A Conversation with Harlan Ellison
Mike Ragogna: Harlan, A Boy And His Dog is now out on Blu-ray. Have you gotten a chance to see it yet?
Harlan Ellison: Oh yes, I have. It's very, very pleasant. After so many years, one forgets how good a film it is.
MR: Since it's on Blu-ray, was there anything striking to you versus the original release?
HE: Oh, the clarity of it, of course. Since this film was first released in '75, it has been always one of the top five or ten rental films for universities and film societies, so many people have pirated it and issued it on their own that the quality of it has deteriorated over decades. This restores it all to its original vividness. It was really quite a well-directed and pretty film to look at and the Blu-Ray has captured all of that. It's back as if it were born yesterday.
MR: Is this one of your favorite film translations of your novels?
HE: Yeah. I have reservations of course about everything, I don't think any "artist"--and I use that with air quotes--any "creative" always has reservations about adaptations, no matter how facile they may be and how much he may like them. I love this film. There are things in it that I would have done otherwise--the last line, for instance, which I think is terribly sexist and yet is beloved by fraternity boys. I would have kept the original last line from the original story, which I think is much more human and beguiling than the sort of punchline that L.Q. Jones used. But L.Q. knew what he was doing in terms of the market, I suppose.
MR: What was the original last line?
HE: I don't want to be a spoiler for the film for those who may not have seen it, but now it's more than a quarter of a century old. "A Boy And His Dog" is only the middle section of a novel called Blood's A Rover, which I wrote. There are actually four parts to it. There's a story that precedes "A Boy And His Dog" called "Eggsucker," there's a story that follows it called "Run, Spot, Run," and then there's the major part of the novel called "Blood's A Rover," from A.E. Housman's "Blood's a rover that never rests." At the end where Vic, the boy--they're telepathically joined, of course--is saying, "Well, she asked me if I knew what love was," talking about Quilla June, the girl who has lured them into the Downunder. He says, "She asked me if I knew what love was," and I said, "Yeah, I know what love is, a boy loves his dog," because the two of them are inseparable and they survive off one another. In the movie, Vic says something akin to that, and then the dog, Blood--who is far smarter than the teenage boy Vic, who is just going through the pangs of sexual awakening and all, and who has been lured into this Downunder by Quilla June--says, "Why did she have to get all muzzy-headed over me?" or something of that nature. Then the dog says, "She may not have very good judgment, but she sure had good taste." This relates to the ending of the movie in which there is meat that is never touched by Vic, not in the story, not in the movie. The meat is used to keep the dog alive.
MR: You just brought up the concepts of a teenager coming into love for the first time and a loyalty between a boy and his dog. Was it a treatise about love and loyalty overall?
HE: I will tell you, in all fairness, I wrote this story for my dog. My dog was named Abu and he and I were very, very close. When I was a kid, I loved the Albert Payson Terhune dog books, Lad: A Dog, and that kind of thing, and that's why I ironically called this section "A Boy And His Dog." I wrote it in London and it was going to be summed into the full novel. As soon as I got the story done...I got a call from Michael Moorcock at New Worlds and he needed a story and I had just finished this section. Well, the next thing I knew, I was getting movie offers from everywhere, and big money offers for this story. This was before I had even finished the novel. I turned down Universal and Warner Brothers and Paramount because they all wanted to animate the mouth of the dog. I said, "This is not Mister Ed!" Then L.Q. Jones called and offered me very small money. I knew his work, I went with him. That was how the thing got written.
MR: What did the Downunder represent?
HE: I was parodying the middle class of the 1970s. We were in the middle of the cold war and there were an awful lot of people who were clinging to very much outmoded nineteenth, early twentieth-century mores. Its hard to remember that now, although they now represent themselves as The Tea Party, and what I suppose you could say contemporaneously is that the Downunder parodies The Tea Party, where they value guns and phony patriotism over rational behavior.
MR: Wonderfully said. Do you feel like there are any other metaphors that you set up back then that still could be considered contemporary?
HE: Well, clearly, the film was at least twenty years ahead of its time. It caused considerable consternation when it first came out because it was the first of its sort. There had been post-apocalyptic movies, but this one was very gritty, very naturalistic, very down to Earth. It was shot the way you would shoot a documentary in some ways and it hit like a bombshell. I remember getting an infuriated letter from a grandmother of I don't know who. At that time, she seemed like a very old person to me, she was younger than I am now, but she was infuriated. She'd gone to a drive-in with her grandson, a little kid, and she thought a perfect movie for him would be A Boy And His Dog, and here's this movie filled with post-apocalyptic degradation and violence and sexuality, and she was furious about it. The irony of the title "A Boy And His Dog," which mocks the Albert Payson Terhune books and is the reason that Blood the dog keeps calling Vic "Albert"--and Vic doesn't quite know why, he doesn't quite get that--was something that worked very, very well on the page, and the communion between the dog and boy, their conversations are a lot like the Frank Capra exchanges of screwball comedies. The two of them talk the way a couple of mates would talk sitting around a campfire all the way through the book.
MR: Yeah, yeah. My interpretation of that--and now I know I'm wrong--was that the dog was being condescending, calling him "Albert" as in Albert Einstein.
HE: Oh, no. Well he is condescending. The dog is so smart, he's got the spinal fluid of dolphins in him, so he's telepathic. He's not communally telepathic with everybody, but every once in a while, he finds a master and Vic is his companion through this. When he calls him "Al" or "Albert," he is referring to the Albert Payson Terhune dog stories, whereas a traditional boy and his dog relationship is turned upside down in this movie.
MR: Was there something from the book that you wish had gotten onto the screen?
HE: Well, all but the last large section, which is called "Blood's A Rover" has been done in a graphic novel called Vic And Blood: The Chronicles Of A Boy And His Dog, which is available, by the way, on http://www.Harlanellison.com. Go to the bookstore there or if anybody reading this is interested, my books are available at http://www.Harlanellisonbooks.com. The graphic novel that I did with Richard Corben included "Eggsucker," the story that precedes "A Boy And His Dog" and runs straight through "Run, Dog, Run," the story that follows "A Boy And His Dog," in which Vic ostensibly dies, and the remainder of the novel is Blood on his own finding a new master who is a girl. A solo named Spike. Then Vic reappears not actually having been killed and it becomes a love triangle, which is what I had planned all along.
MR: Are there any of your novels that you feel fell under the radar or where people just had it wrong?
HE: One of the great myths about me--and I've been doing this now for over fifty years and it is startling to find oneself at age seventy-nine like a survivor of the downed aircraft on the show Lost, sitting on the beach watching the waves rolling in and out and you idly turn your head and you see that a continent has grown up behind you--I find myself now suddenly lauded as this silver-mained icon of the pop culture of the twentieth century, which only my humility--my great, great, Buddha-like humility allows me to live with.
HE: I find now that I'm having a huge renaissance, I've had fourteen books in the last eleven months--https://www.Harlanellisonbooks.com has published all of my screenplays and my teleplays in a series called Brain Movies, and everything is selling well. Books that I wrote when I was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years old, my first and second books, have just been reissued in gorgeous hardcovers and people are saying, "You could see even at twenty this guy had chops!" and I think to myself, "Where the hell were you when I needed you?" I'm now at a point where I can look at virtually everything that has been done, including this beautiful new Blu-ray of A Boy And His Dog through Shout Factory, I can look at it and say, "Well, this is a terrific movie!" This is a movie that has lasted, for God's sake, through what, thirty-five, forty years and people are still lauding it! We had a huge showing of it at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood last year and it was standing room only. It's a film that stands on its own. There are films that were made two years ago that have totally sunk beneath the waves that no one will ever remember and that's as it should be. I think L.Q. Jones did an amazing job, and I think it's a terrific story from which he took it. So there's nothing from that central section, "A Boy And His Dog," that novella, that L.Q. didn't get, even to the strange kind of clown-like makeup that the people in the town wear, you know? Social mores change and if we were talking about sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth century court in Paris, you'd look at the flounces and flourishes and ruffles they wore, you would laugh and say, "How silly!" Well, people take on fads for their own amusement and that one happened to be the one that L.Q. chose.
MR: You've received Hugos, Nebulas, Edgars and other awards. Wouldn't the Harlan Ellison with Buddha-like humility get at least a little kick out of that?
HE: It's a love-hate relationship with the human race. Of course, I batten on it, of course my ego is sustained every day by the fact that here I am a couple of steps short of the abyss and somebody calls me and speaks to me as if I matter! I remember when I was a very small kid and I worshipped John Steinbeck and he came to Cleveland, which is where I was born and I had to be under thirteen. He had a signing at the May Company or Halle Brothers or Higbee's or one of those department stores that was then in fashion in America, and I crawled through the knees and legs of the person who was standing there working the book department and I looked up at John Steinbeck speaking--I think the book he was pushing was Travels With Charlie or something like that--and then I looked at the faces around and it were as if they were staring at a deity who had just descended from Valhalla. And now I go out to signings and I go out to lectures at colleges, which I've been doing for many, many, many years, and I see the same look and it astonishes me. On the one hand, to answer your question directly, yeah, how can you not like getting a five-star review? You've got to be a real putz not to enjoy people enjoying your work, which is a secondary benefit from having done the work. I love doing the work. I'm a blue collar worker, and all my life, I have sat down at my Olympia manual typewriter--not even an electric because I type too fast for an electric, two fingers, a hundred and twenty words a minute without making mistakes--and I've batted out over a hundred books and seventeen or eighteen hundred stories, I don't know, twenty-five movies, and maybe two hundred teleplays. Doing the work has been my life. That's sitting on the beach watching the waves wash in and out. Turning around and seeing the look on the people's faces and enjoying it and having people say good things about me is the secondary benefit. That's why you do it.
MR: Harlan, I believe you've contributed to culture in major ways. I've enjoyed your books, screenplays, especially the Star Trek "City On The Edge Of Forever" episode, and your involvement with Babylon 5. By the way, I feel that Babylon 5 kicked off the evolution in science fiction television, that there wouldn't have been a Farscape and therefore the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. You even had a show in the early days of the Scy-Fy Channel. You're like Kevin Bacon with his six degrees thing.
HE: Well, I try to carry on the great tradition of Dumas and James Fennimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott and Colette and the other storytellers. I'm a storyteller, that's what I do, and people say to me, "God, you've written so many books, you've written so many essays, so many columns, aren't you tired?" I say, "Yeah. Yeah I'm tired. I've been on the barricades for seventy-nine years doing this stuff." I've been doing it since grade school, I've been writing. I came out of the womb scribbling on the inside of my mother's vagina. Yeah I'm tired, but that's the job I do. If I were a plumber and I had repaired a hundred thousand toilets, you wouldn't say, "My God, how prolific a plumber he is."
MR: No, but you would've contributed majorly to hygiene.
HE: To the hygeine of the world, yeah. Well, working on Babylon 5 with Joe Straczynski was a great high point because Joe is a very, very close friend and it comes full circle because this week, my graphic novel that I did with Paul Chadwick and Ken Steacy. Seven Against Chaos is on the New York Times best seller list and right with me is Joe Straczynski with a graphic novel he did, and my dear friend Peter David with whom I've lectured at MIT, he's got one in. To not only reach New York Times' best selling status this late in my career but to be accompanied by half of my posse, or be part of their posse at least, is another concomitant of doing the job well for as long as I apparently have done it. At some point, you meet the great and the near-great and everybody who matters. Dumas is one of the great treasures; Neil Gaiman and Paul Chadwick, the artist for Seven Against Chaos...a couple of the greats of our time, and they are very close friends of mine. They look on me as an equal and I take that as the best pleasure of all. Having Michael Ragogna say that I'm worthy is terrific, it's really terrific, it goes into the file, but being on a level with a guy like Chadwick or Neal Adams or people like that shows that you've been doing the job well.
MR: Harlan, there are so many that feel that you've been doing the job extremely well, I hope you really do know that. So what advice do you have for new writers?
HE: It's a tough road for writers these days. The word is not respected as much as it was. Things like the internet and iPods and tweeting have made vocabulary almost arcane. It's as if you were starting from scractch and scratching out your words on Phoenician stone tablets. I urge anybody who really has the stuff and really is a writer to keep persevering. If it's good, it will get published. When newspapers fail and magazines fail and there's nothing left but a blank screen to look at, then we will all vanish the way the great Chinese artisans vanished. We can't reproduce the specific blue that the Egyptians did or the oranges of the Chinese painters because when that art is lost, then we will be lost. But until that time, the storyteller is still the one who keeps the light going around the campfire.
MR: What advice might you have for those writers especially pursuing "sci-fi," even though you've written for many genres?
HE: Well... there's one of those "wells." Judge Judy says, "'Well' is not an answer!" "Well" is a comment, a lub-dub of the heart, a systole-diastole of waiting to try and figure something out. I don't know the answers any more than Archimedes did. I don't know the answer to that question.
MR: Okay. Are you enjoying what's going on in sci-fi these days?
HE: First of all, I never use that phrase (sci-fi), it sounds like a couple of locusts having sex. I call it either "speculative fiction" or "genre." I think that a writer is a writer and that the minute you start demeaning him or her by saying, "He writes novels" or "he writes thrillers" or "mystery" or "science fiction," you limit the writer and you limit that writer's abilities to do what he or she can do. So I read guys now like Andy Duncan, who just had his second book in seven years published and he writes brilliant short stories. I like the good stuff and I ignore the rest of it, but then it goes back to Sturgeon's Law, ninety percent of everything is crap, banality or mediocrity or imitation. That goes for doctors and candy bars and science fiction. So I like the good, that which tells a story and enlightens me and tells me something I didn't know before. The rest of it is just farts in a windstorm.
MR: What are doing now? What are you working on right now?
HE: Well, one never stops working. One retires, but one keeps working because that's all I can do. I cannot ice skate, I cannot tap dance, but I write. So every day, as Bertolt Brecht said, using the word "hopefully" correctly, as it so seldom is, "Every day, I go to the marketplace where ideas are sold and, hopefully, I pick my place among the sellers of lies." I just handed in a small book, a chatbook, about nine days ago that relates an anecdote that happened to me and my friend Carl Sagan when we were in the middle of a gangfight, a street gang fight in south Philly. It's called Li'l Six-Gun Harlan And His Sidekick Carl The Comet In Dangerland, and that'll be coming out from Subterranean Press sometime in the next few months. And then, as I said, if you go to http://www.harlanellisonbooks.com, you'll see fourteen books which are things that have been published before and things that are new, the most recent of which is Brain Movies IV, which includes a two-hour movie that I did originally for, I think it was CBS. They had a changing of the palace guard and it never got made, so it appears for the first time anywhere. But there are a hundred books out there. You say, "What are you doing now?" That's like saying, "Jesus, you fought World War I, World War II, The Boer War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, Afghanistan, and you were stationed in the Falklands, well what have you done for me today?" and I say, "I'm tired!" I'm still working but who knows what tomorrow will produce? The fact that I made it onto the New York Times best seller list this week is something I wouldn't have expected. Last week, if you asked me, "What are you working on now?" I would have said, "I don't know."
MR: Do you have a favorite amongst everything you've written?
HE: People often ask me that, and it's like saying, "Who do you like better, Spencer Tracy or Sophia Loren?" It's not a rat race that one runs when one does one's work. I guess it was Irwin Shaw who said, "You don't produce one story at a time or one play or even one sonnet." A writer's work is like a mountain range; it rises to unexpected peaks, then it dips to valleys, and then it glides along and reaches another peak, but you never sink beneath a certain level of professional proficiency, which is what one strives for. When it comes to naming a favorite among my stories, it's like asking, "Which of your many hare-lipped children is the one that you dandle on your knee?" It depends what day it is! My last story was published in the Ray Bradbury memorial book, which is called Weariness. That's the last story I wrote, and just this last week, (it) won the HWA award as the best anthology and my story was singled out as being particularly good. My second to last most recent story won a Nebula for me, my third Nebula apart from my grandmaster award. So I don't have a favorite. I've always liked the story of mine called Grail, and I've always liked Ernest And The Machine God, and I love A Boy And His Dog. A Boy And His Dog was a watershed and now that it's been released in this incredible Blu-ray, Shout Factory and L.Q. Jones have refurbished my icon.
MR: Beautiful, you brought this interview full circle. Anything we don't know about either A Boy And His Dog or Harlan Ellison?
HE: My boy, he said patronizingly, there are so many things you don't know about me. Did you know that I'm one of the few people that ever slept on the headstone at Stonehenge?
MR: Did you really?
HE: Yes I did, just like Tess Of The d'Urbervilles. Did you know that I once shot the son of a mafia boss with a Remington XP-100 pistol rifle wearing nothing but a bath towel?
MR: Well, I knew you were a badass.
HE: I ran away when I was thirteen and like the writer Jim Tully, I spent my life on the road. What I've got and whatever status I may have achieved... I never completed college, I got thrown out after a year and a half for punching a professor and shoplifting and doing many other things that Dickens would never have done, or Goethe, I'm an honor to that. What I've done I've done because I'm self-taught and I've worked very hard at my craft and that is the pride that a blue collar plowshare puller takes in his work. If they remember me for that, I'll be satisfied.
MR: Harlan, I believe you'll be remembered for quite a lot. I really appreciate your time, I've loved every minute of this. You're an amazing person and personality.
HE: Thank you, Michael.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
GARY LUCAS' CINEFANTASTIQUE
According to The New York Times, Gary Lucas is "a guitarist with a global guitar" and The New Yorker says he's "the thinking man's guitar hero." Introducing his new album Cinefantastique is the artist with a few words about the project.
This album is a total labour of love. I have been fascinated with film ever since I was a boy, when I used to project 8mm silent horror and science fiction classics courtesy of Castle Films to my friends in the basement of our house in Syracuse, New York, a mere nickel would gain you admission. And I quickly grew to love film music scores and the way they can comment on and enhance the experience of viewing a classic film. A good film theme can stick in your mind indelibly, like the best pop songs. I thank my mom and dad for instilling my love of film music - popular soundtrack LPs of the day were played continuously on our hi-fi, which is where I first fell under the spell of Victor Young's 'Around the World in 80 Days,' Michel Legrand's 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' music and Frances Lai's score for 'A Man and a Woman,' the last two both ear-marked for 'Cinefantastique Vol. 2.'
I have been intimately involved with composing film music--especially otherworldly film music--since being asked in 1971 to score my first film, 'Aquatic Ecology,' a documentary for the New York State Department of Forestry narrated by fellow Syracuse native Rod Serling (Mr. Twilight Zone). Since then, I have composed music for both film and television and have covered many film themes over my 20 plus album career to date. This is the first time though that I have assembled a full album devoted to showcasing some of my favorite film music composers and some of my own film music. And it is all arranged and performed (except for one piece) for solo guitar, without overdubs. Not that easy to pull off, considering most of the classic film themes covered here (well all of them) were composed and recorded for full orchestra. But I love a good challenge. And as I have been described as a one man guitar orchestra... enjoy!
DONOVAN WOODS' "PUT ON, COLOGNE"
Here's the latest video by Toronto singer-songwriter Donovan Woods, "Put On, Cologne," the music taken from his third album, Don't Get Too Grand that features not only this track, but also "The Coldest State."
"'Put On, Cologne' is about that feeling of being elsewhere at the moment the novelty of the place wears off," Donovan explains. "Europe, specifically. It's all beautiful and new and then suddenly, it's just another place where bad things can and do happen and you'd like to leave. It's kind of about travelling with someone, a significant other, and what that often reveals about a relationship. It's also just bitter and kind of pouty, and I'm sorry about it."
INTRODUCING BALCONY TV
Truly odd, way interesting, and the story (officially) goes...
Balcony TV is the wildly popular online music network which features bands performing unplugged on balconies across the world. Created 7 years ago by Dubliner Stephen O'Regan, Balcony TV's regional teams scour the globe for the most exciting underground artists and tape them performing a single song live. The site posts fifty performances a week, 2500 annually from over fifty different cities on six contients. Balcony TV has recorded over 10,000 original performances that have garnered over 45,000,000 worldwide views. Among those early acts are Mumford & Sons, The Script, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Matisyahu, Jessie J, Temper Trap and Ed Sheeran -- all recorded when they were unknowns.
Balcony TV is launching in four new cities with tapings in Athens, Greece, New Orleans and two cities in Italy, Schio and Messina. The site continues to grow and expand with an eye toward launching in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston.
To check out further views from the Balcony... http://www.balconytv.com