Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Write Like Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison waiting for the words.
by Bert Carson

I started to call this post Happy Birthday Harlan, but that implies that I know him, or at least know far more about him than I do.  So I gave up that first title and went with Write Like Harlan Ellison.

Before I explain why, you should know that until fifteen minutes ago, I'd never heard of Harlan Ellison.  Imagine that!  And I call myself a writer.  How can one be a writer and not be aware of Harlan Ellison?  For me, it was no problem.  I've lived at our present address more than three years, and I only know the names of three or maybe four of the neighbors and that only because our mailman is willing to share information with me.

Harlan Ellison and I never crossed paths until tonight, and then we just barely crossed.  Two or three weeks ago, I discovered Robert Crais, and that was by accident.  Now I've read six Crais books, including the one I finished this evening.  Not wanting to be without Joe Pike, or Elvis Cole, or a Crais standalone character, I frantically entered the Amazon Kindle Store and selected The First Rule, bought it, turned on my Kindle and watched it open to the 4% mark.

I've never been one to knowingly miss anything, so I sent my Kindle back to the cover and began to work forward through all of the disclaimers, copyrights, threats, and testimonials, finally stopping on the dedication page where I read:

for my friend,
Harlan Ellison,
whose work, more than any other,
brought me to this place.

I turned to Christina and asked, "Have you ever heard of Harlan Ellison?

She said, "Sure," and I knew I had some serious catching up to do.  I Goggled Harlan Ellison and discovered, among other things, that he just turned eighty last week, May 27th to be exact.  His published works include more than 1,700 novellas, short stories, screen plays, teleplays, and essays.  He has been married one more time than I have, and since he and his current wife have been married since 1986, I have to assume that, like me, after a shaky start in the matrimonial arena, he has found the woman he knew was out there waiting.

I put Robert Crais and Joe Pike on hold and went back to Amazon.  For some reason, maybe destiny or fate or maybe it was just the way Amazon chooses to list books, I selected Web of the City, downloaded it to my Kindle, backed up to the cover, and began moving forward.

A couple of pages south of the cover, I opened a new page with the title: Introduction:  Unnecessary Words.

I read it, then read it again, this time aloud to Christina, and now I'm going to share it with you.  After you've read it you'll understand why I called this post, Write Like Harlan Ellison

There's really no point to writing an introduction to a novel.  A book of short stories, sure, okay.  A collection of essays, definitely.  A scholarly tome, naturally.  But what the hell should one have to say about an entertainment, a fiction, a novel?  Nothing.  It should speak for itself.

And I intend to let it.

Even so, I'd like to make one brief statement about the book.  Bear with me; I won't be long.

There's a story about Hemingway - I don't know if it's true or not, but if it isn't, it ought to be.  The story goes that he was either on his way to France or on his way back from France, one or the other, I don't recall the specifics of the anecdote that well.  He was on shipboard, and he had with him his first novel.  Not The Sun Also Rises; the one he wrote before that "first novel" that made him a literary catchword almost overnight.

Yes, the story goes, Hemingway had written a book before The Sun Also Rises, and there he was aboard ship, steaming either here or there; and he was at the rail, leaning over, thinking, and then he took the boxed manuscript of the book... and threw it into the ocean.

Apparently on the theory that no one should ever a writer's first novel.

Which would mean - were all writers to subscribe to that theory - we'd never have had One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding or The Catcher in the Rye or From Here to Eternity or The Seven Who Fled or The Painted Bird or Gone With the Wind or...

Well, you get the idea.

I don't know whether to argue with the theory or not, but I suppose I'm lobbying against it by permitting (nay, encouraging) this reprint of my first novel, Web of the City.  It was my first book, written under mostly awful personal circumstances, and I'm rather fond of it.  I've re-read it this last week, just to find out how amateurish and inept it is, and I find it still holds the interest.  I even gave it to a couple of nasty types who profess to being my friends when they aren't sticking it in my back, and even they say it's worth preserving.

So the book is alive once more.

The time about which it speaks is gone - the early fifties; and the place it talks about has changed somewhat - Brooklyn, the slums.  But it has a kind of innocent verve about it that commends it to your attention.  I hope of course, that you'll agree with me.

In case you might wonder, I began writing it around the tail end of 1956 and the first three months of 1957.  I was drafted in March of 1957 and wrote the bulk of the book while undergoing the horrors of Ranger basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.  After a full day, from damned near dawn till well after dusk, marching, drilling, crawling on my belly across infiltration courses, jumping off static-line towers, learning to carve people up with bayonets and break their bodies with judo and other unpleasant martial arts, our company would be fed and then hustled into a barracks, where the crazed killers who were my fellow troopers would clean their weapons, spit-shine their boots, and then collapse across their bunks to sleep the sleep of the tormented.  I, on the other hand, would take a wooden plank, my Olympia typewriter, and my box of manuscript and blank paper, and would go into the head (that's the toilet to you civilized folks), place the board across my lap as I sat on one of the potties, and I would write this book.

After the first couple of fist fights, they stopped complaining about the noise and let me alone.  But Sgt. Jabowski called me, in his dragon's voice, "The Author." The way he pronounce it, it always came out sounding like The Aw-ter.

The editor who bought the book originally, who took the first chance on me as a novelist, was a wonderful guy named Walter Fultz.  He was the editor at Lion Books, a minor paperback house that gave a lot of newcomers a break.  Walter is dead now, tragically, before his time, but I think he would have liked to've seen how long-lived this book has become, and how the kid he gave a break has come along.

Lion Books went out of business before they could release Web of the City, and the backlog of titles was sold here and there.  Pyramid Books then bought the manuscript.

It was almost a year later, in 1958, while I was serving out my sentence as the most-often-demoted PFC in the history of the United States Army, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when this book finally hit print.  I was writing for the Fort Knox newspaper, and getting boxes of review paperbacks for a column I was doing, when the August shipment of Pyramid titles came in.  I opened the box, flipped through the various products therein, and almost had a coronary when I held in my hands, for the first time in my life, a book with my name on the cover.

Except, the book was titled Rumble.

Nonetheless, it was an experience that comes only once in a writer's life, the first book, and I was the tallest walkin' Private in the Army that week.

Maybe I should have taken sides with old Ernie, dumping this book in the Pacific as he dumped that first novel in the Atlantic; but I cannot forget the hot August afternoon in Kentucky during which I realized my life's dream and became, for the first time, an author.

And even if Web of the City isn't War and Peace, you just can't kill something you've loved as much as I love this book.

So read on and, with a little compassion on your part, you'll be kind to the memory of the punk kid who wrote it.

                                                                        HARLAN ELLISON

That doesn't need further comment from me.  Hell, if you don't know by now why I called this, Write Like Harlan Ellison, it's because you didn't make it this far.