Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

June 29, 2018

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Some musicians don’t need a last name. Cher doesn’t. Neither does Beyonce, Madonna, Bjork or Beck. But there’s only one author I can think of whose surname became unnecessary through the sheer force of his personality.

Harlan.

And now there are none left.

Harlan Ellison passed away peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night. We shall never see his like again. Only pretenders and wannabes. Harlan is un-clonable. This DNA is RIP.

He built a career out of being an immensely talented person who would take no shit from anyone. (Not even a megacelebrity, as Gay Talese recounts in the opening scene of his landmark essay, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.”) An individual who dealt with Harlan professionally once told me that s/he figured in to any Ellison financial calculation a “PITA Factor,” which means exactly what you think it does. Not only didn’t Harlan suffer fools gladly, he didn’t suffer the fuckers at all. And in his luminous career he met plenty of fools, because after living the life fantastique, he moved to Hollywood.

Harlan was part of the second wave of fantastic fiction (the third if you count Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but I want to simplify), following behind Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and the other pioneers. His generation — Norman Spinrad, J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, even Kurt Vonnegut — tested the boundaries of what had been known as “science fiction” or “fantasy.” Why was legitimate metaphorical musing on the human condition relegated to a literary ghetto? Somebody (Fred Pohl?) once said, “Science fiction deals with all places in the universe and all times in infinity. Therefore, ‘mainstream’ fiction — here and now — is simply a subset of science fiction.” Harlan began his career in the final days of the pulp-fiction era, when you sold your words by the pound. But I think he was forever torn between wanting to be that world’s hero and wanting to escape it completely.

When he relocated to Los Angeles, it was to write scripts for tv (mostly) and movies (his solo credit, THE OSCAR, was an infamous flop). But he was good at it, a particular natural at fantastic subjects. Harlan wrote “The City At The Edge Of Forever,” which many consider the finest STAR TREK story ever produced, and a couple of his scripts for THE OUTER LIMITS were evidently osmosed so subtly by the young James Cameron that, apres lawsuit, THE TERMINATOR’s end-credit crawl now includes, “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison.”

In print, Harlan wrote shorter fiction almost exclusively, which many feel is harder than writing a long novel because you have to stay precise. All I can tell you is that I consider “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman” worthy of inclusion in 20th-century tip-top short-fiction collections, up there among J. D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Eudora Welty. There are maybe ten more Ellisons that could fit in there too. As with Tom Wolfe (R.I.P.), Harlan’s energy and electricity make the pages crackle, again and again. Man, what a writer. So imagine my consternation after I muscled my way into the book business and heard my first Harlan story. 

A colleague (I won’t tell you who, where or when) answered the phone one day when hisser boss was out for lunch. It was Harlan on the line, furious because of something hisser boss had either done or failed to do (Harlan tended to assume the SUITS were ALWAYS SCREWING HIM), and he screamed at this recent hire, who went ashen: not only were hisser ears being blown off, but the screaming guy was a personal literary idol! After Harlan’s hangup, this new hire seriously considered resigning; it had been that vicious. Agonizing minutes passed. The phone rang again. It was Harlan in apology mode. He realized after the fact (probably with wife Susan’s consultation) that his beef was not with the poor schnook who’d had the bad luck to answer the phone. This schnook told me, “HERE was my hero: he was generous, funny, warm, sincerely sorry that he had upset me. THIS was the artist I loved and respected.” Um, pure Harlan.

You’re going to hear many more Harlan stories in the coming days, and he also won’t be the hero in a lot of them. But all I’m qualified to write about is what has personally happened to me. Though I’m perfectly aware of Harlan’s acerbic nature and have witnessed it at close range, I guess I managed to avoid pissing him off during an acquaintance that lasted more than twenty years, even though I was definitely a suit myself.

I was working in the publisher’s office at Bantam when I heard that Harlan admired the work of Don Coldsmith, who wrote historical novels about the American Indian from the tribe’s point of view. I asked for Harlan’s address and started sending him a copy of each new Coldsmith, out of the blue. Each time, back would come the Ellison method of communication, a 3×5 postcard crammed full of words of gratitude and a joke or two, all typed on a manual typewriter, the lifelong axe of this proud Luddite. Later I became Don’s editor and Harlan’s books began to arrive inscribed: now two cards would come back, one to Don ℅ me. We had still never met. Still later I moved on to science fiction, and one day I found myself at a convention a few feet away from Harlan and a group. I walked up to introduce myself, but he saw my name tag first and bellowed, “Now HERE’S a SMART EDITOR!” He had no idea whether that was true or not, but I’d done some nice things out of simple courtesy, and Harlan Ellison did not forget a kindness any more than an injustice. 

I never redeemed my Brownie points professionally, but we did stay in touch, usually by mail and then later on the phone, maybe once a year or so. One guy was thinking about the other (or Harlan flipped past my name on his Rolodex. Yes, his Rolodex) and had 15 minutes to spare. Only once did Harlan call for a favor. Somebody had told him he was a clue, “Sci-fi writer Ellison,” in that day’s New York Times crossword: would I grab him a copy? (His papers will probably be the most entertaining batch ever inspected.) He checked in after 9/11. I checked in after he had a stroke. All other calls were just how-ya-doin.

He had idly invited me over to his house for a visit next time I was in SoCal, and the chance came up. Before I left my Century City hotel, I said on the phone, “Down South when we say something like this we mean it, but I’m letting you back out now.” “No, no,” he said, ”come on over.” I followed his directions to Sherman Oaks in my rental car — I hate driving in LA! — and they were precise down to the individual bottleneck. My reward was several happy hours eating Chinese takeout and shooting the shit at the fabled Ellison Wonderland. 

Harlan shared something important with Ray Bradbury: they both never grew up. Not deep down where it matters. His home was festooned with the kind of collectibles young boys had a generation before mine: cartoon and Western and space figurines, pop culture oddities, paraphernalia of every kind extending back to the pulp and radio eras. It was the house you dream of when you’re a short Jewish kid in Painesville, Ohio, and real life is an actual physical battle. 

Later I started to write a little fiction myself, and one story in particular, about a world in which a company like Microsoft merges with one like Disney, was so obviously influenced by “Repent, Harlequin!” that I dared to send it to the maestro. He called up a few days later and asked me if I really wanted to know what he thought. Uh-oh. And he calmly, gently explained that I had ruined a great idea with lousy execution. His bedside manner was so deft that I wasn’t thinking, Harlan hated my story (he didn’t, he just thought I’d dropped an interesting ball) so much as, Harlan read my story. My piece was entertaining enough that Gardner Dozois (R.I.P. — what a terrible year this has been for authors, and it’s not even half over) later placed it on his Honorable Mention list in THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, a tyro’s Hugo, so I didn’t feel threatened or crushed. I felt honored, and I took Harlan’s advice to heart. So the same guy who was famous for tearing people new assholes did some delicate laser surgery on me instead, and I’m a better writer for it. 

All he ever wanted was respect (and boy did he get it: he’s probably the most awarded writer there is). That, and for the scribes to get paid fairly by the Pharisees. Most of the articles you’re about to see will probably emphasize Harlan’s pugnacity, but I am living proof that he only resorted to opposition when he felt forced to. I wasn’t really part of his life, but he was part of mine, and I will definitely miss that growl “DUPREE!” on the phone. Any suits at any hereafters which might get the Ellison assignment would be well advised to play by the rules. Or else you’re gonna be so sorry.

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The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Eudora Welty, 1909-2001 (Late)

January 17, 2016

eudora-welty-205x302I wrote this the week Eudora Welty passed away and just found it again after all these years. It’s for her friends and admirers.

Eudora Welty died at the age of 92, in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where she lived most of her life. Until her health became frail a few years prior, she had been a fixture of daily life in her quiet, wooded neighborhood, but not in the way William Faulkner once prowled the streets of Oxford, where the bemused locals referred to him behind his back as “Count No-Count.” Miss Welty—for that is how everyone addressed her until they were sweetly admonished to use her first name instead—was a genteel, beloved, active member of the community. She could be seen pushing her grocery cart through the aisles of Jitney Jungle #14, inside its absurd and incongruous “English Village” façade, straining to reach a can on the top shelf but always bearing her beatific smile. She was a regular at Fannie Mae’s hair salon, where gab was as important as styling. One might easily pass her walking on the street in the sultry summer twilight. Never did anyone stop, point, whisper that they were in the presence of one of the towering figures in American letters.

That’s because Miss Welty did not tower. Her work did that for her.

She possessed two talents that many writers of prose tend to overlook, and about which most hotshot screenwriters, judging from their output, can only dream: Eudora Welty had exceptional eyes and ears. Her authorial might derives from a gloriously detailed visual atmosphere, and from her uncanny ability to replicate, and then enhance, the quirky Southern idiom she heard every day and had stored in memory from her girlhood. She enjoyed watching others exercise those talents, too, and was an ardent theatergoer in a time when Jackson sported more than one credible company. She served on the board of directors of New Stage Theatre, the pioneering group that had opened its doors in the mid-Sixties with a raging production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at a point when the community was more accustomed to the likes of SOUTH PACIFIC, and she saw nearly every show there. That’s how I got to know her, and that’s when she became “Eudora” to me.

At cast parties in the ornate residences of Southern ladies who lunched, in the rarefied social strata unlocked by her accomplishments, she would come up to the smitten amateur actors and bestow the kindest praise. She didn’t like everything she saw and she told you so, but her scorn was usually reserved for the playwright. I always wanted to say, compared to what you do, we’re five-year-olds putting on a show with flashlights in Daddy’s living room. I even suspected that her enjoyment might be something like what Daddy feels for his lisping children. But that’s not how one accepts a compliment gracefully, and Eudora was the living embodiment of grace.

Once Ivan Rider, then New Stage’s artistic director, invited me to dinner with Eudora, just the three of us. Wow! I looked forward to the event eagerly but nervously. What could I possibly say to amuse her? After a cocktail or two—and she was never shy about cocktail hour—I realized she was using a conversational gambit that comes in handy any time: we were talking about me. But whereas most of us coax someone onto the subject of themselves just to break the ice, Eudora was simply feeding the natural curiosity that made her an unique cross between an artist and a journalist. Ivan had conspired to serve barbecued shrimp, a New Orleans delicacy. To partake, you throw some old newspapers on the table, dump out the shrimp, put on bibs and any other protection you might have, and peel your way through the spicy, delicious mess. Eudora said this was a great dish because its sloppiness washed away any pretense, and diners would always “rise from the table as friends.” By this time, she was talking about herself. She’d just read a novel by a then-fashionable and wildly successful Southern author, and was not impressed: “Honey, you may think you’ve got it. But you don’t.”

The last time I saw Eudora, a friend had asked if I might facilitate some inscribed books for Christmas presents. Eudora insisted that we both come over. On the day, I was mortified that my friend was lugging an imposing stack of COLLECTED STORIES—I thought too many. But its author couldn’t have been more gracious, as ever. On her table was the current issue of Newsweek, with its stark black-and-white cover photo of John Lennon. She was quite disturbed over Lennon’s murder, not as a Beatles fan—she said she liked some of their melodies but I didn’t sense any particular passion—and not just for the potential work that the world wouldn’t get to hear, but chiefly for its meaninglessness; why slaughter an artist who had never hurt anyone? The culture of insanity had already introduced itself with Charles Manson, but we had not yet arrived at the point where schoolchildren took revenge on their tormentors with bullets. Eudora was perplexed over Mark David Chapman. Her vast empathetic skills were of no use here. She couldn’t put herself in his place. In the ensuing years, I’m sure she had to wrestle with this problem again and again, but by then I had moved away, to New York. And then she was gone.


A Toy That’s Just My Type

November 16, 2014

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“Doris, take a letter!”

Have you ever heard anything like that? Dialogue in an old movie doesn’t count: I mean with your own ears in real life. The chances are greater if you’re older, greater still if you’re a woman. (And you may substitute any name, male or female, you wiseacre.) I’ll bet most of you haven’t, though it was once as unremarkable a phrase as the also-obsolete “this is where we came in.” (See footnote*)

“Take a letter” is the sound of a executive asking his (usually his) secretary (not “assistant,” secretary or steno, or, pace Kurt Vonnegut, member of the “Girl Pool”) to listen to him dictate a business letter, take down every word in shorthand on her (usually her) note pad, then go back to her desk and type it up for his signature. It is the way business was conducted for decades, and it was done this way because the executive hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a typewriter.

We’re all made aware daily of the tremendous technological changes brought about by the ubiquity of digital devices over a fast (until you compare America’s infrastructure to the rest of the computing world’s, that is) broadband connection. But an even more vital cultural shift was in play long before the Internet revolutionized communications. In order to use a computer, you have to be able to type. So these days, everybody has learned. There isn’t just a computer on every desk. There’s also a keyboard.

There may remain a few emeritus execs who are senior enough to remember the steno pool, but today they are as rare as the three-martini lunches they once enjoyed. When these gents were growing up, typing was literally for girls. High schools offered classes, but they were as overwhelmingly female as “home economics”; the boys were in shop class. (The forward-thinking few who counterintuitively reasoned that typing class was therefore a great way to meet chicks tended to do well later in life, but they were still the few.) Young women dominated because typing class was seen as preparation for a job as a secretary, of which there were millions. Certain men made their living as typists, but as the operators of linotype machines.

Typewriters transformed the act of writing and dominated it for more than a century after their invention in the 1860s: now all output was eminently legible, no matter how ragged the author’s cursive scratching. But operating a typewriter is a skill, taught and learned — and without this skill the keyboard is useless.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Most writers I know who are anywhere near my age were fascinated by the limitless potential lurking inside their first typewriters. It’s the same feeling rockers describe upon beholding their new guitars. My first axe was a portable Smith-Corona whose hard carrying case latched over the top. Without the upper snap-on, it was light enough to rest on my lap in a chair or on the bed. It was the most amazing thing my fifth-grade eyes had ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a word this machine couldn’t reproduce so beautifully that anybody could read it! Hallelujah!

There was only one problem:

I didn’t know how to type.

The fullness of time has instructed me that I probably should have found somebody to teach me proper touch typing (those classes were in high school, still a few years off), just like I should have had somebody explain correct left-handed guitar stringing before I taught myself chords from right-handed sheet-music pages. Once their fingers are properly seated (that’s why there’s a tiny raised ridge on the F and J keys below your very fingers today), touch typists can type their asses off without referring to the keyboard, the same disdain employed by sight-reading musicians. That skill really helps, trust me. But, swimming upstream like the sturdy salmon (I flunked metaphor class), I got by, enough to casually entertain on the one hand and earn a living on the other.

I learned how to type by, well, typing. When I tell you that I began by copying some of my favorite Poe, Bradbury and Asimov stories single-spaced onto yellow legal-pad sheets (Shakespeare was just too quirky and difficult), you might at first think me extreme. But you would then be surprised (as was I) by the handful of professional authors who have told me they also did such copying as kids. There must be something universal about watching the wonderful words flow through your fingers and land on the page. If you’re attuned to the feeling, it fuels the fantasy that you could make them up yourself one day. Nuts? No more than communing with a record by playing air guitar. The simple mechanical process of retyping something you love engenders a real kinship with the author — even with Poe, who never saw a typewriter in his life.

There are actually still tons of writers whose prose arises outside the QWERTY board. Rod Serling, my all-time favorite crafter of dialogue, spoke his scripts into a Dictaphone for “Doris” or whomever to type up. My ole pal Kevin J. Anderson dictates first drafts to this day into a recorder while he’s exercising his body on hikes, the best self-administered healthcare program for an author that I’ve ever encountered. (When Kevin was just starting out, he used to economize by staying with us when he came to New York, and I can tell you, this guy worked well into the ((Eastern time)) night, and he did it on a keyboard. But by this point in a given project he was refining, not creating.) Tom Robbins writes his first drafts in longhand on a legal pad. So did Don Coldsmith, and that’s also how Jerry Seinfeld composes his bits. Harlan Ellison owns a sick number of replacement parts because he never wants to quit using a typewriter in favor of what I and nearbout everybody else is using right now: a word processor.

Point being this: if you have the basic talent, you can approach this writing bidness anyhow you frickin want, bucko. I’m not imputing any particular mojo onto a mechanical keyboard, but I do definitely declare that when toddlers can type in a Sesame Street way, that means the skill devolves to everybody lucky enough to attend a school where teachers actually motivate their students. Typing these days equals basic communication, even through rapid thumb-fire texting. If you can’t type, you can’t talk. Self-publishing on Amazon is simply the logical end result. When you see infants in strollers happily tapping their colorful tablets, you’re forgiven for getting that little frisson at the back of your neck: what happens when these kids learn how to type? I don’t know, mate, and neither do you.

* For most of the glory days of Hollywood, right up to the Seventies and the era of the blockbuster, most feature films played continuously and you could enter and leave the theater whenever you wanted, even in the middle of a movie. You would then see the part you missed during the next performance, until you recognized the part “where we came in.” (Alfred Hitchcock famously upended this practice for the original 1960 run of PSYCHO, forbidding theater owners from letting anyone in once the picture had started. Disgruntled patrons were forced to wait in line out front, giving the impression that PSYCHO was a lines-around-the-block hit — and then the hype legitimately came true.) The phrase came to mean, loosely, “You’re repeating yourself.”

Adventures In Editing, Part VI

September 18, 2014

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So far we’ve been ruminating about the care and feeding of different kinds of authors. How does it work when your author isn’t an author at all? That’s what you face when you enter the land of celebrity books, always one of the hottest aspects of publishing.

I’m not talking here about biography, which doesn’t require the cooperation of the subject. I edited beautiful bios of the writers Terry Southern and Michael O’Donoghue and a haunting account of the parallel lives of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, and in all three cases we had access to some private material — each of those books is the last word on its subject and will be used as a reference from now on — but no estate had any input into, or approval over, the finished manuscript. What I’m getting at instead is celebrity autobiography, usually by a star of stage, screen, sound or sport, or by a politician who is planning to run for President.

Pop-music autobios have always interested book publishers, nearly all of whom are boomers or later. And just now a notable subset is doing pretty good business: the Summation of the Aging Rock Star. It was probably kicked off by Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES and Keith Richards’s LIFE, both huge bestsellers and genuinely good books, which have encouraged a host of other musicians (or at least their managers) to crack open the laptop: a month rarely passes without the announcement of another classic-rockin’ book contract.

That’s figurative, of course, the laptop: most celebrity books are co-written by someone who at least has recorded hours of tape, at most researched and reconstructed a life and spit it out in the subject’s voice. The good ones are so good that you can’t tell the difference. They’re credited as “with” or “as told to” in teeny type on the book cover. There’s no shame in that: it doesn’t mean the celebrity is incapable of forming a sentence, only that she became famous for something other than writing a book, and the best way to get an assured voice on the page is to hire a pro. (I heard that Bob Dylan actually wrote his book himself, and there are undoubtedly others who’ve rolled up their sleeves as well. David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS isn’t about his life but his art, yet it sure feels like it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.) There are also people who have celebrity thrust upon them, like Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who safely landed a huge Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009. To write his book, the captain collaborated with a pro — not a “ghost writer,” since Jeffrey Zaslow’s name is right there on the cover. My old friend Bret Witter is making quite a career out of helping “ordinary” people relate their extraordinary narratives; he’s now officially a multiple New York Times bestselling author.

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Musicians who write their own material are artistic cousins to authors; they’re firing similar synapses. Actors, on the other hand, and especially sports stars, are confronted with a type of expression that is utterly foreign to them. Their talent isn’t a natural fit with the process of writing a book. In my experience, some have been better than others in bridging the necessary gap. Once my company published a very famous athlete who was confronted with some incendiary comments in his book (you want to make news if possible), and not only did he deny making them, he was also a little too candid when he denied having read his own autobiography. That’s one extreme.

It all comes down to the individual, and one common attribute. When you’re evaluating a celeb proposal, you’re not only trying to predict how much interest there could be out there, you’re also judging the subject’s ability and plausibility as a storyteller. Because that’s the heart of any celebrity autobio, and here’s where actors regain some advantage, particularly those who’ve enjoyed long careers. It is the rare actor indeed who isn’t also a raconteur. If you can get that delightful quality on paper, you’re in for some fun.

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It helps if you yourself enjoy the subject’s work, though you normally can’t go so far as to persuade her to do a book (I made a pest of myself trying to talk the Lucasfilm folks into asking George Lucas to consider an autobio in his own voice. Wouldn’t you like to read that?). The already-assembled package usually lands on your desk through an agent, who is shopping the personality as much as the proposal. Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes generate a book on your own. In the mid-Nineties we kept seeing hilarious, so-retro-they’re-hip cartoons by one “P. Revess” in places like the (late, lamented) Oxford American. I made a few calls, searched on this new Internets thing, and tracked down Michael Kupperman in my very own New York. I called him up out of the blue and asked him if he might consider doing a collection of his work, along with some new material. At first (he later told me) Mike suspected it was a prank call. I invited him down to the office to establish my bona fides, and a year or so later we published SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET; in a sense, it’s his autobio. No agent was involved, by the way. I’ve published two other books sans agency, but in all three cases I knew the authors’ work-ethics very well (one reason to have an agent), and each time I proved worthy of their trust by doing everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me (the other reason). Mike has since gone on to greater things, including a cover illustration for Fortune and many inside illos in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and he’s seen some of his work animated for television. Last year he won the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics industry. I didn’t discover Michael Kupperman: those magazine editors did that. But by God, I published his first book, which introduced him to Robert Smigel, who brought his stuff to tv…

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As I said, it helps if you’re a fan. Some celeb books are bought because somebody at the publishing house wanted to hang out with the notable, and that can be tremendous (if expensive) fun. I “inherited” (see Part III) the autobio of the incomparable Al Green when I got to Avon Books, and upon putting it together after heroic work by Al’s co-author Davin Seay, there finally came that wonderful moment when the finished books showed up and the angels sang. Al (or “Reverend,” which is what everybody in his entourage calls him) came to New York to meet with us, do a signing or two, and headline a Central Park concert opened by Odetta. (!) I’d ridden in Rev’s limo to take him to to lunch and then the book signing; we talked about Memphis and music, it was an out-of-body experience in that I remember thinking how lucky I was while words were still coming out of my mouth. Rev invited me to bring my wife backstage before the concert, and we found his trailer just before Odetta went on. He hugged me like I was a long-lost brother (he’d met me only the day before), and after kissing my wife’s hand, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Tonight, I’m going to sing ‘Simply Beautiful’ for you.” As we were strolling away toward our seats, Linda noted, I realize that was probably the five millionth time he’s used that line, but my knees still got a little wobbly. I have never met a more adept, more piercing, more sex-exuding, let’s say ladies’ man, than the Rev. Ever. And it only happened because I happened to be a book editor. That’s what I mean: to enter such a milieu, book publishers fight for celebrities.

You may be a fan, yes, but as an editor you have to play dumb. Any celebrity autobio has to be understandable to a reader who’s never heard of the author. You can’t assume the reader knows about the time her boyfriend did that thing, or the day they got thrown out of that hotel. You can’t assume anything; the subject’s life should be understandable to a Martian. (Besides, if the reader knew everything, why in the world would he need to buy your book?) The exception that proves the rule is, you guessed it, Bob Dylan. His highly enjoyable CHRONICLES begins in medias res and jumps around in time, fitting his mercurial, iconoclastic nature perfectly. Some find it excruciating to make the leap. When I was at Bantam, we’d held the contract on Hugh Hefner’s mega-late autobio (wouldn’t you like to read that?) for many years, then one day the accountants said: time to clean house, cancel the contracts that are just fairy tales and get our money back. At Avon, we had a deal with Todd Rundgren to do the most amazingly creative autobio I’ve ever imagined. Upon inheriting the project, I was so reluctant to jettison it that I invited Todd up to the office to see if he was still serious. He showed up and said he was. But I think his creative eyes were bigger than his creative stomach, because he couldn’t make any progress and we had to cancel, me sobbing all the while. (It would have required die-cuts, a different kind of press run…don’t get me started!)

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One intangible which you frequently only discover on the fly is, how active will the celebrity be in promoting the book come crunch time? With a politician or a notable who is pushing a particular social issue, well, as the old saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be in Washington is between [POLITICIAN’S NAME] and a camera. (Conservative gasbags are having fun piling on Hillary Clinton right now, but Henry Kissinger — who, it’s safe to say, is not running for President — has been nearly as ubiquitous promoting his new book.) And book publicists, who usually spend too much of their day hearing the word no, enjoy finding themselves able to apportion appearances by their famous temporary clients. But artists and athletes have such a range of personalities that sometimes a guaranteed number of signings or tv appearances becomes a contractual deal point. No promote, no check. I’ve noted reluctance in some celebrity authors (interestingly, never directed at their fans), but then there were people like Richie Havens who not only played music at his signings, but also lunched with booksellers and spent hours autographing books and posters for key accounts. That’s another extreme.

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Booksellers, especially staunch independents (of which there are never enough, my friends), are sometimes ambivalent about celebrity publishing. Does a wall full of gold records give this “author” any right to the hallowed lectern occupied last week by Margaret Atwood? Most of these people have never set foot in my store before and never will again! But as I say to anyone who’ll listen, anything that causes anybody to enter a bookstore is good for everybody, whether the come-hither attraction was Jorge Luis Borges or David Lee Roth or Kathie Lee Gifford. A rising tide lifts all bookselling boats, in a bit of cultural magic most recently performed by young Master Harry Potter. All true book professionals are pleased (ok, maybe a tad jealous too) when anything becomes a huge hit, because it brings in customers all set to read something and eventually inquire about something else. The unfortunate part is that a year or two after any trend establishes itself, all the lesser pretenders show up, just as in movies and tv. Where books are concerned, I think the paranormal teens have just about worn themselves out in favor of the ordeals of Hungry Divergent teens, but, as noted, right on cue, here come the geezer rockers to make their grandparents happy!

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Publishers guarantee too much for celeb autobios because they bid against each other and it often boils down to, which house employs the biggest fan? You have to get your money back quickly because every year the notable’s career continues puts your book that much farther out of date, and only a well-researched, dispassionate biography can stick around long enough to strike gold on the backlist. Why are there so many serious bios about dead people? Hmmmm. Very few autobiographies can stand the test of time, and the ones that can damn sure don’t come from the entertainment field. But try not to begrudge the “author” who never picked up a book when s/he was in school. Maybe it’s nothing more than time for a little literary payback.

NEXT: Some final thoughts as our Adventures In Editing conclude.

 Previous Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part V


Richard Matheson, 1926-2013

June 26, 2013

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Ray Bradbury brought poetry to fantastic fiction and Rod Serling popularized it for the masses, but a third man was arguably the field’s most influential writer since H. P. Lovecraft. This was Richard Matheson, and if you don’t recognize his name as easily as those others, don’t worry: authors sure do. What Mr. Matheson did has since become commonplace, but in the mid-Twentieth century he hacked a path through weird fiction as if he were carrying a machete, and the writers who followed his trail are legion – and legend.

When Mr. Matheson’s first bylined professional short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950, “horror” fiction was almost exclusively Gothic: set in dank catacombs or haunted mansions; told in an ornate, almost self-parodic style which might have been contemporary to, say, Edgar Allan Poe, but was growing tired in any lesser hands (and nearly all were lesser) than that odd antiquarian’s, the thirtysomething “Old Gentleman,” Lovecraft.

“Born of Man and Woman” is a “short-short.” It can’t be more than two thousand measly words. But crammed into those few pages is enough dread and otherness to fill a whole novel. It’s a tour de force, in both form and content, that jolts everyone who comes upon it. It’s set in a dungeon, but a far scarier one than those of puffy-shirt-era period pieces. There are modern touches: automobiles, a movie-star magazine. But the power issues from its point of view, and it’s a master class in the Lovecraft method of letting you fill in the details for yourself. Your imagination is more frightening than anything you can be told, as anyone knows who enters even a familiar room in pitch-blackness.

Mr. Matheson’s lasting contribution to fantasy fiction was to bring it into the present. It’s easy to shake off the events in an ancient Transylvanian castle, or to dismiss Colin Clive’s histrionic ravings at the dawn of the sound era in cinema, because we encounter them today at some remove. But when a pedophile abducts a child at the local McDonalds (Stephen King’s story “Popsy”), it’s suddenly a great deal closer to home. Mr. King is probably the most fervent Matheson acolyte: he’s certainly the very best at dropping strange events into the most mundane settings – turns out it’s far creepier that way. Without Richard Matheson, not only don’t you have Stephen King, but neither Dan Simmons, Rick McCammon, Joe Lansdale, Clive Barker, Peter Straub – all of them and many more are indebted to the guy who proved you can unnerve people even in full bright daylight.

Mssrs. Matheson and Serling crossed paths after the former had already turned to screenwriting; oddly enough, Mr. Matheson wrote most of those puffy-shirted Roger Corman “adaptations” of Poe stories. He was a frequent writer for the original TWILIGHT ZONE (I used to love it when Mr. Serling did a billboard for next week’s episode and used writers’ names; that’s also how I first heard of Charles Beaumont), including an adaptation of his own story “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” the one with William Shatner and the gremlin. Other Matheson stories auto-adapted for ZONE included “Third From the Sun,” “Death Ship,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Long Distance Call,” “Steel,” and “Mute.”

“Button, Button” became a big 2009 movie with Frank Langella called THE BOX. “Duel” inaugurated Steven Spielberg’s feature career. And Matheson novels are all over the screen: I AM LEGEND (filmed no fewer than three times), THE SHRINKING MAN (Universal added the word INCREDIBLE and changed it to WOMAN for Lily Tomlin), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, BID TIME RETURN (you know it as SOMEWHERE IN TIME), HELL HOUSE, A STIR OF ECHOES.

If there’s a quickie narrative thread, it’s probably paranoia, but even more important is the same thing that continues to propel Mr. King’s career: these guys each draw recognizable characters that you might meet in the checkout line, and they can both spin, as the Brits say, a ripping yarn. Mr. Matheson didn’t even require spooks. I remember one of the happiest publishing days in my good friend Gary Goldstein’s life came in 1991, when he signed up a new Matheson Western(!) for Berkley Books. JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS was so sublime that it won the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Novel — and the author was a Western newbie.

I have a beautiful Matheson volume, COLLECTED STORIES (1988) from Jeff Conner’s Dream/Press. I hate to pull it out of the slipcase too often, because it’s signed by the author and I don’t want to mess it up from overuse. But it’s been out and open for the last few days, and I’ve been reading here and there. It is amazing how much of the short fiction holds up after as long as 63 years (“Born” hasn’t lost a drop of juice in that half century-plus). That’s the best thing about being – or reading – a great author: his work renders him immortal. Richard Matheson became immortal this past Sunday. And while we certainly grieve with R.C. and the rest of the family, at least we have his undying legacy to sustain us forever.


5 Things I Learned Upon Being Freshly Pressed

May 23, 2013

This blog recently got “Freshly Pressed” by our host, WordPress. That means an editor stumbled in and decided to feature a particular post of mine, underlining its existence to the whole WordPress “community,” which is god knows how many bloggers. The net effect over three days or so was a ton of new readers of my “Adventures in Editing” series, many of whom sampled other posts as well, to my immense satisfaction. (Though still not as many in aggregate as showed up one single day in 2011 when I posted the first “Editing” installment, and it got noticed, then tweeted, then re-tweeted, etc. The viral deal is still the most effective method of rapid transmission. In olden days, we used to call this word of mouth.) Nevertheless, Fresh Pressing brought in lots of new eyeballs, so thank you, WordPress. For my take on my Pressing experience, look directly to the right. One may display the “widget” at the top of the column only upon WP’s award. It ain’t exactly a medical degree for the office wall, but still, I’m not complaining, I’m bragging.

I have been floating in a tiny WordPress backwater since I started this journal in 2009: in general, only people who already know me have tended to tune in, which is OK with me too. I’m fine with anyone who wants to “follow,” but the many curious newbies I’ve managed to Freshly Impress in the past few days may be only interested in one or two topics, and I’m not sure I can satisfy them every time. I’m really glad they’re here, but I’d rather roam instead. So let’s see how many hang on for the long haul.

Now the stallions have turned back into mice and my daily page views are gradually reverting to the mean. But being a WordPress soopahstah for a few days has shown me a few things that I never would have guessed otherwise, and when you, the WordPress blogger, accept a Fresh Pressing, you should remember them:

  1. There are lots of spam “followers,” despite WordPress’s generally great spam filter, and some aren’t so easy to spot. Once you get Freshly Pressed, the gates open. You get “comments” written in perfect English, but they’re robocall-ish, and a peek at the sender reveals all. You get people who are following you only because they hope you’ll click back: for example, I just now got a notice that I’m being followed by a blogger called “qualitydiabeticsocks.” I have sent the obvious dross to spamland, so good riddance, and I don’t mind if “qualitydiabeticsocks” gets an email every time I post – but I didn’t know such begging even existed until I got Pressed. There have always been obvious spammers who aren’t fluent in English, like those sad-making, emailing “Nigerian princes” who want to “give you money,” but this is another level of sophistication. Fortunately, nobody can post on this site without first being approved by me. But get Pressed and you’ll soon encounter an entirely different class of spammer.
  2. There’s a 14-year-old kid out there who thinks he’s Lenny Bruce. (I take him at his word on the age.) He likes to riff on the titles of Freshly Pressed posts, which often give him great ammunition when taken out of context. If you get Pressed, you’re probably gonna get mocked too. Sometimes his stuff is indeed funny, but not as often as he imagines it is. Keep plugging, kid, say I, and one day you too might be in the SNL writers’ room wishing you were anywhere else on the goddam planet.
  3. WordPress bloggers are more likely to talk back than is the general public. I love that. I’ve always wanted the dialogue (that’s what the name of my blog means, after all), and these are mostly people who are sending out their own blog posts for the same reason, to get some two-way going. I hip my Facebook friends to each new post, and lately most of the back-and-forth has unfortunately been over there, where it’s ephemeral, rather than here, where it sticks around. The bloggers who have gravitated my way in the past few days tend to feel the same way, and are much more willing to endure the moderation process, which may be annoying but is also quick and permanent — you only need my thumbs up for your first post; after that, your comments go straight onto the site. (Unless you suddenly decide to start selling quality diabetic socks.) I’m every bit as gratified when you talk back as when you read in the first place, and bloggers tend to be chatters, so thanks, WordPress, for bringin ‘em on.
  4. There are many, many writers on WP. We’re all crawling, scratching, etching our thoughts into some verbal sculpture that others might recognize as notable. Dudes and dudettes, I know the feeling. You don’t need payment. You just need the rush. Many of you are super-inventive, and I have been constantly amazed at how many permutations there actually are. I was once an editor, which is what “Adventures in Editing” is all about, which is probably what helped Press me in the first place. But I’ve been inundated in the last few days by what I judge to be talented writers (yep, even the sophomoric Lenny Bruce kid), who are dying to find a proper forum. Your biggest hurdle will be to forget about writing like somebody else and start carving out your own niche. They always say write about what you know. That’s still damn good advice: to seek reality (even if you’re writing about ETs or dragons) by working outward from what you can see and smell and taste and feel every day. I’ll call to the witness stand, oh, Scott Nicholson. Read this guy. He plugs and plugs. He’s innately good – as are quite an impressive few of you! – but his best stuff doesn’t issue from what he learned reading King and Matheson and Poe and Lovecraft and all the rest. It comes from what he experiences on a typical North Carolina day. And you have just as much raw material as Scott does, if you’ll only use it. Thus endeth today’s sermon. By the way: if you don’t read, don’t write.
  5. You need a “round number” like 5 or 10 or 25 to constitute one of these come-hither blog headlines, so here’s the last one. Sorry if you think I’m imploding at the end and cheating you out of something, but hey, that’s postmodernism. Meanwhile, I loved being a WordPress princess for a few days, and I invite you all to stick around, keep posting, talk back whenever you like, and above all, take care of each other.

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