A Tough Day for Writers

It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.

I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.

Harlan Ellison has died.

I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His  writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.

“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”

In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.

I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.

In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.

A writer.

A Chance Encounter

In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.

I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.

A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)

I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.

“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”

Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.

Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”

Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.

Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”

This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.

I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”

A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”

There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.

“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”

There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.

We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”

“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”

And he was gone.

I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.


Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.

Rest in Peace

I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.

I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.

And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.

I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.

The Prodigal Returns

It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.

So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.

Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.

I’m back!

Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.

Louisa May Alcott – She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.

Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.

Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.

Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.

Ursula K. LeGuin – She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.

Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.

Kate Wilhelm – She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.

Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,

Isaac Asimov – As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.

Harlan Ellison – As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.

William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.

Thomas Hardy – I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.

Stephen King – He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.

Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.

Kurt Vonnegut – He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.

Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy

Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. 😉


Feet of Clay

A writer friend lamented over the weekend she had been devastated by something a writer she admired had said on a conference panel. The writer she’d gone to see is a well-known sci-fi/fantasy author of a popular series. (And it’s not George R. R. Martin; I omit the name because I’m not interested in being sued by someone with a gazillion dollars.)

Someone in the audience asked the panel if any of them had ever had the experience where a character took a story in a different direction from what the writer had planned. This well-known and beloved author apparently sneered and said words to the effect that characters in his books are fiction, and the idea that fictional characters “talk” to writers means the writer is nuts.

My writer friend was dismayed at the answer. It actually put her on quite the downer, then she added that she still liked his books and would continue to buy them.

My question is why? Why continue to support someone who is so contemptuous of his audience?

I suppose you can separate a person’s body of work from their personality. I mean, my favorite author is Harlan Ellison, for whom the appellation “curmudgeon” is an understatement. However, Ellison has never dissed his audience. In fact, nearly forty years ago, Ellison picked me from a crowd of fan-boys and -girls to give me some personal writing advice. He was charming and encouraging, and, though his over-sized ego was definitely present, he never once disdained any of my stupid questions. That was twenty minutes of my life I’ll never forget.

When Tom Clancy gave an interview many years ago where he proclaimed that anyone making under $100,000 a year simply couldn’t relate to him or he to them, I was astounded and dismayed. That was the key demographic who bought his books, who made him a rich man, who enabled his first wife to buy him a freaking tank for his birthday. This, from the former insurance salesman who let fame and fortune go far enough to his head that he appeared on Fox as a “terrorism expert.” I stopped buying his books.

The reality is, yes, characters in a novel are fiction, but they are real enough that you hear their voices in your head. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity. And, yes, characters sometimes insist that the story go in an unplanned direction. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity.

The other reality is successful writers are human beings with personality quirks, and sometimes some of them reach a point where they don’t feel they need to cater to their audience anymore. They don’t have to be nice and indulge a perfectly reasonable question from a fan.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look up to writers. As writers ourselves, successful writers are whom we aspire to be. Just accept that those successful and popular writers are human beings, too. Admire them, emulate them, but don’t idolize them. Spotting their feet of clay can be so earth-shattering.

How about you? Has a writer you’ve admired said or done something that has made you boycott their books?

National Short Story Month – Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”

We’ve probably had short stories in oral form since humans began to speak and told fanciful tales, but the “official” origins of the modern written short story are in the 19th Century when magazines could be printed rather cheaply. The short story in these publications became very popular and fueled the magazine industry from then until now. The magazines printing those early short stories weren’t technically literary magazines because they contained other, non-literary material. The 20th Century saw the rise of the literary magazine as we know it today, chock full of short stories, essays, poetry, and author interviews. But this isn’t National Essay Month (though I’m sure there is one), so throughout this month, I’ll blog about the short stories of particular interest to me.

There’ll be no specific order to the stories I’ll write about–no Top 10 lists–just ones that mean something to me. So, for me, the only logical starting place is Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog.” This story is from Ellison’s story collection, The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the Worldpublished in 1969.

Ellison is primarily a short story writer, mostly in the Science Fiction and speculative arena, where he’s won just about every award in that field and a few literary awards as well. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he would regularly go to a book store in Los Angeles, pick a first line from a collection submitted by patrons of the store, sit down, and begin to type. Each page, typos and all and with no editing, would be taped to the front window of the store. People would stop and read or go inside and watch the process. Ellison is known for being an egoist and an all around difficult person, volatile and vocal about fools he doesn’t suffer lightly, but I met him at the World Science Fiction Convention in the early 1970’s, and he was perfectly cordial to me. After spotting me, gawking as he “debated” with his good friend Isaac Asimov, he took me aside and spent a good half hour alone with me, talking about writing and encouraging me to “keep at it.” It’s something I’ll never forget.

I could pick any of his hundreds of short stories, but “A Boy and His Dog” was the one that gave me the biggest “kick in the gut” when I read it. It takes place in a post-nuclear war world where men and their dogs roam a desolate landscape scavenging for shelter, food, and women. Vic, the Boy in the title, travels with Blood, a dog who is telepathic, the result of a pre-war experiment. Blood’s talent is “sniffing” out females for Vic to rape. Vic is able to “score” more women because of Blood’s talent and their ability to communicate silently.

A pretty dark and horrific premise, but as with most of Ellison’s stories, there is a comeuppance. Blood leads Vic to Quilla June, whom Vic rescues from mutants called Screamers. When she shows Vic she’s willing to have sex with him, Vic is confused, and Quilla June tells him of a paradise where he can have all the willing women he wants. Quilla June has been send to the surface by her father to seduce men and bring them to the “downunder” for breeding purposes. Vic is eager to go with her, but a suspicious Blood tries to dissuade him from following Quilla June. However, Vic is, well, thinking with his lower head. Vic descends into Quilla June’s underground Utopia and leaves Blood alone topside.

Quilla June’s world is quirky and rather like the Amish on acid. Everyone wears mime makeup, dresses like a 1950’s farm town, and people who don’t conform get sent to the “farm,” a euphemism for execution. One of the reasons downunder women go topside to bring men back is that so many get sent to the farm for the merest of reasons. When Vic arrives, Quilla June and 34 other women are set to “marry” Vic, but to Vic’s surprise there is no sex. He’s, um, tied down and attached to a machine that extracts his sperm, and his “wives” will be artificially inseminated. The town’s odd moral code, however, doesn’t allow unwed mothers, so the women have to marry before being inseminated. Quilla June knows that once Vic’s sperm has produced 35 pregnancies, he’ll be sent to the farm. Because she hasn’t enjoyed her deception–and she’s basically rebelling against the tyrannical rule of her father–and because she now loves Vic, she breaks him out, and they head back to the surface.

Ever loyal, Blood has not strayed from the point where Vic went underground. When Vic and Quilla June find him, Blood is badly injured and starving, near death. Quilla June gently encourages Vic to leave Blood, but Vic realizes he has only survived in his post-apocalyptic world because of Blood’s wisdom. He’s faced with a choice–the love Quilla June has for him alone or the loyalty of his faithful dog, who first and foremost needs food.

At the end of the story Blood is feeling much, much better and is no longer hungry, and he and Vic resume their travels.

A grim ending and not for the light-hearted, but it is gripping. Ellison moves easily from the violent, gruff, raucous, rapacious world of the surface to the artificial, gentile, cultured, and deadly world of the downunder. The changes in language and writing style reflect each world. The reader is left to wonder which is the worse of the two worlds, and the decision isn’t easy. What looks inviting about the downunder is in some ways more of a nightmare than the devastated civilization above. We don’t even cringe at Vic’s choice, because he’s a child of that nuclear holocaust, which occurred when he was small. Survival is all he’s ever known, and he did whatever he needed to until he met the restraining guidance of Blood. It is Blood who is the hero in a story that shouldn’t have any.

If you read “A Boy and His Dog,” you’ll not only look twice at the wolf inside your house; you’ll also want to read more Ellison. He’s a curmudgeon, but he writes like a son of a bitch.