THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS
Gordon Dahlquist has written and directed numerous plays and experimental films in Los Angeles and New York. In this interview, he discusses what drove him to write his debut work of fiction, THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS, and how this experience differed greatly from his film and theater work. Dahlquist also expounds on the mysterious objects for which his novel was named, shares his literary influences, and describes how much --- or how little --- research was involved in the preparation of this book.
Q: Your novel is fascinating in both its premise and scope. What was your intent in writing it?
Gordon Dahlquist: My first intent with the book was to write something that I myself would consider a kick in the pants. When people ask me to describe THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS, it's very easy to fall back on genre labels that clearly connote certain feelings --- thriller, science fiction, romance, mystery, etc., and it's true there are elements of all of them in the book. But I really don't think it's any of those things, or not any one apart from all of the others. We live in a world where science fiction and romance and mystery overlap in our newspapers and our lives on a daily basis, so I think people know what that experience feels like pretty intimately --- which is again perhaps to describe the book as a kind of realism. I enjoy complicated and immersive stories, and if I don't really know dirigibles and blue glass books and machines that suck out your memories, I certainly do know computers and bullet trains and digital podcasts from Kyoto --- and they strike me as every bit as fantastic and strange. And if it seems like a glass book is somehow a better way to talk about something like a computer --- or the space a computer takes up in our dreams and our fears --- then that says something interesting to me about the impulse to make up and tell stories about something else as a way to understand our lives. It was certainly the impulse that drove me for a year on subways and in coffee shops.
Q: On the day you finished this story, what went through your mind?
GD: First, probably relief, both to finish such a complicated story in a way I was pleased with, but second a certain sort of wonder that I think most writers feel upon looking back over what they've come up with --- because of course it's full of all sorts of elements, big and small, that you never could have imagined beforehand, that have risen up out of the immediate circumstances of writing. Also, as a playwright --- plays taking a good deal less time to write --- I'd never spent so long in the company of my characters, and so I felt like I knew these that much better, and so I was also a bit sad to let them go.
Q: Did one of your characters emerge as a favorite? Or did you find yourself surprised by how one or several of them developed?
GD: My favorite of the three is probably Miss Temple, simply because, since she's younger, there's more of her character still up in the air. With all of them, though, I'm interested in how darker character elements (in her case, a fairly unexamined relationship to privilege and to slavery, with Chang a savage amorality, with the Doctor a crippling hesitancy), can co-exist within a character we nevertheless recognize as a heroine --- and of course the more deeply we know such a person, the more dynamic those unresolved elements become, and the more poignant.
Q: Your experience as a playwright must have influenced how you created the action of your novels. Can you give examples of how your stage experience complemented or challenged your novel's creation?
GD: Writing for the theatre is always about a specific room, or a specific sense of place (all the more when often the details of that space --- what it means --- is often defined by spoken dialogue alone). Since I made a point of not knowing too much about what was going to happen as I wrote THE GLASS BOOKS, the solutions the characters came up with to deal with their predicaments had to arise from the physical facts of where they found themselves: how big is the room, where are the doors, who's standing where, how dark is it, etc. Because of this, I think the action scenes have a certain organic flow to them, and that however incredible the circumstances what happens remains credible in human terms because we have a sense of a person at the heart of it making decisions.
The other way of course is a habit of telling a story through dialogue, and so THE GLASS BOOKS contains a fair amount of talking ...
Q: How did you plot the locations for this novel? Did you map out the city? Draw diagrams of the Manor? Visit a dirigible?
GD: All of these, especially the city itself, were made up entirely as I went along. As the novel itself was written without any free-standing outline, the locations evolved as the action required --- neighborhoods in the city being fleshed out as the characters needed to pass through, the various wings and floors in Harschmort House filled in as the action expanded through them. The dirigible is based on later airships, giving the cabal the benefit of the doubt in allowing them to be a bit ahead of their time. I knew I didn't want the city to be any one place --- explicitly London, or Paris, or Amsterdam --- so I particularly enjoyed making up place names. I think the only real bit of research I did for the book was to find out when the mango made it to the New World (16th century in Brazil, as it happens), to see whether Miss Temple might have eaten them as a child in the Caribbean.
Q: The concept of the Glass Books is a seductive one: a keepsake place for vivid memories that can be experienced again and again. What prompted this? At what point in your creative process did you determine that the Glass Books needed to be in your title?
GD: A lot of the thinking behind the glass books themselves simply comes from thinking about computers, and specifically thinking about them as things that have profoundly changed how we see ourselves, how we communicate, our basic notions of society and social interaction, even how we think to begin with. This happens in various degrees throughout history with new technology, of course, but in our time many of the crucial questions revolve more explicitly around how the intimate experience of others is that much more available to us --- and so quickly! --- as ours is served up to others. Not that this is news, but in the same way how we write was changed by the arrival of word processors (without people at that time being quite aware of what that meant), I think communication technology is changing so fast that our basic social assumptions are being constantly nudged without our realizing it.
I think "The Glass Books" was in the title from the point in the second chapter where Chang stumbles onto a book's construction. In fact, I might have had that part of the title before I even knew what he was going to find in the room --- certainly I had the notion of a glass book before at all knowing how they functioned, or what they even were.
Q: What specific books, or types of books, inspire you?
GD: I am inspired pretty equally by "classic literature" and by genre fiction, and then a few things --- William S. Burroughs, for instance --- that fall somewhere in between. I am a great admirer of Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Austen, and Sterne --- writers who take a real pleasure in language --- but also of William Gibson, Ross McDonald, George Macdonald Fraser, Neal Stephenson, Roger Zelazny, and Neil Gaiman (and reading Fraser constitutes a good portion of my "research" for THE GLASS BOOKS). But my biggest influences as a writer are probably playwrights --- more than anyone Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, and actually Shakespeare, but also William Congreve and Euripides, which is to say, writers whose works are incredibly daunting when you're trying to make work of your own.
Q: Will there be a sequel to THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS?
GD: It is being written at the moment, and presently lacks a title. The action picks up perhaps a week after THE GLASS BOOKS ends.
Q: Can you envision this as a movie? If so, do you already have a dream cast or casts?
GD: I can certainly imagine it as a movie, though to make a feature film one would probably have to cut two-thirds of the plot, which I --- no doubt like scores of writers before me --- find a little depressing. But the book is certainly full of visual set pieces crying out to be staged, and it would be a blast to see actors sink their teeth into such juicy roles. As for dream casts, it's hard to say --- the parts begin to change as you imagine different people in a role, which is part of the fun.
Q: You are a writer: a playwright and an author. If you'd chosen another career path, what would it have been?
GD: Painting fascinates me, and I have several friends who are visual artists. It's an entirely different way of thinking and seeing, but if I was not a writer, that is very much what I'd want to do.
*GW Dahlquist is a notorious millionaire, recluse and inventor.
A Very Unlikely Project
By Gordon Dahlquist
Since the courts in Manhattan are near Chinatown, I like jury duty, as it means a few days of excellent lunches, stalking the perfect dumpling. In January 2004, I was "lucky" enough to be selected for a three-week trial (at the very same time Martha Stewart went to trial in the next building over – we all had to walk past the 15 media vans to get to our courthouse), but New York was hit with a ferocious, sub-zero ice storm that went on for days, which made it impossible to wander in the way I had hoped. So we jurors were marooned for close to four hours each day in the jury room – it all promised to be grim. But the second night of the trial I had a strange dream, where a friend of mine appeared in the exact garb of one of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters' three main characters, Doctor Svenson, and together we faced a mystery in a strange, dark, Victorian building – kidnappings, incantations, and a creepy upstairs room without a door. While I very rarely remember my dreams, the next morning I found this one percolating in my head quite vividly. But then, for no reason I can recall, I took out a notebook, and two strange things happened. First, I began to write a story in prose, instead of a play. And second, I began writing about – instead of the doctor, who I would get to almost off-handedly in another 100 pages or so – a willful young woman from the West Indies whose fiancé has abandoned her without explanation, making it up as I went along. By the end of the trial I had the first chapter, and I was hooked.
I am by trade a playwright, and had not written prose fiction of any kind for nearly 20 years. Instead, I've written 15 plays, most of which have been produced in theatres few people outside of downtown New York or hipster Los Angeles have heard of – which is only to say, as a writer, I'm shaped by the specific discipline of writing for the theatre. But I found myself captured by the story and the characters of what became "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" – perhaps out of my own desire to know what happened next – and so persisted with what to both me and most of my friends seemed like a very unlikely project, putting aside everything else, writing for the most part in coffee shops and on the subway, until I finished the book almost exactly one year later.
And writing the novel was very different – it took over my head for a much longer period of time than a play, had 10 times as many characters, and a setting where absolutely anything could happen at just about any time. With a play, because the story is told through dialogue, and people talk in certain ways, it's usually clear what words to use – it's determined by voice. With prose, my goodness, why use any given word over another to describe a room? Or how much of the room should be described? What limits are there, really? Of course, there are any number of sensible ways to proceed, but as a world to be made it is almost inexpressibly more open-ended.
In other ways, a theatre mindset seemed useful. Like my plays, the book was deliberately written without working out any of the story in advance, without an outline, all 300,000 words' worth. Part of this was simply a way to keep the writing as fresh as possible for me, so that every morning was a question of "What's next?" Similarly, the locations evolved as the action required – the never-named city being fleshed out district by district, just as the various wings and floors in Harschmort House were filled in as the action expanded through them. I knew I didn't want the city to be any one place – explicitly London, or Paris, or Amsterdam – so I particularly enjoyed making up place-names (and in this sense at least, because so many of these names veer toward the Dutch, "The Glass Books" is a book by a New Yorker). I think the only real bit of research I did for the book was to find out when the mango made it to the New World (16th century in Brazil, as it happens), to see whether Miss Temple might have eaten them as a child in the Caribbean.
But the most important influence that my being a playwright had on the book was simply how writing for the theatre is always about a specific room, or a specific sense of three-dimensional place. "The Glass Books" is a story of adventure, and since I made a point of not knowing too much about what was going to happen as I wrote, the solutions the characters came up with to deal with their predicaments had to arise from the physical facts of where they found themselves (how big is the room, where are the doors, who's standing where, how dark is it, etc.), from whatever might be possible, as opposed to from what I already decided. Because of this, I think the action scenes have a certain organic flow to them, and what happens remains credible in human terms, since we have a sense of a person at the heart of things making decisions – and hopefully this, in turn, makes even the strangest parts of the action seem, in a vital sense, realistic.
But more than anything, my first intent with the book was to write something that I myself would consider a kick in the pants. When people ask me to describe "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters," it's very easy to fall back on genre labels that clearly connote certain feelings – thriller, science fiction, romance, mystery, etc. – and it's true there are elements of all of them in the book. But I really don't think it's any of those things, or not any one apart from all of the others. We live in a world where science fiction and romance and mystery overlap in our newspapers and our lives on a daily basis, so I think people know what that experience feels like pretty intimately – which is again perhaps to describe the book as a kind of realism. I enjoy complicated and immersive stories, and if I don't really know dirigibles and blue glass books and machines that suck up your memories, I certainly do know computers and bullet trains and digital podcasts from Kyoto – and they strike me as every bit as fantastic and strange. And if it seems like a glass book is somehow a better way to talk about something like a computer – or the space a computer takes up in our dreams and our fears – then that says something interesting to me about the impulse to make up and tell stories about something else as a way to understand our lives. It was certainly the impulse that drove me for a year on subways and in coffee shops.
Q: Describe your latest project.
Dahlquist: "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" is my first novel, begun while I was on jury duty in the midst of ice storm, after a particularly strange dream the night before. The book takes place in an unnamed city in 19th-century Europe, and begins with a young heiress from the West Indies who decides to follow the fiancé who has jilted her as a way of understanding why. Very quickly, she stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy using a new invention – a sort of psychotropic blue glass – able to capture a person's memories and then allow anyone else to experience them in every bodily particular. Falling in league with a mercenary criminal and a foreign spy – both targeted in their way by the wicked cabal – the heiress finds herself facing both deadly peril and heartbreaking challenge, where very few people – especially, perhaps, oneself – are truly what they seem. The book is very much an epic adventure, with elements of romance, mystery, and even a stripe of Victorian science-fiction. As someone who loves these sorts of stories, I take all of this fairly seriously, but that only means that my main intention was to write a novel that I myself would consider a kick in the pants.
I am a playwright, originally from the Pacific Northwest, who has lived in New York since 1988. As a writer, I am very interested in what stories we choose to tell and in the ways we choose to tell them. I am especially interested in genre stories, because these are ones we tell to ourselves again and again, without necessarily asking ourselves why.
Q: If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Dahlquist: I don't have a subtitle, but a good title would be "The Punishment Element, Perhaps," which is a quote from "A Clockwork Orange," spoken by a doctor when they realize that the aversion therapy is desensitizing the main character against classical music as well as violence. For me it's a lovely moment pointing out how many unintended consequences arise out of human intentions, and also how we tend to do our best to rationalize and moralize what we realize too late that we can't control. It's as good a distillation as any for what I try to write about – and am no doubt as subject to as anyone else....
Q: Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Dahlquist: Since Philip K. Dick is getting so much deserved publicity of late, I'll instead suggest Robert Coover, a writer I've loved since reading "The Public Burning," an intensely imaginative novel about the Rosenberg executions that features a very persuasively captured Vice President Nixon as a narrator. But my favorite book by Coover – who's amazingly creative, caustic, wicked, and luscious in his wordplay – is probably "Gerald's Party," a really amazing novel about an enormous party that goes very, very out of control. The book is fantastic and sprawling, hilarious and sexy, and entirely too prophetic about the state of America right now.
Q: How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Dahlquist: I was recently given "Mansfield Park" by a friend, who considers it one of her favorite books, precisely because it makes such an odd fit with the rest of Jane Austen's books. Though it's very funny and romantic, it also seems like a book where a brilliant writer is really pushing herself around, trying new things and breaking her own perfectly excellent rules just to see what's going to happen.
Q: What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
Dahlquist: I'm a Taurus – and since I am a Taurus, I think it goes without saying that I'm perfectly happy with it and can't imagine wanting to be anything else, no matter how dull, stubborn, plodding, determined, or just "reliable" being a Taurus might turn out to be.
Q: What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
Dahlquist: I fence every week in the park with three friends – "slop fencing" – where we throw out the fineries of Olympic fencing and use a wide variety of heavier, longer, or broken weapons, often several in combination, with tripping, pushing, grappling, and ganging-up allowed and encouraged. It's an enormous amount of fun, regular bruising aside.
Q: Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Dahlquist: More than anyone would be Diego Velásquez, the great Spanish painter, who I find remarkable both for his astonishing paintings – as free with his brush as a 17th-century Impressionist – as that he spent nearly all of his career as a court painter to the same king, that he was able to document the most powerful man in the world with such bitter truth and profound compassion. I'm also a big admirer of Francis Bacon, who dealt I think with many similar questions in terms of composition, and who has spoken very eloquently about the elaborate lengths artists travel to provoke spontaneity, to spark the unconscious and the instinctive. I find Velásquez and Bacon equally elegant and raw, and it's a mixture I look for in my own work.
Gordon Dahlquist '83 has lately been the talk of the town, at least in literary circles, for landing a $2 million advance as a first-time novelist. The deal with New York-based Bantam House is for two books; the first, "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters", came out in August. The novel, set in a vaguely Victorian European city, weighs in at 760 pages, which led Publishers Weekly to run with the headline "Playwright Kills Trees – Makes $2 million."
Dahlquist, who has been a working playwright and director in New York since 1988, spoke with editor Mitchell Hartman.
Q: Your first novel, "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" seems to fit into a popular genre – Victorian fantasy novels – along with Susanna Clark's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Was that your aim?
Dahlquist: The book is historical – it's a big, fake historical story. It leans toward London, but it's not London, all the place names are kind of Dutch or pseudo-Dutch, an homage to New York, and it's not any particular time, probably the 1850s, pre-Civil War.
It's a contemporary novel, and there's no claim to be historically accurate, that's not what I care about. You look in your newspaper and see things that might as well be sci-fi, or historical, and accept them all. It's a modern novel in that it doesn't accept genre distinctions. I think there's a big stripe of Jules Verne or maybe H.G. Wells in it. The way the blue glass and the glass books work in the novel is a way to talk about a piece of technology that records or encapsulates identity and experience. If the book has any theme, it's how people deal with encapsulating experience. As much as it's a novel of entertainment, it's a novel of second-year humanities.
Q: You've said the idea for the book came from a dream you had in 2004 while doing jury duty in Manhattan, and that you wrote the first 20,000 words in longhand over three weeks. What was the rest of the writing process like?
Dahlquist: I'm a playwright, and this [novel] came up by accident. In a play, the dialog flows – one thing to another to another – and you don't know what they're going to be talking about in minute 10. I don't think literally planning it out is a good idea when it comes to playwriting.
I didn't know how long the novel was going to be. I had no idea what was going to happen. A murder happens in the last 50 pages and I didn't know who did it – it could have been any number of people. I never knew who and what was important. It's one way in which being a playwright really helped the novel.
Q: What do you read for pleasure?
Dahlquist: There's a split between "serious" fiction and genre fiction, and I read very little serious fiction because I find it narrow and not as imaginative as I like. I like novels that mix it up more. Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon", about Alan Turing and the invention of the computer and code-breaking, treats all of the characters as if they were in a science fiction novel. I would rather read that than read about author Jonathan Franzen and his family. As well-written and sensitive as it is, I don't care about his family.
Q: It's pretty extraordinary for a first-time author to get a $2 million, two-book deal. Did you have an inside track to publishers?
Dahlquist: I know someone who is an audiobook editor, and I sent it to her in March 2005, a couple of weeks after I finished it. She got to it on July 4. Her boss read it and liked it, and a few weeks later hooked me up with an agent. But the deal didn't happen. The editor liked it, but the publisher said, "it's got all these different genres, how will we market it?"
Then my agent contracted with another agent, put together a book auction, sent it to 15 major houses. It was really lovely having a bidding war, and by the middle of September I had a deal. It never happens, ever – it's incredible. It's just a crazy thing and I'm incredibly fortunate.
Q: Before this $2 million advance, you were working in electronic publishing at Columbia University. Do you ever have to work again?
Dahlquist: Well, I have to work on the next book. And I live in New York. It's not enough to buy New York real estate. If I play my cards right and live fairly modestly, I don't need to go back to Columbia.
Q: "Publishers Weekly" wrote that "Glass Books" is "a mishmash of Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre and 'Eyes Wide Shut' that never quite comes together." "Washington Post Book World" called it "a wordy brick that's epic in length if not in scale." What do you make of those reviews?
Dahlquist: People can think whatever they want about the book, that's their right and their privilege. Reviews from within the publishing world have been really snipey – the reviewers are almost all novelists. Reviews from out-of-town have been really positive.
It's a genre novel, and the idea of a big fat story getting all this attention gets all sorts of people burned – "Why does this thing with a dirigible and sword fighting get all this money?" No one reads Pullman, Tolkein, or "The Three Musketeers", and says, "Damn, they're so long." It's not short, it's got luscious, sumptuous detail, it's a big exotic layer cake of a book, and if you don't like that, that's fine, but that's what it is.
Q: You studied theatre at Reed with professor Craig Clinton, then got into the Portland theatre scene. How did your time at Reed influence you?
Dahlquist: It was utterly formative. In my year we had nine theater majors and it was an incredibly vital place to be. Craig was the hub of all of that. He's incredibly good with a huge variety of people. They're Reedies, doing everything off the wall, and they're theatre majors so they're even more so – and he ran herd on us.
Reed is the formative intellectual experience of my life. Grad school at Columbia was nothing compared to that. How the way you make a story affects its quality, and the way you have a conversation about a topic affects your understanding of a topic – conference teaches you how to think and talk. It's a fundamentally theatrical thing, a scene of thinking and talking.
Gordon Dahlquist was serving on a Manhattan jury in 2004. It was a three-week federal trial involving a crack cocaine ring, and there were lots of procedural delays. Dahlquist was stuck in the jury room with nothing to do.
On the second night of the trial, he had a strange dream – something about a friend and a blond man with a monocle, in a vaguely Victorian setting. Dahlquist usually doesn't remember his dreams, but he remembered this one. He pulled out his notebook – he's an "experimental downtown playwright, which means I have a full-time job doing something else" – during the trial and started writing a version of the dream, changing the characters but keeping the Victorian setting and mystery angle.
By the end of the trial, Dahlquist had written 20,000 words and knew his manuscript wasn't a play. He kept writing, using some of the techniques he learned as a playwright who grew up going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and writing and directing plays in Portland after graduating from Reed College. He'd write himself into a hole and write himself back out, combining elements of fantasy, suspense and action/adventure and letting his love of language loose in every direction.
A year later, Dahlquist had a huge book that he gave to his only friend in publishing, an audio-book editor, to read. She didn't get to it for a couple of months but loved it when she did start reading. He got an agent, one thing led to another, and by the middle of last September Dahlquist had a $2 million, two-book deal with Bantam for "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters."
Publishers Weekly reported the news with the headline "Playwright kills trees – makes $2 million," a reference to the 1,300-page manuscript Dahlquist turned in. In town last week after two days of negotiating a movie sale in Hollywood (plenty of interest, but no deal yet), Dahlquist is enjoying what he calls "a pretty whirlwind ride."
The ride started in the Northwest. Dahlquist's father was in the military, but the family had roots in Portland and came home between tours. Dahlquist went to high school in the Tacoma area, when his father was stationed at Fort Lewis, and went to Reed as a literature and theater major, writing and directing plays under the supervision of Craig Clinton. After graduating from Reed in 1983, Dahlquist worked at the Multnomah County Central Library, shelving books and developing his skills as a playwright. He did plays at the Sumus, the Echo and the Oracle theaters and directed plays by Robert Wilson at the Storefront.
"I totally loved Reed, and I loved the theater scene here," Dahlquist said. "It was an odd amalgam of more mainstream theater and experimental."
Dahlquist has lived in New York since 1988 and worked in electronic publishing at Columbia University, where he went to graduate school. He's written dozens of plays, including "Messalina," "Delirium Palace" and "The Secret Machine" and said the discipline he learned as a playwright helped with "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters."