Dear Mr. Simmons,
Let me begin by thanking you for being gracious enough to take some time off your undoubtedly busy schedule to answer our questions.
Q: Without giving anything away, what can you tell your readers about THE TERROR.
The Terror is based on the actual historical event surrounding the 1845 Sir John Franklin Expedition sent out to force the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north of Canada. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, advanced icebreakers of their day with food and other provisions for five years in the ice if need be, with 126 crewmen aboard disappeared completely. The following decades of English, American, and other search attempts constitute the largest search-and-rescue operation in history. All to no avail.
My novel The Terror is a fictional treatment of the days and years after these ships became stuck in the ice near King William Land (actually an island), more than 1,000 miles from any hope of rescue.
Q: At this point in your career, was it necessary for you, as an author, to step outside of speculative fiction and explore other interests?
No, of course it wasn’t “necessary” for me to “step outside of speculative fiction.” I could make a living writing SF for the rest of my career. But anyone looking at my career to date will notice that actual SF makes up only a fourth or less of my published fiction.
One of the things I’ve worked hard to do in my 25-year publishing career and the 24 novels I’ve published is to reserve the freedom to write whatever kind of book I’m interested in writing. In that sense, many of my books that have been labeled genre novels The Hollow Man, Carrion Comfort, Phases of Gravity, A Winter Haunting are not comfortable in any specific genre. Most of my books, even the presumed solid-SF novels such as Ilium and Olympos borrowed tropes and protocols from many areas.
I have a track record of writing suspense- and historical-suspense novels , The Crook Factory about Ernest Hemingway’s summer of 1942 chasing spies and German submarines in Cuba is one example of the latter. The Terror was another such blend of researched history and suspense.
Q: What is it about polar expeditions that caught your fancy to such a degree that you felt the need to write a novel on the subject?
The combination of such terrible isolation and absurdly harsh conditions has always fascinated me. I’ve read true tales of Arctic and Antarctic adventures since I was a kid and still marvel at the courage and endurance such explorers showed. Our astronauts are brave men and women, but there’s nothing in our current space program in any way comparable to the extremes of isolation and hardship suffered by so many of the figures in the so-called Heroic Age of Arctic exploration.
Q: After what can only be called an illustrious and prolific career, what motivates you to keep on writing?
I’m a writer. Writing is what we writers do. The trick is never to write “just to keep writing.” Luckily, I have enough ideas that fascinate me and call me to research them (which is a great part of the appeal of historical fiction) that one lifetime doesn’t seem nearly enough to explore a fraction of them.
Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I think I have some strengths as both stylistic writer and as storyteller, the trick is not to slight the one at the expense of the other.
Q: What advice would you give a younger Dan Simmons concerning his writing career? Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
My earliest career decisions as a young(er) published writer, to continue to write the kind of book I want to write and not to bow to publishing or readership pressure to repeat myself, to make all final editorial decisions myself, and to take great risks (financial, career-wise) whenever necessary have served me well.
I still tend to set my course by those same stars.
Q: After producing all those bestsellers and selling millions of copies worldwide, after winning literary awards, is there added pressure when it comes to writing new series/novels, knowing that the expectations will always be high?
No. It’s not external expectations that put pressure on a writer or at least not on me. It’s the fact that with a bit of age and maturity, one’s own expectations keep rising.
Q: This is likely the most frequently asked question you encounter, but fans are always eager to discover if you’ll ever consider writing a prequel or sequel to the Hyperion series?
There will be no novel-length prequels or sequels to the four Hyperion-universe books. Not while I’m alive and not from someone else when I’m dead.
I deeply appreciate the reader response in many countries to those four interlaced novels, but as I’ve explained before, except for some possible short fiction set in that universe, should I find some new ideas to explore there, those tales are finished. It’s a tempting trap finding such a lucrative slide and then greasing it for decades, but not one that appeals to me.
As a reader, I know that urge to read the same thing over and over, to go back to the old neighborhood again and again, as it were. But as both reader and writer, I know how destructive such a habit can be to the author (and to the characters and “universe” the author keeps returning to.)
Q: What project will you be tackling next? Rumor has it that it will be something in the space opera vein. Care to shine some light on the topic?
I have several ideas for novels and will be deciding in the next few weeks which one to embark on after this book tour for The Terror is finished. None of these involve another space opera type of SF book.
Q: Will you ever write additional stories set in the Ilium/Olympos universe?
I don’t really know if I’ll revisit the Ilium-Olympos universe. There was one last story involving Odysseus and the Circe-figure called Sycorax (and her monstrous offspring Caliban) that I was tempted to explore. It would have been very . . . mmm . . . “adult” fiction indeed, but there are a lot of tales in the queue ahead of that possible book.
Q: There seem to be many common motifs that run through your novels, particularly a love of the literature of past ages. The works of Homer and Shakespeare were obvious influences for your Ilium/Olympos duology, and John Keats seemed to play the role of muse in your Hyperion Cantos. Are there any writers/poets from the past who have been major influences on you but have not been explicitly referenced in your work?
One would certainly hope so. One possible novel that I’m researching now involves Charles Dickens. But as with the historical Hemingway, whom I researched for 7 years for The Crook Factory but who was a writer and a person I was pretty skeptical about before beginning that research Dickens was not “a major influence” on me. As was true with E.M. Forster, I’ve always tended to be put off by Dickens’s sensibilities, sentimentalities, and even his characters’ names.
But his life . . . ah, that’s very interesting. Especially the last years after his involvement in a train wreck at Staplehurst where he experienced . . . .
But I get ahead of myself.
Q: How would you like to be remembered as an author? What is the legacy you’ll leave behind?
I don’t think in terms of legacies. (I tend to think in terms of the next chapter I’m working on.) But I have to admit that as suggested legacies go, I enjoy what I once heard my dear friend Harlan Ellison say about his possible “literary epitaph” “I’ll be happy if they say after I’m gone “He never popped out of the same hole twice.”
Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
Assume the year is 1930 and substitute the word “jazz” for “speculative fiction” in your query and comment above and you have my answer.
Q: The Time Traveler short story which appeared on your website last spring created quite a commotion and repercussions of that uproar can still be felt today. People accused you of isolationism and calling for the genocide of the Muslims in the Middle East. Your subsequent post did little to assuage the flaring tempers of many readers. Looking back, are you still shocked by the response this short story generated?
The Time Traveler essay on my web site was not a short story and anyone accusing me of “isolationism and calling for the genocide” of anyone would be too stupid to be allowed out of his or her room, much less onto the Internet.
The essay, as my readers and any regular web site visitors understood at once, was not a political statement or prediction but was a cautionary tale to provoke conversation, in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. The only “flaring tempers” were from hotheads in the blogosphere who came ranting and roaring in without knowing the context of the essay or anything about me or my work.
The Internet is a wonderful thing in many ways, my January 07 Message from Dan on my web site discusses how it’s the major part of the future that no one predicted in decades past, and expresses my real pleasure at knowing some of the first prophets of cyberspace, people such as Bill Gibson and Bruce Sterling, but the Internet and its blogosphere spawn is also too frequently a shallow, tendentious place because it combines two very dangerous attributes: anonymity and a total lack of consequences for the most extreme sorts of shallow thinking and rhetoric.
Q: In retrospect, knowing now that The Time Traveler short story would engender such outrage among the online community, would you do things differently if you could do it all over again? Conscious that this issue remains a bone of contention between you and some of your readers, is there anything you wish to add that would perhaps clarify certain points in the presumed stance ascribed to you by your detractors?
See above. There is no “bone of contention between [me] and some of [my] readers.” There is no “online community” any more than there is a “highway community” or “sidewalk community,” only people using those spaces and the outrage you’re talking about is as useless as “road rage” on the highways. It doesn’t take content to trigger it, only the pathology of the road-rager and an opportunity for the person to express that rage, either with a 2-ton vehicle or via extreme postings on forums.
Those screamers and saliva-splatterers and fatwa-announcers who came galloping in from elsewhere, and who’d misunderstood what they’d misread out of all context in the first place, are gone now (and were shortly after the essay and its follow-up explications appeared.) Back to their all-think-alike forums and extreme chat rooms where they can scream bumper-sticker slogans to their angry, narrow hearts content. They had no interest in discussions of any issues a discussion that still goes on across a wide range of topics, most of them related to literature, on my rather interesting and generally extremely polite forum.
It’s silly to be proud of anything so diverse and out of one’s control as a web site forum, but it’s true that I’m proud of the general mutual respect, civil tone, and high-level of discussion that is the norm on my little forum. The people who tend to come back to the dialogue again and again tend to be capable folks who know things and perhaps even more important in the age of anonymous Web attacks and expletive-ridden pronouncements of the Absolute Truth are curious about others opinions and know how to discuss things.
It’s what I encouraged as a teacher for 18 years (I actually created a curriculum on how to come up with great questions and follow up on them in creative dialogues) and I don’t think it’s condescending to say that I’m delighted that the vast majority of visitors on my forum, many of them readers of mine, understand the need for context, civility, and restraint when it comes to discussing difficult topics with strangers.
Q: Once again, I wish to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I wish you continued success in your writing career and best of luck with the release of THE TERROR.
Interview by Patrick