The Deal with the Devil: Talking with Harlan Ellison

It was a few months ago when I realised that episode 500 of StarShipSofa was bearing down the tracks. Five Oh Oh glorious episodes of our show. We needed to mark the occasion with a ground-breaking author and a ground-breaking story. But who? Not William Gibson, he was episode 400. Not George R. R. Martin, we had that privilege back in episode 389. Not Chiang, Sterling, Moorcock, Gaiman, Brin or any other of the masters of the genre we’ve already had on the show already. No. We needed someone special; someone so outlandishly awesome and popular and lauded to capstone our show.

The only answer: Harlan Ellison.

So we did.

Now, Ellison isn’t famous. He’s infamous. For many, many reasons, including but not limited to: getting fired from Disney on Day 1, suing half of Hollywood, sending 213 bricks (exact number) to a publisher and dead gopher postage due, multiple accusations of assault, broke a TV executive’s pelvis, pissing everyone he possibly can off and writing the darkest short story of all time. Punch his name into google and you’ll find a laundry list of him spewing vitriol about fans and fandom and Hollywood, roasting morons and delivering smackdowns and rants so insult-laden you’ll gag trying to repeat them. He’s his own lifelong parody.

But he’s also my bleeding hero. It’s my lifetime goal to become a slightly-less assholish, 50% less white, 100% less American version of Uncle Harlan Ellison.

So, naturally, I called him on the phone on a Friday night, his time, and asked to buy his story.

Again, everything that can possibly be said about Harlan Ellison has at one point likely been said. He’s been called (and called others) insults that don’t exist yet. His temper would make Satan piss himself.

But that wasn’t my experience with him. We’d had prior correspondence, (as a datapoint: I got in touch with his publisher, who gave me his address. I posted a letter asking to reprint his story. Two months later, I get an email with his phone number and an invitation to call). So he knew I was calling and what I was calling for. I’d expected to speak with an intern, assistant, his wife, anyone.

I was not expecting the man himself to answer the phone.

I gave my name, said I was looking to reprint “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” for StarShipSofa in audio. Ellison didn’t even pause, he launched straight into the thick of it. He told me he was totally cool with us doing it. He asked how we were planning to reprint the story in audio, (“cause it has two different endings, y’know?”). Admittedly, I had a brain breakdown as I’d forgotten that fact, but told Ellison that we’d record both and let the viewers decide (“we’ve never done split endings before, so it’d be cool to do it for our capstone show”) I vaguely remember saying.

“Huh.” Was all he grunted in response. I didn’t get called a moron or retard, so I assumed he was satisfied. “But there’s an issue with the contract,” he told me, and I could hear the (I assume) creak of his chair as he sat up. “The…uhh, obscenity clause. I dunno if some asshole is going to take offense at the word “I” and I don’t wanna be dragged out in court again. It’s happened before and I don’t want them digging up my body for the next two hundred years to put my bones on trial.”

Oh. That’s the Harlan Ellison everyone talks about, I thought. Up until then, he sounded like a docile older bloke, only one that uses the word “asshole” every second sentence. But no, now I knew I was speaking with a cult figure who trademarks his own name and gets a kick out of murdering dreams and telling Hollywood writers to get nuked until they glow.

So naturally, I responded with “assuming we get to two hundred years.”

And he chuckled. Not a big one, mind, nothing that’ll match GRRM’s mighty guffaw. But a laugh nonetheless. I don’t consider myself particularly masterful in the world of comedy, but if I can make the dude who got fired from Disney on day one for making Rule 34 jokes about cartoon porn laugh, then that’s all the validation I need.

The rest of the conversation went smoothly, mainly regarding more confident matters and technical details about the show. But near the end, Uncle Harlan gave his consent and the go-ahead for us to talk more about reprinting and playing his Nebula winning story, how we’d produce it, etc. Again, the man doesn’t miss a beat. Old age hasn’t made those gears rust one bit. And seeing how he was in a good mood, I opted to tell him that I’ve been reading him since I was eleven years old, I’m a fan and super stoked to be talking with him now.

“Heh, alright kiddo, thanks for letting me know,” was the friendly grunt of a response. By this point I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be chewed out or not, just so I could say it happened, but so far I’d probably lasted longer than a lot of others folks have. “You have a good evening,” he ended up saying.

“I’m calling from Australia, actually,” I said, thinking that I’d just contradicted Harlan Ellison.

“Ahh. Australia,” he drawled out. “I know that place. Too goddamn hot, but I love your koalas.”

Hand on heart, the author of I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream, said those exact words to me. I guess I should have said something witty, but I’m not that smart and we said our goodbyes and the convo ended there. And with me in one piece.

Getting a signature across the dotted line is one thing. But talking with a SF master, the god of short fiction, and one as notorious as Uncle Harlan? I’m still unsure if anything I do as an editor will top that. Now the story is up, the reviews and downloads are coming in, George Hrab’s phenomenal narration aced it; and it’s been a success. Cheers all ’round.

Of course, if Master Ellison doesn’t approve of what we did with his story, he has my phone number, name, email and home address. So the jury’s still out whether I’m going to going to get his opinion on our adaptation one way or another. But even if I do wake up to my lawn being on fire and my dog nailed to a tree, I’m sure it’d have been worth it.

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