Grand Master Speech May 6, 2006

My wife (who writes under the name L. Jagi Lamplighter, but who is known at home as Mrs. John Wright, aka “She Who Must Be Obeyed”–just a coincidence that her name is the same as that of Rumpold’s wife, or Callicrates) has managed to find one of the better and better-known literary agents in SF to sell her book.

This man is a real gent, a class act. Richard Curtis is his name. Professional courtesy forbids that I give the details, but I allow myself to say he has been generous and conscientious in his dealings with She.

(Now, no compliment I give to Richard Curtis can in any be interpreted to denigrate my own very patient and hard-working agent, Mr. Jack Byrne. Again, professional courtesy forbids me to give the details, but his patience has been tried to the limit in recent months, but he has not failed or complained despite the chore.)

Richard Curtis also has a sense of humor. Here is his comments when asked to honor Harlan Ellison.

BUT FIRST Let me set the scene: you are in a fine hotel in Tempe, Arizona. If you are a Virginian (as I am) the temperature and clime seem as unearthly as that of the moon. The heat is dry, something you have never known, and the plantlife is leafless scrub, bushes with leaves like sword blades, crooked trees of greenish bark, spiney cacti. The native shops have mist vapors pouring from doors and awnings, so that passers-by on the street have moments of cool fine water brushing them as they walk. If you are a writer new to the field (as I am) you are terrifically impressed to be in a crowd with famous names like Joe Haldeman and Connie Willis. I sat at the same table as one of the writers of Battlestar Galactica, and was able to confirm my suspicion that BSG is written by a serviceman or a dependent:  there are certain correct details in that show someone from outside military life would have to strain to get right. And if you are poor as a churchmouse (as I am) you are doubly impressed to be here, because the generosity of your publisher funded your dinner ticket, and the greater generosity of a dear friend of the family funded your major travel expenses.

If you are a stoical fellow unimpressed with the antics and presumptions of artistes planted on the wrong side of the generation gap, you might even have an idle curiosity to see Harlan Ellison, whom you regard with the same respect one might a dancing bear: as a quaint if ungainly decoration in the landscape of science fiction, not sure why he is famous or even if he should be, but certainly a recognized landmark of unique and eccentric proportions.

After a simply hilarious speech by Connie Willis, up stands a thin, well-groomed fellow of precise mannerism, who speaks in dry and measured tones, with that hint of self-deprecating humor one tends to associate with Jews, fellows who smile under their daily woes both great and small.

The words printed below do not convey the pauses and underlines of stress, the timing, the hint of a smile, which made them so funny, but let your imaginations supply these.


… When our son Charles was a little boy, my wife Leslie and I visited Harlan and Susan. Harlan thought Charles would like to see his collection of mint condition toys and games. He opened the doors to his climate-controlled vault and Charlie’s eyes rounded like dinner plates. He rushed in to this, the world’s larges Toys R Us, reached out and said, “Can I…?”

“NO!” barked Harlan, slamming the doors shut.

Our son looked utterly stricken. Leslie leaned over to console him. “Harlan doesn’t share.”

That was Charles’s introduction to his godclient Harlan. But he sends his love to Uncle Harlan and Aunt Susan.

Many of you have had the experience of getting a phone call from Harlan Ellison at an hour that is not consonant with the protocols observed by most persons in the known civilized world. This goes double if you happen to be his agent. Over the twenty-five years that I have represented him, I’ve received phone calls that sounded something like this:

It’s Harlan, I realize it’s Yom Kippur but goddamit, I haven’t received my two copies of the fourth printing of the Mongolian edition of DEATHBIRD STORIES. Do you know a kickass lawyer in Ulan Bator?


It’s Harlan, I realize there’s an ax murderer loose in your home and the kitchen floor is slippery with gore…


It’s Harlan, I realize your wife’s in labor…

Harlan again, I realize your wife is fully dilated…

Harlan again, I realize the baby’s head is crowning…

It happens that one Sunday morning as I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast with my wife, the phone rang. “It’s too early for news that someone died,” she said, “but it’s not too early for Harlan.” It was Harlan. “That’s it! I’ve had it! Houghton Mifflin fucked up the proofs of my book and I want to pull it.”

“What did they do to your book, Harlan?”

“They hyphenated a word against my express wishes.”

“There you go again,” I said, “sweating the small stuff.”

“Small stuff! You call a hyphen small stuff?”

“What was the word?”


“Who? Your editor?”

“No, the word. The word they hyphenated was ‘motherfucker’.”

“Oxford English Dictionary hyphenates it,” I said.

“It’s not funny.”

“Unquestionably, Harlan,” I said, “this crime ranks among the vilest atrocities in all of recorded history. By comparison, the Rape of Nanking was just a schoolboy prank. But I wonder if there might be some less drastic remedy than pulling the book.”

“Absolutely not. I want you to call Austin Olney this morning. I have the private number of his country house.”

Austin Olney was the publisher of Houghton Mifflin in Boston, an elegant, refined Patrician, a Brahmin who might be mistaken for William Cullen Bryant or Ralph Waldo Emerson. I tried to buy a little time. “Harlan, it’s Sunday. Don’t you think he’s in Old North Church talking to God? Or out riding to hounds, or in a duck blind with the governor of Massachusetts? I’ll call him first thing Monday.”

“No, you’ll call him now.”

I considered my options and humoring Harlan was not one of them. But neither was calling Austin Olney at his country house on a Sunday morning to complain about a hyphen in the word motherfucker.

Perhaps it was the hour. Or perhaps it was the suicidal futility of the mission. Whatever it was, I felt a sudden rush of rage engulfing me, and before I could gain control of myself I said, “Harlan, you may be the only certified genius I will ever represent. I have devoted my career to promoting you as one of America’s greatest living authors. That is my mission and my calling. And no one, NO ONE, is going to stand in my way until I have achieved it. Not even you, Harlan. NOT EVEN YOU!”

Whereupon I slammed the phone down.

I began shaking uncontrollably. And an old Russian proverb came into my head: He who sits beside the Czar sits beside death.

I looked up and my wife was standing there, her eyes rounded in dismay. “Richard, what have you done?”

I said, “I think I just fired Harlan Ellison.”

We gazed at one another bleakly. But before we could decide what to do, the phone rang again. I knew it was Harlan. I looked at my wife for guidance. Her gaze said, “Not my problem. Have a nice morning.”

I picked up the phone. “It’s Harlan. Do you really think I’m a genius?”

I laughed so hard I never actually answered Harlan’s question. So here’s my answer. Yes, Harlan, I do think you’re a genius. And though you have not yet been certified, there’s no question in my mind that you are indeed…certifiable.

It has been my great privilege – well, let me rephrase that – it’s been a source of unremitting stress — to serve as your agent for some twenty-five years. Even if I hadn’t reaped obscene profits handling your account…well, maybe I could rephrase that too. In spite of the fact that I have earned a total of $73.42 in commission over the lifetime of our relationship, if I had to do it again, I would do it for nothing. Congratulations from Leslie, Charles and myself for the hard-earned and well-deserved honor that SFWA has bestowed on you.