Keep in Touch: Dan Simmons '70



WM 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 the wall.

“Let’s go to a more creative space—I couldn’t write a word in this room,” Simmons says as we leave the family’s 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 progress—the 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 senator’s assassination.

“I went up to the College and just sat in the library, couldn’t read, didn’t do anything,” Simmons says. “I felt that he was our last, best chance at that time, especially with the war. I’m much more conservative now, but in some ways, I still think he was that chance."

WM: When I last interviewed you for the magazine, you’d just turned 50. You were taking a break after writing 16 books in 11 years. You’d run out of steam, you said. Looking at what you’ve written since 1998, it sure looks like you’ve got plenty of steam now!

Simmons: I’m 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 couldn’t write fiction, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t 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 Darwin’s 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 movie—and I love movies. This was just one of the odd side effects of the depression, but it was fascinating to me.

WM: You had to work your way out of it, literally—to write your way out of depression?

Simmons: I’m not saying the writing helped me. What helped me was Prozac! Thank God for that.

I’ve always been a rather happy melancholic—I 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 thing’s destruction. We’re all doomed, so let’s 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 wasn’t that touch of melancholy. This was a trap door to hell. I soon realized I had a simple choice—I could either end it all or get well, even though I didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 that’s how I started to get my steam back—how I got my mojo back! [smiles]

WM: Did walking help?

Simmons: It helped tremendously. Always does. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I knew that I was terribly sick—I 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 didn’t touch me. The light of the moon rising over the mountains didn’t touch me.

A similar thing happened years before—during a walk in the mountains, oddly enough—when 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 had cataracts.

But this depression episode was worse, because I couldn’t emotionally see anything. It’s not that I’m a sensitive, frail flower—I’m not. But these things strike people down. And unlike cataracts, you can’t 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 couldn’t 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 complex—not just the plotting, but emotionally. And Karen’s father, who I’d 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. That’s “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 did—in two months. I’d 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 off?

Simmons: Not really. The emotions about the characters are still there; it’s just a different set of them. It was also cathartic in a way. We couldn’t do anything about the health of Karen’s 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. It’s 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 who’s considering selling his soul and they pass a man up on a soapbox, preaching sobriety. The reformed drunkard’s 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 he’s walking with and smiles and says, “What he doesn’t know is that it’s always two out of three falls.”

That’s what happened with this book Ilium. I thought I had it pinned, but then it got the drop on me. I didn’t 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.” You’ve 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 haven’t thought about that, really. I suspect that occasionally being a steward of land—of children, of aged parents, of something—probably 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 can’t love people or things in the abstract, either. Although I’ve grown conservative in my old age, I’ve always been an environmentalist. But I’m 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. That’s love in the abstract and love based on self-interest, which isn’t love at all.

What about cutting up that tree that’s 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 that’s filling up the valley? Until you’ve 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 conserving—that we need an attachment to something if we’re going to understand it, much less save it. That’s 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, yes—once you know any world it’s easier to imagine a fictional one.

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