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October Letter from Dan
Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
OLYMPOS is finished. The large concluding volume to the
epic story begun in ILIUM was finished at 12:45 a.m. on September
22nd and is now being read and judged by my agent and by my
editor at Harper Collins. For the time being I am in that
rare state of grace for a writer – basking in the interval
after the creative part of the work is completed but before
discussions of revisions, criticisms, or the need to review
copyedited manuscript or proof pages, long before the need
to consider interviews or book tours to promote the work –
in other words, enjoying that rarest of pauses in the book-creating
process where the work actually feels completed.
I thought I’d talk to you a little bit about what it
feels like to finish a project that has consumed
the majority of my attention, effort, and time for more than
On the first day after typing in corrections, printing out
1,300 pages, taking them to be copied – one for my editor,
one for my agent, one for my film agent – and FedExing
them off, there is a certain sense of unreality. In a very
real sense, there is something missing. An elaborate movie
that’s been running in my head for more than three years
– each scene with a hundred alternative editings –
has suddenly gone dark and quiet.
once said and it’s been repeated often – “No
novel is ever completed, merely abandoned” – but
I think this is bunk. The statement is a testament to the
need for infinite revision, but just as in any creative endeavor,
there comes a point where revision needs to end and a finished
product to emerge. Too many modern novels don’t
end but rather seem to just wander off, as if the novelist
has become tired of the whole thing and did indeed abandon
it. This has its equivalent in too much contemporary music
where the songwriter doesn’t know how to end his composition
and just has the last phrases repeating themselves over and
over again as the volume fades. In a novel, this results in
the reader feeling dissatisfied -- as well he or she should.
Personally, I’m tired of novels and songs that don’t
have the decency of knowing how to end themselves properly.
But even though OLYMPOS most assuredly ends, the
effect of that finality on this novelist is disconcerting.
The day after I ship the manuscript off, I wander into my
office – there are plenty of other business-related
projects that need catching up on – and look around
with fresh eyes. My old roll-top desk is stacked four feet
high with reference books and materials – sources I’ve
lived with intimately for months and years, and which soon
can be reshelved. Although ILIUM and OLYMPOS owe their primary
credit to Homer’s Iliad, a reader of even just
the first volume of the ILIUM-OLYMPOS saga immediately knows
that my literary debt runs much wider – to Robert Browning,
to Shakespeare, to Proust, to Tennyson, to Aeschylus, to Shelley
– to a score more of literary sources. These books are
piled high, as are street maps of Paris, Jerusalem and other
locations, engineering diagrams of the Golden Gate Bridge,
reference books on the Eiffel Tower and other structures that
will show up 3,000 years hence, a stack of books, files of
photographs, and maps (and one globe) of Mars, half a dozen
books on the excavation of Troy complete with photographs
and maps, a dozen books on black holes, particle theory and
chaos theory, as well as a heap of science magazines. There
are world atlases, more collections of poetry (Wallace Stevens,
Emily Dickinson, Browning, etc), biographies of Shakespeare,
annotated copies of The Tempest, half a dozen translations
of The Iliad and The Odyssey as well fragments
of Homer by dozens of other translators, not to mention a
small pile of more modern “biographies” of Odysseus,
Achilles, and others.
In addition, there are books and diagrams about modern ballistic
missile submarines and one wonderful non-fiction book called
PROJECT ORION by George Dyson about the atomic spaceship that
his father, Freeman Dyson, helped design for General Atomic
back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Those were the days!
Spaceships to be propelled by a series of small atomic bombs
being kicked out the stern and exploded every few seconds!
Ships the size of huge office buildings carrying dozens or
hundreds of explorers traveling the solar system in shirtsleeved,
fat-sofa, one-g comfort! It suited my fancy to have my moravec
characters travel from Mars (Phobos, actually) to Earth in
such an Orion-class atomic spaceship, the mini-bombs being
ratcheted around and around and expelled using the machinery
from a 1959 Coca Cola bottling plant.
Across the room from the old rolltop desk, on my writing
desk itself, is a disintegrating, dog-eared paperback of Fagles’s
translation of The Iliad and several much-annotated
copies of ILIUM, as well as yellow legal pads and thick notebooks
filled with my own notes on characters, locations, quotations
used, diagrams of cities or surroundings, and rough outlines
of what’s to come. One list of about 75 Greek and Trojan
heroes simply keeps tabs on who died where or when and how
– not only in Homer’s Iliad but in my
own two novels. It’s always embarrassing to have some
character who had been killed 300 pages earlier come wandering
back into the action. There are similar lists of the “old-style
human” characters in OLYMPOS.
These references weren’t the total of what I used,
of course – every day of writing demanded some running
to my other bookshelves or encyclopedias (I distrust much
of what I find on the Internet) – but these stacks of
books and magazines have been with me through most of the
writing process. How very strange to think that I won’t
be needing them again until the revision and proofing begins.
(But I’ve learned not to set them all away even after
the book is published – as soon as I do, I begin hearing
from my French or German or Russian or Israeli translators,
demanding to know exactly where that quotation was
The point of this recitation is not merely to discuss reference
materials, but to note that this small mountain of poetry
and other literature on my desk is one of the main reasons
I chose to do ILIUM-OLYMPOS in the first place – rising
from a promise I made myself some years ago to find a way
to immerse myself in the Iliad and related works.
And since much of western literature flows from the Iliad,
finding the “related works” was little problem.
Some writers react to finishing a novel – a normal-sized
novel, much less the 2,400+ manuscript pages of ILIUM-OLYMPOS
– with the blues, sometimes even with an active sense
of depression. I don’t feel that myself, but I certainly
understand the source of it – those characters, events,
locations, and thoughts one has been living with, day and
night, for long months or years on end, are simply gone. To
some writers, it’s as if members of one’s family
have died – or at least moved away.
I find that I don’t feel that if the final effort
was successful – if the novel built to the proper climaxes
and ended with the thump of satisfaction I was looking
for. But there’s still an emptiness there.
We’ve all worked hard on some extended project and
enjoyed the sense of satisfaction of seeing it to completion,
perhaps with some regret at the engaging work being finished.
So why is finishing a novel different? Why does finishing
a novel make some of us reach for metaphors to describe the
feeling of that experience? Perhaps it is because novels need
to be created from whole-cloth, from imaginative elements
of one’s own devising, using only language to complete
the structure. Or perhaps it’s because novels deal more
with human beings and human emotions than many of our other
projects. Or perhaps it’s simply because as readers
first, even writers remain under the sway of the magic of
the unopened, unread book.
The most common simile for producing a book is childbirth
and that works to some extent – at least as far as the
parallels to the author’s discomfort, pain, anticipation,
and inconvenience to those around him or her goes. But when
the book actually arrives, there all comparisons to having
a baby fall apart. That is, unless one is used to taking the
newborn out to the street, handing it to strangers, and asking
everyone to criticize it for the rest of its life. But like
children, books do have a way of growing up, of going out
into the world on their own, of learning languages their author
can’t speak, of dressing up in shocking covers no father
would allow his offspring to go out of house in, and of making
their way – or failing to – outside the concerned
parent’s ability to help or hinder their destiny.
But mostly books aren’t so much like children or like
paintings or pottery or sculptures or other works of art that
an artist can hang onto for years or sell to a single patron.
Perhaps writing and launching a book into the world is most
like building a boat.
serious shipwright – someone working on, say, a sailboat
built from natural materials, perhaps in one’s barn
– has to weigh about as many variables as a novelist
does before starting work. What’s the purpose of this
craft – for fun, for serious adventure, for long voyages?
Designing a two-volume epic novel may require some of the
same careful thought that the builder of a ship has to put
into a sailing craft that will ply not only inland waterways
and harbors, but may have to spend months in the open sea
in all weather. What design can offer the greatest beauty
with the most function? There are a hundred possibilities
in each choice as construction proceeds, but which choice
follows the most elegant line or produces the most pleasing
and efficient curve? And while modern narrative engines might
power the telling of the tale full speed ahead, why not honor
the tradition of more than two centuries of novels and unfurl
sails to allow the craft to move on the breeze of its own
telling whenever possible?
The metaphor isn’t perfect – may even be strained
– but all of us who read know the uneasiness we feel
while embarked, even on the shortest voyage, in some much-ballyhooed,
Oprah-approved bestseller that has not been carefully assembled
and caulked and properly rigged . We know we’ll probably
survive the trip, but we don’t enjoy it. We know too
much about better books – we’ve sailed on too
many beautiful ships of the line – to enjoy even a short
outing on some indifferent scow built only for commercial
And finally, this is where the metaphor does work. For books,
although always encountered as a solitary pleasure, are not
works of art destined for solitary appreciation. No novel
is ever properly honored by one patron, however serious a
collector he or she might be. Books are communal constructs.
They are built to carry many people with them and to do so
with comfort but also with a sense of communal joy. More than
that, they are perfect creatures of voyage – constructed
precisely for the joy of their own travel.
Sometimes it’s hard to see white pages and not think
Right now, for this shipwright, it’s odd to see the
space empty where so much construction went on for so long.
The sense of the handcrafted vessel being gone –
gone from one’s mind, gone from under the hand of daily
work, gone from the visible pleasure of its own slow accretion
toward completion – is very strong, but equally strong
is the knowledge that it’s not yet been launched. Only
a few feet have trod the decks and tested the lines and the
verdict’s not in yet – won’t be in for many
months and until many others have come aboard to try out the
accommodations and to feel the whole creation come alive –
or not – under the firm winds of their own imaginations.
I’ll abandon ship on this metaphor now before we all
get a little seasick. Back to the local sailor’s bar
for this ‘wright – time to swap tall tales and
begin thinking about the next hull to lay down. Perhaps a
racy little sloop this next time . . . .