A Personal Note to Reading Groups from Jack Dann, author of The Rebel
Over the past ten years that I′ve been living in Australia, I have watched reading groups become an integral part of the literary scene.I learned the "bones" of my craft in writers′ workshops, which behave very much like reading groups. In both cases constructive criticism and shared ideas change and deepen the way we think about literature and the world at large. Although reading is a very private experience, ideas are meant to be shared . . . and as the writer, I′d like to get into the conversation, too! So I′ve put together some thoughts about how I came to write The Rebel . . . and how I lived this book before I started writing it! I hope some of these ideas will surprise you . . . and spark debate.
My very best wishes,
Imagine . . .
Imagine One Hundred Days of Solitude meets Hollywood.
Imagine Ragtime and The Great Gatsby stirred together into a novel about the construction of myth, the creation of history, and the nature of memory.
It′s called The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean, and it′s a novel about a legend that is as potent today as when James Dean first hit the screen in Rebel Without A Cause, Giant, and East of Eden.
If James Dean had survived his crash on Highway 466, could he have become a great star and director? Marilyn Monroe′s lover? The governor of California . . .? Who might James Dean have been if he had lived? What could he have done? Could he have changed history? Would he still be an icon fifty years after Rebel Without a Cause and Giant? These questions haunted Jack Dann, the bestselling author of The Memory Cathedral and The Silent, and gave him the idea of an "alternative" fictionalised biography of James Dean-James Dean glimpsed from the other side of the looking-glass.
Indeed, what if James Dean had survived the accident? Would it be out of the realm of possibility for him to gain great public office? For him to be involved with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys and the political hugger-mugger surrounding Marilyn′s untimely and controversial death?
Would all that be any less plausible than the star of Bedtime for Bonzo, Ronald Reagan, becoming President of the United States . . . or Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor of California?
Autobiography of a Novel:
Some thoughts by Jack Dann about The Rebel
I was in my mid-twenties, living hard and sleeping little, and my life was consumed with the idea of being a writer. It was sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. It was nicotine and caffeine and working all night on my manual Remington typewriter, feeding it page after page of correctable bond paper while I filled up my cheap blue porcelain saucer of an ashtray with cigarette stubs.
I remember getting a call from a dear friend, a Swiss art critic who used to entertain high government officials, bankers, artists,executives, and film and theatre people in his converted barn. He would also invite interesting people to orgiastic happenings whereeveryone wore masks and acted out fantasies under his Plexiglass roof. Well, it was the late sixties/early seventies, and-unlike James Dean-we were still all going to live forever.
I was writing a novella, in the heat of it, writing fifteen pages a day, trying vainly-or rather in vain-to emulate Thomas Wolfe who, after a good day, was reputed to have gone striding down the street chanting and shouting, "I′ve written fifteen thousand words today, I′ve written fifteen thousand words today." My friend told me that he was entertaining someone I should meet and would I come over for a quick visit? I told him I was working. He told me his guest was Nick Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean′s director.
I was there in half an hour, and there indeed was Nick Ray, his haircurly and white, a rakish black patch over one eye-he had a maladyknown as lazy eye, but, as I grew to know him, I noticed that the patch came and went, depending on the occasion. His face was strong and craggy. His physique was thin, rangy, powerful. Like me, he was wearing jeans and a white tee-shirt.
He was a grown-up version of James Dean.
We slouched in the middle of my friend′s great, open room, the walls covered with paintings and etchings and lithographs and masks, the summer sun shafting and coruscating through windows and ceiling, two James Deans, James Dean the elder and James Dean the younger, two male macho prima donnas dressed in tee-shirts and jeans; and for those few magical seconds, we were in a magical circle.
We both knew we were play-acting.
Nick: "I′m doing a motion picture."
Nick: "You interested in maybe taking a look at what we′ve got?"
Nick nodding, as the conversation went on, the James Deans slouching, glancing at each other with heavy lidded eyes, and then the moment was over and we were sipping our friend′s sherry and talking, no longer play-acting; and as I remember that luminous, numinous day over thirty years ago, I also remember another luminous day. Standing on the balcony of a hotel overlooking Rodeo Drive with my editor. We had met in Los Angeles to work on final revisions for my Civil War novel The Silent. We were discussing new projects, and he said, "You know, we really need to think of a big idea for your next novel," and just then I remembered standing in that magic circle and play-acting with Nick, remembered all the arguments that had attended our brief relationship, the shifting of points-of-view, the wild chicken-run rides over country roads in his convertible, sitting alone in a dark room looking at the dailies of his film, and I said, "Well, James Dean was one of my teenage idols."
"Yeah . . .?" he asked, and I said, joking, "I sort of think of myself as a grown-up James Dean." We laughed, and it suddenly hit me as we looked down at the Mercs and Rollers gliding like gold and silver sharks down Rodeo Drive, "What if James Dean had survived his famous crash on Highway 466? What if he lived to fulfil his acting career? What if he went into politics like Ronald Reagan? What if he beat Ronald Reagan in the gubernatorial election in California, and Reagan only became a footnote?"
At that point, my editor and I were jumping up and down on that
tenth floor balcony like kids.
Well, we′re old guys now. We′re allowed to behave like kids.
. . .
The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean is about the construction of myths, the creation of history, and the nature of memory. It took me five years to write. I imagined it as 100 Days of Solitude meets Hollywood; I imagined Ragtime and The Great Gatsby stirred together into a Hollywood novel. But I wasn′t prepared for what the novel had in store for me. I have the sense, superstitious as it may be, that stories find the author, rather than authors finding their stories. This one came to me on the balcony of that hotel in LA, but it was only when I started writing the novel that I began to understand I was in a sense writing my own history.
I′m an upstate New York expatriate living in Australia; and since I′ve been here, I′ve been writing about America. It′s as if ten thousand miles of distance has brought me closer to home. The Rebel is a fictional biography of the pop culture that has moulded and formed me.
I did extensive research for The Rebel, just as I did for The Memory Cathedral and The Silent, but the blood and bones of this book-the heat of this book-came out of my personal experience. I remember the fifties. I remember the icons, the poetry, the coffee houses, the bebop slang, the pegged pants and black motorcycle jackets and the beehive and duck-ass hairdos. I was living full out during the sixties, swept up in the politics and the counter-culture (yet I also kept a hand in traditional state and local politics). I met Timothy Leary, dropped out of law school, hung out with the hippies, swept through the summer of love, and was shaken, turned inside out, and transformed during the liberation movements of the seventies. And during the eighties and nineties I was involved in politics. I sat in smoke-filled rooms working out strategies with spin-doctors, candidates, and pollsters. I recorded the background for this book minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour . . . as a writer.
And as an actor.
I trained in "the Method" espoused by the Actors Studio that Dean attended . . . and that′s how I taught myself to write. I have to know the characters and background so completely that the line between the real and imagined becomes blurred. To that end, I immersed myself in secondary sources, biographies, autobiographies, and as many primary sources as I could find, including friends. I remember a particularly interesting moment sitting in a cafe with Michael Engleberg, who produces films and maintains an active medical practice. I told Michael that I didn′t believe Marilyn Monroe committed suicide and that I had had a brief discussion about Marilyn with Anthony Summers, author of Goddess: the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe and The Kennedy Conspiracy. "Summers believed that Monroe was murdered."
Michael nodded. The shadow of a smile flickered across his face. "Jack, you do know that my father was Hyman Engleberg, Marilyn′s
I had no idea. After I recovered my composure, I asked, "Do you
think she committed suicide?"
"Yes," he said flatly.
He was certain.
Alas, I wasn′t . . .
. . .
I read and read, remembered, remembered . . . It was total immersion. My wife Janeen asked me when I might leave the fifties or sixties or seventies and return to the present . . . be present; but the present had become ghostly. The past, the American past, was becoming more and more substantive. Melbourne, the farm by the sea, this faraway place I have made my home, had become tissue thin; and I felt as if I were standing stock-still and listening, listening for the voices, eavesdropping on the past.
After I have immersed myself in a character and period, I listen, for the characters won′t speak until I know them intimately. I′d read all the variant interpretations of who James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and Robert F. Kennedy really were-perhaps we are all different beings to different people-and slowly, quietly, stealthily, I came to know James Dean and Marilyn and the others. One by one, over time, they began to whisper to me, a wild, luminous, synesthetic susurration and as they whispered, I began to write; and as I began to write, they pressed and pushed against my outline, my arbitrary schematic for my book, which suddenly, miraculously became their book. (This, of course, is the superstition of this writer: the way the "Little Man"-my unconscious-and I interpret information and kindle that "restless urge to write".)
And this is the Jimmy-and Marilyn and Elvis and Jack and Bobby-who whispered to me.
Questions for Discussion
1. There is a continuing public fascination with James Dean as an icon. Can we learn who James Dean might have really been like from novels such as this? Does this book describe an "authentic" James Dean?
2. Some writers regard Dean as a masochist, and he has been referred to as "the human ashtray". Dann does not take this view - but his James Dean isn′t always happy. How sympathetic a character is Dann′s James Dean?
3. Do you think Dean′s bisexuality is handled realistically in this novel?
4. Jack Dann has said that The Rebel is about the construction of myths, the creation of history, and the nature of memory. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
5. The author has described The Rebel as a fictional biography of the pop culture of the fifties and sixties. How does The Rebel present the past? How really different were those decades from our own time?
6. What does The Rebel tell us about rewriting history and reinventing oneself?
7. Bobby Kennedy marked the following sentence from Emerson′s Essays: "Always do what you are afraid to do." How much do you think this might have been a motto for James Dean′s approach to life? Did James Dean and Bobby Kennedy have a lot in common?
8. There has been much controversy about whether Marilyn Monroe committed suicide or was murdered. Has The Rebel changed your view on this issue?
9. The author has said that he "nudged" history in order to shed a different light on our recent past and to gain a deeper understanding of James Dean′s personality and potential. Do you feel this was justified?
10. If actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger could become the President of the United States and Governor of California, respectively, what does this tell us about the cult of fame and actors as icons? And the future of politics?
Researching The Rebel:
A booklist by Jack Dann
During the five years that it took me to research and write my novel The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean, I read well over a hundred books on Dean and the fifties and sixties. Here is a distillation of what I found to be the most useful, interesting, and enlightening:
1. The Fifties by David Halberstam (New York, Ballantine Books, 1993.)
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and this book, which covers in engrossing detail the major social, scientific, and political events of the decade, is absolutely brilliant. As I read it, I had the sensation that I was actually eavesdropping on the personages and events of another time.
2. 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation by Charles Kaiser (New York, Grove Press, 1988.)
A hip and incisive look into the watershed year of the sixties. Not up to Halberstam′s level, but very good indeed.
3. The Making of the President series (1960, 1964, 1968) by Theodore H. White (New York, Atheneum Books, 1961, 1965, 1969.)
Theodore White is up to Halberstam′s level, and these in-depth glimpses into the fibrillating heart of presidential elections are classics of their time-and any time.
4. The Civil Rights Movement: a Photographic History, 1954-68 by Steven Kasher (New York, Abeville Press, 1996.)
The photographs are both harrowing and uplifting; the text is accurate and concise. This is the living history of the faith, hope, joy, pain, and transcendent struggle that was the American civil rights movement.
5. Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.)
For my money, this National Book Award-winner is the best of the biographies of Robert Kennedy. Schlesinger was a real insider who knew Kennedy well, and it is apparent on every detailed page. There are other books that delve into Kennedy′s darker aspects, such as RFK: A Candid Biography by C. David Heymann, but if I could only recommend one book on Robert F. Kennedy, the Schlesinger book would be it.
6. Dutch: a Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (New York, Random House, 1999.)
This authorised biography of Ronald Reagan caused a sensation when it was published-critics accused Morris of manipulating historical facts and fictionalising history. Later editions contained an explanatory publisher′s note. Ah, can fact and fiction merge . . .? But for all the controversy (a tempest in a teapot), this is the definitive biography of Ronald Reagan. An important and beautifully realised biography. Morris has led the way. Will anyone dare follow?
7. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956 and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters (New York, Penguin Books, 1995 and 1999.)
There are excellent biographies of Kerouac, such as Ellis Amburn′s Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac, but Kerouac, his ideas, prejudices, life, and philosophy come alive in these letters compiled by Ann Charters. This is the story of the Beats.
8. Last Train to Memphis: the Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: the Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (London and New York, Little Brown and Company, 1994 and 1999.)
If you are an Elvis Presley fan, you should probably read Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske′s Down At the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley, but Peter Guralnick has written the definitive biography of Elvis in these two brilliant volumes. I usually don′t repeat book blurbs, but Bob Dylan said it right: "Unrivalled . . . [Elvis] steps from these pages, you can feel him breathe, this book cancels out all the others." Amen.
9. A Life by Elia Kazan (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988.)
This 850 page autobiography by a seminal American film-maker who worked with James Dean, John Steinbeck, Tennesse Williams, Arthur Miller, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Clifford Odets, and Lee Strasberg is embarrassing in its personal exposure and brilliant in its insights into an important film era. What one might describe as a hot, juicy read.
10. Marilyn Monroe: the Biography by Donald Spoto (London, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1993.)
There are a number of fine biographies of Marilyn Monroe, such as Norma Jean: the Life of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles (one of the earliest and considered a classic). Some of her biographers are of the opinion that she didn′t commit suicide, but was in fact murdered. These are well worth reading and include, The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe, Goddess: the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers (I′ve talked with Summers, who is an investigative reporter I take very seriously), and The Men Who Murdered Marilyn by Matthew Smith. I would also recommend xMarilyn: Her Life In Her Own Words by George Barris, an excellent and beautiful tribute by one of Monroe′s most talented photographers. But if I had to recommend only one book on Marilyn, it would be Donald Spoto′s wellresearched, detailed, and well-considered 750 page biography. It is as definitive as anything I′ve read about the subject. I might note that I disagree with Spoto regarding the cause of her death, but the data is simply not available to make an indisputable judgment.
11. Rebel: the Life and Legend of James Dean by Donald Spoto (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1996.)
It′s Spoto again, but this time at only 300 pages. This is the first Dean biography I read, and I still think it is the most balanced, distanced, and detailed of the biographies. There are many fine (and more famous) biographies that I would rank as important. They would include James Dean: the Biography by Val Holley; Live Fast-Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean by James Gilmore; James Dean: Little Boy Lost by Joe Hyams with Jay Hyams; Boulevard of Broken Dreams: the Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean by Paul Alexander; James Dean: the Mutant King by David Dalton; James Dean: American Icon by David Dalton and Ron Cayen; and The James Dean Story by Ronald Martinetti. These biographies are much more personal than the Spoto biography, and a few of the authors have their own axes to grind.
12. Jimmy Dean on Jimmy Dean by Joseph Humphreys, consultant (London, Plexus Publishing Limited, 1990.)
This is Dean in his own words, and this thin photographic volume is probably the best general primary source we have. It′s not stylish or snappy, but James Dean, warts and all, is in here.
13. The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z by Randall Riese (Chicago, Contemporary Books, Inc., 1991.)
The title says it: this is the James Dean encyclopedia of facts and esoterica. Look up entries on subjects as diverse as Lockheed Airport, Coors Beer, the biographies issued by Warner Brothers, Robert Altman, Steve Allen, Rudolf Nureyev, nudity, India Nose, and Lloyds of London . . . well, you get the picture. A fascinating book for aficionados (and those who aspire to become contestants on quiz shows).
About the Author
Jack Dann is a multiple award winning author who has written or edited over sixty books, including the groundbreaking novels Junction, Starhiker, The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral- which is an international bestseller, the Civil War novel The Silent, and Bad Medicine, which has been compared to the works of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson and called "the best road novel since the Easy Rider days".
Dann′s work has been compared to Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Castaneda, J. G. Ballard, Mark Twain, and Philip K. Dick. Philip K. Dick, author of the stories from which the films Blade Runner and Total Recall were made, wrote that "Junction is where Ursula Le Guin′s Lathe of Heaven and Tony Boucher′s The Quest for Saint Aquin meet . . . and yet it′s an entirely new novel . . . I may very well be basing some of my future work on Junction." Bestselling author Marion Zimmer Bradley called Starhiker "a superb book . . . it will not give up all its delights, all its perfections, on one reading."
Library Journal has called Dann ". . . a true poet who can create pictures with a few perfect words." Roger Zelazny thought he was a reality magician and Best Sellers has said that "Jack Dann is a mindwarlock whose magicks will confound, disorient, shock, and delight." The Washington Post Book World compared his novel The Man Who Melted with Ingmar Bergman′s film The Seventh Seal.
His short stories have appeared in Omni and Playboy and other major magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of the anthology Wandering Stars, one of the most acclaimed American anthologies of the 1970s, and several other well-known anthologies such as More Wandering Stars. Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars have just been reprinted in the US. Dann also edits the multi-volume Magic Tales series with Gardner Dozois and is a consulting editor for TOR Books.
He is a recipient of the Nebula Award, the Australian Aurealis Award (twice), the Ditmar Award (three times), the World Fantasy Award, the Peter McNamara Achievement Award, and the Premios Gilgames de Narrativa Fantastica award. Dann has also been honoured by the Mark Twain Society (Esteemed Knight).
High Steel, a novel co-authored with Jack C. Haldeman II, was published in 1993. Critic John Clute called it "a predator . . . a cat with blazing eyes gorging on the good meat of genre. It is most highly recommended." A sequel entitled Ghost Dance is in progress.
Dann′s major historical novel about Leonardo da Vinci-entitled The Memory Cathedral-was first published in December 1995 to rave reviews. It has been published in ten languages to date. It won the Australian Aurealis Award in 1997, was #1 on the Age bestseller list, and a story based on the novel was awarded the Nebula Award. The Memory Cathedral was also shortlisted for the Audio Book of the Year, which was part of the 1998 Braille & Talking Book Library Awards.
Morgan Llwelyn called The Memory Cathedral "a book to cherish, a validation of the novelist′s art and fully worthy of its extraordinary subject". The San Francisco Chronicle called it "A grand accomplishment", Kirkus Reviews thought it was "An impressive accomplishment", and True Review said, "Read this important novel, be challenged by it; you literally haven′t seen anything like it."
Dann′s next novel The Silent was chosen by Library Journal as one of their "Hot Picks". Library Journal wrote: "This is narrative storytelling at its best-so highly charged emotionally as to constitute a kind of poetry from hell. Most emphatically recommended." Author Peter Straub said, "This tale of America′s greatest trauma is full of mystery, wonder, and the kind of narrative inventiveness that makes other novelists want to hide under the bed." And The Australian called it "an extraordinary achievement".
His contemporary road novel Bad Medicine (titled Counting Coup in the US) has been called "a vivid and compelling vision-quest through the dark back roads and blue highways of the American soul".
Dann is also the co-editor (with Janeen Webb) of the groundbreaking Australian anthology Dreaming Down Under, which Peter Goldsworthy has called "the biggest, boldest, most controversial collection of original fiction ever published in Australia". It has won Australia′s Ditmar Award and is the first Australian book ever to win the prestigious World Fantasy Award.
Dann is also the author of the retrospective short story collection Jubilee: the Essential Jack Dann. The West Australian said it was "Sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, erudite, inventive, beautifully written and always intriguing. Jubilee is a celebration of the talent of a remarkable storyteller."
As part of its Bibliographies of Modern Authors Series, the Borgo Press has published an annotated bibliography and guide entitled The Work of Jack Dann. An updated second edition is in progress. Dann is also listed in Contemporary Authors and the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series; The International Authors and Writers Who′s Who; Personalities of America; Men of Achievement; Who′s Who in Writers, Editors, and Poets, United States and Canada; Dictionary of International Biography; the Directory of Distinguished Americans; Outstanding Writers of the Twentieth Century; and Who′s Who in the World.
Dann commutes between Melbourne and a farm overlooking the sea. He also "commutes" back and forth to Los Angeles and New York.
About Jack Dann