“You have picked a difficult subject for a biography,” Robert Silverberg advised Nat Segaloff, who was conducting interviews with and about the subject of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.
That is true, but it was a match made in heaven. The result is a vivid portrait of the writer, told with respect and affection but also without pulling any punches. (Full disclosure: Nat Segaloff has been a friend for many years and some time collaborator. Other than introducing him to his publisher, NESFA Press, I had no role in this project.) Both Segaloff and Ellison (whom i've met on a couple of occasions) are strong writers with humorous streaks, a fierce dedication to telling the truth, and sentimental sides which they may believe they have cleverly hidden. It's no surprise they connected and that Ellison, who turns 83 on May 27, trusted Segaloff to tell his story and tell it right.
Ellison gave friends the okay to talk to Segaloff, sat for hours of interviews himself, allowed his works to be freely quoted, and had no approval over the final book. It was a grant of trust which has been amply rewarded. I've read most of Segaloff's books – including biographies of directors William Friedkin and Arthur Penn and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant – and say without hesitation that this is the best thing he has ever done. I fully expect this to be on next year's Hugo ballot for “best related work,” and I'll suppress any twinge of jealousy if he wins the award I lost for Jar Jar Binks Must Die.
What makes this so special? It is a full-bodied portrait of Ellison the writer as well as the ups and downs of his personal life. It doesn't turn away from the touchy subjects (“The City on the Edge of Forever,” the Connie Willis controversy, the never published Last Dangerous Visions), but it also celebrates not only his successes, but the way he has inspired the writers who followed him, created works of lasting value, and demonstrates that while he is, indeed, one of the giants of science fiction, he is also a writer of mysteries, of criticism, of essays, and of one of the most interesting lives in modern American letters. Even If you are not a devoted Ellison fan, it is a fascinating story, and you may find yourself eager to fill in the gaps in your own reading of Ellison.
The book is currently (May 2017) available in a numbered limited edition which I was fortunate enough to receive. It will be released in a general hardcover edition this summer with e-book and paperback versions coming down the road. Whether you're a science fiction fan, a devotee of Ellison, or simply interested in what it means to be a writer, this is an essential book.
Harlan Ellison trusted Nat Segaloff with his life, and Nat Segaloff repaid that trust with a book fully worthy of its subject.