Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Harry Harrison

It's been a week now, since Harry Harrison's passing and I feel like I've been remiss in not talking about it. While I've never written any real Science Fiction (my Flash-Challenge piece about Icarus is the closest I've gotten and has me learning a lot about Quantum stuff), it's always held a special place in my heart as a reader. I'm afraid I don't have any heavy insights to add to the masses offered all over the internet in the wake of his passing, but...

While catching up on some blog reading, I came across this post by Neil Gaiman where he shared scans of an article he wrote for Knave in 1984 (if you don't know, Knave appears to be the British cousin of Penthouse), where he interviewed Mr. Harrison. The scans are hell on the eyes to read, so I took the time to transcribe the article as I absorbed it. It is certainly worth sharing.

West of Eden, An Interview with Harry Harrison

Every month Neil Gaiman offers us interviews with top Science Fiction writers, and every month we refuse. (Not an easy trick, the Editor is also a Science Fiction fan.) But at last we crumble. Apart from being one of the very best in this field, Harry Harrison is about to publish... A Bestseller. So here's the man behind West of Eden -- read all about him!

I want you to know that I have nothing against photographers. I mean, some of my best friends are photographers. They are, for the most part, intelligent, good-natured people, frequently good for a drink, a cigarette, or an introduction to one of the models. But photographers do seem to share one fault: an incredibly cavalier attitude about punctuality.

Which was why I was waiting outside the National History Museum with author Harry Harrison, making excuses for the non-appearance of the photographer. I needn't have bothered. He knew all about it. In fact, Harry knew more about the non-appearance of the photographer clan than I did. After all, Harry's been a photographer. Or rather, Harry's been everything. And everywhere. Well, almost.

If you read Science Fiction, you've read something by Harry Harrison, a stocky, white-bearded American, with a growling, rapid-fire voice. He's written books as diverse as the humorous Stainless Steel Rat series, about a far-future super crook, and SF's Catch 22, Bill, the Galactic Hero, to Make Room Make Room, a terrifying study in overpopulation (made into the film, Soylent Green); he's even the author of Great Balls of Fire; A History of Sex in Science Fiction Illustration. Altogether over thirty books, all of them currently in print.

"So where the hell's the photographer?" asked Harry when I arrived. "Late, huh? Photographers are always late."

We waited around for an hour. Harry told me tales of his past -- the time he supported himself by writing for conffession magazines, such stories as "I Cut Off My Own Arm", "I Ate A Pygmy" ("For the photograph we put a doll's arm on a plate and covered it with tinned stewing stgeak. Looked revolting.") and even "I Went Down With My Ship" ("That one was difficult.") Still no photographer.

Harry told me of his time on such magazines as Dude and Gent (defunct American Men's Magazines). Like the time they had to pose a girl with a lion for a 'Beauty and the Beast' pictorial. ("So anyway, there's this gigantic lion, four-inch claws, lying there on the bed next to the girl and it puts its paw on her tit, and the girl says 'Hey! This lion's got its paw on my breast!' so I said, it's OK, it's a female lion. She said 'That's OK, then" and I got the hell out of there...")

Eventually, only one hour late, the photographer arrived. Then we had a brief tussle with the museum authorities over whether or not we could take photos in their museum of Harry and dinosaurs. (We shot them, but I have no idea whether or not you'll see them). Then, with a photographer hell-bent on making up for lost time, we headed out into the big wide world for more photographs.

Why dinosaurs? Well, Harry's just written a bestseller. It isn't actually published yet, you understand (it gets published about the time you read this) but it's due to be a bestseller nonetheless. That's the category it's being published in -- for, like War, Romance, or Western, 'Bestseller' has become just another publishing category, with a certain kind of book jacket and a certain kind of advertising budget. Harry's is called West of Eden, and it is about, yes, dinosaurs. But more on that later.

Finally, near the end of the evening, the photographer ran out of steam, and I got to turn on my tape recorder and ask Harry questions. Like -- how did he get started?

"I started off in World War Two being drafted into the army. Spent four years as a machine-gun instructor and computer gun-sight specialist. Came out of the army and wanked around for a year trying to decide what I wanted to do, eventually went to art school with a lot of famous (today) comic artists and people. Then I wound up editing, writing and packaging comic-books for publishers."

Which one? I wondered. "Nothing you've heard of. True Stories Behind the Postage Stamps, Ranchland Romances. An imitation MAD magazine called -- if you'll pardon the expression -- NUTS. Actually I was even 'Aunt Harriet', the problems page of Ranchland Romances -- can you imagine the kind of people who'd write to the problems page of a comic? 'Dear Aunt Harriet, I'm pregnant and I'm fifteen and I haven't told anyone...'

"I must have done every goddam job in comics and magazines that you can do! Take Men's Magazines. I've written 'em, illustrated 'em, laid 'em out, art directed, written copy. Even shot pictures with someone else's Leica. The whole gamut. I was a publisher, fronting for another publisher. Hell, back then we had to write the readers' letters, I even did that!

"Then there were the Confessions magazines. I had a friend who was a premed student, and he'd tell me true stories which I'd turn into fictionalised confessions. Like "My Iron Lung Baby" -- the punch-line is where the doctor says to the girl in the iron lung is having a baby, 'Squeeze!' and she says 'I can't doc, I have no muscles!' Good stuff, huh?"

Harry moved at this time, with his wonderful wife Joan and their year-old baby, from New York to Mexico, and from there to London. ("Those were the good old days -- two rooms, all-in, three meals a day, just twelve guineas a week.") But those were also the days before the Clean Air Act, and the Harrisons weren't too keen on the pea-soup fogs and clammy air, so they went to Italy, where they lived a year, back to the US for the birth of another baby, and then to Denmark. ("I went for a visit and stayed for seven years, which I suppose tells you a lot about me or Denmark.") Back to California, then to London and more recently, Ireland.

Why Ireland? "Well, we were supposed to be buying a house in London, but the deal fell through. In those days if you bought two round-trip tickets to Dublin you got a free car for a week. So my wife and I wandered round Ireland, and we've stayed there. We don't care where we live as long as we're enjoying ourselves. Ireland is out of the way, but they put a road through our house in California, and I didn't want that to happen again! I've lived in all these strange places for one very good reason -- it seemed like a good idea at the time."

I asked him to tell me a little about West of Eden, his thick and thrilling dinosaur novel.

"Well, there are times in your life when you have an idea that transcends what came before it. And this idea -- what if the dinosaurs hadn't died out seventy million years ago? What would the world be like? I could have just tossed it away on a short novel, in a year, but instead... you see, the thing is that SF is full of closet readers -- like full professors who teach PhD courses -- who are SF fans. So with a few of these friends I worked out the entire world first. A world in which intelligent dinosaurs exist, and then within that world I wrote the book.

"And having been around a long time, I had the time, and the energy, and with thirty-two books in print, the money, to stay alive for three or four years while not writing a book a year, but to take three or four years off and really write to the best of my ability. So I worked my ass off and wrote what I hope is a fairly good novel. You never get all the way... close enough is good enough."

Having read some of the typescript for the book (which I found absorbing) I commented to Harry that his dinosaurs were not just people with scales. "Quite the opposite! I really researched the! Like I worked with Professor Jack Cohen, of Birmingham University. He's the world expert on fertilisation. Working with him I found out more about those rotten lizards than I care to know. He'd say things like 'Eighty-five percent of all lizards have two penises.' I said 'Jack, what do they want with two penises?' 'Well, if one gets tired they use the other one!' And so much of the lifestyle is equally exotic. With the aid of a really good biologist and a really good linguist I built the most alien aliens ever seen from the creatures we saw today in the Natural History Museum. I mean... if a Tyrannosaurus Rex came up to you on a dark night and asked for a light for his fag... you've really met an alien!

"I've dedicated the book to the guys I worked on it with. I could have done it without them, but it would have been a very different book."

And it's being marketed as a bestseller? "Yeah. Big displays, big budgets (they're spending more on the advertising than they paid me for the book!), a big design job, and it has BESTSELLER printed on the cover, so it goes on the bestseller racks of the bookshops. I'm not sure that works all the time, but it's better than just throwing the book out sideways and hoping."

It also beats being a starving writer -- which Harry has also been. At one point in Italy his agent had stopped sending money and Harry was down to his last 100 lira. "I thought I can use the 100 lira either to buy a litre of milk for the baby, or to buy a stamp to send a letter to my agent, asking him again for the money." He wound up getting credit on the milk, and then, in the nick of time, help arrived, in the usual form of Flash Gordon.

He was offered the job of scripting the Flash Gordon newspaper strip, leapt at it and continued doing it for the next ten years. It was to allow him the freedom to continue writing. "You see," he explained, "there are two ways to go freelance. Either you support yourself, or you go for foundations and grants and things; and I found it easier to write -- well, not crap, as Flash wasn't crap -- but stuff I didn't care about, to support what I wanted to do rather than give up the ambiance under which I could write novels.

"My ambition was to earn as much as the lift operator who worked in the publishing house that published my novels. It took me fifteen years to get that far."

Is he rich now?

"No, I'm not rich now, four years ago I had a sixteen thousand pound overdraft. I've broken even now. I have money in the bank, I own my own house, I've stayed alive. Had cars. The kids got educated. That's rich enough. We've lived... not hand-to-mouth, but a lot of times I've had to borrow money from my agent or my publisher, had nothing in the bank ever, but I don't think I'd have it any other way... I'm not asking for praise or anything. That was how I did it. And here I am coming out the other end."

A great deal has changed since Harry started writing SF all those years ago. What does he think of today's Science Fiction?

"DREK! There's too much SF being published. There are too many slots to fill (six books a week instead of six a month). It's also very easy to write fantasy and very difficult to write hard SF." (ie: SF dealing with the so-called Hard Sciences) "So you get boring writers working for boring editors writing boring books."

Is there anybody he'd like to single out for particular blame?

"All of them! Especially what I call the Tears n' Tampax school of SF, all the dragons and dreamsnakes. They aren’t SF and they are just cheating their readers. Harrison's Law of SF states that the centre of SF is hard SF, and without the hard centre you have no periphery. And all we really have is the soft stuff... well, Greg Benford's still writing SF, and Jerry Pournelle's still doing it, but he can't write. Larry Niven thinks he's doing it, but he never got his BA science..."

He shook his head. "I think maybe SF is all over. Maybe it's dead. It might just carry on as Star Wars, Star Trek, and fantasy. But the people writing now just don't know what they are doing. People are exploiting a field that should be exploiting them.

"I remember when Ted Sturgeon wrote Killdozer -- John W. Campbell's Astounding was only paying two cents a word. John told Ted he only wanted a five thousand word story. Ted had this story he wanted published so he said it was only five thousand. Actually it was twelve thousand words -- you had to lie about the wordage and get less money, but the morale was there. These days I don't see any editors who care. No writers who care. The only people who care are the readers -- the readers always care."

We talked about his books and the movies.

"Well, Soylent Green was half and half. While they were filming it I heard Edward G. Robinson asking the director 'Look I don't understand my role in this!' -- as well he might not, it was a rotten screenplay! -- and I went over and said to him, 'Look, I wrote the book, can I explain it to you?' He said sure. I said 'if I live to the year 2000 then you're me. The only guy who remembers what it was like in the good world.' And he went off and put the whole thing together. It was his last film.

"But currently the idea of a Stainless Steel Rat movie is looking good. Bill McCutchion, who did The Scarlet and the Red is getting together money for the film (and remember, we're talking the annual budget of South Korea here. A film costs at least twenty million dollars these days.) There's also this guy, Alex Cox, who wants to do a film of Bill, The Galactic Hero, and he's seeing Roger Corman for finance on that now. Walt Disney have the option on The Technicolour Time Machine."

He's had a clause written into the contract giving him a hundred thousand dollars on the first day of shooting. "It's peanuts to them," he said, grinning.

The Stainless Steel Rat books are Harry's best-known books, with their eponymous hero, the engaging 'Slippery Jim'de Griz, super-criminal and unwilling world/galaxy/universe-saver. I feel the funniest will be the fourth. The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You, an almost-surreal romp through a universe populated by the scaled, the fanged, the tailed and the properly tentacled, all hell-bent on the conquest and destruction of the human-populated galaxy, with only Slippery Jim (in a monster costume) standing between them and total annihilation for us. "Well, all that came from my subconscious, you know. There are all these ugly tentacled things, so they build this slimy pustuled tentacle suit for the Rat to get into -- it's the ugliest thing you've seen in your life -- to penetrate the alien defenses. So he's approaching the alien planet, and there's one of these revolting aliens on his viewscreen, and it was meant to say 'Who are you, why are you entering our space?' all that stuff. Instead I found myself typing 'Hello, cutie?'  My evil subconscious had noticed that to these things this creature was cute! The whole book changed at that point -- it went from a normal book to a case of absolute fucking hysteria! I was laughing as I wrote it! It was absolute nonsense, just one joke after another -- it possessed me. But that was the one line that started it all. People say 'The character took off...' -- characters don't actually take off, it's just your subconscious."

Is he going to write another Rat book? "Only one. A prologue. The Rat escaping from Borstal, starting his career. A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born,. The last Rat book, I can't go on at the other end, otherwise I do The Stainless Steel Rat, Old Age Pensioner.  Six is enough."

What are his future plans?

"Definitely films. I'd like to do the screenplay, expand my horizons -- why not? I'm writing some computer-games based on the books. Perhaps, having been an artist, I view all the arts as a lump. Film, TV, comics, computer-games, novels, short stories: I love them all."

Of English science fiction writers he likes and respects Brian Aldiss. There are a couple of authors he has less respect for (no, I'm not going to say who they are) and he proceeded to make a few wickedly funny jokes about them. I told him that I thought that authors stuck together.

"Oh, we do Even authors whose work I can't read, I'll never knock a fellow author. But I always knock the shits. Some are born shits, some achieve shitdom, and some have shitdom thrust upon them.

"Like these two shits we were talking about. In a way I feel sorry for them, cos in their heart of hearts they know they are bad writers. Like when I was an artist I was a second rater and I knew it. As a writer I'm OK -- there are better writers and there are worse. But it must be very hard, being creative and knowing you're a second rater... I mean, look at you."


"Yeah, you. You're twenty-fucking-three and you're on your way up. But these guys, they've got three or four novels in print, and then they find they are no fucking good. It must be a blow."

Lastly, does Mr. Harrison have any advice to would-be writers?

"Well, sure. Firstly -- Forget it Kid! Then: type double spaced on one side of the paper only, is a good beginning. Or realistically, if you want to write science fiction and make money, read all of SF, so you know what's been done before. Then read mainstream fiction, so you know how to write. Ninety-nine percent of all known SF authors (Brian Aldiss is a notable exception) can't write worth shit!

"Read mainstream authors to get the techniques, the crafts, the skills, learn to parse a sentence, learn to open a story with sincerity, grab the reader with a narrative hook, learn how to open. Captivate your reader. Do what Hemingway said, make sure the story moves at some level at all times. He also said that every good writer has an inborn shit detector, you know, you write the page, then sniff. (He also said 'if you like it then throw it out,' which I think is going a bit far.)

"Writing is a very hard-learned craft and trade. You work at it as hard as being, say, a brain-surgeon. No-one can tell you how to do it: if you do it right you do it, and if you don't you fall on your ass."

And that was almost that.

Later it was decided that some more photos of Harry were needed, and I came along to the studio to waft the dry-ice around (a grossly underrated profession; Dry-ice wafting takes skill, dedication, experience and guts. And a piece of cardboard).

Needless to say, the photographer was late.


Of course, I don't know the copyright issues involved in sharing something like this...   so,  if you own the copyright to this and would like me to remove it from my blog, please contact me (this blog is created through my google account, so it is very easy to reach me privately). For everyone else, here's the source information. 

"West Of Eden" Harry Harrison interview by Neil Gaiman, photographs by John Copthorne p52-56
Knave, Volume 16, No. 8
Cover Date: August 1984
Price: £1.00
Publisher: Galaxy Publications Ltd.
Editor: Ian Pemble
ISSN: 0265-1289

Again, the original article as a scanned image can be found: Here.

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