Since winning the Rod Serling Award in 1982 for his first published story, “The River Styx Runs Upstream,” Colorado-based novelist Dan Simmons has remained a major player in the field of fiction—although he keeps changing his location on that field. His work since then includes noir, suspense, literary fiction, and an acclaimed four-volume science-fiction epic, The Hyperion Cantos. Simmons’ 2007 bestseller, The Terror, imagines the fate of the lost Sir John Franklin Expedition, which mysteriously disappeared in the Arctic in the 1840s. 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, Wilkie Collins. In advance of his signing Monday night at Tattered Cover's Colfax location, Simmons spoke to Decider about research, genre-hopping, and what Guillermo Del Toro might have in store for Drood.
Decider: Drood, like The Terror, references the real-life Franklin Expedition and mentions The Frozen Deep, an actual play written by Wilkie Collins in 1856. Was there something you discovered 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 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.
D: There’s a very rich backdrop to Drood. 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. 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 WWII. They could not stop recording details about their lives and their age.
D: 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.
D: There are some beautifully yet horrifically 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 1000 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.
D: 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.