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May 1, 2004
Epilogue to March 31 Letter

Dear Readers and Friends:

A month ago, on the eve of April 1, I wrote a “Letter from Hell” (read this letter) for this space in which I complained pitifully about two weeks of pain I’d been suffering from an attack of kidney stones. I felt comfortable putting most of my complaining in the past tense, because on the next day – April 1 – I was scheduled for a procedure called lithotripsy in which the stones would be broken up by blasts of high-energy.

My real point to that letter – besides the pleasure of whining – was mentioning my enjoyment of reading Patrick O’Brian novels even amidst the pain. I also wanted to discuss the problems of a writer with multiple deadlines not factoring in little things like kidney stones in his plans for the coming months. But I wrote that note to you, dear readers and friends, in the near certainty that the lithotripsy on the next day, April 1, would end the problem and allow me to get back to work on my novel OLYMPOS and other pressing projects.

Well, April Fool on me! The April 1 lithotripsy went according to plan and the surgeon there assured me that when the stent would be removed a week hence, the huge, impassable stone would have been broken up into scores or hundreds of tiny particles and my problems would be over.

But a week later when the stent was removed – an event in its own right far more awful than any Gestapo interrogation technique I might joke about – it was discovered that the single impassable stone was now five impassable stones. The minute the stent was out, the full force of the pain returned. The next day this problem had me back in the hospital, but this time for an extended stay and more surgical procedures, none of them so benign as shooting high-energy sonar waves into my back. (Most, I believe, involved inserting lasers, tiny bulldozers, not-so-tiny pincers and claws, as well as small groups of commandos carrying C4 and other explosives.) Once again, as convicts like to say, we were making little rocks out of big rocks.

It’s now May 1 and on May 3 I visit the doctor with the hopes of finding that all these offending meteorites have been passed or that any remaining asteroid will no longer be such a . . . distracting . . . problem. I’ve missed two serious deadlines and -- what is infinitely worse --have been ill enough that I barely noticed nor little cared that they were being missed. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is not normal for Dan Simmons. As my dear friend Harlan Ellison once snarled at me – “Simmons, you’ve got all the useless sense of guilt that we Jews carry around, without the sense of humor.”

But if this week really is the end of this absurd, ridiculous, disproportiately painful siege and the beginnings of recovery and full-time writing again, my happiness knows no boundaries. (Or, let’s say, few boundaries. I am of that general disposition that the Victorians would have called melancholy.)

I look out my window this sunny, green and grassy May 1 in Colorado and realize that I’ve missed all of spring – all of it. The result is like one of those moments in a movie where there is a fade or a cut and suddenly there is a new season on the screen showing a totally transformed world. (At least in the old movies they superimposed a calendar with days flying off, or something similarly as quaint. This is more of a modern smash-cut, like when the tossed thighbone in 2001: A Space Odyssey transmogrifies into an orbital satellite.)

At any rate, the good news here – besides the strong probability that I will no longer be whining at you about minor physical problems and that I’m writing books again – is that I discovered yet another writer who can transcend even the distraction of multiple kidney stones, morphine, and lonely hospital nights. His name is Simon Winchester and I’m quite sure that most of you have read him already. (Writers are often the least literate of creatures.)

During this siege, I happened to pick up the trade paperback of his amazing book KRAKATOA – the history of that wonderfully named volcano blasting itself into smithereens in August of 1883 – and the prose was so delightful, the history so well-researched, the digressions within digressions so enjoyable, and the science so well explained, that I immediately asked my overworked wife to run out and buy everything else she could find by Simon Winchester. The next title – read during nights when I was too ill to sleep –was his THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, which I’d read reviews of but had been foolish enough never to seek out, about the strange and wonderful colleagial relationship between the editor of the slowly emerging Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and one of its more faithful and efficient contributors, a certain American named Dr. W. C. Minor, “currently residing in Crowthorne”. As James Murray was to discover after many years of productive correspondence, Dr. Minor “of Crowthorne” was an inmate in the hospital for the criminally insane there, imprisoned years earlier for the murder of an innocent man – a murder committed while Dr. Minor (a surgeon who had seen and committed horrors during the American Civil War) had been in the throes of a lifelong paranoid schizophrenia. It’s a wonderful story.

Completely seduced by the tale of the slow amassing of the Oxford English Dictionary – a project that took more than 50 years to its first complete publication, rivaling even the writing of OLYMPOS – I’m now reading Simon Winchester’s follow-up book on that topic, THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING. Next on my shelf is his THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD. (And please note that this reading will cost me at least another $800 – that is, the discounted price of the 20-volume OED, which I’ve wanted for many years but long hesitated in purchasing.)

I recently told a friend that Winchester appealed to me because his writing mirrored my mind, at least in the sense that digressions tend to pile up within digressions and then wander into footnotes deserving of their own books. As the Financial Times wrote of Winchester’s prose style – “Winchester’s method of storytelling is to embed stories within stories with all the enthusiasm of a child leafing breathelssly through his grandfather’s copy of Did You Know?”

This struck home. It occurred to me that this very habit of digressing into even more interesting digressions, discovering stories within stories within stories, and being caught up by the interesting personalities along the way and then wandering astray to discuss these fascinating individuals in greater depth – all the while almost seeming to forget what we’d first begun discussing -- is perhaps the best way to describe my method of teaching sixth graders and young gifted kids during my eighteen years as a full-time teacher. You’ll have to ask my ex-students, many of whom have gone to careers as poets, scientists, surgeons, criminals, parents, and wonderful human beings, whether they enjoyed that particular pedagogical technique of persistent digression.

Perhaps it’s also a fair way to describe my method of writing a novel – God knows that technique has all but taken over OLYMPOS which sits as quiescent as young Krakatoa here in my computer, rumbling and growling ominously as it awaits my return to it. With more than 600 pages of OLYMPOS in final draft and at least 400 manuscript pages left to write before turning it in to my long-suffering editor at Harper Collins, the tale begun in ILIUM and now concluding in OLYMPOS has become a folding tesseract of a five-dimensional form to me, folds of time and space embedded within deeper folds of time and space, all topographies further complicated by the complexities of human beings themselves.

I can’t wait to get back to writing this thing full time. It will be a different and – I hope – a better book for this strange, enforced, pain-filled vacation of more than seven weeks now. Certainly it will be a different book . . .and I can’t wait to write the scene where one of the characters carelessly “sigls” –i.e. reads through his fingertips – the entire OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.

May 1, 2004

PS – My illustration to the left here, which I’ve lightheartedly retitled “The Dance of the Kidney-Stone Fairies”, is actually an 1832 painting by Daniel Maclise (Irish 1806-1870) titled “The Disenchantment of Bottom” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Pain doth make an ass of us all.


May 5 Epilogue to the Epilogue

Note: On May 3, Dan went to a doctor’s appointment for what should have been official notification that x-rays were clear and the three-month siege of kidney stones was over. Instead, he was told that there were still stones on both sides, including one blocking his system exactly where the previous surgery had been, and he now has another surgery and stent implant scheduled for May 13th.

Dan’s first impulse was to quote Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus – “Why, this is Hell; nor am I out of it.” But then he remembered an even more appropriate short verse from Emily Dickinson –

Pain – has an element of Blank –
It cannot recollect
When it begun – or if there were
A time when it was not –

It has no Future – but itself –
Its Infinite contain
Its Past – enlightened to perceive
New Periods – of Pain.

The Reader may be assured that there will be no more medical bulletins on this web site. In June – the Fates willing – Dan hopes to give a brief glimpse into the progress and problems of OLYMPOS, as well as one writer’s comments on the pros and cons of writing in different seasons.


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