In a career spanning more than 40 years, Harlan Ellison has written or edited an awful lot of just about everything–73 books, a dozen-odd screenplays, countless television scripts, and treatments for dozens of different shows, a handful of graphic novels, a CD-ROM, a newspaper column, and over 1,700 short stories. He has won awards in almost every category: the Hugo for best science fiction eight and a half times; the Nebula from the professional writers cadre three times; the Edgar Allan Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America twice; the Horror Writers Association award three times, plus its Lifetime Achievement Award; the World Fantasy Convention's Lifetime Achievement award; and the Silver Pen for Journalism given by P.E.N., the international writer's union. He is the only man ever to win the Writers Guild of America award for Most Outstanding Teleplay four times. He has joined a Brooklyn street gang in order to write about juvenile delinquency. He has written award-winning stories while on display in bookstore windows from San Francisco to New York to London to Paris. He has been called one of America's great short-story writers. He has been called the 20th century Lewis Carroll. And, in the course of a career which, by any reasonable measure, has seen him become the most successful fantasist alive today, Ellison has managed to cultivate a strange double reputation–both as a champion of decency, truth, and human compassion, and as the world's longest practicing enfant terrible. Prior to one of his increasingly rare convention appearances, he spared The Onion a few minutes and gave us a piece of his mind.
The Onion: So, what have you been doing lately?
Harlan Ellison: [Laughs.] This is by you an interview question, right? Let's get a little more specific, since you and I both have a limited amount of life to live and I'd just as soon not turn this interview into a career. What am I supposed to say? That I'm working on a movie or working on a book? I'm always working on a movie or working on a book. What I'm doing lately… A month ago, I did nine days in Manchester, New Hampshire, 100-degree heat, mosquitoes the size of Stuka dive bombers, conducting a writer's workshop. First one I've done in about 12 years. I just got back from lecture gigs in London, England, and Atlanta, Georgia, where I did a live radio drama presentation, and signed about 265,000 autographs. I'm doing a script for The Outer Limits. I'm going up to Toronto in October to play a role on the syndicated series, Psi Factor. I optioned out about half a dozen other stories this week. It's the usual bullshit. That's just work. Is anyone going to be interested in reading about that? I wouldn't be. That's the silliness of late-night talk shows, where you have self-engrossed actors coming out to talk about how they're going to be in a revival of Under The Yum-Yum Tree at the Red Coach Grill in New Haven, Connecticut, next month; and this is supposed to pass for conversation in our time. I would rather we talked about… well, almost anything else.
O: Okay, then. As far as your writing goes, your Edgeworks collection of reprinted writing continues to come out. Have you been working on new things at all?
HE: Kiddo, I had two books published last year. I've had at least two books published every year for the past 20 years. What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven't read is a new book. What does it matter whether it's old? Yes, of course I'm still writing, but I'm 64 years old now, and I write more slowly, and I do a lot of other things, and my bones ache when I get the fuck out of bed in the morning, and I've got 73 books published, two of which were published last year. One of which came out just in November, and we're only halfway through the New Year. I don't understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new—and that's what's killing life for writers. This dementia for "new" is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number. I don't mean to get cranky about it, but it's something that weighs very heavily, not only on my mind but on the mind of everybody who works in this kind of medium. We're dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It's impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday. And they've been so bastardized as an audience that there are actually average citizens out there who think William Shatner writes those idiot novels with his byline on them. It's like going to take a look at the Top 40 list; there's no point in remembering the names of the people on there, because they weren't here last week and they ain't gonna be here next week. And if you try to be courant and say, "Who do we listen to at the moment? Should we listen to Celine Dion? Backstreet Boys? Anthrax? Who should we be listening to?" there'll always be some whey-faced youth who'll look at you and say, "They're old, man! The great new group is 'Edge'!" Next week, ask 'em about Edge and they'll say, "Edge who?" There is a loss of memory. When they start naming the 100 greatest performers of the century, for Christ's sake, and Edith Piaf is not on the goddamn list and Bob Dylan is, then you say, "Wait a minute, folks, there's something wrong here." They don't remember Bert Williams, they don't remember Al Jolson, they don't remember fuckin' Glenn Miller. They don't remember Stevie Ray Vaughan! And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, "Yeah, they're real old books—like five years old!" See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.
O: I'm sorry. But I'd like to hear more about the terrible—according to you—attention span of our society.
HE: Like I'm all alone in thinking this, right? The guy who runs one of my websites sent me a review that a very nice 18-year-old girl did of one of my books. She's a very nice kid—very smart, unlike most other 18-year olds, who are dumber than ditchposts. She had done a review to be put up on the website, and had a couple questions about several of the essays in the Harlan Ellison Hornbook. One of them is called "With Bloch And Bormann In Brazil." It was an anecdote about a time in 1967, or something like that, when I was down in Brazil with a film festival, and I was there in the company of Robert Bloch, the great fantasy writer. We saw a Nazi marching around in his apartment across the street with a swastika flag and a framed portrait of Hitler and all of that stuff. This was around the time when they didn't know if Martin Bormann, the escaped Nazi, was still alive and if he was in South America, or what was going on. So I wrote this piece. Well, she couldn't figure out what the hell was going on in this piece. So I called her, and she was a very nice young woman; we had a wonderful conversation and she was very embarrassed. She said, "I thought you would probably yell at me for being so stupid." I said, "You're not stupid at all! There's an enormous amount of things out there to know: Up until maybe 20 years ago, it was possible to have read pretty widely and know pretty much everything that was going on. What you didn't know when you'd see a reference to it, you could pretty much catch the resonance and hook it in to something so you would understand it. But now… what with the Internet, the greatest disseminator of bad data and bad information the universe has ever known… it's become impossible to trust any news from any source at all, because it's all filtered through this crazy yenta gossip line. It's impossible to know anything. So you're not a stupid person or an ignorant person—you just aren't aware of these certain things." The horror of being a writer today, and the reason why we are a dying breed, and why the entertainment dollar goes to things like Independence Day, and My Best Friend's Wedding and crap like that which goes through you like beets through a baby's backside, is that the audience has been so completely dumbed down by the media, by tabloid scumbags, by the Christian right, by politicians in general, the school, parents who are dumber than their parents were, who are dumber than their parents were, and all of whom think that they can bring up a child just because they got down in bed and had a little sex… When we see the amount of child abuse and neglect and stupid people leaving guns lying around… well, frankly, here is an audience that knows more and more about less and less as the years go by. As a writer, you suddenly have a horrendous epiphany: "Wait a minute, I can't say, in a story, 'He had the eyes of a guard at Buchenwald,' or 'He had the stoic manner of a Dachau survivor.' They don't remember the names Buchenwald and Dachau. They don't know about World War II or The Holocaust. They simply don't know the history of the human race! Whether they weren't taught them at school, or weren't curious enough to read about them in books, they are absolutely tabula fucking rasa. We are talking about a constituency—and I do a lot of college lecturing—that knows nothing. This is pandemic; terrifyingly, paralyzingly pandemic. They know absolutely nothing. Three months ago, I was doing an evening lecture at Cerro Coso College in Ridgecrest, California, and it was well-attended. The joint was jammed, maybe 2,000 people. (I draw good crowds wherever I go, I guess because they don't have that many live human beings coming to scream at them.) A guy in the audience raised his hand and said, "I saw you on Politically Incorrect and you got real mad at some black lady because of something about some film director." I said, "Yeah, it was [Elia] Kazan, and the subject was how he had been denied an award from a film critics' group because he had been a rat for the House Un-American Activities Committee." He said, "What?" I said, "HUAC! You know, HUAC?" And he said, "What?" So I had to spend half an hour explaining J. Parnell Thomas, and the Hollywood Ten, and "The Red Menace," and how High Noon was a protest film against the people who had ratted out others to the Committee, and how On The Waterfront was Kazan's apologia for being a narc, and also how that had nothing to do with the McCarthy hearings seven years later. And this guy wasn't an isolated case in that large gathering! They didn't know who Elia Kazan was, or what he had done that made him a pariah, or who Strom Thurmond is, or what a Hooverville was, or why we were fighting in Korea, or Wounded Knee, or… hell, they barely knew Nixon. They knew McCarthy's name, but not what it was he'd done. Someone asked if he hadn't done a good job ferreting out communists, and I said, "No! He never ferreted out anygoddambody! All he ever ferreted out was every bottle of booze in Congress!" So when you're dealing with people who know nothing, you find yourself suddenly turning into a fucking pedant instead of a storyteller. I have to educate them before I can use a trope or a reference. Now, people who are going to be reading this are going to be saying, "Gee, I know who Strom Thurmond is. I know about Kazan." Well, that's them! So tell me how many ignorant jamooks you have to work with, and deal with in the course of a day… You say this same kind of crazy rant yourself! The problem is that the intellectuals, the people who really do have some sort of education, the atavists and elitists like me who do read, don't understand that they are surrounded by people who are bone-stick-stone stupid. Every time we have some lunatic run amok and shoot someone, when we have kids in schoolyards blowing each other's asses off, everybody says, "What was the reason? What was the motivation?" There is no fucking motivation! The world is turning into a cesspool of imbeciles! The genetic pool has been so hideously polluted, and we have condoned all of it—every bit of stupidity from bad movies and cheap novels and shit fast food to rap music to pretending that the gun lobby is not an evil and insidious operation that serves the gunmakers… All of this crap is part of our inability to deal with the size of our own brains. We've got technological wonders around us and we've used them to abrogate all responsibility for everything in our lives. You call someone on the phone; you don't get anybody. There's voice mail: That way, no one ever has to return a phone call. If they don't like you, or if they're so filled with arrogance and hubris that they think they don't need to respond, they just don't return your calls. That sort of thing produces a level of frustration that in turn produces people who run around with guns and shoot the shit out of everybody because they're just fucking pissed off. They watch TV and see Leonardo DiCaprio being interviewed about fiscal responsibility and the International Monetary Fund, and no qualitative distinction is made by a Leno or a Letterman or a Larry King between an uninformed "celebrity" and some smart but tv-boring [Ellison insisted that "tv" be in lowercase. —ed.] authority. So we wind up with piss-ants like Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan and Falwell, who are so bloody damned meanspirited and Ugly Elitist that the noise-to-signal radio is overwhelming.
Look, kiddo, I don't know you. I have no idea how smart, how dumb, how educated, how ethical, how moral, how courageous you are. You're a telephone voice. You call me to interview me, and I'm supposed to be cute, so the readers won't say, "Jeezus, what a smartass mean fucker." But I don't know if you're as smart as I am. I like to think you're as smart as I am—I like to think everyone is. Probably a hell of a lot smarter, because I know how dumb I am, how much shit I don't know. So maybe what I'm saying is stuff that you yourself say, when you're sitting around with your pals at The Onion… do you look at each other and say, "Goddammit! The world is just filling up with more and more idiots! And the computer is giving them access to the world! They're spreading their stupidity! At least they were contained before—now they're on the loose everywhere!"? You get tired of hearing your own voice. And you know you're preaching to the choir, which doesn't mean anyone is listening. I wrote a story once called "Silent In Gehenna" in which a near-future student revolutionary is in an air duct trying to get out of an administration building in which he's just planted a bomb. Suddenly there's this golden glow, and he's captured by a machine that brings people to the future, and he finds himself in this golden cage suspended over a street, and coming down the street are these great grotesque alien creatures, Jabba The Hutt kind of things, on palanquins dragged by yoked teams of human beings. This guy, being a revolutionary, stands up there and screams at them, "Throw off your chains! Fight for your humanity! This is evil, evil! They mustn't use others as slaves!" They stop beneath them and beat their breasts and say, "God, yes, this is evil, evil. It's not a good thing." But then they roll on past and forget the whole thing. And he realizes, as all revolutionaries do, that you're just a fucking clown shouting at people who are agreeing, but not really listening. This is the most horrible way for him to end. He finds himself absolutely impotent.
O: Does that ever make you want to quit writing? I mean, if nobody's paying attention, why bother?
HE: People keep saying that books will never die out. Well, books may never die out, but hundreds of thousands of individual writers will, and for them, it's as if books did die out. When they go, they're gone. The publishing industry will never die out. That's the difference. And it's the distinction that's almost never made. The industry won't die out, but the individual… I make a decent living—Stephen King could buy and sell me a million times over, and he deserves it, he's a good guy, and that's fine—but I'm still more successful than most writers. I make a better-than-average living. I'm considered in the first percentile of moneymaking writers in the country. That's only because there's so little money to be made that being in the first percentile doesn't mean squat. Nonetheless, I have had to loan out vast amounts of money to my friends who are writers, because they're all starving. We've got about 85 grand out in loans, and we know we're never gonna see it again, but it's okay—you should never loan money unless you're prepared never to get it back. But I look around at my friends, at writers I admire and have admired for decades, and I see them fucking drowning! It's because they can't keep up with James Cameron and McDonald's and Nike and all this crap that is just draining the energy out of everybody. Boy, don'tcha just love a fragmented, hyperkinetic, bugfuck screed that makes no sense?! Gee, welcome to Jerry Springer World!
O: Well, one of the things you've railed against, and that as a writer you compete against, is television. But you mentioned that you're writing for Outer Limits. Now, you've had some, well, not very good experiences writing for tv.
HE: That's true.
O: But you still do it, even though you seem to loathe the medium.
HE: So what you're asking is, if I hate it so much, why do I do it? It's like people who complain about bad tv but still watch. Well… This is another one of those situations that's no-win. I stopped writing for commercial tv a lot of years ago. I went back in 1985—almost 10 years of doing only pilots and movies for television, and feature films—and I went back to work on The Twilight Zone. People would accuse me—in a less accusatory fashion than your question, but there's still an implied j'accuse there—"If you're always pissing and moaning about this, why do it?" Kiddo, you do it because first of all, it dominates the landscape. It is one of the most powerful forces that bestride the world today. You can't escape television. I did two books of tv criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, in which I said, "Hey, folks! This sucker is gonna steal your souls and you're gonna turn into morons!" Well, it's come to pass. In fact, that's the next one of the Edgeworks books. You can go back and read those books, and they'll fit perfectly with tv today: Just change Marcus Welby to ER and The Brady Bunch to Friends. People who are now television critics come into town on their junkets and come to visit me as if they're paying obeisance at the altar of some ancient god. They come in with a battered paperback copy of The Glass Teat in hand, and they say, "I grew up on this and it sits on the shelf in my office at The Miami Herald or The East Waukegan Blat or The Onion," and they want to meet me because I'm the oracle who can give them The Word. I absented myself from tv because I just couldn't take it any more. I just couldn't fucking take it. You watch enough tv, and very soon the inside of your head has become a vast, arid plain, across which you cannot detect the passage of a thought. But I went back to do Twilight Zone and people said, "Oh, man! You're back on television!" These mooks expect a nobility of me that they themselves do not possess! They sit with their thumb in their mouth and watch television seven and a half hours a day, and yet they have the temerity, the audacity, the gall to accuse me of being a hypocrite because I went back to earn a fucking living! Well, I didn't go back to work on television. I went back to work on The Twilight Zone! It was a different thing! That's like saying to somebody, "Would you like to take a ride on the Titanic? I got one ticket left on the Hindenburg. You wanna go? Hell, yes! I mean, you know the damned thing's going down! But who could say no? You can't pass it up! I wanted to be part of history. I wanted to work on a show like The Twilight Zone. So I went back to it. And I worked on the show for a year, and it was a terrific year; I had a wonderful time with wonderful people. And then I walked off the show because of the censors. They wouldn't let me do a show about racism that I wanted to do at Christmastime. I've written about that; it's in the new book Slippage. So I walked off the show, and the only people to notice were at Time magazine. I walked away from $4,000 a week and everyone said, "Nobody just walks away from $4,000 a week!" I said, "Just watch me," and I booked. But nobody who had accused me of being a hypocrite for going to work there noticed; nobody said, "By god [Ellison insisted that "god" be lowercase, too. —ed.], he still has his ethical moorings! He walked off the show the first time they wouldn't let him do what he wanted!" They pissed and moaned that I'd deserted the show, and oh, how that inconvenienced their asses. As if being a tv viewer gave them the right to express an uneducated opinion about my behavior! No. If you get set up as some sort of a whited sepulchre, which is what keeps happening, then invariably you will get little piss-ants who want to drag you down and prove that you're actually morally turpitudinous, and no better a piece of human offal than they are! Do the name Clinton strike a familiar note? I've developed as curmudgeonly a manner as it is possible to wear, and I wear it like a badge of honor. It keeps a lot of the more egregious fools away from me, and with the ones who try to get through, it provides me with a way of saying, "Piss off and leave me alone." I'm expected to be mean and rude. In fact, I am neither mean nor rude. I was brought up by my mommy and daddy in Painesville, Ohio, to be polite, and those who know me will tell you—they'd better tell you, or I'll hurt 'em—that I only go after someone when they go after me. I'm like a snake sleeping on a rock. I won't bother you unless you poke a stick at me.
O: That's the reputation you have, certainly; I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of this interview.
HE: And there was no reason to be. As you see, I am really very jocular, very pleasant, well-spoken, and sanguine. Anyway, if I had my druthers, I would not work in television at all; but again, it's a cultural medium from which most people derive their knowledge and education. For a writer today to stay in business, just to stay a writer, means that you have to have some kind of public profile. I've been doing this for a lot of years, and I've always been pilloried by writers who thought that it was an ivory-tower job: "You just write great things and everything will be fine." Well, that may have been the way it was in the days of Emerson and Thoreau, but unfortunately, we live in a time where if you wanna be read at all, you have to outshout Danielle Steel and John Grisham and Tom Clancy and Judith Krantz and South Park and Friends and Seinfeld and everything else that's grabbing for attention. That means you have to do a lot of stuff that, if you had your druthers, you would not do. Now, I'm writing a script for Outer Limits. You may say, "Okay, it's different 'cause it's cable." No, cable's the same damn thing. There's not much difference. But! My contract with them is very simple. Nobody touches the script but me. If they don't like it, I give 'em their money back and I take my script back. So, in effect, what I'm doing is writing on spec, which is a dangerous thing to do. My hubris is that I write well enough, and they like me well enough, and my name is well enough known to them, that they aren't gonna do that. They're gonna have input; everybody always has input, but these seem to be smart, educated guys, so I'm crossing my fingers. (I never understand the chutzpah of people who can't write a coherent story themselves, but who always need to give you their fucking input! I don't want your input! You wanna input something, write your own goddamn story, moron! One of the great quotes that I live by is from the French essayist Jules Renard, who said, "Writing is an occupation in which you must constantly prove you have talent to people who have none of their own.") You do what you have to do to make a living in the world these days, but there are things that I will not do. I did a commercial—I was the on-camera spokesperson for Geo cars when they first came out in California. People at lectures would point at me and say, "You did a commercial! Why did you do a commercial?" I did a commercial for the most environmentally responsible car in the country today! I was not a prison guard at Dachau! There's no amount of money in the world that could get me to do a commercial for McDonald's toadburgers. I just wouldn't do it. There are things that I wouldn't go anywhere near! I can't be bought! I can be rented, but I can't be bought, because at the final tick, right at the core, money doesn't mean much to me. My wife worries about money because she's a normal human being. I don't and I never have. Making money is the easiest thing in the world for me. I've been earning my own living since I was 13 years old, and if I couldn't do it as a writer I'd go back to bricklaying or driving truck. I never do anything for money. Money's what they give me when I do my job right. It's what they give you to keep your mouth shut so you don't blow the whistle. It's a way for them to buy you and put you in their pocket. So I never, ever do a job for money. I earn a living doing mostly what I want to do, anyhow. I think everybody should be able to do that; but of course, not everybody has that luxury. Fortunately, my wife Susan trusts me implicitly, and when I say, "No, I can't do this one, honey; it's a bum thing," she'll say fine, don't do it. I'm lucky. I've got a great marriage to an absolutely spectacular woman… after four shitty marriages, and hundreds of sexual liaisons over the years, always with women. I lead a very dull life, I don't use drugs, I don't drink, and as far as I know, I have never had anybody make a homosexual advance at me. I'm a very dull guy in that respect. I don't need to tie women up, I don't lie, I don't cheat. I just get in trouble every other way. See, there was no need to be nervous about interviewing me. Hell, kiddo, you're The Onion; I oughta be nervous about you. After all, an angry god's gonna strike both of us with a bolt of lightning, and we'll wind up side-by-side in hospital beds, silent and dumb as rutabagas, just for being such wiseasses.