If it’d been an Ellison, it woulda bit me

There’s an old bit of wisdom that says, roughly paraphrased, if you pick up a snake and it bites you, it’s not the snake’s fault.

My wife is an avid science fiction reader, but she’s never been to an SF convention. When her favorite SF author Harlan Ellison was announced as the guest of honor for local convention MadCon, she decided to make that her first convention experience. We signed up for the con, including the guest of honor banquet and speech.

The banquet was scheduled for 7-9, including Mr. Ellison’s after-dinner speech. To allow enough leeway, we told the sitter we’d be back by 10:30. We were lucky enough to sit with Onion writer John Krewson, which made the evening even more entertaining.

Now, for those of you who don’t know about Ellison, he’s legendary for both his writing and his cantankerousness (see this recent interview). I’d never met him before, but the stories that preceded him made him sound a lot like the devil, in the sense that you were better off if he didn’t know you existed. Just the day before the banquet, at a local bookstore signing, he snatched a cell phone from a fan who had been filming him and stomped on it. He’s that sort of extreme personality.

Mr. Ellison did not begin his remarks until about 9. Keep in mind he’s both legendary and elderly, and wasn’t even sure earlier in the week that he’d be able to show up. I certainly don’t begrudge him taking his time and enjoying what he says will be his last convention. Hell, I got a backpat from him for being the only person in the room* who knew the source of his “Phlegm Snopes” joke. But he rambled, went off on tangents, and abused people at will (usually to their delight) until we realized he wasn’t going to finish before we had to leave. Still, this was Harlan Ellison, my wife’s favorite author; it seemed impossibly rude to just get up and walk out in the middle of his speech.

Then he made it easy for us.

He abruptly stopped, pointed at my wife and said “You. You’re making me nervous.” He added (I’m paraphrasing) that he could read body language, could tell she need to leave and that she should just go ahead and do so. She told him it was due to the babysitter, and he joked that we should bring the kids the next day so he could make them cry. Left with no other graceful choice, we departed as quickly as possible. The crowd applauded and sang us out with “Aloha ʻOe,” which I suppose is better than the chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

We laughed about this on the way home. After all, if this truly is his last convention, we may be the last people he chases from a room. It certainly gave us a great story. Still, when she asked how I’d feel if Bruce Springsteen (one of my heroes) had done the same thing, I got a glimpse of how she really felt.

I don’t talk about my wife much online, but she’s a very intelligent woman, at least 20% smarter than me. She’s also a person of immense dignity. I certainly don’t think I should’ve made a scene, or engaged Mr. Ellison in any way, since the evening was all about him, not us. But I’m sad for her. She has a vast collection of Ellison books, and knows his work intimately. I can only imagine how it feels to be publicly dismissed by him.

This is not an indictment of Mr. Ellison. He is who he is, and that persona is well known. We bought the tickets; in effect, we picked up the snake. That it bit us is unfortunate, but not really the snake’s fault.

Addendum

I want to give a special-shout out to the fan (I’m sorry I don’t recall your name) who said how disappointed she was to learn I wasn’t on any panels at the con. I was disappointed, too (being on panels is why I go to these things), but she made up for it. Fans, if you ever doubt a kind word to someone whose work you admire matters, let me assure you, it does.

Well…it does to most of us.

*It was a room full of scholars and writers, too. Come on, people, no matter what genre you work in, you should know Faulkner. I’m just sayin’.

7 Comments on “If it’d been an Ellison, it woulda bit me”

  1. Well, I think it was an unforgivable insult to your wife, and, while I agree with your decision not to make a scene, I would demand at least a portion of my ticket-price returned. You came to see the man. It's not your fault that his part of the program started late and ran long.

    If I were your wife, I'd box up all my H.E. books and ship them to him, with a letter explaining that she is glad that he has so little regard for his fans' support, as she can now invest her time and money in someone who will value them.

    But then, I tend to be a bit cantankerous myself. And I don't have either age or lack of upbringing as an excuse.

  2. Hey Alex- I had hoped that you'd been exagerrating.

    Kudos to you guys for laughing about it so quickly. I know with a hundred percent certainty that I wouldn't have made it out of the room without crying and I'd write a dozen nasty letters and not even mail them.

    My husband and I saw Springstien in Pittsburgh about 7 years ago. He was very courteous:) Great show, except I'd fallen carrying our then-baby girl up the stairs right before we left and broken my pinky. I iced it and got it splinted the next day. That's to balance out the crying above, so you know I'm not a complete wuss;)

  3. That's an amazing story, Alex. Having met your wife, I'm sure she has the character to make the best of this very weird situation.

    I wonder if Harlan thought he was being kind in his own distinct way, releasing you guys from what might have been a very long goodbye session.

    I wanted to attend, myself, but wasn't able to make it – too many things going on this weekend. Also, I think I like Harlan best from a safe distance. ; )

  4. Having had an encounter with Mr. Ellison in the past, I'd say take this as a kindness. She may will have been making him nervous, but consider that he offered her a chance to do what she needed to do–leave–without looking rude. I mean, if she'd just had to get up and walk out on her favorite author, I bet she would have felt lousy. As it is, Harlan Ellison noticed her discomfort and did the only thing he knew to do to alleviate it. I think that's kind of special. Plus, she gets a great story out of it. Among storytellers, that's an awfully generous gift.

  5. 'She' is a 'he' and I thought you knew my name, Alex! Or did someone other than I express dismay at your lack of panel presence? 😉

    It was a pleasure meeting your wife, thank you for sharing. Even in our brief 2-3 minutes, I discerned the immense dignity of which you speak. And it's 35%.

  6. That is a pretty amazing story. But in my opinion it was a bizarre manner of you both getting your wish (and needs) met by the universe like. I *am* sorry your wife felt so uncomfortable by it though. I think it's entirely understandable that she feel that way, and I'm rather proud of her for being able to 'take it' so well … why ? I couldn't say. Perhaps just glad to see another female who was able to pull off an embarassing situation with much grace.
    It is my guess, and hope, that in a month or two's time, she'll be laughing on the inside and out about the whole thing. Thanks for sharing! (And I am glad your family is doing well!)

  7. I'm *very* shy around people I don't know, and I have to say I really would have died of embarrassment being singled out like that by someone I admire and whose work I am a fan of.

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