“Something Only Your Soul Knew”
An Interview with Dan Simmons ’70
When WM first interviewed best-selling author Dan Simmons ’70 in 1998, he had written 16 books in 11 years, including the Hugo Award–winning science fiction masterwork Hyperion. He would start a new book just three days after he completed the last. Simmons researched meticulously and wrote across the genres, occasionally confounding publishers and alternately stirring, inspiring, teaching, thrilling, fascinating, and scaring the hell out of his readers.
All that work took its toll. “Emotionally, I just bottomed out,” he told us from his cabin in the Rockies that day. He took a couple months off and “got my brain back,” he said. Some of his most acclaimed writing followed. Since that return, he has published 16 more books, including in 2007 his bestselling horror/historical fiction novel The Terror, which Stephen King called “a brilliant, massive combination of history and supernatural horror.” In 2018, it became a 10-part series on AMC, with critics calling it “a near-masterpiece of survival horror” and “one of the scariest shows in years.”
Twenty-one years ago, Simmons told us one of his life goals was to see one of his books made into a film. We wondered whether The Terror on AMC fulfilled that dream, and that’s where we started in the music room of his Longmont, Colorado, home with fresh snow on the Front Range:
WM: The first time we spoke, you said that one of your dreams was to see a book of yours on the screen, but you said you wouldn’t believe it until the lights went down and you were . . .
Simmons: . . . eating popcorn, yes.
So, did AMC’s The Terror count?
No, I want the big screen. I want the Technicolor movie screen. I want people sitting in the dark eating popcorn around me. I’m still looking forward to that.
But I enjoyed seeing it on the small screen. It was fun on all sorts of levels. My primary reaction was not, Ooh, my story is on the screen, but What are they going to do with it? One guy sitting alone wrote the book, but now you have a gaggle of writers, directors, showrunners, actors, special effects people and others adding in their two cents. There can be a team of 200 people working to get a limited TV series made. That fascinates me.
So, what was it like, watching your work on the screen?
They sent us DVD’s before the series was released, so my wife, Karen, and I sat in the living room and watched it. Our most frequent comment was probably, “Well, that was pretty nicely done.”
I had assumed it would be a kick to watch other people saying the lines I’d written years earlier, and it was.
Some novelists want their book to appear almost verbatim on the screen. I’ve argued from the beginning, that’s not possible. A novel is such a thing unto itself that the only way you can properly experience a novel is as a novel.
But I think the AMC people did a good job visually. We were really lucky with the actors involved—Jared Harris, who played Captain Francis Crozier, is just a damned good actor, but those in supporting roles also did well. I’m still in touch with some of them. Writing-wise, I know we were lucky. The showrunners really believed in the project and they brought what they thought was the heart of the novel to the series. I think they largely succeeded.
Many of your works nearly made it to production. Several are being considered now. What is it about The Terror that got the green light while others are waiting?
I do know that I hadn’t fully appreciated all the steps necessary for any project being green-lit.
When it comes to any novelist’s work being adapted as a movie or TV limited series, many are called and so few are chosen. Unless your name is Stephen King, in which case you have to beat the movie people off with a stick.
There’s really nothing you can do as a writer, once you send those children out into the world and try to find a home?
One small way to help is to serve as executive producer and talk to a showrunner, a director, or a writer, or an actor when they want something in the novel clarified. Another way is by being flexible and listening to their ideas and not saying, “That’s not in my book, you conniving bastard!”
Harlan Ellison told you, at what you thought would be your final attempt to get your work considered: “You know you’re a writer when a writer tells you you’re a writer, and you, Simmons, are a writer.” He died a year ago last June. What did that relationship mean to you over the years?
I loved Harlan Ellison. I’d like to say that he was a mentor, but in truth he never really helped me with the writing side of things. He knew I could write. Instead he told me, “Go get published, Simmons. You’re able. Quit stalling. Go do it.” At some point in every writer’s career, that’s exactly what they need to hear.
I soon got to know Stephen King and other well-known writers, but Harlan was my first important friendship with a published writer, certainly one as outspoken on so many aspects of the craft. He loved challenging others to think more sharply, to write more clearly, and to never…never…be satisfied.
Going to Harlan’s seminar in that summer of 1981 was supposed to be my swan song, a farewell to my quixotic dreams of becoming a full-time writer. Instead, he changed my life.
You’ve written that he told you you were a writer, that “few heard the music,” and that you heard the music?
Yes. And on that same day he said, “There’s this professional writers’ conference called the Milford workshop being held next week, and it’s the best SF writing workshop in the world and only published and professional writers are invited to it. And next week you’re going to be part of it.”
All these writers I’d known only by reputation—George R. R. Martin, Ed Bryant, Connie Willis, and so forth—were there. To spend a full week critiquing their work and having my own work critiqued by these professional authors—none of them pulling any punches—was one of those rare and extraordinary openings of a door that occurs perhaps once in a lucky person’s life.
Meeting professional writers right away, getting that critique, not being coddled—you’ve talked about that before as being pretty necessary for a writer . . .
When I drop by a college or university and there’s a workshop, I have to warn whoever is running the thing that I’m not going to be totally supportive. Usually they’ll say, “Well, we have to be supportive. These are young writers. You can crush them.” My reaction is, if you can crush them with an honest critique of their work, they’re probably not cut out to be professional writers. Imagine what it’s going to be like when they’re being published and thousands of people can swing at them and their work with a baseball bat whenever they want to. They’ll be hiding under their beds all the time.
Having your work critiqued, to me, has always been like taking a newborn baby, setting it out on a curb, leaving it, and seeing what happens. If you’re not ready to do that, then in some ways, you’re not ready to be a professional writer.
Being a full-time writer requires the confidence of a Doc Holliday with three aces up his sleeve.
I don’t think I’ve ever asked you about your writing process . . .
I avoid talking about it, especially when young writers are around, because I don’t believe any writer’s process is transferable.
I think too many teachers of writing say, “It’s all in revision. That’s where the real writing happens.” To which I say… “Naw!”
I don’t do whole rewritings of a manuscript. I’ve never written a whole second draft. I don’t start with, “Gee, now the rough draft is finished so now I can start on the real book.” I work on a sentence or paragraph or page until I think the damn thing sounds and feels right. Then I’ll go to the next and wrestle with the language until things there feel good. There will always be some later review and revision, but that’s minor compared to the original work. That’s always been my approach.
One thing we often hear at writers’ workshops is, “Just generate and turn off the inner editor.” Your editor is on right from the beginning?
Absolutely. Why generate merde, even temporarily. From the moment I’m typing that sentence or paragraph for the first time, if it doesn’t sound right, I’ll know it, I’ll stop, and do my damnedest to fix it. The further away you get from hearing that wrong note, the harder it is to go back and find exactly where it was and why it was wrong.
You sound like a composer, fixing that wrong note the minute he plays it, hears it.
John Updike had a character say this, but it is true for me in life, as well as in literature: “I’m neither musical nor religious. Each moment I live, I must think where to place my fingers and press them down with no confidence of hearing a chord.” That touches me because it’s true in life and learning, but especially in art. When you’re trying to master a difficult discipline, which is what writing fiction is, you’re dealing with a hundred different facets. The key early on, for me, has been hearing the false notes.
I’m convinced the ability to write fiction flows from one’s reading. As a young person you read everything. After a while, you begin to discern what’s worth your effort and time. That’s how you create the feedback loop to hear not just the notes, but the melody and measure, the rhythm and the tempo. In the beginning, it’s important to hear the wrong note as well as the right one, to know when you’ve committed a good sentence as well as a terrible sentence, to hear the music of a phrase, a paragraph, or an entire page.
You were a teacher for 18 years. How did that shape the way you look at life? And how does the much more solitary writer’s life shape the way you come at the world?
Writing is just damn lonely. If you’re doing it right, it’s lonely.
I used to love The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. Rob and Sal and Buddy would sit there, coming up with ideas for skits, jokes. It was a great collegial effort. You can’t write a novel like that. At least I couldn’t. Whereas with teaching, you are working with people every day. That’s the essence of your art.
You described having your work critiqued being “like putting a baby out on the doorstep and waiting for somebody to come.” Do you really consider your books your children?
I’ve published books. I have a daughter. As a teacher I’ve spent thousands of hours with other people’s children. Even the best book you’ll ever write can’t compare.
I think what these writers mean when they talk about their books being children is, “I put a lot of time and effort in this and it gives me an emotional reward.” But you don’t have a child just to have an emotional reward.
Since we last talked, you have a grandson, you have a granddaughter. Has being a grandfather surprised you?
No matter how prepared I thought I was, my God, what a wonderful surprise it’s been in every way.
This sounds pompous, but I’ll say it anyway: Any well-written book or story, no matter how negative its themes might be, is a celebration of life. That’s what the writing impulse is about. That’s what it’s trying to illuminate. But it doesn’t hold a candle to a child or grandchild. That’s the ultimate celebration of life to me.
During the Black Death, the Dark Ages, the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the long Cold War, people still celebrated having children. It’s what the human race does, not only to propagate itself, but to forge a sense of hope, to state unequivocally that life can be better for our children and grandchildren and we’ll bust our proverbial butts to make it that way.
Where else do you find hope?
I can be a pessimist about a lot of things, but even as I grow older I remain astounded at all the sources for hope there are in the world. It’s like Easter morning to me, and all the hidden places where you’re going to find hope, whether you want to or not.
I find it with good authors and fine writing—there’s always a sense of hope, even when the story seems to be giving a dismal message. The fact that it can be beautiful, the fact that a piece of writing can reach down and tell you something only your soul knew before that—what is hope other than that connection?
Simmons had nearly finished The Terror when his wife, Karen, decided it was time for a break.
“He had been working long and hard on the book, and I thought he needed a breather to help finish it,” she says.
Karen had booked a cruise in Quebec, but before that, a surprise—a stop in Quebec City art gallery with some of the finest indigenous sculpture in the country.
“They had this wonderful sculpture of a mythical beast/demon/god. Looks pretty human, but scary: Sedna,” Dan recalls. In Inuit mythology, Sedna has several origin stories. In one, she becomes the ruler of the monsters of the sea.
“We got that sculpture as a gift for me.”
In more ways than one: the myth of Sedna would come to inform the backstory of the Tuunbaq, the monster/demon Simmons imagined for The Terror.
“I knew the myth, but when I saw the sculpture I realized Sedna was perfect, both in the reason it was scary and the appearance it would take. I thought, That’s it.
“It’s the only time I’ve celebrated before I was finished with a project, and Karen’s thought was that it would get me to the end of the story. It literally did; it added that piece of the puzzle that had fallen off the table and rolled under the couch, the one I couldn’t find. When I got the Sedna piece, it clicked.”