Mike Rogers, October 1st, Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, Ireland
35 minutesMR: So you’ve never been to Ireland before?
WG: No. no… and it’s a, you know, in a sense I’ve been reading about it all my life… because it’s a, you know…
Joyce? the Modernists?
Yeah. Such a literate, yeah, such a literary land. So it all seems… vaguely familiar. But sort of more remarkable… and that’s always the way, you know. Sort of the details… the details that do it. That you couldn’t have imagined.
You came to Europe when you were in your teens, or just out of your teens, didn’t you?
Well, how old was I?
The Grand Tour. Around 20?
Yeah. Yeah. About 20, 21… We couldn’t afford… we couldn’t afford to stay anywhere that had anything remotely like hard currency. So we landed in… we landed in London and… and you know, like a round trip on the subway was sort of… sort of, the base. So we only had a little time there and then…
So what’s it like now, travelling around in hotels like this?
Oh, it’s… I’ve had a couple of years to get used to it. It’s sort of a gradual thing.
What was it you called it? The Rubber Chicken Circuit?
Yeah, that was actually a goof break… breakthrough. Because there were all those vr… there was a whole string of vr festivals that were funded by various European governments.
I know. Lot’s of people kept stopping over, Myron Kreuger and all…
Yeah. Those people were all bouncing… bouncing around. But we got to get to Barcelona, Venice, Linz Austria, Den Haag, probably a couple more I can’t…
You’re more used to it then? You can handle it now?
Yeah, I can.
You don’t feel like… the dissolution?
But this is sort of… this is a… this is a lot more intense than going on one of those things, ‘cos it’s sort of the end of… three months of… no, not three months, it just feels like three months. Three previous weeks of promotion before I came… In the States and Canada before I came and started… started in London.
Yes. I’ve been reading some interviews on the Net, in papers…
Yeah, and you go home and rest for a week and you feel okay physically but then you get back out on the road and there’s some sort of cumulative psychological effect.
I’m just curious, because in the second Sprawl book you had Turner, and he saw himself dissolved from hotel room to hotel room. And yet in Virtual Light Rydell… he likes staying there. He likes the… the opulence of the closed shopping malls and all. So, do you feel you’re accepting it more?
Oh I don’t know. Oh… you lost me there. Rydell likes?
He seemed to be able to cope with being on Cops in Trouble a lot more naturally.
Oh. Oh. Ah. Right. Oh, well, you know, he doesn’t get more than a taste of it you know? That’s the thing. It’s a… His time in… his time… well he might have… What does he have, like two weeks? It’s not really clear from the… It could be a week you know? It just… it just doesn’t last very long for him. He never gets to feel that he’s a part… a part of this sort of thing. But you know… it’s interesting. It’s interesting to see it… and it’s only once in a while. I mean, Hollywood is like this too. It’s kind of their standard worker housing. They put people… they put people in incredibly fancy hotels that… mostly probably collect their money from movie studios and big… big companies.
It’s a strange world out there.
Yeah. Like one thing you realise when you spend more time in places like this is that all of them… well, hardly any of them who’s staying here is paying their own bill. It’s all corporate accounts. This is actually a very amiable kind of place, you know? The thing that’s nice about it is that it’s real. It’s not a reproduction of anything.
If I remember right, when they had a rebellion here in 1916 I think the place was used for barracks.
Yeah. It’s sort of a real place and kind of relaxed compared to… you know, in America the equivalent thing would be three simulacra removed from reality and kind of too self conscious to ever be very good.
What music are you listening to right now? What strikes you?
PJ Harvey’s second album. A San Francisco band called Come, that’s see oh em ee. A West German band called Plan B who have an album out that’s unfortunately titled Cyberchords and Sushi Stories.
What about Cybercore Network?
… Never heard of it.
The in-jokes weren’t as heavily larded in Virtual Light.
No, I just think they missed them. No, they’re more subtle.
The music jokes?
There were probably more of those in Neuromancer than there were in the later… the other two, I would think. Yeah. Yeah. Virtual Light is filled with in-jokes, but you have to know… It’s not fair if I tell them what they are.
The one right at the end where the only thing at the market that failed to be sold, that’s thrown on the trash heap, that’s the Columbia Literary History of the United States.
That’s a bit harsh. An unpopular book?
That’s one of them.
There was a large literary conference on here recently. Toni Morrison, big names. The theme was Homelands. What I want to ask you is, well, born in South Carolina, grew up in Virginia, living in Canada. Do you think that that dilutes your sense of nationhood? They were keen on it.
Oh, well… What it means… Yeah…
How do you feel about it?
Yeah. Oh, well. Hmmm. That’s a… Oh well, interestingly put… … … I think what it’s done is it’s made me… made me a globalist in some way that’s not entirely… … … isn’t entirely theoretical… … … Yeah, I mean, naturally it’s put… it’s putting it too dramatically, but you could say it was literally true that early on in life I had the experience of, of, of… exilehood, essentially for political reasons which kind of led into a permanent expatriate existence. Canada isn’t… it isn’t a country. One doesn’t… I don’t think one comes to feel Canadian. It sort of isn’t. It’s never really been…
So much wasteland? Empty except for the cities?
Well, no. It’s never been a requirement of… … … It’s never been a requirement of their culture with regard to… immigrants, you know? The American metaphor is the Melting Pot for a generation and then they’ll become… When they come out of the pots… they’ll be American and that really isn’t… That hasn’t been the Canadian experience. The fashionable government metaphor during the sixties was the… the Cultural mosaic. That’s what they consciously took to be their version of the Melting Pot. Where people would immigrate, keep their cultures intact and just, you know, fit them into the grid of the country. I mean, you can’t, you know, the concept of becoming Canadian, it doesn’t you know, it doesn’t compute. It’s not… in a sense it’s an artifical construction. Really, I mean there’s a distinctive Canadian culture but you know… … you’d almost have to, I think, have to be born right into it so I’ve never felt, living in Canada for twenty years… Well now I’m truly becoming more and more Canadian. I mean, I’m still a guy from Virginia and my wife is Canadian and I’ll never… I’ll never really be… I’ll never really be Canadian.
Yet the character Rydell in Virtual Light seems much more definitely a Southerner than any others of yours?
Oh yeah. Specifically…
He rediscovers his Southerness after being reproached by a Northerner for not having enough essence of gothic.
Yeah. Well… I think that was partially inspired byhaving read a lot of Cormac McCarthy during the time I was writing the book. I hadn’t discovered McCarthy before. McCarthy’s from Knoxville Tennassee, which is, like, a few hundred miles from the part of Virginia where I grew up and the voices in a lot of his books, particularly his early books, were very relevent to my own childhood and so I thought I’d create… Also, I had the sense when I grew up in the South of growing up in some sort of time lag.
Agrippa has that same tone.
Yeah. It’s like, so it’s like… I felt when I remembered my childhood in the fifties and the sixties in Virginia that in some ways it’s more like these should be memories of the forties. It’s, you know, It’s kind of a backward… It’s kind of a backwater place and by making Rydell, you know, a Southerner I also made him a hick to some extent. So he’s the, you know, he’s… he’s the hick from Hickograd adrift in the big city and consequently he gets to wonder about things and ask questions and that’s very convenient for the science fiction writer because it gets you over the expository lumps quite smoothly. I mean, when you… In science fiction watch for these naive characters. They’re pretty common because they serve such a convenient purpose for the author.
What struck me was the different portrayal between Virtual Light and the Sprawl novels in the portrayal of the undergroung, the computer underground. Especially the hackers. In Virtual Light you didn’t seem to like them and in fact you threw them into ridicule.
Well, they’re both based on… the same… you know, to some extent.
Also… The culture of the bridge. That’s seen from the outside. Even Chevette is to a large extent an outsider. And yet with, say, Sam Delany in, say, Dhalgren, he had his naive characters walk around as part of the underground. He’s from… he writes from an urban… environment. You and he are from different milieus. His urban characters never seem as put upon. They survive a lot easier. He’s more sympathetic.
Well, he grew up in New York and my formative, my first real experience of a real city was living in Toronto in the late sixties from about ’67 on and, yeah, it’s given me a different take on urbanism. It’s a very different sort of city. In those days it was more different still. It hadn’t been quite developed into the new neo-Toronto.
They use it for New York movie backdrops nowadays.
Yeah. Neo-Toronto is sort of… It more parallels… you know, the Docklands in London? It’s a bit, you know, it’s very expensively built empty space.
They’re doing that here with German money. Temple Bar. It’s quite extraordinary… They take allthe cobblestones from the, like, ghetto and move them to almost gated streets.
So down in the poor neighbourhoods they now have tarmac?
Yeah, it’s like a move up in the world. After hundreds of years they finally get to have tarmac, flat roads. And the rich people get cobbles and all.
Isn’t that something.
Set in shiny new tar, yeah.
That’s truly amazing… That’s pure… that’s the European version of Virtual Light. Yeah, that’s actually… there’s a level of irony about that that I didn’t get to in Virtual Light. Except in the Nightmare Folk Art shop. All this Southern stuff is being sold, all these kind racist antiques are being sold to the more affluent blacks of South Central. But the very recycling of stuff where the very cobbles become expensive antiques for the rich people… that’s amazing.
The blacks in South Central Los Angeles. I mean, the book was set there and, I mean, you read City of Quartz which dealt a great deal with the chicano and black development, and postulated their development in the future, and yet they didn’t feature very largely in Virtual Light. Do youfeel that yuo were’t qualified?
No. I didn’t want to… It wasn’t the time for me to take that on… Yeah, I would generally say. Yeah. I’m not actually qualified to do that now, and particularly not in a more realistic near future setting, so I mean, they’re there and there’s a sprinkling of them to indicate their presence in the mix. One thing that’s not really underlined enough to be clear in the Los Angeles sections is that I was assuming that I was writing about a Los Angeles where the caucasians are the minority, which is something that is demographically expected to happen in L.A. eventually.
Yeah. I was stunned the first time I was in new York and found all the subway signs in Spanish after a lifetime of growing up with the Starsky and Hutch white English American thing.
Yeah. We have a neighbourhood in Vancouver where they’ve changed… they’ve translated all the streetsigns into Bengali. And there’s Chinatown. That’s quite the trend.
And yet you find that you can write about women? All of your books since Count Zero have had a female protagonist.
I’ve always felt an obligation to try. And you know, in fact I think I would tend to get pretty bored with the narrative if there weren’t… a few women around.
And yet the only woman that featured, apart from your relatives, in Agrippa was the likening of the shooting of a gun to the first kissing of a woman in objective terms.
Yeah. But don’t ask me what that means.
You’ll just have to write more books to work it out?
Yeah. No. I don’t know. I mean, it’s something that I… I do all this stuff… kind of random exploratory… I’m exploring I know not what. The completed narrative is a sort of artifact, but in some real way I’m no more capable of explicating it than the next guy. You know, if you know much about… at least the sort of… what passed for contemporary literary critical theory when I was studying it… the assumption was that the critic has as much… that the reader had as chance of knowing what the text was going to be about as the author did. That was sort of a formal assumption; that the author had no more access to it…
They’re just words?
Yeah. No more access to some deeper,more symbolic level than the critic did. Because the critic could argue, the critic… the author could say that, well, it’s really about this and that and the critic could argue that, well, you think it’s about this and that but actually it’s about that and this. And you’re simply… I’m simply able to interpret your own conscious intention. I’m not sure whether… I was never sure whether I believed that or not. But now that I’ve written a few books I know that I… that I cannot explicate them more. Or that I could explicate them differently at different times.
And yet you have this gift for… for semiotic regurgitation.
Does it worry you?
Do you occasionally get puzzled, or self-conscious.
Like a collage too mannered.
Bricolage. no, it doesn’t bother me. It’s what I do.
But if you think about it too much? Do you have to make a conscious effort not to make it a… conscious effort?
Well, it requires… In my own case it requires a kind of pathological concentration, after which something snaps and the narrative proceeds as though by… it’s almost… I mean, it’s really good, it feels like automatic writing. I’m able to sit back and watch myself write without having much idea of where it’s going along. But unfortunately that requires endless chewing of pencils.
They used to call it the Muse.
Yeah. Waiting for the Muse. All I’ve ever figured out is you have to make a deal with the Muse to, you know, go every day at approximately the same time; sit down for a couple of hours and wait to see if the Muse is going to come around.
When do you write?
Well, pretty much on a kind of nine to five basis on weekdays. That’s well, you know, that’s in the early days, the saner stages of composition. So for the first two thirds of a book I’ll get up in the morning at seven o’clock,have breakfast, get my kids off to school. Then downstairs about nine thirty, knock off at twelve for lunch, come back, stay on there ‘til three or four or five and call it a day. Unless I get down there and something is… there’s no Muse and I can’t get anything done. Then I go mow the lawn or do the laundry or something. but when I get toward the end of it, it becomes… it’s such an effort to juggle all those bits and thousands of words in your head that sometimes the only way to get it done is to, like, work an 18 hour day ‘til it’s finished, you know? You’re filled up with it at a certain point and you just have… there are times when you just have to get all through real quickly at one go and then go collapse and then go back to it a few weeks later and kind of do it in your right mind. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to avoid that. In one way or another that always happens. It usually follows a period of very intense despair. Despair at the quality of the text by that time.
Do you still despair of the text?
The finished? The product?
Well, you know, once they’re finished,once they’re… once they’re… you know.
How do you decide that the text will go?
Well, that’s one of the really tricky parts. It’s a good trick. I don’t know. I wish I could… I mean, I wish I could tell you. Nobody could ever really tell me. You just have to know when it’s done. You have to know when you’ve taken off… when you’ve taken out as many of the wrong words and put in as many of the right words as you’re likely to be able to do. And then there’s a point beyond which anything you could do to it would cause it to diminish. And its… to know where that point is… I just don’t…
One fascinating piece I saw in Virtual Light was… I remember reading a story of yours years ago: Academy leader. That had a paragraph in it related to virtual reality architectur and then it gave a listing, a lush description of arcades, sushi, etc.; and then in Skinner’s Room it had become the Bridge. The people, the ideas were the same. And then in Virtual Light it appeared. Watching the paragraph through three incarnations was interesting.
Yeah, I think that… I suspect that Academy Leader was written after Skinner’s Room. That book, that Michael Benedict collection of cyberspace essays, that’s pretty recent. I think maybe more recent than Skinner’s Room. All of… all of that… all of the bits in Academy Leader are recycled from other pieces. Some of them appeared in an op-ed piece in Rolling Stone years ago. I mean, it’s really only the little Burroughsian bit, where I’m directly addressing the audience in a Burroughs cut-up, that’s the only… that is the only bit that I think I actually custom-wrote: the rest of it is a cut-up.
Do you see yourself in your characters? I’m just thinking, here, of Shapely being tragically misunderstood,distorted, worshipped.
And yet Skinner seemd to be very scornful of people that wanted to Shapely up. For example, on the Net there’s a persistent rumour, a belief fable, that you have an email address. Despite hundreds of denials in thousands of interviews.
Well… No. No.
I mean, there are people out there who will refuse to believe there isn’t a secret… I’d compare it to a loa. There are people utterly convinced that some elite has your true name.
That these email you. They all want to be watched by you, invisibly.
I think that’s a very good… Yeah, I think that’s an excellent… That’s an excellent… That’s an excellent comparison. No, I’m more like the… you know, there is… there is a big god in Voudoun religion, you know? There is… At the top of the pantheon it’s actually monotheistic. But he’s so far away… and he just doesn’t care at all. That’s actually where I am. I don’t care. No, I’m not even… I’m not even looking. What they have to do is… To come directly to my attention, they have to… They have to say something that will cause one or another of my correspondents who does hang out on the Net to download their bit to a fax modem which’ll fax it to me. Virtually everything… virtually everything I read off the Net comes off of a fax machine via, sort of, people’s fax modems.
That’s pretty clever.
And you know, there is the other thing that when you can afford long distance telephone service and you have a telephone and a fax machine you’ve got… you’ve got an amazing… it’s expensive, but it sure is a convenient user interface. So I mean if I want to… if I want to talk to someone in Tokyo I don’t need email. I just call them and have a telephone conversation with them for as long as I want and then charge it to business expenses. Actually, one of the reasons I don’t have an email address is that I average thirty-five feet of unsolicited fax, of incoming fax, per day. And I don’t even have time to read that. It’s like I’m sitting on the toilet down the hall from my office with a scroll of faxed stuff which I, you know, kind of skim through.
Those rolls much run out pretty often.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a shame you can’t use them for the bog. I mean, recyclement which… Yeah, I mean, I buy them… I buy them… by the box from a Korean greengrocer around the corner from my house. Some very cheap Japanese fax paper, but it works real well. Yeah, I’d go through a roll of fax paper every couple of days, and by and large it’s stuff I could do without. I could have lived without seeing it. But I just haven’t lost fax correspondents who see anything that they think would tickle my interest… Some of it’s business. Some of it, you know?
Sounds like you need seperate lines for it.
Yeah. Yeah. Like unsolicited faxes and business faxes. That would… That would do the trick.
Some mondo big writers end up employing a personal secretary to handle all that for them.
… … … Well, I’m getting to the point where I could use a personal secretary. I can’t… I can’t really… I can’t deal with the snail mail either. Bags of it.
[Enter Viking Penguin Publicity Rep]
Uh, oh, here she comes. One last one.
VPPR: The black eagle again, swooping up the stairs. How are you doing?
VPPR: Grand. Will I come back in a couple of minutes?
Yeah. Great. Okay.
I’ve never met a book publicity person yet in Ireland who wasn’t female and English.
I think she’s Australian?
Yeah. That’s what my wife said. I couldn’t… My ears could not… I can tell the difference between Irish and it anyway.
Okay. Agrippa. It’s encoded using the RSA algorithm.
Wow. News to me.
All those algorithms in the States are classed as munitions, as weapons of war.
So what I… Could your work be one of the first pieces of art to be restricted because of national security? A couple of weeks ago a person who was selling a program using RSA got served with a Grand Jury summons.
Yes, but… Actually that’s come up. Someone in the… I forget the name of which government body it was, but someone was quoted in the paper as saying we should talk to them. So, but what they didn’t… What it is, you actually can… my understanding of it is that you could sell… You could sell an encrypted… It’s a… What it is… They don’t want… they don’t want a… they don’t want to distribute the hardware that allows you to encrypt your own material. But a piece of encrypted material is of no value to someone who wanted to use the encryptions. So it’s not the same as distributing encryption software. So, when you buy Norton Utilities for the Macintosh in the United States or Canada there’s actually a sticker on it that says: This product only for sale in the United States of America or Canada. That’s because of that. Because it’s actually… it’s actually… the Norton Utilities comes with this really… potent… munitions grade encryption.
I know you dono’t like talking about the underground, or being asked about the underground, but what do you think of this growing obsession over the last few years… perhaps egged on by government action, some feedback… With cypherpunk? I mean the original… your original envisionment of the Matrix was of an open…
Yeah, it’s odd isn’t it? It’s turned around. I was envisioning people who were into cracking.
And now they’re hiding.
Yeah, now they’re, yeah, now they’re into hiding.
Bruce Sterling in his The Hacker Crackdown seemed to feel that it would shrink away, the underground, until eventually, perhaps, there’d be some new movement that noone could see yet. He seemed to feel that the day of the hacker is coming to a close.
Well, certainly the Republic of Desire is extrapolated from… some of the less savoury aspects of the hacker community as Bruce described it in The Hacker Crackdown. WHich is really the closest I’ve ever come to to being in direct experience of it.
That was fun for you, wasn’t it? When Rydell meets… the three hackers and their massive ego representations.
One of them was made of television and so Rydell says ‘Jesus’, which was quite funny coming as it was from out of a Fallonite community link there.
Yeah, yeah, that was one of them. The other one was sort of… the one that looked like a mountain and Jaron Lanier… and it had big lobster claws. Yeah, so it was.. I wanted to do the… I liked that because it sort of established that this was not a book in which the hackers were romantic. You know, when I wrote Neuromancer I’d never even heard the term hacker. If I had done I would have used it in the book.
In neuromancer they were modulated by the need for access, to jack. The same as a Burroughs character has this need for junk. And yet the desires of the characters in Virtual Light seem to have become more multifaceted, obfuscated as you go on. I mean, Rydell doesn’t know what he’s looking for. He just… He seems to want to… Well, I don’t know, you’d know him better than I do. And Chevette just always seems to want to get away. So do you feel that that’s to do with yourself becoming more financially secure?
Yeah, I think it was an attempt to… Oh I don’t know, in some ways as I get older I feel more desperate. I think it has more to do with an attempt at literary naturalism and I honestly think that Chevelle and Rydette… … Rydell and Chevette… I think that Chevette and Rydell are more like most people than most people are like those console cowboys and razor girls in Neuromancer. No, I don’t think those people really know… What They Want in capital letters beyond just getting by. It strikes me that most people will… are just getting by. One thing that those two want is to have a job. They want to make a living and they don’t have real good jobs and their jobs are very important to them. And that’s very different from Neuromancer. That’s a much more naturalistic take on human existence than anything in Neuromancer. The only character in Virtual Light that is anything like a character from the previous three novels is Loveless the Psychopath, the sadistic psychopathic killer. And he’s… One of the inside jokes with me in the book is that Loveless is this guy who if he appeared in Count Zero would just be part of the wallpaper. Turner would kill him, stuff him under a Volkswagon and go have a cappacino and not even think about it but in Virtual Light he’s this over the top crazy monstrous thing who’s almost unbelievable. He’s meant to teeter precariously on the edge of the ridiculous. So I had him in as being like the… he’s the… he’s the only character in thbook who’s who’s like a character from Neuromancer, the onlly semi-major character. And the rest… the rest of the major characters, they’re drawn a different way, you know, and I like to feel that they’re quite a bit less cartooney. They have character. They have parents and… shifting inner monologue. All of it you know? I was sort of trying to do naturalsim there. But I don’t know they’ll make of that on the Net. If I could send them a message… If Mister Gibson could send a message to the boys on the InterNet I’d tell them too… tell them to go… to go and get a dictionary and look up the word irony.