Daniel Quinn grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and studied at St. Louis University, the University of Vienna, and Loyola University of Chicago. He worked in Chicago-area publishing for twenty years before beginning work on the book for which I’m best known, Ishmael. This book was chosen from among some 2500 international entrants to win the half-million dollar 1991 Turner Tomorrow competition for a novel offering “creative and positive solutions to global problems.” The novel has subsequently sold more than a million copies in English, is available in some thirty languages, and has been used in high schools and colleges worldwide in courses as varied as philosophy, geography, ecology, archaeology, history, biology, zoology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology. Subsequent works include Providence, The Story of B, My Ishmael: A Sequel, Beyond Civilization, After Dachau, The Holy, and most recently At Woomeroo, a collection of short stories.
Daniel Quinn’s fans have long been stalwart champions of his work, recommending “Ishmael,” My Ishmael, and “The Story of B” to anyone that would listen and pushing copies of his books into the hands of the unconverted. “Ishmael” won the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, an award created by CNN founder Ted Turner, and given only once, to Quinn’s book for offering positive solutions to global problems. Among the judges for the award were revered writers Nadine Gordimer, Wallace Stegner, Peter Matthiessen and William Styron. But with the publication of his first novel,“Dreamer,” Quinn produced a most unlikely work: an offbeat novel of psychological horror.
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. The author was delighted to comply. It turns out, that Quinn himself is a prolific dreamer — and an avid dreaming advisor.
1. Your biggest novel, Ishmael, is a serious, influential book that’s been a big seller
for twenty years, translated into dozens of languages, and the books that followed
were in the same mold. How does Dreamer fit into that history?
“I spent twelve years working on the book that ultimately became Ishmael. It was
spent producing one version after another, looking for the one that would do what I
wanted. It was a grueling experience, and when I finished the sixth version and
realized that I was still not there, I decided I needed a vacation. Writing Dreamer
was that vacation. It was an important one — one that taught me a lot. Without it,
I’m not sure I would have been ready for that telepathic gorilla named Ishmael
when I finally got to him in version eight.”
2. But I gather that Dreamer dropped right out of the Quinn portfolio.
Realistically speaking, Dreamer was never really IN my portfolio, having gone out
of print long before Ishmael appeared. Actually I was just as pleased that it had,
since “Daniel Quinn, author of Dreamer and Ishmael” would have made a queer
sort of identity. When it came to reissuing Dreamer, I was frankly not sure how my
readers would take to it, but the reactions I’ve had indicate that they’re completely
ready to accept it as part of my portfolio. One them wrote: “Dreamer is better than
any Stephen King or Dean Koontz I’ve ever read. It almost made me cry a dozen
times or more, not just because of the story, but because I realize the amazing
career you probably could have had as a genre novelist . . . were it not for that
800-pound gorilla in the room that consumed most of your writing career.”
3. Would you call Dreamer a horror novel?
“My agent at the time, Scott Meredith, said that Dreamer “hangs onto the horror
genre by its fingertips.” It’s horror that leans toward the psychological, a book that
shakes you up, that leaves you gaping. It did that even to me, when I read it again
after 25 years. There are no demons, no monsters, no scenes of terror and carnage
that’ll keep you awake at night. But it’ll baffle you. When you’re sure you’ve
figured it all out, everything turns upside down again and you don’t know where
you are. That’s the fun of it.”
4. Can you point to a book that readers may know and say, “Dreamer’s like this”?
That’s a tough one. I guess I might point at Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. If you’re a
fan of horror stories, you’re sure to know that one. It’s a great book, and I’d like to
think that Dreamer belongs in that league.
5. What can you tell me about the story of Dreamer that won’t ruin the book for
folks who haven’t read it?
It’s the story of Greg Donner, a charming but rather naive and trusting soul, a
freelance writer in Chicago. In a succession of dreams, he happens to come upon
and follow a beautiful young woman who seems to be in some sort of trouble.
Then Greg meets that very woman in waking life and quickly falls in love. But even
in waking life Ginny Winters seems deeply troubled and she warns him not to fall
in love with her but won’t explain why. She knows why, but he couldn’t possibly
understand or believe her until one night he falls asleep . . . and wakes up the next
morning in a locked room in a sanatorium a thousand miles away, where he’s told
that his whole life in Chicago was a delusion. This is only the beginning of the
nightmare he lives through in the weeks ahead, never sure what’s dream and
6. Many first novels tend to be autobiographical. Is that at all the case with
I’d have to say that Dreamer’s probably the only horror novel ever written that is
truly very autobiographical. At the outset of the story Greg is involved with Karen,
an attractive woman he likes, but she’s a great organizer and primarily wants to
organize him into a marriage that he doesn’t really want. Then he meets Ginny and
knows instantly that she’s the love of his life. Karen is disappeared from his life.
This exactly parallels my own life. The moment I met Rennie, my wife, I knew she
was the love of my life, and the woman I was with at the time was history. Almost
the first thing Ginny says to Greg is, ‘Don’t fall in love with me,’ and this was
almost the first thing Rennie said to me, word for word. In effect, finding out why
Ginny said this is what Dreamer is all about, and finding out why Rennie said it
was what the next two years were all about for the two of us. It wasn’t a horror
story, of course, but it was a period of emotional turmoil.
7. Are you at all tempted to go back to the horror genre now?
A few years ago I started a novel called Render that might well turn out to be a
horror novel if I ever figured out what to do with it, how to finish it. I made the
mistake of showing it to a fan who’s made a career out of collecting everything I’ve
ever published — things even I don’t have copies of. Every six months or so he
comes back at me with the question: “When are you going to finish Render?”
8. People are always interested in authors’ writing habits, writing life. What’s yours
When I have a book to write, I write like crazy, ten, twelve hours a day. When I
don’t have a book to write, I just go crazy. Some writers dash off a first draft and
then go back to edit, rewrite, and polish. I can’t do that. I’ve got to be completely
satisfied with every sentence I write before I start the next one. And some writers
start in the middle of a story or even the end of a story and then go back to create
the other parts. I have to have the whole thing laid out in my head before I write
the first sentence, and the first sentence I write is the first sentence of the book.
There is definitely no one way that works for every writer.
9. What are you working on now?
“That’s a reasonable question, though not one
that gives me any joy to answer. Writers of my kind — writers who write because
they have something to say — go on writing till they’ve said it all, then they stop.
Bang. How they deal with having nothing more to write I don’t know. Some are
probably okay with it, others commit suicide. I tend toward the latter type. Writers
of thrillers, romances, family sagas, or mystery novels are luckier, in their way.
They can go on till they drop dead at the keyboard. I’ve spent a lot of time in the
last thirty years working with aspiring writers, helping them see what they’re doing
that works and doesn’t work. One of these just recently published his first novel,
after several years of struggle. So I’ve got a book I tinker with called Finding Your
Direction as a Writer. The first two pages of it have a permanent resting place on
10. How can we visit your website?
That’s easy. Search Google on my name and the top link will be to my web site. Or
the site’s name is easy to remember – ishmael.org
ABOUT THE BOOK In Daniel Quinn’s Dreamer, things are looking great for Greg Donner, a Chicago freelance writer. He’s got a terrific project, and he’s met the woman of his dreams — literally, his dreams (though they’re rather odd ones). But then, one night, he falls asleep and awakes to the beginning of a nightmare he just can’t seem to wake up from.
Awake, Greg Donner falls in love with Ginny Winters, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past. Asleep, Greg dreams of pursuing Ginny through a strangely altered and deserted Chicago. Awake, Richard Iles is imprisoned in a sanatorium in Kentucky – trapped in a loveless marriage to Ginny Winters. Asleep, Richard Iles dreams he is Greg Donner. And when he next wakes, he IS Greg Donner.
Situated between conscious and unconscious, between dream, fantasy and reality, Quinn exposes the motivation and psychological development of Donner, and at the same time imparts a mysterious, sometimes even surrealistic atmosphere to his story. In the end, the question remains: Are these real events or is this a story of Donner’s dreams and an inquiry into the human mind including our underlying impulses, desires, and fears?