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July 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Dan Simmons Interview with Ernest Lilley
photos courtesy of Dan Simmons

Author's website:
Featured Review: Ilium
(review by Edward Carmien)

SFRevu:When did you start working on Ilium and how did it come about?

Dan Simmons: I decided to try some SF riff on the Iliad about 10 years ago, when I read David Denby’s wonderful essay “Does Homer Have Legs” in the Sept., ’93, The New Yorker. Denby’s about my age, and the article was about him returning to his alma mater of Columbia University to retake the “CC” (Contemporary Civilization” and “Lit Hum” (Literature and Humanities) courses he took there as a freshman thirty years earlier. His re-encounter with Homer’s Iliad was profound – the poem shook him deeply and made him realize how alien the sensibilities in the tale were to him as a modern man, a liberal, and a husband and father. I think such encounters with the strange – especially the strange that challenges all of your basic assumptions – is important, and I vowed then and there to re-immerse myself in the Iliad for some project. As Andre Gide once said – “The only real education comes from what goes counter to you.”

I had a couple of years to prepare research for Ilium while working on other projects, but only about 10 months to write the thing.

SFRevu:I understand that there is a sequel, Olympos. When can we expect it to come out and will you give us any hints about how the story continues?

Dan: Olympos will be the second volume of the single tale begun in Ilium. As of July, 2003, I haven’t begun the writing of it yet. I would hope to have it in to Harper Collins early enough in 2004 to allow them to publish it that same year, but if we miss that goal, we miss it. It’ll be a large book. (I also have another novel and a screenplay due in the next 10 months, and as a full-fledged producer – not “executive producer” (in charge of sitting by the door) – of two motion picture projects based on some of my novels, I look forward to be reading and commenting on scripts, casting, etc in the coming year.

(Olympos) will range all over the solar system and back and forth through time... the focus on the human beings will be closer and tighter.

As for the tone and tenor of Olympos, all I can tell you for sure right now is that as the canvasses get larger – the action in this second and culminating book will range all over the solar system and back and forth through time, with a large cast of characters including some of the “gods”, Setebos, Prospero, Sytorax, and “the Quiet” whom we haven’t really seen yet – the focus on the human beings will be closer and tighter. We begin, for instance, in Helen of Troy’s mind as she awakes to an air raid over the city of Ilium on the day of her husband’s funeral. Also, there will be several love stories coming to the fore in Olympos, as well as the deep friendship between my two favorite moravecs (sentient, semi-organic deep-space robots) – Mahnmut of Europa and Orphu of Io.

SFRevu: You’ve written successfully in more genres than most people have read. Literary SF, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror. I suspect if I looked, I’d find characters that were tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies somewhere. Do you put on a different hat for each type of story? How do you decide what to write? Do you work on one book at a time, which seems unlikely, or several…and how do you keep them straight?

Dan: I can only work on one book at a time – I usually can’t even write a short story while immersed in the world of my novel-in-progress. (Oddly enough, I’ve discovered that I can take a few weeks off from writing a novel to write a screenplay. Strange.)

It’s a pleasure to shift from one genre-skin to another (although I’ve never really written fantasy – horror, yes, fantasy no) just as a break from the concentrated effort of levitating a certain kind of novel into being, of focusing on a certain bent of vocabulary or tech-think for too long. Since I just disappear almost completely into the world of each novel, it’s not hard to keep them straight.

SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Dan: Sure. Most novelists were the storytellers of their particular herd of kids, and I was no different. I learned that it was fun to write the things down, and I started doing so in fourth grade – first handing around handwritten stories to the other kids in class and then pounding out typewritten copies on a old, huge, 20-footpound-pressure-per-keystroke upright Underwood typewriter of my mother’s. That effort has always reminded me that writing is more blue-collar work than artsy-fartsy stuff.

SFRevu: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy? Do you remember the first book you read?

Dan: I remember that when I was about six, I tried to read an SF story in an Amazing SF magazine that was lying around – I suspect now that it was an A. Bertram Chandler “Rim” story – and although the story was pretty dull, someone in a spaceship in zero-g threw up in the tale and the other crewman were floating around trying to catch the vomitus in nets and pillowcases. I remember at the time thinking, “This is the literature for me!”

SFRevu: Did you come from a reading family?

Dan: My father didn’t read. My mother tended to read Readers’ Digest abbreviated books and her beloved Gone With The Wind every year. But I have an older brother, Ted – about 15 years older than me, he wasn’t at home as I grew up – who surprised me one Christmas, of fourth grade, with two giant boxes of old Ace Double Novels, dozens of copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, old Astounding SF’s, and ten years’ supply of Galaxy SF magazines, Jack Vance novels, etc. It was an orgy of reading that winter – I can still go in my basement where shelf after shelf of bookcases hold those ancient blue-and-white Ace Double novels and mildewing SF magazines and pick up a story right where I left off in 1959. Even though my reading obsession become much more eclectic and rather formal a few years after that, it made me love SF forever.

SFRevu: Who do you write for? Do you have an audience in mind or are you the audience and your characters the players?

Dan: I never have an audience in mind. I write to amuse myself, yes, but I do assume that my readers will be somewhat smarter than I am – and certainly more worldly – so I try not to disappoint them.

SFRevu: Would you say that Hyperion is your most successful book? Is it your favorite?

Dan:Successful in what terms? Sales? Hyperiaon has been translated to about 20 languages and has sold well over a million copies worldwide, and the four books in the Hyperion cycle were recently optioned by one of the top film directors in the world – but does that make it my “most successful book?”

I’m never fully satisfied with my novels. I have fairly high standards, and I meet them only in fits and starts, never completely, no matter how much effort and care I put into a project. If I have a favorite of my novels – as opposed to a favorite sentence here, a favorite character there – it would be Phases Of Gravity, a little-read and mislabeled mainstream novel about an ex-Apollo astronaut’s midlife crisis. All my other novels have debuted as hardcovers – only Phases Of Gravity was a paperback in the Bantam Spectra line – and I do wish it had found a slightly larger readership, because the human issues I was circling and exploring in this book were important.

SFRevu: Someone once said, though I’m not sure who, that “if it’s good, it’s not Science Fiction.” I’d guess it was before you started writing and exhorting others to tackle classic themes and dare to write to literary standards equal to those outside the genre ghetto. Have they?

Dan:Whoever said “if it’s good, it’s not Science Fiction” is a horse’s ass. Point him out and I’ll loosen some of the posturing, preliterate’s twit’s teeth for him. I tend to agree with the late Ted Sturgeon’s rule – “90% of science fiction is crap.” But I never forget Ted’s corollary to that rule – “90% of everything is crap.”

SFRevu: Are there any up and coming writers that you’re especially turned on by?

Dan:Ah . . . er . . . um . . eh . . . not really. I tried to help some of these up-and-coming writers get published – Tananarive Due, Poppy Z. Brite, etc – but they all had the bad manners to whiz right past me, get published on their own, and become stars in their own right, shining down on me from the heavens. From now on, it’s every man for her own self as far as I’m concerned.

SFRevu: I usually like to ask something either whether an author thinks SF has anything left to say since we’re already living in the future. Or alternately, why fantasy seems to making such strides…but since you do both, which lets you say more? Which is harder to do well?

Dan: As I mentioned above, I don’t really write fantasy – never have, even though my first novel, Song of Kali won the World Fantasy Award in 1985 (that book was just optioned to New Regency Films as a vehicle for Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream – end of shameless plug.)

As for us “already living in the future” – what a silly phrase. We’re no closer to the future now than we were in 1957 when I was gluing meteor bumpers on my plastic model of a space station (which was a spinning torus, exactly as God meant it to be – I don’t understand these NASA people) and cutting out illustrations of “future cars” that were bubbles on wheels and which would drive themselves while the family played canasta in the back. Our relationship to the future is exactly the same as Zeno’s and Achilles’ relationship to the tortoise – we may keep halving the distance in this odd race, but we’ll never catch it that way.

SFRevu: It seems to me that genre fans don’t get out much…of their favorite genres, I mean. Or maybe it’s just me. Do you find that to be so, and is it bad?

Dan:In truth, most of the readers I talk to read across genres and outside of genres. Perhaps the ones who spend a lifetime reading in one genre are too dull and boring to speak to or just don’t emerge from their batcaves while I’m around.

SFRevu: Can good SF be translated onto the screen? Do you have any movie projects we can look forward to?

Dan: I have several film projects slouching toward Bethlehem – or at least Hollywood – to be born. Maybe. I’ve mentioned two that are already optioned – the four Hyperion novels and my Song Of Kali. Contracts stipulate that the studios get to announce production details first, and the Hyperion producers haven’t chosen to do that yet. (The current director slated for the film is one of the top 5 directors working today.) Song Of Kali has been optioned by New Regency for director Darren Aronofsky.

Yes, good SF can be translated to the screen – but I sure as hell haven’t seen a good example of that in a lot of years. The “Matrix” mess is embarrassing. “Star Wars” has turned into something so emphatically inhuman and irritating that even its fans can’t like it in their hearts. Even such major efforts as Kubrick-Spielberg’s attempt to adapt Brial Aldiss’s “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” (“AI”) end up strangely and disturbingly cold and soulless. As the preliterate director-writers get younger and younger and their “high concepts” get stupider and stupider, I think we’re in for a long drought until the next intelligent SF appears on the big screen. (My “Hyperion: The Movie” project excepted, of course.)

Yes, good SF can be translated to the screen – but I sure as hell haven’t seen a good example of that in a lot of years.

I was on a big conference call two days ago with an unnamed Hollywood studio interested in adapting my not-yet-released Ilium, and when they asked about directors I exploded “Roger Zemeckis!” before they could finish the question. (I admire his recent “Cast Away” far more than anyone else I know. A wonderfully adult and sad and brilliantly acted and executed film, avoiding all formulaic options. There were a thousand CG elements in that film, but you notice none of them at the time, so compelling is the human tale of someone losing the thread of his own life.

SFRevu: You’ve taught writing on a number of different levels - from elementary to college – what does writing teach the writer? Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?

Dan: In addition to being a full-time teacher for 18 years, I was a national language-arts consultant, sharing a copyrighted K-12 curriculum I created called “Writing Well.” The essence of that program is the feedback from careful reading to good writing and the honing of critical thinking through writing.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I write?” said E.M. Forster. Notice the emphasis on see. Writing carefully changes and channels the way we think. It hones and shapes and sharpens our thought processes. We live in a mostly verbal, haphazard, mentally careless culture in which the average person’s active vocabulary is less than 5% of that used by Londoner’s in Shakespeare’s time. (“Awesome, dude.”)

Fracis Bacon wrote – “There arises from a bad and unapt formation of words a wonderful obstruction to the mind.”

SFRevu: How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

I remain an optimist. We humans have a decent track record; we create our problems, and then we solve them.

Dan: Images I watched on CNN early this morning from Africa and Iraq and South America and the Middle East – ragged, illiterate, jobless, male thugs terrorizing others with Kalashnikovs and RPGs and .50-caliber machine-guns mounted on Toyota pickups – is, I fear, the coming tone and texture of our much-vaunted and long-awaited 21st Century. And growing pestilence and increasing political folly and terrible lies dispersed around the world at the speed of light and inhumanity on an undreamt-of scale – and always,again, that first image – too many screaming, mobbing young men with rage and nothing else in their lives. To put it in the debauched vocabulary of our time – the future sucks.

But I remain an optimist. We humans have a decent track record; we create our problems, and then we solve them. As Carl Sagan used to point out – we rid our world of chattel slavery; we’ve avoided nuclear war – so far; we continue to send probes to the other planets and moons and to look at the stars. There’s hope for us and our children.

SFRevu: Where (in literary space) are you off to next?

Dan: Well, I’m going to take a week off here (first in several years) and read. I just finished Norman Rush’s delightful and maddening Mortals and I think I’ll go back and re-read his 1991 novel  Mating.
I know that’s not what you meant when you asked what literary space I was headed for, but that’s where I’m headed. You’ll find me at my cabin in the mountains, in my hammock, reading.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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