So, Harlan Ellison Died, And…

Meeting with Readers

As most of you probably know, writer Harlan Ellison died last week.  This Wandering isn’t going to be about Harlan Ellison.  However, to talk about what I want to talk about, I need to tell you a story, so bear with me.

My first meeting with Harlan Ellison happened like this.  Roger Zelazny and I had gone to a party at World Fantasy Convention being hosted by friends of our agents, Kirby and Kay McCauley, who couldn’t be there themselves.  The party was not one of those back to back, belly to belly, things, but relatively small – probably a couple dozen people.

The room was set up with a long table around which a bunch of people were gathered talking.  There was also a sofa and a group of chairs arranged in a conversation group.  Roger and I came in and went to greet our hosts.  Then Roger grabbed a soft drink and slouched down on the couch to chat quietly.  By then, I’d recognized several of those at the table including some members of First Fandom, Julius Schwartz, and Harlan Ellison.

The conversation was about influential people in SF/F publishing, past and present.  I realized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear stories, so I knelt on the sofa, and turned around so I could both watch and listen.  Eventually, someone mentioned editor Cele Goldsmith, especially how many authors who would later go on to become prominent in the field had made one of their early sales to her.

A quiet young man who, like me, had just been soaking it all in, said softly, “She published Roger early, too.”  This was accompanied by a jerk of his head to where Roger had vanished into the sofa.  (The man could not sit up straight.)

Several people nodded agreement, but Harlan Ellison, whose back had been to the door, so he hadn’t seen Roger come in, said “Roger?  Roger who?” accompanying this with perfect mimicry of that jerk of the head.

The young man, his voice even softer, said, “Roger.  Roger Zelazny.”

With perfect showman’s timing, Roger unfolded himself and got to his feet, grinning.  Beaming in turn, Harlan Ellison jumped to his feet so fast his chair nearly went over.  He ran over to Roger, saying as he went, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to see a short fat man hug a tall thin one.”

Whereupon he gave Roger a bear hug and the party resumed.  That’s how I met Harlan Ellison.  In less than a minute, I saw both the acerbic, well, sort of a jerk, and the truly kind and genuine man about whose generosity of spirit I would hear tales for years to come.

But, as I said, this isn’t about Harlan Ellison.  It’s about meeting writers.  Imagine the impression Roger might have made if his presence hadn’t been noted.  Those who saw him enter but not join the general conversation might have thought him standoffish or obnoxious, when he was neither.  He was just a person who preferred to chat in small groups to large.

And me?  My reaction to Harlan Ellison stories would always be colored by that first encounter.   Because of that, I realized that both Harlan Ellisons – the jerk and the gentleman – were part of one complex human being.

Some writers are very easy to meet.  Some aren’t.

Unlike actors, writers aren’t trained to be someone personable.  Some writers are very good at putting on a show.  Often, if you look into their backgrounds, you’ll often find something that explains the skill.  They have acted.  Or – like David Weber – they had a job that taught them from an early age how to work with the public.  Some are simply more extroverted.  They write in shop windows or coffee houses, stimulated by the chatter around them.

That actor who cracks a joke with you while scribbling the signature you paid for probably won’t remember you five minutes later.  I will, or at least I will try.  If you become a regular, I’ll definitely try to learn about you.  Why?  Honestly, I prefer knowing people to impressing fans.

Impressing is hard.  As Steven R. Donaldson once commented while he and I and Walter Jon Williams were waiting to go on-stage for an  author event in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, the problem with author events is that most of the time, people don’t really want to meet you.  They want to meet your characters – and in some cases, they expect you to be your characters.

But I’m not Firekeeper or Blind Seer.  I don’t have a secret “identity character” who is “really me” hidden in my books.  (As, for example, James Joyce represented Steven Daedalus as “him” or Maud Hart Lovelace admitted that “Betsy” was based on her.)  I’m a writer who loves to write and enjoys sharing the stories.

When Harlan Ellison died, people started trotting out their favorite “Harlan stories.”  Many revealed the kindnesses he kept hidden because being perceived as “an angry young man” (even after he wasn’t very young) was very profitable for him.  It may even have protected the more vulnerable him.

I don’t have a persona.  I’m just me.  I write stories.  I try to be friendly, but I’m also, a human with opinions – some of which you might not agree with at all.  But at least I’ll remember that you are a person, too – not just a prop in my personal stage show.

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7 Responses to “So, Harlan Ellison Died, And…”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    I would think it would be tiring meeting people who either expected you to be like your characters or who wanted you to give them a “magic key” to becoming a published author.

    I’m thankful for all the writers that share their imaginations with us! I may be a fan of the characters, (Totally a Firekeeper and Blind Seer Fan!) but if I met an author, I’d thank them. (Thank you for sharing Firekeeper and Blind Seer with us!)

  2. Scot Noel Says:

    That’s a wonderful and insightful story. I probably feel that way because it matches my personal experience. Everyone has that level of complexity, and sometimes it takes a while to find the different sides of the one person, and sometimes it’s not worth it, and sometimes it really, really is. (I myself have been seen as smugly standoffish in that part of my life when I was actually paralyzed by overwhelming shyness.) So, I’ve grown to get past initial impressions and allow time and circumstance to prove the person out.

  3. Daniel M Says:

    A wonderful tale of the complex humanity of a real man and his impact, rather than a laundry list of accomplishments or a showy headline too often used to describe people.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. CBI Says:

    I think WW (or was it TT?) touched on the topic of authors and characters awhile back in a discussion of Heinlein. My current thoughts are that some authors have “identity characters”, but most don’t. Yet, most also have some of their identity–or at timesaspirations–inserted into parts of characters. From talking with authors, I suspect this is usually because that particular character has developed (as conceived by the author) ideas, feelings, or characteristics that parallel those of the author.

    This should not be a surprise: two different people in the world with similar experiences often have overlaps in these areas–which doesn’t make them alternate identities of each other! Additionally, I’m not sure how an author could avoid having characters informed by the author’s own experiences or own stereotypes/frames/narratives–albeit with a hefty dose of creative imagination thrown in. For example, Professor Isabella (BtD, CtO) is likely to have some of her opinions regarding teaching informed by the author’s experiences as a professor–it helps fill out her character–but she surely doesn’t appear to be an “identity character”. Does that make sense?

    Regarding actors, I think of William Shatner. I saw him in person back in the ’70s, and I realized then that he was a great actor, for his own personality and his role personality (Capt. James T. Kirk) were so different. (I think he stated that Kirk was someone he would very much like to be, but that he was not even close.) Over the years Shatner has shown that he realizes that many in his audience don’t realize that he is not Kirk-ish, and he became very adept at gently poking fun at the concept. OTOH, I’m told that the Roy Rogers of the TV show was basically the real-life Roy Rogers, so no doubt there are exceptions.

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