What is Dan Simmons? Is he fish? Is he fowl? Or is he simply "good red herring"? Chances are the genre-defying writer of mainstream fiction, science fiction, horror and fantasy would appreciate the latter designation. His first novel, Song of Kali (Tor) , won a 1985 World Fantasy Award; then, published back-to-back-to-back in 1989, came a mainstream novel about a middle-aged ex-astronaut (Phases of Gravity, Bantam Spectra), a violent, epic-horror novel (Carrion Comfort, Warner Books) and a classic of modern science fiction (Hyperion, Bantam Spectra). That publishing triple-whammy set him up as a critical and popular success, but it also established him as a publicity department's nightmare: a prolific and popular novelist who refuses to be pigeon-holed.
More than 10 years and 15 books later, Simmons continues to defy categorization. The Crook Factory (Avon, 1999) was a bracing literary thriller, centered around Ernest Hemingway. Darwin's Blade, Simmons's latest novel, out from Morrow, features Darwin "Dar" Minor, an accident investigator. Written in Simmons's beautiful, clear prose style, it is described as "a thriller and a black comedy"--and likely has publicists spinning in their cubicles.
It is late morning when PW arrives at the author's residence, a turn-of-the-century, beautifully restored, two-story house in Longmont, Colo. Simmons's hometown is cradled between two worlds: to the east, the urban sprawl of Denver; to the west, the Rocky Mountains loom large. An avid outdoorsman of medium build, Simmons meets us on the sidewalk, smiling as he extends a paw-like hand in greeting. The salt-and-pepper of his hair and beard seem at odds with his boyish smile.
After a tour of the house, the author leads us to a carriage house in back, where he d s most of his writing. Another two-story affair, the carriage house has been turned into a combination writing and administrative office. Downstairs, where framed original artwork from some of his novels and French movie posters decorate the walls, Simmons handles dealings with publishers and filmmakers. Upstairs, his writing space is decorated with more dustjacket artwork, a poster displaying a photo montage of Saturn and several photographs, including an original Eisenstadt. Various stacks of books await his attention: fiction by the likes of Robert B. Parker, Michael Ondaatje and John Updike. and nonfiction titles like The Great Disruption by Francis Fukuyama and The Domestication of Transcendence by William C. Placher.
When PW asks about his new career as a writer of thrillers, Simmons balks at the classification. "However The Crook Factory and Darwin's Blade are marketed by their publishers, neither book meets the definition of a thriller," Simmons points out. "That sub-genre has demands, protocols and formulae of its own--and when I plunk down my money at an airport kiosk for a thriller, I damn well expect to get a thriller! Neither of my books qualifies, I'm afraid. The Crook Factory might be called a ˜a biographical literary mystery' in the sense that at the heart of it is the question ˜Just who the hell was Ernest Hemingway?' but its pace and pulse are all wrong for a thriller." Citing a deliberate anticlimactic moment near the end of The Crook Factory, Simmons tells us that his agent, Richard Curtis, pointed out that such a development is unthinkable in a thriller. "My choice there, as a novelist, wasn't based only on actual fact," says Simmons. "Historical fact was used to illuminate the essence of the novel, not vice versa."
Darwin's Blade employs some equally unusual tactics, and owes its origins to what Simmons calls "my interest in a person who applies intelligence and rigid cause-and-effect logic to a world in which stupidity and gibbering chaos seem to be in the driver's seat." Simmons freely admits that the company run by Lawrence and Trudy Stewart in Darwin's Blade bears an uncanny resemblance to that of his brother, Wayne (owner of Simmons Adjusters and Accident Investigation in California). For background, Simmons's brother supplied some case files (all closed), and Simmons read publications such as TheAccident Reconstruction Journal and talked to other accident investigators. "The accidents in Darwin's Blade weren't always exact re-creations of real accidents, but were often amalgams," says Simmons. "Usually, however, I had to tone down rather than exaggerate the details." For Simmons, the funniest bits in the book involve Lawrence Stewart's mishaps, which were inspired by his brother's experiences. "Wayne is a wonderful insurance investigator," Simmons says, "but his mishaps could fuel a sitcom."
"Damn the genre boundaries and let the formula hacks take the hindmost."
A stickler for detail, Simmons is renowned for his in-depth research. However, he isn't purposefully didactic. "It's never a goal of mine to drag in information for information's sake. I would rather draw a warm bath and open my veins with an Exacto knife than sit around plotting a novel complete with big lumps of information that I plan to teach to some hypothetical reader. Still, whenever anyone --reader or writer--begins a novel, he or she should remember that the very word ˜novel' means ˜new'--news from elsewhere, new experience, travelers' tales." Recalling the amount of time put into The Crook Factory, he admits, "That book was the most research- and labor-intensive of all my novels. I had to know where Hemingway and the other historical figures were almost every day of that spring and summer of 1942--and what they were actually doing." His research for Darwin's Blade wasn't exactly a stroll in the park, either. While in California, Simmons learned to fly a glider in order to work out the logistics of an action sequence. Still, Simmons isn't one of those writers who take Hemingway's admonition to "write what you know" too seriously. "My own little adventures in the name of verisimilitude--whether trekking through the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania in search of the historical Dracula, gathering insights on the AIDS epidemic in Bangkok's Patpong sex district, flying a high-performance glider at California's Warner Springs sailplane center, or driving my Acura NSX to its top speed of 165 mph on a closed circuit --are more in the nature of just getting out of the house," says Simmons. "A writer's life is, for the most part, really boring and sedentary."
Though he was born in sedate Peoria, Ill., in 1948, Simmons's childhood was anything but sedentary. His father, Robert, was a manager for the Sun Electric Corporation and sold automotive testing equipment. Because of his father's job, Simmons's childhood was a peripatetic one. He and Wayne, his younger brother, moved across much of the Midwest (Des Moines, Iowa; Chillicothe and Brimfield, Ill.) with their parents before settling in Pittsboro, near Indianapolis (an older brother, Ted, had already moved out of the house). "My favorite years were spent in Brimfield," Simmons recalls. One of his most popular novels, Summer of Night (Putnam, 1991), a coming-of-age/horror novel, took its inspiration from that idyllic time. "It was always at our house where the kids in the neighborhood congregated; always my mom who dragged lemonade or sandwiches out to the ball diamond after eight hours of dusty baseball," says Simmons.
The young Simmons was an indifferent student, and his parents urged him to join the military after high school; but a last-minute decision to send in an application resulted in his attending Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.; he graduated in 1970 with a BA in English and a national Phi Beta Kappa Award for Creativity in Art and Fiction. That's an amazing feat in itself, considering his previous indifference to academics--but even more so considering the personal losses he suffered early on. During his freshman year, Simmons's mother and father both died of cancer within seven months of each other. Though he remains reluctant to discuss the effect such a loss had on him, the exorcism of demons is apparent throughout his uvre. In the story "Metastasis," nightmarish creatures dole out cancer to the protagonist's mother and girlfriend. The Hollow Man (Bantam Spectra, 1992) parallels Dante's descent into Hell as a telepathic man grieves the loss of his wife and searches for respite. And, beneath its thriller-like veneer, between the comic set pieces and metacommentary on other mystery/thriller/potboilers, even Darwin's Blade struggles with what Simmons terms "the distancing encystment of grief."
In Simmons's junior year at Wabash, the head of the English department, Walter Fertig, suggested that Simmons attend a creative writing seminar in Philadelphia. There, Simmons began to write seriously. He also worked with a filmmaker who influenced his decision to become a teacher, a profession Simmons worked at for nearly 18 years, ten of them spent teaching sixth grade at Longmont's Central School. During his stay in Philadelphia, Simmons also met his wife, Karen. "Professor Fertig's phone call ," says Simmons, "had some serious effects on my life: meeting my wife, deciding to become a teacher, even becoming enthralled with filmmaking and committed to writing fiction."
Such serendipity also brought Harlan Ellison into Simmons's life. In 1981, having had no luck getting short stories published, Simmons attended a writer's workshop, telling his wife that if nothing came of it, he would pursue writing only as a hobby. During that session, Ellison not only praised Simmons's writing to the heavens, he offered to enter it into a short story contest being run by a genre magazine. The story, "The River Styx Runs Upstream," won. Simultaneously, another story Simmons had submitted to Omni, "Eyes I Dare Not Meet in Dreams," was accepted for publication. Then his debut novel, Song of Kali, a horror/fantasy tale set in Calcutta, was published by Tor in 1986 and was awarded the World Fantasy Award.
Since then, Simmons has had several bestsellers in a variety of genres. His SF novels Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion (Bantam Spectra, 1990), Endymion (Bantam Spectra, 1996) and The Rise of Endymion (Bantam Spectra, 1997) are especially popular; as are horror novels Children of the Night (Putnam, 1992) and Carrion Comfort (though the last two toss SF elements into the mix, they are still classified as horror). Despite labels engendered by publishers and marketing departments, Simmons continues to write what he wants, operating on both sides of the border separating mainstream from genre fiction. During his 20 years of writing, he has had five different publishers. "I write across genres, outside of genres and in between," Simmons explains. "Publishers like to establish their writer on one slide and then they want to grease that slide. It makes good business sense--it just d sn't appeal to the creative side of a writer. My current publisher, HarperCollins [parent of Morrow], has me under contract for four novels: two of them SF and two of them difficult to categorize. They did, however, sensibly balk at my hard-boiled-noir-as-hell homage-to-Richard Stark novel, Hardcase, so off I go in search of yet a new publisher for that book." Written while he held vigil during his father-in-law's terminal illness, Hardcase is, as Simmons describes it, "a whole different kettle of fish. My goal was to have chapters no longer than five pages in length and a protagonist so mean that no one, not even his mother, could love him." At one point, the prolific author was considering publishing the book under a pseudonym. But St. Martin's (which will publish it in 2001) convinced Simmons's to keep his name on it.
Calling his current writing schedule "pathetically anemic," Simmons ticks off a list of projects completed in the last year that would occupy most writers for a decade: two novels, five drafts of a screenplay (Children of the Night, which goes into production this fall), two novellas, two film treatments, four successful book proposals, a bunch of speeches and talks.
When Simmons mentions a work-in-progress (The Hounds of Winter, Morrow 2001, which he describes as "[Henry James's] ˜The Jolly Corner' for baby boomers") and a couple of SF novels in the planning stage, PW asks why Simmons seems particularly drawn to genre fiction. "What I'm drawn to are the most interesting tropes and protocols available to the writer," Simmons replies. "Damn the genre boundaries and let the formula hacks take the hindmost. Is Gravity's Rainbow SF? Is Macbeth dark fantasy because of the witches, or Hamlet horror because of the ghost in Act I? All sufficiently ambitious writers are cuckoos in the sense that they'll lay their eggs in whatever nest offers the best chance for artistic survival. The absolute best writers transcend even the need for nests."