Jack Dann visits our blog to discuss his Salinger-influenced tale “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” on sale now in our Jan/Feb issue. Learn about his upcoming projects, his history with our magazine, and advice for emerging writers in our Q&A below.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach”?
JD: This is one of those short stories that just sort of slipped out of my unconscious. That rarely happens, and I’m sure it has something to do with the death of my dear friend Gardner Dozois. I remember waking up from a night of bad dreams, one of those exhausting, seemingly sleepless nights; and as I propped myself up in the bed, I imagined the idea of death as the personification of a harried bureaucrat. And this combined with the ocean and the beach, which I associate with comfort, freedom, and . . . fear: the idea of drowning, of the pull of deep water, that sort of thing.
. . . I imagined the idea of death as the personification of a harried bureaucrat.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about death, my image of “him”; and as I did so, the so-called texture of the image took on the coloration of a deadly story I admire by J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” It’s a mood-piece of a story with an ending that shocked the hell out of me. I knew “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” wasn’t going to have that kind of a shock ending, but I wanted to contrast the quiet joys of peace and relaxation with the undeniable finality of sudden death. I wanted to create a story that would be warm and familiar . . . so warm and familiar that it would chill like an ice-cube dropped into the collar of an unsuspecting bather. Whether I accomplished any of this will have to be determined by my readers.
So I think—and this is just a bit of pop-psychological self-analysis—that “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” was this writer’s natural way of working out grief and guilt and all those subterranean emotions that accompany the death of a loved one. Dunno. Sounds plausible, anyway.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
JD: It’s a stand-alone, although I’ve written stories that I think have the same “tonal feel” (if that makes any sense), stories such as “Café Culture” (Asimov’s, January 2007), “Mohammed’s Angel” (Overland, Spring 2009), and “The Island of Time” (Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe, Tor 2013). It’s the sort of story that I think is a one-off, or should be a one-off; and yet I’m not doing a very good job of getting Mr. Death out of my head. I keep thinking up possible adventures for him. Hmm. Well, I’ll just have to see how insistent he becomes (in a fictional sense!).
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
JD: Actually, I can relate to both the boy and Mr. Death in very different ways. The boy draws on my own emotional memory, so in a sense he’s me, that distant “me” that occupies flashes of recollection. How true those flashes are is anybody’s guess, for we certainly fictionalize our pasts . . . we shape our personal history to fit where we are now. (Only to an extent, of course!) And what about Mr. Death? He’s a wild, singular soul trapped in his algorithmic prison, and his dream of the beach as a metaphor for freedom is similar to my own. He needs a vacation!
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
JD: Ah, now that’s a question. That’s like asking me where do I get my ideas . . . sometimes a title comes to mind, sometimes I have to play games with my unconscious until “we” come up with a title that feels right. “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” was one of the latter varieties. I knew his name was Mr. Death, I knew the story would take place on Squeaky Beach, which is located at Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria, Australia; but the obvious title took a week to make itself known, so to speak. Go figure . . .
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
JD: As I was writing, it felt like an Asimov’s story . . . and, as I think about it now, I was writing the story for Gardner and Sheila all along.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
JD: Well, short and sweet, I was there at the beginning. My first sale to Asimov’s was “Time Bride,” a story I wrote in collaboration with Gardner Dozois. It appeared in the December 1983 issue. Then came “Bad Medicine” (October 1984), “Visitors” (October 1987), “Tea” (April 1988), “Kaddish” (April 1989), “Jumping the Road” (cover story, October 1982), “Da Vinci Rising” (May 1995, Nebula winner), “Café Culture” (January 2007), “Waiting for Medusa” (October 2013) . . . well, you get the idea.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
JD: Any writer could go on and on trying (ineffectually) to answer the question. But in a nutshell my influences were Phillip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Robert Heinlein (believe it or not), Isaac Asimov, Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, Henry Roth, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight, Jerzy Kosiński, Ernest Hemingway, Harlan Ellison, and, dammit, a raft of other writers.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
JD: I think most writers return to themes that are—well, in a sense—life themes. For me it’s memory and the nature of time. Thus, I’ve written novels such as Junction (Dell 1981; PS Publishing 2010) The Man Who Melted (Bluejay Books 1984; Pyr 2007), The Memory Cathedral (Bantam 1995), and stories such as “Blues and the Abstract Truth” (with Barry N. Malzberg, F&SF, January 1988). The other major theme that runs across my work is the Holocaust. My collected Holocaust stories can be found in my collection Concentration (PS Publishing 2016) in which Marleen Barr called me “a Faulkner and a Márquez for Jews.” Not bad for a shlump from Binghamton, New York <Grin>.
AE: What is your process?
JD: Books and stories “come to me” in two ways: they are either visual or narrative. The Memory Cathedral began as an image of a fleet of Leonardo’s da Vinci’s flying machines soaring above Florence, while my Civil War novel The Silent began as plot . . . a plot I could “see” as if I was looking at railroad tracks extending across a landscape right in front of me. After that, it’s down to research: I research until my characters and places come alive, until I know the fictional space as well as I know my own neighborhood . . . and I don’t start putting words to paper until I can hear my characters talking. Until I’m so full of the story that I have to start writing because the characters “demand” it. And then it’s a question of routine, of writing every day, of keeping the story inside me and around me.
I’ve described it to friends this way: “I’m here at this party with everybody, and I’m having a helluva good time.” Then I draw a line across my chest. “From here down, I’m submerged in my current novel. Although I’m talking to you now, I’m mostly submerged in the Renaissance (or nineteenth-century England, or the future, or . . .). But from here up”—drawing a line from chest to head—“I’m right here talking to you.” So you see: writers can be in two places at once!
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
JD: I get writers’ block when I’ve used up my resources. It’s my unconsciousness’s way of telling me to put stuff back in. So I take a vacation, so to speak: I read whatever looks interesting. I go to the movies. I lay around in bed and imagine shapes in the ceiling. I see pals. I cook and go out to dinner. Oh, and did I mention I read? Read, read, read. And eventually reading turns to . . . writing. So for me, writers’ block is a natural part of the writing process.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
JD: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I remember being a pretentious little jerk in high school. I’d proclaim to everyone that I was a writer, and to prove it I smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder and wore ascots. I was the quintessential asshat. Then I went into my James Dean phase and spent ten years in rum-dum bars and clubs. Yet somehow over the years I actually started writing, and that was science fiction and fantasy. Later, I branched out into contemporary fiction as well. My father was an SF reader and kept his library in my bedroom. So I remember looking at covers by artists such as Hans Bok before I could even read. The genre was a magical place for me as a reader; as a writer, I wanted to invent some of that magic. And then, of course, I wanted to reinvent literature. Well, we’re all nuts in our youth. I managed to get published, to put my dreams into those illusive, magical objects called books. It’s enough that I managed to do that! I think someone else will have to reinvent literature.
Of course, when I started, I figured that as a writer, I’d be tooling around New York in limousines. I soon discovered there are dreams, and then there are dreams . . .
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JD: Well, I have a new novel coming out in July entitled Shadows in the Stone. I’m toying with a novella—or maybe a novel—that’s an homage, sort of, to John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. My working title is The Crystal Hand. Steve Paulsen and I are putting the finishing touches on a series proposal for a chapter book series: we’ve written the first book, and I’m working on short fiction, anthologies, and actually thinking about Leonardo Da Vinci again . . . not a sequel to The Memory Cathedral, but something is rattling around in my subconscious! And I have a collection coming out from Centipede Press; it’s part of their Masters of Science Fiction series edited by John Pelan. Ah, yes, and I’m also working on a nonfiction book on the craft of writing alternate history.
AE: What are you reading right now?
JD: I’m one of those people who is always reading a bunch of books at the same time. So these are in various stages of, uh, completion: Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian, The Golden Bough by James Frazier, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Frustration by H. G. Wells, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, A Dubious Legacy by Mary Wesley, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Sorry, but you did ask <Grin>. Hmm . . . no SF titles right now.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
JD: That’s a tough question to answer without writing a book, but here’s something short and sweet: At any given stage of your career, everything is going to fall in a heap. It’s the nature of things, unfortunately. It’s those times when you feel that everything you write—or will ever write—is crap, that you are outside all the inner circles, rejections abound, and you think, man, I really should have finished law school.
When all is lost, or all seems lost, sit your ass down with your laptop and write. Write even if you think it’s not worth the trouble. Hunker down, close yourself off, and just keep writing . . . and then force yourself to go to conventions, get some bar solace from other writers. Take chances with your work and business strategies . . . what the hell, you’re at the bottom: what have you got to lose?
We’re all in the same boat. When you need support, it’s usually not there. When all’s going well, everybody loves you. But you’re a writer. So just write!
I was actually once asked this question by a new writer at a dinner hosted by my publisher. And about six months later, everything fell in a heap for me. (Of course!) I’m proud to say that I actually took my own advice, and I’m still here to tell the tale. In fact, I was so pissed off at the Universe that I sat down, wrote another novel, and also got a PhD.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
JD: This question makes me smile. I’ll tell you why . . .
Okay, I have pals who have dual careers as scientists, professors, and the like, and also are able to produce amazing fiction as if that’s all they did. Greg Benford comes to mind here. Me? I’m a law school dropout, and I’ve done a lot of stuff that I’ve drawn on as a writer—from working in a carny and shoveling elephant shit to being a director of an insurance company.
But what made me smile is remembering how I tried so hard to appear cool in my early days. My flap copy contained every “cool” sounding job I could think of. And I see young writers are still doing that.
But now, I don’t care about being cool. So I won’t bother to recount cool jobs. I’ll just say that everything I’ve done influences my work . . . the people I meet, the places I’ve been, the wild green days of my youth, the (relatively) more sober, granular days of my later life.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JD: Finally, an easy question! I have a new website (which is still being updated): jackdann.com. Please visit! And I’m on Facebook [www.facebook.com/jack.dann2], Twitter [@jackmdann], and LinkedIn. And you can check out my Wikipedia entry or just Google me.