Harlan Ellison


A report on the 2006 Nebula Awards weekend.

[Thanks to my buddy, Kenton Sem for the title inspiration]

Now that was fun. I can hardly wait to do that again this weekend. You mean we’re not all converging on a great hotel and eating and drinking and telling tall tales and giving lifetime achievement awards out next week as well? But it was fun! What’s that? Back to the basement? Shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keyboard? Ok, if you say so – but a bit more of that sort of weekend sure as hell couldn’t hurt.

 

I did pay for it Monday going into Tuesday. Slept about 12 straight hours, which is a record for at least the last 10 years in my book. My sleep “schedule” went like this.

 

My sleep schedule was;
Wed. – 3 hours
Thur. – 3 hours
Fri. – 2.5 hours
Sat. – 3.5 hours
Sun. – 2 hours

That's 14 hours of sleep in a 132 hour window for people playing at home.

 

Thursday was pretty laid back. Got in, picked up a PT Cruiser so folks would have options and 4 doors and I would have some headroom for a change. Nice car but no pick-up whatsoever. Found the Palms and eventually hooked up with Doug, Ben and Amy. We compared dueling scars, told some lies and then proceeded to find how many bars, bookstores and ice cream stands were within walking distance. Having accomplished that mission without flight suits (space suits would have been required in August) we had dinner and registered. The program book was just “ok”, but they make it up to you with a Lisa Snellings book bag and a British long ton of free book swag that is your problem once they hand it off to you.

 

Registration was also where I hooked up with Scott V. Norris, Bill G., Shane Shellenbarger, Jon Monzo and the family Richmond. After poking heads into the reception we all ambled out and took over a nice outdoor corner table at a nearby restaurant and told more lies and speculated about what the Nebs might hold in store. Then everybody but me got jet lag and trundled off to bed. I walked across the street to a place called THE LIBRARY which was actually a college party bar flying some very false colors. Turns out they actually did have a bookcase and a few couches but this was not the library of Professor Henry Higgins by a long shot. The cover band was called METALHEAD and they had some decent drafts and $3.00 shots so I figured what the hell. I had already seen the bowl of M&M’s in the con suite. This looked like more fun than that and in a sick and mindless way it was. It’s not as though Def Lepperd, Poison, Motley Crue or Guns & Roses are in rotation in my car stereo but I do know the words. Much better than arguing about upcoming summer movies over a bowl of Fritos with a guy wearing Federation insignia. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

Friday morning was THREE leisurely breakfasts with everybody mentioned above plus Harlan and Susan. By 10:15AM the Excedrin had finally started to work and by 11AM I’d been passed so many “just this one bite” of peoples buffet leftovers I was feeling like ZIM on a human organ engorgement feeding frenzy. Uurp. Then it was back to my hotel for a change of clothes and some swim trunks and then back to the Palms where Tim and I lifted weights for an hour, did some cardio and then did 15 laps in the pool. At least that’s how I remember it. Tim and I did re-create a poolside shot similar to an old photo of Harlan and Poul Anderson. Relative heights were similar but we’re both about 25% heavier. Sad, but true. To his credit, I did see Doug Lane in workout gear at least once so someone used all that nice equipment properly.

 

Late Friday afternoon was AN HOUR WITH HARLAN ELLISON. This was the fairly typical scorched earth, take no prisoners, “shut up kiddo, I’m workin’ a single” type gig. No children were terrorized or puppies held at gunpoint. A good time was had by all. One highlight was a great shaggy dog story about a man with a very strange affliction. You had to be there. There are videos. In fact I would venture to guess that there were at least two professional rigs shooting everything Harlan did except meals and trips to the bathroom.

 

This was followed by the Friday Group Signing, which was a relatively low key affair unless you happened to be poor Harlan, in which case they all come out of the woodwork and up from the floorboards with armloads and shopping bags and pallets of books to be signed – while occasionally asking Susan when the finger bones and other holy relics might become available. But then again, it wouldn’t really be a full on Harlan weekend event without a line being [of necessity] cut off and placeholder numbers being assigned to the sullen and unwilling while looking like new arrivals in The Village all asking “if I am number six than who is number one?” I said hello to Joe Haldeman and Connie Willis and continued a conversation I’d been having with William F. Nolan instead. In fact at one point I was the only person at both of their tables and was deeply conflicted about which anecdote I should have been paying more attention to. One of the funnier things said last weekend was when someone characterized Connie Willis as “unapproachable.” Hah! William F. Nolan had a great story about his father racing with Barney Oldfield sometime around 1914 and being pronounced dead at the scene. Great stuff.

 

Then there was the author’s reception which very quickly became a series of testimonials and very mild roasts. Mostly, mostly, these were warm reminiscences and anecdotes. For about ten minutes I let Peter David use me as a human shield. Then the spirit overcame me and I got up and told a story about a dealer’s kid I knew who was used as a mule to get Harlan autographs. This kid was supposedly [but not actually] traumatized by Harlan. The kid grew up and not only avoided therapy but ended up being one of those guys who brings well worn copies of his own to Harlan’s occasional I-Con appearances. Not a “victim” but rather a reader and aficionado.

 

Then I went off the testimonial rails by trying to drag in a Twain metaphor, remembered where I was – and closed badly. The point I had intended to make, The POINT that Neil Gaiman made well the following evening, was that all of these lies and tall tales and half truths and whisper down the lane myths about chandeliers and elevator shafts will fall by the wayside and that ultimately it’s the stories and essays that will be read and will be remembered. Normally, just typing this I would feel like I was cribbing from Gaiman [even though this isn’t a new insight] but later on Friday I had one of those “wit of the stairs” moments and said all of the above to Doug Lane while simultaneously cursing my inability to make this point when I had the microphone. Gnash grind gnash.

 

This was all instantly and thankfully forgotten as Peter David made his presence known to Harlan. Peter came in late Friday and left early Sunday but wasn’t going to miss this one for anything. Peter now has a bowling ring [287?] which he can heat up with a borrowed lighter and brand the foreheads of his enemies with. Not that he would, just that he could. 😉

 

Then everyone went looking for a dead dog party and I eventually found my way to the Irish Pub (in Arizona, yeah, right) with a courtyard bar with a mission statement of keeping the back half of the Palms Hotel guests awake for the duration of the weekend. Here I took up residence and made myself part of the problem. I was however, unable to teach anybody Gordon R. Dickson drinking filk songs, so SF cultural cross-pollination was less than perfect. Still in all, it was better to be those of us drinking in that courtyard than the poor folks praying to elder gods that the courtyard itself would open up and pull us down to the depths of hell where we probably richly deserved to be. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

SINCO DE ME OH MY OH or, DIA DE LOS SFWA MUERTAS.

 

That’s certainly what it felt like from the inside of my eyelids. I’m pretty sure Arizona is actually located somewhere between the orbit of Venus and Mercury with occasional forays much closer to the sun. I’m sure Hal Clement could have worked out how that would be possible. I’m just relating what it felt like to me. Rose early, found breakfast, then took the Richmond’s to the Arizona Zoo and botanical garden complex. The zoo was ok, with some great otherworldly (to us Easterners) flora, but a little light on the fauna front. I spent quite a bit of time staring at a couple of turtles the size of SUV’s, one of which was at least three times older than our patron and Grand Master recipient. To me THIS was a science fiction moment. Anything born 30 years BEFORE Mark Twain that still walks around looking for its next meal and looks like it could survive sitting on a hand grenade gives me pause. Then Tim and I looked up the orangutans and rung some changes on Warren Zevon’s wonderful song GORILLA, YOU’RE A DESPERADO. Then it was back to the Palms for part 7 of the 2006 Harlan Globetrotters Tour.

 

4PM was the “Genre of the Living Dead” panel with Harlan and Gordon Van Gelder, where they each politely, and sometimes not so politely, danced around the merits of the various works up for this year Nebulas and some other high profile books in the genre. A few oxen were gored but none too badly. Well, perhaps one, but it got to be a bestseller and make its author rich so who cares.

 

Then we all changed into some fancier duds and it was time for the pre-banquet poolside get-your-drink-on and REALLY start speculating on what Harlan might do or say. I found a table with Scott Edelman and William F. Nolan and we ended up talking about Lin Carter and Theodore Sturgeon while I continued to confound a LOCUS photographer by pocketing my con badge. Ask me about this someday. And then we were off to that over-priced feed trough of fun and glory, the 2006 Nebula Awards banquet hosted by Connie Willis.

 

At some small personal risk I am going to insert some remarks about The Connie Willis / Harlan Ellison Show. I don’t know how long this has been going on or how exactly it started or what the intentions of the two participants were [or are] – but it doesn’t work. There is a tension in evidence that starts small and builds to a point where it’s no longer really fun for the audience. The best way I can describe it is that it starts out as gentle prodding and all too quickly gets away from both of them. BOTH of them. If I had to guess – and this is a BIG guess – it might be an attempt to recreate the sort of verbal abuse that Harlan and Isaac Asimov used to go at each other with. But although this is the stuff of fannish legend, Harlan and Isaac both retired the act because it was sometimes misunderstood by casual bystanders. I think this MAY be more of the same kind of competitiveness.

 

Moving on. I don’t know exactly when or where the evening’s remarks will be covered – although I expect a big LOCUS spread pretty soon – but fear not, it was faithfully recorded. There were at least three professional video rigs going and at least 4 dozen high end digital cameras in the room. I half expect this to come out as 600 photos of people taking pictures of people taking pictures.

 

Connie pointed out that the evening would be hosted by SFWA folks instead of being outsourced. This, to me, was wonderful news as I have sat through a couple of banquets with hosts whose knowledge of the field was Star Trek jokes obtained via a Google search. Please. She also ran down some low points from SFWA banquets of the last 20 years which made me grateful this was my first. Raw sewage leaking on to one of the tables wasn’t even the worst evening recalled.

 

Bill Nolan got his Emeritus Award [design by Lisa Snellings] and was succinct in his acceptance speech. Carol Emshwiller won for short story, proving the Dangerous Visions alumni are still producing some fine work. Kelly Link won for both novelette and novella and had a nice funny line about the strangeness of handing out giant blocks of Lucite to express affection and appreciation and then it was time for the big show.

 

Connie introduced Peter David who introduced Neil Gaiman and Neil brought on Harlan. In my notes here I have scrawled “Tale of the Tape”. I’m not going to say much of what Harlan said. It was all recorded and I’m sure will be transcribed word for word at some point. I should say that Harlan began by noting those fine writers who would not be receiving the reward because their number came up too soon and also noting those others who Harlan felt should have perhaps gone before him

 

… and that just took all the wind out my own sails.

 

Like I said up there – “the tale of the tape.” You really had to be there.

 

Later, most of us changed back into civvies and re-joined Harlan back in the banquet hall where Harlan was holding court and telling stories about John Steinbeck and being out in the wind and, well, again, you should have been there.

 

*********************************************************************

 

Sunday Recovery and batting cleanup.

 

I should say that at our banquet table was an Ellison Webderland lurker, one Rod Searcey who is a professional photographer and who I expect we will be hearing more of. He has been compiling a number of photographs of the astronauts [for a book I hope] that are just absolutely stunning. This past weekend he had set up a room at the hotel as a professional studio and was doing sittings of all the guests he could line up. He had black and whites at the table with him Saturday night and I foolishly thought these were the finished products. Then I saw the COLOR shots on Sunday morning. This is some really fantastic work. He makes Peter David look, umm, dignified – and he makes Harlan look like an elder statesman. Wonderful stuff.

 

Sunday morning was another marathon breakfast with Susan sneaking food on to my plate – because she is studiously trying to kill me – and then it was head ‘em up and move ‘em on out to the airport.

 

Doug and I – and a few others – were heading out Monday rather than Sunday so we began loitering at the hotel with intent. I spent about an hour talking to Diane Brown (the high priestess of I-Con) about their future plans for the convention in Long Island and then hooked up with Peter Heck (author of DEATH ON THE MISSISSIPPI) and William F. Nolan. We sat around and discussed/debated what Mark Twain was thinking in that last third of Huck Finn and then it was time for more grub. About six of us, including William F. Nolan ended up having Italian food at a place called BOA about two blocks from the Palms. Spent the dinner talking about Harlan, about Westerns, about what Hollywood does to movies and to writers, about Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellmann and then it was time for the check.

 

Hooked up later with Rod Searcey in the hotel bar where they charged him $4.75 for a diet coke and we talked about the space program and sending away to NASA for mission patches as children. Then we retired to the courtyard with Doug Lane, Ben and Amy where we compared our new dueling scars and plotted our Monday morning retreats to our respective realities.

 

And that’s the news from Lake Waterbegone on Planet Arizona. You really, really should have been there.

 

– Barney Dannelke 05/14/06

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

There is a moment in the hyperactive and wickedly smart comic book series TRANSMETROPOLITAN where Spider Jerusalem, the futuristic political journalist and militant gonzo activist, having just suffered a crippling stroke of some sort, is informed by his Doctor that he has contracted something called I-Pollen Degenerative Disorder, and that in the coming few months as this vicious brain cancer deus ex machina progresses he is going to lose all motor and cognitive skills. As the Doctor reels off the horrible consequences of this, Spider starts grinning, and by the time he’s done Spider looks about as happy as a shark about to eat a baby penguin. When the Doctor asks him why the hell he’s grinning, Spider responds in the royal we of editors and people with tapeworms, “So we’ve got a deadline. We can do deadlines.?

Hallelujah. Indeed. Writers can do deadlines.

I’d like to tell you about a little adventure I had this past weekend. At least for me it was an adventure and a bit of a revelation. I think for others it was probably as fun as learning what flop sweat is like after they thought they had a part nailed in a play or coming face to face with a blood sport Hemingway liked to call “boxing Turgenev.?

The setting was Foolscap VII up in Bellevue Washington. The programming had a nice little break from the usual panel fiascos such as Circular Quest Fantasies: Threat or Menace? and Do Wookies have G-spots? Instead, off to one side, minding it’s own business on Saturday at 3PM was Show Me A Story: A Workshop moderated by Harlan Ellison with Manny Frishberg, Sandra Odell and Amy Thompson. When I saw this on the programming schedule I foolishly assumed we would bring in some finished material that would be tossed around for some tough love and suggestions for a final polish.

Ha. Ha ha ha. When I’m wrong, boys and girls I go right off the rails. You’ll see.

Friday morning I approached the Con chair and was told that the workshop was booked in advance and the event could only accommodate sixteen. Damn. Still, it was reasonable. Even sixteen story critiques in an hour and a half would be pushing it. Still, I clutched my Twain pages and my little horror story to my chest and said, “Well, if anybody drops out or there’s a seat on the wall, let me know. I’ll be quiet and keep a low profile.?

First we lie – then we write.

The panel rolls around and they had three or four dropouts. Like a questionable character in the third reel of a heist film, suddenly, I’m in. And here’s how it went down. Rainier is a conference room that’s just about ALL table. The ambitious dozen take their places and suddenly all I can think of is 12 Angry Men. Looking back on that moment I’m not sure that being verbally abused by Lee J. Cobb would have been so bad in comparison, but that feeling quickly passed. Aside from the four already mentioned, there was Kristin Ruhle on my right and Doug Lane and Amy Kosten-Jenkins from Webderland on my left. Also present was Kathleen Retz who ran the Foolscap art show. If Doug or anybody else wants to cough up the names I’m missing I’d appreciate it. I’m moving on with apologies to those whose names I’ve misplaced.

At this point Harlan laid out the ground rules. Ms. Retz had a folder and in it she had color reproductions of art she had pulled off the Internet. I’m told that much of the art was pulled from Elfwood.com

Ok. I have just been to this site and there are over 600 galleries, each with dozens of pieces so I’m not going to even try to cite the individual works. As I write this I have a query out to Ms. Retz and may know more later. I’m sure Doug and Kristen and Amy remember their pieces. In fact, I suspect we all have our art burned into our brains for good or ill. Adrenalin does wonders for memory.

Back to the “rules.? Harlan said that we were each to pick a piece of art, and then we were going to sit down and WRITE A STORY in approximately the next half hour. These we would then read aloud, and a brief round-robin critique of the story would take place. As Doug likes to say, “Holy Jeebus!? Now you, sitting in front of your monitor at home may square your shoulders and say to yourself “yeah, sure, big deal, I could do that?, but I’m telling you I’m real glad I had the medicine man bless my bulletproof tunic and make me invisible for good measure before we started. This may not have been for keeps but it sure felt like it.

So after a lot of sighing and tooth gnashing and hair pulling and crying and drooling and knuckle chewing [the proceeding 14 words brought to you by Street and Smith and worth 7 cents if appearing in TRAPPED in 1957] we all picked our art. Harlan picked LAST from the four or so remaining pieces. And we began.

Now a note to the cynics among you on how Uncle Harlan is a big stinky cheater. Let me TRY and head you off at the pass. Could Harlan have seen all the art in advance? Could he have then sat down and cobbled up rough story ideas for 16 pieces of art so that he had something to expand on no matter what was handed to him? Could he have worked the room like some sort of double-brained Kresken, hypnotizing and pushing and cajoling us into taking the other pieces and leaving a pre-chosen piece for him? Yeah, sure, I suppose. But I was there and Amy was there and Kristin was there and Doug was there and that’s not what happened. We all picked our poison and Harlan chose last. Moreover he picked a piece, that while extremely well executed, I pegged as about the last thing he would want, as it featured, well, you’ll see.

Thus armed with inspiration, or the poison of our own choosing, we began. Most of us used pen and paper and committed our sins in long hand. Good enough for Shakespeare and Neal R. Stephenson, we figured it was good enough for us. One person had a PDA-keyboard configuration that I thought was keen looking, but a bit too small to work on with out going blind. Harlan pulled out an old manual typewriter provided by the convention and we were off to the races.

Have I ever told you all what a complete and perfect dick Harlan can be? Really? Well, he starts pounding away at this thing and all I can think is word word word word word, now he’s FIVE ahead, word word word word word word SLAM! carriage return, now he’s ELEVEN ahead, word word word clack clack clack… pause, scratch forearm, fold arms over chest, glare a bit, pause hand over keys, then whack whack whack spacebar spacebar spacebar WORD WORD WORD and he’s off again. After a minute or so of this I think we all tuned it out. In fact, in a weird way, very quickly I found it, if not restful, at least sort of focusing. I work at a PC and WORD and MS Office are my friend, but that thwacking ratchety sound IS the sound of creation to me, the way a loud KA-CHING is the proper sound of a cash register drawer opening. So I stared at my painting, chewed my knuckle and started plotting my little story.

I’m cutting a few paragraphs here. Suffice to say I ended up writing a vignette. Approximately 290 words in 25 minutes that told the story of that moment in the painting:

http://www.donatoart.com/gallery/farseekers.html

and gave some back-story and set up some conflicts for scenes to come. At best, it is a crippled fragment that will never see the light of day. First draft, under the stopwatch is NOT my friend. At least Barry Malzberg had bourbon to see him through this in the 1970’s. Who works like this?

Later I was talking to Harlan about the value of this kind of kiln-style writing and we agreed that it was unnatural BUT it does do two things. First, it forces you to finish something. The world is full of project starters who never get around to finishing anything. I know because I’m one of them. The other is that after the pain is over, it can be – and should be – a tremendous confidence booster. It illustrates what Harlan has said for years, that Art or art isn’t really created in ivory towers on crystal mountaintops; it’s usually hammered out by people in basements and attics or sheds behind the house (John Gardner) or even an upright plywood coffin standing like an airless isolation chamber in an otherwise normal living room (Lester Del Rey). The lesson is like the ubiquitous Nike slogan. Just do it.

Back to Harlan being a dick. So, we’re all of us writing to the best of our abilities – and some of those abilities ended up being pretty remarkable. I’m recalling Mr. Frishberg and Mr. Lane and the one by the woman to Mr. Frishberg’s right whose name I don’t recall, when Harlan slams his carriage return for the last time after typing “they were all run over by a bus. The End.? or some such shite, and gets up and steps away from the table like a guy with a winning hand who has called “all in and good night and good luck and your twenty is on the dresser, see you later kiddo, I got a train to catch.?

Seventeen minutes. Last to pick. First to type. First to finish. What do you call that?

So Harlan gives us another 10 minutes. Then he gets a drink and tells us when we hit the five-minute mark. Then time compresses to auto-accident Ballard time and we’re done.

We each read our pieces and offer up some critiques but I don’t think our hearts were into the criticism. I won’t savage you and you don’t savage me was rule of the day and worked out fine. For a LONG and accurate description of workshop dynamics there are essays in the Clarion anthologies that go into exquisite detail on how this can play out and go south quickly when people don’t play well with others.

Besides, we all knew what we were waiting for. Harlan had written a story. A NEW story. Right there, in less than twenty minutes. So, we sat back and said well, let’s see what the oldest enfant terrible has got. He read his story.

Let me be clear. Harlan said this to me after the workshop and I completely agree – “There were NO failures in that workshop. Everybody produced something and everybody learned and everybody took something away that they could use.? That almost never happens in a workshop or any teaching situation for that matter. Moreover, a couple of pieces could probably be published virtually as is, or given a polish and then sent on their way. Two out of twelve would have been a very good day in workshop land.

But it wasn’t two out of twelve because Harlan read his story and showed us how it’s done. Mohammed Ali said, “it ain’t no brag if you can do it.? Boy was he right. And I didn’t even have to get punched in the head by a heavyweight to learn that lesson. Or maybe I did and I’m still taking a standing eight count and wondering just where my corner is.

Either way, I could tell you about it, but it’s 350 words and you’ll read them before too long. It’s called WEARINESS and will almost certainly feature the art of one Hubert J. Daniels who I am told is a young student at the University of Warsaw and I suspect is about to become a “made? man if that’s what he wants.

I asked Harlan how this compared to Clarion, where the writing assignments were overnight affairs and he told me they’re analogous but in a compressed sort of way. “It’s sort of like comparing a good piece of buttered bread to the finest French toast you’ve ever had. Both worthy in their own way.?

So there you have it. Cost of traveling 3,000 miles to see some friends and stay at the Bellevue Sheraton for four days and attend a small science fiction convention? About $850.00 Having your ass and ego handed to you by a paunchy old man with a battered manual typewriter with nothing to gain and no need to prove anything to anyone?

Priceless.

– Barney Dannelke [12:09AM]

Composed in 2 hours 11 minutes / 2,160 words.