At MadCon, an ailing Harlan Ellison will say goodbye
Farewell to the fans
Josh Wimmer on Thursday 09/23/2010,
Ellison: 'The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying.'
Fans of fantastic fiction -- or just some of the finest damn writing to be put on paper -- take heed: If you've ever wanted to talk to Harlan Ellison, this weekend's MadCon 2010 is your last chance.
The 76-year-old writer, cultural critic and longtime den mother of the genre he'd prefer you didn't call "science fiction" is the guest of honor at the convention, happening Sept. 24-26 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Ellison is the winner of multiple Hugo, Nebula and Edgar awards and the author of such oftreprinted short stories as "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," as well as the mind behind the original screenplay for what many consider Star Trek's best episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever." Other scheduled notables at MadCon include writers Gene Wolfe, Peter David and Patrick Rothfuss, and Doctor Who's Sophie Aldred.
Due to his failing health, there had been some doubt about whether Ellison would show up in person or participate in panels, readings and other events by telephone from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. But at press time he affirmed he was coming. He is also adamant that MadCon will be the final convention he ever attends, in any fashion.
"The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying," says Ellison, by phone. "I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West -- I'm melting. I began to sense it back in January. By that time, I had agreed to do the convention. And I said, I can make it. I can make it.'"
Besides giving several talks and sitting on panels, Ellison has a book signing with David scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Frugal Muse's west-side location. His Sept. 26 event at the Barrymore Theatre is up in the air; check MadCon2010.com for updates.
The legendarily opinionated author says there is no question he will not answer. (Although he'd prefer not to hear the one about whether he threw a fan down an elevator shaft -- answer: he didn't -- again. "That will follow me to my grave," he mutters.) And he strongly encourages fans to attend.
"This is gonna be the biggest fucking science-fiction convention ever," Ellison says, "because no con has ever had a guest of honor drop dead while performing for the goddamn audience. The only comparison is the death of Patrick Troughton, at a Doctor Who convention. And I don't think he was even onstage."
Never one to hold back, Harlan Ellison shared his thoughts and feelings freely in a 90-minute conversation from his California home, the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars.
On how he knows he's dying
"An old dog senses when it's his time -- dogs have that capacity; nobody doubts that. Nobody. But everybody doubts when you say, 'I'm dying.' They think you're being a Victorian actress. They think you're doing Bernhardt."
"I'm not afraid of death, and there is not one iota of suicide in me. All I want to make sure is that when the paper comes out, it says, 'Harlan Ellison died in his sleep.' You're talking to, essentially, a pretty happy guy. No, not 'pretty' happy -- that's television talk. I am inordinately happy. I am wonderfully happy. I am Icarus-flying-to-the-sun happy. I have led a magical life. I have led exactly the life I would wish to lead. I have led the life I guess that everybody in their heart of hearts wants to lead."
On days gone by
"I loved writing. I loved the word. I loved movies, and we had no television when I was a kid, but I loved books, and I read book after book after book after book. Unlike many another writer who was educated and had college, I was on the road at age 13. Not because of anything bad with my family -- it was just, I had a wanderlust. I was like the great writer Jim Tully or Jack London. I stood there at age 10 in Paynesville, Ohio, and I said, 'This is all mine! All I gotta do is go and get it.' And so I started running away. After a while, my mother said, 'I'll pack you sandwiches. Would you like peanut butter-and-jelly?' Sometimes I'd get as far away as Kansas City and wind up working as carny and then wind up in jail, and get sent home. And I'd go back to school and I'd do very well, and then I'd run away again, and I'd run away to way up into Canada and work in a logging camp."
On current projects
"I just finished my last piece, which is an introduction to a book called The Discarded, based on the short story I wrote and then the teleplay I wrote with Josh Olson, the Academy Award nominee for The History of Violence, the film directed by Cronenberg. Josh and I wrote the script and then they did it on Masters of Science Fiction, and that'll be available for sale -- dun-unh, he said, hustling -- at the convention. Josh wrote a little introduction, and then I was going to write a little introduction. Well, I got into it in May, and it took me through August to finish it, and it's 15,000 words. It's the longest piece I've written in a long while, and it's called 'Riding the Rails in Atlantis.' And somehow, somehow or other, the book is all together. And The Discarded is going to be my last book."
On discovering his destiny
"When I was a little kid, and I was going to East High in Cleveland -- my dad had died in '49, and my mom and I were living there -- I cut school one morning and I went to, I think it was Halle Brothers, down in the public terminal, the Cleveland Terminal Tower. And John Steinbeck was on tour, and he was speaking. And I was this little bitty kid clutching my schoolbooks, and I couldn't get through the crowd -- it was deep. John Steinbeck was standing on a little riser, and I crawled through people's feet, and I got to, literally, the feet of John Steinbeck.
"And I listened to him, and then I turned and looked at the faces, and I said, 'Oh. Boy. Now I know what famous is. Now I know what it is to be a mensch.' Because there stood John Steinbeck, who was an ex-prizefighter -- I mean, he looked like a fire plug! He was a tough guy. He worked like I had worked! I had ridden on boxcars, worked on demolition teams, and driving truck, and crops, and all that shit. But I was a little skinny squirt of a thing.
"And it was an epiphany. If I had stood under the Sistine Chapel ceiling, if I had finally reached Petra, a crimson city half as old as time, as they said of it, I would not have been more impressed. And that set the first part of my destiny. I was on the road, and I was doing my job, and my job was to tell stories."
"I had withdrawn from conventions, not because I didn't like seeing my friends -- I did. But goddammit, man, when you're up in your 70s, you don't need to keep being trotted out like an old warhorse. Like, they trotted out Lionel Richie on America's Got Talent last night, and I felt sorry for him."
On being nominated for his second Grammy, for Best Spoken Word Album For Children, earlier this year
"I was up against Ed Asner, David Hyde Pierce, Nelson Mandela, another very, very fine reader and a guy named Buck Howdy. And if you're in the audience at MadCon, you can ask me, 'Who did you lose to?' And I'll say, 'Very short story, interesting story.' See, how I lost my first Grammy -- the first time I lost, I lost to Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud doing a Harold Pinter play, and people say, oh, yeah, boy, that's good. I lost! But I was on the royal robe with both feet, and I was dragged a bit by having lost to them.
"But with this one, people say, my god, you were up with Mandela? Who did you lose to? And I say, 'Uh, Buck Howdy.' And they go, 'What?!' [Mumbles.] 'Who? What?' 'Buck. Howdy.' They say, 'Who the fuck is Buck Howdy?'"
On his present appearance
"I weigh 154 now. I look like Gollum. I was great-looking when I was younger -- I was hot. All the pictures of me, they're very hot."
On his unfinished work
"My wife has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that. There's three quarters of a novel. No, these things are not to be finished by other writers, no matter how good they are. It could be Paul Di Filippo, who is just about the best writer in America, as far as I'm concerned. Or God forbid, James Patterson or Judith Krantz should get a hold of The Man Who Looked for Sweetness, which is sitting up on my desk, and try to finish it, anticipating what Ellison was thinking -- no! Goddammit. If Fred Pohl wants to finish all of C.M. Kornbluth's stories, that's his business. If somebody wants to take the unfinished Edgar Allan Poe story, which has now gone into the public domain, and write an ending that is not as good as Poe would have written, let 'em do whatever they want! But not with my shit, Jack. When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."