Posts tagged ‘Los Angeles’

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison did not appear from nowhere. When he first began to show up in the sf magazines he had already been writing from an early age — had even had his work appear in as prestigious a magazine as The New Yorker, but had never really found his voice until the beginning of that period in the early ’60’s. That’s when he began to write the astonishing series of pyrotechnical masterpieces sometimes referred to as the “Repent, Harlequinstories.

More than for most writers, Harlan’s stories and his life seemed both almost part of the same work of art. His home was in the hills overlooking Los Angeles — well, not exactly, in a technical sense, really overlooking it. To overlook the city from Harlan’s front door you would have had to be able to see through some miles of solid rock, because he lived on the far side of the hills.

The house was worth the trip. The name on the door was “Ellison Wonderland.” His writing office would not have shamed a banker, though it centered on nothing more spectacular than a typewriter, and one that was neither computer-based nor even electrified, but powered only by the muscles of Harlan’s ten fingers. His office’s central sound system, he boasted, could deliver any music a visitor requested at the press of a button; and the whole place, like any proper wonderland, had a secret chamber.

And there, in those years of the 1960s, he wrote stories like “‘Repent, Harlequin,&rsqu; Said the Tick-Tock Man,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” and “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” racking up a considerable collection of Hugos and Nebulas in the process. (One writer said, “They ought to give him a Hugo every time he writes a story, just for the titles.”)

I was Harlan’s editor for the first publication of some of the best of those stories, and I have to say that it was not an easy job. We were in a state of war for five or six years on end. There was the Battle of the Douchebag, when Harlan fought tenaciously for his right to have one character in a story call another by that epithet. In a large sense, he was sort of in the right; for generally speaking a writer should be entitled to have his story presented as he conceived it. But I was aware that a significant fraction of our magazine’s readers were fairly young boys, of an age where parents, not themselves readers, might pick up a magazine to see what Tom Junior was reading and be shocked to see that word becoming part of their son’s vocabulary. (Remember we’re talking about a time half a century ago.)

Or the Battle of the 4-Color Border, in which Harlan, having seen some colorful graph strips in, I think, Scientific American, wanted similar strips to frame his next story, and didn’t want to accept the judgment that he couldn’t have them unless we took the printing of the text of the magazine off the cheap black and white press they had always been printed on and substituted a budget-busting color press. And additional skirmishes beyond count.

There was no doubt that Harlan was a major sf writer. The only jarring note was that Harlan was dissatisfied with the possession of that pigeonhole, and so his production of sf stories dwindled as he went on to the exploration of other pastures.

The pasture that was most financially rewarding, I think, was a career as professional lecturer. In return for taking a plane to some college town and talking for an hour or two to a couple of thousand college undergraduates he would receive a check that was usually larger than what a short story brought in, and was a lot less trouble. Moreover, he soon hit upon a way of making it more profitable still. He brought along remaindered copies of his backlist books, and when the talk was over sold them, autographed, to members of the audience.

Audiences loved him. At least, most of the members of his audiences did, though for a few people it was not all that pleasurable. Those were people who were the subject of some of his reminiscences. If I had had any doubt this was true — I never did — I would have learned better on one occasion, in New York one evening just before that year’s annual Nebula Awards dinner.

Harlan had come to New York to speak at the dinner, and his publisher’s publicity people had taken advantage of the opportunity to put him on some radio and TV spots to promote Harlan’s latest book, the anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions. One of the programs was Long John Nebel’s all-night talk show, on which I was a regular. John had had some troublesome experiences with West Coast writers not long before, including Terry Southern, the man who wrote all the funny parts in the film Dr. Strangelove, but on six hours of John’s show rarely responded to a question with more than a “Yes,” “No” or “I don’t know, but maybe.”

So John called me up before booking Harlan with a worrisome question, “Can he talk?”

I assured him that the one problem no one had ever had with Harlan was getting him to talk, but John, wanting insurance, asked me to join the show anyhow.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. That day I made a big one. I said, “Yes.”

When we assembled in the studio and John began to talk he spent a good twenty minutes praising the anthology, though of course he hadn’t read any part of it. Then he turned the mikes over to Harlan, who spent another twenty minutes modestly praising the talents of all the authors in the book, Then John said, “What about you, Fred? What did you think of Again Dangerous Visions?”

That sort of question is not meant to be answered candidly on that sort of program, but I could not make myself join in the previous hymn of worship. What came out of my mouth was something like,, “Well, it’s interesting that Walter Bradbury, the book’s editor at Doubleday, describes it as ‘stories that have been rejected by every editor in the science-fiction field.’ All the same, I think there are some stories there that are really good.”

John, who had been about to lean back in his chair, gave me a quick look and then one at Harlan, whose mouth was already opening for rebuttal. John rapidly returned to the upright position and addressed me. “And why don’t you tell us about some of the stories that impressed you, Fred?” And bloodshed was postponed.

A consideration I had overlooked, however, was that Harlan was to be the keynote speaker at the next evening’s banquet. And I would be sitting at a head table, right under the speaker’s place, in full view of the audience for all of the three-quarters of an hour that Harlan spoke.

It was a memorable evening. There are, however, some memorable evenings that I really would prefer to forget. What’s more, I can prove that some of his assertions were false, as I have, for instance, a copy of my parents’ marriage certificate and the record of my own birth nearly two years later.

Illustration by Hannes Bok.

I commissioned this illustration from Hannes Bok after seeing his work in 1939.

The Futurians had any number of members who won awards for writing, but we only had one who earned his Hugo by the beauty of the things he drew and painted. That was Wayne Woodard, as his parents called him when he was born in 1914, though he became better known to fans and to art-lovers all over the world by the name he chose for himself when he needed something to sign to his artwork, Hannes Bok.

Most magazine illustrators get their start with the magazines by visiting their offices, a bunch of samples under their arms, and showing them to whoever on the masthead would look at them until somebody showed up who liked the samples well enough to use a few in their magazines. That wasn’t possible for Hannes. He was a West Coast kid and he had no possibility of affording a bus ticket to where the magazines were. But he had a stroke of luck.

When he moved to Los Angeles — which he did early in 1939 — he met a kid fan named Raymond Bradbury — “Ray,” for short — who was almost as badly off as himself. The kid wasn’t aiming to be an artist; his dream was to become a writer, but he was as unsuccessful at it as Hannes was with his art. However. he belonged to a group of people who, like Hannes, were interested in science fiction and fantasy. The group, the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, would later become the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. They met in an upper room of a place called Clifton’s Cafeteria.

LASFS was a welcoming group for Hannes. Among the people he met there was a writer named Emil Petaja, who did get some of his stories published in the prozines and became Hannes’ best and lifelong friend. Another was a fan, or actually a kind of superfan who knew everybody involved in making of sf films, named Forrest J (No Period!) Ackerman.

The big news in science fiction, at least as far as the LASFS was concerned, was what was going to happen in New York that summer. The city was planning a huge show called the New York World’s Fair, and the fans in New York had uncharacteristically abandoned their blood feuding to work together to create a wonderful new project, a World Science Fiction Convention. It was the chance of a lifetime, they reasoned, because they could take advantage of all the foreigners who would come to New York for the Fair. Some fraction of them, they calculated, were sure to be fans who would be likely to stay for this Worldcon.

It was every last LASFS member’s dearest dream to be among them, but for most they knew it was only a dream. The Depression was dwindling fast, but its effects were not altogether over. And LASFS was made up mainly of teenagers with few resources to draw on.

But one resource was Forry Ackerman. A small inheritance had left him with money in the bank, so he was going to the Worldcon himself. So was a female fan named Myrtle R. Jones — or, as you would say it in Forry’s favorite second tongue, Esperanto, “Morojo.” And, when Forry had had a couple weeks of exposure to the woebegone expression on Ray’s face, he figured out a way of solving one problem. He could lend Ray Bradbury the bus fare. So he tapped the bank account a little harder, and pulled out enough cash to lend Ray Bradbury the price of a ticket to New York.

That was not a risk-free investment on Forry’s part, because the only source of income Ray had to pay him back was what he earned as a newsboy, selling papers on the streets of Los Angeles. But it wasn’t just a kindness to Ray. To Forry’s generosity, Ray added on a kindness of his own. He was going to do his best to meet every sf editor in the world, or at least every one who made it to the Worldcon, and while he was introducing them to himself there was no reason — assuming Hannes would lend him some samples to take along — why he couldn’t introduce them to the work of Hannes Bok at the same time.

 
And that is how it all fell out. Ray wheeled and dealt with such good effect at the Worldcon that, if I’m not mistaken, some of Hannes’ samples were actually bought and published by an editor, and several other editors asked him to do work for them.

One of this latter class was me. I met Ray Bradbury, and heard of Hannes Bok, for the first time at (or, more accurately, near — but that’s another story) the Worldcon, and shortly thereafter commissioned a set of illustrations for a story of my own from Hannes. (I still have one of the drawings on the wall of my office at home.)

That expedition worked so well for Hannes that it gave him the funds to make the move to New York, and that too worked pretty well. Well enough, at least, for Hannes to enjoy some years of relative affluence — affluence enough, that is, for him to pay the rent and have enough left over to eat regular meals.

I think he must have been a pleasant person to be around then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around him for most of that period, because I had received an employment offer — the kind of an offer that you just can’t say no to — from the Armed Services of the United States of America.

 
Watch for Part 2, covering how all this worked out, coming soon — provided “soon” is when I write it.

 
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