#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear
#3 – The God’s Themselves, Isaac Asimov
#2 – Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
#2 – Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
I could pick any Harlan Ellison story or collection for this list, but I’m selecting Deathbird Stories because I pick it up and read something out of it about once a year. But, really, it doesn’t matter what piece I pick up. They all do the same thing.
If Harlan Ellison were a band he would be some mixture of the Clash and Billy Idol. The man reaches out and grabs my throat when he writes, and he drags me through every story from beginning to end whether I want to go with him or not. He uses words in ways they were not designed to be used, but as soon as he does it you realize they were made for that precise moment. If you read Harlan Ellison at all, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
But that use of language, and that brash voice is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg here. The thing that makes me carry him around in my bag of influences is that Harlan Ellison always has something to say, and he never cringes away from saying it. You may think he’s an asshole for saying it, but he doesn’t care about that. He cares only to make his point and to move on. It is, to me, a very attractive trait for an artist to hold. Be true to your art. All else is secondary. (Aside: is Neil Gaiman essentially Harlan Ellison with less assholery? Discuss.)
Anyway, yes, I admire and use Ellison’s work for its dogged adherence to message.
This is probably because I, on the other hand, feel like I have lots to say, but find myself on occasion stepping away from those things. I sometimes feel a danger zone in where a story is going, and I step aside of it and allow the story to be softer than it should be—sometimes for reasons that are selfish, and sometimes because I worry about what people might say. This was especially true when I was working fulltime in a corporate job. Over the years, I’ve come to think of my returns to reading Harlan Ellison as my way of reminding myself that it’s okay to step outside of yourself, that it’s okay to make a statement about things that have some controversy or some private thing attached.
These are things that people carry away. These are things that matter.
So reading Harlan Ellison brings me back to the center of what I want to do.
This influence, however, can be a mixed bag for me. Ellison’s like a drug, because as much as I would love to be able to do what Ellison does, I am no Harlan Ellison. And every time I read his work, I fight the tendency to start dropping prose that is nothing but a milquetoast shadow of what he does. Too much Ellison and I overdoes into a flabby writer. But, if I manage that dosage right, working under his influence can make me come to a work with a different sense of freedom than perhaps I might otherwise bring. It can change entire frame of reference that I work under.
For instance, I wrote “1 is True” (Asimov’s, 2006) under the proper dose of Ellison. There are phrases and images I received while writing that story that still crawl through my brain when I think of Ellison. And I completed “The Good Luck Charm” (which will be in a future issue of Abyss and Apex sometime soon) under the Ellison mindset. I can argue, actually, that it was fear of where this story was going that caused me to set it aside for a long, long time … it contains some very powerful elements, and approaching it in a head-on Ellison-like frame of mind was perhaps the only thing that let me actually finish the piece in the way it deserved to be finished. And, finally, one of my earliest voice pieces, “Learning the Language” (Land/Space Anthology, 2003), had a lot of Ellison’s mindset woven into it. It’s wonky and a little weird, but it says what I want it to say.
And that, I suppose, is the very definition of influence.