February-March 2009 Message from Dan
Dear Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
1. An introduction and re-introduction
I’m going to take a break here from my usual sort of “Message from Dan” – i.e. long essays dealing with everything from the 1936 Nazi Olympics to Wendell Berry to occasional pieces of fiction as a gift to my visitors (such as the last two long “Messages”) to a look at the “The Futures That Never Were” to discussions of architecture and building a house (all these are available in the Message from Dan archives) – and just introduce myself here to new visitors while reminding old friends who I am and what this web site is about.
Sometimes, in literary terms, I feel like the elephant being groped by the proverbial blind men.
Some have read my speculative fiction or space-opera novels (Hyperion and the rest of that series, or Ilium and Olympos) and are sure that I’m an SF (or worse, God help us, “sci-fi”) writer. But while I love writing in the SF genre, I’m not an SF writer.
Some came to my books via the short-lived but fun (for me) “Joe Kurtz” series of three noir-hardboiled (or beyond hardboiled) novels. But as much as I enjoyed doing those three books, almost as an homage to the recently deceased Donald Westlake (writing as “Richard Stark”) I’m certainly not a hardboiled noir or mystery writer.
Some first read my work via the mainstream novel Phases of Gravity or other non-genre fiction of mine, but I don’t think of myself as a “mainstream” or “serious” writer.
Many read my early scary books from the 1980’s and 1990’s – Carrion Comfort, perhaps, or Children of the Night and the flip-side of that fictional coin, A Winter Haunting, or perhaps even my first published novel, Song of Kali – and think of me as a horror writer. But I’m not a horror writer.
Others of you first read my “thriller-suspense” novels such as 1999’s The Crook Factory or 2000’s Darwin’s Blade and might think of me as a thriller writer, but I disclaim the honor of being a thriller writer.
More of you have first read me in 2007’s The Terror or perhaps will do so in DROOD just now being published and might be sure that I’m an “historical-suspense” novelist, but I don’t think of myself in that category either.
By now you may have picked up on the fact that since I published my first short story in 1982 (“The River Styx Runs Upstream”) and my first novel (Song of Kali) in 1985, my goal has been to write what I want, using whatever genre tropes and protocols I wish to borrow, without ever putting that helpful but ultimately deadly genre- or non-genre- adjective before “writer.”
I’m just a writer, thank you. No adjectives need apply.
As I’ve mentioned in various essays and interviews, most writers work for the bulk of their careers and perhaps for most of their lifetimes writing in one category or genre, building a readership there until, with luck, that readership reaches a critical mass (i.e. bestsellerdom). I’ve referred to this wise career plan as “finding your slide and greasing it” and it’s true that this is the most sensible way to be a success as a published novelist. But as I indicated above, I’ve been lucky enough to build readerships in SF, in horror, in hardboiled noir, in thrillers, in dark fantasy, in mainstream fiction, and in historical-suspense fiction, and, in the end, I’ve gone off and abandoned those readerships to pursue yet another type of tale.
Or so it would appear. In truth, I’ve never abandoned any of my readers or “readerships” because so many of those readers have been generous enough and courageous enough to follow me through other “genres” and other marketing categories, always knowing that underneath those borrowed tropes and protocols there’s something called a Dan Simmons Novel. No writer (without an adjective before the noun) can be luckier than having this happen to him or her and one of the proofs of how rare it is might be the fact of how difficult it is to come up with other writers’ names who choose to write in so many fields and yet still have a growing readership both in the United States and in thirty or more countries elsewhere.
And just as I refuse to put any adjective before “writer” and continue to write what moves me, so do I never take the generosity of my readers for granted. In an age where it’s taken as an irrefutable maxim that everything has to have a “brand” before being marketable – that consumers fit tidy little niches – readers confound that genre-marketing-brand “find your slide and grease it” assumption and I bless them for doing so.
For those of you who would like to check on the 24 published books that come before my current one, DROOD, including perhaps some of my short fiction and awards for all of the above, here’s a link to the bibliography page (needing updating) on this web site –
Click here to view bibliography page
2. DROOD and beyond
DROOD, my twenty-sixth published book (if one includes the 69-page SF novella Muse of Fire collector’s edition published by Subterranean Press in 2008, a book notable for the superb cover by John Picacio), is being published in the U.S. in February, 2009, and in the U.K. in March, 2009. It’s been sold to publishers in quite a few other nations and will be appearing in many very soon.
DROOD breaks quite a few “rules” of marketing and publishing. First of all, it’s a big book – 771 pages not counting the acknowledgments – and, as everyone in the book trade will tell you, readers don’t like big books any longer. (Thank God no one’s told the readers this.) Secondly, DROOD borrows themes as well as tropes and protocols from different genres – some of the pacing of a thriller, many of the elements of literary biography yet with the pace and digressions of a much more literary novel, some of the mood of a horror novel, and an incredibly unreliable narrator.
The conceit of DROOD is that the novel is actually a long manuscript written by Charles Dickens’s actual, historical one-time friend and former collaborator Wilkie Collins – a manuscript written up into the 1880’s to be read only “approximately a century and a quarter after my death.” In it, Wilkie reveals “the truth” about Dickens’s bizarre last five years from the time of the terrible railway accident Dickens was in on 9 June, 1865, to the moment of Dickens’s death exactly five years later in 1870. The descriptions of the train accident were historically accurate; the descriptions of Dickens’s increasingly erratic behavior and obsessions in the next five years were historically accurate (Dickens gave up writing and eventually began hundreds of public readings, amazingly powerful performances unlike any “readings” that we would hear from any author today, and readings that were climaxed by the gory and terrible “MURDER of Nancy” that made scores of women in the audience faint and men leave the theater on wobbly legs.)
For Wilkie’s narration, think of “Salieri” in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus. The frustrations to a mediocre artist in the presence of true genius – think of Dickens as Wilkie’s “Mozart” – truly can drive mediocrity to madness. And the trustworthiness of Wilkie’s narration isn’t helped by the historical fact that, for decades, Wilkie Collins was a powerful laudanum addict, drinking enough of the opium tincture each day (according to one of his doctor acquaintances) that the amount would kill an entire roomful of men.
Between the opium and attempts at mesmerism, between a fellow writer’s artistic envy and former close friend’s personal jealousy, between the pain of knowing for a certainty that one’s name and work will be forgotten a century hence even while an all-too-fallible competitor’s work will probably live forever – which parts of Wilkie’s tale are a function of drug-addled madness and which parts are real revelations of Dickens’s strange last years?
What made the writing of DROOD even more fun was the personal challenge I set for myself to abide by historically actual dates, biographical accuracy for all characters involved, actual letters, and accuracy even in small details for almost every moment chronicled of those mysterious five years up to Dickens’s death (and a little beyond.) This was my version of playing fictional tennis with a net and I used the same rules in my work on THE TERROR.
Those of you interested in where my book tour should be taking me in the second half of February, please click on this link to our News Page . . ..
Drood Book Tour Itinerary on News Page
But even while I’m doing radio interviews about DROOD with the BBC and The Onion, responding to e-mail and phone interviews from others here in the States, and going on my modest little book tour, I’m working on and thinking about the next book for Little, Brown: a shorter and quite different little thing called BLACK HILLS which I hope to deliver to the publisher not long after the book tour for DROOD is finished.
3. This web site
One of the things I’m very much looking forward to in the interlude, perhaps late this spring, between the completion of Black Hills and the revisions and copyediting of that book (while researching and beginnning work on my next novel) is the updating, pruning, and reinvention of this DanSimmons.com web site. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to devote the time I need to bringing this site and all its various elements back up to full speed.
After we update various pages, add a few new ones, and delete others that don’t earn their keep, I hope to give the site a fresher look and vastly improved functionality.
One thing that will still be here when we’re finished is the NEWS PAGE with its announcements of publications, movie news, awards, and other items that might be of interest to readers of Dan Simmons’ fiction, but I hope to be much more diligent in keeping the information topical, readable, and relevant.
Another element that will continue will be the WRITING WELL installments. For those of you who haven’t read any of these, they’re this author’s attempt to discuss some of the more difficult aspects of writing fiction – especially novel-length works. The WRITING WELL installments aren’t the usual How To for writers, but rather an in-depth and ongoing series of essays for and conversations with those site visitors who are writers now, who are thinking about becoming writers, or who are simply readers interested in certain aspects of the craft. The last installment, WRITING WELL # 10, actually had a “reading assignment” given to those most involved with the ongoing dialogue – James Wood’s new book How Fiction Works, and quite a few people read the book in preparation for that essay and the ensuing discussion. Between the WRITING WELL installments, the dialogue continues on the On Writing Well topic thread of the Dan Simmons Forum and we’ve been very lucky there to get the opinions of visiting professional writers such as Clare B. Dunkle, Chris Ransom, John Sunseri, and others.
That DAN SIMMONS FORUM, with both the On Writing Well topics thread and the General Discussions thread, has been the source of some wonderful and informative postings and debates in the past few years. The quality of people who tend to gather there has been very high indeed and some of their explanations on their fields of specialty – whether it be military or the economy or physics or writing – has been a real source of deep background information and perspective for me. The Forum is closed temporarily while I reshape it a bit. During the last year, a political year to say the least, the debates on the Forum were passionate and informed, but some of that political debate has continued now beyond the election year and one thing I don’t want is for the Dan Simmons Forum to become just another Internet site for political battles or polemic, much less one of consensus on hot topics. There are far too many of those sites to begin with. So when the Forum re-opens soon, there will be some restructuring of forum topic categories and a rededication on my part to keep the tone as civil, reasoned, and friendly as it’s been at its best over the years.
The MESSAGE FROM DAN element to the web site will continue and will probably be as eccentric and unpredictable as always.
My daughter, Jane Kathryn Simmons, has had her page on the web site for a year or so now and, since I personally find her essays funny, I hope she’ll continue writing for the site despite her busy schedule as a producer, writer, and director of educational videos for parents.
For several years now we’ve had a wonderful “LETTER FROM FRANCE” occasional page written by the French writer and translator Jean-Daniel Breque, but Jean-Daniel’s decided to discontinue that page. Here’s my invitation to anyone involved in publishing, translating, or writing in Europe, Japan, Australia or any other interesting part of the world to have a page on the site (if you think you can continue it for a long period of time.) Or – if we were to try something really frightening and unusual – perhaps someone who works in so strange a planet as Hollywood would like to have a column and page on the new and improved DanSimmons.com web site. (We know we have some screenwriters who visit on a fairly regular basis – so here’s your chance to work hard for no payment even though that’s absolutely forbidden by our Writers Guild bylaws.)
We’ve been extremely lucky the past couple of years to have the RICHARD CURTIS PAGE – Richard is my literary agent and one of the savviest agents in New York or anywhere else – with his ongoing, book-length “Publishing in the 21st Century” column. That will continue. (Young or beginning writers – or just smart readers interested in the subject – who want to know what’s really going on in the publishing industry can and do benefit greatly from reading Richard’s ongoing series of essays.)
One feature that got lost during a shift from one web maven to another quite a few months ago is the ART FROM CONTRIBUTORS wherein artists, both professional and amateur, from around the world can submit their artwork that relates to Simmons’ fiction. (For some odd reason, the Shrike from my HYPERION novels was a frequent topic of sometimes stunning illustration.) Allowing those links to go by the wayside was my mistake and we will soon remedy that and will prominently feature more contributed artwork.
One new feature which we’ve been talking about for some time but haven’t had the time to activate – but which we firmly hope to have as part of the site this year – is the DAN SIMMONS ONLINE STORE. I have many hundreds of my own books that I purchased long ago, most of them first printings (NOT remaindered copies!), both from American and foreign publishers and which I will offer at what I hope will be great prices for collectors and others. Also, the Dan Simmons Online Store will take requests for signatures in those books, not to mention doodles, cartoons, Happy Birthday and other holiday wishes.
The Online Store should also eventually offer some fun things besides collectible and hard-to-find hardcover editions of my earlier books, including such glorious silliness as small sculpted Shrikes by Clee Richeson, the sculptor who was commissioned by me years ago to do the 8-foot-tall Shrike piece that now stands guard over my mountain cabin at Windwalker, CARRION COMFORT t-shirts and sweatshirts, and possibly an HYPERION chess set. We won’t say more until we’re ready to open the DAN SIMMONS ONLINE STORE, but we hope it’ll be soon.
But the main and renewed duty of the web site will be to keep in contact with readers and to provide publishing, movie, and other information to them as it becomes available.
4. The Secret Society of Readers
The recent deaths of John Updike, Donald Westlake, and some other wonderful writers have reminded me of what a strange group we totally addicted readers comprise.
I’ve written elsewhere that this group – real readers (whom one writer once defined as someone who “reads at least an hour a night” and whom I think of as those of us who read forty books and more per year) – is the last undiscovered and unexamined minority in America, if not the world.
Think of how strange we are, how secretive in some ways. We have these visible yet hidden relationships with authors whom we’ll probably never meet. And it’s a strangely intimate relationship – as readers we resonate to the deeper thoughts of some writers in ways that we may never resonate to those very real family members, friends, and spouses in our lives. The great authors, to paraphrase Franz Kafka about the purpose of a book, “ . . . should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
While we resonate to thousands of authors during our lifetimes as real readers -- serious readers, addicted readers – there are a few writers to whom that resonance is personal, deep, and lasting, much as some old love affair may have been. And there are a few writers in each of our lives who’ve been so central to our lives, who have created – through their mastery of language and metaphor and simile and the (don’t laugh) almost divine ability to create characters who live on within us – a powerful sense when we first read their best work, (as James Wood writes of encountering great metaphor in How Fiction Works) that -- “until this moment one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.”
The odd thing is that we – the readers – know that those non-readers around us, the vast majority of people around us, are blandly inhabiting that deprived eloquence all the time. Our relationships to the important authors in our lives resemble, at least a little bit, secret love affairs that we keep from all but a very few around us, and those few generally other readers.
As with old love affairs, we tend to drift apart from the authors who were so important to our youth and earlier years – commenting coolly, perhaps cruelly, that he or she “doesn’t have it any more” – and that almost describes my relationship to the prose of John Updike, but not quite. I always knew in my heart that his writing had been central to my maturing as a reader decades ago as well as central to my choosing to become a writer, so when the news of Updike’s death reached me a few days ago (as I write this), I was stunned. However old our favorite authors grow, however much we may prefer their earlier work to the novels of their late maturity (although that wasn’t true for me of other favorite authors such as Saul Bellow), we don’t expect them to die.
It feels like a betrayal, somehow, and the only people we can truly share this strange sort of mourning with are other addicted readers. I missed the Dan Simmons Forum this week for precisely that reason; I knew that others would have gathered there, however virtually, and raised a toast to John Updike. Others around me in the “real world” carry on as if nothing terrible has happened.
There’s a reviewer and essayist (he doesn’t qualify as a literary critic) whom I sometimes like –Sven Birkerts – who, failing as a would-be writer of fiction, has made a pretty good living teaching and writing about reading. (And I agree with Harlan Ellison that in Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Birkerts probably does the best job ever of describing the elements of the basically holistic act of a writer’s merging of real events and memory of things read as he tries to write a descriptive passage.) I’m not sure I’ve forgiven Birkerts for some cool, with-it, I’m-the-next-generation dissing of Updike (primarily) and Bellow and Roth a few years ago, urging them to go off to a Home for the Priapic Elderly or however he nastily put it. But that’s another discussion.
In his little book READING LIFE: Books for the Ages – which is really about, as are all his essays and reviews, him and his books read through the ages of his little life – Birkerts deals not only with the stages of reading in most of our lives (the children’s books and young adult books, segueing into something odd and in-between and trashy and slightly grown-up -- Ian Fleming’s James Bond books in Birkets’s pre-teen years – and then into real reading, perhaps coinciding with our teenage sense of alienation (the inevitable Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield for Birkets as a young teenager) – and then into the wide, full world of books. Birkerts also documents that period of grace in our earlier reading years when it seemed that we could and would read almost anything and get something wonderful out of it. Every book was an adventure, worth reading simply for whatever effect that book created in us.
But then we grow older and our tastes cohere. We abandon the majority of books and authors for good reason – we don’t have time for their limited skills or perspectives or intelligence as own grow – and then, in middle age and beyond, we learn that returning to a few wonderful, bottomless books and authors can actually be preferable to encountering something new all the time. (Thus I look at my bedside table and find two Shakespeare plays I’ve read countless times before and can’t wait to read again, the last book in the 20-volume Patrick O’Brian “Aubrey-Maturin” series that I’ve read through at least three times before, Henry James’s The Ambassadors that I’ve wrestled with many times (and always failed to defeat), and John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick that I’ve saved for a special (if sad) occasion.
Once again, Sven Birkerts tries to capture what the reading experience is like, and, once again, I think he comes pretty close –
“For any devoted reader the act is deeply, completely bound up with inwardness – with consciousness, sensibility, with whatever noun we choose to designate the murmur of awareness that accompanies us – and carries us – from first waking to sleep again. The words we read – the impressions, the narratives, the conversations and thoughts of characters – not only touch our private sense of ourselves, but merge with it, shaping and directing it. After all, we use our own imaginative energy to bring the words to life and then project their content – their stuff – onto the interior screen. There the world we’ve generated from the written signals glows vividly, or flickers faintly, or moves in and out of resolution, depending on who we are, what we are reading, and the wattage of our moods.”
Birkerts points out, astutely I believe, that while we like to think that our lifetime-long addiction to constant reading will make us, in the words of some liberal-arts college’s catalogue – “Deeper and more sensitive people, with a greater sense of awareness and social justice (etc.) . . .” – in truth, our thousands upon thousands of hours of reading do nothing of the kind. We readers, in reality and on average, don’t tend to be more ethical or compassionate or wise than the non-readers around us.
In the end, what those many years of deep reading prepare us for is . . . more reading. If we’ve done the reading right and not stopped growing in our taste, all those thousands of hours of entering that alternate plane of reality which reading demands simply make us better and more demanding and more highly astute readers.
It’s an odd and perfectly useless perpetual motion machine brought to a stop first by our favorite authors’ deaths – although part of us still seeks out new books from them on the shelves, even though we know that one will not (and should not, unless the publisher and author’s estate are playing greedy games) appear – and then by our own deaths.
But this is my clumsy way of explaining why this web site is here, why I go on book tour even when that tour is a painful and unwanted interruption of my work on the next (and imminently due) book, and why these Messages from Dan and Writing Well columns will continue and why the Dan Simmons Forum will return. I don’t know why we readers are the way we are, but I know that we owe a certain obligation to one another – we may be the smallest and most sneered-at “minority” in America, after all – and, as a writer, I have an obligation (to myself as well as to readers) to acknowledge and celebrate that unique bond that connects readers and authors.
Sven Birkerts ended his little introduction to The Reading Life with this passage that explains our common addiction and disease and perhaps our unspoken purpose –
“Sometimes I think that the long-term work of reading is to discover, one by one, the books that hold the scattered elements of our nature, after which the true consummation can begin. We undertake the gradual focused exploration, nuance by nuance, of their meanings, their implications; we follow out the strands that mysteriously connect the words of another with the unformulated stuff of the self.”
For those of you, new visitors and old friends here alike, who are continuing that lifelong “gradual focused exploration” at least partially through the books and stories I’ve written, I can only say “Thank you.”