Last night I watched DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, the wonderful documentary on writer and force of nature Harlan Ellison. It’s a fascinating piece that explores the many facets of this quixotic and complex man, who has been a major inspiration in my life.
I first became aware of Harlan when I saw his phenomenal TV episodes of STAR TREK (“City on the Edge of Forever”) and OUTER LIMITS (“Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”) as a kid. This led me to read his short story collections and anthologies, including the game-changing DANGEROUS VISIONS, which went a large way to reinventing and expanding what could be said in science fiction.
One day when I was sixteen my mom came home with a piece of furniture she bought that included a built-in FM radio, the first we’d ever had. Several nights later, I was twiddling the dial and came upon something wondrous – a radio show with science fiction writers actually talking about their craft! This was KPFK’s HOUR 25, hosted by Mike Hodel and Mitchell Harding (under the pseudonym John Henry Thong) and one of their most frequent and outspoken guests was Harlan Ellison. This was before the FCC clamped down on so-called “indecent” language, so you could actually hear Harlan on the air repeatedly calling those who’d offended him – most often network and studio execs — motherfuckers.
It was a huge breath of fresh air, and a revelation to me. I’d grown up reading science fiction but, with the exception of hearing Ray Bradbury talk at a library when I was ten, had never heard any of these other giants of the field actually talking about what they did.
I made it a point to seek out Harlan when he spoke at conventions such as Filmcon in San Diego and the famed science fiction bookstore A Change of Hobbit, run by Sherry Gottlieb. I even sent Harlan a drawing I sketched of him when I was a teenager.
Most importantly, in terms of my career, I heard Harlan talking on Hour 25 about the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, which I then attended when I was nineteen. I sold my first short story there (interestingly enough, HOUR 25 actually aired my first radio play, LOBOTOMY, that year too).
Harlan’s demands that writers not waste their audience’s time, that they aspire to originality and truth, did a great deal to shape my own nature and aesthetic. I remember his once saying that “they don’t hire you for your talent, but for your courage.” Every day, I strive to hold myself to that high water mark.
In later years, we became friends and he did me many kindnesses. He’s a brilliant, opinionated and fiery man (I once opined that he burned his bridges while he was on them). And though he has his detractors, the world is a brighter and far more interesting place thanks to his presence.
I highly recommend you seek out DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, which is available via Netflix as well as other venues. Be sure not to miss the extras on the disc, including a wonderful candid conversation over pizza between Harlan and his good friend Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has such a gentle, loving quality with Harlan, so relaxed and full of regard, that it’s a joy to share time with them.