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Time and Memory

An Interview with Jack Dann

by Leigh Blackmore, 2003

Jack Dann photoJack Dann is a well-known science fiction writer who was born in Johnson City, New York, and now lives on a farm in Victoria. He is an editor, poet, short story writer and novelist. He has been writing full time since 1971. He began living part-time in Australia in 1993 and moved to Melbourne in 1994. In 1995 he married Melbourne science fiction critic, academic and writer Janeen Webb. Dann is a major editor in the field. He has edited or co-edited almost forty science fiction and fantasy anthologies including: Wandering Stars (Harper & Row, 1974), an anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction which was one of the most acclaimed anthologies of the 1970s; its sequel More Wandering Stars (Doubleday, 1981); and In the Fields of Fire (Tor, 1987), the groundbreaking theme anthology about the Vietnam war. He is the co-editor, with Janeen Webb, of the Australian anthology Dreaming Down Under. He also edits the multi-volume Magic Tales fantasy series with Gardner Dozois, the White Wolf Rediscovery Trios series with Pamela Sargent and George Zebrowski, and is a consulting editor for Tor Books.

Dann has written about a hundred short stories that have appeared in major magazines and anthologies including Omni, Asimov's F&SF, Penthouse and Playboy. The best of his fiction can be found in the collections Timetipping and Jubilee and Other Stories.

Dann is also a skilled novelist, and has received acclaim for novels including Junction and The Man Who Melted (republished recently in Australia) from leading lights such as Philip K Dick. Dann's crowning achievement to date is his eloquent and brilliant historical novel about Leonardo da Vinci, The Memory Cathedral, which won the 1996 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was number one on the Age bestseller list. Dann's novella 'Da Vinci Rising', which integrates several sections of The Memory Cathedral with approximately 5000 words of new material, won the 1996 Nebula Award, making him the first Australian resident to win this award. His short story 'Niagara Falling' (with Janeen Webb) won the 1998 Aurealis Award.

Dann was in the public eye as this interview took place for Gathering the Bones, a major new anthology of horror stories from around the world, which he co-edited with Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison.

I have been an admirer since I first read The Man Who Melted in the late 1980s, and especially since I met Dann at the 'Second Coming of Harlan Ellison' convention at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum in 1995, at which time I fell in love with the just-released The Memory Cathedral and also released a bibliographic checklist which included Jack Dann's work (Ellison/Dowling/Dann: a Bibliographic Checklist, R'lyeh Texts, 1995). I had run into Jack again several times since — on his author tour for Bad Medicine in Sydney in 2000, and in Melbourne at the Convergence convention in 2002, but this was the first time I had an opportunity to really ask Jack all the questions I wanted to ask for years. As we discussed Gathering the Bones and other matters over coffee at Collins Superstore in Sydney, Jack commented that many people in this country now consider him to be an Australian writer, and although he has a long publishing history in the States, Australia has certainly taken him to its heart...

Leigh Blackmore: You have just completed a tour to promote Gathering the Bones, the horror anthology you edited with Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison. How did the project originate?

Jack Dann: After I edited Dreaming Down-Under with Janeen Webb, publishers, editors, and pals kept asking, "Are you going to do another big, blockbuster anthology like Dreaming?" I said, "We've done it!" Our aim was to do a book that would showcase the best Australia had to offer to the rest of the world. And we were gratified when Dreaming won Australia's Ditmar Award and the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. But I had decided that I wasn't going to do another "Big" anthology unless it really, really had legs.

Then Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell asked me if I wanted to be involved in Gathering the Bones. Dennis and Ramsey's idea was to do an original horror collection, an international collection that would find the best horror writers working in the English language and bring them together in one blockbuster volume. Ramsey would contact the best writers working in Britain. Dennis would do the same in America. And they asked me to bring in what I considered to be the best work being written in Australia.

However, Ramsey and Dennis didn't have a publisher for the anthology, so the role of rainmaker fell to me.

I contacted Stephanie Smith and Linda Funnell at HarperCollins Australia, and they were excited over the project. They contacted HarperCollins UK, and I contacted TOR Books in the States. It took almost two years, but the anthology has publishers in all three countries.

LB: How do you see the anthology? It seems like it's meant to be a big representative anthology of modern horror, somewhat as Dreaming Down Under was for Australian science fiction and fantasy, but in this case with writers from three continents.

JD: Yes, that's essentially how I see it.

As we wrote in our proposal to publishers:

"Gathering the Bones is an anthology of new stories by today's masters of horror and suspense, written especially for this book and reflecting the state of the art. It is also the first of its kind: a truly international volume compiled for the world market by editors in America, England and Australia, to be published simultaneously in all three countries and representing the finest dark fantasy fiction in the English language.

"Since Kirby McCauley's classic Dark Forces redefined the field more than twenty years ago, we have seen countless horror anthologies. Too many were unremarkable, compiled only to exploit the horror boom as if it would go on forever. Not surprisingly, the mediocre drove out the extraordinary and much of the audience lost faith in the genre. Only the best remain in print, continuing to inspire readers who seek more than cheap post-modern thrills.

"Now that horror seems poised for a rebirth, only a fierce dedication to quality can prevent the same pattern from repeating in an even shorter cycle. There is no substitute for excellence..."

That's what we aimed for, a "Dangerous Visions of horror, a landmark to generate a new level of excitement among readers and assure the future for those who love the best the literature has to offer."

LB: Do you still plan to write Ghost Dance, the sequel to High Steel?

JD: As you may know, my dear friend and co-author Jack C. Haldeman died last year. It was — to put it mildly — a shock, one that I haven't yet gotten over. I have been in communication with Jack's wife, author Barbara Delaplace, and we've agreed to write the sequel together. I think that Jay (which is what Jack's friends and family called him) would approve. It feels right to both Barbara and me.

LB: What can you tell us of Second Chance, your new novel-in-progress. The story "Ting-a-Ling" in the recent Redshift anthology is an excerpt from it I assume?

JD: Yes, "Ting-a-Ling" is an adaptation of the first chapter of the novel, which I'm just finishing now. The novel is a bugcrusher, as Gardner Dozois would say. Let me put it this way, it's already larger than The Memory Cathedral. It's the story of James Dean after his automobile accident. In my novel Jimmy didn't die in his Spyder Porsche. This novel examines fame and the nature of icons, and major viewpoint characters are Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, RFK, JFK, and Jack Kerouac. As Barry Malzberg said (he's read a number of the chapters), "This novel is about everything."

Gathering the BonesLB: What about Visitations, a story collection you sold recently? Having published Jubilee, a huge collection of your short fiction in 2001, what is left to publish in Visitations?

JD: As we do this interview, Visitations is just out in hardcover in the States from Five Star Press. It's a good-sized collection and has been picking up lovely reviews. (Authors are always amazed when others like their work, probably because we're such absolutely secure creatures and — as I said when I was master-of-ceremonies at last year's Natcon in Melbourne: all writers are egoless.)

Actually, to answer your question, I've written quite a bit of short fiction. I may have news soon about a new collection of collaborative stories called The Fiction Factory. (In the 80's Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, and I were selling our collaborative stories to the slicks such as Playboy, Penthouse, Omni, and other magazines. We called ourselves The Fiction Factory. I have also collaborated with Susan Casper, Barry N. Malzberg, Janeen Webb, George Zebrowski, and others.)

Back to Visitations... here is the table of contents:

  • Introduction: Burning Spear: the Work of Jack Dann by Barry N. Malzberg
  • Visitors
  • Reunion
  • The Glass Casket
  • Night Visions
  • Timetipping
  • A Cold Day In the Mesozoic
  • Vapors
  • Blind Eye
  • Between the Windows of the Sea
  • The Dybbuk Dolls
  • Ting-a-Ling
  • Counting Coup
  • I'm With You In Rockland
  • Amnesia

LB: For many years you were a finalist for the Nebula (11 times?) and for the World Fantasy Award (3 times). How did it feel to finally win the Nebula for "Da Vinci Rising" and to win the WFA?

JD: Well, in a word: Good. I didn't think I'd win the Nebula, and after being maid-of-honor so many times, I didn't bother to go to the Nebula Award ceremony. Gardner Dozois accepted the award for me (as he had bought the story for Asimov's. My acceptance note began: "On the off-chance that everybody suddenly got a weird attack of dyslexia and checked off my story on the ballot..."

When I won the WFA, I was so surprised that I was actually at a loss for words. (Something that people who know me will tell you rarely happens.)

LB: You've also won the Aurealis Award (twice now) and the Ditmar as well as a Spanish award, the premios Gilgames de Narrativa Fantastica. Has the thrill of being recognised in this way worn off yet? Would it still be nice to win the Hugo for "The Diamond Pit?"

The Memory CathedralJD: Well, as I said, all writers are completely egoless, but...

No, I get a thrill out of winning an award. I get a thrill being shortlisted. I didn't think I had a shot for the Hugo with "The Diamond Pit," as I didn't consider it a Hugo kind of story, but I was very pleased to be shortlisted.

LB: Your work has been praised by distinguished critics and writers including John Clute and Philip K Dick, and has been compared to Jerzy Kosinski and Mark Twain (amongst many others). Have you ever had a bad review? What was your worst (or most unperceptive) review and how did it affect you at the time?

JD: Any writer who tells you he's never had a bad review is a boldface liar. Yeah, I've had plenty. All of us get them. Perhaps they're seasonal. <Grin>

I think I was most affected by a negative New York Times review for my first novel Starhiker. I was not then quite egoless, and I remember being blocked for weeks after reading it. Amazing, though, what a tonic a good review can give you. After the Times review, I remember sitting at a panel discussion at a convention in Washington, D. C. Joe Haldeman was on the panel and asked me a question.

Someone had just given me a magazine that contained a review of Starhiker by Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of The Mists of Avalon.

It was a long review and ended with: "In every reader's life there are books which leave the world a different place because you have read them. Starhiker is one of them. It will not give up all its delights, all its perfections, on one reading. It is a superb book, and if it does not win some kind of award it will go to confirm my long-held opinion that in general the readers of science fiction do not know much about the standards of excellent fiction...and that the writers know very little more."

Joe asked me the question again, and I remember saying, "Joe, I can't talk right now, I just got a good review." I guess that ended my writer's block.

And, no, the novel never won any awards. But God bless Marion Zimmer Bradley, may she rest in peace.

LB: You have said The Silent is one of the two books you think would be the most representative of your work to a new reader. Why? And what is the other book?

JD: Actually, I think I meant The Memory Cathedral, my novel about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. The Memory Cathedral crosses the genres. It's a historical novel and also can be read as alternate history. It was a mainstream bestseller, but won awards in the genre. The Silent is essentially a historical novel about the American Civil War. If Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird could be read as magical realism, then perhaps so could The Silent.

LB: What is your very favourite of your own works and why?

JD: My favorite book is always the one I'm working on, and that's because I'm living in that world twenty-four hours a day. Even when I'm at a party and hanging out with pals, part of me is submerged in the life of the novel. While I'm writing a novel, the world and my characters are real. So right now I'm hanging out with Bobby Kennedy and James Dean, and it's 1966... even when I'm paying my terrible Telstra bill on the phone.

LB: You have edited the successful and long-running multi-volume Magic Tales series of anthologies with your good friend Gardner Dozois for Ace Books. How do you see the series and what do think are the reasons for its success? The stories are all reprints aren't they?

JD: Yes, all the Magic Tales anthologies are reprint, and we've done over thirty volumes in the series. Our idea was to collect the best stories that represented archetypal science fiction and fantasy themes. So we did volumes such as Aliens, Unicorns, Mermaids, Magicats, Sorcerors, Demons, Dinosaurs, Dragons, Future War, Invaders, and so on. I think they have been successful because we've represented the grand archetypal themes of the genre with modern stories, stories that don't feel fusty and musty and antique.

LB: You seem incredibly prolific. Your work easily straddles 'mainstream' vs 'sf genre' boundaries — you have written historical fiction (Memory Cathedral, The Silent), road novels (Bad Medicine), speculative fiction (Starhiker, Junction, The Man Who Melted) — what do you see as the common ingredient that makes a Dann book a Dann book?

Dreaming Down-UnderJD: That's a good question, and one I'm not sure I can answer. Offhand, I'd say my concerns have been the nature of time and memory.

LB: You were an Alumni Author for New York State's Binghamton University in February this year — what did this involve?

JD: Nothing, just giving an interview. After barely squeaking through university, I must say, though, it gave me a kick to find myself listed as one of their famous alumni.

LB: In addition to your writing skills, you teach writing and will be one of the tutors at Clarion South, the new Australian version of the highly-regarded US-based professional writing workshop; and you're also teaching a two-day Master Class at the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in July. What benefits you you see Clarion bringing to local writers looking to break into the professional sf scene? And how do find time to teach as well as edit and write?

JD: To answer your first question, I see Clarion as boot camp for writers. (This idea didn't originate with me.) I think that Clarion workshops have helped bring many talented writers into the genre. The workshop process allows new writers to associate with writers who are at about the same stage in their careers and also with established professionals. Friendships are made that can last a lifetime, and often do. Workshopping is a difficult business. It's hard on the ego, but six weeks of writing, reading, giving and taking criticism, talking shop — basically living and working with other writers and editors — can really break a writer into the profession. I was in a workshop called the Guilford Writers' Workshop, which used to take place at Jack C. Haldeman's home in Guilford, Baltimore. We used to meet every few months. Those new writers were Joe Haldeman, Gardner Dozois, George Alec Effinger, Jack Haldeman; and Roger Zelazny was our 'party guest'. The workshop later moved to Philadelphia, where it became known as the Philford Writers' Workshop and participants included David Hartwell (who will be a tutor at Clarion South), Samuel Delany, Michael Swanwick, John Ford, and others... and of course, most of the members of the old Guilford group attended. I also attended Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm's Milford Writers' Workshop, where I sat beside Jack Williamson during the workshops; and I remember a heated workshop discussing Gus Hasford's novelette that later was adapted as the film Full Metal Jacket. I remember Fritz Leiber trying to teach Gardner Dozois how to fence. I remember eating cold beans with Jack Williamson and a few other writers in George Alec Effinger's room. I remember being surprised as we ate and acted silly and schmoozed that it didn't really matter that Jack was so much older than the rest of us. We were kids... and for that hour, so was he.

I remember Harlan tearing my story apart. (No, not literally!)

I remember...

After all these years...

Ah... you ask how I manage to teach and edit and write. I think the answer is simply: with great difficulty.

LB: You used to write poetry. Do you still?

JD: I used to write a lot, and published most of it. But I haven't written any lately. I suppose if someone pressured me I would; but I seem to keep getting involved in these big bug-crusher novels...

LB: What is The Year's Best Dark Fantasy, in which your story 'Marilyn" is being reprinted. And where was the recent audio adaptation of the story put together?

JD: My short story "Marilyn" was originally published in Eidolon, and then the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was then reprinted by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in their The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourteenth Annual Collection. I adapted the story for the Seeing Ear Theater/Scifi.Com with producer Brian Smith. We did most of the work writing the script together over e-mail, but I was in New York when the play was recorded and became a sort of de facto co-director. The principal actor was John Heard, and the play, which was presented in two parts, is called "Marilyn or the Monster". It can be heard over the Internet at: http://www.scifi.com/set/originals/marilyn/

LB: How is your life with Dr Janeen Webb? Will we see more collaborative fiction from the two of you? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you in your life here in Australia?

Jubilee coverJD: Life with Janeen is great, but I don't know if we'll be doing further collaborations. The reason: We always seem to be buried in our own projects... and deadlines.

I guess there is a typical day for me here in Australia. I'm based on a small farm near Wilson's Prom, and we also have a place in Melbourne. I get up at 5:30, stumble about for the requisite period of time, then drive to my studio, which is in an industrial complex — you should realize that an industrial complex in the country consists of paddocks with cows, sheep, and horses, and a few agricultural businesses. I work with the blinds closed until I produce prose. I stay there until I get so claustrophobic that I've got to get out. Then I go back to the farm, give the sheep some oats (we've only got four), cook dinner, and vege out in front of the television like any other hard working construction worker.

LB: Do you have any succinct recommendations fot success for aspiring writers of speculative fiction or just for writers per se?

JD: Do you really expect a writer to be succinct?

I once wrote an article called "The Keys to the Kingdom" for Writers Digest, which was directed to budding writers. It has been reprinted quite a bit. Here are some of those "keys":

(A Few Keys to the Kingdom: Thoughts on Getting Published, and on Being the Best Writer You Can Be, by Jack Dann. Copyright © 1989 by Writer's Digest. First published in Writer's Digest, January 1989. All rights reserved by the author.)

  1. You must begin. Every day you must write, no matter what.
  2. Give the best part of every day to your writing. Get up early and write if you can. If you can't, read or put your desk in order or do research. It's important to establish the habit of working every day.
  3. Make appointments with yourself to write. Make yourself feel as guilty as possible. Do whatever you must to get to the computer.
  4. Copy! Don't plagiarise, but find writers you admire, and read and reread their best work. Dissect their prose sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Memorise passages if you have to, but get into the weave of the writer's work. It will give an unconscious form and balance to your own work. Don't worry, no one else will know. You will put these unconscious "forms" through your own sensorium.
  5. Read constantly and widely.
  6. Be prepared to be surprised and upset by what you write.
  7. Don't try to be a critic while you're writing. The first stages of writing are often intuitive, right-brained work. But once you have a draft, or you become blocked on a story, you must rethink and rework.
  8. If you're having trouble with a sentence or a passage or a plot twist, ask yourself if something doesn't need to be cut. If you have an especially elegant sentence that just isn't working with the rest of your humdrum prose, cut out the sentence. It's probably purple, anyway.
  9. If you find yourself blocked, take a break and read and take notes and read and take more notes. Being blocked is natural. It's your unconscious asking for more information.
  10. Rewrite everything until you feel that what you have on paper corresponds as closely as possible to that wonderful image you originally had in your mind.
  11. Keep working toward making clear sentences and building solid story structures. Style is really only transparency of thought and idea. Writing well is a result of clear thinking. Cut out everything that sounds nice but doesn't convey the specific meaning you want. Find the exact word to express your thought: that's what Roget made his Thesaurus for. The particular way you think, the way you experience and perceive the world, will become your "style".
  12. Read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
  13. Send your work out to editors!

Amen!

Biographical information from the introduction is adapted from the entry on Jack Dann in The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Paul Collins, MUP, 1998.

 

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