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A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY
Harry Harrison was born 12th March 1925 in Stamford, Connecticut, where he spent the first two years of his life. His family then moved to Brooklyn, and a few years later settled in Queens, another borough of New York City, where Harry grew up and went to school.
"My mother's name was Ria [nee Kirjassoff], she was born in Riga, Latvia, grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia and went to the States when she was, I think, fifteen years old. She was a school teacher until she married."
Harrison's father was Henry Leo Dempsey: he changed his name to Harrison soon after Harry was born. "My father was a printer all his life: he was a very good printer, a top technologist, and he used to teach printing. He was born in New York State, in Oneida. He was a very witty man, with a real Irish sense of humour - his mother was born in Ireland - and I would say that my sense of humour came from my father."
The Harrisons moved several times whilst Harry was young: it was the time of the Depression and mass unemployment - "My father worked a day or two a month, no more, in the printing trade" - and they had to keep one step ahead of their creditors:
"We'd do midnight flits: rent a new apartment, get a month's concession, pay for one month, stay for the two months, then for a third and owe the rent. The ice man would come with his horse and cart, and move the whole house into another apartment for $15. We moved so often I really had no friends as a kid, and I did pretty rotten at school - or rather, I did well at things I enjoyed: I got the highest marks in class for Science and English, and the lowest marks in Spanish.
"I wasn't interested in writing very much when I was young, I was more of an artist. I did write and draw for the school magazine, sort of half and half. I won an art competition when I was in grade school, for 'Save the Animal Week' or something - I drew a squirrel saying 'We want more nuts!'
Being an only child, and solitary by nature, Harrison preferred to spend his free time reading pulp magazines: war titles, air war, railroad stories, Doc Savage, Operator 5, The Spider, and - best of all - science fiction. He supplemented these with armfuls of books each week from the Queens Borough Public Library, with C.S. Forrester and John Buchan being mentioned as favourites.
Harrison's interest in science fiction led him into fandom at the age of 13, when he wrote his first letter to an SF magazine. He was a founding member of the Queens chapter of the Science Fiction League.
Graduating from Forest Hills High School in 1943, Harrison's was the "no hope" class: it being the middle of the war, they faced immediate conscription at age 18.
Harrison wanted to join the Air Corps - "I didn't really want to drown, so I stayed out of the navy; I didn't want to be shot, so I stayed out of the infantry; I'd always like planes..." But wasn't flying 'planes equally dangerous? "In those days in the Air Corps there was something like 35 men on the ground for one in the air: I've always worn glasses, so I wouldn't fly - I became ground crew."
To ensure his place in the Air Corps, Harrison spent the weeks before he was drafted attending the Eastern Aircraft Instrument School in New Jersey, a government-approved repair station where he became a certified aircraft instrument mechanic: "Of course, I never saw an aircraft instrument again!"
Harrison was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps, and after basic training in Mississippi he was sent to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado: "I had a good mechanical aptitude - in fact, the best mark I ever had in my life. They had general aptitude tests in the U.S. Army, one for IQ and one for mechanical aptitude: I scored 136 out of a maximum 160, which meant I ended up at the technical school, repairing gunsight computers."
At Lowry Field, Harrison was trained as a power-operated and computing-gunsight specialist, where he learned computer theory and how to use and repair the Sperry Mark 1, the secret computer that was almost the same as the Norden Bomb Sight: "Of course, I never saw a computer again when I left this school!"
In 1944 Harrison was sent to the Air Corps base in Laredo, Texas, where gunners were trained to fire computer-targeted fifty-calibre machine guns. His job, originally, was to keep the Sperry computer in working order, but he rapidly found himself responsible for a variety of tasks, including acting as armourer, truck driver - "I couldn't drive: I almost turned it over before I got a licence!" - and gunnery instructor "teaching kids to shoot machine guns." As a result of his skills with guns he was awarded the Sharpshooter medal.
It was during his time in the army that Harrison became interested in the 'universal language' Esperanto: "I attended a lecture and got a little book from the speaker: Learn Esperanto in 17 Easy Lessons. It was so boring in the army that I learned to read and write Esperanto to keep my mind alive."
During the Winter of 1945, Harrison was transferred to another gunnery school in Panama City, Florida, and when the school closed he was transferred to Military Police duties and promoted to sergeant. His job was to literally 'ride shotgun' - with a loaded repeating shotgun - on a garbage truck, guarding half-a-dozen black prisoners who went around the camp collecting the garbage and taking it out to the dump. He had no trouble from his charges - they were all serving out a year for insubordination or somesuch, and just wanted to finish their time, get an honourable discharge, and get on with their lives. Unlike the other MPs who were "red necks from the South," Harrison got to know the prisoners and drank with them in the black serviceman's bar and ate in their mess hall, where the food was better: "The head chef was the salad chef from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Fantastic food!"
Harry Harrison was discharged in February 1946: his time in the army is not a period of his life he remembers fondly: "Did I enjoy my stint in the army? No. If you read Bill, the Galactic Hero you'll see how I feel about the army. What effect did it have on me? Well, you hate the military for ever and ever and ever!"
Like many who left the army after the war, Harrison had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, and spent several months trying to figure out what he wanted to do: "After I came out of the army, I was very upset - everyone was upset by being in the army during the war - and I needed some money, so I worked an hydraulic press for two or three days, stamping out sides of pliers: boringest job in the whole world! I kept one of those things I'd stamped out hanging from the light over my drawing board later. Whenever I got tired of drawing, I'd look at that and go back to drawing with great impetus!"
In the Fall term, Harrison began an art course at Hunter College in New York City, where he became a student of noted American painter John Blomshield. Harrison left the class, but continued to study privately under Blomshield for two years. At the same time, he attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights. Burne Hogarth - "the fellow who drew Tarzan" - was Harrison's first instructor, and he met many artists who were to become well-known in the comics field, including Wallace Wood.
"In art school I teamed up with Wally Wood, and you'll see a lot of old comics signed Harrison-Wood, and that's the Harrison and that's the Wood. Wally and I worked together for years, we started in school, selling our stuff, and goodness knows which magazines we worked for: there were 650 titles a month in those days, things like Captain Rocket and Rangeland Romances.
After leaving art school, Harrison set up his own comic book 'factory':
"We had a little studio. Wally and I worked there; Roy Krenkle was our assistant - he did a snazzy background for one panel on each page and erased the pencils. Al Williamson used to work in that studio a little bit. We used to have a nude model once a week and draw the nude. Frank Frazetta came round, other artists. We were in the middle of Manhattan, so we could all meet there.
"I did other things besides comics: advertising illustrations, magazine illustrations. I illustrated Galaxy. I illustrated Marvel Stories..."
His work on science fiction magazines gained him membership of the Hydra Club, which was attended by science fiction professionals including Isaac Asimov, Fredric Brown, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Horace Gold and numerous others. Harrison was 'Harry the Artist', and another Hydra Club member, Damon Knight, commissioned him to illustrate the magazine Worlds Beyond.
"I was doing small illustrations for Worlds Beyond, but I got 'flu and an infected throat, and I couldn't draw." Harrison moved from the drawing board to the typewriter, where a shaky hand would have no appreciable effect, and wrote a short story which he called "I Walk Through Rocks."
"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 anthologised 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.
Around this time in New York, Harrison met Joan Merkler: "She was a dress-designer and ballet dancer. I was sharing a studio with a jewellery designer, and she was a friend of his." Harry and Joan were married in June 1954. "She gave up her career to take care of me and the kids, I guess."
Despite his initial success, Harrison's move from 'Harry the Artist' to 'Harry the Writer' was to be a gradual one. In the early 1950s, Harrison moved from being an illustrator into 'packaging' comic books: "Wally and I had broken up, and I was editing comics, publishing them, writing some of the scripts." He was responsible for three titles a month, one romance, Girls' Love Stories, one horror, Beware, and one humour, an imitation Mad magazine called Nuts. For each he drew the cover and produced a two-page filler, and in the case of the romance comic he also wrote a letters page offering advice for romance seekers which he signed 'Barbara Miles'.
But the comics boom came to a sudden end in the mid-fifties, when an investigation by Congress decided that comics were corrupting the nation's youth - this was the time of Dr. Frederick Wertham's highly influential book Seduction of the Innocent. The Comics Code was introduced in 1955.
"I was editing comics, and I naturally drifted into editing magazines," editing and packaging pulp magazines with such titles as Science Fiction Adventures, Fantasy Fiction, Rocket Stories, Sea Stories, and Private Eye. Here too he often had to write the contents of the magazines: "I climbed Kilimanjaro with my Fingernails, I Went Down with My Ship, things like that. I did a lot of confession stories [for other magazines] as well: My Iron Lung Baby, He Threw Acid in My Face, I Ate a Pigmy, interesting stuff like that!" It was during this period that he also served as art director of Picture Week - "a pocket-sized 10? magazine."
During the 1950s, Harrison continued to write short science fiction stories, using the knowledge he'd gained from discussions with writers in the Hydra Club. In 1956, having enough money saved, he quit work for life as a freelance writer:
"I wanted to start working on a book, a novel. I couldn't write very much in New York, tied down with various jobs, so I decided to go freelance again - I'd been freelance all the time with my art business. I went with my wife and year-old son, Todd, to Mexico." Why Mexico? "Because it is connected to America by road and you can drive there. I had a little Ford Anglia, the English Ford 10, and about $250 saved up and a few articles to write. It was very cheap [in Mexico] in those days: a furnished house, full-time maid, all the food and everything was $100 a month.
"We had a lot of fun down there: we spent a year in Mexico in a small farming village, and like it very much."
The Harrisons then returned briefly to New York in 1957 and from there caught the first 'fan' flight over to England, arranged to carry fans to the first World Science Fiction Convention to be held outside the United States.
"We lived in Bromley, Kent, in a residential hotel for a while: with my wife and baby in two rooms, all-in, twelve guineas a week. The food was impossibly bad. We went from there to a Pakistani boarding house, where my wife learned to cook curry from Pakistani friends.
"But these were the days of the killer smog - '57-'58 - and it was cold and miserable up in Camden Town. I got $500 doing one more confession and went off to Italy, to Capri. I had a friend there, Gary Davies (World Citizen number one) and knew people there who came down and met us, and we rented a little villa.
"Gary Davies' friend was Dan Barry, the artist who was drawing Flash Gordon. I knew Dan a little bit from New York, so I dropped him a note and said 'Dear Dan, I hear you need a writer for Flash Gordon, where else in Europe can you find an ex-comic artist who writes science fiction and would be ideal to write scripts for you?'
"Dan came down from France and joined us in Italy for a while, and I started working on the scripts. We worked together quite nicely."
It was a partnership which was to last for the best part of ten years, with Flash Gordon paying a lot of the basic living bills while Harrison continued to work on other projects.
In August 1957, in his seventh published short story, Harry Harrison introduced a character with whom he will forever be associated: James Bolivar 'Slippery Jim' diGriz, eponymous hero of "The Stainless Steel Rat."
"I was, at this point, working on my first novel, Deathworld: I'd started it in Mexico, worked on it a bit in England, worked on it in Italy. I lived in Italy for just about a year and then in October/ November 1958 had to go back to New York to get rid of my rotten agent who was cheating me. And my daughter, Moira, was about to be born, so we thought we'd better not be in Italy, so we went back to New York: the baby was born in January 1959.
"At about the same time I was staying with my in-laws, I'd sent John Campbell [editor of Astounding] about two-thirds of the novel Deathworld: he sent it back and said I ought to finish the whole book. I rushed and did finish the whole book and sent the manuscript. He sent me back - I thought it was a letter, but I opened it up and it was a cheque - a cheque for $2,100. And when you figure that my total income for the previous year was $3,000, it looked pretty good!"
The first part of Deathworld appeared in the January 1960 issue of Astounding.
"I instantly bought four one-way tickets to Denmark. You might well ask, Why Denmark? All I can say is that in Mexico I heard a fellow talking French to Mexicans, trying to explain that his car was broken down. My French, at that time, was very bad, and I asked him if he spoke English: he was Danish and Danes all speak perfect English. And German. And French. But very little Spanish, so I translated for him, and he came with his wife and lived next to us for about a week.
"He was a very pleasant man, his name was Praben Zahle, and he was art director of a women's magazine, Tidens Kvinder (Today's Woman), and I wrote articles for him while in Italy - travel articles and cooking articles with my wife. I wrote to him in Copenhagen.
"I was shipping the car over to Denmark and we were just going to stay temporarily. It was the most gorgeous Summer - this was the Spring of 1959 - and it hadn't been that warm in 200 years. We thought it was the most gorgeous country in the world. Which it is.
"We stayed there for seven years. The kids went to school there, and after seven years were speaking more Danish than English, and we figured we'd either got to settle there for life, or get out. So we went to England for a year, but that wasn't too satisfactory, so we went back to New York and then drove to California in the same old Volkswagen bus we'd bought in Copenhagen, which was fixed up as a camper. We figured if we were going to be in the States, we'd be where it is warm, so we bought a house in Southern California near San Diego and lived there God knows how many years - until the city of San Diego put a road through the house - cut the house in half!
"We took the money and came back to London. By this time the children were grown up: Todd was at university, and Moira was in high school; she wanted to stay in the boarding school she was in, so we came back to London to buy a home, but the deal fell though. We came here to Ireland, to just take a look at it, and that was twenty years ago!"
The Republic of Ireland remains the Harrisons' permanent home. "Our home is here now, it's our base, we travel out of it. I do work here, and we go away on longer and longer holidays as I get more and more money to go on longer and longer holidays! And we have a little flat in Brighton we use."
During the early years of his freelance writing career - as he himself admits - Harrison continued to write novels which conformed to the pattern he had established with Deathworld, and he became identified as a 'Campbell writer'. But he soon felt constrained by the limits this placed on his work: he wanted to branch out into more humorous fiction, but had to content himself with "sneaking it in" to such works as A Technicolor Time Machine and The Stainless Steel Rat.
Harrison had begun work on an experimental novel as early as 1959, provisionally titled If You Can Read This, You're Too Damn Close, and it was written with the knowledge that Campbell would never publish it. It finally saw print in 1965, serialised in both Galaxy and New Worlds, and it marked the beginning of a new phase in Harrison's career. Sensitive novels dealing with serious science fiction themes - Make Room! Make Room!, Captive Universe, and In Our Hands, the Stars, soon followed.
These more serious SF novels - The West of Eden trilogy, The Turing Option, and most recently Stars and Stripes Forever - alternate with the more light-hearted adventure stories, but even these have more about them than Harrison's critics allow. He outlined his approach to these works in Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers:
"I have found that an action story with two or three levels of intellectual content below the surface enables me to say just what I want to say. I have also found that humour - and black humour - can carry ideas that can be expressed in no other way."
The fact that Harry Harrison's novels are currently all in print - many of them in a dozen different languages - must say something about the validity of the author's approach.
© Paul Tomlinson 1984 & 1999