Regardless of what he's done to earn a living or whatever else has happened in his life, Dan Simmons is, and has been for most of his 50 years, a writer, a creator. And creation, God knows, carries both a blessing and a curse.
Wabash in Simmons' Worlds
The names of classmates and Wabash friends frequently turn up in Dan Simmons' fiction. A few Wabash references:
In Hyperion, Nightenhelser College, is named after DePauw Professor of Classics Keith Nightenhelser '70.
Also in Hyperion, Placher Hall, modeled after the College's Center Hall, is named in honor of Wabash Professor of Philosophy Bill Placher '70.
In Carrion Comfort, the pilot of a small aircraft is a college student wearing a Wabash sweatshirt.
Bert Stern is the name of a Pax bishop in Endymion.
An eager young lieutenant in Endymion bears the name of current Wabash President Andy Ford.
Duane McBride, one of Simmons' favorite characters who meets a sinister and untimely death in Summer of Night, is named and partially modeled after the late Duane Hockenberry '70, who was murdered in 1971.
A Break in the Action
After creating 16 books in 11 years and winning international awards for his fiction, Dan Simmons '70 takes a respite from his art, turns 50, and reflects on the writer's life.
The congenial voice at the other end of the phone line is not what I expected. Not from the writer whose Summer of Night frightened me to the point of swearing off horror fiction and running to Holy Communion. Not from the author the Los Angeles Times credits with an "uncanny ability to tap into that primal dread that every child knows and every adult denies; the monster under the bed, the darkness in the closet, the not-quite-human face at the window."
"I get that a lot when I'm on book tours," Dan Simmons says with the engaged tenor of a sixth-grade teacher-his vocation before he turned to writing full time. "I like to make the readers in line feel comfortable; I get lots of laughs when I do readings. People say, 'You're not at all like I thought you'd be. You don't eat babies.'"
Simmons is relaxing in his Colorado mountain cabin, where he's been watching the Rockies vs. Cardinals opening day game on TV and outlining plot points for the screenplay of his modern-day vampire novel, Children of the Night. Our conversation begins not with Rthe monsters of that book or the celebrated worlds and characters of his award-winning science fiction novels, but with Simmons' recent travels with his 16-year-old daughter, Jane. Born on the day his first published story reached the newsstands-February 15, 1982-she has grown up with his writing career.
"Until the last year or two, the fact that Stephen King had nightmares in our basement guest room didn't mean anything to her," Simmons says. "But these writers have been a part her life, and that's made a huge difference in the way she views things."
Take Career Day in Jane's eighth grade year, when Simmons called King and arranged for Jane to spend a day on the set where King was filming his re-make of The Shining.
"She loved the behind-the-scenes stuff," Simmons recalls, adding that the teenager is now looking at liberal arts colleges ¢with a notion to get into filmmaking. More recently, as father and daughter were driving back from Boulder after taking the director and producer of Children of the Night to the airport, Jane reflected on how being in the family of a writer had given her the chance to talk with so many creative people.
"I feel so lucky," she said, offering an affirmation guaranteed to make any father revel in his choice of vocation.
Dan Simmons should be feeling pretty lucky himself today. He's one of fewer than 400 authors in the United States making a living writing fiction full-time. He writes books that defy the strategems of publishers determined to box him into a single genre, yet he's won awards for his horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. His 16th book in 11 years, a literary detective novel called The Crook Factory about the spy ring run by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, is on press. He's financially successf ul, paying more in taxes than he used to earn all year as a teacher, and he owns a comfortable home in Longmont, Colorado as well as this cabin in the Rockies. He's not only writing the screenplay for Children of the Night but may be flying off to Romania to be on set for much of the shooting-uncommon for Hollywood productions where novelists are often appeased with a shot at the screenplay and then quickly replaced.
So why does Simmons call 1998 "a bad year?" And why, only weeks ago, did he feel like taking a blowtorch to every book, every story, and every word he'd ever written?
Call it a hazard of his vocation. Because regardless of what he's done to earn a living or whatever else has happened in his life, Dan Simmons is, and has been for most of his 50 years, a writer, a creator. And creation, God knows, carries both a blessing and a curse.
"I started trying to write stories on a big, old upright typewriter in the fourth grade," the Peoria, Illinois na ,tive recalls. "I read almost anything-you have to be a reader, a fanatic reader, to be a writer."
Though a Classics Illustrated comic book often catapulted him into reading original classics, during his pre-teen years the young writer "followed the path of least resistance for a lot of pre-teenagers in those days"-science fiction. "Science fiction allowed me to live in the big universe of thought into my teenage years."
The family's frequent moves during his youth may have been a catalyst for his early writing projects, which included the start of a spy novel, but the Pittsboro [Indiana] High School student was "too much of a realist" to consider becoming a professional writer when he enrolled at Wabash in 1966.
Any dreams he harbored that fall dissolved into a nightmare when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Simmons left campus on Friday evenings to help care for her and returned just before classes on Monday morning. He missed mandatory Saturday classes and his classwork su ßffered. His grade on one paper which he turned in to the Philosophy Department still evokes anger.
"I don't know if they knew about my mother-I didn't broadcast it. But their comments made it seem as though they didn't give a damn."
Years later, Simmons wrote a screenplay in which a young man is able to cure his mother's cancer with a touch of his hands. But there were no miracles for the Simmons family that school year. His mother died in May. Then, in a plot twist crueler than any Simmons has ever put to paper, his father died of cancer the next year, leaving the Wabash sophomore grieving and without finances for his education. He walked into the office of Wabash Dean of Students Norman Moore to announce his withdrawal from college.
"I sat down and explained my situation-that I was maxed out on loans and was too stupid to have scholarships. I just wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd loved my year and a ha Ælf at Wabash. I was literally walking toward the door when Dean Moore said, 'Simmons, come here and sit down-we're not finished with you at Wabash.'"
With the financial support of work study and a series of grants, Simmons thrived at Wabash for the next three years, founding with roommate Keith Nightenhelser '70 an underground paper called The Satyr.
"There was enough student work going on (not just in classes, by any means), and enough political tumult in our minds, that Dan was able to push The Satyr into existence," Nightenhelser recalls. "I helped Dan execute it, but it was really his baby. He recruited and edited writers from all over the campus: Duane Hockenberry '70, professors, independents and fraternity members, athletes and aesthetes, intellectuals and marginal voices."
Simmons also helped organize and reported on the student strike protesting the incursion of U.S. troops into Cambodia in 1970. In the classroom and th e library, he gained a deep appreciation of the works of Keats, Chaucer, and Gerard Manley Hopkins that still influences his own writing. He also picked up a fondness for doing research that serves him so well that a researcher in California once called and asked him for the source of his data-the scientist was certain someone had stolen his lab's findings.
"I was just tap-dancing, but I did get enough science at Wabash so that I can keep the garbage out," he says. "The liberal arts education allows you to bob and weave a lot better than a very definitive vocational education."
While learning the art of the bob-and-weave, Simmons also heard an essential confirmation from Professor of English Bert Stern. Describing Simmons as "a sweet man with a terrifying imagination," Stern recalls: "He was making fiction even as a student. He understood how it worked, and he could create that illusion of reality flowing before your eyes."
Ste ´rn let his respect for his student be known.
"Bert was the first writer to tell me I was a writer," Simmons says. "And as Harlan Ellison told me later, 'you know you're a writer when a writer tells you you're a writer.'"
When the death of his parents left the Wabash sophomore at loose ends during school vacation, English professor Walter Fertig '38 stepped in.
"Fertig said 'Why don't you go to this GLCA Urban Semester? I'll call them and we'll get you in there next semester and you can go off to Philadelphia and write.'"
Simmons was game, and it was there he met his future wife, Karen. He also assisted a filmmaker working with inner city youth, an experience that led to his decision to pursue a graduate degree in education and to become a teacher.
"I loved it, loved it," the writer says of his 18 years of teaching, during which time he was named a finalist for the Colorado State Teacher of the Year Award and eventually establ ¥ished a gifted and talented program which served about 15,000 students. "I started at third grade, and it was an absolutely indelible year," Simmons says. "But then I ended up where so many male teachers do-for 11 years I taught sixth grade. My mission was to keep my students kids for one more year: give them a good year, allow them to stay kids, and teach them a hell of a lot, and it worked out pretty well."
Simmons, who recalls his own pre-teen years as the happiest of his childhood, also told stories to his class. One of them, "a sprawling fantasy epic with a cast of thousands," included the first incarnation of Simmons' most famous character, the Shrike.
"The kids loved the Shrike," Simmons recounts in the autobiographical Summer Sketches. "Especially the scene where Pernica, a three-foot-tall neo-cat, beats the Shrike in single combat. I told the story for half an hour a day for 180 days."
He later lost the manuscript during a mo ¶ve.
"The only people in the world who will know the whole story and how it turns out are those from that sixth grade class . . . who were patient enough and interested enough to listen for 180 days," Simmons recounts. "Which, when you think about it, is kind of neat."
Not that he wasn't serious about getting his work into print. The teacher spent summers putting in 17-hour days honing his skills. Then, in August of 1979, in the summer house behind his wife's parents' home in Buffalo, New York, he 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 Karen's urging, he did something he'd sworn he'd never do-he attended his first writer's con £ference.
"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 t o 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."
Such a promising start would have spelled certain success in many fields, but a novice writer is only as marketable as his most recent book. Simmons' second novel, Carrion Comfort, languished on an editor's desk while the publisher tried to fit it into marke ¦ting plans.
It was time for a leap of faith. Simmons had already cut back on teaching, leaving behind the security and success of that career. With a two-year-old daughter and bills to pay, he began to write full-time. Karen offered her critique and encouragement with every page, and the couple cashed in their retirement account to buy back the rights to Carrion Comfort and market it elsewhere.
"It was a huge risk, " Simmons says emphatically. Then his agent called with a good news, bad news proposition: "I know you won't write science fiction," he said. "But if you do, I know where you can get advance money."
"I said, 'I can do two science fiction books in a year,'" Simmons recalls with a laugh.
The first book was Hyperion, a story set 700 years in the future in which seven pilgrims tell their tales in a structure reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The story introduced into print the Shrike, and the adult-oriented version of the character his sixth-graders had so enjo yed became Simmons' trademark.
The New York Times Book Review called Hyperion "an unfailingly inventive narrative that bears comparison with such classics as Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Frank Herbert's Dune, and Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun."
The Washington Post said, "Dan Simmons has brilliantly conceptualized a future 700 years distant . . . In sheer scope and complexity it matches, and perhaps surpasses, those of Isaac Asimov and James Blish."
And Hyperion earned the Hugo Award for Best Novel-the "Pulitzer Prize" of science fiction.
Simmons has been writing winners ever since, crossing genres and defying his publishers' preference that he find a formula he likes and stick with it.
"You find your slide and then you grease it," Simmons says. "That's all publishers want you to do, and that's the road to success in publishing. But I've been very stubborn about writing what I want to write."
And what do his publishers say?
"They always want the same thing, which is À why I have many publishers," Simmons says. "Science fiction was Bantam, Putnam did horror. I have a series of mainstream novels coming out from Avon."
"It is a little frustrating, because my theory was that the reader would follow me anywhere. But it doesn't work. I can sell 600,000 copies of a horror novel, but only 18 of those people will read my science fiction."
While disregarding formulas and challenging himself with each new project, Simmons has become one of the few authors writing across the genres of horror and science fiction to be taken seriously by academics and literary critics. The themes he explores also garner critics' respect, and prominent among those themes is the importance of our coming to terms with mortality. Simmons' characters wrestle with feelings of loss in many of the books he's written. That doesn't mean the author enjoys the process.
"My reaction to the death of a character is an echo of my reactions to the death of real peopl "e of value in my life."
He recalls stopping his work on Song of Kali, "walking in the mountains for three days, rejecting all alternatives as contrived, before I could kill a character who HAD to die, whose death was the core of the book."
Duane McBride, a character in Summer of Night who was named to honor a Wabash friend and classmate murdered shortly after commencement, dies a horrible death in the story-the scene is excruciating, as if the author himself is unable to let go.
"I loved the character," Simmons says. "He was, in many ways, the most interesting I ever created. And I felt his loss all through the rest of the book, just as the other characters did."
But Simmons' commitment to story harnesses his emotions to drive the narrative toward the reader. That conviction combines with a conjurer's skill in evoking a sense of place and his keen observation of the sensual and emotional details of life to lend his work a pulsing immediacy and the bitter taste of reality.
"When I 'was a young boy reading A Separate Peace, I remember actually sitting down on the floor in shock when Phinny died during a routine operation," Simmons says. "I guess that's how I believe readers should feel if a character dies."
The mail he's received protesting the death of characters like Duane suggests that readers feel just that way. And critics and his fellow writers will tell you that Simmons' fiction succeeds in reaching readers as few can.
"He writes like a hot-rodding angel," Stephen King has said. "I am in awe of Dan Simmons."
Harlan Ellison concurs:
"To those of us to whom good writing is everything, the name Dan Simmons bears great weight."
Yet as he looks out the window of his Colorado mountain cabin on this early spring day, Dan Simmons tells me that 1998 has been a bad year.
"I just ran out of steam," Simmons explains. "Sixteen books in 11 years, and I've always started a new book three days after I completed the last. Emotionally I just bottomed out.
"A couple months ago I called my agent and told him I wanted to burn everything I'd ever written," Simmons recalls. "He said, 'Dan, why don't you take a month or two off.'"
So that's what Simmons did.
"And I got my brain back," the writer says.
Simmons turned 50 during that time off-a milestone that reminded him of William Faulkner's reflections when he reached the half-century mark.
"Faulkner had always said that perhaps when he reached 50 he would be able to decide how his work was:
'Then one day I was 50 and I looked back at it, and I decided that it was all pretty good-and then in the same instant I realized that that was the worst of all since that meant only that a little nearer now was the moment, instant, night: dark: sleep: when I would put it all away forever that I anguish and sweated over, and it would never trouble me anymore.'
"I don't feel as dismal now as that quote suggests, or as I did two months ago," the writer says. "I wouldn't burn my own Ê books now. They succeed on some terms."
As for mortality, Simmons, who was raised Roman Catholic, finds little consolation in the Church, though its tenets and trappings reside in much of his writing.
"I read [Wabash Professor Bill] Placher's theological books and I envy him, but that's not a solution for me," Simmons says. "I have to speak for the people who don't find solace in religion."
Simmons makes his confession, petition, and pilgrimage with the stroke of a pen.
"Treating each other well and truly loving while we're alive makes life acceptable through all the losses we have to suffer," the writer says. "It's an absolutely banal philosophy, but I'm trying to put it in terms of action and character in all my novels-the science fiction, the horror novels, everything I write."
In Prayers to Broken Stones, Simmons writes:
"It's a cliché that writing fiction is a bit like having children. As with most clichés, there's a base of truth there."
Perhaps even more so for Dan Simmons. A ìfter all, his daughter was born on the day his first story was published. And just as a father knows that, whatever happens in his life, he will always be a father, Simmons knows that he will always be a writer, convicted of his vocation but never content with his skills.
Yet even as he looks back on his first real bout with the depression that most artists face at some point in life, Simmons has not lost his perspective on-or gratitude for-his calling. If he ever does, holed up in his cabin while pounding out his next work, his daughter's nightly emails with their sign-off of "'night, Dad, I miss you. See you tomorrow" will no doubt bring it back into focus. Today, the blessing of creation runs deeper than the curse. Dan Simmons still believes "that a writer's life is, by and large, wonderful," and in what Joseph Conrad expressed as a 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."