5 QUESTIONS

WITH DAN SIMMONS

Our bookseller Mike got the chance to ask one of his favorite authors five questions. Of course he couldn't stop at just five...
To find out more about Dan Simmons and to see a list of his books, click here.  

1. Being one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Suspense, and Historical Fiction, is there a favorite among them that you enjoy writing?


As a constant reader, I find myself having cravings for different kinds of books to read at specific times. For instance, I may have an absolute need to read or re-read something important and beautifully written, which sends me to my personal library and such favorites as Proust's In Search of Lost Time or Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Joyce's Ulysses, or John Fowles's Daniel Martin or a Nabokov novel (probably one less widely known than Lolita) or one of the major Tolstoy novels. At these times I also tend to graze on high-quality short stories from the likes of John Updike, James Joyce, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
Dan Simmons quoteAt other times, especially if I'm battling illness for any length of time, I may be reading the serious stuff part of the time but shift my primary focus to digging out something wonderful such as Richard Stark's (aka Donald Westlake) Parker-the-thief novels. I've also re-read O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series --one incredible history-based novel of friendship across 20 volumes -- six or seven times.
I mention these books specifically because, for me at least, the desire to write a new novel includes the same hunger for diversity that leads serious readers to such a wide variety of novels. I also made a decision, right when I started publishing my fiction in 1982 (and novels in 1985), to write whatever kind of book my curiosity and sense of personal challenge led me to. Only that, I knew, would make a year or more of that constant research and work on one thing worthwhile to me.
The real miracle, in my eyes, after I leave certain genres behind and search for these new and more difficult challenges, is how willing many of my readers have been to follow me into new genres and forms of fiction. Authors appreciate an intelligent reader's loyalty perhaps more than anything else. Plus, it's always a pleasant surprise when I find a critical-mass of new readers who'll take the risk or reading me for the first time (hardcovers are expensive) in-genre, out-of-genre, and in whatever new self-invented "genres" where I find myself writing.
 

2. I have to ask a question about my favorite novel, The Terror. Were there any influences or self-experiences that created the horror element to the 1840's Franklin expedition?


The only personal experience and influence on me that led to The Terror was my being alive and at least partially sentient (9 years old) during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year . . . the year when we went back to Antarctica to stay.
So for decades I read and collected non-fiction literature about both of the Earth's poles. But I've always preferred the personal tales of survival and hardship in the Antarctic -- since what can beat the experience of Robert Falcon Scott or of Ernest Shackleton and his men? But for the book I wanted, built upon actual historical events and characters, I realized I also wanted a SOMETHING out there on the ice, perhaps something supernatural or close to it, that was a nightmare menace for my characters. But after thinking it over for several long minutes, I realized that a giant killer Penguin just wouldn't fly (bad pun intended) for a scary novel.
Dan Simmons quoteThen, when I was reading an autobiography of a man who'd skied across both polar ice masses (plus through all the Antarctic mountains), I found a footnote about the doomed Sir John Franklin Expedition that disappeared in the Arctic in 1848. As much as I hated giving up my beloved Antarctica, the Franklin Expedition was a perfect template for my ”It’s as cold as a witch's . . . well, it's darned cold here!" book. And there was even an explanation of and a background for (via ancient Inuit myth) my new novel.
I'm always surprised at how many novels and novellas I've written and published that had their starts in a footnote (almost always in some non-fiction book).
Meanwhile, I should tell you that -- in honor of The Terror's freezing and starving men -- I did suffer hardships and risk my own life while researching the book. I spent at least two weeks writing some of the coldest scenes in the book at a rented hale just outside the remote town of Hana on the island of Maui. The "risking death" part came from the coconuts falling out of the palm trees near where I was lounging and working on The Terror on my laptop. "Coconuts to the left of me, coconuts to the right of me . . ."
It was worth all that hardship, though. I rather like that novel. (And so, evidently, do the execs of a major cable/sat TV network who are negotiating to turn The Terror into a limited series with Ridley Scott's company involved.)
 

3. How do you approach your craft on a daily basis? Do you have a certain regiment of word counts? An allotted word count? Maybe a reoccurring ritual?


No reoccurring rituals. (Although I like the story about Hemingway sharpening about a dozen pencils before starting work each day . . . and then beginning tapping out his story or novel on his typewriter.)
Dan Simmons quoteHemingway (my novel about Hemingway's year, 1942, as a spymaster and German U-boat chaser was titled The Crook Factory, the name of the very odd and very amateur spy group he started in Cuba), was a reach-the-daily- word-count (and then knock off and take his boat, the Pilar, out into the Gulf to fish). Usually when he reached that word count -- ZWIISHH -- he was out the door to go drink and fish and do other fun things with his buddies, none of whom were connected to the literary world save for knowing Hemingway.
My only "daily basis" system is to write hard and long -- usually seven days a week, month after month. Of course, with the deadlines I've not only agreed to but suggested myself, a writer has to write almost every single day of his or her life to have, on average, one new book published each year.
Oh, one other "ritual" --- I usually write to music and for some years now my closest friend (now a retired sociology professor still having a love for and great knowledge of jazz) has burned mixed-CD's for me. They've added up and now I can choose one to match the mood of almost any given scenes I'm creating.
 

4. If you could choose another author to collaborate with, who would it be?


I'm fairly certain that I'll never decide to write with a collaborator, even if she or he is better writer than I am.
The one time I ever collaborated was with writer Ed Bryant on a story I titled "Dying Is Easy; Comedy Is Hard." Ed and I had, without knowing it, pitched very similar ideas to DC Comics, which was behind a new "Batman-Joker" book anthology. It was the only work-for-hire I've ever done and that I'll ever do, although working with Ed was fun. DC chose my idea, but Ed wanted the work more than I did -- I'd pitched an idea mostly it was because my young daughter Jane had enjoyed seeing the Joker in the original Batman movie so I wanted to write a Joker story for her.
Dan Simmons quoteAt any rate, Ed and I sat down at an outside table at a Denver coffeehouse and over the table I sketched out my idea of the novella's basic story arch, Ed added some good ideas, we agreed that I'd write the first half of the novella and he'd write the last half, and then we went opposite directions. A painless collaboration. (Save for the fact that DC Comics went back on agreeing that they wouldn't edit any of the stories by us professionals - there were some really big names involved, almost certainly for the fun of it.)
Anyway, after DC had reassured every one of us professionals that they'd do no rewrite level of editing on the stories written by us professionals as long as we didn't try to kill off or change the basic personality of their iconic and heavily copyrighted characters. None of our stories did those forbidden things, but DC started editing and rewriting all of us despite their vow not to. Somehow I ended up as spokesperson for the writers -- some of whom, as I mentioned, had much more fame and clout that I did -- and I faced off with DC.
Ever try to argue with a monolithic comic-book company who's used and spat out hundreds of in-house work-for-hire creative people? Anyway, I won the battle -- telling DC that all of us professionals with recognizable names would pull our stories out of this anthology immediately if they didn't cease mucking around with our stories. They believed me. And their anthology would have been a hollow and mostly empty box if the pros actually took their stories back citing breach of contract re: the no-arbitrary-editing clause.
So, no, I won't be finding any collaboration partners (nor imagining any) in the foreseeable future. Although there is one collaboration I regret never carrying out. It was to be called Learning the Languages of the Dead, was to be novel-length and co-written with my dear friend Harlan Ellison. It was to be printed first in France (and auctioned off to U.S. publishers) and, when finished, delivered to French editor who was a close friend with both of us -- Jacques Chambon. Jacques invited us to stay at his country house while Harlan and I did the collaborative parts of the novel and the beautiful office in which we were to work was a former stone stable built by the Romans. But then Jacques had a fatal heart attack -- dying far too young -- and while we still could have found a French publisher for Learning the Languages of the Dead, Harlan and I decided to set the project aside after Jacques' death.
It's too bad because I think Learning the Languages. . . had a truly powerful and pertinent-to-today story line and we'd structured it to bring out the best of both Harlan's and my strengths and styles.
 

5. Being a bookseller many people ask me for a book recommendation. Mine is The Terror every time. What book would you recommend to readers?


Dan Simmons quoteIsn't it odd that the great majority of Americans, most of whom (even college graduates) don't read a single novel a year, have no idea of our small community of Addicted Readers' joy in recommending and sharing a good book with our friends? Being a reader or non-reader, I've long thought, is a far greater (but less visible) divide than being black or white, Christian or atheist or Jewish, or man or woman.
Today I might recommend Forbush and the Penguins by Graham Billing (and don't let the title mislead you; this is no children's book) or one of many novels by the wonderful Stewart O'Nan. starting with the near-perfect little gem Last Night at the Lobster and moving on to his heartbreaking (at times) Wish You Were Here and its connected novel, Emily, Alone.
Sorry. I couldn't eat just one.
 

6. Working in the elementary education system, teaching writing programs, and being a full time author, which of your professional career achievements has become the most rewarding for you?


Writing and teaching my own curricula for years -- including frequent simulations and other active-learning modes of learning -- was fun. And I'll be immodest enough to suggest that the children benefited from it. Perhaps the most satisfying three years of my 18 years in elementary education and across different grade levels, was the APEX Program for gifted kids that another teacher and I created, wrote the curriculum for, and ran. No child was never labeled "gifted" or "talented" but we perfected a way to find (actually, to let them find us) the sharpest kids out of the 10,000-kid elementary population. And APEX Center offered a change of courses for which any student (of the right age) in the district might apply for. If we'd copyrighted or patented the means by which we found those superbly talented and rare gifted kids -- and then served them well with curricula up to post-graduate level -- I'd be rich now.
As an author, I tend to be critical of my work -- even when it's the absolute best I can do (which is the only thing any author "owes" any reader) -- but when I look back over the 29 books already published (and the 30th one, due to the publisher in September, a novel called Omega Canyon and set primarily in 1944-45) I can usually feel some real satisfaction -- whether it's from the research-meeting-fiction pleasure of The Fifth Heart, Black Hills, Drood, The Crook Factory, and The Terror -- or from a more personal point of view in such novels as Phases of Gravity (perhaps my favorite of my own novels) or Summer of Night and A Winter Haunting.
 

7. What technology do you use for writing?


Dan Simmons quoteIt used to be, even for gigantic, epic projects such as Carrion Comfort, my technology was a good pen, a yellow legal tablet, and a good typewriter for rewriting and submitting a clean copy (as they used to say in Dickens's day).
Nowadays I use a large-screen office computer, various laptops (both PC and Apple), and iPad for short bits.
I've seen computer technology turn into a kind of trap for would-be writers, ranging from young school kids to adult wannabe writers. When you're writing with pen and ink or pencil, you can see the scratch-outs and inserts and original text and layers of changes to each page. But a printed out document composed on computer with a word-processing program looks so . . . FINAL. Too many kids and even eager wanna-be adult writers are seduced, I think, by the clean, it's-finished look of a printed-out page. At least with a pen and yellow legal pad, you can see the struggle you've been going through to find just the right sentence and scene, the slow working through successive approximation to create the mood you want the reader to experience, and, in seeing the evolution of your phrases and pages, to grow prouder of (rather than ashamed of) being your own toughest critic.
 

8. I know you recently ended a book tour supporting The Fifth Heart. Do you have a current project brewing from the creative mind of Dan Simmons?


Dan Simmons quoteOmega Canyon, which is due to the publisher at the end of this September. You'd think a novel about blackmail, WWII, and building the atomic bomb at Los Alamos would be simple enough to structure and write. But Omega Canyon has been my most difficult book to date, both in terms of its necessarily complex (but workable) structure -- it's designed like a genetic spiral helix -- and in its delving deep into the most personal human feelings I've ever explored or tried to share with readers.
Hard work alone never guarantees readability, much less a book's success with readers (not to mention with editors and publishers), but my wish is that Omega Canyon does connect well with the kind of critical, demanding, and intelligent readers who've made my hard writing feel worth the effort after past projects.
A book's gestation period, at least for me, is about as long as a human female's approximate 9-month gestation. And the labor pains for bringing forth a book are more analogous to a human birth than most non-writers would believe. (Up to and including post-partum depression.) And then the books you labored so hard to give life to go out into the world on their own -- the little punks -- and never even bother to write home. Not so much as a single, stinking post card. The ungrateful whelps.
To find out more about Dan Simmons and to see a list of his books, click here.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015 - 2:30pm