spoke with Dan Simmons in his Longmont, Colorado
office, a converted garage designed by Simmons and
his wife, Karen. The downstairs is white counters
and cabinets, a large poster British Railways poster
for Simmons book Carrion Comfort hanging on
Lets go to a more
creative spaceI couldnt write a word
in this room, Simmons says as we leave the
familys Welsh Corgi, Fergie, at the door and
climb the stairs to a loft paneled in real wood,
lit warmly with lamps and afternoon sunlight, books
lining almost half the room. Simmons computer
glows with a work in progressthe third of
his successful Joe Kurtz novels. The stories are
set in Buffalo, New York.
An homage to Karen,
Simmons says. She grew up there.
Simmons desk faces an Alfred
Eisenstadt photograph of Robert Kennedy at the 1960
Democratic convention, a gift from Karen and Simmons
daughter, Jane. Simmons saw Kennedy in 1968 at the
Crawfordsville shopping mall while the writer was
still a student at Wabash and a volunteer for the
McCarthy campaign. He was working over the summer
on an overdue paper about Bartleby the Scrivener
when he heard news of the senators assassination.
I went up to the College
and just sat in the library, couldnt read,
didnt do anything, Simmons says. I
felt that he was our last, best chance at that time,
especially with the war. Im much more conservative
now, but in some ways, I still think he was that
WM: When I last interviewed you
for the magazine, youd just turned 50. You
were taking a break after writing 16 books in 11
years. Youd run out of steam, you said. Looking
at what youve written since 1998, it sure
looks like youve got plenty of steam now!
Simmons: Im working well.
We spoke for that interview right about the time
I was climbing out of the pit of clinical depression.
Everyone seems to have experienced it these days,
but for me it was an extraordinary experience. For
months, I couldnt write fiction, I couldnt
read, I couldnt even focus on something as
simple as a sitcom. What astounded me is that I
was writing again before I could read so much as
a short story. I began work on a book called Darwins
Blade. I discovered that I could structure a novel
and create characters before I could process such
things coming from a book, or even a movieand
I love movies. This was just one of the odd side
effects of the depression, but it was fascinating
WM: You had to work your way out
of it, literallyto write your way out of depression?
Simmons: Im not saying the
writing helped me. What helped me was Prozac! Thank
God for that.
Ive always been a rather
happy melancholicI like the autumn twilight.
I like the slight, sad tinge to things. I believe
in the Japanese idea of wabi and sabi, the aesthetic
in which we realize that to embrace anything in
time is to embrace that things destruction.
Were all doomed, so lets at least be
happy for the knowledge of that so we can appreciate
the beauty in people and things around us while
we have time.
But this wasnt that touch
of melancholy. This was a trap door to hell. I soon
realized I had a simple choiceI could either
end it all or get well, even though I didnt
see any advantage to the latter at the time. But
I hate leaving messes for others to clean up, so
for less money than it takes to rent a psychiatrist,
I went to Maui for a week and walked the coastline.
I started thinking about a play, about John Keats,
about his last days. I couldnt write anything
down, so I just wrote and rewrote it in my mind.
But that allowed me to take the next step and to
start writing my novels again. So thats how
I started to get my steam backhow I got my
mojo back! [smiles]
WM: Did walking help?
Simmons: It helped tremendously.
Always does. In fact, thats one of the reasons
I knew that I was terribly sickI was spending
a lot of time at my cabin in the mountains by myself,
and even walking through the place I love the most
in the world didnt touch me. The light of
the moon rising over the mountains didnt touch
A similar thing happened years
beforeduring a walk in the mountains, oddly
enoughwhen I looked up at the moon in a twilight
sky and realized that my vision was screwed up,
that things were getting blurry. It turns out I
But this depression episode was
worse, because I couldnt emotionally see anything.
Its not that Im a sensitive, frail flowerIm
not. But these things strike people down. And unlike
cataracts, you cant fix depression with surgery.
But Aldous Huxley had it right when he said that
10 cubic centimeters can cure ten gloomy sentiments.
WM: These new Joe Kurtz novels
are a departure for you. As I read the first two,
I couldnt help noticing you were having fun
with this spare style.
Simmons: The first one, yes. But
it was in an odd situation. I was working on another
book, A Winter Haunting, and it was complexnot
just the plotting, but emotionally. And Karens
father, who Id known for 30 years, was dying.
We were spending a lot of time in nursing homes
and at the hospital. I found that I wanted to write
something completely different. I just wanted it
short and stark simple. Thats Richard
Stark simple. Stark was a pseudonym for Donald
Westlake in a series of tough-assed little noir
novels years ago. So I wanted to write a little
Stark novel, and I didin two months.
Id never written a book like that before,
with those simple little 10-page chapters, staccato
prose, almost no adjectives, and using said
for all forms of speech.
WM: Essentially turning the emotions
Simmons: Not really. The emotions
about the characters are still there; its
just a different set of them. It was also cathartic
in a way. We couldnt do anything about the
health of Karens dad and the downward spiral
everything was in. But I could have Kurtz do whatever
he had to do. Joe Kurtz is never passive.
WM: Your new book, Ilium, brings
you back to science fiction. Also to a classic work
of literature: the Iliad inspired it. But when you
and I were corresponding over the summer, you were
struggling with the book.
Simmons: Ilium is a huge project.
Its 1,053 manuscript pages finished. You and
I were writing when I was about 150 pages into it.
That early part of the writing-a-novel
process reminds me of a scene in this 1940s movie
where the devil is walking around the street with
some guy whos considering selling his soul
and they pass a man up on a soapbox, preaching sobriety.
The reformed drunkards crying, I have
wrestled with the devil, yay, I have wrestled with
the devil. And I have won.
And the devil turns to this guy
hes walking with and smiles and says, What
he doesnt know is that its always two
out of three falls.
Thats what happened with
this book Ilium. I thought I had it pinned, but
then it got the drop on me. I didnt even win
the first fall. The plot was like a cage of snakes
that I was supposed to tie in some sort of elaborate
knot, and while I was busy working on a clever knot
with three of the snakes, the fourth one would be
busy biting me on the ass.
So, yeah, eventually I dropped
out of the world, spent a month off email, over
a month away from the phone except for the most
important calls, and just went back to the mat.
And the first volume of this tale shaped itself
up. Whether it ultimately works or not, this is
the book I wanted to write.
WM: You mentioned that your mountain
cabin is the place you love most in the world.
Youve done some conservation work on that
land. Does caring for your Windwalker property,
being a steward of that land, inform your work of
creating worlds in fiction?
Simmons: I havent thought
about that, really. I suspect that occasionally
being a steward of landof children, of aged
parents, of somethingprobably is very important
to gaining maturity as a writer, because any quality
literature depends on the accuracy and clarity of
observation and you cannot observe clearly or accurately
in the abstract.
You cant love people or
things in the abstract, either. Although Ive
grown conservative in my old age, Ive always
been an environmentalist. But Im not a Bill
Clinton-type of environmentalist, one who says I
love nature, I will save the earth and all the people
on it and who then goes riding horseback in
Yellowstone Park because his political advisor tells
him to. Thats love in the abstract and love
based on self-interest, which isnt love at
What about cutting up that tree
thats fallen down in your forest? Should you
leave the trunk there to create more humus, or do
you really need that damned firewood for the coming
winter? What about clearing out the Canadian thistle
thats filling up the valley? Until youve
spent the summer out there every evening hacking
away at Canadian thistle with mosquitoes the size
of Predator drones trying to carry you off to feed
their young, all this talk about loving the environment
is just an abstract.
I believe, as Wendell Berry says,
that stewardship is the essential element of all
conservingthat we need an attachment to something
if were going to understand it, much less
save it. Thats particularly important at a
time when the culture is detaching from farming
and small communities and its connection with the
land and from reality itself.
In that sense, yesonce you
know any world its easier to imagine a fictional
Which Simmons character
does actor Leonardo DeCaprio want to play? When
can pitching a book idea get you more work than
you wanted? Read the complete text of our interview
with Simmons at WM Online: www.wabash.edu/magazine