Author and cultural critic Daniel Quinn is best known for his international bestseller Ishmael. Most people don’t know that Ishmael took Quinn twelve years to write. During the ninth year of that struggle, in an effort to prove himself as a writer, Quinn wrote Dreamer, his first novel. Originally published in 1988 by TOR, Dreamer has been described as an “offbeat first novel of psychological horror,” a satisfyingly eerie thriller that offers humor, mystery, romance, and “more than a pinch of the bizarre.”
Out of print, Dreamer retained an underground notoriety. In 1995, the New York Review of Science Fiction included the book in its “Horror at the End of the Century” reading list. Recently, fans persuaded Quinn to bring his first novel back into print. This is his interview…
Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
Tell us (briefly) about you…
Let’s see . . . . Daniel Quinn, born 1935 in Omaha, studied at St. Louis U, the U of Vienna, Loyola of Chicago. Had a successful 20-year career in publishing, which prepared me well for what I’d always wanted to do (which was to be a novelist, of course).
If you want more: Among other things, I founded the Stateville Penitentiary Writers’ Workshop in 1969, and served on the Board of Listeners of the World Uranium Hearing, Salzburg, Austria, convened in 1992 to hear testimony of victims of uranium mining, nuclear waste disposal, and nuclear power disasters around the world. I’ve addressed students and faculty at dozens of high schools, colleges, and universities all over the U.S.
…and a bit about what you’ve written…
I’m best known for the novel Ishmael, sales ranked #84 in Psychological Thrillers, right up there with Lord of the Flies and The Story of O. It won the largest prize ever awarded a single book (the Turner Tomorrow Award, $500,000, 1991) and is a million-copy seller in some 25 languages, used in classrooms from midschool to graduate school all over the world in courses as varied as philosophy, geography, history, religion, biology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology. I’ve published seven other novels, three works of nonfiction, and a short story collection.
…and what you’re working on right now.
I’m putting together a collection of essays based on speeches delivered for the U of Georgia Distinguished Lecturer Series, the Carnegie Mellon University1997 Technologies of Peace Conference, The Southwestern U 2000 Fleming Lecture in Religion, and others like that. And stirring in the back of my mind . . . a new novel, the first in a decade.
What are your earliest book-related memories?
I remember my father reading to me Howard Pyle’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
What are your three favorite books?
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
Journey to the East, Herman Hesse
Forty Stories, Donald Barthelme
How many books to do you read at any given time?
What are you reading now?
The Murder Stone, Charles Todd
Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I ___
When I curl up with a book, it’s usually 12:30 AM, after I’ve finished work, and I read until I start dreaming what comes next in the book instead of reading it. Then I go to bed.
To re-read or not to re-read that is the question.
I learned to write by reading the Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. I read them so many times I had them memorized. I’m hoping that someday I’ll forget them enough to be able to go back read them all over again.
How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
Not very likely if it’s recommended as a duty-read, something I really really should read. Likely if it’s from someone who actually knows what I enjoy reading.
How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
Very likely. Want to read a terrific (under-appreciated) novel? Suspects, by David Thomson.
What do you look for in a good book?
Sorry, that one’s too tough.
Why do you write?
It’s the only thing that makes me eager to get out of bed in the morning.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
Second choice is so far down that I can’t even see it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I try to imagine a book I’d love to read.
What has writing taught you about yourself?
That I’d better come up with something to write pretty damn soon or I’ll start feeling suicidal.
How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
I’m afraid it’s different for each person.
Are there any stereotypes about writers that you don’t think are true?
Not so much about writers as about writing. When I was running the Stateville Penitentiary Writers’ Workshop, I heard a few. Chief among them that writing’s a scam that can be worked while behind bars, and writers are careful not to let anyone know how it works. When this collection of murderers, thieves, and arsonists finally accepted the idea that writing is just WORK, a lot of them lost interest. The most common I hear (not from convicts) is that writers need plenty of discipline–writers need to be real tough on themselves to keep at it. I doubt if that’s true of many writers. Personally, I need discipline to know when it’s time to quit for the day.
What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
I’ve made a small career out of working with aspiring writers. Most of them fall into one of two categories. They either think getting published is a snap (and so do shoddy work that no one will publish) or they think it’s impossible (and so give up when they receive their first rejection slip).
Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
Sorry, I can’t think of any writing mistakes I’ve made. Not sure what you’re thinking of.
Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
I wouldn’t mind being invited to be Writer-in-Residence someplace.
How do you deal with your fan base?
I’ve had literally thousands of letters from fans. To guard against being overwhelmed, I make it very difficult (but not impossible) for people to reach me. They have to be really dedicated and persistent, so that when they get through to me, I can be reasonably sure that they got something of value to say.
Finish this sentence; my fans would be surprised to know ___ about me.
My fans would be surprised to know that I don’t spend hours a day thinking great thoughts.
Anything else we should know?
I originally wrote something humorous, but Rennie (my wife and chief advisor) talked me out of it.