At Daily Kos, Gary Smith writes about his unexpected run-in with one of my favorite writers (and his), the somewhat cantankerous Harlan Ellison. While working on his not-yet-public (or so he thought) website, Smith had posted some text from Ellison’s heart-rending story Jeffty Is Five as a placeholder.
So last night (this morning, actually) at 1:30 am, I received a phone call. Being in the depths of slumber at the time, I’m afraid that I answered the call with more of a sleep-choked grunt than actual words.
“Is this Gary Smith?” came the voice from the phone.
“Urrmmhh … why? Who’s this?” I replied (quite wittily, I think, for someone less than 5 seconds after awakening).
“This is Harlan Ellison.”
This gets me thinking about my unexpected call from Ellison. It was New Year’s Eve eve (December 30), 2005, but at a much saner time - about 10 PM. After answering the phone, the first thing I hear is, “Whaddya mean I’m uneven?!” I’m trying to figure out who this is yelling at me. (But even at that point, I could tell it was mock-anger, someone acting mad with tongue in cheek.)
I forget my reply, but eventually he told me who he was. I had reviewed several of his books - in fact, had given him a whole section in the fiction chapter - in my first book, Outposts. I gave praise but did say something about an uneven oeuvre. (To be fair, most top-notch writers - or any kind of artist - put out material of widely varying quality, especially the ones who produce prolifically for decades, like Ellison.)
It turns out he was actually extremely grateful for the attention, since I had directed a bunch of new, young readers his way. He said something along the lines of every writer dreading that he’ll be forgotten.
He even offered to send me an autographed copy of any of his books that he had on hand. Naturally, I said no, I can’t accept a gift in exchange for reviews. Hee hee. In reality, I said hell yeah, I’d love to get a personally signed book from one of my favorite writers. I never did get it, but much later I found out that Ellison had a pretty good excuse.
When we talked, if I remember correctly, he was going to be leaving in a few days for a big adventure in the Australian Outback. Soon after that, he had a major heart attack and damn near took a ride in time’s winged chariot.