Home      About Dan      News      Books      Forum      Art      Writing Well

<back to index | previous letter | next letter
March 2004
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 College.

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. Nada. Zilch.

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 filter through.)

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?

Not much.

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 Committee.

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 appeal.

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 this, knows.”


PS – baseball season begins next week! Life is good.

^top |

Home     Books     Curtis on Publishing     Previews     Bio     Bibliography     Snapshots      Reader's Forum     Art