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A Conversation with Dan Simmons
Interview by Steven H Silver
July 2003
Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award and a number of others. He is the author of Song of Kali, the Hyperion books, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, the Endymion books, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, and a number of other terrific novels.

Dan Simmons Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Ilium
SF Site Review: Worlds Enough And Time
SF Site Review: The Crook Factory
SF Site: Dan Simmons Reading List
SF Site Review: Rise of Endymion
SF Site Review: Song of Kali
Dan Simmons Tribute Site

The Fall of Hyperion
The Rise of Endymion
A Winter Haunting
Worlds Enough And Time
Hard Freeze
The Crook Factory
Song of Kali
What are some of the differences in writing and composition techniques while working in the SF genre?
I don't think I've ever seen it commented on, but there's a great affinity between writing poetry and SF. As with poetry, quality speculative fiction demands great skill with language and invites linguistic invention. As with poetry, good SF delves deep into metaphor while sliding lightly on the surface of its own joy of telling. As with poetry, quality SF demands a much greater collaboration on the part of the reader -- a greater sensitivity to detail, word-meaning, texture, and nuance, as well as a greater involvement in ferreting out meaning.

My favorite commentator on things literary -- Harold Bloom -- has said that the common element to all great literature, from Homer and Shakespeare and Goethe through Emily Dickinson to Mark Twain -- is an ineffable quality of "strangeness." By that he doesn't mean deliberate post-modern weirdness or Ken Kesey wonkiness, but rather an indescribable, out-of-its-own-time, deep-to-the-literary-marrow differentness that great prose and poetry carries in itself and conveys to successive generations. It tends to mix the sacred and the profane, the profound and the entertaining, in a way that helps us to redefine ourselves and our cultures. The most ambitious of speculative fiction has a taste of that delicious strangeness, for both the writer and the reader.

In the past, you've discussed tearing down the wall between genre and mainstream fiction. Is this still something that needs to be accomplished? Given the success of mainstream authors such as Vonnegut, Atwood, and Crichton within genre, even if they dismiss writing in genre, is this wall more a figment of the "genre" authors' collective imagination?
If you think the "wall" is a figment of genre authors' imaginations, ask Harlan Ellison or Robert Silverberg or Jack Vance or Jack Williamson or Fred Pohl or the estates of Alfred Bester and other such giants of our genre when the last time it was that they were reviewed seriously in the front section of the New York Times Book Review. The wall between so-called "serious" fiction and speculative fiction is real enough and high enough, but it's not a figment of SF writers' imaginations, and the guard towers on that ugly wall aren't being manned by genre writers.

Margaret Atwood does indeed write bestseller SF, but when she's asked -- as asked she inevitably is -- if her work is SF ("sci-fi"), she not only denies it, but her head begins spinning in a credible imitation of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Michael Crichton continues churning out ripping yarns with a Popular Science-level veneer of SF, lacking only the deeper concepts, nuances, references and literary quality of real speculative fiction. Kurt Vonnegut -- well, we all love Kurt Vonnegut, and he understood the essence of SF from a distance, the way a fan might, but he was a bloomin' harrumphadite when he was writing readable novels, and since he physically morphed into Mark Twain's twin, we're not sure what to make of him.

Perhaps I'll believe that this snobby, ugly and unnecessary Berlin Wall between genre fiction and "serious fiction" has been torn down when I see The New York Times and other heavy-hitter literary makers and shakers of record explaining why Greg Bear's Blood Music is a work of near brilliance, while Michael Crichton's derivative The Swarm is a confused botch. In the meantime, the metaphorical Soviets and surly East Berliners of High Fiction are still manning the barricades and the nation's readers are the worst for it.

When writing series, you seem to write in duologies rather than trilogies: Ilium/Olympos, Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion/The Rise of Endymion, Summer of Night/A Winter Haunting. What do you see as the strength of this structure? How much do you plot out the complete work ahead of time against the plotting of the single novels that comprise it?
I don't write duologies; I tend to write very long novels that don't fit into the mold of modern publishing. They end up on two volumes. On my desk for years was a small cartoon showing an editor and a writer dressed in old-fashioned Russian togs, the Kremlin onion-towers visible outside the window, and the editor is saying -- "This is what we have in mind -- We'll bring out War this year and Peace as a sequel in a year or two."

What is the attraction to writing in science fictional settings?
The primary attraction is the sheer pleasure of creating something from whole cloth. Creating the far future of Ilium or the many worlds of the Hyperion series involves coming up with convincing (I hope) visions and settings that have simply never been encountered before. In Ilium alone, there are views of the ancient Golden Gate Bridge spanning the mountain ruins of Machu Picchu, travel by felucca down the flooded Valles Marineris on Mars, a drained and dry Mediterranean Basin, views from a balloon trip above the Tharsis volcanoes on Mars, close-up glimpses of Io's plasma torus and Jupiter's flux tube -- constant lightning storms larger than Earth, each constantly producing more than two trillion watts of energy -- not to mention the pleasure of watching the Trojan War from a front row seat.

The word for our chosen literary form, "novel," originally meant "the new," carrying descriptions of new places, new peoples, and new thoughts to a European world of educated readers hungry for such pleasures. Speculative fiction still provides that pleasure to many readers.

How has science fiction changed since you entered the field?
I feel that I "entered the field" as an eager reader when I was seven years old. I began publishing in the early to mid-80s, when literary SF was undergoing profound changes -- moving through the dark and moody cyberpunk era back into the more sunlit fields of better-written "space opera" (and I happen to enjoy the scale and spectacle of opera.)

To be honest, I suspect that we're in the true Golden Age of SF. The writing has never been of a higher standard; the variety of quality speculative fiction -- sociological, personal, literary, "hard" SF, utopian, dystopian, historical, psychological -- has never been greater; the readers have never been as well educated.

How do written science fiction and filmed science fiction differ?
Without specifying which is which, I can say that one of these two things is written by tempered, well-educated adults and -- at its best -- is among the best-written and most provocative literature America produces; the other is usually "written and directed" by arrogant 26-year-olds who've read almost nothing in their short, video-sheltered lives, and who think they "know sci-fi" because they grew up watching Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars on video when they weren't reading comic books.

One of these things requires the reader to enter into a collaborative state to ferret out important themes among the nuance, texture, science, and subtleties of its art; the other of these things has people screaming a lot and things and people blowing up. One of these things produces quality; the other of these things has become a giant crap-dispenser with children pulling the levers, the resulting merde-storm leavened only by the quality of modern digital special effects which are wasted on the pre-literate stories.

But, as I say (and on my lawyer's advice), I won't specify which description applies to which thing here.

What is the role of science fiction in the modern world?
I can't speak for anything as wide and varied as "science fiction," but I can say with confidence that the role of my Ilium is, in a much more humble way, the same as the role of Homer's Iliad 3,000 years ago -- first of all to entertain, then to enlighten or provoke thought when it can, always to tell a large tale but never at the expense of losing sight of truth of the human (and other) characters in it, and, finally, once again, to explore the complexities of the human heart in conflict with itself. (Even when the particular Olympian god or AI construct or moravec lifeform in Ilium might not look completely -- or even remotely -- human.)

Do you ever re-read your novels?  If so, how often?
I don't re-read my novels unless I'm working on some sort of sequel or film adaptation to them and have to dig something out of them (or, as in the case with adapting them to screenplays, deconstruct them completely to reassemble in a different form.)

Have you considered going back and writing a sequel to any of your stand-alone novels or do you view them as self-contained or things of the past?
When I write a novel of mine which I consider as "stand alone" -- say Phases of Gravity or The Hollow Man or The Crook Factory -- I know that I won't be tempted to lessen it by attempting a sequel. Other novels, such as my thriller Darwin's Blade or Summer of Night might contain characters whom I'd like to see again, not so much in a sequel as in a different format, exploring different themes.

In a larger sense though, even my "series" such as the four Hyperion novels and the Ilium\Olympos two-volume tale are "stand alones" in the sense that I will finish the story and then never dilute it by tacking on my own sequels or sharecropping them out to other authors. I truly hate that whole idea. This is made relevant only by the fact that I probably could have spent the rest of my life and writing career writing "sequels" to the very popular Hyperion novels -- and probably would have been paid very well to do so -- but even the idea of being stuck in such a rut appalls me.

I like what I once heard Harlan Ellison say to a group -- "I'd be satisfied if my literary obituary starts -- 'He never popped out of the same hole twice.'" That would satisfy me as well.

You obviously have many literary antecedents who appear in one form or another works. Who are your influences from the science fiction field?
I find the whole concept of literary antecedents fascinating -- especially when it applies to poets and their work, and especially (as Harold Bloom has pointed out in his series of difficult books of literary analysis based on his theory of The Anxiety of Influence) we tend to be formed as much or more by who we rebel against as much or more as by who we like -- but for any serious writer (serious about his or her own work, at least), it's just too complicated a question to answer (despite all the PhD dissertation writers who attempt to do just that.)

The nice thing about writing occasionally in SF, as I'm doing with Ilium, is that one can visibly celebrate the style or brilliance of one's contemporaries and antecedents -- say, with an occasional Jack Vance-ian riff or an Alfred Bester-ian piece of energetic prose, or even with a Harlan Ellison-ian tapestry of creative cussing -- and have most of one's readers see the passage for the respectful homage it is.

How has your writing changed as your career has progressed?
I find that I write more slowly and carefully, even as the deadlines come more frequently. I've never been satisfied with the final form of any of my work, but the dissatisfaction may be deeper now -- even as some of the quality goes up -- because I know I have fewer years ahead of me in which to improve and make-up for my shortcomings.

As Chaucer said in the opening line of "The Parliament of Fowls" -- "The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne."

Given the complexity of your novels, do you feel that any of them could have a reasonably faithful adaptation into film or television?
Harper Lee's beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird was translated into a brilliant film. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote's complex "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood was turned into a fascinating and compelling movie. Michael Oondatje's lyrical but disjointed and awkwardly structured The English Patient became a gorgeous film where the plotlines and structure were reworked to make sense of it all.

So why shouldn't a Simmons' novel be adapted successfully to film or a TV mini-series someday? Stranger things have happened.

The key -- as I've discovered through my own writing of film and TV treatments, as well as adapting my novels to screenplays -- is not in translating the book to the screen (that's almost always doomed), but in finding the proper cinematic equivalent. My Hyperion novels have recently been optioned by one of the top studios in the world, to be turned into one or more films currently slated to be directed by a man I consider one of the top three directors working today. (I'm not being coy by not mentioning names, only conforming to the contracts which stipulate that the studio has first announcement rights on the details.)

If Hyperion: The Movie is actually made, I will do my best (I'm on the project as a full producer) to get the writers and makers to deconstruct the long tale and reassemble it in new form to make the best motion picture it can be, while being faithful only to the essence of the books' themes and more important characters.

What the literary SF community has been awaiting for a long time (forever?), is a major SF film that will honor its literary precursor with the skill and love that Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy has done for the Tolkien epic.

Several of your works draw inspiration and plot points from a variety of authors ranging from Chaucer, Homer, and Dante to Proust, Keats, and Hemingway.  Do you believe readers will gain a better understanding of these works, or even just knowledge of them, through your writing?
I have no clue. I did my stint as a public school elementary teacher -- 18 years, and I loved every one of them -- so my days as a teacher are over. I included all the authors and authors' themes you mentioned above because I got a kick of revisiting them. The reader is on his or her own.

Which of your characters was the most intriguing for you to create and write?  Is there a difference between a character loosely based on a source (whether Odysseus or Hemingway) and one created out of whole cloth (such as Joe Kurtz)?
Great care has to be taken when touching, however obliquely, on a "character" who was once a living person -- such as Ernest Hemingway in my The Crook Factory. I strongly dislike novels such as The Burning which purport to get inside the minds of real, historical figures -- such as Richard Nixon, who is portrayed there as a slavering demon -- or even in such "non-fiction" books as Bob Woodward's The Brethern, where we hear Supreme Court justices and so many others thinking. Can you remember what you were thinking, in detail, on any given occasion? This is elevating fiction to the level of polemic or lies.

My answer was to have Hemingway and his other once-living friends and enemies say or do almost nothing they weren't on record as having said or done in similar circumstances (or in the actual circumstance, since The Crook Factory dealt with five real months in the spring and summer of 1942).

With characters borrowed from great literature -- such as my Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Helen, and Andromache from Ilium, not to mention Zeus, Athena, and the other Olympian gods, as well as some conjuror named Prospero with his pet monster Caliban -- the trick is to bring the essence of that character into new circumstances to see how he or she will react. One still has to exert great care, if only not to look like an idiot dealing with these powerful creations. One of my answers in Ilium was to have the characters from the Iliad speak mostly in Homer's words, while the monster Caliban's dialogue was taken almost completely from Robert Browning's incredible (and mostly forgotten) hallucinogenic poem "Caliban Upon Setebos."

Can a reader unfamiliar with Proust, Shakespeare and Homer enjoy Ilium?

Your story "The Ninth of Av" is set in the same universe as Ilium.  Did you conceive of the short story first or the novel?
I conceived of the complicated far-future Earth of "The Ninth of Av" at the same time I was pondering how to include Homer's Iliad in some SF epic. As soon as I began writing "The Ninth of Av" (it was promised to an anthology), I knew that the two disparate worlds would connect and combine in Ilium... I just didn't know how. Which is par for the course on how I enter into huge literary projects.

In an interview with Dorman Shindler in, you mentioned that you "thought our 'serious' fiction should get more serious again..." Does Ilium fit into this belief and did the events of September 11 have an effect on the way the book finally appeared?
My comments in the Salon interview reflect my belief that Tom Wolfe is onto something when he suggests that more contemporary fiction should be about something. He didn't mean that in a polemical or political way and neither do I. It would just be helpful, I think, if a human being 3,000 years from now (about the distance between us and Homer's Iliad), could find a few books from our era that could tell them what our lives were like, what our actions were like, what our society and its goals were like -- however misguided -- and perhaps still tell a relevant and ripping tale after all those centuries had passed.

I think -- I hope -- that September 11 has had an effect on the consciousness of every American, artist or otherwise, but I'll leave it to others to find any possible connections in my work.

I've noticed that in several of your books, such as the Hyperion series and Ilium, that you make use of Jewish history and characters.  What do you gain by tapping into this background?
I like the story of Charlie Chaplin about the time he was under attack in the States for his political beliefs (just about the time he made The Great Dictator) and a reporter shouted from the crowd -- "Are you a Jew?" Chaplin smiled and said, "I did not have that honor at birth."

By tapping into Homer's legacy, I gain more than 3,000 years of Western European literary tradition in which to forage and play. By tapping into Jewish tradition, even in the smallest way, the door opens onto more than 5,000 years of rich culture, ethics, tradition and folklore.

What characteristics of your writing do you feel separates you from other authors?
I have no idea. In truth, I don't want to be separated from other authors. Every writer wants a distinctive voice, and now, after more than 20 books published, I either have one or I don't -- but what I really want is to be part of the long dialogue that is literature and the tradition of story-telling. With Ilium, I'm not trying to play in the same league as Homer and Shakespeare and Wells and Browning, but I'm playing the same game, and I get to play with some of the same toys.

Hemingway began his written acceptance piece for his 1954 Nobel Prize by saying -- "Writing, at its best, is a lonely life." Well, yeah, sure it is -- writing is that shameful thing we writers do alone, behind closed doors -- but as long as there are playmates like those listed above whom we get to go outside to play with from time to time, it can't be too lonely.

Copyright © 2003 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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