Dan Simmons is the best-selling, award-winning author of the Hyperion Cantos, the first book of which won the Hugo Award for best novel. He is also the author of many other novels, including The Terror, Drood, Flashback, the Ilium/Olympos duology, the World Fantasy Award-winning Song of Kali, and the Stoker Award-winning Carrion Comfort. His short fiction has also achieved great acclaim, most of which has been collected in the volumes Prayers to Broken Stones, Lovedeath, and Worlds Enough & Time. His latest novel is The Abominable.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
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Your new book is called The Abominable, so what’s that about?
It sounds like it’s about an abominable snowman, doesn’t it? And it is about Mount Everest, but I can promise you that it doesn’t focus on abominable snowmen. It’s really a book about climbing in the 1920s and three good friends. There’s an older veteran of the Great War named Richard Davis Deacon, who had such an experience in the war that he was going to be Lord, but he tried to renounce his title. You can’t renounce your title, it turns out, in England, so he had to keep it, but he gave away all his estates and so forth, and just focused on mountain climbing in the Alps. With him is a young Frenchman, just a little bit too young to fight in the war, although he lost cousins and uncles and two brothers: Jean-Claude Clairoux. Jean-Claude is an expert on ice and snow climbing. My third climber is Jacob “Jake” Perry, and he’s my innocent American who’s very strong and a wonderful rock climber. These three, through an array of interesting circumstances, get funded for climbing Mount Everest in 1925, and that’s the center of the book.
Reading this book, I was just blown away by how much detail there is about both the history and the technique of mountain climbing. What sort of research into mountain climbing did you do?
I’d loved being in the mountains for years. We moved to Colorado in 1974 just so I could see them, if not hike up all of them, and I have had a long interest in the history of mountain climbing. In this case, I spent about a year researching the 1920s artifacts of mountain climbing: the differences in ice axes, the rare, if non-use, of crampons that are so common today. These guys are at 28,000 feet, and they were wearing silk, cotton, and wool, essentially, not as much as the average person in New York would put on to go out walking on a chilly autumn day. No goose down, none of the super fabrics we have today. Their ropes were essentially clotheslines. They would break 95% of the time if it was more than a twenty foot fall: the rope would snap, and one or both would tumble to their death. It was a very dangerous era.
One of the more horrific aspects of the book is the descriptions of what happens to a human body when it falls from a very high cliff. Could you talk about that?
You can go on certain websites and see the more than 200 bodies that litter all the routes up Mount Everest today. They don’t remove the bodies. Anybody who pays their fifty or sixty thousand dollars—or more now—to be guided up Everest, essentially you’re using a Jumar—a mechanical ascender on a fixed rope—while your guide helps you get up the hill. They go by dozens of bodies, and the damage to the human body from a high fall is comparable to what my character, Richard Davis Deacons, saw in World War I when artillery shells landed right among men. Just blows people to pieces.
In the book, it talks about the remains of somebody being scattered over a mile of the cliff face, it’s this really horrific image.
That’s all accurate. That was actually talking about Edward Whymper’s first ascent of the Matterhorn, which is one of the great, true fables of mountain climbing. It sounds like a legend, it’s so fascinating. [During] Whymper’s attempt to get to the summit—and he finally does, seven of them get to the summit of Matterhorn, in Europe of course—someone slips coming down, and four of the seven fall about three thousand feet to their death.
Whymper finally paid [some] guides a lot of money to go up and look for the remains on the glacier, and in the bergschrund at the base of the mountain they would find a bit of this person and a bit of that person; one person they only found a part of his jaw, but they identified him from that.
One person they just found an empty boot, and that was Lord Douglas. He was eighteen years old, a novice at climbing, but a very brave young man, and they only found a boot, no body. That led his mother to believe that he survived somewhere on the mountain, that he was still alive up there, maybe in a cave or in an ice cave down on the glacier, and she wanted to pay people to go hunt for him, even two years after his fall. They never did find his body. That idea of this poor, but rich older woman mourning that way, not accepting her son’s death, led to the gimmick in The Abominable where Lady Bromley, the mother of a missing climber, pays these people to go hunt for her son on Mount Everest.
Another really horrific section of the book is a funeral in which the deceased is eaten by vultures. Is that something that really happens?
That really happens near the Tengboche Monastery, which is the last stop before you go into the valley to climb Mount Everest. I’ve seen the same thing in person in The Tower of Silence in Bombay, where they set the bodies out for the vultures.
You personally witnessed that ceremony?
Yes, I have. I wasn’t allowed to be that close, but you can watch as the ceremony goes on and just see them lay the bodies out. That’s in the city of Bombay; it’s almost like a building being constructed with a lot of open girders, and above that are circling scores, if not hundreds, of vultures. In the Tibetan rite that I write about in The Abominable, they don’t just lay the body out for the birds, there’s actually a cast of people. My American gets to witness this funeral; he thought he was just going to some sort of Buddhist rite, but what he saw was a father, son, and grandson who break up the newly dead body, chop it into bits, tear it apart, and throw it to the birds, and that’s true.
Wow. In the book, it’s suggested that that cultural practice got started because the ground is too frozen to bury people most of the year, right?
That’s what the Europeans assure themselves. That’s what they believe. It is hard tundra most of the year in that part of Tibet.
Another element to this book is there are German Nazi characters in the lead up to World War II. How did you get the idea to incorporate that element into the book?
That almost came first. That is part of the title The Abominable. When people ask if there’s a scary, hairy abominable snowman in the book, I tell them there’s something much worse, more abominable. My research was interesting because it was early 1920s Nazis. 1930s Nazis—once they’d taken over, when they’re almost in power is one thing—but these proto-Nazis, the early 1924 ones, were very interesting to me. I had two of my three characters, The Deacon and Jake, go to Munich to meet with German climbers because they had been near the mountains when Lord Bromley disappeared. So there’s a lot about German climbing and techniques that they were creating: ice hammers, twelve-point crampons, and so forth, but this group was in the same beer hall where the year before Hitler had lead his putsch—his attempt at takeover of the government. He’d been sent to jail, but he was treated like a king. So already the Nazis were a vital movement in Germany. Some of these world class climbers were also fanatical Nazis.
I thought it was really well done. I think there would be a tendency when writing about Nazis to have the characters know more than they would at the time, but your narrator, Jake, he’s pretty dense about what the Nazis believe and why it’s significant that some characters are Jews and stuff like that.
It’s 1924 when he goes to Germany to see them, 1925 when Germans become a plot element in Tibet. Jake is an American—he’s just not very knowledgeable about European politics—but the Nazi party was such a small thing amidst a terrible depression. Long before the depression hit the rest of Europe and the United States, Germany had hyper-inflation, so in 1923 it would cost one German mark to get in to see a movie, and by early 1924 it was ten-thousand marks; by late in 1924—the time my three climbers go into Austria to meet these people—at that point it was over two-million marks to buy a movie ticket. People carried money around in wheelbarrows, literally, but it wasn’t worth anything. Only something like silver or gold, something you could sell, was worth anything. That’s the environment that Hitler and the Nazis came out of. People had tasted a type of complete collapse of their economy that in a sense America never had.
I thought it was interesting what you were saying about monsters, because I read this book, and I felt that it was fairly ambiguous for most of the book whether or not there would turn out to be yetis living in the Himalayas. When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I read the jacket copy, and I thought that that kind of gave the game away a little bit. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that. Should people avoid the jacket copy?
I always think people should avoid jacket copy and reviews. When you work hard on a seven hundred page book to keep certain things—if not totally concealed, at least very ambiguous, ambivalent, hidden—and then to have it given away in a throwaway sentence somebody else writes, that makes me pull my hair out in great clumps. But the ambiguity about whether or not there are these yeti creatures up in the hills at the base of Everest was supposed to last through most of the book.
In the frame story, the Dan Simmons character mentions that in the early stages of conceiving the book he considered writing about “giant mutant killer penguins.” Were you really considering that?
No, but it came down to that because years before I wrote the novel that actually got on the New York Times Best-Seller list, The Terror, about an arctic expedition, a true one that disappeared in 1845—the John Franklin expedition. I’ve been hunting for some way to write about the Antarctic because that has been my interest since 1958 as a little kid. They had the International Geophysical Year where they created American bases down there in the Antarctic, and that interest has never waned for me, just the great, glorious tales of the endeavor and all the explorers, even the ones who weren’t too smart and died down there. I wanted to find something scary set in Antarctica, but the biggest, scariest animal I could find was a penguin, so I made a joke to my editor about a killer penguin and that’s when I stumbled across a footnote that led me to another footnote that told me about the John Franklin expedition disappearing with no trace in the arctic: two ships, 127 men. Still they’ve never found the ship. Still they’ve never found out what happened to 124 of those men. Still a complete mystery when you get right down to it. All the answers have been put forward and then put on TV shows, and those have been debunked. It wasn’t food poisoning, we know now. What happened to them? Where are the ships? That fascinated me, and I figured, “Well, the poles are pretty much alike. No landmasses up there.” But they were close enough to Canada that they actually got onto some gravel spit, so it led me to write The Terror instead, about ten years later.
There are certainly parallels between The Terror and The Abominable in terms of having a group of people making their way across a frozen landscape, possibly stalked by monsters. Do you see The Abominable as sort of a spiritual successor or somehow related to The Terror?
I don’t mind the phrase “spiritual successor.” I like that. Somebody, I forget who, said, “This is Dan Simmons’ other cold book.” I like that: “cold book.” I guess The Terror and The Abominable are pretty cold for a good bit of the novel.
Speaking of The Terror, what’s the current status of the TV adaptation of that?
What happened was that The Terror was optioned by AMC, with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free production company willing to do it, and Ridley Scott supposedly offering to direct at least the first episode and oversee the script work. They’re looking at six properties I know of, and they’ll choose two, and I don’t think I’ll have to wait too long because October is when they’re making that choice. The Terror has the drawback that it’s expensive. It would be a lot of money—up front, at least—for the set and so forth, the greenscreen work. On the other hand, as somebody at AMC said recently, “We like going with things that are not only unusual but unique,” and The Terror had unique going for it, so that’s where I’ll stick my hopes.
Is there any other news on any of the other film projects based on your other works?
There is, but nothing I can crow about in detail. I’m very happy right now with the producer and director interested in The Abominable. I’m hoping that there will be an announcement about that within the next month. Of course, I’ve had dozens of things optioned, as I said. I had one film that I did the script for come within a few weeks of being shot: all the locations scouted, all the costumes made, the actors hired, so I never believe it’s going to happen until I’m eating popcorn, watching it on screen. The Abominable is a real possibility, and there’s an even more urgent one that is building up to a real possibility which is The Crook Factory, my novel about Hemingway, in 1942, staying in Cuba to play spy; that’s what he called his counter-espionage group, The Crook Factory. That had a very interesting history, and I wish I could name the two actors who are trying to get it done next year. It has a script, it has the actors, they’re agreeing on a director, and it has a studio, so if it’s not announced soon I’m going to just hold my breath and kick my heels on the floor out of frustration.
Could you talk a little bit about your history as a horror fan? How did you first get involved in horror, and when did you first start writing it?
My first novel was Song of Kali, which came out in 1985, and it could have been interpreted in any one of half a dozen ways in terms of genre. I wrote it as not necessarily a supernatural novel—everything in it could be explained one way or the other—but it won the World Fantasy Award. After winning the World Fantasy Award, I had three books come out in the same year, in 1989. One was science fiction, Hyperion; one was mainstream, Phases of Gravity; and the third was a huge horror novel called Carrion Comfort, about mind vampires. After that I had some contract offers to write horror, so I was writing horror novels and enjoying it. I’ve loved the genre both in movies and reading good horror since I was a kid, so I enjoyed writing it. My publisher at the time, Putnam, was saying I was the crown prince of horror, which I had to laugh at because presumably that means I’m right in Stephen King’s footprints. By then, he and I were friends, and we were born just a few months apart, so I’m no prince. But I enjoyed the years that I did write horror novels, and still, in many of my books, no matter how they’re shelved in terms of genre, there’s usually something I want unsettling, some frisson that bothers the reader a little bit. And I don’t mean by just grossing them out biologically—I dislike that in films and so forth—I want them to be made to feel unsettled. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, I still keep coming back to horror.
Carrion Comfort, which you mentioned, I saw on your website that Stephen King called that one of three greatest horror novels of the 20th century. You mentioned that you guys are friends—have you talked to him about that book, and do you know what is it that he liked about it so much?
No, I haven’t talked to him about it. I haven’t seen him for several years. We exchange advanced reading copies and so forth, and so he hasn’t been too specific. The first time I met him was right after I did Summer of Night, which was my kid book. It’s about an eleven-year-old growing up in a small town in Illinois, and it’s been compared a lot to It, King’s kid book. He does a lot of kid books, but I hadn’t read It. Steve had a chance to read my Summer of Night, and so we knew the differences between the two, but other people thought, “Oh, he’s copying Stephen King’s book.” We were able to compare notes, though, because being almost the same age we were scared by the same movies, encountered the same paperback novels at the same age, put it aside for certain years, and then when we got older, college and so forth, and came back to it. It was fun talking to him and comparing notes on what formed us in terms of what we like to write, what scares us, and what we hope will scare other people.
What were some of those formative influences that were true of both of you?
A lot of B-movies, when it comes right down to it. When we were really young. Things like a promo on TV, even for something I didn’t go see, like The Creature from the Black Lagoon where the woman is swimming on the surface in the clear Florida springs water, but the creature is swimming just beneath her, his claws almost touching her—we both said that was something that just bothered the heck out of us. Also, the idea of The Blob, which I never saw as a kid, just a TV trailer for it, but the idea of something coming under your door, or can ooze through a crack in between window panes just scared the crap out of me as a kid. It turned out that it bothered King quite a bit, too.
I read your first published short story, “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” years ago, and I’ve never forgotten that story. I don’t know if you consider that a horror story or not—it’s certainly a very unsettling story—but you said that when you wrote it that you knew it was going to be your first published story. I was wondering what that felt like, or how did you know that that was going to be your first published story?
That sounds pretentious, but I guess writers have hunches they can bank and really count on, and that was one for me. On my thirtieth birthday, 1978, my wife surprised me with a birthday gift of a rehabilitated electric typewriter. It was an Olivetti; it had the tiniest keys in the universe—even my tiny finger tips were way too big for it. We had about a nine hundred square foot home, but she gave me a place to write. For several years I was concentrating on writing for publication while I was teaching full-time. I loved teaching. I was teaching elementary school, sixth graders just down the street from our little house. I was using weekends, mornings, and evenings, and in the summer of 1979 I gave her a gift of going to the Maine Photographic Workshop, and I was staying at her parents’ house in Buffalo, New York while she was learning photography in Maine. When I wrote the first paragraph of “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” I just stopped, and, for all of the stories that I’ve written, scores and scores, I just had a feeling that this is the one, this would be published one day. I suppose we can have that feeling a million times and it doesn’t happen, but as it turned out that was my first published story.
The story was critiqued by Harlan Ellison. For people who don’t know the story behind that, do you want to talk about what happened there?
What happened there has become legend in its own little circles. In spring of 1981, I was giving up trying to write for publication because I’d had three stories accepted—by Galaxy, Galileo, and I forget the third magazine—but they’d all gone under before they could pay me. I was killing off all my favorite magazines. We found out in the Spring of ’81 that Karen was pregnant with what had turned out to be our only child, Jane. I just felt, “I don’t need to use up all of our spare time with me away writing, so I’ll give it up,” but I found this little ad in Writer’s Digest that there was a writer’s workshop in central Colorado. It had several people that I had read and would like to listen to: one was Edward Bryant, I knew his science fiction stories; another was George R.R. Martin, who was mostly into SF in those days, there was Hannah Green, who wrote I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; and there was Harlan Ellison. And so my “goodbye to writing treat” was to go off to this one week workshop. It wasn’t very expensive, but you had to bring a manuscript. I didn’t want my work critiqued, but I brought the manuscript “The River Styx Runs Upstream.”
What became rather famous and infamous was how tough Harlan Ellison was on the people there, especially an older gentleman—when I say he’s older, he was about five years younger than I am now—but Harlan was asking, “How long have you been trying to write?” And the gentleman said, “I’ve written sixty-four novels.” Then Harlan just said, “Sir, you’re not a writer. I would like to tell you, and I’m sure people have, but you are not and you never will be a writer.” He just eviscerated, in general terms, this older guy, who took it well, but then there were people who left during the break and didn’t come back; the place emptied out. We were afraid of Harlan Ellison.
The next story was mine, and he wasn’t doing it for effect; I’ve known Harlan ever since, he liked that story a lot. He told people why it worked, and then he gave a little speech where he said, “Mr. Simmons, you’re a writer. Whether you ever write anything else again or not doesn’t matter because you are a writer. You hear the music, and for those who hear the music, they should follow it if they can.”
He said, “Most of you here think that I savaged that poor man,” and he pointed at the older gentleman, “and anointed this man,” and he pointed at me, but he said, “You’ve got it turned around because I’ve just condemned Simmons to a lifetime of too much work, of movies missed, of weekends with family lost, with always too little money because writing pays so little, with problems in marriage because the writing always comes first,” and he gave the whole list, including if there’s a modicum of success having fifty other writers wanting something from you like leeches hanging off of you. Most of what he said was right on the money, and so he ended it with saying, “Mr. Simmons, may I enter your short story in the Twilight Zone Magazine short story contest for unpublished writers?” As Harlan said in his introduction he wrote for me, “and everyone in the room fainted.” It was just about that good. There were over fifteen thousand entries in the Twilight Zone Magazine contest; I tied for first place, and I would have won except one of the judges was Harlan Ellison so he recused himself. That was the beginning of my professional career.
You said he was pretty much on the money, and in the introduction he makes it sound like he’s dooming you to the life of a writer—do you feel like he doomed you? You must be pretty happy with how things turned out, right?
I love being a writer, and I’m not going to quote Peter De Vries saying, “I love being a writer, it’s the paperwork I can’t stand.” I love the process of writing, especially researching—that’s what gives me great joy in these historical novels. The Abominable, if I haven’t lost count, will be my 28th book. Most of those, about twenty-four of them at least, have been novels, and most of those have been rather large and deeply researched. I have about a year to produce each one, which means you’re researching maybe two books ahead, so you’re constantly researching while you’re writing another novel which also demands ongoing research. I have to admit I’m feeling a little weary. As much as I love it, I wouldn’t mind being like one of these big name writers who puts a book out every five years or so.
It was funny, in that introduction too he says that when you turned in that story, “The River Styx Runs Upstream” he says, “Who has the hubris, the unmitigated gall to turn in a story of five thousand words to this workshop? Show yourself, Simmons.”
At that point I was slumping under the seat trying to hide.
It sounds like it’s sort of been a trend for you to write long, even from your earliest days. Do you ever think about writing shorter books or are you just in love with the longer books?
What I have to do is choose something that I don’t enjoy researching so much. There’s a certain way I write scenes that makes things run long, but I have my short novels; Song of Kali is a short novel, and there are others, [such as] Phases of Gravity. I didn’t outgrow writing short, I just liked the larger canvas. It’s one of the reasons I turned to science fiction when I did. I also had this little Joe Kurtz noir-hardboiled series and those are short books. I actually want to write another one of those, because it’s short, it’s contained, it’s mean as sin, it’s lean, and it’s just time to do that instead of research for a year.
In terms of the horror field generally, I’ll never forget when I saw Peter Straub on a panel years ago, and at that time he had just been editing an anthology for the Horror Writers Association. He said that reading all of the submissions, he was just shocked and disheartened by the lack of literary ambition in so many of these horror stories. As a horror writer, what do you think of the health of the horror field generally? Do you think that there’s a particular problem of a lack of literary ambition in the horror field specifically?
I’ll broaden it a little bit, because I think the bane of most genres is that they set separate and unequal standards for themselves, the writers, editors, and so forth. I admit I don’t read much horror anymore for that reason. I know part of the reason for there being too many bad horror novels out and that is: editorial at certain book publishers figured if a little salt is good then tons of salt must be better, and they published everything for years. That’s tapered off quite a bit, but there’s a certain self-lowering of ambition and standards that I hate, and I know Peter Straub hates it. It’s been a pleasure getting to know writers like Peter Straub in this career. That’s one of the great benefits of becoming a writer. I didn’t really think about that way back when I met Harlan, just getting to know writers you respect a lot. It was actually Peter Straub’s Ghost Story that made me write my first two horror novels. I liked the ambition that he put into it. I liked the literary connections he was able to use without being heavy-handed. As long as there are people like Straub writing, I think the quality of horror will always be high.
Another horror story of yours that I really, really enjoyed was a story called “This Year’s Class Picture” that I read in John’s zombie anthology, The Living Dead. It was funny because we followed the reviews of that book after it came out, and I don’t think I ever saw a negative review of that story. It seemed like every review, the reviewer enjoyed that story. I was wondering if you could talk about just where did that story come from? How did you come to write it?
I was invited to write a zombie story, and I had great hesitation about doing so because there’s a certain story arc in almost all zombie tales. This was fairly early on, as you well know, in the exponential growth of zombie-ism. I wanted to write that one because I was a teacher, and especially because my daughter had had a second grade teacher named Mrs. Geisler, whom I felt represented everything good about teaching. I wanted to put a teacher like that into a zombie environment, and I know damn well what she’d be doing—she’d be trying to teach zombie children. It sounds like such an absurd situation, but that little story—I think it won five awards, and it was put on as a one woman show in France, and it did well, I’m told. I couldn’t imagine a zombie story that would make you feel good at the end because really the only thing you can do after the zombie apocalypse is survive, right? So, what I wanted to do was show this teacher who was not going to give up her life’s profession just because she has to shackle the children and put them in irons, use a cattle prod type thing to move them around and take them out to recess. I enjoyed writing the story, and I’m glad I got the opportunity.
One of the first authors we interviewed on this podcast was Cherie Priest and she had been a teacher, and she said that she thought being a teacher was the best preparation for becoming a horror writer because there’s nothing creepier than little children.
I never say that. I loved my years as a teacher. What prepared me [to become a horror writer] a little bit was: I was teaching fourth grade in a small town in Missouri in 1970-71 and then again in the early ’80s I was teaching out here in Colorado. I had this blank half hour after lunch where none of the subjects would fit, and so I started telling a story the first day of school. I told the same story these two [stints as a teacher], a decade apart, changed the names and the plot and so forth. And I realized that telling thirty-five minutes or so of story a day for 182 days would be about a four thousand page novel.
But the kids became mesmerized. Instead of work being put up on the boards, it was the maps of where our characters were going, and there was this terrible monster in the center of the story called The Shrike. So when I started writing science fiction, I took The Shrike out of this story that I’d told twice over eighteen years of teaching, 182 days of telling an oral tale.
To tell you the truth, both times, fourth grade and sixth grade, the day we finished the story, the last day of school after our class picnic, all the kids started crying because the story was over. I love the idea that for my four science fiction novels, the Hyperion Cantos novels, the only people that know the full story, the gigantic epic tale, are these kids from 1971 Missouri and 1980 Colorado.
The Shrike in that story, it had the steel barbed body and the four arms and all that?
It was The Shrike, and it moved through time and space, it was unbeatable, but I had a three foot tall neo-cat—an intelligent cat with hands instead of paws—beat it in a giant stadium in this town that was an ongoing fair year-round. It was on the planet Garden with the kids Tycho and Glee. Elements of that story—like they flew away from their home on a hawking mat: I’ve used that phrase and dozens of others from that oral tale.
The Shrike is one of your best loved creations, and when we were asking our listeners what sort of questions we might want to ask you, somebody noted, “That monster was fucking horrifying.” Could you talk a little bit about how you came up with The Shrike, and what makes it so scary?
The barbed teeth, the red eyes, the claws, the spikes, and all that. By the way, I had an ex-sixth grade student of mine who became a well-known sculptor [and] I commissioned her later to do an eight-foot-tall sculpture of The Shrike which is up in our mountain cabin in the woods with occasional birds and squirrels impaled on it. That part of The Shrike was just a regular monster. The part that moved me was the fact that it could move through time and space so that you can’t catch it. You can’t see it coming. That probably goes back to the childhood fear that I discussed with Stephen King about something like The Blob, or our favorite part of the vampire is that he turns into a mist and comes under a door. So if The Shrike can simply appear next to you, no matter where you’ve gone to hide, that part frightened me. It’s implacable. It can’t be stopped. It can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be communicated with. The idea that it carries part of you to impale on its tree of souls was sort of poetically frightening to me.
I think also what makes it so scary is just that it’s so mysterious. With a vampire or something, you know that it wants your blood or whatever, but The Shrike, you don’t know what it wants, you don’t know anything really about it. It’s the unknown that’s so scary about it.
Yes, and it has some mission. It’s moving backward and forward in time along with these time tombs, which is an odd thought in itself—it’s something anti-entropic; it comes from the future, but is moving backward in time to our time. The more mystery you can put around something, the more frightening it is, I think. That’s why I love Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House. Nothing is definitely explained, everything is suggested.
Speaking of that Shrike sculpture you have, does that thing scare off burglars?
It’s in the woods on a huge property, so we haven’t had any burglary yet, but maybe The Shrike’s the reason for it. For a while it was in our backyard in the town where we live, and my wife didn’t like looking at it out the kitchen window every day, so we moved it up to the mountain cabin. But some kid was crawling over our fence and taking this circuitous shortcut home from school going over three fences, and then one day we saw there was snow and he tried it over our fence, and we saw the footsteps in the snow coming into the area of the yard where The Shrike was, and then the steps far apart as he ran straight back and jumped back over the fence to get away. So it worked as a burglar alarm.
In The Abominable, you mention that during the first World War, the British government attempted to recruit famous authors including H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.M. Barrie to become pro-war propagandists. How did you come across that historical fact, and just how do you feel about the authors who participated in that program?
I can’t name the book. I’d have to go look in my giant shelf of research books for The Abominable. It could have been one of the more recent books written. I’d run across the fact years ago that the propaganda ministry had approached these authors, but in a more recent book I got the names, the dates of the meetings, what they did, what they edited, and what they wrote. I find it outrageous. You try to help your country at a time of war, but what they were doing was just pure lying to the British people about not only the horrors of trench warfare over there, but about the number of casualties and everything else. Obviously these writers felt they were doing what they could for their country with the skill they had as writers, but they really jumped into it. They could have been working for Joseph Goebbels they were so happily into the propaganda. The top newspaper editors were, too. It was a conspiracy to keep the reality from the people. Of course with all the mutilated, wounded men coming home, it couldn’t be kept secret for long, but even then they lied about it. They lied about the type of warfare going on. They lied about the fact that it’d just been static for two, three, four years in the same trenches. They lied about the fact that 20,000 Englishmen died before breakfast at the Somme. It wasn’t just concealing bad news from the public, it was putting a false spin on it, and to the extent that these writers whom I admire did it, I’m just ashamed of them.
Did any authors refuse to go along with that?
The only one I know of was my poet, Richard David Deacons, from The Abominable, and he’s fictional. I’m sure they did, I just don’t know who. I don’t know any large names that said no.
Speaking of politics, I wanted to talk about your previous novel Flashback. Just from reading commentary about it, it seems like a lot of people have viewed it as more overtly political than most of your books. Do you agree that it’s a more overtly political book, and just what do you think about the reactions overall?
Which part of the reactions? Death threats? The fatwa that was put out on me by London imam? The hundreds of “I’d give this no stars if I could” Amazon reviews? The personal letters saying, “I used to read everything you wrote, but I’ll never read anything by you again”? I think there’s a lot of confused people out there.
Of course it’s a political novel: it’s a dystopian novel, but it’s a dystopian novel about a time when our country quits looking forward and turns its eyes completely to the [past] because of this drug flashback, which 97% of the people are using. Where they can relive the good parts of their lives and ignore all the crap that’s going on around them.
I’ve been called a Nazi. I’ve been called a racist. People who have no idea of my life, what I’ve done, how I’ve worked for civil rights throughout my life, or what my politics have been, and what Democratic candidates I’ve written speeches for. [Instead,] I’m [labeled] a racist and a Libertarian, which amuses me. (I had a Libertarian professor once—he was pretty smart, he made some sense, but I’m no Libertarian.)
[These critics] read the wrong version of Flashback. I should just let them all read the 1991 story that was published. Because it was 1991, America went broke because of Ronald Reagan, and the same young character that’s in the 2010 novel, says, “He acted like our grandfather, but the mofo made us broke. He ruined our country.” So I’d be a hero to all the progressives who say I’m not worth reading, and I’m a bastard, and so forth if they read that version.
I didn’t care how America went broke, I just needed it broke so I could write this book. I need a completely economically-devastated United States so I could get my people on flashback and look at the effects of this idea of a nation turning its back on the future. They think I was just going after Obama in the book; well, it used to be Reagan, and if I had waited a few years it would be whoever else would be president.
When people are actually threatening you like that, how do you handle that as an author? Is there anything you can do? What’s your response to that?
There’s nothing I can do. If I’m at a reading or something and somebody wants to attack me, then I’ll suggest they read the 1991 version. I don’t argue with people now, but if I were to talk to somebody I’d say, “If you’re going to vet every author you read, you’re going to be very busy, and you’re not going to be reading many.”
Charles Dickens was an absolute misogynist; he threw his wife of 22 years out in the cold, and he gave her one kid while he kept the nine he liked.
Ernest Hemingway, I know well—I researched him for five years—he used the n-word in every other sentence. He was anti-Semitic to beat the band.
Writers have feet of clay, and then when you are a writer and you meet a lot of them, you see that, especially when they’re drunk at conventions. They’re not all bastards—a lot of them were just stuck in their time.
You also have to judge what they’re doing in their books. You can’t call Mark Twain a racist for using the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, and that’s my feeling about my book Flashback. I wrote about what I had to write about, which was this economic devastation of America so that I could get to the important stuff.
Speaking of Ernest Hemingway, in The Abominable, the Dan Simmons character mentions using Freedom of Information Act requests to get information about him. I assume that’s something that you actually have done?
Yes, and it was wonderful stuff because it had only recently been declassified. This was from my book The Crook Factory. I didn’t like Hemingway before I started the book, it’s one of the reasons I decided to write about him. I figured after three or four years of research I might like him more or even less. I don’t like bullies. I found him so fascinating. With the Freedom of Information Act they were revealing how the F.B.I. really was hovering over him and tapping his phone and following him. In one case preparing to kill him if they had to, when he was doing this counter-espionage work on Cuba in 1942, which is what my novel is about. It was because of things that he uncovered just playing spy. We’ve all heard that in his last days, Hemingway was paranoid because he was sure the F.B.I. was following him, he was sure they were tapping his phone, this was in 1961 when he committed suicide, but they were following him. When he flew to the Mayo Clinic to get treatment for depression, F.B.I. agents landed there hours before him and talked to his doctor before he and his wife did. His paranoia had real foundations, most of which have been classified until very recently.
That does it for our questions. Do you want to tell us what you’re working on now? Or do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
What I’m working on now, what I’m trying to finish in the next month, after my book tour, is a book called The Fifth Heart; it’s something I’ve been waiting to write for years, and when pressed to put it in one sentence—which is all I ever tell civilians when neighbors say, “Are you working on something now?”—I say, “Yeah, I’m writing a book right now about Henry James and Sherlock Holmes coming to America in 1893 to solve the possible murder, or at least suicide, of Henry Adams’ wife Clover.” There’s a pause and 99 times out of 100 they’ll say, “Did they really do that?” I’m having great fun with Henry James and Sherlock Holmes and William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain makes an appearance; just a lot of fun, this book.
I think we’ll wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Dan Simmons, his new book is called The Abominable. Thanks for joining us.
It was my pleasure. Thanks a lot for the great questions, guys.
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