Daniel Quinn headshot

Daniel Quinn


Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Daniel Quinn knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. Having never traveled much, domestically let alone internationally, he took the leap and studied abroad in Vienna in search of a different kind of educational experience. Daniel recalls the somber environment of a city still occupied by the USA, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. After earning his undergraduate degree, Daniel began a 20-year career in consumer and educational publishing in Chicago at the American Peoples Encyclopedia, Science Research Associates, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, and the Society for Visual Education. Dissatisfied with our culture's received wisdom about “how things came to be this way,” he embarked on a coincident career of investigation into the subject. When he was ready to walk away from his publishing career, he was also ready to begin work on a book that would occupy the next twelve years of his life—Ishmael. It was finished in 1991, in time to win the largest prize ever given to a single literary work, the half-million dollar Turner Tomorrow Award established to encourage authors to seek "creative and positive solutions to global problems." Published in 1992, Ishmael went on (to the author's complete surprise) to be published in 25 other languages and to be used in classrooms from middle school to graduate school in courses as varied as philosophy, geography, history, religion, biology, archeology, zoology, ecology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology. The Story of B (1996), My Ishmael: A Sequel (1997), and Beyond Civilization (1999) followed, along with many other works of fiction and nonfiction. In our interview, Daniel shares his memories from Vienna as well as insight into his inspiration for Ishmael.

IES Abroad: Why did you decide to study abroad?

Daniel Quinn: IES Abroad came to me as something I'd never considered possible, something I couldn't possibly have organized by myself. It must have been my second semester at St. Louis University. I don’t remember how I heard of IES Abroad, but I proposed it to my father and he agreed to finance it. It was like a trip to the moon. Who in his right mind would turn that down?

IES Abroad: What are some of your most influential memories from your time in Vienna?

DQ: I was a very different person from the one I am today, painfully self-conscious, worried about being liked, silent, fearful of saying the wrong thing. I was working on a novel at the time, though I actually knew no more about writing a novel than about building an atom bomb.

I remember going with another young IES Abroad student to see Les diaboliques, a horrific thriller, in which a woman is literally frightened to death when she finds herself locked in a bathroom and a submerged corpse arises from the bathtub. The student I was with was completely unruffled by this terrifying scene, saying that, working in a hospital, she'd seen things much worse than that!

Vienna was, at that time, still occupied by the USA, the UK, France and the Soviet Union, and the Viennese were a defeated, somber people. You saw them in the streets with their pet dogs—no children at all. Our History professor at the university once said to us, “I have never experienced a change for the better.” Needless to say, we bright, young, optimistic American youngsters were horrified to hear such a thing.

I became quite good friends with a very charming young man who was quite amused to be one of the last remaining members of the all-but-forgotten Hapsburg royal family. Without pretensions of any kind, he spoke perfect English, had studied at Oxford, and was now employed at a travel agency.

IES Abroad: What challenges did you face studying abroad in post-war Vienna and how did you overcome them?

DQ: The greatest challenge was, to be sure, arriving without knowing a word of German. Luckily the natives were delighted to have an opportunity to practice their English! I had a tutor in German, who was a Viennese in his mid-thirties. But after meeting with him for a few weeks, he told me he couldn't go on – he just couldn't stand working with me. Mystified, I asked why. He said. “You won the war!” As if no other explanation was needed:  I, an American teenager, had won the Second World War. Riding the buses, we would occasionally be told to “Go home, American!”

The social imagination of Omaha, Nebraska, did little to prepare me for that of Vienna or any European city. For example, one night when I was back home in Omaha, a friend of my parents asked most solemnly, “How could you stand living around all those foreigners?” It was fascinating to experience the differences between Viennese, Berliners, Romans, and Parisians, too. For example, in Paris they despised you if you didn’t speak French, while in Italy you were welcomed everywhere whatever you spoke (and many of them spoke a very serviceable form of English), and in Sicily you seemed to have no existence of any kind. It was the first time I was living on my own. At St. Louis University as an undergraduate, I lived in a dormitory. In Vienna, I shared the small apartment of a Viennese student. As I remember it, we of the IES didn’t spend much time together except when we were traveling, and then did everything together from morning to night.

IES Abroad: What impact did the Vienna experience have on you personally or professionally?

DQ: Though I rather guarded myself against it, it became an experience that widened me in every way. In a very real sense, we were a band of outsiders, especially so on a continent still recovering from (and far from forgetting) a devastating world war. Though we might not have thought of it this way at the time, we were all learning how to get by as outsiders. I suspect that, without that experience, I would not, twenty years later, have undertaken to create the Stateville Penitentiary Writers Workshop (my idea, proposed to and approved by the warden). The twenty or so members of the workshop were old hands and politically powerful (or they would not have gotten into the workshop at all) thieves, murderers, con-men, street-hustlers. To them, I was very much an outsider. Unlike the teachers who ran the GED program, I was unpaid, so…what was I doing there? For the first few weeks, they listened to me in chilly silence, waiting for me to reveal my scam. When they finally got past that, they revealed what THEY were doing there: they wanted to write best-sellers and make a lot of money, so how was that scam worked? What was the trick, the formula, the shortcut? After I'd spent ten or twelve hours trying to make them believe there was no such thing, one student (one of the younger, brighter ones) raised his hand and said, “Mr. Quinn, are you trying to tell us that writing is just WORK?” I yelled, “That's it! You've got it!” (as if he'd put together the words I just couldn't articulate myself). All the other men in the group groaned, horribly disappointed; they weren't interested in doing WORK. But the young man who dared ask the question said, “Hell, if it's just work, then I can do it.” And unbelievably, he did do it (once he was outside). Never having written a word of fiction in his life, he not only wrote a novel, it was bought by the first publisher who saw it—and who offered him a contract for three more! So what exactly was I doing there? I was there to see if I had anything to teach about writing—and I guess I found that out.

IES Abroad: You have had a remarkable career in publishing, but you are best known for writing Ishmael (1992) with sequels The Story of B (1994) and My Ishmael (1997), among other works. Tell us about your inspiration for the story and its message.

DQ: When the book appeared, almost immediately letters began to flow in from readers of all kinds, many surprisingly from clergy of every faith, who were recommending the book from the pulpit, in their newsletters and bulletins. (Surprisingly, because my expectation had been that, if anything, the book would be denounced rather than praised by this group of readers.) One of the things all readers (like you) wanted to know was where the book came from, what its inspiration was. For me, this pointed the way to my next book, which was Providence, subtitled “The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest.” This was the story of how everything from my life, beginning with a dream I had at age five that decisively pointed me in the direction I would ultimately take in writing Ishmael. But of course I can't begin to duplicate the essence of that book here.

Many of the readers who wrote to me mentioned the difficulty they had in describing the book to their friends, a difficulty I knew very well from my own experience. Everyone automatically asked, “What's it about?” That's a question unanswerable in a sentence or two. One young film-maker produced a terrific 22-minute film about it, called The Eighth City, which can be seen on Vimeo. The film wisely makes no attempt to say what Ishmael is “about.” Instead, it shows what happens to people who read it. I can here tell only a few of the hundreds of strange stories I have about “what happens to people who read it.” For ten years, Ishmael has been used in a Humanity in Action course at the Hong Kong International School. (I have to back up to say that every year I meet by telephone with dozens of classes in which Ishmael is used.) One of the teachers of this course told me last week that he recently happened to run into a student he'd had in the course four years earlier. As he passed, the young man said to him out of the blue, “I'm still doing it.” Puzzled, the teacher asked, “Doing what?” The student showed him a book he pulled out of his pocket. “Reading Ishmael,” he said with a grin.

I have stories of the book making marriages—and breaking them. One reader told me that the love of his life kept telling him he had to read Ishmael, but he kept putting it off and putting it off—until his love found another man who had already read it, and she was gone. The abandoned lover read it then, of course (and finally understood why it was so important to her).

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students who are considering studying or interning abroad?

DQ: After reading one of my books, a great many young people have asked me, “What should I do? What should I study? What kind of career should I pursue to make a difference in the world?” My answer is that they must concentrate not on what they “should” do but on what they do best—which is all that I've done. A great President would have achieved more than I have, but I wouldn't have been a great President, I would've been a poor one. You’ve got to track down and pursue what you're best at, because only there will you will be your most effective. It's hard (but essential) to resist the easy success that means nothing.

Studying or interning abroad is a wonderful place to begin, because that's an experience that can't be duplicated sitting in the safety of the nest you grew up in. At every turn you'll be confronted by a different sort of person, a different situation, a different way of doing things, a different idea about how things work, a different way to put your talents to use. I know that I was born to write, and that if I had neglected to do that, I would have ended as nothing. But that knowledge didn't arrive overnight; it was years in coming. Is there something you were born to do? If there's an answer to that question, you may not find it this year or next year or the year after that, but one thing is certain: you will never find it at all if you don't look for it.