<back to index
| previous letter | next
Greetings Readers and Friends –
It is March 31, 2004, and I am writing to you from the Seventh
Bolgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell.
I hadn’t planned to write you from Hell.
In fact, when I planned to post a message on my website around
April 1, the idea was to give you a brief and cheery progress
update on certain projects such as OLYMPOS and my film treatment
for "ILIUM" and "OLYMPOS", and perhaps
sing the praises of spring and end with a few lines about
my daughter Jane’s imminent graduation from Hamilton
But that was before this side-trip to Hell.
To be more specific, I’ve been distracted the last
couple of months and absolutely derailed the last two weeks
by two kidney stones. This particular malady is not new to
me – I’ve passed at least two dozen of the pesky
things in the last 30 years, they’re my personal bane,
my anti-Muse – but the key and magical word there is
“passed.” These current obstructions are too large
to pass, more asteroids than meteorites -- although the first
Emergency Room doctor I dealt with, lo these infinite two
weeks ago, sent me home in the middle of the night with the
news that “this too shall pass.” She was very
wrong, as even the most casual lay-person’s glance at
the x-rays could have told her. The lady must have flunked
Basic X-ray Reading 101. (She also put me on anti-inflammatories,
which has now delayed the only treatment for these stones
– shockwave lithotripsy – for an extra week and
a half.) I may be in the Eighth Circle of Hell, but –
as all you Dante readers out there know – there are
Nine Circles, and one can only hope that my blasé ER
doctor has a chance to visit Number Nine soon.
Now before you quit reading here, please understand that
I know too well how boorish it is for someone to talk about
their maladies or surgeries or discomforts – and we
all have plenty of time for that when we get really
old – but I thought I’d share just a few insights
into what this particular side trip to Hell means in terms
of my writing, publication schedule, and state of mind.
Even if you’re not a member of SFOOKSSAS
(the Secret Fraternal Organization of Kidney Stone Sufferers
and Survivors) you probably know that the key thing about
kidney stones is simple, good ol’ fashioned pain.
Pain is the alpha and omega of this malady. As a trauma surgeon
who had been a medic in Vietnam once explained to me, there
are a few things more agonizing than kidney stones –
crushed kneecaps, major knife and bullet wounds, activation
of the trigeminal nerve of the face, slow dismemberment –
but these other contenders are so dramatic that one usually
goes into shock immediately and/or loses consciousness. Kidney
stones – which work like a slow, twisting knife in the
back -- are truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Tomorrow, April 1st (April Fool’s!) I’m
scheduled to go to a nearby town and receive lithotripsy,
high-energy shockwave treatment (from one of only two such
machines in the entire fershtugginer state of Colorado) in
an attempt – not always successful – to break
these two large, impassable stones into a few hundred smaller
ones. Then the plan is to get rid of them in the usual way.
But always dubious about “plans” and respectful
of the gods’ habit of intervening whenever a mere mortal
expresses his or her “plans” as if they were future
facts – always a person who says, like the ship captains
of yore, that I’m “bound for” somewhere
rather than going there – I’m more leery of plans
now than ever before.
For the last few months through the winter
of 2003-2004 – even as incipient signs of these kidney
stones were being diagnosed as a resurgence of an old back
injury – I’ve been working night and day, seven
days a week, on my novel OLYMPOS. Past page 600 and fascinated
with where the complex tale was taking me, I’d carved
out last week as time to pause and write a novel-summary-slash-film-treatment
for Digital Domain, the special effects company which hopes
to produce "ILIUM" and "OLYMPOS" as major
motion pictures. I’d been looking forward to the challenge,
since writing film treatments is as different from writing
a novel as flying an aircraft is from driving a car.
But for two weeks now I’ve written nothing.
This has to be part of my cosmic come-uppance
for being so complacent about previous kidney stones and health
problems, none of which have kept me from writing for more
than a day or two. Now, with agents on both coasts, not to
mention editors and film producers, waiting for finished work,
I’m here pondering pain.
So both my novel and film treatment deadlines are in jeopardy,
as are my plans to write a film treatment and first-draft
screenplay this summer in which I combine the stories in my
novels A WINTER HAUNTING and SUMMER OF NIGHT. Two lousy little
– well, not so little – calcium stones in my kidneys,
and suddenly deadline dominoes are falling like . . . well,
dominoes. (Cut me some slack here, I’m sick.)
In the meantime, one assumes that all this
will be material someday. I mean, isn’t the old axiom
– “Whatever doesn’t kill you just makes
you stranger”? (I may have missed that a little. Pain
plays havoc with memory.)
The sad truth is . . . no. Pain is lousy material.
Pain is boring. Lots and lots of pain is very boring.
My guess is that one can substitute “pain” for
“success” in Henry James’s quote that it’s
. . . “as prosaic as a good dinner: there was nothing
more to be said about it than that you had had it.”
Perhaps this explains why pain – the description of
pain – plays such a small role in fiction. In our private
eye novels, the hero gets clubbed on the head, stabbed, even
shot, and tends to jump up and carry on without much notice.
Where you or I would be in the hospital for days and moaning
for our Percocets, the Continental Op or whoever sucks it
up and soldiers on. (Although in my “Joe Kurtz”
novel, HARD AS NAILS, Joe gets a ricochet to the
skull in Chapter One and spends the next 300 pages dealing
with a migraine headache from hell. All of his perceptions
are filtered through this red haze of headache. My thinking
was that even in hard boiled fiction, a little reality should
And I may be the only author who ever sidelined a young
hero with a bout of kidney stones. My protagonist Raul Endymion
in the third book of the four Hyperion books rushes off into
the galaxy to save the young princess in distress and to foil
the bad guys, but is almost immediately sidelined on a desert
planet with a kidney stone, in which he’s good for nothing
better than curling up in a fetal position and moaning. This
was my little homage to the real universe’s
tendency to foil the best laid plans of mice and heroes.
But while having great pain and distress tends to focus
one’s attention in unprecedented ways, writing about
it – reading about it – is boring.
Tonight marks precisely two weeks that I’ve been riding
the full tsunami of kidney stone pain – relieved a bit,
but not much, by the implanting of a surgical stent a week
ago tomorrow. What have I learned during that time that will
improve me as a writer and a man?
I’ve learned what I already knew from much shorter
episodes of this – that pain has its own agenda and
constitutes its own kingdom. One may try to plot the next
chapters of a novel, or mentally write the 30 pages of a film
treatment, while waiting for the Percocet or Demarol to kick
in, but when the pain is sufficient to roll right over those
worthy drugs, don’t bet on mentally writing anything.
The revelation is that writing is what William Gass calls
a minded thing – the product of full attention,
a totally focused artifact – and these far regions of
pain are not the place in which to work.
I’ve learned that there are only so many mental games
that one can play while in the clutches of the further extremes
of physical pain. One of them I call “Gestapo Interrogation.”
Taking the pain input as the torture it is, I ask myself at
what point would I turn in my fellow secret agents. Well,
the results are in – I turned in my three agents and
good friends (literary agent Richard Curtis, foreign agent
Danny Baror, and film agent Michael Prevett) last Friday,
after only 10 days of solid pain. Two days ago I ratted out
my wife and mother-in-law. (As Woody Allen would say, “I’d
sell my grandmother to the Arabs right now for a painkiller
that works.”) I haven’t turned my daughter Jane
over to the Gestapo yet, but if this lithotripsy procedure
doesn’t work tomorrow – if I’m still in
the Seventh Borgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell come this
time tomorrow – the kid’s going to have to fend
for herself, ‘cause I’m giving up names to the
Perhaps you wonder why I suggest I’m in the Seventh
Bolgia of Eighth Circle of Hell, and perhaps a few of my more
faithful readers have already guessed.
The Seventh Bolgia (or Pouch) of the Eighth Circle is where
Dante placed Thieves – (and no, I’m no thief,
I’ve never been able to abide thieves, even when I was
an elementary teacher I would trade a thief for five of another
teacher’s worst emotional or behavioral basket cases)
– but more importantly, it’s where Dante put his
political enemy, Vanni Fucci.
Those of you who might have read my novelette “Vanni
Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell” know that
Fucci is a hero of mine. Sort of a role model. A minor thief
in the 14th Century whose major sin was stealing a chalice
from a church so as to fund his political party – the
party that threw Dante first out of office and then out of
the city – Vanni Fucci is so offended by the unfairness
of his punishment that he gives God the fig. (For a precise
description of that ancient, obscene gesture known as “the
fig”, please see my novelette . . . or just use your
imagination.) Every time Fucci gives God the fig, every doomed
soul and foul demon within hearing in that merde-filled Seventh
Bolgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell immediately turns into
a terrible monster and rips Vanni Fucci apart, tearing the
last flesh from his bones and then gnawing on the bones.
But it being Hell, of course, those bloody bits and pieces
slowly and very painfully reconstitute themselves
back into Vanni Fucci . . . who, of course, being Vanni Fucci
(my spiritual ancestor, I am sure) is so infuriated
with the patent unfairness of his punishment, that he gives
God the fig and . . .
Over and over. For all eternity.
We’re approaching an apt comparison for these kidney
stones here, and if I weren’t in such pain right now
I’d finish the thought and dazzle you with the brilliance
of the metaphor.
Speaking of a literary character (Jack Aubrey) who’s
never quite able to complete his brilliant joke or figure
of speech . . . there, there, right on the tip of the tongue,
almost there, gone . . . I have to tell you that
serious kidney stones are a wonderful test of good writing
– i.e. good reading.
When one’s attention span has been reduced to that
of an ADDHD-afflicted cocker spaniel’s, it’s interesting
to note what books actually remain readable.
Proust is O-U-T out. John Updike ain’t in it (as Jack
Aubrey might say.) Even John Fowles and Tom Wolfe don’t
But Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant sea tales are
still, magically, incomprehensibly, wonderfully, readable
even in the 4 a.m. emergency-room blasting light and mind-noise
of two weeks of unceasing kidney stone agony.
I know the sentence above would make a clumsy blurb, but
what a recommendation for a novel or series of novels! “I
could read this book even when screaming pain had me by the
. . .” If you don’t know Patrick O’Brian’s
“Aubrey-Maturin series” of twenty novels set at
sea during the Napoleanic Wars of the early 19th Century,
then I can only envy you that you still have the experience
of reading them ahead of you. You lucky cove, you undeservingly
lucky scrub. Even before these stones lowered the boom on
me, I’d dedicated myself to re-reading all twenty books
of the Aubrey-Maturin series this winter. (They’re not
really a series – trust me on this – but rather
more what one fine critic described as, taken together, “the
greatest historical novel ever written.”)
These books – even read while under the glaring red-poker
glare of pure pain – are wonderful, celebrating as they
do the not insignificant parts of humanity such as friendship,
honor, and shared triumph and tragedy. O’Brian’s
humor and wit and sheer quality of writing serve up the celebration
of life itself.
I finished the last book – BLUE AT THE MIZZEN–
a little after 4:30 this morning (what else did I have to
do? I wasn’t close to being able to sleep) and parting
with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and the full cast of
O’Brian characters was enough to make a poor sleepless
kidney-stone sufferer weep. The book also had what seemed
a deeper resonance to me this time around. It was O’Brian’s
last book – he died shortly after finishing it –
and when read from a certain perspective of pain and distraction,
one senses that same elegaic and one-bubble-off-plumb undertone
in the book itself – even through the usual brilliance
and humor. One senses that the writer himself was being distracted
by the full force of mortality, age, and illness. Yet the
book reads well and ends triumphantly.
Right about when the full-force of this pain struck me two
weeks ago, I’d just read a passage in one of the Aubrey-Maturin
novels where the captain, Jack Aubrey, is complaining about
some shipboard problem and his dear friend Stephen Maturin
– the ship’s doctor at a time when medicine was
even more helpless than it is today (which is saying a lot)
– scolds Jack for worrying about such minor things,
when he, Stephen, is about to go below decks to perform surgery
on a man with a “calculus” – an enlarged
stone blocking his kidney – and he lets Jack know that
this poor devil belowdecks has nothing to look forward to
but agony, cold steel, despair and almost certain lingering
death. Well, the surgery went as well as could be expected
given the fact of high, pitching seas, dim lantern light,
no anesthesia, only laudunum for the pain (given only after
the surgery of course) and the fact of the sailor having to
be restrained with leather-wrapped chains – Maturin
is impressed that the man does not even cry out -- but after
a brief show of recovery, sepsis sets in, the sailor dies
and is sewn into his hammock with 38 pounds of roundshot at
his feet and is buried at sea.
Now obviously I’m reassured that medicine has made
huge strides since Stephen Maturin’s day. These days,
I’m told, the restraint chains are wrapped in vinyl,
not leather, and I understand that the surgeon drinks the
laudunum before the surgery, not after. (A week ago,
right before the out-patient procedure during which they inserted
a stent in my ureter to relieve some of the pain, the nurse
who was trying in vain (no pun intended) to find a vein to
start the IV, looked at the doctor’s note for a Demarol
injection and laughed out loud. “Look at this,”
she said, holding the note in front of me, “he or his
nurse mistakenly wrote ‘cc’ here. If I gave you
this much Demarol, you’d be dead in thirty seconds!”
And then she had her laugh and they put the mask over my face
to start the general anesthetic.
I’m sure I had a point when I started this screed.
Oh, yes – I wanted to welcome you to the Dan Simmons’
web site, Dear Readers, Dear Friends – and to let you
know that with any luck, and with good aim tomorrow of all
these high-frequency shock waves they’ll be firing into
me, work may . . . should . . . could . . . might (knock on
wood) begin again soon on OLYMPOS and on various treatments
and screenplays and other projects that seemed really
important two weeks ago and will, with the blessing (as
Stephen Maturin likes to say), seem so again soon.
In the meantime, I would recommend the books of a really good
writer named Patrick O’Brian and leave you with these
words from the Taittireeya Upanishad –
“I am this world, and I eat this world. Who knows
PS – baseball season begins next week! Life is good.