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Rendering unto Caesar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with Harlan Ellison, the man whose work made me want to be a writer. And his dear wife Susan, bad ankle, crutches and all. (Your tuna & noodle casserole was dee-lish—thank you).

I first discovered Harlan’s work in the library of Marcus Whitman Junior High—before his books were removed at the behest of some nagging parent. Undoubtedly the same parent who had my friends and I kicked out for playing Dungeons & Dragons after school—we were accused of “worshipping the devil.” Because we all know that’s where most kids worship the devil, in the library, right next to the Encyclopedia Satanica.

And a decade later, when I mainlined Harlan’s non-fiction, particularly The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, a compilation of columns from the LA Free Press, I finally understood what a “man of letters” is all about. His willingness to bleed onto the page made an impression. And still does.

So last year, when I was asked to participate in a live writing project, I wrote to Harlan—who is famous (and infamous) for writing 50 stories in front of living, breathing audiences, or at least morbidly curious, mouth-breathing onlookers. I asked if I could borrow one of his pipes to take on stage—a bit of an homage, if you will.

And lo’ and behold, Unca Harlan called. Not only did he call, we talked for nearly two hours. He dished sage advice from a writer with plenty of scars (a few self-inflicted), obtained through a 50-year career in the trenches. And yes, he sent me the pipe.

So…when I heard that Harlan was selling his first typewriter, I was curious. As was the Wall Street Journal who asked, “Would you pay $40,000 for an antique typewriter?”

There was a lot of hubbub—especially with Cormac McCarthy selling his for a staggering $220,000. (Which, as I understand it, was actually purchased by a collective of buyers, who then donated it to charity for the tax-breaks. Not exactly like buying a Picasso, but still, a princely sum).

But with the urging of that Oracle of Delphi, known as my wife, I decided to buy the darn thing. No, I didn’t pay anywhere near $40,000. Let’s just say I paid somewhere between my first-born and a pack of Chicklets. Besides, in the end I got the impression from Harlan that it was more important whom he sold it to, rather than how much.  

Now the question is, what does one do with said typewriter? Do I send it back to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle where it’d been on display for a number of years? Do I donate it to charity? Do I lock myself in a shed and bang out my manifesto?

Well...I have another idea.

The plan is to create a "Harlan in Residence" scholarship at one of the many writing programs he’s been a part of over the years. The location and awarding process will be figured out later—but as an ode to Harlan, one can expect the normal application requirements: Must have read The Essential Ellison, be able to quote Jorge Luis Borges, willing to spend the night naked in the crematory of a haunted sanitarium—MFA’s need not apply. The usual…

Ideally, the typewriter itself would be part of the residency, given to that year’s recipient. They wouldn't have to write on it, but would be asked to type a little something, leaving it in the typewriter for next year’s recipient.

Passed on, like the President’s Book of Secrets, but real.

And with more swearing.

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Reader Comments (5)

That is so cool. I can truly imagine how much fun it would be to hang out with the man who inspired you to write. And what you're doing with his typewriter is also an amazing thing, since it will very likely spur future writers as well. Nicely done, Jamie.
January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEric Stallsworth
Great idea! Plus, this means you may still want the brand new manual typewriter I have collecting dust in my garage. Sweet!
January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColleen
Yes, and then I'm going to sell it as "Jamie Ford's first-cousin's typewriter".
February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie
I'll let you keep all the proceeds you make from that massive revenue generator!
February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterColleen
I just purchased Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet for my Nook after reading only a few pages of the sample selection that the Nook allows you to read. I cannot wait to delve into it further.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKylee

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