—Last week I was watching Dan Simmons ’70 reading from his novel Drood
to a packed University Bookstore in Seattle (courtesy of my computer and YouTube). I was pleased to see that he seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as the readers gathered to hear him.
And what’s not to enjoy: adoring readers, great reviews from across the country, including Booklist, Chicago Tribune, anda starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, for this, Dan’s 26th book. Director Guillermo del Toro wants to make it into a movie.
And in March Drood hit #14 on the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller’s List.
So I wrote Dan to congratulate him on all this. He’d just come off the book tour and I’d hoped he was relaxing a little, and, as I put it, “enjoying the well-earned rewards of your hard work on Drood.”
And, of course, he isn’t. At least, not much. You don’t become a writer of Dan Simmons’ caliber by resting on your laurels. Super Bowl winners may head to Disney World, but writers—even writers of critically acclaimed best selling books that the hottest Hollywood directors want to make into movies—just head back to work.
The first thing Dan mentioned was that Drood had thus far not gone as high on the bestseller lists as The Terror, his historical novel that made all kinds of “Best Books of 2008” lists. He’s had to push hard to get the cover he wanted for his next book.(Simmons’ book covers are an art to themselves.) And that work in progress—Black Hills—is due to the publisher in April, and Dan has a ways to go to finish it.
Black Hills is a real change-up from Drood, which was a real change-up from Muse of Fire, a wonderful novella published in December 2008 that brings out Simmons’ voice and love for literature —a song of a book—in ways that take me back to why I first came to so admire and enjoy his writing 12 years ago. And Muse of Fire was a real change-up from The Terror.
But writing the books he wants to write regardless of genre has long been Dan’s stock in trade. It used to frustrate his publishers. Maybe it still does. But some of them are grimacing all the way to the bank.
I don’t recall Dan taking very many days off since I’ve known him. That first time I interviewed him was an exception. It was 1997 and he had just finished The Crook Factory—about the spy ring run by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. It was his 16th book published in only 11 years as full time writer. He’d been an award-winning teacher and educational innovator in Colorado before that, but he’d spent his summers on his other vocation. The schedule he described took me aback. He spent 17-hours almost every summer day writing.
Dan was generous enough to tell me how his first story came to be published, and we shared the anecdote with readers in the Fall 1997 Wabash Magazine:
Then, in August of 1979, in the summer house behind his wife’s parents’ home in Buffalo, New York, Dan typed the first paragraph of The River Styx Runs Upstream, a story about a boy’s mother whose body is "resurrected" apart from her soul. He paused, and thought: This will be my first story to be published.
Two years, hundreds of pages, and too many rejection slips later, Simmons’ gut feeling of being on the verge of success went sour. At his wife Karen’s urging, he did something he’d sworn he’d never do—he attended his first writer’s conference.
"It was my swan song. I went to hear and see the writers present and to begin to view writing as a hobby rather than an obsession," Simmons writes in the introduction to his short story collection Prayers to Broken Stones. The story of his encounter with writer, editor, and "enfant terriblé" Harlan Ellison—a man with an inquisitor’s zeal for wiping out bad writing—is a classic. Simmons hadn’t even planned to bring a manuscript and only placed his story on the reading stack because hundreds of works had already been submitted; odds were that Ellison would never see his, and after another workshop member was told to quit writing and find another hobby, "like gardening," Simmons was hoping he wouldn’t.
No such luck. Ellison picked up the story and lambasted the author for having the gall to submit such a lengthy tale. Simmons prepared for the worst.
But as Ellison read the story he began to cry. Then he turned to face the writer.
"He told me what I had known for years but had lost the nerve to believe-he told me that I had no choice but to continue writing, whether anything was ever published or not," Simmons writes. "He said that few heard the music but those who did had no choice but to follow the piper."
Before he asked Simmons to submit the story to the annual Twilight Zone magazine fiction contest, Ellison added a warning: "Now that you have that knowledge, you are doomed to spend the rest of your life working at this lonely and holy profession . . . Your relationships will suffer . . . Nights you will go without peace or sleep because the story doesn’t work."
Ellison told the workshop audience that he’d just sentenced Dan Simmons to "a life of unending labor, probably very little recognition, and a curse that will not be lifted, even after death!"
But the reinvigorated writer was undeterred. He drove home and revised the manuscript, and the story tied for first place. Flush with success, Simmons wrote Song of Kali, a psychological horror-thriller that reaches its climax when an American writer’s infant daughter is kidnapped by members of the death cult of the Hindu goddess Kali. Simmons had researched the tale while studying in India on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1977. The book not only found a publisher, but made its author the only first-time novelist ever to win the World Fantasy Award for best novel.
Critics were particularly impressed with Simmons’ ability to raise what could have been a pulp-fiction thriller to a higher level "with fine characterization, prose that rarely escapes control, and, above all, a keen moral sense."
I think of this story—and of Harlan Ellison’s words—whenever I’m fortunate enough to correspond with Dan Simmons. Especially this: “Nights you will go without peace or sleep because the story doesn’t work.” I know that part of the prophecy has proven true.
And, considering the fact that Dan’s last two books total more than 1,500 pages between them, I think it’s hilarious that Ellison was pissed off at Dan “for having the gall to submit such a lengthy tale!"
But Dan also told me that day that “a writer’s life is, by and large wonderful.” 12 years later, I think he still believes that. That the blessing of creating these works runs deeper than the curse.
I also remember the words that concluded our interview. A quote from Joseph Conrad, describing the writer’s duty: “Our task is to share. To share what we hear… share what we feel…and to share what we see. And no more. and it is everything.”
A colleague of mine once said to me, “It is a great blessing to have a writer for a friend.” I know the blessing—the inspiration, the comfort, and the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual adventure—this friendship with Dan Simmons is for me. A quick check online reveals how much his work means to his millions of readers and those he mentors at his online “Writing Well” forum. And a few Wabash students were fortunate to experience that mentoring up-close through the College’s Hockenberry Internship in writing that Dan sponsored to honor his Wabash friend, Duane Hockenberry.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Wabash man anywhere whose work revels more fearlessly and joyfully in the liberal arts than Dan Simmons’. (Check out Muse of Fire, for one, and you’ll see what I mean.)
In this year Wabash Dean Gary Phillips has declared “the year of the writer” at Wabash, how fitting that the best writer the College has ever nurtured should have one of his most acclaimed successes.
I just wish he’d take some time to rest savor that success once in a while. Of course, I also have to admit that I’m really looking forward to reading Black Hills.
You can read more about Simmons at www.dansimmons.com
Watch Dan’s reading at the Seattle bookstore here.