[Interview] Harlan Ellison Talks ’7 Against Chaos’, Posterity, and ‘Love Letter’ Reviews

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It’s hard to begin any piece on Harlan Ellison without spending half of the allotted word count re-enumerating everything the man has done since hitting the publishing world in the 1950s. The number of awards he’s won is higher than a lot of modern Americans can count (says this writer, half-facetiously). He’s written some of the most memorable episodes of television (Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever”; The Outer Limit’s “Demon with a Glass Hand”). He’s launched and won landmark cases on plagiarism and intellectual piracy (watch the end of The Terminator sometime, for example). Others.

This July, DC Comics is publishing 7 Against Chaos: an epic story of seven individuals joined to stop the unraveling of reality, created by Ellison, Paul Chadwick, and Ken Steacy. Ellison spoke with this writer in April about 7 Against Chaos…but talking with Harlan isn’t a matter of simple Q & A. On the morning of the interview, Harlan’s friend Robert Morales (creator of the controversial and acclaimed miniseries for Marvel Red, White & Black) had passed. The interview went on as scheduled, but the events of earlier affected the conversation somewhat.

BLOODY DISGUSTING: Where I’d like to start is the germination of the idea and the process of doing it because you also said it took about ten years.

HARLAN ELLISON: Well, it’s probably more than ten years. It probably goes back about 20 or 25 years. I got the idea of doing this homage–I mean, I love Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and then, by extension, The Magnificent Seven–I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do The Seven Samurai in space?” I batted the idea around town, and a lot of people had interest in it as animation, but it never came to fruition and I let it sit. And then, about ten years ago, Dan DiDio, a top exec at DC, approached me and said, “Have you got something for a big arc?” And I said, “Well, what about 7 Against Chaos?” And I broached the idea to him and he loved it.

So he took it on with DC, asking me, “Who do you want to do the art?” I didn’t hesitate for a second: “Paul Chadwick,” I said. Paul, with whom I’ve been very, very thick for many years–because I was an early advocate of Concrete–was my dream choice (and, in fact, one of the issues of Concrete has Concrete coming to my home)….I’ve been up to Paul’s studio many times and we’re very, very, very thick and, of course, Kenny Steacy I’ve known forever, we did Night and the Enemy together and we’ve done a lot of other things together. So when it came time for a colorist, Kenny and Paul were also very thick, and Paul suggested Kenny and Kenny said, “Yes, I’m on board.” And we signed up, the three of us, and we all shipped on board at the same time.

BD: You mentioned The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai and Kurosawa was a very hands-on creator of his movies. Since you guys all signed on at the same time, were you all kind of working together and gelling to get the story banged out?

HE: No, I did the story and Paul adapted it as he drew it and filled in the dialogue–much of the dialogue, I did some of the dialogue, but Paul did much of it–and then they gave it to Kenny, who brought a whole new pallet to it. And Paul did four covers because we thought originally it was going to be a 4-issue stand-alone series. Then DC liked it so much, and we’d gone through so many editors (I can’t remember who we started out with, but he was a terrific editor and a really good writer; he’s freelance now, but his name’s slipped out of my mind for the moment) but we went through editor after editor, one of whom was a guy who was incredibly inept and lost something like 20 or 25 inked pages and they were lost for 2 or 3 years, until another editor replaced him, and then another editor replaced him, and now Bobbie Chase is our editor and she’s been doing a wonderful job keeping it all together and getting it, urging it toward the finish line.

BD: I want to back up a little bit saying Paul helped a little bit with the dialogue. Was this something where he was, like, “I have an idea, what do you think, Harlan?” or–

HE: Well, no. My “bible” for 7 Against Chaos–y’know, my original laying-out of the whole story–goes from beginning to end, and there’s a lot of dialogue in it, but Paul would get to a place where there’s no actual dialogue that I had written, yet it was obvious what needed to be said. So he, using my voice, went ahead and filled in the words. Of course, I went over everything after every page was filled in. As pages would come in, I’d go over them and alter anything I thought was slightly off. So it’s really a gestalt.

BD: You had said in another interview that you don’t see things like Paul’s artwork anymore. Can you elaborate on that?

HE: No, that’s true. Paul works the way artists have worked for millennia–which is to say, he uses a brush. He doesn’t just do electronic backgrounds and fill in the foreground figure, which is like phoning it in. You get a full panel. When you see the pages, you’ll be amazed at the amount of detail work and the fullness of it and the depth of it. Paul Chadwick’s art is individual in its form, the way Milton Caniff’s or Hal Foster’s was, the way…I don’t know…Picasso’s was when he was doing whatever it was he was doing. When you look at Chadwick, you know you’re looking at a Paul Chadwick panel.

BD: He has a very distinct style. Sometimes you can see his influences. I saw a little Jack Kirby in some of his Concrete work–that very naturalist kinda take to it.

HE: Art is an osmotic process and we all borrow and we all learn and we all take. Well, as Da Vinci said, “Where I steal an idea, I leave my knife.” We all learn and intuitively add to our own style that which is of use to us. There’s much of Mark Twain in what I write. And then there’s Lovecraft in the way I write, and Clark Ashton Smith, and Dashiell Hammett, and…well, like that.

BD: How would you sell the plot of 7 Against Chaos to an audience?

HE: Well, very simply. It’s like pitching a movie. You [laughs] say, “Mad science creates a great human creation and it runs amok and frightened townsfolk bring it down.” [laughter] This is what I would say: “The Seven Samurai are united by a mysterious figure to save the universe.” And that’s what 7 Against Chaos really means. It is literally seven against chaos. The opening is of pieces of the universe falling apart and the first of the seven being gathered in by the mysterious head honcho. I don’t want to give away too much because it is self-revelatory as it goes along. It’s got a galactic scope, but it’s a very simple, Alexandre Dumas-like adventure tale, written in the grand tradition.

BD: You had mentioned that this is your “swashbuckler” and from what I’ve read from the DC releases, and what you’ve just said, it does seem to fit into that definition of the swashbuckler–a grand adventure.

HE: Yes, it is swashbuckling all the way. There are some scenes that I’ve always wanted to write in my movie career, that I’ve never had the opportunity to write, and I put them in here, so there’s a lot of my movie-writing in this book. It’s a very, very visual book and that’s why Paul and Kenny are two-thirds of my brain. They know me and my dreams so well. We are a posse.

BD: In terms of your writing, you’re well-known, and have said, that you’re interested in stories about characters; where the characters discover something about themselves, something negative or something positive. In a swashbuckler, it’s very easy to get lost in the overall scope of the story. But can readers of your writing expect the same kind of attention to detail and characterization, that kind of turning point, with the seven?

HE: Any readers of this book will find an abundance of that which you might call “Ellisonian” in nature. Each of the characters is very clearly defined and indefatigably separate from the others. Each has his or her own foibles and earmarks, so that they don’t become just stage-players, marching around in the background, carrying a pennant.

BD: Like I said when I saw the first images they released from Paul, I was reminded of Jack Kirby, which was from the golden age of comics. And it wasn’t until the later ’60s–with Jack and others–in which you saw characters who weren’t just walking the pennants in the background. If you read the first issues of X-Men, they get into the characterization of those figures, but it’s still very much a team, and from the way you’re talking, it sounds like these are very distinct individuals who have to figure out how to work together to solve this massive reality problem.

HE: Yeah, and I was very careful–and Paul and Ken were, also, when they visually interpreted what I had written out narrative-wise, they were very careful–to avoid the clichés that you see on television now, where any team is made up of, well, you have one person who’s psychotic, and one person who’s black, and one woman–there will be a token this and a token that. We avoided all that, and let the chips fall where they chose. We may well have excluded some facet of humanity that is considered necessary in cliché television, but in a team like this, where you are limning seven individuals from very different backgrounds, and different worlds, all working toward one goal, you can’t let them turn into an X-Men-like jumble–a potpourri of people fighting with each other and hating each other, and turning into villains, and then turning back into heroes, and then turning back into villains, dying and then coming back. You are required have them turn into a gestalt…so they form one spear that can be turned into the heart of the problem.

BD: And that’s really the purpose–the story itself is them; figuring out how to gel to create that gestalt.

HE: It’s an action-adventure story and I’m not sure it has the great philosophical depth of something as noble as Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, but it is in the grand tradition of Dumas and Maupassant and the classic adventure writers.

BD: Something that came up when I was doing the background for this story–it was an interview you had done with Comic Book Resources, and you had said you hope that people will look back at this project, 7 Against Chaos, and say, “In his twilight years, he was able to produce this level of work.” Stating that, it leads me to ask, do you think your quality has gone down? Because you released “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” two years ago, and it went on to win a Nebula. Is that something you believe is happening, or is it because that you work at a slower pace now than you did in the ’70s and ’60s, that it’s more of a Bop-It–you pop up and then you pop down again. Could you elaborate on that quote?

HE: Elaborating on that quote and trying to be as candid, self-aware as I can be, without hubris and without making much of myself…I have always thought of myself as a blue-collar worker; I sit down at a typewriter and I boogie. I put on some Morricone music for background. All my life, I would sit down on my Olympia Manual typewriter, whether it was an office machine or a portable and I was out somewhere and writing, I would just sit down and I would boogie; crank up the gain on my stereo to 180 decibels and just go.

The image that I have come to believe is accurate, the analogy that I think is accurate, is this: I’m like one of the survivors of that fallen plane on the island in Lost. I’m sitting on the beach, staring at the waves as they undulate in, the tide goes in and the tide goes out, and I don’t turn around and realize that an entire continent has grown up behind me. I’m about a month shy of age 79, and I never expected to get to that age. That’s old. A friend of mine died today who was 30 years younger than I. I’ve known him for 30 years. Even today, I’m amazed that here I am, 78, and still writing. When I see these reviews, and I get an interview like this, with you, it does amaze me. I keep saying, “Well, why aren’t they talking to Leo Tolstoy? Why are they talking to me?” I haven’t been taken over by my hubris, thank god, so much that I’m an egomaniac and I think the sun rises and sets on my shoetops.

And, so, when I look at something like 7 Against Chaos, which is a giant effort–I mean it’s a long story, it’s a complex story–I’m hoping that people will look at it and say, “This has the same freshness to it as Ellison’s best work, at his best period.” One never knows, as an artist, what one’s best period will have been. You just don’t know. Should I be a kid in the outfield in a pick-up baseball game, and you don’t get up to bat unless you catch a fly-ball, and you’re way out in East Wee-Wah, or East Nowhere, and here comes that fly-ball right into your mitt, and it’s the golden moment of your life, and everything else is downhill from there. You don’t know it because you’re eleven years old. So, will people look at 7 Against Chaos and say, as you just did, “Oh, look–at age 78, he was able to write ‘How Interesting: A Tiny Man’ and win a Nebula”? I read these reviews–last week, Publisher’s Weekly had a boxed review of a reissue of Gentleman Junkie and The Deadly Streets and they were both love letters. I mean, here were these two little, originally put out as paperbacks, way the hell back–The Deadly Streets was one of my very, very first collections, it might have been my second or third book. And Web of the City, which was my first novel, has just been reissued by Hard Case Crime, and people are saying this is wonderful stuff and this guy shows all the promise of the best he would become. And I sit back and just grin from ear to ear, like a 3-year-old.

It’s as if someone goes from enfant terrible to éminence grise, in the French, in one heartbeat. It all takes you very sudden; you turn around and there’s a continent growing up behind you.

BD: It seems as if what you just said is almost bittersweet; you say you get surprised at these “love letters.” Do you also just enjoy the fact that people are still reading your back catalogue, they’re not just, “Oh, when’s the next collection? What’s Harlan doing now?”? They can go back and look at something you wrote when you were still a kid in the ’50s and say, “Wow–this is really good. This shows what he would do later on,” as well?

HE: Well, it is with an admixture of wonderment and pleasure. These are very good days for me. There’s attention to my work. And now when they write about me and they write about me the great icon, and I kinda giggle behind my hand and say, “Yes! Yes, of course!” The only thing that’s ever held me back is my humility. [chuckles] I can see how people like Charlie Sheen and people of that ilk go mad with their own celebrity. Fortunately my “celebrity” has been on a level that is based on hard work. And whatever they say about me, or is said about me, or is tweeted about me, if I believed half of it, I would have me put away in a penal institution for the rest of my life or I would have me elected Pope. You become, in the truest sense of the word–not blowing it up and aggrandizing it, but in the truest sense of the word–mythic. Because half the stuff that’s said about me is just bullshit and the other half is true, and the stuff that people don’t know would make your jaw drop. [laughter] When you’re one of the great assholes of the universe, as I am, heir to the throne of the King of Asshole, it is hard to talk about yourself without getting blown up with your own importance. But I am minuscule and, in many ways, a petty man. I’m still harboring grudges from 1949. So, fortunately, I’ve managed, as in The Magnificent Seven, where one of the characters is talking about the honors of being a freelance pistolero…they’re talking about “I’ve survived most of my enemies…” and that’s true: most of the people I’ve wished gone are gone, and the few that aren’t…well, I’m still standing.

BD: Since the ’70s, and the ’60s, when you really came into the mainstream, as it were, you are talked of in iconic terms. One reviewer once called you the 20th century version of Lewis Carroll. And you and I are talking about having humility and–maintaining the fact that you shit like everyone else–you can be petty, you can be awesome, what have you. And you were talking about the fact that you are amazed that you are still writing at this point, but does the weight of posterity sometimes drag you down a little bit, or is it just something you keep in the background and you don’t worry about it until someone like me mentions it?

HE: Well, I’ve always been aware of posterity. Many, many, many, many years ago, I got a T-shirt when I was single that said, “Not tonight, dear–I’m on a deadline.” And you stop to think about how many movies you didn’t go to, or how many times you didn’t get laid, or how many times you had to punk out on going out to a good dinner with somebody, or you missed seeing a concert you wanted to because you were busy writing and you had to finish the story. As Von Kleist said, “I write only because I cannot stop.” I keep writing because I cannot stop. And you have to stop at some point, you have to pause and look at your own shadow like Punxsutawney Phil and say, “Why am I doing this? Everybody retires. Why don’t you stop?” Well, there is no stopping. You have to keep going because of Posterity. And you say, “Oh yeah!” So you’re on this long roadless road that suddenly stops at a cliff and you don’t stop, you just keep going, and your toes are dangling over, as mine are at the moment, and you keep going until it’s over. And at some point you become aware of Posterity.

For me, that happened 3 years ago. At the beginning of this illness that I’ve got, I had been snookered into going to a convention in Madison, Wisconsin, which was the last convention that I did. It was the MadCon 10. They called it “Ellison’s Last Con.”

BD: Oh God.

HE: Like a good con man, like a good grifter! There was a woman there from the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Britannica had sent her out to update my listing, and I didn’t even know I was in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I answered all these questions and they took photos, and I got home, came back to Los Angeles, and maybe about 3 days later, late at night, I was going to bed, and I stopped stock still and I realized, “Oh my God, I’m in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now wait a minute–Abraham Lincoln is in the Britannica. The Alps are in the Britannica. Not me. What am I doing in there?” And I was petrified. I was truly and literally petrified. I stood there for about three minutes and Susan looked down from the bed–we have a slightly raised bed–and she looked down and she said, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “I’m in the Britannica.” And she said, “Yeah?” I said it to a bunch of friends of mine, and they all went, “Duh.” And I said, “No-no-no, you don’t understand. We’re not talking Wikipedia–y’know, where what you took out of your nose is on Wikipedia, inaccurately entered. I’m in the Encyclopedia-fuckin’-Britannica, along with Aescalus and Emile Zola.” Nobody seemed startled by it, but me. Yet Posterity had caught up with me, and I finally, sitting on that beach, turned around and looked at that island that had grown up behind me. I finally looked up at the foothills of the massive work that I have done for almost 79 years. I was…I was both silenced by it, humbled by it, awed by it, and entertained by it. You are what you are, but sometimes you don’t notice what you are. You don’t notice what you have become. And here I am, talking to Paul Anderson, and he’s asking me that question.

BD: You don’t know who you are until someone points it out to you.

HE: Yeah.

BD: Has the idea, “Why don’t I just stop?” occurred to you because, as you said, you’re a really blue collar guy.

HE: Well, I try to stop, or I let weeks go by in which I don’t do anything, and then I sit down and do “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” At the moment, I’m doing an introduction to a reprint of my story, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” which is in The Best American Short Stories, and they’re reprinting it in Poland, and they want to know how I came up with the idea. I really don’t want to say, well, where does the idea come from and I always give that same answer I give everybody: Schenectady. I send in $25 a month to this idea service in Schenectady and they send me a fresh six-pak of ideas.

So I had thought I had stopped writing and people say, “Do you still write?” And I will say, “No, I don’t.” And, yet, I do. I write every day. I write more in a day than I guess most people write in their lifetime. There’s a book they’re gonna bring out called Yr. Pal, Harlan–which is the way I sign myself on my website–and there are a couple million words there that I have put up over the years. And I’ve got things sitting here that’re half-finished that’ll never be done, but in the last year I’ve had ten books published. If they go to harlanbooks.com, they will see publications of some of my scripts that I wrote as movies which were never done. In fact, we’ve got coming out Cutter’s World. We call them “brain movies.” And Brain Movies Number 3, with this full-length novel of mine as a screenplay, called Cutter’s World, is coming this next month. I look at all this stuff, and I say wryly, “Well, I stopped writing,” but ten books in one year? That’s a lot.

BD: You were talking about you still write, and you have had some new books. Some of them are reprints, some of them are collections that you’ve never…collected. Rough Beasts is a collection of your earliest work?

HE: Yeah

BD: If I may, because for someone who’s read Stalking the Nightmare, and read Stephen King’s introduction, which notes this one story called “Invulnerable”–that–that’s one of the hallmarks of the introduction; the missing story. What made you decide to release these old stories that, to you at least, seemed “dated”?

HE: Rough Beasts was a book that I was gonna do for a number of years, and I was either going to rewrite the things that I thought were juvenile in them, or write long introductions that would do the explanations. And it sat here–the publisher that was going to do it went out of business and it just sort of sat here, unattended, until we got into the doing these books on harlanbooks.com–y’know, on-demand–and I said, “Well, we’ve got Rough Beasts here.” And they said, “Let us look at it,” and they loved the stories. And I said, “Well, aren’t they a little embarrassing? Because, y’know, they’ve all been printed, in magazines originally, but some of them 35-40 years old. Aren’t they kinda rickety?” And they said, “No, we love them!” So I said, “Okay.”

I sent “Invulnerable” back to Stephen King and said, “Steve–what do you think of this now?” And he wrote back, “I still love it!” So, I said, fuck it–let’s go. And we did Rough Beasts. It’s a great lookin’ book.

BD: Bringing it back to 7 Against Chaos, which is coming out this July. You’ve worked with Paul and Kenny intimately now on this one project. Would you do it again, or do you kinda have an idea that you’d like to do this again?

HE: Well, not being clairvoyant, I can’t tell what will be. All I can tell is that a project this vast, that took this much time, that took this much individual and gestalt energy, is probably not in the offing. Who knows? Tomorrow is, as they say, another day. I don’t know. Every day is a marvelous new awakening for me and, I guess, my last statement for the interview would be is I have been blessed to being allowed to live The Good Life, the life that everybody wants, that everyone aspires to, whether they know what it looks like or not. I’ve had a long and interesting and variegated life. I never know what tomorrow will hold. I didn’t know this morning that I was gonna get a call that would be all over the net that my dear friend Bob Morales had died suddenly. Young–much younger than I–and he just suddenly died. I had no idea when I went to bed last night that was what my day was gonna be like today. But there it is all over the net, tweeted first by Neil Gaiman–and god knows how he found out about it; I didn’t even know that he knew Bob. But I’ve known the great and the near-great and I’ve shared times with some of the most interesting people of the last 78-79 years. So, what might happen tomorrow could be as interesting as having me interviewed here by Paul Anderson today.

Interview by – Paul Anderson

Paul Anderson is the Acquisitions Editor for Post Mortem Press, edited the acclaimed anthology TORN REALITIES, and acted as creative consultant on the FEAR THE ABYSS anthology. Primarily a short story writer, his work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including INTO THE DARKNESS, by Necro Publications, NECROTIC TISSUE, STORY TIME AT THE WICKED LIBRARY (audio), and THE NEW BEDLAM PROJECT.