PW: Your debut novel, Song of Kali, was dark fantasy. Since then you've written in many different genres. There aren't that many writers who do this kind of genre jumping with such success. What's your secret?
Dan Simmons: There's no secret to writing in different genres—the secret is writing well in them. Readers who only read the most recent bestsellers can be fooled into believing their emperor-authors are wearing clothes, but the majority of readers in any genre—SF, mystery, historical fiction—know the standards of excellence their field has set. They know which of their authors are the best and why. It's no place to go slumming, that's for sure. The only secret I could offer to younger authors who're considering crossing genre boundaries is to honor that new genre and its readers with the best work you can give.
PW: Many writers report that once they've made a name in one genre, publishers refuse to publish their work in a different genre, or insist on a pseudonym. Have you had this problem?
DS: Not really. My current primary publisher—HarperCollins Morrow—has allowed me in recent years to publish historical fiction [The Crook Factory], a mainstream thriller [Darwin's Blade], psychological horror [A Winter Haunting] and epic SF [Ilium]. It's true that they did decide not to publish my noir, tough-guy series about PI Joe Kurtz, but... hey... they had to draw the line somewhere. Besides, this is why God in Her wisdom created more than one publisher.
PW: What attracted you to Homer's Iliad?
DS: I decided to write Ilium after reading David Denby's "Does Homer Have Legs" in a 1993 New Yorker. Denby went back to Columbia University after 30 years and retook the introductory courses "Literary Humanities" and "Contemporary Civilization." His first powerful encounter, then and 30 years earlier, was with The Iliad. Denby was most struck by how alien the tale was to all modern sensibilities—male or otherwise. I agreed with that assessment and wanted to find a way to immerse myself in the strangeness of The Iliad for a few years. While Ilium has several strands braided through it, those elements taking place on Mount Olympus and on the plains of Troy celebrate Homer's characters.
PW: Among Ilium's many larger-than-life characters is the 20th-century classicist Thomas Hockenberry. What's his story?
DS: A gifted friend of mine when I was a student at Wabash College in the late 1960s—Duane Hockenberry—was murdered not long after graduation. Duane was my main rival in school—the "other writer on campus" as it were, and naming my most intriguing human character in Ilium after him is a small homage to someone who might well have become a much better writer than I'll ever be. (I've also endowed a writing internship in his name.) The actual character in Ilium isn't so much Duane, of course, but an assemblage of bits from various classical scholars whom I've also called my friends, mixed in with the usual fictional disclaimers.
PW: And how does Shakespeare's Caliban tie into all of this?
DS: Ah, yes, dear old Caliban. If I have any strength as a writer, it may be in ferreting out overlooked monsters such as the goddess Kali, the Shrike, mind vampires, the city of Calcutta itself. And even though The Tempest's monster has been portrayed as a brave, struggling victim of colonialism for decades, that's our hang-up. Shakespeare created a wonderful monster—not quite human, not quite anything else, willing and wanting to rape Prospero's daughter at the slightest opportunity. My particular Caliban owes much to Browning's "Caliban Upon Setebos" and Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror." In Auden's poem-play, Caliban suddenly says to the audience:
Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seats, An unidentified plane is reported Approaching the city. Probably only a false alarm But naturally, we cannot afford To take any chances. Now wouldn't that scare the bejeesus out of any modern Manhattan audience? Monsters that devious shouldn't be allowed to go to waste.