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Entries in Harlan (4)


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.


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?


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.


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.