LITERARY LEGEND CONTACTS MASSASOIT: A VISIT FROM HARLAN ELLISON®
EVAN MCKENNA, Editor-in-chief
Published to the Massasoit Tribune 2015
It was a surreal moment last semester for the students of Professor Mark Walsh’s Science Fiction and Fantasy class when legendary writer Harlan Ellison called in to talk about his award-winning novella, “A Boy and His Dog.”
At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Apr. 30, nine students and two professors huddled around a speakerphone in the school’s Language Arts conference room, eager to speak with the author about his story they had read. Ellison woke at 7 a.m. in his California home, drank a cup of coffee, then picked up his phone and greeted the class.
Ellison began by telling the students that they could ask any question pertaining to “A Boy and His Dog”, as long as he could ask each student a question in a return, whether it be about personal life goals, or simply about irrelevant, interesting topics. He made it clear to the class that he wanted them to ask and answer questions honestly to make the experience genuine. Things went underway when Walsh suggested that we go around the room one at a time to begin the discussion on the novella.
But this was not just a neat visit from some ordinary, accomplished author.
Ellison is one of the most prolific and honored American authors of 20th century fiction, with 1,700 published works – including novellas, short stories, essays, scripts, and teleplays. He was an editor for the renowned science fiction anthology, Dangerous Visions and its sequel. He worked for the original Star Trek, the 1980’s Twilight Zone, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour many other productions .He has won several Nebula, Hugo, and Edgar Awards, and pieces such as “I Have No Mouth and Must Scream,” “Deathbird,” and “’Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” have been studied in institutions of higher learning around the world.
Ellison is beyond notable. Numerous students on campus expressed their envy of those who were able to be part of the conversation with the literary legend. And professors and faculty were thrilled that the class had such an opportunity.
From questions about writing style to intertextuality, Ellison answered each student elaborately, adding comical and personal anecdotes that better explained his points.
Greg Schmidt started it off, asking Ellison about the origin of “A Boy and His Dog”. Ellison replied, telling the class about his close relationship to his dog, Abhu, and how their bond influenced his story’s message. Ellison then went on to ask Schmidt about his life goals, linking Schmidt’s answer to an interesting lesson on writing.
Given a chance to speak, I asked, “Harlan, how do you balance humor and seriousness in your stories? I often see humor taking away from the tone of a story, but in A Boy and His Dog, you seem to balance the two elements” Ellison explained to me the difference between humor and wit. Using what he called “a bad example”, Harlan brought up the Los Angeles Clippers incident between team commissioner, Adam Silver, and racist coach, Donald Sterling, calling them Sterling Silver, a name for a rich, racist fictional sports team character. On the other hand, he explained that jokes, which are not clever, usually forced in the story, do not result in solid storytelling. In just a minute of conversation I was taught an everlasting lesson on fiction.
After Walsh asked Ellison what his view is on the importance of reading, Ellison told his own personal story. Ellison talked about his desire to read as a child. He admitted that he never thought he would be a writer, but still was very interested in reading. He talked about his experience with a librarian who prohibited him from going into the adult section of his hometown library: “Like an anaconda on my belly, along the back board, along the floor, I reached one hand and took a book from the stacks-Lorna Doone.” The class laughed throughout the story, enjoying everything Ellison said. It was possibly the class’s favorite part of the hour.
Whether they were taking notes on Ellison to improve their writing, or only listening to develop an understanding of his work, the students and professors valued every sentence. The class had spent a considerable amount of time focusing on “A Boy and His Dog,” but also had time to talk about writing good fiction.
During post-discussion on Friday, Schmidt shared with the class, “[That was] hands down the best classroom experience of my life. I don’t think anything will ever beat it.”
“Now I am contemplating retirement. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Walsh jokingly replied.
With his busy schedule, it was extremely generous of Ellison to offer his morning to Massasoit. But it was not his fame that made the visit notable. It was his wisdom. With more than fifty years worth of writing experience, Ellison knows the ins and outs, the dos and donts, and the rights and wrongs of the profession. That is what made his presence so valuable. His visit was arguably the most exciting surprise this year for Massasoit and will be a timeless memory for the students and professors who were fortunate enough to take part.