Go to Homepage  

Jack Dann: Leather Jackets and Leonardo

Jack Dann was honored as the writer guest of honor at DragonCon 2005. (Photo by Jean Marie Ward)

Multi-award winning writer of novels and short fiction, poet, teacher, groundbreaking editor, and (once upon a time) Method actor with a lingering fondness for leather jackets -- Jack Dann more than qualifies as a Renaissance man. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that of all the fabled writers of science fiction's New Age Dann would be the one compelled to explore the past. Novels such as The Memory Cathedral (Dann's evocation of the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci), The Rebel (about Fifties icon James Dean) and The Silent (which looked at the Civil War from the eyes of a lost child) moved Dann's books into the mainstream. But true to the spirit of early novels like The Man Who Melted and High Steel, all of Dann's work shares a "spine of fantasy" and a masterly use of the tools of genre fiction.

Dann himself likes to share. One of the most prolific and successful collaborators in speculative fiction, he has written -- and in many cases, won awards with -- SF greats Susan Caspar, Gardner Dozois, Jack C. Haldeman II, Michael Swanwick and his wife, Australian editor and critic Janeen Webb. Crescent Blues caught up with Dann at DragonCon 2005, about a month before the release of The Fiction Factory, the definitive anthology of these wide-ranging collaborations. We asked him to share some of the stories behind his stories, then hung on for a ride through time.

Crescent Blues: You've described The Rebel as more mainstream than science-fiction. What was the journey that led you from books like High Steel and The Memory Cathedral to The Rebel?

Jack Dann: Well, in my heart I consider The Rebel to be an alternate history, but my interests in writing this, I guess, were mainstream in intent. As a writer, as things interest me, and I feel compelled to do something, I start researching the subject. That's why you won't find series and sequels of fantasy novels from me, because I tend to get interested in something, and then I get interested in something else. And I have found that the tools that I honed while I was making my bones as a science fiction writer work very, very well across in other genres -- and out of genre.

I had a conversation with Pam Sargent and Kim Stanley Robinson about this -- that the way a science fiction writer thinks is really helpful when you're doing historical fiction, because like science fiction, the background becomes a character, and you have to learn how to communicate a lot of information without big narrative lumps. I mean, Heinlein's classic line, "The door iris opened," tells you worlds about the background.

Book: jack dann the memory cathedral
When you're writing a science fiction novel, you're extrapolating the future. When you're writing a historical novel, you're extrapolating the past. Before I wrote The Memory Cathedral, I read a lot of historical novels, and what I found was so many of them were costume dramas. It was basically people like you and me doing stuff in the past.

When I started doing research about the Renaissance -- because as an SF writer, I'm interested in the mindset, and I want to find out where is it different -- I found that the mindset was very different. They did not perceive the world the way we do. Their sensoriums were very different.

I usually use original sources, but I had read a book by writer who was actually getting into science fiction, a writer by the name of [Ioan P.] Couliano, a brilliant historian. The name of the book was Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. It was like hallucinating when I read it, because he delineated how the mindset was profoundly different from our own. When I read that, I saw how to do this book -- and a number of the reviewers for The Memory Cathedral said they hallucinated it. What I tried to do with that book -- and that's the way I try to write -- is to let the reader feel what it might have been like to be there and to think in that different kind of way. That's what science-fiction writers do.

There was a book by Julian Jaynes called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which was a book that was very big in the Seventies. In the introduction to that book, he talks about how it would be to have bicameral perception, and he gives you an experiment to do. He talks about how in ancient times, the idea of the mind or brain wasn't in the head; it was in the spleen. As he talks you through the experiment, how it would be to perceive to have the center of your thought in this different place, it physically feels different, because when you think of yourself, it's almost as if you don't think of yourself with this brain, this gelatinous matter. It's almost like it's made out of light.

So I'm reading this book about Leonardo, and I had this vision of these gothic-looking flying machines flying over Florence…

For me, it's turning around, it's twisting the way that we perceive the world. And that, to me, is the joy of reading science fiction. It's a thought experiment of how it would feel and how we would act in a different realm in this different world.

For historical fiction, I think it's the closest thing you can get to the sense of being in the past. You can't really do this in nonfiction. You can get the information but not that sense of being in the past. So in many ways, historical fiction and science-fiction are very similar. And in all my fiction -- I may be going off the beam here -- there is a spine of the fantastic or the fabulous.

So in my mainstream novel, The Silent, which is about an adolescent caught up in the Civil War, is an absolutely authentic, accurate account of events in the Civil War. But in Virginia, during the Civil War, there was folklore concerning black dogs. If there was going to be a battle, there would be the ghost dog. Well, my young protagonist sees the ghost dog, and he sees his whole family killed in the first chapter. They're burned. The mother's raped. It's terrible. He sits stock still, watching it, and he thinks that if he doesn't talk, if he isn't moving, that he's invisible. Which is what he does, and the world of rational reality collapses.

I think it's psychologically correct that what this adolescent does is create his own reality. So although this is not a science fiction novel, it could be said to be a magically realistic novel. I utilized the fantastic to explore reality. That's what interested me; it's a layer of reality that is often not explored. But my intent is often different. In a book like my science fiction novel, The Man Who Melted, the intent was to write an extrapolative science fiction novel. With something like The Silent, intent was not genre, but genre tools are integral to the construction of the novel.

Crescent Blues: When you sit down to a novel, do you pretty much know where that novel's going to take you?

Jack Dann: That's a difficult question, because it depends on the novel. The Silent was a hundred thousand words. I knew exactly where it was going to go. It was all in my mind. With The Memory Cathedral, I was sitting in my old hotel -- which is not my old hotel anymore, since it's been bought up by various people, and they lost their history -- the old Algonquin in New York. I was sitting in the lobby, and I was reading a 1930's book about Leonardo da Vinci, because I've found that if you want to get real description you read books written before television, because life was much slower. In other words, readers were much more patient than they are now. So I'm reading this book about Leonardo, and I had this vision of these gothic-looking flying machines flying over Florence, with the Arno River like this silvery… It was almost like a hallucination, and I thought: I want to make that. I want to take that photograph and create that world for myself.

Crescent Blues: Then the characters took over.

Jack Dann: And there was something else that I had read. A historian by the name of Jean Paul Richter -- you know the double-volume Dover editions of Leonardo's notebooks? Richter was the one who compiled those. At one point in the book, Richter's got a little note about Leonardo's letters to the Devatdar of Syria.

Book: jack dann, the rebel
Most people believe Leonardo was doing shtick for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, when he wrote these letters. Leonardo wanted to be an engineer. That was his love -- creating munitions. But Sforza had him building these wonderful toys for festivals, wonderful robotic things that would open up. Leonardo wasn't really taken seriously then. So most people believe the letters were written for the duke's entertainment.

But Richter says this stuff is too specific, and it corresponds with events that happen in the Middle East. So Richter believed that Leonardo was indeed in the Middle East. When I put that together, I thought: "What if Leonardo, who was in the Middle East, was invited by the Devatdar of Syria, who was working for the sultan of Egypt, to be their munitions expert and could create all the inventions that we have the sketches for? From the Gatling gun to the submarine, all of the tanks -- what if he could bring these to life? How would he deal with this?"

If you look at his paintings, he's got a painting of these carts that have scythes on the spokes of the wheels. These things would obviously cut you to ribbons, but they're done like pastoral still lifes.

I was thinking of [Werner] Von Braun, the Nazi scientist, and the others we brought over here. They basically developed our space program. It's the idea of scientists being neutral. So it became the story of a man who learns better. I asked myself, how would Leonardo react if he could see the carnage that his weapons would create. And I didn't know until I got to the end of the book. I was writing the book to find out.

Half the book takes place in Italy, and it's absolutely as authentic and true as I could make it. In fact, when my agent went to Florence, she took the book as a guide. She went to all the places mentioned in the book.

Then Leonardo goes to the Middle East, and I had to start the research all over again for the Middle East. But until I got to the end, I did not know how it would turn out. It was like reading a suspense novel to find out whodunit, except you're the one who's got to figure it out at the end.

There are some stories where I have an image like that. There are other stories where I have pieces of the plot, and there are some where I have the whole thing. It varies from story to story, but I can't know that in advance.

Crescent Blues: How has the Internet changed the perception of what constitutes mainstream literature and what constitutes genre fiction?

Jack Dann: We're not talking scientific data here, but what I think has happened -- and I think the Internet has had a lot to do with it -- is that mainstream, popular culture has been co-opting the tropes of the science fiction genre. In the early days if you had a science fiction book, you'd put something over it so people wouldn't know you were reading science fiction. But now, look at the big movies. Look at all of the television shows. Where we were trying to get into the mainstream, no one had figured that the mainstream was going to pick us off, was going to co-opt us.

I mean, "Beam me up, Scottie" is not something you need to have read any science fiction to know it's around. There are vampire slayers on television. In fact, there's tons of science fiction in the new television season.

Young people today have a different sensory sensibility.

The big films are genre. Science fiction has become part of the lingua franca of the popular culture. Now granted, the stuff on the cutting edge -- today's equivalent to, say, Bill Gibson's Neuromancer or the new China Mieville, the new cutting edge stuff -- the difficult stuff will remain in genre, but it leaves a wake, even though you could say that it gets simplified or dumbed down. But that was Star Wars. Star Wars was a loving appreciation of the most popular aspects of the genre. So you've kind of got the cutting edge here, and it's moving this way. Out from it and in its wake, ever widening, is that dispersion into the general culture, so that some point what was really cutting edge becomes, as I call it, part of the furniture.

It's interesting that science fiction created a lot of the furniture, but where I am now, in Australia, the literature is almost all fantasy. Yet the science fiction tropes are in many ways more powerful. If I mention virtual reality, we expect that this is around the corner. It's sort of here. I think that the Internet is one of the ways that information is passed.

You can see changes. We're talking about perception. I remember during the Sixties and Seventies when consciousness raising and the feminist movement got started. I still remember, during the antiwar movement and the peace movement, women got the coffee. Just because these things were going on and everybody had long hair and free sex didn't mean that it wasn't sexist as hell.

Now I grew up in an extraordinarily sexist time, and I can remember -- remember earlier when we were talking about the bicameral mind and all that -- I remember viscerally what it felt like to be a sexist. It wasn't out of any meanness. This was how the world was. I remember telling my girlfriend to get me a cup of coffee. Well, the coffee was right there. I could've gotten a cup of coffee myself. It just didn't occur to me. And then when the women's movement started gaining momentum, I was a young guy, and I was interested in women.

I've always loved women. Not in a stupid, sexual sense -- well, I've always loved them sexually -- but I like women. I like them as friends. I like their sensibilities. And the deal was all of the lovely people that I was interested in were all going through consciousness raising. And if you want to date us, honey, you're going to go to men's consciousness raising. So all of us sexist pigs ended up going. And what happens when that happens is that you may be doing it for all the wrong reasons, but you start seeing things differently.

The downside of all of this is -- I'm mean, it's been long enough that I'm not a sexist any more. But I spent most of my adult life having to monitor myself, because I would have a thought or be ready to say something and then I would have to catch myself.

Book: Jack Dann, high steel
This is why I think racial problems are so difficult, because I'm not a racist, but I grew up in a time when racism was OK. Being a Jew boy means I have to deal with other people thinking: "Oh, dirty Jew -- oh no, I didn't think that." But if a black does something and you get angry, you are not a racist when you think, "You bastard," rather than something to do with his color. It's the same thing, I think, with feminism.

Now it's been long enough for me that it doesn't occur to me that there are differences between the sexes other than the physiological -- and certain sensibilities. And in my relationships, when I was free to look at a mature age, what I wanted in a partner had changed. I wanted someone who could probably run rings around me. I didn't want someone who wasn't bright. I wanted someone who was smart, because that was exciting. The old sexist wants someone who's going to be out of the way. But I want someone in the way.

So I was around to live through this, and I've also been around to watch the birth of the computer. I used to work at IBM when I was a kid in university, and the old 360s were half the size of this room. And the introduction of the Internet -- the young people coming up now have been weaned on the Internet and on computers and on MTV. I remember when MTV hit -- and Sesame Street. It was information being thrown at you. We did not use information that way before. Young people today have a different sensory sensibility. They assimilate and integrate information very differently. I mean, pick up a book written before television, then pick up one written afterwards. You can see the difference.

On the Internet, there are enormous amounts of information and enormous amounts of misinformation. It's very difficult to find knowledge, and you look for information differently. You're reading a bit here, you're going there, you're moving all over the place. You're going laterally 80 percent of the time, when much thought, analytical thought, needs to be straight line and rigorous. So I don't know how that gets incorporated. It's going to be very interesting to me to see where this goes. But I think there's a change of sensibility in my lifetime that's as great as the sensibility shift from the Renaissance into what we call "modern." You know they call Leonardo the first modern man, but Leonardo was very much a person of his time.

With science fiction we try to look out, but it's very hard. If you look at historical movies, look at a 1940s' movie about ancient Egypt, you know those are 1940s' hairstyles, because it's very hard to get out of our time. We get glimpses. Maybe.

Crescent Blues: You talk about writing The Silent lyrically, while the The Rebel is written more like a phone call. How do you maintain your voice as a writer when you're writing in so many different styles?

Jack Dann: Speaking as a writer -- this never works, by the way -- they say writers fall into two different types. Plot-style writers get their kick out of the plot and its movement. Character-style writers are the ones who are writing the extraordinarily purple prose, where if you need one adjective, they'll use 25. For those writers who are plot-oriented, it will be all plot, and the characters will be perfunctory. What I tell style-oriented people is that style isn't something you add in. Style is the use of craft to portray the characters and the action and the movement as economically as possible without inserting yourself. As you do that, everything that you are, everything that you know, your personality, becomes part of that style. But it's a question of taking out. It's a question of being invisible.

I tell writers that all of the metaphor, all of the allusions are not their concern -- if they're doing it right. Their concern is to show how things taste and sound, to do so in a way that the reader knows. It's like a play -- center stage, right, left -- you economically let the reader see what's being done.

Book: Jack Dann, the silent
As I research the characters and their world and what I want to have happen, the characters take on their own voice. The Silent was first person; the other books were third person. With third person, you tend to be more writerly. But not only do the characters gain their voice, but the book itself starts whispering to you in a voice.

With The Memory Cathedral, I thought I was a camera. Each chapter would open up like a camera so I could describe what was going on. Then I would move in on Leonardo and his perceptions, but from a third person point of view. With the Dean book, which was up-close and modern and about our times, a lot of it was done on the phone -- phone calls, meetings. At one point, Dean punches out Frank Sinatra. It wasn't done in present tense, but it was done like a film, and it was a question of taking me out. So the characters developed their voice, but the voice of the book was minimalistic. But there's a lot of detail, because there are things a reader needs to know.

When you look around this room you see different things. A writer tries to take the elements that define this room -- the artificial ceiling, the multi-colored dirty carpet, for example -- and the reader fills everything else in. That's actually the way that the mind and the eye work. So that when you read a book -- and this is what's different from watching a film -- when you read a book, you write a book. As you read the lines, you're putting in your own faces, your own colors. In a sense, you're collaborating with the author.

So my job is to perfectly describe anything that's there. What I give you needs to be detailed and visualizable. Not vague. Not a word that sort of means what it is, but the exact word, to make it as clear as I can for you, so you can create the picture in your mind with your camera. That's why -- if this makes any sense at all -- why the styles can be so different.

Crescent Blues: In other words, the book sets the style.

Jack Dann: That's right, and you know that through the research.

Crescent Blues: Is there anything you'd like to add? Anything that we haven't touched on that's important to your heart

Jack Dann: I guess I would like my science fiction readers to look at the stuff like The Rebel, which isn't necessarily being marketed into the genre, because I've found that the readers, reviewers and the critics in the genre, really get what I've been doing. The Rebel was really an experiment. That was really sticking my neck out, and I did get reviews -- and we're talking front page reviews -- where the reviewer was saying: "But James Dean didn't die. So why did you write this book?" In this case, I think that the mainstream has yet to catch up to the genre sensibilities. So we're running ahead.

Crescent Blues: So are you saying Dean did die or he didn't die?

Jack Dann: Well, he doesn't die in the book. The author may be a maniac, but he's not completely insane.

Click here to learn more about Jack Dann.

Teri Smith & Jean Marie Ward