Since winning the Rod Serling Award in 1982 for his first published story, “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” Colorado-based writer Dan Simmons has remained a major player in the field of fiction, though his location on that field keeps changing. Simmons’ first novel, Song Of Kali, snagged the World Fantasy Award in 1986, while his second, the horror tale Carrion Comfort, took the Bram Stoker Award three years later. Since then, his work has included noir, suspense, literary fiction, and an acclaimed, four-volume science-fiction epic, The Hyperion Cantos. Simmons’ bestselling 2007 historical thriller, The Terror, imagines the fate of the lost Sir John Franklin Expedition, which mysteriously disappeared in the Arctic in the 1840s while searching for the Northwest Passage. Now Simmons has produced Drood, an unsettling, intricate thriller that tells the story of Charles Dickens’ last years, as narrated by Dickens’ friend and literary rival, laudanum addict Wilkie Collins. Simmons recently spoke to The A.V. Club about research, genre-hopping, and what’s holding up Guillermo Del Toro from adapting Drood.
The A.V. Club: Drood, like The Terror, references the real-life Franklin Expedition and mentions The Frozen Deep, an actual play written by Wilkie Collins in 1856. Did you discover something while researching The Terror that sparked Drood?
Dan Simmons: The truth is, I had the idea and impulse to write Drood long before I came up with the idea for The Terror. I actually became interested in writing Drood when I read Dickens, Peter Ackroyd’s biography, around 1999. I was aware when doing research for The Terror of Dickens’ response to the charges of cannibalism among the Franklin Expedition. I would have been surprised if Charles Dickens hadn’t responded with lots of horror and outrage and public denials that Englishmen were capable of eating each other. It made for a nice little in-joke segue between The Terror and Drood. And perhaps a few of my readers picked up on the fact that after The Terror, which is set in the 1840s, Drood starts in the 1860s with Charles Dickens obsessing over the events of the lost Franklin Expedition.
AVC: What is it about the Victorian Era that fascinates you?
DS: You’ve probably heard about the theory of steam-engine time—that even after the steam engine had been invented, it had to wait until people were ready to make use of it. The same thing happens in literary circles. The truth is, I’m not terribly interested in Victorian times; I’m interested in Victorian writers. I’m interested in most eras of history, but not the Victorian Era especially. I was interested in the John Franklin Expedition. I was interested in these last five weird years of Dickens’ life. And I just have to take the age that comes with all that when I write about it.
AVC: Drood has a very rich backdrop. When you’re researching a historical novel, what kinds of details do you look for?
DS: Everything. That sounds silly, but I don’t know which details will be important until I immerse myself in the place and space and time. And smell. When I was doing a book about Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1942, my wife said, “So you’re going to Cuba?” I said yes, and I arranged to get permission to go to Cuba. But then I got lost in my literary research, and I never did go to Cuba. It had all been arranged, though; I had a house down there for a month and everything. The same thing happened when I started writing about Dickens. My wife said, “We are going to England first, right?” And I said, “I think I should,” but I never did. I disappeared into the research, as I had before. When I’m reading so many details from letters and from things written at the time, like great biographies and period pieces, they become so alive for me. The Victorians, they were like the Germans in World War II. They could not stop recording details about their lives and their age.
AVC: They were the bloggers of their time.
DS: They really were. They never quit writing. And that material was the beginning of sociological studies and health studies and so forth. So after disappearing into that for a few months, I came out with enough details to choose from.
AVC: In Drood as well as in real life, Wilkie Collins believed he was shadowed by his doppelgänger. What made you think “I can really have fun with that”?
DS: I made little noises of joy at the thought of Wilkie Collins, the narrator of Drood. I always enjoy unreliable narrators and gravitate toward them, and Wilkie Collins may have been the ultimate unreliable narrator. He was unbalanced and had been since childhood. He really did believe he had a double wandering around who came to visit him frequently. He was also, as a doctor points out in the book, a serious laudanum addict whose daily consumption of opium mixed with brandy or wine could have killed 20 strong men. His grasp of reality was tenuous at best, which I needed going into this novel. And finally, I just loved Wilkie the rake, Wilkie the anti-Victorian, who lived with one woman and had a child with another, while married to neither.
AVC: Your Dickens loves to call himself “the most important writer in England,” but he manages to be simultaneously bombastic and self-deprecating. And Wilkie Collins has this sort of wan resignation. Which character was more interesting to write?
DS: Wilkie Collins was more fun to write, although Charles Dickens was infinitely more interesting. It all comes down in the end, like Salieri and Mozart, to genius. Wilkie Collins was a rival and competitor of Dickens. His novel Moonstone sold more copies at the time than Dickens’ last two books. But that meant nothing in the long run. Right now, to be honest, Wilkie Collins is what he deserved to be back then: a footnote, an almost lost memory. And he knew he would become that. On the first page of Drood, Wilkie broods on this fact. He’s buried this manuscript for what he hopes is 120 years, and he says to the reader, “You won’t know me.” Most writers do deal with that. Most of us do know we have no immortality. And when you’ve found a genius, someone who has already purchased his immortality in musical or literary terms, it’s maddening.
AVC: How much of Drood is a commentary on the writing life, or the writing community as a whole?
DS: Well, I should say there’s nothing in there about me and my fellow writers. But if you had me hooked up to a polygraph and forced me to tell the truth, I’d admit that the never-ending competition between writers hasn’t changed between 1868 and 2000. I used to belong to writers’ workshops with other professionals, but that becomes impossible after a while. Everyone’s on a different step of the career ladder. Jealousy doesn’t have to erupt into murder and burying someone in Wells Cathedral, but it is always there.
AVC: There are some beautiful, horrific cinematic moments in the book. Do you think it would lend itself well to the screen?
DS: I do. But for it to be as effective on the screen as it is as a novel, it has to be quite different. That’s not up to me, though. A while ago, Guillermo del Toro asked to see Drood in manuscript. I sent him a thousand pages worth, not even the final revision. And he got to page 628 and went to Universal and said, “I want to do this.” It’s been optioned. I just got the check. Unfortunately, Guillermo has to go off to New Zealand to do some minor motion picture called The Hobbit. So once he gets that little thing out of the way, he’s going to come back and do Drood. The fun part is, he asked me, “Would you like a blurb for the book?” I thought that was fun, the idea of a movie director blurbing a book that he hasn’t even adapted yet.
AVC: You draw on the classical tradition of literature a lot, whether it’s referencing Dickens, Chaucer, or going as far back as The Iliad. Where do you see yourself as fitting in that tradition?
DS: Woo, that’s difficult. In the sense that real literary tradition doesn’t start until you’ve lasted about a century, I don’t see myself fitting in anywhere. I suspect I will be part of the 99 percent of authors who wrote period pieces and who are forgotten after their time. I also think that the vast majority of those authors we lionize now, not just the bestselling ones, will also be in that bin with me. So I’ll be in good company. I do see myself as part of a long and joyous chorus, because I can write about Dickens, about Hemingway, about some of these authors—and write within the same tradition that they did, whether it’s a suspense thriller or a serious biographical novel. I’m playing in the same sandbox that they were.
AVC: You’ve been kept in a number of different genres and marketing slots over the years. Has the diverse nature of your books been a help or hindrance?
DS: It’s definitely been a hindrance. The best advice that an accomplished writer could give a beginning writer is probably, “Find your slide and then grease it.” Almost every writer that wants a rewarding career, in terms of money and status and number of readers, finally finds a certain genre or certain style that he or she sticks with until reaching a critical mass of readership. And I’ve violated this from the get-go. When I get about five readers I can rub together in one genre, I leave that genre and go somewhere else. And this is due to a vow that I made myself when I started writing, back in 1982—that if I had any success at all, I would not be bound to one form of writing. That I would write what moves me. The only way I can see me surviving and doing more than one book is to do that, to present the readers with a Dan Simmons novel, with whatever tropes and protocols from whatever genre I want to borrow them. If that builds a Dan Simmons readership, well then, okay. Otherwise, forget about it. I’d rather drive a truck.
AVC: Are there any genres you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to?
DS: Right now I’m looking forward to finishing the novel that I’m working on, which is called Black Hills. It’s another “go back into history and try to make it exciting and a little spooky” novel. But it’s quite different from Drood or The Terror. It starts with a young boy named Paha Sapa—whose name means “Black Hills”—in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He’s 11 years old, and he happens to be at Little Big Horn on the day in 1876 when Custer dies, and he counts coup. That’s the most courageous thing a young Plains Indian brave could do: Not to kill an opponent, but to touch him in battle. Not hurt him, just touch him. This was usually done with coup sticks, but Paha Sapa uses his bare hands. This young boy touches General George Armstrong Custer the second Custer dies, and Custer’s ghost flows down the boy’s arm and enters him. So he’s got to go through his whole life with Custer gabbling in his head. The book ping-pongs between 1876 and 1936, when the boy, now a much older man, is working on the construction of Mount Rushmore. He’s determined to destroy it.
AVC: You also wrote a story recently for the upcoming anthology Songs Of The Dying Earth. Did you enjoy working within someone else’s fictional world?
DS: I loved that story, although it violated the only other vow I’ve ever made about writing, which was never to write in anybody else’s universe. But I love Jack Vance’s work to such a degree that when offered a chance to write a story in the Dying Earth universe, I set aside the novel I was working on and jumped right in.
AVC: Are there other writers that you’d break that vow for?
DS: I don’t think so. There are many other writers whose work I admire tremendously, but none whose work struck me at just the right young age. Jack Vance taught me that speculative fiction, science fiction, could be wonderfully and liberatingly stylistic. It didn’t have to be pulp stuff. He really changed my writing and my view of science fiction, so if nothing else, my little homage to him in the novelette I wrote for that anthology is my thank-you to him. He helped me see that any genre can have excellent writing in it.
AVC: Locus Magazine said “Challenges appear to be what Dan Simmons is all about.” Is writing a challenge for you?
DS: I think challenges are what any decent writer would be all about. If you actually do find your slide and grease it, shame on you. Me, I get bored very easily. As a writer I get bored even faster than I do in real life. I mean, I like fast cars; I’ve driven a lot of racecars. You need some stimulation. If I find something that seems too difficult to do, too difficult to research, or beyond your writing abilities, it’s a perfect invitation to try it.