Jack Dann Click here to read more or purchase the book Jack Dann
conducted July 24, 1997

bibliography web site more writers home page


Jim Freund:  Welcome to OmniVisions. Tonight at 10:00 PM EDT, our guest will be writer/anthologist, Jack Dann, logging in from Australia. Jack's latest book, "The Memory Cathedral", (a secret history of Leonardo DaVinci,) has been winning awards and accolades all over the world. As usual, the show will take the form of an interview for about the first hour, and we'll open up to audience participation about 11:00 EDT. Join us!

The following is from John Clute's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

Jack Dann--(1945- ) US writer and anthologist, with a BA in social/political science, who began publishing sf in 1970 with two stories for "Worlds of If" with George ZEBROWSKI, "Dark, Dark the Dead Star" and "Traps". Among his best and most revealing stories of this period was "Junction" (1973 Fantasy; exp 1981), a NEBULA-award finalist in its early form; its young protagonist must leave the eponymous village, the last place on Earth to remain physically stable, to explore the "Hell" of mutability outside. The expansion cogently dramatizes what Gregory FEELEY has suggested is JD's central theme: the rousing of a young man from disaffected solipsism into awareness of the marvels of the noosphere.

"Starhiker" (fixup 1977), set in a heightened "SPACE-OPERA" venue, similarly puts a young human singer-bard escapee from alien-occupied Earth into an alien spaceship, where he undergoes a series of revelatory experiences (including near self-transcendence on a sentient planet) before returning to his depressed home. The stories assembled in "Timetipping" (coll 1980) reiterate this basic pattern. Only with "THE MAN WHO MELTED" (1984) did JD expand his canvas by introducing a human subject -- his lost wife -- for whom the protagonist must search through a baroque world rendered savagely mutable through collective psychoses which have a binding effect on reality.

Despite the clear though strait attainments of his fiction, JD soon became -- and has remained -- best known as an editor of several strong anthologies: "Wandering Stars" (anth 1974) and "More Wandering Stars" (anth 1981) feature sf about Jews; "Faster than Light" (anth 1976), with George Zebrowski; "Future Power" (anth 1976), with Gardner DOZOIS, the first of many collaborations with Dozois (see listing below), "Immortals: Short Novels of the Transhuman Future" (anth 1980); the impressive "In the Field of Fire" (anth 1987) with Jeanne Van Buren Dann, about Vietnam. Much of his effort in the 1980s was devoted to a long non-genre novel, with MAGIC-REALIST elements, "Counting Coup," which remained unpublished because of the collapse of BLUEJAY BOOKS. "Echoes of Thunder" (1991 chap dos) with Jack C. HALDEMAN II -- a TOR BOOKS Double originally designed for DOS publication, but ultimately released in the format of a conventional two-item anthology -- was much expanded as "High Steel" (1993), a virtuoso NEAR FUTURE tale which begins with its American Indian protagonist's experiences as a shanghaied worker constructing a space station, but soon expands in various directions, as the hero evolves into a SUPERMAN, apocalyptic hallucinations afflict Earth's normals, and an enigmatic message left by ALIENS promises the secret of FTL travel. But with the exception of this remarkable exercise, it seems that, after climaxing his genre career with the creation of a rich and humanized world in "THE MAN WHO MELTED," JD has lost his need to write sf.

Jack Dann's latest release, "The Memory Cathedral", bills itself as "A Secret History of Leonardo Da Vinci". Does it belong to the genre? Whatever it is, it delights, and promises a fun and interesting chat tonight. Join us at 10:00 PM NYC time.

Jack Dann: Hi, Jim, it's noon here in Paradise.

JF: Lucky for you. Here, it's a bleak night. At any rate, for those who aren't familiar with your latest, give us a précis of "The Memory Cathedral".

JD: Ouch! That's a big ask, old friend. In short, it's about the boy who learned better. I asked myself, what if Leonardo actually had the chance to bring all his inventions to life? His weapons of war. How would that change his thinking? If you look at his sketches of his, say, war wagons with scythes on the wheels, you'll see that there are pastoral.

There seems to be no sense that Leonardo realised in his =gut= that these things were about killing and maiming. So in many ways, my =secret history= is a modern story, for my Leonardo is much the modern scientist....

JF: What sacrifices to history did you have to make to make the novel work?

JD: I should mention, folks, that my old friend finally got me into the station. But at 4:30 in the morning! I must admit though, it was a blast. And I got to say, "Hello, everyone out there in radioland." Something I've always wanted to do. (Well, no one said writers weren't a bit silly.)

I didn't have to make too many sacrifices to history to make "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" work. But I did have to nudge history a bit. I feel that writers are allowed to, shall we say, move the truth around a bit to get at what might be bigger truths. I wanted to immerse my readers in the times, make them feel as if there were there, breathing, living it.

To do that, I compressed things a bit. For one thing, I made Machiavelli a little older, so he could play the part he plays in the novel. Characters such as Machiavelli are familiar, and I think (and hope) they aided my readers in suspending their disbelief, and thus enter the world.

But some of the wildest stuff in the book is based absolutely on history...and even Leonardo's pilgramage to the middle east is based on fact...based on a letter he wrote to the Devedtar of Syria. I believe the history in Leonardo is real. It will certainly give the reader a feel for what it might have been. I took great pains not to write a costume drama.

JF: You certainly accomplished that! I really had an idea of what life may have been like to one witnessing that era and culture. Many of the characters of the book were prominent figures of their day, and remembered through history. Who are some of those characters, and did they truly know each other?

JD: When I started writing this book, I read a lot of historical novels, and they...read like costume dramas. Or a lot of them did. I resolved not to do that. So, with my science fictional training, I went about constructing a world that was very different, even in mindset from our own: the Rennaisance!

Yeah, Jim, the characters did know each other. Niccolo Machiavelli knew Leonardo--we knew they met in the years after this novel takes place. Leonardo was an apprentice of Verrocchio. They all hung out with Sandro Botticelli, all knew Lorenzo the Magnificent. All the politics in Florence, all the huggermugger, sex, and violence...is real!

In fact, to continue answering your question, there is a scene that takes place with a Persian king, Unghermaumet, who was almost seven feet tall, red haired, and murdered his son as I described. Of course, I noodged history by having Leonardo brought in as the...hangman.

JF: I would say that your sf training does show through, and that any fan of the genre will enjoy "TMC." But having said that, how would you classify the book? You've been accused of writing magical realism, but this doesn't really invoke those attributes, either.

JD: Yeah, I've been accused of being a lot of things! I do write what people consider magical realism. I also write plane realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc. As Harlan has said on many occassions (That's Ellison), "I'm a writer." Basically, that's how I feel.

The mode of fiction, whether it be realistic or non-realistic, depends on what I'm trying to do. I see "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" has a novel about history. I was surprised when it won the Australian Aurealis Award for best fantasy. I was surprised when an excerpt won the Nebula. I don't see the novel as an alternate history. I wrote it in a "hole" in history.

Yet the novella, "DA Vinci Rising," which appeared in Asimov's is an alternate history. There are about 5000 words written especially for that novella that are not in the novel. (Esoteric information )

JF: How much work was it to research "TMC?" The world is so vivid, but you don't have the luxury of creating it from scratch, as you do in SF. Did you travel to Vinci?

JD: I cannot tell a lie. I haven't been to Italy since I was a kid. Was never in Vinci. I lost myself in texts and original sources. One nice bit of feedback, though: a pal went to Florence and used the book as a map to visit the sights (sites?) and told me it was a great guidebook. So, with the help of a lot of texts, I dreamed it up!

I must say, though, that the research was a killer. I read hundreds of books--it took me six years. (As some of you know!) But I wanted to go for broke, go up against writers such as Umberto Eco. I figured I'd rather fail at a high level than take the middle road. The reception for the book has been lovely...and surprising. But I believe writers have to take chances...with each book, put themselves right on the line. That's what I did. This time I was lucky. (So far, he says turning around in paranoid fashion.)

JF: (And if anyone would like to read "Da Vinci Rising", it's available at eidolon.net/homesite.html?section_name=jack_dann&page=/jack_dann/davinci.html)

What do you think is the appeal to to the sf audience? Is it that we all know your other work, and are therefore seduced into this kind of book? I prefer to think that while it isn't sf, it does have some kind of connecting thread--perhaps it's that "hole" you mentioned?

JD: Jim, that's a very interesting question. I think there is a science fictional "feel" to the book. I think perhaps it's also the way I handle the history, the background, the time, as if they were characters. I've had a lot of discussion with Pam Sargent about how similar science fiction and historical writing are. (Gak, bad sentence!) Stan Robinson has also written about the similarities.

I think perhaps it's also writing historical fiction "feels" like writing science fiction. The extrapolation is very much the same, even though history is...there, available. I discovered that the mindset of the Rennaisance was completely different from our own, that people sensed and felt differently than we do now. I think that's why reviewers keep mentioning that reading this book is like hallucinating. SF writers have unique tools. I think when they're applied to other forms of fiction, some interesting stuff can result.

JF: Let's talk a bit about the science of the time. I was never familiar with the premise that the eyes are the gateway to the soul, and that this was important in treating people for their maladies. What else struck you about their modern science?

JD: The science of the time was, to say the least, different than our own. The conception of disease, how the body worked, etc., was different--although I'm generalizing, and there are large holes here to drive through. The eyes were indeed considered to be the windows of the soul. You see, it was believed that when we looked at something, igneous rays were emmited (learn to spell, Jack) from the eyes.

JF: I think I know what they mean about the hallucinatory feel. Reading this book is a very visual experience, and for some reason I see the colors as all very and vivid. Add Machiaveeli, Leonardo, Botticelli, Lorenzo, etc., and it gains a surreal quality.

JD: Actually, it's understandable why people would think that eyes were sort of like...flashlights, lighting up what they saw. One of the stranger diseases recorded at the time was called Hieros (spelling wrong, I'm sure), which was a love disease. This is what happened. If you were in love and it was unrequited, you could poison yourself by imbibing through your eyes, the soul of your beloved. That image was called a phantasm, and it was a small version of the person, a poisonous soul, that would slowly poison the lover.

The body would degenerate, but the eyes, ah, the eyes would be luminous. There are a number of medical records to this effect. Anyway, to cut to the chase, the exorcism of Sandro Botticelli in "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" is based, detail for detail, on an actual exorcism of the time. Now was Botticelli really exorcised for being in love with Simonetta Vespucci (the sex goddess of her time)? That, I guess, we'll never know.

JF: Unrequited love as a poison! Certainly some of these diseases were utterly romantic beyond ken. Do you suppose we can learn of cultures through the maladies of the times? (Counting down the Top Ten Maladies, here's Heiros, with "Love Potion #9")<

Was it merely the research and painstaking accuracy that took six years to write "TMC?"

JD: Jim, I was working on other projects during the time it took to write "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL;" but, yes, I did a lot of research because it's in the details that a book such as this comes to life (if it comes to life). The research influenced the plot and characters, which prodded me to do further research, which...and on and on it goes....

Hey, I like that, the top 10 diseases of the time. Probably would make an interesting academic paper. I guess what I was trying to say through all this is that I discovered history to be an alien world, bearing very little resemblance to what we think it is (was), to what we were taught it was. For instance, Renaissance Florence under the Medici was more like a Nazi state, complete with curfews, than the liberal anything goes place we think of today. The word Renaissance conjures up images...but I fear they bear little resemblance to what the renaissance was.

JF: What other projects were you working on during those six years?

JD: It occurs to me, as I sit here in the afternoon of a sunny day in Australia, that we're chatting across a distance of 9,000 miles, that people from potentially all over the globe are ghosting in and out. Word is sure getting strange. What's strange, I suppose, is that it =feels= so damn normal.

I did a bunch of the Magic Tales anthologies with Gardner, wrote "HIGH STEEL" with Jack Haldeman, revised "COUNTING COUP," wrote short stories, researched new projects, and on and on. I've got so many things on the burner, I'm having trouble seeing through them.

JF: It =is= nice to occasionally marvel at this medium. Many SF books as recent as 20 years old didn't grasp it, even though the technology (and indeed, the Internet) was already there.

I like your description of history as an alien world. It reminds me of Kubrick's vision in his filmization of that Thackeray novel (I forget the title). His Marquis' were about as alien as his monoliths! Perhaps this, too, is part of the attraction to the sf audience.

JD: Yeah, Jim, I agree. But I think the idea of history as an alien world not only attracts sf people, people who know how to read our complex texts that refer to a common furniture of the future, if you will, but I also think that the idea of history as an alien world is attracting mainstream readers.

I'm thinking of those readers who actually wouldn't read the book if they knew it was a fantasy, or extrapolative because they're only "interested in what's real." Before I go on in this vein, I should mention I've been getting a few General Protection Errors, so if I get bliped off the screen, I'll try to come back in.

JF: Oh absolutely! I was thinking that perhaps some people who'd otherwise not go near that skiffy stuff might find their way to it through TMC. That door can swing both ways.

*urk* Just say No to GPFs. We'll cross our collective digits. (Message to all: We have now opened up the forum for audience participation. If you would like to add your comments or chat with Jack Dann, use the dialog box which should have been added to your screen by now. (Click on "Pause While Typing", first.) Please don't forget to sign your messages so we know who you are.)

JD: Interesting thing happened here in OZ. HarperCOllins put a sticker on "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" after it won the Aurealis. I checked with bookstores, and it actually was hurting sales because it said "fantasy" and history buffs didn't want to read such "stuff". We changed the sticker when I got the Nebula, took off "Fantasy" and things righted again. SF people know where to find the book. But the mainstream reviews were very good, and interesting. They'd like this stuff...as long as it, er, looks like something else.

Yeah, I think that you can get mainstream readers to stretch over to "magical realism", but making the stretch to sf is a harder ask. (Of course...they'd like it if they'd read it...or a portion of them would, I think.) "THE MAN WHO MELTED" is being reprinted here in OZ. I'm suggesting calling it a "dystopia" so I can get those readers. Such 'em in!

JF: A good deal of sf has been published as mainstream in the effort to broaden the market. I wonder if/when the stigmata of sf/fantasy will ever disappear? John Clute said at the end of his article about you that you had no more need to write sf? Do you think that's true?

JD: The shame is, from my viewpoint, that I don't think "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" would have placed as high as it did on the bestseller lists here (#1 for a week!) if it was perceived as a genre novel. I could be wrong about that. (And I'm sure some of you out there in radioland (there I did it) will tell me I am. )

I'm a fan of John Clute's work, but I haven't read the article you mention. So we may be arguing at cross-purposes, but I think there is a distinct "thing" which is sf, that nothing else really does what sf does. Some sf work might transcend the genre, but that's just some curmudgeon's way of saying it's better than the average run. But, again, I'll need to read John's piece.

JF: My take is that the marketing of that book makes sense, so long as copies are also with your other books in the sf section. The genre continues to shred its definitions and blur the lines. I think this is A Good Thing. If it confuses the marketing plans, it doesn't matter so long as the books reach their audience.

Ellen Datlow: Jack, dear, you're in cyberspace today. Hi ya.

JD: Hiya, Ellen. Yay, here we are in cyberspace. Cyberspace hugs!

Jim, unfortunately, it really is a problem to get bookstores to put books such as "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL" in the mainstream sections =and= the SF sections. I've been beating my head against that particular wall for a long time.

Let me give you a wacky example. Gardner Dozois and I edited a book called "MAGICATS," which keeps selling in Europe...because people love cats! When the book first came out we tried to get booksellers to put it in the sf sections =and= the cat sections. There's a big trade for books about cats. They couldn't do it. Went into sf, didn't hit the other sections. More money could have been made for our authors!!!

JF: The exact quote from the Encyclopedia is "But with the exception of this remarkable exercise, it seems that, after climaxing his genre career with the creation of a rich and humanized world in "THE MAN WHO MELTED," JD has lost his need to write sf" The whole article is at the beginning of this chat.

Have the sales been following suit with the acclaim so far?

Ellen Datlow: I was going to say that Jack has written sf since "THE MAN WHO MELTED" but then realised the stories I publisher in OMNI that I would have mentioned all ended up in "TMTM." And I really can't remember any new sf stories you've done. Am I wrong Jack?

JD: Oh, okay, Jim, I misread. Yeah, I know of that entry, and, alas, it's wrong. Actually, nothing has changed. I'm working on a lot of projects. Most are out of the genre, some are out of the genre but will be seen as "belonging to it". I'm just doing what I've always done: write what I want, what excites me. I am "breaking out", I guess, whatever that means, but I've got other fantasies, for instance, in the hopper: "ARIAL'S ISLAND," which is The Tempest as a Renaissance fantasy. Etc.

Jim, regarding sales... So far so good. The book has been doing very well in Germany, where it's already sold over 21,000 copies in a 50DM hardcover. It's in its second printing here in OZ, and I think it's about sold out. In the US, it's in its third trade paperback printing. It was originally published as a hardcover.

JF: I thought John's statement a bit bold, since you seem quite happy within the genre as without. As you say, you write what you write. I heard on a recent rdio show (plug) that your next book is a Civil War novel--with a bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. Care to talk about it?

JD: Sorry, gang, I just got blipped out. General Protection Fault. So I signed in again. Give me a minute, and I'll check messages. But, alas, be warned. It may happen again, and I might have trouble getting back in.

JF: Are there any diferences as to how TMC is marketed in one country as opposed to others?

This blipping happens every so often. So far, we've never lost anyone for more than a few minutes, so hang in there--it's the home stretch!

JD: Okay, Jim, yeah, we can talk about the Civil War novel, but Ellen, I'd have to check on short stories. One of my best, I think, I wrote for you for OmniVisions: That was "Jubilee". Got some other stuff not yet published. I must say I'd love to do some short stories, but I seem to be up to my neck in novel projects.

Ellen Datlow: Duh. I feel like a jerk. Right. And "Jubilee" is certainly sf.

JD: Okay, the Civil War novel. Bantam is publishing it in the US and Lubbe is publishing it in Germany. Lubbe has become a major publisher for my work. Good on them!

Click to read about / purchase _The Silent_The Civil War novel is called "THE SILENT," and it's about an adolescent who loses his family during the war. He roams around the devasted countryside of the Shenendoah Valley trying to come to terms with what he sees. He's so shocked by the death of his family that he imagines (?) that he sees spirits, and that he may be one himself. So although it's a grittily realistic novel of the Civil War, it could be called magical realism. But I would say that the "magical realism" stuff is just part of reality, of the world around my protagonist. So I suppose, in my twisted mind, I get to have my cake and eat it, too.

Regarding "Jubilee," I should mention (and set the record straight) that Ellen Datlow (who's out there carrying on and saying "Duh") gave me the title for "Jubilee" and sent me material that gave the story its central metaphor. I feel it was almost a collaboration. It's good to have an editor.

JF: How long is "THE SILENT," and how extensively did you need to research it? Was it any easier setting your work in an era that's better documented than the Renaissance?

That's right -- pony up to the Producer. :-)

JD: "THE SILENT" will be around 130,000 words, which is a relatively short book for me after "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL." (That was 200,000 words long.) The research was just as intensive, and the period of the Civil War just as interesting and exciting as the Renaissance period, but I learned a few things after writing "THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL." I hired a researcher to get me into the right areas, and that saved me about a year. Then I buried myself in 1862 in the Shenendoah Valley in Virginia.

I'm =still= buried in it, although I'm at the tail-end of the novel. A novel sweeps me up, and I can't bear to let go of the characters, of the place. As Gardner Dozois said (or maybe it was George Martin), "Only Jack Dann would go to Australia to write a novel about the Civil War."

Ellen Datlow: Jack that's very sweet of you. I think it was a case of serendipity that I just happened to be reading a nf book about the flora and fauna of Florida. "A NATURALIST IN FLORIDA" by Archie Carr. He had an article about the phenomenona of the "jubilee."

JD: Ya see, folks, you get up at 4:30 am to do a radio show and waddya get? No respect. Ellen, regarding your response. Proves my point, again

JF: I'll use this opportunity for my stock question: You write superb short fiction. How does the writing differ for you than for novels? And is the market still as strong for short works? (I ask you this both as a writer and an anthologist. You =know= you've edited some of my favorite books.)

(Both opf you are remarkable anthologists, I should point out.)

JD: Some time ago you asked about whether marketing is different in different countries. My experience is "Yes."

JF: That's what I like Jack, a succinct answer. :-)

JD: Good questions. I don't know if the response will be up to the questions. Regarding the markets: I think that there are certainly good markets for short fiction: Gardner at Asimov's, Gordon at F&SF, Scott at SF Age, my, er, collarborator over at Omni, and on and on. In real terms, it's hard (read impossible) to make a living writing short fiction, but it's one of =my= favorite forms.

Ellen Datlow: Jack I thank you from the bottom of my heart but I don't consider myself a "collaborator" on any stories. Although we can get into it another time, I feel the writing and editing processes are utterly different.

JF: As a writer, how does the short form differ for you? (I'm not referring to taxes)

JD: I just got blipped out, and it took my last message with it. Let's see if this works first, before I go on and on.

Okay, let me get back. I wrote a paragraph and lost it, which is frustrating. Short fiction and long fiction feels pretty much the same to me. I love short fiction, as I can see the end. Gratification. A novel is x amount of pages a day, every day. I do think of chapters as short stories, and I try to write them as such, so that they give the satisfaction of ending, but are more a comma than a full stop.

JF: Yes, it worked. And it's now midnight here (2 in the afternoon where you are, so we'll wrap up soon.)

JD: I also wanted to mention that there are a lot of anthologists looking for original work. (I'm doing an Australian anthology with Janeen Webb entitled "DREAMING DOWN UNDER," but that's an entirerly different topic.)

But as I tried to write before getting blipped out, it's difficult making a living as a short story writer. The novel market seems to be in trouble these days, or so it seems. Specifically in certainly genres like horror. I've been writing out of genre, so to speak, but it's rough all over.

JF: Well, perhaps we can do this again when that's coming out. Speaking of Dreamtime, (which I assume will be covered in the Aussie Anthology,) is there anything you'd like to bring up before we sign off?

JD: Yeah, it looks like we've blown through two hours. This stuff is like radio. Feel like two minutes.

Ellen, I do agree with you about editing being different than writing. But sometimes, to the writer, it feels similar.

We've covered most everything. Next book out will be "COUNTING COUP." That should be May (I think) of '98. A road novel. Then "THE SILENT."

It was lovely chatting. Goodbye all, out there in aetherland!

Bye, Jim. Bye, Ellen.

JF: Jack, in trying to make up for lost time, I've now interviewed you for 5.5 hours within two weeks, and it =still= isn't enough. It's a great pleasure to read you and speak with you.

Ellen Datlow: Nighty night Jack. Great to have you on. (have a g'day:))

JD: Jim, the pleasure is mine! This was great fun. Well, you've got to admit, we've certainly made up for lost time.

Now next time I'm in New York, and it's 4:30am, , and we're doing a show...==I= buy the bagels!

Ellen, lovely to schmooze. See you on e-mail. Bye, everyone.