For those unfamiliar with your fiction how would you describe it?
Believe it or not, that’s a difficult question, as I’ve spent a career ‘writing across genres’. I’ve written speculative fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction (with a great dollop of magic realism). My James Dean novel The Rebel has been described as a counterfactual biography, and perhaps that is a pointer to one of the main themes of my work. I am interested in the mythology of history, popular culture, and notable figures. Voltaire called history a fable upon which we’ve agreed to agree. I would say that history, especially the history of great personages, is a kind of collective myth making. I spent a number of years researching The Memory Cathedral, a novel about Leonardo da Vinci; but when I discovered that Leonardo might have worked as an engineer for the Devatdar of Syria, I found a ‘crack’ in history that enabled me to explore the moral and ethical ramifications of Leonardo’s brilliant ideas and inventions. I revised the myths of Leonardo da Vinci and James Dean to try to get at some truth that is relevant to our present. I think that’s one of the jobs of a novelist. Well…that was certainly short and crisp and non-circuitous. Apologies.
You have edited many short story anthologies. What features tend to make a collection of stories work well together as a book, or what is an anthology you have enjoyed reading and what made it work so well for you as a reader?
Although an anthology’s conceptual theme can be important (as in Dreaming-Down Under, which was conceived as a vehicle to showcase Australian speculative fiction to an international audience), I think the quality of the stories is the important element. I’m not forgetting that popular themes such as urban vampires and the like can sell well, but I believe—or want to believe—that great stories are really the only thing that will carry an anthology. It’s the anthologist’s job to get those stories, arrange them like chapters in a novel, and write the introductory and interstitial material that gives the anthology a singular perspective and point-of-view, if you like. Anthologies that worked for me as a reader… I would have to say Damon Knight’s Orbit series of anthologies, Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions, Terry Carr’s Universe series, and Judith Merrill’s Best of the Year series. These books contained ground-breaking stories, and the editors’ unique presence and intelligence shaped and enlivened these classic series. (Alas, these collections may be difficult to obtain, but they are well worth searching out.)
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Well, the simple, snide, oft-mentioned response is: I just sit in front of the laptop until drops of blood appear on my forehead. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question, nor does it come even close to the truth. For me the initial idea of a story takes either a visual or narrative form. In The Diamond Pit, my homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, I saw the plot rolling out ahead of me as if I was sitting in a locomotive and seeing the track twisting and turning as I whipped around this curve and that. Although specific details might have been muzzy, the form of a rough plot and the cast of characters were all there. The rest was just connecting the dots…something, perhaps, akin to lucid dreaming. The idea for my American Civil War novel The Silent came to me in the same way. I saw the plot and the main character. In contrast, The Memory Cathedral began as a powerful visual image. I was sitting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City and reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci when I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye a squadron of high-Gothic looking airplanes flying over Renaissance Florence. It was as clear and detailed and real as Giorgio Vasari’s painting of Florence. I saw planes passing over the Duomo, saw them reflected in the mirror of the Arno River; and I knew that I had to bring that image to life. Whether the idea is visual or narrative, I then immerse myself in researching my subject. In some books my own experiences form the bones and flesh, but if I am going to write from the perspective of a James Dean, Robert Kennedy, Leonardo Da Vinci, or Niccolo Machiavelli, I have to know the characters, cultures, times, and places. I studied ‘The Method’ as a young actor, and that’s the way I approach writing fiction. Once I can virtually hear the characters whispering in my head, I know I’m getting close to putting words to paper…or computer. Much of my plot twists and surprises are derived from my research. But once I’m writing, I keep ‘glimpsing’ where the novel is going. It is a daily process of discovery. I’ve likened the process to working on a block of marble that contains a beautiful statue. The sculptor must keep chipping away at the block until he discovers the shape of the subject within. He comes upon the curve of a neck, the position of the arm, and follows the form as best he can. That’s how it is for me. When I was about a third of the way through The Silent, I was daydreaming and could ‘hear’ my protagonist Mundy McDowell. I transcribed what I ‘heard’, which became the author’s forward to the book: I wrote this, and then Uncle Randolph went over it and fixed my sentences and punctuation and broke everything up into sections and put in some of the quotations and fixed whatever else could be fixed. Uncle Randolph and Doctor Keys think it’s “therapeutical” for me to write down what happened. They think if I can just write about all the terrible things that happened, they’ll sort of go away or something and I won’t think they were all my fault. I think that Uncle Randolph shouldn’t listen to doctors. Anyway, I tried to write like everybody talked, but with some of the colored dialect it was hard to write it down, so I just did the best I could. Uncle Randolph went over that too. And he took out some of the swear words, which he said wouldn’t read well because he said I had too many of them, but he left some in so you could get a feel for the truth. He didn’t take out anything important, though, even though he said it made his heart sick to read it. I don’t know about that. It’s done now, and if anything’s wrong it’s probably my fault. Anyway, it’s mostly true. —Edmund “Mundy” McDowell November 16, 1864 Scranton, Pennsylvania When I read what I had written, I realized that Mundy was supposed to have written this memoir from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Well, Scranton wasn’t part of the story…until then. And that’s when I figured out what ‘really’ happened to him. I had to smile when I searched Amazon.com to see how they were presenting the book: It was titled The Silent by Jack Dann and Edmund McDowell. Well, maybe he did co-author the book, after all. Right now I’m writing a novel in which one of the protagonists is the angel Gabriel. Sometimes the whispering of my characters inside my head sounds quite strange…but those insistent, emerging characters often seem to know what’s going to happen better than I do!
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
Okay, I’ll name three: Holden Caufield from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Davy, the protagonist of Edgar Pangborn’s beautiful (and sadly neglected) novel of the same name. They are larger-than-life, as we are, all of us; and they speak to our hearts, to our youth, to our dreams.
How do you feel about non-writing aspects of being a published author, such as speaking at conventions?
When I started writing, I had no idea that part of the program would be to become an entertainer, to be out there greeting people, to be doing stand-up, to moderate panels, give readings, tour with a book in hand. I am gregarious but shy, and although I could recite the speeches and do the signings, I was always nervous in front of large groups. My hands would shake, and my neck would feel like it had just been frozen in one position. All this changed when a dear friend (and a well-know media mavin) listened to a speech I gave about The Memory Cathedral. He asked me why I wrote out my speech and read it word for word in front of the audience. I said that I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t screw up the speech. He said, “Jack, you know more about The Memory Cathedral than anyone else. The audience doesn’t want to hear you read a prepared speech; they want to see who you are. They want to connect with you, not listen to a paper they could more easily read in the comfort of their easy chair. I nodded, said, “Uh, huh,” and that was that…until I was invited to a panel at one of the Melbourne Writers’ Festivals. It was a panel about mathematics and fiction…heaven only knows why I was on that panel. But I’d done a lot of panels and felt I could adlib something…panels were, after all, informal. Well, not at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. First, the moderator gave a rigorous paper, and then the other authors followed suit. As luck would have it, I was to present last. I sat there waiting, shaking, and wondering what the hell I was going to do; and then I remembered what my friend had said to me. So when it was my turn to step up to the guillotine, I just acted like…myself. I discussed the good points the others had made, I talked, I schmoozed, I seemed to be observing myself from a great distance; and suddenly I was doing shtick, I was enjoying the people sitting in front of me, I was talking about life, literature, and the universe. The audience was laughing, I was laughing…and then in what seemed like a few seconds, I was done. When I sat down, one of the participants leaned over and asked, “How the hell did you do that?” I still can’t really figure it out, but as they say on the farm: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
What are some of the most exciting story ideas you have come up with in the past year or two?
Okay, the answer to that is always…the book I’m currently working on. I spent years swearing that I would never write a fantasy series…sometimes called fat fantasy. While I love the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, and a fistful of other fantasy series authors, I found many of the series that appeared with monotonous regularity to be…a bit boring and the same. I was determined to write another book about Leonardo da Vinci, and a book-length version of The Diamond Pit, and a novel about a military school, and… Well, one shouldn’t screw around with one’s unconscious because it burped up a wild idea for a fantasy series, and no matter what project I tried to start, it blocked my way. I had been reading The Gnostic Gospels and thinking about the Renaissance; and suddenly I was mapping out a world where the Vatican is in Venice, Jehovah is really the demiurge, and John Dee’s experiments with angels were true and repeatable. Add to that a Civil War heroine, a 15th Century dirigible kept aloft by imprisoned souls, the voices of Paradise Lost ringing in my head…and I was off. Although I cook meals, do errands, file my taxes, and do interviews, I’m really submerged in this Renaissance world. Everything else—groceries, getting the mail, going to the cinema—seems a bit vague and dreamlike right now. I’d better finish this novel…but it’s a series. Well, theoretically, one of these days, I will come up for air.
Some novelists say they are no good at writing short stories. What advice do you have for writing good short stories as opposed to novels?
I remember Terry Pratchet telling me that writing a short story takes as much rigorous working-out as a novel. I think he’s right. I also think that some writers are born novelists. That’s really their métier. And some writers, such as Harlan Ellison and Howard Waldrop, are brilliant short story writers. A short story is all about compression. It has to be as elegant as a mathematical formula, even though there’s no cookie-pattern formula for writing at short length. Oh, there are a few (mostly self-imposed) rules such as refraining from shifting character viewpoints; but a short story must imply an entire world/culture/background while often beginning in the middle of the action (if there is action), and reach a satisfying climax in a few thousand words. I love the short story form. I began writing short stories, and short stories became novelettes, then novellas, and now I think 200,000 words is a comfortable length. So…advice: Work out the world in which the story is going to take place. Find an incident that ‘feels’ puissant, that ‘feels’ like it might tell itself. If you can see the ending, you’re almost home. If not, you’ll have to discover it…but there isn’t a lot of room to do so. Thus, you’d better be prepared to discard a lot of prose that doesn’t push the story/theme/action forward. Every word has to count, but it’s up to you to measure what’s important—what description is necessary to give a sense of place, time, etc.—and what can be told in a sentence. To simplify: Read a lot of short stories, and then seriously examine stories that you admire. Read as a writer. See how the story is constructed sentence by sentence, see how the writer handles time transitions, dialogue, and plot. If anything gives you that thrill of surprise, go back and find out how the writer achieved the effect. Copy out a story longhand…you’ll get the visceral feel of how the author approached it line by line. You’ll need to put these short story ‘templates’ into memory, but when you’re actually writing, forget all of the above and…write. You must learn to trust yourself. You can be the left-brained editor after you’ve put the words to paper. Oops, sorry, this sounds like a lecture from the pulpit. Last thought: Don’t trust what other writers tell you. You have find out what works for you by yourself.
The Australian Literature Review is currently accepting submissions for a science-based fiction anthology. Do you have some advice for writing stories which are both scientifically informed (ie. hard sci fi rather than more speculative sci fi) and entertaining?
Firstly, you have to know the genre; otherwise, you’ll be reinventing the wheel. If you want to write rigorous science-based science fiction, you’ll need to start reading books and journals in the area you’re interested in. Often the research will generate the ideas. Then you need to extrapolate a plausible story about the effect of the technology on your characters…you can’t just guess at the science or make up what you think sound like scientific words. If you can, talk to experts… people involved in the sciences are approachable. It’s a difficult ask to write hard science fiction that works as extrapolation and as fiction. You must know the craft of writing…and you must learn enough of the subject to write at a level that would be acceptable to those who are scientifically literate. That’s a tough order for any writer, except, perhaps, for the lucky ones such as Gregory Benford, who is a first rate physicist…and a first rate writer. For the rest of us, though, it means first doing the research, and then sitting before the laptop until the proverbial beads of blood form on our wrinkled foreheads.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I think I’ve probably covered that already. I edited an anthology entitled Ghosts by Gaslight with the South African editor Nick Givers. That book will be out in the U. S. very soon. We received a nice bit of news last week: the anthology has been listed as one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten SF, Fantasy, and Horror Picks for the Fall. So, finger’s crossed. Aha, but I didn’t answer your question, did I? My novel-in-progress is Shadows in the Stone, the first book of The Dark Companions series. And just FYI, PS Publishing in Great Britain has recently published my autobiography Insinuations; a short novel entitled The Economy of Light, which took me fifteen years to complete—the ending finally just popped into my head!—and a hardcover version of my early novel Junction. I could go on, but, mercifully, won’t.
You can read more on Jack Dann and his fiction at www.jackdann.com.
The Australian Literature Review