Tag Archives: Harlan Ellison

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

Harlan Ellison : The Interview

Originally published in The Guardian.

When Damien Walter tweeted he’d ‘literally kill’ to interview the multiple award-winning author Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman replied ‘What if the person you had to kill was … Harlan Ellison?’ Here Ellison talks about running away from home, the rights and wrongs of paying to read books and how his job on this planet is annoying people.

DW: Harlan, first of all, can you confirm that you are indeed the great Harlan Ellison?

HE: For all my sins – and I assure you, the only thing that has ever held me back from God-like greatness is my humility – I am the Harlan Ellison, the only one. I’m in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, right between Ellis Island and Ralph Ellison.

DW: Are you the writer of over 1,000 stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays and essays?

HE: Yeah, it’s probably more like 1,800 now. I find that I have continued to write. I had 10 books last year, and that at my age I think is pretty good. While I always aspired to be Alexandre Dumas, if I reach the level of – I don’t know, Donald Westlake – I’ll be more than happy.

DW: You must have seen and done as much in speculative fiction as anyone, so can you tell us just what is speculative fiction?

HE: I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of “what if?”. You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy – and you say, “Well, what if?”. That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.

DW: So it’s definitely not fantasy.

HE: Fantasy is a separate genre, and it allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature. It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour. Science fiction is a contemporary subset that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

DW: It seems to be everywhere, with video games, massive movie franchises and millions of people going to conventions. So why is it so popular now?

HE: Well, we live in a technological age. Time has passed, and we have stepped over the ruins of our own societies, and our own civilisations, and we come now to the fruition of those things about which the human race has dreamed. We have flight and we have electronic assistants. The entertainment media – which are always very timorous and step very carefully out of fear and loathing – don’t know what they’re doing so much. So they go back, and they are catching up on the kind of science fiction – and they call it, in that ugly, ugly phrase, “sci-fi,” which those who have worked in speculative fiction despise, it’s like calling a woman a “broad” – they are catching up on ideas that were covered with hoarfrost 60 years ago. That’s why you have an overabundance of zombies and walking dead, and world war and asteroids from space. They have not yet tackled any of the truly interesting discussions of humanity that are treated in speculative fiction. But they are a break from standard 19th, early 20th-century fiction, and so they seem fresh to an audience that is essentially ignorant.

DW: You famously described sci-fi fandom as an “extended family of wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.” But don’t the geeks kind of run the world now?

HE: I am a steadfastly 20th-century guy. I’ve always been pathologically au courant. Even today I can tell you the length of Justin Bieber’s hair. But it has now reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form, that it is beyond my notice. I look at things like Twitter and Facebook, and “reality TV” – which is one of the great frauds of our time, an oxymoron like “giant shrimp” – and I look at it all, and I say, these people do not really know what the good life is. I look at the parched lives that so many people live, the desperation that underlies their every action, and I say, this has all been brought about by the electronic media. And I do not envy them. I do not wish to partake of it, and I am steadfastly in the 20th century. I do not own a handheld device. Mine is an old dial-up laptop computer, which I barely can use – barely. I still write on a manual typewriter. Not even an electronic typewriter, but a manual. My books keep coming out. I have over 100 books published now, and I’ve reached as close to posterity as a poor broken vessel such as I am entitled to reach.

DW: I think I know what you’re going to say as the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. Because a lot of writers today – and I’m thinking of people like Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman, who set up this interview for us – say that they can give their work away for free, and they can still sell it. Do you think there’s any chance that they’re right?

HE: I think without question they are wrong. I don’t know that Neil has ever said that. I think I’ve known Neil so many years, that I think I’ve whipped him, flayed him, and browbeaten him enough that he knows that he gives nothing away for nothing. But he has a kind heart, and so people can touch him, and they will ask him to do something for nothing because, “Well, we don’t have the money.” They have the money to buy drugs, they have money to go to the movies, they have money to buy themselves new shoes, but they don’t have the money to pay the writer. Cory Doctorow’s philosophy I find egregious. Egregious in the extreme. Stephen King tried to give things away for free on the web, and was screwed. I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.

DW: [Laughter] What I wanted to talk to you about – and it was kind of the reason for the interview, the starting point – was All The Lies That Are My Life.

HE: Ah, All The Lies That Are My Life. One of my great apologias for being the idiot I am. It was based upon – well, there are two legs upon which it stands. One of them is the relationship that I have had with another writer all my life, who was at one time a very, very close friend of mine, who I discovered later was less a good friend than I had thought, and who had held me in some contempt. And then the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Griswold, who became his bibliographer after he died, and kept Poe a minor figure in literature for over a hundred years. This was a sort of getting even story where a famous writer talks about another famous writer he knew.

DW: You’ve said that writing is the hardest work of all, harder than being a truck driver. Harder than being in the army?

HE: Well, being in the army is like being in prison. You are not your own person. You are constrained 24/7. You are told what to do. They keep you in your place. You are not allowed to have an awful lot of self-respect, or pride of place, or pride of self. And I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been in hospitals, and I’ve been in the army. They constrict me. They’re a straitjacket. I am a mad thing, and wildness asserts itself. I’m like your average dopey teenager, who lies down in the middle of traffic just to see what it feels like to have a car run over you. I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m less than a month shy of the age 79. By all rights – I ran away from home when I was 13, not because I was being abused, just because I couldn’t stand it any more, and I had to get out on my own. I was on the road at age 13, and I should have bought the farm at age 14, duelling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, and instead I have lived to this ripe old age.

DW: OK then, I want to ask you a question about one of the stories that seems to haunt people the most, Demon with a Glass Hand.

HE: That’s just been picked up again to be remade as a movie, as a motion picture. But it’s remarkable that something that’s more than 30 years old has had this kind of life. People say, “Well, Ellison is always suing everybody.” Well, I never sue anybody unless they pick up one of my ideas from 40 years ago and do a bad job of it in a movie. Then I say, “Well, if you used me as the source, by God get your hand out of my pocket. Pay me.” I’ve won every lawsuit that I’ve ever gotten into, except last year, there was a movie came out that was pretty close to my famous story ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, the one that’s one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I started to sue, and then I went and saw the movie, and it was so bad – so bad – I withdrew the case saying, no, let this movie fall into complete obscurity, and the universe forget it, and don’t attach my name to it, the way they did The Terminator, which is a good film.

DW: In many of your stories there is the oppressor or the bully, who wants to have their way with humanity, with whoever is in the story. The worst of these, I think for me, is I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, which is a story of –

HE: Oh, yes, God. God is a shit.

DW: Yeah. It’s a story you wrote in a single night. I read it in my teens in a hallucinatory state over the course of a single night. Is there something about – you have to be in this state to find that oppressive being out there? You have to find it in the night?

HE: Well, I wrote another story – I’m not steering away from the question, I’m answering it in an ancillary way, but I’ll get right back to it – I wrote a whole book of stories called Deathbird Stories, which are retellings in a modern way of the godlike myths. And one of the short stories that I did, that is in the Best American Short Stories, is called The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore, and it is in a way my atheist tract. I’m a stiff-necked Jewish atheist, and I, like Mark Twain, do not believe that there is a great bearded avuncular spirit up there watching us carefully to see whether we masturbate or not. He’s got better things to do creating star systems than to worry about whether we do Feng Shui with the furniture.

When I talk about God, I talk about him not believing in him. If there were a God, and you believed in him, and then instead of saying something ridiculous like, well, God has these mysterious ways, we are not meant to know what it is he’s doing, or she’s doing, or it’s doing, I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps – God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win £200m in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer. So when I wrote I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I put God in the form of a master computer, AM – cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am – and had him preserve these half a dozen human beings, after having destroyed the world, to keep them down there and torment them forever, for having created him but giving him no place to go. And I believe – much to the annoyance of my various fervid aficionados – they wish I had more faith.

I say, I have faith in the human spirit, that something noble enough to have created Gaudí’s cathedral in Barcelona is noble enough not to have to go to war over sheep in the Falklands. That’s what I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream says. In fact I did a video game called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could “win” was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too.

[Laughter]

HE: I spend a lot of time annoying people. That’s my job on this planet.

DW: That’s a good job to have. You’ve always been a political writer and politically active as well. You famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

HE: Yup.

DW: Why don’t speculative fiction writers today cause more trouble?

HE: Ah, kiddo, I wish I could give you an answer. I sigh woefully, [sighs], because that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.

DW: When you were starting out, and you’d run away from home, and then you were in the army for a short while, and you were writing through the night to get all of this stuff done, did you expect, did you dream, of becoming as famous and as successful as you have as a writer?

HE: Absolutely. At one point in my career – I don’t think I was married at the time. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and God knows how she’s been able to stand it. But she’s my fifth wife. At one point I had a T-shirt that said, “Not tonight dear, I’m on a deadline.” And you stop and think how many movies you didn’t go and see, how many parties you didn’t attend, how many concerts you didn’t get to hear, because you were working. And I’ve worked endlessly through my entire life. I’ve never been a sluggard, and yet I’ve never felt that I’ve done one twentieth of what I was capable of doing.
And when I stopped at some point – and I’ve done this on numerous occasions – and said, “Why? Why am I doing it?” I am reminded of the quote from Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.” And it is a compulsion. It’s like breathing. It’s systole and diastole. I just go in and out, and I do it. I do it because it is part of what I do. But the reason I do it is because I want it to last. I live in vain hope that one day, 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, when taking down Dumas, or Chaucer, or Colette, or somebody really worth reading, they say, oh, let’s try another Ellison, and they take down Angry Candy or All the Lies That Are My Life, and they say, he did know how to write. He knew how to put words together. He knew how to transform the human condition into translatable prose that could draw a smile or a tear. And that’s hoping for fame. That’s hoping for longevity. That’s hoping for reality. It’s the same thing that drove Magellan and drove Julius Caesar and drove Imhotep. It’s the hoping that you last beyond the shell.

DW: Harlan, I have no doubt that you will. No doubt.

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

• Harlan Ellison’s graphic novel 7 Against Chaos launches from DC in July. Volumes three and four of his unproduced television scripts, Brain Movies, are available at harlanbooks.com

• No one was killed in the making of this interview

Live-writing challenges the writerly ego…which is a very good thing

The rules were simple. Keep to the scheduled study hours, always wash your mug, and under no circumstances touch the coltan. So far Aidan had kept a clean sheet on all counts. Now he was planning to commit the only serious possible infraction. And that did not mean coffee rings on work surfaces.

Aidan’s Rock

Which is the first paragraph of my short story Aidan’s Rock, live-written on a Google document in response to prompts from friends on Twitter. You can read the full finished draft here. Writing a story with up to fifty observers not just looking over your shoulder, but directly at the words appearing on the page, definitely added something to writing this story. But what?

The Guardian pick up on live-writing here in response to a fantasy writer producing her novel live, also on a Google document. There’s certainly a potential car crash element to the live-writing experience, which writing an entire epic fantasy in the form might be playing to. Like the conversation around self-publishing, a lot of the conversation about live-writing is likely to be ‘look at how naff this is!’

Which, being a slightly perverse individual, is part of why I like it. Writers like to spin a myth around their work. They all want you to believe they are the authors of Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Genius. It’s part of the writerly sales schtick. And who can blame us? Writing is a tough profession. Cultivating the appearance of being just that bit clever than the common mortal is how you make it pay. But that doesn’t stop it being bollocks. I quite like the idea that someone looks at my half formed prose and thinks ‘hey this guy’s just an average schmo like me!’, because I am. So are you. So are all those other people. The only difference is that writers do the work of writing, and getting good at writing.

And yeah, I’m a bit of a show off and like attention. That’s the other reason.

That’s why Harlan Ellison made a habit of climbing in to bookstore windows and banging out a story. Because it was good publicity and he was a show-off, and because it showed people writers were mortal and what they did was write, and that writing was not and is not some higher thing. Its just writing. But it only happens because of hard work. So let’s show the writer working, faults and all.

All hail the New Pulp

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

Read more @ Guardian Books

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Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!