The Night I Had Dinner With Harlan Ellison

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Most writers are blessed with wonderful delusions of grandeur and consequently, we think everything we write is better than most of our peers. However, even the most arrogant of writers still have one or two idols. The men and women we admire for their craft. The ones we look up to. The ones we have to admit are better than us and we wish we could one day get a glimpse of the plateau upon which their writing resides. For me, those idols are Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

For Harlan Ellison, that idolized writer was Cornell Woolrich.

Harlan Ellison once wrote a story about the night he met Cornell Woolrich.

Now, I have a confession to make – I never heard of Cornell Woolrich until I read the story Harlan wrote about meeting him. That made me feel a little ashamed – to know nothing about the idol of my idol. I need to go read some stories by Cornell Woolrich.

Harlan should be a lot more famous too.

People who love to read and who are into fantasy and science fiction and comic books have all heard of Harlan Ellison. Unfortunately, no one else has. After I met the man I began to excitedly tell people, “I met Harlan Ellison! He invited me to dinner with him!”

Only one of my friends congratulated me and said, “You did what!? That’s amazing! How did you meet him? You’re so lucky!”

Everyone else said, “Who?”

When you’re misanthropic to begin with, it doesn’t bode well for your love of humanity when no one has heard of one of the few people you admire.

Look, if you don’t know who Harlan is, do yourself a favor and go watch some of his videos. Then, pick up a copy of “The Essential Ellison” and read it.

So, how did I meet Harlan? The story goes like this…

In the Fall of 2013, I started a blog called “InkShard” as a way to try to promote myself as a writer and sell some books. Among the videos I was creating, I decided to do some book reviews of other authors.

One of the first books I reviewed was a huge 1500 page book of short stories from Harlan Ellison called “The Essential Ellison.”

After posting my review, I decided to promote it on a message forum on Harlan’s official website. I didn’t think much of it. I figured maybe some of his fans might check out my video and that would be the end of it.

Well, as it turns out, Harlan himself read my review and he loved it. The next day, he posted a reply asking me for a printed copy.

What!?

Let me again emphasize how important Harlan is to me. Growing up, I had two authors I admired. Ray Bradbury. Harlan Ellison. These men were gods. I read their books. I watched their interviews. I saw their movies. I was obsessed with their TV shows. Most of my predominant influences in storytelling all revolved around projects these two men created. Bradbury and Ellison had a command of language I could only dream of attaining. Their vocabulary, their poignant verisimilitude, far exceeded anything I ever accomplished. My most brilliant writing was a mere kindergarten story next to their majestic verse.

So, when Harlan responded personally to me, asking for a copy of my review, I nearly fell out of my chair. This was like being an aspiring astronaut and having Neil Armstrong say he wanted a copy of a book report you did on him.

The part that freaked me out the most was that he asked me to call him.

Call him!? On the telephone? Speak to him?

Funny thing was, Harlan didn’t give me his number. He just challenged me to find it. Said I was a smart guy and I’d figure it out.

He was right. I found it. But I didn’t call right away.

Let me reiterate, I’m an arrogant bastard. No one impresses me. No one makes me starstruck. I’ve worked on movies with big celebrities and been friends with TV stars. I don’t give a damn about that stuff. But as a writer, meeting someone who has contributed to inspiring my greatest passion, that was astonishing. You have to understand, even if I had a chance to meet the most famous of authors like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, I wouldn’t care. As much as I love Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling simply hasn’t influenced me like Harlan has. I felt like I was 14 years old, calling a girl for the first time. Okay. Calm down. Relax. Play it cool. Don’t get all weird and fanboy on him. Just be normal. Casual. Act like you call Harlan all the time. Yeah. No big deal. Your idol wants to hear from you. That happens everyday. Right. Okay. Just chill out and don’t act bizarre. Keep it brief. Professional.

When I finally mustered the courage to cal, he didn’t answer. His wife Susan answered and took a message for me.

Later that afternoon, my phone rang. 5:20pm. January 14, 2014. The name on my caller ID said, “Harlan Ellison”.

Holy. Crap.

When I answered the phone, he didn’t even say hello.

“Muss-Barnes. So what’s the story there? Were you married? What’s the deal?”

Honestly, it was a relief. By not even saying hello, all my nervousness went right out the window. Before I could stop to think, he had already pulled me into a conversation. I explained that my parents were not married and “Muss” was my mother’s name and “Barnes” was my father’s name. All through gradeschool and highschool, I was “Eric Muss” and I never liked the sound of that.

Harlan agreed. “Oh. Yeah. Not so good.”

So, I decided to add my father’s name and turn it into “Muss-Barnes” which Harlan agreed makes me sound like royalty.

Next thing I knew, Harlan was inviting me to his next book signing. I was stunned.

Harlan asked, “Do you know where Blastoff Comics is at?”

“Yeah! I’m literally 2 blocks away. I can walk there! It’s right at the end of my street.”

Needless to say, I was over the moon, as my grandmother used to say. A mere 4 days later, I arrived at Blastoff Comics where Harlan took one look at me and said, Eric!” And shook my hand as if we had been friends for decades. I met a girl named Harley who worked at the shop and I won a contest they were having to name all graphic novels, books, and awards won by Harlan.

I even have video proof of the day, published by Blastoff Comics.

As the day dragged on, I was getting ready to leave. I actually had to get down to Orange County to go to the Girl’s Combi Contest at Vans Skatepark. For those who don’t know, I’m a lifelong skateboarder and a longtime supporter of women’s skateboarding. I’m proud to say that I know and skate with many of the girls who show up for the contest. Some of the greatest female skaters in the world. Girls like Julz Lynn and Sarah Thompson and Allysha Berdago and Lizzie Armanto. The Combi Contest is the single largest female skateboarding competition in the world and you have to be invited to attend. I couldn’t miss the contest.

Then, Harlan announced they were going out to dinner that evening, and I was welcome to accompany them.

I nearly passed out.

My favorite author just invited me out to dinner?

Guess I was going to miss the Combi Contest that year.

Later I would learn I’m not the only writer Harlan has done this kind of thing for. There are dozens of accounts of Harlan opening his home to people and treating writers with immense hospitality. Harlan has a reputation for his anger and vitriol but there is one simple thing that most people fail to understand: Only people who are filled with immense love and kindness can become so angry. Those who truly love their fellow man are the ones who become so exasperated with the stupidity of humanity. You see it in people like George Carlin and Harlan Ellison and if you look really closely, you see it in me too. People like Harlan are rife with rage because the glorious potential of what mankind could become is too often tainted by what humans choose to be. That is why a man like Harlan is such a warm and kind and giving soul to the good guys. Those in whom he recognizes a kinship. When he sees that you get it, that endears you to him. When you prove to be a mindless jackass, he has no patience for you.

That night was truly living a dream. Have you ever seen an interview with a beloved celebrity and they tell a tale of an entourage of people having dinner and as a fan, you just desperately wished you could be there? Celebrities seem to do that all the time. They go out to dinner and there are 20 people at the table and the night is filled with vibrant conversations and hilarious tales that can never be repeated.

That was me. After living in Hollywood for over a decade, I finally got to experience that kind of evening for the first time. I was finally in an entourage. Being surrounded by that kind of camaraderie and vitality is an experience that makes me insanely jealous of celebrities. I don’t care about mansions and fancy parties or expensive cars. Those things don’t remotely impress me. But an intimate dinner where intriguing people really interact and connect with one another, that is something I wish I could live once a week. Unfortunately, it looks like it will prove to be once-in-a-lifetime.

As I said earlier, Harlan made it very clear to me that night, there were yarns spun around that breaking of bread which I was not to repeat. Harlan made me look him dead in the eye and vow I would honor that request. Harlan and I are old school Cleveland boys. Midwest values. Downhome sensibility. We both understand that honorable men don’t need written contracts or even handshakes. You look someone square in the eye and make a promise and that’s enough. Word is bond. Therefore, regrettably, I can not tell you some of the more hilarious tales he told. I can say this – Harlan has lived one hell of an amazing life. No matter how big of an adventure your life may be, chances are good that Harlan has you beat.

Midway through our evening, there was a moment when Harlan explained why he invited me out to dinner. Again, I won’t repeat the whole story leading up to that moment, because I swore to not repeat the tales told at that table. But I will say that at one point, Harlan told me I was there, breaking bread with him, because I had earned it.

Great authors are not great because they have an incredible command of language. Great writers are great because they understand how to distill the essence of the human condition into simple terms and articulate universal truths with an eloquence the rest of us can never quite vocalize. One can not attain that kind of insight into the human spirit unless one as an innate gift of reading the human heart. I don’t know if Harlan could read my heart and see my need for acceptance, or if he simply knew all struggling writers yearn for that validation. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that his tiny act of kindness, his brief words of encouragement, meant everything to me. He never complimented my writing. He never said I was any good. What he said was far better. He said I understood his writing and that I had earned my place at his table. Few feelings on earth are better than being valued and acknowledged by those you admire. For the first time in my life, I felt like maybe I’m not crashing the party of life. Maybe someone invited me. Maybe I’m supposed to be here. Maybe somebody actually wanted me to show up.

I have attained so many dreams in my life. I have published numerous novels. I became a hang glider pilot. I moved to California. I worked for years at Walt Disney Studios. I’ve had a tragic lovelife, worthy of a Shakespeare play. That could have turned out better, but it was certainly interesting. I’m even building a small home on a vast amount of land, just like I always dreamed. But the one dream I never accomplished, the oldest dream of all, was to make a living as writer.

You know, I never feel like I’ve accomplished much of anything in my life. I’ve never really yearned for validation from the world. I have long since accepted that I am someone who will never be appreciated for anything I achieve. So when one of the only people I idolize actually praised my efforts, it meant the world to me.

As we left the restaurant that night, and everyone was walking back to their cars, Harlan put his arm around my shoulder and asked if he was what I expected him to be. I told him I never thought he would be any different, because I always had faith that he was truly being himself. That night just proved I was right.

He told me he’d invite me over his house sometime and I was over the moon at such an invitation. I couldn’t believe it. Really? My favorite author was going to have me over his house? I would be a guest at the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars? I couldn’t wait. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

That wasn’t the only night I met Harlan. I have seen him twice since then – once at a science fiction convention and another at a Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society meeting where he was a guest speaker. In fact, on that night, he signed a copy of my novel The Page of Wands, which I dedicated to him, and I donated it to the LASFS library. He also flipped my novel open to a random page and read a sentence out loud. I’ll never forget which sentence it was. Page 247.

“Madame Fabulous glared and telekinetically lifted Ellen Daniels and her cameraman off of the ground and stuffed them back into their newsvan amidst much screaming, flailing, and protesting.”

You know how terrifying it is for your favorite author to read part of your novel out loud to a room filled with 200 science fiction fans? I was mortified. But Harlan remarked that it was a “pretty good” sentence and he seemed pleased with it, although he noted the word “back” was redundant. Didn’t need it. Crap. He was right.

Harlan never did invite me over the house. I knew that would never happen after I saw him the second time and he admitted to a fan that he lies a lot. The moment he said that, I knew the invitation would never come.

I’m disappointed that I will never see the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, but I can’t complain. Harlan owes me nothing. He already showed me far more kindness and courtesy than I ever dared to expect. Besides, I’ve dated plenty of girls in my life who said they loved me, then walked away. Harlan lying about having me visit the house is not a big deal. The lies of women are a lot more painful.

Speaking of heartbreaking ladies, I once deeply loved a girl who hated my InkShard blog. Still love her, actually. She called InkShard a waste of time and said I came across as arrogant and negative. Told me I was full of myself and I’d sell a lot more books and get a lot more dates if I was more humble.

I didn’t create InkShard to sell books. And I sure as hell didn’t create it to get dates. I made InkShard to share my opinions on writing. To explore the beauty of language. To offer angry rants on unfair aspects of creativity that all artists can feel a kinship with. I fully expect some people will think I’m a lame jackass and others will think I’m a right swell fella. I don’t have time nor the inclination to worry about which percentage of my audience will be the greater of the two. Whether I inspire endearment or estrangement, I can’t control how people will react.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t care if my blog and my videos never win me a single reader or it scares away all potential girlfriends. Because all thanks to InkShard I already got to meet my idol. Harlan Ellison. The only living writer I truly admire. That girl who said InkShard was a waste of time was so wrong. InkShard allowed me to achieve a dream I never imagined would come true and therefore, of all the projects I have created in my life, InkShard is one of the greatest successes I have ever known.

Thank you so much, Harlan. From a fellow Cleveland kid to another, I thank you with all my heart. Even if we never meet again, I will forever be grateful for the kindness you have shown me when we did. Bless you, good sir. I know you’re an atheist, so I can’t say God bless, but I do wish you blessings by the grace of whatever decency and love exists in the world.