those things which would now be, I guess, unthinkable to most of these slacker-generation nitwits with the tattoos and the shaved heads and the earrings which they think make them look very tough and macho and hip. And I did the things that they would cringe at even thinking of doing.
So by the time I became of, say, college age, I had already lived several lifetimes. Like writers like Jack London and Jim Tully—these guys were my idols. They were out on the open road. Tully particularly, who is a writer almost totally forgotten today. And I made as many mistakes as anybody else. I sound as if I'm an egomaniac, and I suppose in some ways I'm filled with hubris because I know how good I am at certain things. But other things, I can't do at all. I can't draw. I have this great frustration in me, because I design all my own covers on my books usually—well not all, but most. And I can't draw what I see in my head. It frustrates me. I've been blessed to work with really fine artists like Leo and Diane Dillon, and Ken Steacy, and Don Ivan Punchatz, and Barkley Shaw—these are people who are able to take my ramblings, I'm able to describe in words what I want in designs, and a guy like Arnie Fenner, who's a great designer, Arnie will listen to what I say, and then bam! He'll make it happen.
So I sound off as if I was Mr. Know-It-All, but in truth, I'm just as flawed as anybody, and I make just as many mistakes. The one thing that has saved me—and if you're looking for the core of my being, as most interviewers are, it is summed up in a quote that I have right here over my typewriter. It's one of the many, but it's the one that I really, actually live by, and it is from Louis Pasteur. It says, "Chance favors the prepared mind." The smarter you are, the better-read you are, the more knowledgeable, the more questioning you are, the more skeptical you are, the better chance you have of not being manipulated, of not winding up somebody's tool. And you can see through bullshit. What Hemingway called a very accurate bullshit detector, it's what every good journalist needs. As S.J. Perelman said, "The muse is a tough buck." And all we have is language; that's the one tool that enables us to grasp hold of our lives and transcend our fate by understanding it. And the smarter you are, the more you know, the better things work out for you.
So every time I've made a really serious mistake—such as, say, my third marriage, which lasted 45 days and was a nightmare And I was duped! I was duped by a faster gun than I. You get to thinking how smart you are and how clever you are and how much you know, which is a mark of this current Y generation, or whatever the hell they are, whatever they're calling themselves at the moment. You think you know everything, you think you've been through it all, you think you've examined the territory. And there's always somebody who is slicker than you are, smarter than you are, and they want to manipulate you. And she was, and she did. But again, either chance favoring the prepared mind, or dumb luck on my part—I don't believe in dumb luck, or God, or any of these things that people blame. You know, "My mommy locked me up in the basement when I was a boy, and that's why I bite the heads off chickens now." I don't believe in any of that. You are responsible for the creature you have become. And I got out of that thing with a divorce, and it was a wonderful story to tell later. But at the time it was happening, it was nightmarish, it was something out of Lovecraft. But it worked out much to my advantage, as has everything, pretty much, that I've ever done wrong. And if it hasn't worked out to my advantage, at least it has provided me with story material in later years.
AVC: You say you don't believe in the whole "Daddy didn't love me, so I kill people" excuse for how childhood produces adults, but at the same time, the film creates a pretty direct through-line out of your life: child gets picked on for being small and Jewish, child gets angry and stays angry, child strikes back with words and refuses to take shit from anyone for the rest of his life. Do you see that kind of cause-and-effect in your life story?
HE: Well, I see that in the movie. And don't forget, the movie is a selection of hundreds of hours of me babbling on as I'm doing with you, selected by somebody else who is trying to make order out of chaos. So Erik may or may not have perceived the true thread. But whatever is the truth—and I'm not sure what the truth is—that's what he selected for the film. So yes, it looks that way if you watch the film. "Ah, yes. Only Jewish kid in town, Jewish kid gets beaten up by anti-Semites, a little kid so he's easily beaten up." I always fought back, but I always got beaten. "So then he gets angry and he stays angry and blah, blah, blah." That's the way you tell a story, but life is not a story. Life is messy. Things do not hold themselves together in 48 minutes the way a TV show does.
There's a What is it W.S. Merwin said? "The story of each stone leads back to a mountain." Which is a great quote, and it's as true for the film as it is for anything. If you take me, he said humbly, as the mountain, and you take it all the way back, the stone is Jack Wheeldon and his buddies beating the crap out of me on the playground at Lathrop grade school in Painesville. On the other hand, I went out on the road, and I hung out with people who society would have called desperate characters, or bums, or lost causes. These were men—and very, very occasionally women, but mostly men—who could have taken terrible advantage of me! I was a little kid, and green as grass, and they could have done that. But everybody was kind to me. Everybody was helpful to me. Everybody gave me their wisdom. You're riding in a boxcar, and a guy says, "Hey kid, don't dangle your legs out. When it hits the grade, that door's gonna slam shut and take your legs off at the knee." Well, Jesus Christ, who the hell ever thought of that? And I saw guys on the road with stumps, and I thought about that. If anything would damp the anger, it would be good grace visited on me by total strangers like that.
So if you take only the movie as the lodestone, then the line is straight and simple. But life is more complicated than that. I think it's—here, I'm gonna give you another quote. I'm always quoting people. I've got a head full of quotes. John Simon—I'm a great admirer of John Simon. He said, "One does not arrive at timelessness by discarding time and place any more than one achieves universality by generalizing the individuality of characters." Which is an amazingly wonderful thing to learn as a writer. It was also said to me by one of my early mentors, the writer Algis Budrys, and he said, "Characterization is not saying, 'He looked exactly like Cary Grant, except his ears were bigger.'" Which is funny on the face of it, but it's again, one of those wonderful, pungent touchstones, one of those linchpins, that if you're smart and you pay attention to, you wind up being able to write.