Dan Pearlman Interview

Jeff VanderMeer

Dan Pearlman’s fiction began appearing in 1987 in magazines and anthologies such as New England Review, Quarterly West, Amazing Stories, Synergy, and Simulations.

Books of fiction to date include The Best-Known Man in the World & Other Misfits (Aardwolf Press, 2001), a new collection of stories in modes ranging widely from the mad to the magical; Black Flames, a novel (White Pine Press, 1997), a twisted excursion into the Spanish Civil War; and The Final Dream & Other Fictions (Permeable Press, 1995), a book of speculative fictions. In his day job, Pearlman teaches fiction writing at the University of Rhode Island. In the mid-1990s, he founded the Council for the Literature of the Fantastic, an organization devoted to championing literature of the fantastic, whether found under “genre” or “mainstream” labels. Pearlman is also a noted Ezra Pound scholar.

Pearlman’s work has been lauded by writers such as Paul Di Filippo, Jack Dann, and George Zebrowski. My interview with Dan took place via email during the early weeks of November.

—Jeff VanderMeer


Jeff VanderMeer: What makes you angry or emotional?

Daniel Pearlman: What makes me angriest is, in Hamlet’s words, “the insolence of office,” including the hypocrisy, lying, delaying and betraying that people who have power over you (bosses, agents, publishers, etc.) will engage in simply because they are not accountable to anyone or anything—outside their usually vacationing conscience.

Jeff VanderMeer: What do you most fear? And how does that work its way into your fiction?

Daniel Pearlman: I don’t fear death. I fear undergoing a process of mental and physical deterioration that is death-in-life. I knew of a retired old gent, husband of an elderly professor in my current department, who at age 99 was still jogging—and suddenly just keeled over and died. Now that’s a happy man! In all three of my published books, among my numerous dramatis personae, you’ll find an elderly character or so struggling in some weird way against the inevitable.

Jeff VanderMeer: Please describe how you write—do you do long-hand drafts, for example. What is a typical work day like for you?

Daniel Pearlman: Since the late eighties I’ve written directly on the computer—even many of my first notes for stories, and I tend to revise on the computer screen also, even in the case of novels. In fact, the find/replace option makes revising on-screen so much more convenient for long works.

I have notes, sometimes very full notes, for countless stories which I probably will never write. Lately I will not write a story unless I think it a big challenge to my technical and imaginative capacities, so there are many “good” stories I dream up which would doubtless keep me more prolific but which I ultimately judge unworthy of my energies. Typical work day? When I do write, after diddling around for a couple of hours trying to get a first sentence, a first paragraph (that might be my first “day” at a new project), I’ll go each subsequent day for from four to six hours without any major break. When I start each new day I go over the previous session’s “product” and revise, thus getting my head back into the flow of things.

I think that in the earlier years of my writing non-career I was driven to “prove” that I was a true Writer by forcing myself to produce, and occasionally some good stuff would emerge under that regime; but latterly, now that I have confidence in my craft (and, in any case, since I’ve never been under pressure to write fiction to make a living), I do not write under pressure of guilt but rather when an idea occurs to me that I simply can’t resist. I’m not prolific, but I’m extremely selective about what I choose to handle. I now attempt only those subjects that present me with a major challenge, usually a theme or setting or type of character I’ve never dealt with before. After all, if, as a writer, you’re not in it (primarily) for the money, but to get some stuff out there that people will read and even reread for years, decades, eons even (isn’t that the fundamental illusion behind every serious writer’s ambition?), you know that it’s finally the quality that counts, not the word-count.

Interestingly, lots of “professional” writers—whatever that means, presumably those who depend mostly on writing for a living—look down upon us amateurs with an air of superiority. I’m thinking of a guy like Algys Budrys, who expressed himself in that fashion in an essay some years ago. I think, however, that in the history of modern literature, for every major writer who was a full-time pro, you’ll find at least one major writer to match who was an amateur. “They also serve who stand and wait [at tables, etc.].”

Jeff VanderMeer: Would it be fair to say that your wife is your first reader? If so, what kinds of comments does she provide? General? Specific line-by-line? Or both?

Daniel Pearlman: Yes, Sandy is my first reader. Her comments cut to the chase, and though at first I am inclined to be defensive, I eventually come round. When my work has needed it, and my first drafts usually do, her criticism has proved invaluable. It is her general comments that are most important to me. Of course, it’s always helpful to have her point out a fuzzy phrase or sentence too, but I don’t ask her to function as my editor or proofreader.

Jeff VanderMeer: Looking back over your body of work thus far, do you see any recurring themes?

Daniel Pearlman: I’ve never stopped to look back, but a couple of astute readers of mine have seen, as a recurrent theme, characters trying to achieve freedom, dignity, and self-expression against both social forces and their own “mind-forged manacles,” as Blake so nicely puts it. One recurrent theme I do see, now that I think of it, is the sudden incursion of humor into the most serious of situations. I rarely plan to write a humorous story. Humor just demands insertion. Perhaps I am an absurdist of a sort—but I don’t really see the world as meaningless. Although I have been, professionally, a literary critic regarding other writers’ work, I have rarely even attempted to employ the same analytic tools regarding my own. Something in me rebels against the effort. It’s simply not my “job.” The energy of creation seems quite enough to give. I get embarrassed, even tongue-tied, when graduate students of mine ask me literary-critical questions about my work.

Jeff VanderMeer: Is there a major difference in theme or approach between your Final Dream collection and The Best-Known Man in the World collection?

Daniel Pearlman: The conscious effort in The Final Dream collection was to include almost exclusively science-fiction stories. The emphasis in The Best-Known Man is on every other kind of subgenre of the fantastic I’ve dabbled in. In my new collection, only “Over the H.I.L.L.” is a straight out-and-out SF story, but my SF tends to be of the “soft” sociological kind, fooling around with a “What if?” premise for comic-satiric purposes, but always, I hope, with great attention to the traditional narrative desideratum of a character-driven plot. Ever since the sixties there’s been this postmodern disrespect for the much-maligned concept of “plot,” but I think that what such pomo writers mainly are disgusted with is a formulaic storyline, not plot per se, and the formulaic storyline is evident not only in the vast majority of genre fiction but in the vast majority of so-called literary or mainstream fiction as well. Even my occasional SF experiments in form (e.g., “A Möbius Trip” and “Megabride”) strive to be well-rounded, recognizable “stories” with interesting plot twists.

To return to my new collection, I like it better, I think, as a “collection” because it showcases what I like to think of as my versatility somewhat more than The Final Dream volume does, given its one-genre emphasis. I like to think that, from one story to the next in my new volume, the reader can’t know what to expect and is thrown into an entirely different fictional universe; I like to think that I am not consciously or unconsciously repeating myself from story to story. With each story I write I hope to reinvent myself, to energize unexplored potencies. Otherwise, what’s the point? To be truthful, certain technical “discoveries” of mine (actually “appropriations” of what some author, somewhere, must already have done) I do employ in a number of pieces. In this new volume, specifically, I have included stories that fool around with a controlled confusion of two realms, the psychologically subjective and objectively real worlds of the protagonists. Such “psychobizarre” tales include the novella “Death in the Des(s)ert,” chronologically my first exploration of that technique, and the later stories “Zeno Evil” and “The Fall of the House.” My 1997 novel Black Flames made extensive use of that form. That novel also involved a great deal of historical research (into the Spanish Civil War), and I have a great regard for stories of mine, like “The Einstein-Jung Connection,” in the current volume, which have involved significant historical and biographical—as well as technical-scientific—research.

Jeff VanderMeer: In writing “The Einstein-Jung Connection,” included in the new collection, were there any special considerations to keep in mind when using famous people as characters?

Daniel Pearlman: There were several considerations. First, the two geniuses actually were good friends in pre-WWI Zurich, as I discovered many years ago when reading around in Jung. Jung was, of course, influenced in his philosophy of time by Einstein—though in ways Einstein would not have sanctioned—and I had to know these men’s contributions to physical or psychological science sufficiently well to pit their world views against each other in a dramatic setting. Secondly, I had to see these geniuses as more than talking heads; I had to take note of their dark sides, as I’ve said above, that troubling element that did not accord so easily with their powerful intellects—and that led me to focus on the wives, especially Emma Jung, who became the point-of-view character. It was only when I saw her as the lens that a story, that a drama, suddenly became possible. The third consideration, technically, was not to violate any known fact of my characters’ biographies, and, indeed, to incorporate as much as possible of their known natures and backgrounds into the tale.

Jeff VanderMeer: Which of your short stories or novels most perfectly captures, to your mind, those qualities you most strive for in your fiction?

Daniel Pearlman: Well, I think “The Drang of Speaking Forth” is the story that most amazes me even now. It arose out of a dream about a mechanical marlin. Through secondary elaboration when I was awake it came to involve, of course, Hemingway—and then involved Borges, and then became raucously funny, and then became a linguistic tour de force. The story that most approaches that one in sheer magicality—for me, the author—is “The Circus Hand’s Desertion,” first published in The Silver Web, and now, like “Drang,” in my new collection.

Jeff VanderMeer: Your stories are adult in the best sense of the word—they do not shy away from issues of sexuality or sensuality when the story demands it, but you’re never prurient. “Death in the Des(s)ert” comes to mind, and the aforementioned “Circus Hand’s Desertion”. How do you think most authors fail in this regard? How do such explorations fit into your fiction as a whole?

Daniel Pearlman: Sex plays a role, either minor or major, in every story in my new volume except for “The Colonel’s Jeep.” The fact is, of course, that sex plays such an immense role in life that the writer must confront it in fiction or run the risk of falsification of what it means to be human. Apart from the obvious, however, sexuality to my mind is the great healing force, a force of enormous power, and all of human history has been a struggle of society after society to harness this wild horse or hobble it. The sex drive is the ultimate in creative subversiveness, the ultimate destabilizer of rigid social forms. In my mind all great art, but especially the literary arts, are in fundamental cahoots with the universal sex-spirit to undermine every social habit or convention that ossifies into dogma. In my fiction I always look, in my characters, for the dark side of their psyches, whose eruption must eventually upset my characters’ (and my readers’) expectations, and this dark, subversive side is often tinged with anarchic sexuality. A story of mine like “The Vatican’s Secret Cabinet,” for example, is an obvious instance in which sex and society stand in uneasy relationship. My recently completed novel Weeds in Franco’s Garden explores to the hilt the interrelations between sex, love, marriage, and a repressive political environment (the twilight of the Franco era in Spain). On your Whimsy site you’ve posted an early draft of Chapter Two of that novel, which introduces a sexual theme in a magic-realist context.

When you ask how authors fail in their attempts to incorporate sex into their fiction, I can answer you best by saying that such authors are uncomfortable with sex, don’t understand its profound social and spiritual importance, and therefore trivialize it via lasciviousness or else a wispy delicacy of handling that equally misses the mark. The integration of sexuality into the totality of our human behavior is the ongoing challenge of every culture, of every civilization. We have only to look at the Taliban to witness the total failure of a fringe culture to deal with half of its own constituency, and I believe that male-dominated cultures that fail to draw on the enormous healing and life-giving powers of the Female are doomed to self-destruction.

Jeff VanderMeer: When an author “gets” to you, what, typically, is the reason?

Daniel Pearlman: A combination of imaginative inventiveness and profundity. This combination I demand of myself, whether or not I am able always to achieve it.

Jeff VanderMeer: What book has had the most devastating effect on you and why?

Daniel Pearlman: Perhaps Cervantes’ Quixote. I loved it so much in English that, in later years, I read it in Spanish as well. It is in the background of my short novel Black Flames (1997), with regard to the psyche of the main character, and more overtly in my choice of the Spanish Civil War as a major component of the storyline. It is even a more profound influence in my recently completed novel, Weeds in Franco’s Garden (145,000 words), which has yet to find a decent agent. Perhaps it was also Quixote that drove me to live in Spain for three years. I don’t know.

Jeff VanderMeer: What distinguishes first-rate satire and social commentary in fiction from the second-rate?

Daniel Pearlman: First-rate satire, which is rarely seen in our environment of so-called postmodern sensibility (an environment of social and moral relativities), is impossible for a writer without intense, passionate moral convictions—and I’m talking about convictions that have to do with justice as an ideal worthy of pursuing and impossible to disregard. Jonathan Swift had that, a devastating gift of poker-faced irony, and it enabled him to write his “Modest Proposal,” among other great works of satire.

Jeff VanderMeer: How have your studies of Ezra Pound impacted your fiction?

Daniel Pearlman: I’ve been outstandingly influenced by Swift and Cervantes, less consciously so by many other wonderful writers. Ezra Pound, my study of whose Cantos insured my academic reputation, has crept into my writings in little occasional bits, as in the title story of my new collection, but I don’t yet recognize any deeper influence. The angry moralist in him disturbs me. His intemperate mouthings attract innumerable crackpots. For twenty years I have by and large distanced myself from the circle of scholars and critics who write their endless books about him. As a literary innovator, he can rightly be called the father of Modernist poetry, but his influence on prose fiction has been negligible.

Jeff VanderMeer: Do you prefer to work on short stories or novels?

Daniel Pearlman: I love the long short story, the novella, and the novel. Although the novel affords me the greatest field for the deployment of my literary powers, whatever they may be, and although I think my best work is contained in my most recent novel that was three years in the making (WEEDS, mentioned above), I dread having to bring it to market, where I’ve had over the years almost entirely disappointing results. I’ve written five novels, and I’ve published only one—without benefit of agent. And before I was able to find the publisher for that one, I had to experience about ninety rejections. Agents—and I’ve had “good” ones (good for other clients)—have done me little good; wasted years of my time, rather; I’d just wind up sitting on their back burner, stewing. So, despite the temptation to focus on writing novels, the indifference of the publishing world has dampened my enthusiasm to engage much in that genre—at least, for the foreseeable future. The short story and novella, though still difficult for me to market, not only engage my enthusiasm, but an enthusiasm not millstoned by decades of disappointment.

Jeff VanderMeer: What are your observations about the future of books and publishing? And what changes have you seen occur over the last 20 years that you hate and that you love?

Daniel Pearlman: I’ve exposed my gripes about the publishing world in the CLF News, which you yourself helped me found because you had similar concerns about the marginalization of the Literature of the Fantastic. I think we are beginning to win the battle, which seemed nearly hopeless back in 1995, to get the attention of the mainstream press for fantastical works of imagination. I myself have published around half of my “fantastical” fiction in literary journals. I think that what is helping this transition is the realization that there is such a thing, and a very important thing, as Magical Realism written north of the Mexican border. Ironically, it is the genre press that is more close-minded than the mainstream press to the truly “literary” fantastic. I speak mainly here of the major SF/F/H magazines and book publishers. In a way, it is a shame to see the best fantastical work co-opted by the literary press.

The change I most love, of course, is the digital revolution and how it continues to challenge and revolutionize publishing practices. The Internet is creating many more opportunities for wonderful new voices to get heard, and to get heard right away, before they grow old and discouraged. I see print-on-demand as a key player in the subversion of the old system of publishing that has done little for the past thirty years beyond stifle original voices.

Jeff VanderMeer: What part of being a writer do you most dislike?

Daniel Pearlman: The need to give up so many others things I’d also like to be doing with my time. Also, the usually enormous temporal gap between the creation of a work and its actual (paper) publication—usually a matter of several years. I still much prefer paper to electronic publication.

Jeff VanderMeer: If you could be anything in the world other than a writer, what would you be?

Daniel Pearlman: A painter or a jazz pianist.

Jeff VanderMeer: What is your favorite word?

Daniel Pearlman: For the writer’s life? Persistence.

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Copyright © 2001 by Jeff VanderMeer.