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Entries in Harlan (3)

Saturday
Nov262011

Who are your heroes?

I stumbled upon a truism today that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s that you can learn a lot about someone by knowing who their heroes are.

The more I thought about it, the more these names kept popping up. Sure, I’m a fan of Shakespeare, and Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, or Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu, or just my older brother, Kirk, or my grandfather.

There are everyday heroes, in life, sports, or pop culture. But as a writer, for me, there’s these three. I guess they’re my literary heroes:

Harlan Ellison

To avoid the stress of my job and the struggles of my unhappy first marriage, I’d escape to a local bookstore that stayed open until midnight. While some guys drown their sorrows at the corner pub, I’d hit the bookstore and drank hot chocolate with mint, reading Harlan Ellison until they kicked me out. I’d discovered his seminal short fiction years earlier, but in my late 20s, I stumbled upon what I would argue is his best work, his non-fiction, his collections of essays (rantings, ramblings, spleen self-extractions—choose your own descriptor) that ran in the LA Free Press.

His voice, his rage, his humor, his…utter vulnerability, was unlike anything I’d ever read. These stories were unprocessed. Unvarnished. And as a young man I had struggled with my own inability to keep quiet—to fit in. Because of this, I found fellowship in Harlan’s writing.

Sure, when I finally spent time with Harlan, I told him it was his writing that made me want to become a writer, but truth-be-told, it was his honesty that made me take the blinders off my own life.

Sherman Alexie

The one comment that follows a lot of my book gigs is, “You were so funny!” 

I guess this is a surprise to many people because my writing (admittedly) is rather melancholic and also because most authors are expected to be as dry as a stale slice of unbuttered wheat toast—like an uninflected NPR announcer, droning on and on and on and on and on. Sadly, many are like that.

And I had the same reaction the first time I heard Sherman Alexie give a talk. He was so irreverent, and charming, and hysterically funny, it gave a whole new layer of authenticity to his writing—because I’m a firm believer that humor comes from emotional pain. Suddenly I saw the non-fiction roots of his made-up tales.

I’m funny. But Sherman is hilarious.

Pat Conroy

Conroy once said, “The greatest gift a writer can ever be given is an unhappy childhood.” If you’ve ever read The Great Santini, or My Losing Season, or The Prince of Tides, you’ll know that Pat was indeed a gifted child.

In my own case, I lost both of my parents in my early 30s—that alone was painful. But long before they passed, whether by sins of commission, or omission, they managed to leave cracks in my foundation that I still struggle with to this day. That Pat turned so many perceived weaknesses into strengths is a wonder to behold.

Okay, that’s me. Who are your heroes?

Monday
Oct242011

Tough love for sale

Need a critique? Want an unvarnished estimation of your storytelling prowess? Or are you just masochistic and looking for a verbal, cerebral, literary beat-down? Then you my friend are in luck, as Harlan Ellison is offering a story critique on eBay. Is Harlan bored? Does Harlan need the money? Perhaps, but that’s not why he’s doing it—this particular literary dustup is for a good cause. So in an era when Harlan isn’t suffering fools at Clarion West or even attending conventions anymore, you can have one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction attend to your work. Good luck, and happy bidding.

Wednesday
Apr062011

California daydreaming

Today is a great day. I feel as though I’ve just mainlined a Xanax-enriched triple-latte, while watching a tropical sunset atop my unicorn. That great. I just found out that Harlan Ellison, after a 60-year career, has made the NYT Bestseller List (#6) for the graphic novel, Phoenix Without Ashes. Plus, after years of trying to shed the label,  “Science Fiction Author” (Magical Realism is a better descriptor, but one that wasn't common in the 60s and 70s), Harlan will be inducted into the SF Hall Of Fame in June. Kudos, Harlan. Not a bad third act.

In other news, I’m typing this from Sonoma, the heart of California’s wine country, which unfortunately, I do not drink due to its deleritous effect on my blood sugar. When they’re able to ferment a Riesling using Splenda, let me know. I’m in town for events in Santa Rosa, Lodi, and then up to Woodland tomorrow.

But, I also flew into this neck of the Redwoods to interview one Jimmie Matsuda. Though Jimmie was born in the US, his family moved back to Japan in 1938, when he was 13 years old.  Four years later he was conscripted into the Japanese Navy and trained as a Tokkotai—a kamikaze pilot. Jimmie’s story is eerily similar to the character in my new book—so meeting Jimmie was a must. A tremendous thanks to Tom Ikeda, at Densho, for putting me in touch with him.

Oh, and for all the aspiring writers out there struggling with query letters, here’s my agent, Kristin Nelson, with a few helpful tips.