No! Repent! From! Harlan!

A fair review of Harlan Ellison's credentials would take more wordage than allowed for this entire interview. Rest assured he's only the world's most honored fantasist. A tiny sampling of the awards he's won: the Hugo (eight and a half times), Nebula (three times), Bram Stoker (three times), the Edgar (twice), and the Writers Guild of America Award (four times). Stanley Wiater recently discussed with Ellison the three latest of the 70-plus books he's published in a four-decade career: Slippage, "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman, and the Edgeworks series. Given his never-stop schedule, one question per book seemed appropriate. At the beginning of Slippage, your latest short story collection, you make the following declaration: "IT SHOULD BE NOTED: THE AUTHOR DOES NOT HAVE A COMPUTER. THE AUTHOR DOES NOT HAVE A MODEM. THE AUTHOR IS NOT ONLINE. THE AUTHOR WORKS ON A REAL, ACTUAL FINGER-DRIVEN MANUAL TYPEWRITER, NOT EVEN AN ELECTRIC ONE. THE AUTHOR IS NOT A LUDDITE, HE JUST PERCEIVES OF ALL THIS ELECTRONIC CRAP AS THE TWILIGHT OF THE WORD." Would you explain?

Harlan Ellison: Seems glowingly clear to me. But, okay, it's very simply this. I am not a Luddite. I have a photocopier in my house. I have a fax machine. I keep my telephone numbers in a little portable 64K Rolodex. I have a modern car that I drive, but I also have a 1947 Packard. I also listen to Glenn Miller--when I'm not listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bottom line: you should work at the level of technology that best does the job. Anything beyond that is nothing but toots and whistles guaranteed to do nothing more than put money in Bill Gates's pocket.

I have no need to work on a computer. I don't like working on a PC. I don't like having to "boot" something up; I don't like having to "format" something. I like being able to sit down, roll my paper into the platen, and begin boogeying! I'm Captain Nemo--I sit down at the pipe organ and I raise my hands and then I'm godlike and create "Toccata & Fugue in D Minor." I sit there and feel the crackling emergence of the art from my fingertips. I drink in the joy of being in direct sexual contact with the Muse. It's heady wine!

Listen: I work the way that best suits ME. I don't tell other people to work on typewriters; I don't go around proselytizing. But--the zombie pod-people who work on these machines come around and proselytize ME. As if I'm doing something [as a fellow writer] that demeans THEM, and makes THEM look bad. It's like when you're at a party, and you don't drink, and everybody else is completely bagged out of their mind, or vomiting on their shoes, and they keep trying to get YOU to drink. And you keep saying "No thank you. I don't want any." It's as if their paranoia drives them, by implication, to assume you're saying something negative about them. So they have to keep trying to make you one of their own.

It may not be magical [working on a typewriter], but it is unique. People say to me, "But the computer makes it easier." It shouldn't BE easier!! Art is not supposed to be "easier." Art is supposed to be harder. Commerce should be easy. Friendships should be easy. Good marriages should be easy. Driving a car should be easy. Getting laid should be easy. Art should be DIFFICULT. It's as Faulkner said when he was accepting the Nobel Prize: "It's the study of the human heart in conflict with itself, which is the only thing worth the blood and the anguish of writing." As the fabulous sportswriter Red Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

I like the feel, I like the actual FEEL of sitting there and doing the physical labor. I think that it's good for an artist to sweat! I think it's good for an artist to have to struggle a little bit. Sometimes things that make it easier are good, but most times things that make it easier are only short cuts.

I started saying this when writers started using laptops years ago, and everybody rushed to convert, because everybody wants to keep up with the Joneses, or in this field, the Bruce Sterlings. And I warned them. "You're going to find that frighteningly soon all we're going to have here are Star Wars and Star Trek novels, and you're going to find that the quality of work you want to do is not going to be coming out of you."

There are of course people who work on computers who do very, very well. Connie Willis, Jack McDevitt, Dan Simmons, people like that do very well. But I think, for the majority of writers who need to have a connection to their work...creating on a typewriter or a pen and pad while sitting in a comfortable armchair is a far cooler way to get the job done gloriously. But I don't put down anyone else's way of doing it; they want to work on a PC? Fine! Let 'em work on a PC! Let 'em chisel it in onyx on the side of a mountain! Let 'em skywrite it with a crop-dusting biplane, for all I give a s--t. Just stop busting my chops, and let me work the way that satisfies me. You've written almost two thousand short stories. Why was the story "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman," which was originally published more than thirty years ago, chosen as the subject of a deluxe, illustrated hardcover?

Ellison: What I'm about to say to you is absolutely true (as opposed to everything else I've said, which has been outright untruth). I wrote "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman" in six hours, sitting in the attic room of the Tom Quick Inn in Milford, Pike County, Pennsylvania, so I could submit it the next day to a Milford Writers Conference workshop. What you see in that book--now one of the ten most reprinted stories in the English language, up there with O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Hemingway's "The Killers" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"--that story is almost exactly unchanged from what came first draft out of the typewriter. If you were to look at the original manuscript (which I still have), and you compared it with that elegant Rick Berry-illustrated, Arnie Fenner-designed coffee-table book, you would find it exactly the same. Believe. It. Or. Not!

But when I sat down to write it, all I wanted to do was write this interesting and amusing little idea, to be able to submit it the next day to the assembled workshop. Well, Fred Pohl bought it, and it was published in Galaxy, and it then proceeded to win the first Nebula ever given for a short story. Then a Hugo. It was the first story ever to win a Hugo and a Nebula in the same category--in the same year. Believe. It. Or. Get Stuffed! You have a new series known collectively as Edgeworks, where you are well into reprinting no less than 31 titles in 20 dual volumes. What makes them any different or special from the original editions, other than availability?

Ellison: I'll answer in a roundabout manner. Bear with me, I know where I'm going. First of all, I am not a "science fiction" writer. At most, I might be called a "fantasist." I like just being called a "writer." For in my 43 years of career, I've written far more non-science fictional things than I have things which are even remotely in that genre. I've done two books of television criticism. I've done a rock novel. I've done novels and collections of short stories on juvenile delinquency. I've done noir gangster stories, and books of mystery stories. And a book of love stories. I've done books of film criticism, books of essays....

We do two volumes a year, four so far. Edgeworks 5, which will come out in May or June, is two books of television criticism that are being taught in over 200 hundred colleges and universities. Even years after these books went out of print! Now those essays, when White Wolf releases volume 5, you mark my word, they are going to rack them in the science fiction section...television criticism! And the lemmings will do a pod-people thing...bam! Right into the crazy robot and demented elf section! Agghhh!!

But seriously folks, these Edgeworks books are different, or are of consequence, for three or four different reasons. One, they're bringing back into print--in some cases after ten years, others up to twenty-five years--books of mine that have just not been available. The only way you could get them was in a paperback edition for which you'd pay [a rare book dealer] three or four hundred dollars...for some cheesy little twenty-five cent paperback.

Second thing is, they are terrific bargains. Look at the SIZE of those books; lift one, it'll give you a hernia! And what are they--twenty-one bucks for two titles? That's less than you'd pay for some brain-dead bestseller that you'll read once and bounce off the wall. These are editions that are intended to be kept forever. BEYOND forever. God reads 'em, you should, too!

Third, I've updated all the stories. I've corrected all the manuscripts, and made them into preferred texts. We're finding errors that slipped through dozens of previous editions; we never noticed them before. And because we're doing 31 titles in 20 volumes, I'm making sure that there are no duplications of stories throughout the series. I've replaced those duplicated stories with either brand-new stories never before published, or never before collected; or with work that has been published previously--but has never been reprinted.

And if that weren't enough reason to rush out and buy at least a dozen books immediately, I'm writing very long and complex introductionary essays, that run as much as five, six, seven thousand words for each book, each one more incendiary than the last. I'm doing my autobiography seriatim--in Latin that means sequentially. And in Latin, sequentially means Gwyneth Paltrow.

Not to mention that the books themselves are gorgeous to look upon, with artists Jill Bauman and John K. Snyder III alternating volumes. We put these bad boys together with great care. The books are as good as we can make them. I write these completely demented biographies for the back jackets on all of them, which has been a lot of fun. They're a complete package; a career statement. If anyone is interested in discovering my work, or in renewing their acquaintance with my work, the Edgeworks are the easiest, least painful way to jump on board. Or not.

Stanley Wiater is an award-winning journalist whose most recent book is Dark Thoughts: On Writing, Advice and Commentary from Fifty Masters of Fear and Suspense.

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