Originally written for The Dusty Shelf back in 2005, I am refreshing this interview with Pamela Dean. If you haven’t read her work, you should. I highly recommend her book Tam Lin for all the fairy tale lovers, Classics lovers, Shakespeare lovers, and…I recommend that book to anyone. I also recommend The Dubious Hills for those who believe in magic.
Interview with Pamela Dean
At the time of publishing, Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy, mentioned in the article below, had not yet been rereleased. However, the trilogy is now widely available.
Everyone has favorite authors. Among mine, high up at the top of the list, is Pamela Dean. I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Ms. Dean for The Dusty Shelf. The text follows: TDS: I discovered your work in the form of Tam Lin, during my sophomore year in college. You were the first author I had read who used credited threads from other authors to weave out your story. You used Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Spenser, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and a host of others in a way that made their original works seem even more magical than before. I next read your book The Dubious Hills and was amazed at how you had used classic literature as mythological mortar between the bricks of the story and plot. In Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary you continued with a device employed in Tam Lin, using music apropos to the story’s timeline to help deliver the characters. You also brought in a great deal of scientific information, reminding me in no small way of another favorite author, Madeleine L’Engle.
PD: L’Engle is definitely a great influence on me. When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, which was pressed upon me in the sixth grade because it had won the Newbery Award, I was wildly excited, and believed that all winners of the Newbery Award would be like this book. I was desperately disappointed to find out that they were not. I was, if anything, even more desperately disappointed, though I got over it to some extent, to discover than not even the rest of L’Engle’s books were like that book.
TDS: How did you come upon this style of writing?
PD: To a considerable extent, it’s just the way my head works. My memory is not quite as good as it used to be, and I have somewhat more confidence in my ability to make things up and use language well, but as a child, a teenager, and a young adult, I had a head stuffed full of quotations, and when I wanted to write something, usually a quotation would come into it someplace. Sometimes they just had to come out even if I wasn’t writing. I charmed my high-school chemistry teacher by appending quotations to the ends of my tests.
Reading Victorian literature, whether it was Alcott or Bronte or Eliot or Dickens, to a considerable extent reinforced my belief that this was how one wrote. Lewis Carroll provided a skewed example of the same thing. Then I hit, as I said, A Wrinkle in Time, where Mrs. Who can talk ONLY in quotations. Not so terribly long afterwards, I read E.R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian trilogy, which is also full of quotations. I was weirdly charmed, possibly in much the same way as my chemistry teacher was with me, to discover that the denizens of Mercury quoted Elizabethan songwriters. So I knew it was all right to do this kind of thing even if one lived in the 20th century.
TDS: Do you work to fit classical references into your text, or is the text built around them?
PD: Ummm, neither? Both? It would be work to keep them out, really.
Once I’ve fallen in with a character, like Dominic [the antagonist from Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary], or a set of entities, like the unicorns in the Secret Country books, that speaks largely in quotations, I do sometimes have recourse to Bartlett’s, or to paging through my favorites, in search of something that fits.
As I said, my memory is not as good as it used to be. I also try hard to put more modern things in where I can, though in that case one has to worry about getting permission to quote, which can put a damper on the entire matter. The original version of The Dubious Hills had a fine selection of quotations from William Butler Yeats, but I had to take them out at the eleventh hour when I discovered that, at least at that time, Yeats’ work was in the public domain everywhere EXCEPT IN THE U.S. But I digress.
TDS: It is obvious in your work that you are a student of literature and science. Many people see no relation between the two. What do you see as the greatest partnership between the art of writing and the art of science?
PD: Possibly I don’t understand the question. If I do, my immediate off-the-top-of-my-head answer is “John M. Ford’s short story ‘Erase — Record — Play,” but then I think, “No, it’s really his story ‘Heat of Fusion’ and then I think, “No, no, it’s his novel Growing Up Weightless and then I think, “No, no, no, it’s his poem ‘Cosmology: A User’s Manual.'” Once I manage to get my mind off Ford, I wonder if I should think of scientific writing, and am tempted to nominate Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and then I think really it ought to be Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, for reasons that readers of Tam Lin will know. Then I think of all the science writing I haven’t read, I think confusedly of Stephen Jay Gould and the author of Lives of a Cell (I told you my memory was bad), and then start thinking of science-fiction writers from Simak to Bujold to Nagata to oh, look, Ford again; and come to a complete halt, persuaded that I am unread as well as forgetful.
I don’t think I’m qualified to have an opinion. Lem! Milton! Dante!
You know what, if I could just start over and then stop right away, I’d probably say, Burnham’s Celestial Dictionary.
No, wait, wait –
TDS: You create amazing new worlds in your works and illuminate the real world with magical language. In The Dubious Hills and in your Secret Country series, the worlds your characters inhabit are almost characters themselves. How do you go about building these other places?
PD: Well, in the case of the Secret Country books specifically, I didn’t do anything. The characters did it. This was a device to sneak past my feelings of inadequacy as a new writer. I knew I could manage good characterization, but world-building was very daunting to me. It didn’t daunt the characters at all.
TDS: I wonder, especially in The Dubious Hills, how were you inspired to write a place where society was so structured that each person had an exact place and nothing more?
PD: What you said above about magical language is completely true of the genesis of that novel. That is, I was simply noodling about in my head one day about what “The Dubious Hills” might mean, what kind of a country it might be. The next level up for the idea of that society came when I was invited to write a short story set in the world of the Secret Country books, for an anthology that never actually got sold to a publisher. I don’t do very well with short stories; if they are not to become novels, they need a lot of constraints. My original idea was for an almost allegorical fairy-tale-like narrative, much more indebted to Plato than even the eventual novel is. I abandoned the story when the anthology didn’t sell, and later on it came back and demanded to be a novel.
TDS: Continuing on with The Dubious Hills, you bring up interesting questions in this work about how knowledge affects life. Works of classic literature bring knowledge, offer insight, and force mental activity. How important do you think it is to teach the classics in primary and secondary education?
PD: I am so not qualified to answer a question like that. I know nothing of education. I would like to remark, though, that the canon of Western literature is limited and sometimes practically throttled by extreme cultural bias, and that some of its members are there because they are teachable rather than because they are appealing, and that none of them appeal to everybody. I don’t think, in any case, that I myself was taught any classic literature in primary school. I was also horrified beyond belief when my cherished and adored Ray Bradbury had three stories included in a reader for 8th graders, and was subject to the same (to my mind, at the time) reductive and idiotic questions as the more boring other stories in the book. I felt right up until I took A.P. English in 12th grade that my school reading and my real reading were completely disjunct [sic], and I resented mightily any encroachment of the one upon the other.
What converted me to the belief that it was possible to read meaningfully in an academic context was a particular teacher, the A.P. English teacher, and not any specific works.
I think children, and anybody, ought to have the chance to read widely and indiscriminately and without a lot of prissy reductive adult yammering about their choices, and to have easy access to someone who is able to put the reading in context and to answer questions. I really can’t go further than that.
TDS: If you were asked to set the reading curriculum for a senior in high school, which three works would make up your core of studies?
PD: If I were asked to do anything of the sort, I’d decline fervently.
If I were landed with the responsibility for a particular senior in high school and could not escape, which works I considered to be part of the core would depend on the student.
TDS: That’s fair! Do you have five works you think everyone should read before leaving school and why?
PD: I don’t. Some people ought to read Homer at age eleven and some people are ready at thirty, and some probably not till fifty. I can say what works it was good for me to have read by then, but I really don’t feel that my experience is very generalizable [sic], and I certainly wouldn’t dictate to any school. Literature is too individual and skittish.
I could answer the question about scientific works with much more confidence, though I’d have to do some research first. Anyway, some works that benefited me:
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (yes, I’m cheating; in my head they were all one book, since they were in the same volume)
Homer, The Iliad
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
Some more works that are not generally considered classic that also benefited me:
Harlan Ellison, Paingod and Other Delusions
Robert A. Heinlein, The Door into Summer
G.K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet
Every single available work of Louisa May Alcott, however cloying.
The first Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
I could go on and on listing stuff and still think of more books tomorrow.
TDS: You have reprints of your Secret Country series in the works, and I encourage all fantasy lovers to pick up this trilogy, especially those with children. When someone reads your work, what do you want them to take away from it?
PD: Thank you for the plug.
As for the rest, I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but the only honest answer to that question is to begin reciting the text of the book and keep on until threatened, or until I get to the end.
Once I’ve heard from readers what they have taken away, I know whether I think it’s a good idea for them to do that or not, but I can’t really do a list. I can give some examples. With Tam Lin, it always pleases me if people say they have gone off and looked up the stuff quoted; if they like the interlocking references to Hamlet, if they saw the early indications of the ballad plot, if they are reminded either of an actual college experience or of one they wish they’d had. I’m pleased if they think certain of the romantic relationships are pleasing or realistic or better than the usual clichéd stuff. I’m not pleased when people think Janet [the heroine of Tam Lin] always speaks for the author or that the author intends to endorse all of her behavior as wonderful. I’m not pleased if they think the book demonstrates that Roe vs. Wade was a bad idea. I’m not pleased if they think I’m personally recommending every piece of literature referenced and if they then get mad when they don’t like some of it. I’m pleased if they think certain things are funny and displeased if they think I haven’t noticed that these things are funny.
The afterword to the book expresses as best I can what I wanted readers to take away, but my best is not very good.
With the Secret Country books, I actually suffered from an immense overweening ambition. I had in my childhood had access to certain well-beloved books only through the public library, and had lost track of them. When I was a senior in college I went to London for ten weeks and happened upon a children’s bookstore in a boat, in Greenwich. There in little Puffin editions were many of my lost loves. I bought them and read them and was desolated. They were so short, so obvious, so unnuanced. (Lots of writers have described experiences like this one, though their reactions vary a great deal.)
I decided I wanted to write a book that would have the flavor I liked in those books, the fantastical setting, the mystery, the humor, and the huge sense of gigantic forces moving in the background, only imperfectly sensed by the characters, the reader, and maybe even the author. I also wanted it to have that quality that C.S. Lewis calls “joy.” He describes this quality perfectly in his autobiography. He thinks it’s connected to the human yearning for and partial recognition of God. I’m an atheist, but I recognize the numinous just the same.
In any case, I wanted the book I planned to write to have that flavor for ten-year-olds AND for thirty-year-olds AND for 90-year-olds. I wanted that flavor to remain through endless rereadings. I wanted to write the most rereadable book imaginable.
I still do, with every one. That’s really the only answer that doesn’t take reciting the book in toto. I want people to want to come back, because they aren’t finished yet, and the book isn’t finished with them.
TDS: Tam Lin is the retelling of a Scottish ballad set on the landscape of the Vietnam Era United States. The Dubious Hills is a look at a world where every person is pigeon-holed into a specific, predestined role and where knowledge is a dangerous, frightening thing. Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary ambles through the difference between good and evil as both affect time, energy and mental state. Each of your books asks a serious question or lays out a very real philosophical interest. Do you purposefully set out to explore a specific theme, then build your work around that, or do you have an idea of the type of world/character you want to write and then find the theme exploring those?
PD: The only time I ever set out to explore a specific theme, almost nobody understood that I was trying to explore it. I hope I’ve learned my lesson.
Mostly I begin with characters and with dialogue between them. I don’t begin with characters in a situation or characters with a problem. Just people, talking. That’s how I find out what is happening. I eavesdrop. Sometimes I also have another idea.
As I said earlier, The Dubious Hills started out as idle noodling about a name I’d given to a country without thinking about it much. Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary revived a story I had tried to write about fifteen times, beginning in high school, the story of the time machine in the attic. It’s also based on a ballad, but if the ballad hadn’t brought up to my mind, suddenly, the dim dusty recollection of the time machine, I wouldn’t have wanted to base a story on it.
Tam Lin is based on a ballad too, but if I hadn’t felt the resemblance between some of the ballad’s preoccupations and some of the preoccupations I’d had in college, it wouldn’t have make a spark either.
TDS: Which characters of classic literature would you most like to entertain for an evening? Which of your own characters’ company would you prefer?
PD: I never can answer that kind of question. It’s like breaking the fourth wall. It makes me feel like some of the more alarming moments in the Alice books, when everything goes haywire. The nice thing about reading, really, is that one can be present without worrying about whether one’s social skills are really up to the task. And furthermore, one can truly enjoy people who would be terribly annoying if they had one at their mercy, or if one felt the obligation to speak up about their nonsense.
The only characters I can think of offhand whom I’d actually like to entertain are from Emma Bull’s Bone Dance. I’d adore to have Sparrow, Sherrea, and Frances over to tea. But you know, in the most important sense, since I know Emma, I’ve already done that.
That was for the first question, about entertaining other people’s characters. As for my own, that’s even more hair-tearing. I really can’t imagine them in the real world. No, that’s not accurate. They are real enough. I cannot imagine them in this world, in the outside world.
I’m sorry to be such a wimp.
TDS: I know you are working on a new book. Can you say what themes you’ll be exploring or how classic literature might figure in to this one?
PD:For my sins, I’m writing a joint sequel to The Dubious Hills and The Whim of the Dragon. So you know that classic literature will be present all cut out in little stars for spells, and embedded in everyday speech like raisins in bread. The book takes place largely at Heathwill Library, which is certainly full of books, but I don’t know yet which ones. The themes I mean to explore, which doesn’t actually say much about what the real book will do, include friendship, first love, sexual tension, the obligations of the imagination (this is a given in any Secret Country book), loyalty, the catastrophic effect of new knowledge, unintended consequences, and gender roles.
TDS: This issue of The Dusty Shelf is looking at censorship and the banning of books in libraries and public schools. Where do you stand on that issue? Should a book like Tom Sawyer be banned while books like the Goosebumps series are readily available?
PD: A book like Tom Sawyer shouldn’t be banned whether the Goosebumps books are available or not. I’m against banning books. I think that the harm done when people stumble up against books they aren’t ready for yet is less than the harm done by depriving people of books that could do them good.
The Goosebumps books have probably done at least one reader far more good than Tom Sawyer ever could. I see no point in anything except wild variety and a willingness on the part of parents and educators to cope with the consequences.
TDS: And finally, you have successfully published several well written, thought provoking books which will stand the test of time.
PD: I sincerely hope you are right about that.
TDS: Well, I think they will! Which part of your work’s journey to the bookshelf has been your favorite and what part of the writing process do you find the most fulfilling?
PD: Except for being stuck on some bit or other and glaring at the keyboard for days and days, almost any part is my favorite while I’m doing it.
Right now I’m really enjoying having finally got a grip on the voice and momentum of a book but still being in the comparatively early stages.
Being in the middle is very cozy and exciting at the same time; running up to the end is like a huge rollercoaster ride with fireworks. Revision is extremely satisfying when it’s my idea. I don’t enjoy making revisions suggested by others that I see the sense and utility of but haven’t made part of my mindset yet.
I love having my nearest and dearest read the manuscript and react to it.
I don’t like going over the copyedited manuscript very much; that’s the point at which mistakes both caught and uncaught tend to loom very large, and I tend to feel the whole book is a gigantic mistake.
I like holding the finished book in my hands. It’s like a magic trick.
I like readers’ reactions. Early on in the process, I like almost all of them even if they are negative. Eventually the negative ones become a little boring and sometimes they drive me nuts, but there’s an amazing amount of useful information in most of them. In the end, while that may not be the very best part, the lasting pleasure is in the dialogue of the book with readers, which I don’t so much participate in as overhear.
TDS: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions. With every answer I think of new ones to ask, but the interview has to end somewhere. Alas!
I strongly encourage all of our readers to pick up one of Ms. Dean’s books. Of course, Tam Lin is my favorite, but I also highly recommend The Dubious Hills. Wherever you begin in her bibliography, you’ll find yourself surrounded by Classic favorites. Reading a Pamela Dean book is much like being in a library, titles abounding.
Again, many thanks to Pamela Dean for being so kind as to consent to an interview. Look for new editions of her Secret Country trilogy in your bookstores!