Interview with Dan Simmons

Posted by Goodreads on March 9, 2009
After 25 books, novelist Dan Simmons refuses to be categorized. His works defy genre, often mixing elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, and history. Although best known for his two science fiction series, the Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos, which both pay homage to literary classics (The Canterbury Tales and The Iliad, respectively), he has also dabbled in crime fiction (Hardcase) and historical fiction (The Terror). His newest book, Drood, explores the final dark years of Charles Dickens and the untold story of Dickens' unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Simmons describes Dickens' bizarre obsessions (violence and hypnotism) and warns that his narrator should not be trusted.

Goodreads: Let's talk about Drood. Why did you choose Charles Dickens as a subject of study, and why focus on the final five years of his life, after he had finished his major work as a writer?

Dan Simmons: I've had an aversion to Dickens for a number of years. Under heavy psychotherapy, I've traced it back to a ninth grade English teacher who crammed Great Expectations down my throat. For years, I chose to not pay too much attention to Dickens, but in 1999, I read Peter Ackroyd's biography and was fascinated by how the Staplehurst accident of 1865, exactly five years before Dickens' death, changed his personality and his character. I just didn't think there was enough written about that in any of the Dickens biographies. And it is quite an opening for a novelist to look at how one event changes the life and outlook of the most famous man on earth.

GR: How did the accident change Dickens? He became obsessed with the concept of death?

DS: It's a fascinating question and the central question of my novel. We know his obsession with death and violence became suddenly magnified and focused after the June 9, 1865, Staplehurst railway accident he was in. It was very similar to surviving an airline crash. We don't think of railroads as being that deadly, but it has the same effect—bodies aren't complete, you find bits of people. Of the seven or eight first-class carriages, only his survived, and it was dangling by a thread. All the others were smashed to bits and most of the people in them. This liberated something in Dickens. "Liberated" sounds like the wrong word, but it's true. It let free this obsession that he had controlled and been a master of for much of his life. His fear of death was very great. His obsession with violent death showed up in a lot of his fiction, but it was always used the way writers use things. I think it was Kafka who said, "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." And he's talking about readers, but it does the same thing for the writer. Vargas-Llosa said, "Writers are the exorcists of their own demons." Stephen King said sort of the same thing to me once. I'm sure he said it in public—that he would never need psychotherapy because he gives all his fears and neuroses to other people. In this case, the demons Dickens released were very great. He never finished another novel. He quit writing for more than three and a half years and instead staged readings around Scotland and England, essentially scaring people to death with his reading of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist. We can't even imagine what that phenomenon was like. He was doing something—I'm convinced he was trying to mesmerize (hypnotize) thousands of people at once and control their thinking during the reading. It sounds absurd, but I'm convinced he really believed he could do it.

GR: How much of this period is documented?

DS: Everything about his life was documented, as with any writer or celebrity, but there is a dark side of the moon to Dickens—a very private side that not many people got into. This is one reason I chose Wilkie Collins, his former collaborator and friend, as my narrator. They weren't very friendly in the last couple years of his life, but Wilkie Collins saw almost every aspect of Dickens' life. He was a hanger-on in many ways. He would spend weeks at Dickens' home; they worked together and traveled together. I needed someone who could see into Dickens' mind.

GR: And yet Collins is an extremely unreliable narrator. He's a drug addict and jealous of Dickens' success.

DS: I love unreliable narrators. I revel in my unreliable narrators and hunt for them all the time. When I realized I was going to go with Wilkie as my narrator and point of view, it was joyous. First of all, he's a serious drug addict, taking tremendous amounts of laudanum every day and shooting morphine at night to sleep. And second, he was a little crazy. Ever since he was a child, he has this "Other Wilkie," a doppelganger he was sure was out there. In fact, the Other Wilkie wrote parts of his bestseller, The Moonstone. When he was too drugged up and in too much pain to write, the Other Wilkie came in and wrote it. That's a great unreliable narrator! The third element is most interesting to me: He was Salieri to Dickens' Mozart. To me, Wilkie Collins was very mediocre. I keep running into Wilkie Collins fans wherever I go to do a reading. I think they're mad at me, because I don't love their hero. Like Salieri in Schaffer's play, I think Wilkie really embodied mediocrity. And what would it be like to be mediocre at your chosen field, and spent a good part of your life around genius? No wonder he was plotting to kill Dickens.

GR: Please tell us about your research process. How much is fiction and how much is fact?

DS: I try to stick to the documented facts completely. If a "real life" person in my novel expresses an opinion about another character, work, or life, that opinion has to have been expressed by that historical figure at about that time. As far as dates go, I can have anything happen in the fictional interstices, but if Dickens has to go off to a banquet at 7:00 PM that night, no matter where I'm carrying the plot, I'm going to have him at that banquet.

GR: Does that make it easier or harder to craft the story that you want?

DS: Both. It is easier in the sense that you have that skeleton to hang things on, but it makes it much harder, because you have your own plot going on as a writer that you have to check against every day and every hour of not only the main character's life, but the other characters too. I took one or two small liberties, such as moving something up a few days, but not many. There are thousands and thousands—that's not an exaggeration—of cross-checked details of the different characters' lives, and if I couldn't get them together in the same place at the same time, I would just have to give up.

GR: Should readers be familiar with The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

DS: My hope is that they'll be so galvanized by my book Drood that they'll run out and read Dickens'. I was a teacher for many years. I would never give a reading assignment to my readers, other than my book.

GR: You are on your 25th book. Has your approach to writing changed over the years?

DS: That's a great question. My books aren't getting easier or shorter, but I think after a certain number of books every writer looks back at his earlier books and just wonders, "How did I have the energy to do that?" They are reissuing a book of mine called Carrion Comfort, which had 1,500 typed manuscript pages. I would write longhand at night and type up parts of the night's chapter in the morning at 5:00 AM before going off to a long day's work teaching. I look at the size and the energy thrown into that book and see a different period of my life when nothing seemed impossible. Writing seemed to an instinctive thing I just had to do. But the longer you stay at it, the harder it gets, because your standards keep rising and you run out of things to write.

I chose early on to write across whatever genres I wanted without really settling into any one genre. Some writers are like a star that burns up all its hydrogen, collapses, and starts burning helium, changing into a different type of star. Writers of mainstream fiction pretty soon start writing about being a writer and about cocktail parties with publishers. They've used up their early life, which was the impetus for writing all their great books. But when you're borrowing themes from different genres or enjoy writing history, as I do, that particular kind of burnout doesn't happen. I choose something I would like to re-educate myself in or learn for the first time. I had a pretty decent undergraduate education, but I really didn't pay attention to The Iliad the way I should have, so some years ago I decided that I'd write two huge science fiction novels (Ilium and Olympos) based, in large part, on The Iliad, which meant that for four years I read every piece of criticism and scholarly work that I could find on The Iliad. I'm still no expert, but I feel that I've learned a lot.

GR: Do you have a prediction for whether Drood will make it to the big screen before Hyperion?

DS: There have been so many things optioned and so many projects started that any time I mention any movie based on my work I know it will go belly up in a week. You may notice that on the back cover of Drood there is a blurb by Guillermo del Toro. I've had some dealings with him over the years, back when Hollywood didn't know who he was. As a courtesy, he asked for and we sent the manuscript while I was still revising. He told me he got to page 600 of Drood and he went to Universal and said, "I want to make this movie." They reminded him that he's headed off to New Zealand to do the two Hobbit films. Some people go to New Zealand and never come back, but he plans to make Drood as soon as he's done with The Hobbit. He asked if I wanted a blurb, and I've never seen a novel that hadn't already been turned into a film with a director's blurb on it, so I thought, "Why not?"

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DS: I wake up as late as I can, because that is one of the few, great benefits of being a writer. You don't have to get up early and commute to work. So the morning is wonderfully wasted: reading three newspapers, reading online, having a slow breakfast, then after getting dressed, meandering off to my downstairs office and jumping into it. My books involve a lot of research, so I'm usually surrounded by huge stacks of other books and printouts. I'm looking forward to someday writing a book without all that research and getting back to that style.

GR: Who are some of your influences?

DS: As with most writers, I started thinking of myself as a possible writer fairly young. But I do have one person who changed my life: Harlan Ellison. I met him in 1981. I'd given up writing after only a couple years of trying. [My wife and I] were expecting our first child, and I figured it was time to get serious. I'd been a schoolteacher for years, my real occupation, but I went off to a workshop to hear some writers I loved read their work. We had to put in a manuscript, and Harlan found me there. It was a very dramatic moment for me. He tends to eviscerate would-be writers, but when my story came up he said, "There are very few here who hear the music, but those who do need to follow it." But then he warned of what it would be like, and then he explained what my next 20 years of being a writer would be like. It was spooky. He never taught me, but he was the mentor who made me go home and start writing seriously.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

DS: I was just a teenager when I started reading John Updike. When he died a couple weeks ago, it was a major loss, even though sometimes you don't love a writer's later books. He even said, in his last interview with The New York Times, that writers are at the peak of their energy in their late 20s, early 30s, when they have the most to write about. Saul Bellow is another favorite. A writer whose career I would like to emulate in some ways is John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman), partially because he wrote whatever he wanted and refused to be categorized—and that's been my story since 1982.

GR: What's next?

DS: I have to finish the novel that was due about two weeks ago: Black Hills, which is the title and the name of the main character, although the Lakota people don't usually name kids after places. It is another historical thriller with some fantasy elements, but maybe for a different audience. It starts with a little Lakota Sioux boy by accident being at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. He "counts coup" on a white man (when a warrior touches but does not harm an opponent during a battle). That's the bravest thing a warrior can do. He's not a warrior, he's just a kid, but he counts coup on this man just as the man is hit by a second rifle bullet, and he feels the ghost of George Armstrong Custer flowing into him. He has to carry around this ghost for the rest of his life.

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Matt (last edited Mar 10, 2009 11:36AM) (new)

Matt I look forward to this new work by Simmons. I wonder how he will encapsulate the excitement of say, having two robots discuss an in-depth critical analysis of Proust whilst engaged in a life-or-death struggle but I'm willing to give it a shot (Dickens' personality is effected because he finds out he's a robot, maybe)

message 2: by Vint (new)

Vint Interesting interview. And the answer to the eighth question, in which Simmons muses on mainstream writers "writing about being writers" is rather amusing in retrospect. Even though it addresses the madness of genius (and the dual nature of personalities), DROOD, is, in large part, about, er, um..."being a writer."

message 3: by Tom (new)

Tom Walsh I'm reading "Drood" now (half way through.) "Drood" also drew me to "Ilium", which I'm also reading. I like the way he weaves the plotline slowly, carefully. His reserach on both is admirable. As an ex-English major, I appreciate the needle and thread of classic literature he uses in his oeuvre. Thank you, Mr. Simmons!!!

message 4: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Simmons is a mammoth of a writer, it's too bad a lot of people haven't heard of him

message 5: by Andrew (new)

Andrew I recommend The Terror and Carrion Comfort as two of my favorites

message 6: by Ken (new)

Ken Dan Simmons is an amazing writer and I would gladly follow him wherever his muse leads. Suppose he wants to write about fruit flies and a carrot? I'm sure it would be awesome.

message 7: by Tom (new)

Tom Walsh Thanks, Andrew, for the recommendation, and thanks, Ken, for a funny email! Hey, Ken, I think you're right!

message 8: by Diane (new)

Diane Dan Simmons is terriffic. *Carrion Comfort* and *Children of the Night* are two great vampire novels, but the man can write anything.

message 9: by Colleen (new)

Colleen It's interesting how fans of that "mediocre" writer keep showing up more than a century after his works were written. It's almost as if he were, in fact, special. I doubt any Dan Simmons fans will be around 100 years from now to be angry at any current author who chooses Mr. Simmons as their protagonist.

From everything I've read of him Wilkie Collins would be most unlikely to ...

*****spoiler alert*****

strangle a puppy.

There is evidence that Dickens, whose superior genius I admit, envied Wilkie his plotting ability.

While the factual elements mingled with the story were enjoyable and I agree that Wilkie Collins unique persona makes him an especially interesting narrator, I just don't feel that this book lived up to its potential.

message 10: by Tom (new)

Tom Walsh Simmons tells us Wilkie is NOT a reliable source for truth. The fact that he was a drug addict adds to the unreality of his actions and the facts of the hunt.

I think Dickens and Collins were equally talented. I've read many of their novels with great attention.

Simmons told us in the interview he twisted their relationship a bit to mirror Mozart and Salieri. (although Pushkin made up this rivalry for his play.)

The creativity of Simmons, and his vision, cannot be touched. It's refreshing to read something so "out of the box" for a change.

message 11: by Keith (new)

Keith "refuses to be categorized"

How about, "a guy who writes about post-apocalyptic Earth while drawing heavily from classical literature?"

message 12: by Tom (last edited Mar 14, 2009 01:43PM) (new)

Tom Walsh I think all ex-English majors, whether writers, teachers or every-day workers, have been affected, greatly, by the muses. We exist in a different universe, at times, populated by our beloved characters.

message 13: by Camilla (new)

Camilla The way Mr. Simmons writes a book is the way I enjoy reading. If a novel opens my mind to questins I end up with more and more books around me looking up this reference and that map. And a dictionary is a must as I circle new words to be learned. I am reading Follet's Pillars of the Earth and just found a book on Castles in a thrift store. It is so much fun! I too have an aversion to Dickens, but think I now may cross the bridge thanks to Mr. Simmons. Camilla

message 14: by Patrick (last edited Mar 17, 2009 09:32PM) (new)

Patrick I do admire Mr. Simmons's perchance for following his own path when there are too many horror novels similiar to Alex Garland's "Twenty Eight Days Later", (even if I find these stories compelling) and the old English story, "The Fog" as well as those zombie and vampire novels. I think his greatest strength is his refusal to be pigeon-holed into one genre.
He had shown that very well in the beginning with Carrion Comfort, but I think he stumbled a little with Darwin's Blade (Looks like he cut himself with his Occam Razor) by trying to write a hard boiler comedic novel like Carl Hiaasen, or John D. Macdonald, or Elmore Leonard. I feel that way because he seemed to have recycled all these outragous urban myths and placed them in a weak string of incidents in the course of the insurance investigator work for humorous scenes. But I think he really redeemed himself with "The Terror" and possibly this intriguing book, "Drood."

message 15: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Siemann I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Drood, and it is a tremendous read, alternately deeply psychological and indecently fun.

As a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, however, I take serious issue with Simmons's association of Wilkie Collins with mediocrity. While Collins's output varied tremendously in quality (some of his later work, written at the height of his poor health and drug addiction, suffers accordingly), at his best, he rivals anything Dickens wrote. And despite his poor treatment of the women in his life, he created some of the strongest, most engaging and most *real* female characters of any male author of the period. Read Drood, and then read some Collins -- nearly everything he's written is back in print, and The Moonstone and The Woman in White will be in any large bookstore.

message 16: by Thom (new)

Thom Dunn I remember way, way back,when I attemded a meeting of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Dan Simmons was a guest of honor, and Song of Kali had just been published. Harlan Ellison praised Simmons for the staggering power of his (debut?) novel and then went on to criticize the mainstream establishment for not recognizing a phenomenal new talent.

message 17: by Andrew (new)

Andrew I will probably read both Drood and The Terror again, because I read both books at a fever pace, almost unable to put them down. I buy few new books, borrowing most from the library, however I find myself buying Simmons' books knowing I will reread and loan the books to my friends. Simmons has a great talent for bringing the reader into the mind of his narrator, this is especially true of Raul Endemion, Thomas Hockenberry, and Wilkie Collins. I would even say Simmons is somewhat like Dickens in his talent for making characters live. The Terror and Drood seem to me to be two sides of the same story, beyond the obvious parallels in time and the staging of the frozen deep in Drood. In both books the question remains whether the Beast is real or in our heads.

message 18: by Colleen (new)

Colleen Catherine wrote: "I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Drood, and it is a tremendous read, alternately deeply psychological and indecently fun.

As a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, however, I take serious issu..."

Thanks for taking wilkie collins' part-i've read them all, even the lost tahiti one, and enjoyed them all and thouroughly love armadale and man and wifa as well as moonstone and the woman in white

message 19: by Martha (new)

Martha Can anyone explain to me the ending of The terror because I did not get it! thanks.

message 20: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Thanks for the interview. Looking forward to more of these from other authors. If anyone is interested I created a Dan Simmons group:

message 21: by Lynn (new)

Lynn The Terror/Dan Simmons: I am wonderfully enjoying 'The Terror'. Though, one 'date' question:
Ch 12: June 1847: Gore is alive.
Ch 13: June 1846: Gore is dead.
Anyways, weird. Right?

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