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Thursday
Jun282018

I have no tears and I must cry

When I was a sophomore in high school, Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison was banned from our campus library. So naturally I went to the public library, checked it out, and read it cover-to-cover. That book, in all its dark, twisted, brilliant complexity, made me want to be a writer. In part because it’s a fantastic collection of genre-destroying short stories. But also, because it was the first time I realized that books could cause people to absolutely lose their shit.

From that point on I began a decades-long quest to read everything that Harlan had ever written.

But along the way, what I savored most were his collections of personal essays, most of which had originally appeared in The Freep (LA Free Press) in the 70s. These pieces—ranging from politics, to the death of his parents, the girl who broke his heart again and again and again, to gonzo-journalism restaurant reviews—were funny, incendiary, and revealed a certain vulnerability. 

For me, these books were cathartic. I found myself hiding in bookstores until closing time, reading those essays when my world was on fire.

For a famously short man, Harlan was a larger than life figure who marched with Martin Luther King to Selma, Alabama, who hung out with the Rolling Stones, who was on Nixon's "subversives" list. He defended writers and manned the picket line when they went on strike. Ever the showman, he wrote more than 100 short stories in bookstore windows. The point was to write live—to let the audience see the work, word for word, line by line. The pages would be posted in the bookstore window as he created and audiences would patiently follow along.

So, when I was asked to write in front of a live audience for a fundraiser for the Seattle 7 Writers, called The Novel Live, I wrote Harlan and asked if I could borrow one of his tobacco pipes. Just a little something to take onstage as an homage—a little nod to the man himself. 

I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t quite expecting a phone call. 

"Jamie, this is Harlan..." 

We talked for 90 minutes. By that I mean, he talked, and I listened, rapt and spellbound. Oh, and he sent me a pipe and a bunch of other goodies.

Harlan also shared that he stole the idea of writing in front of a live audience from Georges Simenon, who, as a young writer, was purported to have written for 24 hours while sitting in a glass cage in Paris. (Harlan later met with France's Minister of Culture who broke the news that such an event had never occurred, but somehow the legend lived on).

Speaking of legends, when I had a modicum of success from my own books, I contacted Harlan again. This time I asked to buy his first typewriter, a 1938 Remington Noiseless Portable—forged in the fires of Mount Doom (it’s now my preciousssss). His mom bought it from a second-hand store in Painesville, Ohio, back when Harlan was just a lonely, angry, bullied, Jewish kid with an overactive imagination. 

I was invited to Ellison Wonderland for the first time—a place in LA that Harlan calls The Lost Aztec Temple on Mars. I spent a magical day there, learning from one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction (a term Harlan always loathed) and ate leftover tuna & noodle casserole, courtesy of his lovely wife, Susan.

On another visit he showed me his reading aerie and his favorite chair. He said, "Sit down and shut up." Then he read to me from one of his favorite books, The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosh. If you’re wondering if being read to by one of your literary idols is a magical feeling—it is.

But sadly, one of the last times I spoke with Harlan was when he called while I was at one of my daughter's volleyball games. I stepped outside for a moment and learned that the New York Times had called him. They wanted to send a writer to his home for a multi-day interview. Harlan had never received much love from the Times, so he was over the moon. Until he realized that after being ignored by the nation's foremost literary venue for much of his career, they wanted to send someone out to write what was essentially a canned obituary, a piece to have on-hand, something to run...today. 

He told them to shove it. That was so Harlan. And, now he's gone at 84.

I tell ya—I can't bear to look at the New York Times to see what they've cobbled together in Harlan's honor. But whatever it is, I assure you, it's not enough.

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