Interview with Daniel Quinn, the author of Ishmael

"The Man Behind the Curtain"
by Wendy du Bow

"Per capita, I received more letters from Boulder than any place in the country", says Daniel Quinn, author of the 1992 underground success Ishmael. In response to his call to rethink the beginnings of human history, the agricultural evolution and people's role on Earth, Quinn estimates that he has received about 4,000 letters from readers.

"It was a wonderful thing to think of putting the address in the back of the book", he muses, noting, "my publisher certainly thought it was strange ... but if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have known what was happening".

What's happening is that _Ishmael_ -- a tale told by an ape, full of logic and conscience, signifying everything -- is being passed from hand-to-hand throughout the country. It's being taught in grade, college prep and remedial education schools, in universities and in a wide variety of staff-development programs. One book at a time, it has sold over 200,000 copies -- even though the first agent who read the manuscript told Quinn, "trash it" and "get on with your life". Quinn refused.

In 1989, he submitted the manuscript to the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship competition for fiction that aims for creative, positive solutions to global problems. To the chagrin of two of the judges, Peter Matthiesen and Willeam Styron, who felt that no single book should receive all the prize money, Quinn walked away with first prize, half a million dollars. Finally, he could stop writing the book he had rewritten seven times over 12 years.

"My life's work was achieved, so now I could take it easy", he says. While he hung out with his wife, Rennie, published short stories and collaborated with Tom Whalen on the soon-to-be-published "A Newcomer's Guide to the Afterlife", those 4,000 letters began arriving.

Overwhelming public response means that Quinn now has four phone lines in his house and must rent an office in downtown Austin so he can work without interruption.

And work he does. In his latest book, Providence: the Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest , Quinn narrates the story of his life, as if to anonymous readers who have awakened him in the middle of the night. "I'd always been very reluctant to write about myself", he explains. "Who cares about Daniel Quinn? I don't considered that false modesty; it's realistic". But enough readers demonstrated that they did care about the man behind the book, and this one's for them.

A blanket response to readers who've asked about Quinn's personal life and the genesis of his philosophical ideas, _Providence_ rehashes some of the ideas already well-stated in _Ishmael_ -- this man is still on a mission.

He doesn't expect immediate change, though, instead "in about 30 years, things will begin to happen ... _Ishmael_ will be forgotten. Daniel Quinn will be forgotten. But the fact that a whole generation read this book will change the way people see things. I liken it to Sigmund Freud; nowadays his ideas are commonplace; they've changed the way we live". He pauses. "You can see I don't lack ambition".

But _Providence_ feels too unpolished, too personal at times. So I'll just wait for the next one (provisionally called _B_), which "begins where _Ishmael_ left off", as Quinn explains.

It's hard to see the human weaknesses of the great and powerful Oz. Although Quinn seems like a nice guy who has made it through some heavy shit in his life, I'm going to try to ignore the man behind the curtain because the mighty Quinn just may provide the insight we need to get us home to a balanced Earth.

-taken from (most likely) an issue of the Boulder Camera Bolder, Colo, summer, 1995.