Dan Simmons: „I never fear the modern day readers’ response to anything I try”

Articol publicat in:English | Aparut in:Nr. 19 ( decembrie, 2011 )

Mircea PRICĂJAN talks to Dan SIMMONS

The future generations of readers will undoubtedly read Dan Simmons’ books with the same gusto the present generations read books by Dostoyevsky, Mann, or Dickens. His prose has the right caliber to penetrate years and years of time.

The following interview was occasioned by the imminent publication of the Romanian translation of his novel DROOD.


Mircea PRICĂJAN: First and foremost, thank you, Mr. Simmons, for taking the time to do this interview. I know you’re in the middle of writing a new novel.

In a couple of  months, your Romanian readers will be able to read “Drood”, a novel quite different from the sci-fi ones they’ve been getting so far in translation. What attracted you to the historical fiction genre?

Dan SIMMONS: I’ve enjoyed writing in the historical fiction genre for years. My 1999 novel The Crook Factory – about Ernest Hemingway’s involvement in espionage (he called his spy group of waiters, prostitutes, sailors, former Spanish Civil War heroes, and bullfighters “The Crook Factory”) and German submarine-chasing in and around Cuba in 1942 – involved about 5 years (much of that time while writing other novels) of researching the life and private letters of Hemingway, whom I didn’t even like when I started the research. (I dislike all bullies.) But I love total-immersion research and by the time I wrote The Crook Factory I felt that I knew Hemingway, his outspoken wife, their lives, their home called the Finca Vigia above Havana, his writing days, and EH’s boat the Pilar most intimately.

Perhaps it’s in search of that sense of intimacy with some slice of the past that drives me to write such different and disparate historical-fiction-thriller novels as The Terrror, Black Hills, my current novel (set on 1925 Mt. Everest) The Abominable and even much earlier books of mine such as the non-genre Phases of Gravity or major parts of Carrion Comfort or the World War I novella that took me as long to research as any major novel – “The Great Lover”.

I play by the rules (or at least by my rules) in my historical-fiction novels and novellas: that is, what historical figures are documented as saying at a certain time about a certain topic, they say in my novel; if we know from biographies that they were at a certain place on a certain date, doing a certain thing – say Charles Dickens giving one of his hysterical-fit readings of “Nancy’s Murder” in 1867 – then my character Dickens will be there doing precisely that. I find the room for fiction in the interstices of biography and recorded history – i.e. those little cracks of privacy in every public figure’s life. And I feel free to play freely with certain historical figures – say, “the man named Lucas about whom little is known” a curious and unidentified crewmember in the biographies covering Hemingway’s sub-chasing adventures in the Pilar in 1942. Or even with the complex, contradictory figure that was the real and historical friend of Dickens and writer Wilkie Collins.

M.P.: I think that half of this novel’s success is given by the point-of-view factor. What convinced you to get Wilkie Collins to narrate it?

D.S.: I knew from the first thoughts about writing and plotting DROOD had to be my first-person narrator.

First – Wilkie was the ultimate unreliable narrator, and I love unreliable narrators and have enjoyed using them in many of my novels. It gives an added challenge to the reader to sort out what of the narrator’s tale is real, which is fiction, which is imagined, and which is an outright lie. The real Wilkie Collins had the multiple unreliable narrator advantages of – a) being a serious drug addict for the decades he knew Charles Dickens, Wilkie drinking enough laudanum (opium and alcohol) a day to kill 20 strong men and b) Wilkie being an outrageous liar in real life, living with one woman while he had another secret “wife” and children just down the street and c) most importantly, Wilkie Collins – as a writer – “being Salieri to Charles Dickens’s Mozart”, that is, a popular writer of the time – Wilkie’s serialized The Moonstone was outselling Dickens’s serialized (in a different periodical) masterpiece Bleak House at the time – who knew, as Salieri did that he (Salieri/Wilkie Collins) was a time-bound hack while his friend (Mozart/Dickens) was a genius whose work and reputation would last for centuries.

It’s a hard cross to bear, leading to almost murderous jealousy, and I wanted my fictional version of the real Wilkie Collins to bear that cross every day. Thus more laudanum drunk (in reality as well as my fiction). Thus, more distortion of reality and perception. A perfect unreliable narrator and one whose mind I hated to leave after two years of research on it and daily habitation in it.

M.P.: “Drood” covers the last five years in the life of Charles Dickens. Undoubtedly you did a lot of research work. Can you tell us one real fact that you chose to pass under silence because it wouldn’t have fit the novel’s plot?

D.S.: Actually, it tended to work the other direction – after the terrible railway accident at Staplehurst that almost claimed Dickens’s and his mistress’s lives – the famous author began to act more and more strangely: not just the abandonment of writing his novels in favor of an exhausting and strange reading tour in which he emphasized acting out the enhanced-for-acting-Murder-of-Nancy from Oliver Twist – Dickens actively and gleefully trying to get women in the audience to faint (and succeeding some nights by the dozens) and for strong men to be shaking – but then behaving as if he’d actually murdered Nancy that night and fleeing the town by railroad toward the next city and reading venue the same night, despite his exhaustion and terror of riding in trains after Staplehurst.

So of course there are daily events in Charles Dickens’s life that I had to leave out during my fictional look at those final, crazy five years of his life (he did die, suddenly, strangely, on the fifth anniversary of the accident at Staplehurst) – banquets in his honor, trips to the Continent for this or that, outings and memorable times with friends – but in most part my novel DROOD was true to the sense (and recorded instances) of terror, confusion, dramatic outbursts, and sense of guilt that marked Charles Dickens’s last five years.

M.P.: The 19th Century London you describe is very real, very atmospheric. It’s as though the real Wilkie Collins was talking to us. Now, this is without a doubt your merit as a writer, but how did you manage to get in such a close contact with that London?

D.S.: With my first comprehensive “historical-fiction-thriller”,  The Crook Factory, I’d made secret arrangements to go to Cuba (it’s still technically illegal for most Americans to travel there), arranged to rent a house there so that people whom I planned to interview – including the 95-yr-old man who’d been Hemingway’s first mate on the Pilar in 1942 – could visit me without the Cuban secret police or their neighbors informing on them, and was looking forward to my visit to Cuba, to seeing the locations for action in my book (including the coastlines where the Pilar sought out Nazi submarines and Colombo Cemetery in Havana where The Crook Factory spies actually met to exchange secrets), and especially to see the Finca Vigia – Hemingway’s home on the hill above Havana, which he just walked out of after Castro took over, leaving his liquor bottles and unfinished manuscripts right where they’d been. It’s a “museum” now, but a rotting-away one – more of an abandoned, haunted house with everything, including shelves of first-edition books signed by such friends as F. Scott Fitzgerald

M.P.: In some regards, “Drood” falls in the sensationalist novel category loved some much and practiced with devotion by Collins himself – the unreliable narrator being maybe the most evident. Didn’t you fear for modern day readers’ response to that? (I, for one, was absolutely delighted by this, I confess.)

D.S.: Why would I “fear for modern day readers’ response” to a bit of a 19th-Century sensationalist novelist’s style in a novel narrated by a 19th-Century sensationalist novelist? Wilkie’s style held more in common with America’s bestsellers today than did Dickens’s plot-thin but character-rich prose. Virginia Woolf made her nasty comment – “Dickens made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people on the fire.”

By people, Woolf – who was being at her bitchiest – meant “characters”, something Virginia Woolf had trouble creating and, when she did, we readers had great trouble remembering them for ten minutes. (Whereas, more than a century and a half after Charles Dickens created them, the names of a dozen or more of his characters leap instantly to mind, along with their quirks and foibles.)

But no, I never fear the modern day readers’ response to anything I try. If nothing else, the modern reader has been weaned on irony and dipped deep in American authors’ trickery, starting with the “father of American literature” (according to Ernest Hemingway) – Mark Twain.

If the readers can still handle Mark Twain and his many-leveled works, they can certainly deal with a modern novel contaminated with some Wilkie Collins’ sensationalism.

M.P.: How come you didn’t publish “Drood” in serialized form? It would’ve fit perfectly…

D.S.: Where would I have published such a large novel in 16-18 monthly installments? There are no magazines in America that really do the installment thing any longer (although the New Yorker on the rarest of occasions extends a piece to the next issue . . . no further), but it’s easier for an author to break into Fort Knox (where the nation’s gold is kept) than to break into the New Yorker.

In truth, there are only half a dozen (perhaps fewer now) widely distributed magazines in the United States that still publish fiction. And until recently they were always being fought over by the Saul Bellows and John Updikes and John Irvings and Norman Mailers, leaving no scraps of space for the little guy (or gal). Now Jonathan Franzen may hang out there, but few others.

One could serialize fiction online, but that’s not the same thing as waiting for the next solid, real-world monthly periodical to be published, is it? I remember reading a letter by Charles Dickens where he described to a friend what it was like to be in a store hearing someone ask for the new issue of his monthly magazine, the one carrying the next installment of his current novel, and the clerk promising the lady it would be out in less than two weeks – and Dickens realized that he hadn’t written a single line of the new monthly “number” yet. That’s a functional definition of pure panic.

Also, I like writing and publishing real, solid, put-them-on-your-shelf books.

M.P.: Are you going to return to the historical fiction concerning literary figures? Say, Shakespeare?… I know that the Bard and you have a special relationship.

D.S.: We’ll have to wait and see. My current historical-novel-in-progress, THE ABOMINABLE, is about a fictional 3-man (1-woman) assault on Mt. Everest in 1925

As for making Shakespeare a character in one of my future historical books – maybe, but I doubt it. I’m not smart enough to represent William Shakespeare adequately – not in dialogue, not in complexity of character, not in perception. You might tell from this that I am, indeed, a Bardolator.

Besides, Anthony Burgess probably wrote the definitive English-language novel about Shakespeare, even if he did get a lot of things (i.e. why Will married when and how he did, who the “Dark Lady” was, etc.,) all dead wrong. (I’d go into the ring against Burgess – and probably lose – but not against or with Shakespeare. The Bard and I don’t belong in the same room – the same city – much less in the same literary boxing ring.)

M.P.: You started your literary career writing horror fiction. Are you planning to ever return to the rigors of that genre, or that stage of your career is over for good?

D.S.: If my career shows anything, it has to be that I have little concern for genre boundaries. To me the many tropes and protocols of different genres – while hard to master and played with lightly at any author’s peril – are the colors on an artist’s palette, the genres themselves canvases of different sizes.

My recent novels of historical-fiction – THE TERROR, DROOD, BLACK HILLS – have largely been shelved in the “Horror” sections of the remaining bricks and mortar bookstores in the States, even while Jean Auel’s woolly-mammoth novels are filed in “Literature”. I don’t mind such mis-shelving, save for the fact that it keeps many readers from finding and reading novels of mine that they might have liked, due to arbitrary publisher and/or store decisions about “genre markets”. Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is a ghost story – it was an English Victorian tradition to tell scary ghost stories on Christmas Eve for some weird reason – but imagine if they still shelved all his work in the “Horror” section of bookstores because of that.

So in the best and worst senses, I’ve never left “the rigors of the [horror] genre”. Nor was I ever fully there.

M.P.: I hear that “The Abominable”, the novel you are currently working on, is a story concerning the Mallory Expedition and Yeti. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?

D.S.: Not really. Not comfortably – for either future readers or myself. It’s not about the 1924 Expedition where George Leigh Mallory and “Sandy” Irvine disappeared. (We all know that they found Mallory’s body on the North Face, not that far below the Yellow Band and not contorted, as such bodies always are, by a long fall, the rope connecting him to Irvine snapped but still tight around his waist; but they haven’t found Irvine yet, or with him the little Kodak camera that might have photos of the two men on the summit, or not reaching it, on the aged but still-developable [says Kodak] film.)

My novel is about climbing Mt. Everest but is set in 1925 – the year after Mallory and Irvine disappeared (in history, the next real English Everest expedition after the 1924 debacle was in 1933) . . . but my book is not primarily about Mallory or his disappearance. Nor does THE ABOMINABLE in the title refer to the Yeti – the “Abominable Snowman” monster said to wander the heights of Everest – but to something real and something infinitely more terrible, in its reality, than any mythical mountain monster.

M.P.: Like I said, your Romanian fans are more acquainted with your novels in the Hyperion Cantos series and Ilium/Olympos. What would you tell them about the Dan Simmons as revealed in “Drood”?

D.S.: I’ll let DROOD itself do the speaking to answer the question of “who is Dan Simmons” for my Romanian readers. I suspect that authors of fiction should write fiction and keep their mouths shut about themselves. If their fiction doesn’t explain to the intelligent reader who and what the author is and what he or she cares about, nothing will.

M.P.: Thank you very much, Mr. Simmons. It has been a real honor to have you in our magazine, and I’m sure your readers from this part of the world are already on the edge of their seats for “Drood”.

–Oct. 2011

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Un comentariu »

  • Bear said:

    Excelent! Felicitari!

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