Remembering Harlan Ellison

by Benn Ray

Twenty five years ago, I worked for Gemstone Publishing on a magazine called Overstreet's FAN. It was a competitor, for those who remember such things, of Wizard Magazine and Hero Illustrated.

It was a job that brought me and my friends who worked there into regular contact with a number of our heroes. There would be arguments in the editorial pool over who was going to do the Alan Moore interview, who was going to call Frank Miller to let him know of a changing deadline for his artwork, who got to see KISS with Todd McFarlane (I won that one), who was going to proof a Neil Gaiman story after it went through layout, etc.

One day, the phone on my desk rang and the receptionist said, "Benn, Harlan Ellison is on the phone for you."

I was not a science fiction fan. I was not a Star Trek fan. But I still knew the name Harlan Ellison and his reputation as a particularly difficult and argumentative person.

So I answered the phone with a cheery, "Hello, Harlan."

When I did, I could sense a sudden stillness around me as the people I shared my workspace with recognized that I had just received an unexpected phone call from Harlan Ellison.

The phone exploded in an angry barrage as he immediately began yelling at me about my movie column.

I had taken over the movie preview section of the magazine. I would list the title of the film, the director, some of the actors and a snarky synopsis.

Harlan was very upset that I didn't list writer credits in my column. Being someone who enjoys a lively debate, instead of admitting that it just hadn't occurred to me and that I would fix that oversight immediately, I said, "That's because movies don't have A writer, Harlan."

Predictably, that set him off even more. What I argued was that while movies have a director who has a singular vision, most movies have a bunch of writers. The director is the auteur - films are the director's vision, not the vision of a pool of writers. Many movies have too many writers to adequately give them all credit with the limited space that I had. I was also probably thinking of word count and how the more names I listed in the previews, the less room for my snark there would be.

As he was yelling at me, I knew I agreed with him. I should credit writers in my column, but I wasn't going to just give it up that easy. After all, it's not every day Harlan Ellison calls you on the phone to yell at you. So we argued for about 5 minutes with me intentionally provoking him until I finally conceded that I would include writers credits in my column.

His tone immediately changed to one of friendliness, and he thanked me and promised to send me a fruit basket.

I hung up and turned around to tell my office mates the story, but they were all watching and laughing in disbelief that not only did Harlan Ellison just call me, but that I had the gall to actually argue with him.

The fruit basket didn't arrive (despite me making references to waiting for it in future columns), but always in the back of my mind, I expected a basket of fruit from Harlan Ellison could show up any day. Now I realize that basket of fruit will never be delivered. Harlan Ellison died on June 27, 2018 at the age of 84.

He was a writer who cared so much about his profession that he took time out of his schedule to call a snotty twentysomething and argue with him about the importance of giving them credit for their work.

(Thanks to my former colleague J.C. Vaughn for reminding me of this story.)

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