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Author Spotlight: Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison wasn’t always an author. This is probably unsurprising for those who have read Harrison’s work; he was trained and worked as an illustrator, comic artist and an art director. This likely accounts for the lively visuals in his prose.

He didn’t exactly start in fiction, either. As he told Paul Tomlinson for Octocon in 2009, “I’d moved into packaging comics, and I ended up writing a lot for them, and moved on to writing whatever editors wanted. Westerns and men’s adventures, which paid a lot, and true confessions—I had a lot of experience writing and selling before I wrote my first science fiction story. And I was illustrating science fiction magazines for a year or two before I submitted a story.”

His first story was serendipitous; after getting the flu, he wrote a short story called “I Walk Through Rocks.” Not knowing what to do with it, he asked Damon Knight, who had commissioned Harrison to illustrate the magazine Worlds Beyond. “I typed a story out and asked Damon what to do with it, and he bought it for $100. My agent then was Fred Pohl, and Fred anthologized it, and I got another $100. So I did very well with my first story: I haven’t done that well with a single story since, I’ll tell you!” The story appeared as “Rock Diver” in the February 1951 issue of Worlds Beyond.

The progression from artist to writer—though he would continue with both in his future—was slower than his initial success would suggest. Harrison would package pulp magazines, edit the same, and even write to fill rather peculiar needs for the magazines, like adventure stories and true confessions. “‘I climbed Kilimanjaro with my Fingernails,’ ‘I Went Down with My Ship,’ things like that. I did a lot of confession stories as well: ‘My Iron Lung Baby,’ ‘He Threw Acid in My Face,’ ‘I Ate a Pigmy,’ interesting stuff like that!”

“The Streets of Ashkelon” is now Harrison’s most anthologized story, appearing in over fourteen languages. Regarding the story, he told Alyce Wilson, editor of Wild Violet, “With one of my stories, ‘The Streets of Ashkelon,’ the hero’s an atheist. My agent said, ‘You can’t sell it.’ He happened to be right.

“But the world has changed, and now it’s been anthologized forty or fifty times. It’s been anthologized in the Jesuit monthly. That’s pretty good.”

“The Streets of Ashkelon” was originally written for an anthology edited by Judith Merrill, who wanted the contributors to ignore the current taboos in force in the SF world. Unfortunately, the anthology didn’t go to print. It was more than a year before Harrison sold the story, and six years before it saw print in the United States.

Sadly, shortly before this issue went to press, Harrison died; he was 87.

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Robyn Lupo

Robyn Lupo lives in Southwestern Ontario with her not-that-kind-of-doctor partner and three cats. She enjoys tiny things, and has wrangled flash for Women Destroy Science Fiction! as well as selected poetry for Queers Destroy Horror! She aspires to one day write many things.