William Gibson on wa-wa pedals, emotional bandwidth, and space castles

by Emma Alvarez Gibson


By far William Gibson’s most nuanced work, Zero History is as removed from his first novel, Neuromancer, as 1984 is from 2010. That is to say: a lifetime. Unmistakably a Gibson novel, it’s nonetheless a book written by a man who’s lived much longer than the kid who wrote the book on cyberspace. Tense, often claustrophobic, ultra hip and unapologetically meta, Zero History is also very funny, and—wait for it—very, very tender. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Twitter plays a central role in the plot.

Gibson has taken to Twitter easily, eagerly (he is @GreatDismal there, for the swamp near his childhood home). Indeed, upon occasion he is accused of being, as he puts it, “too posty.” But that’s only so much forest-for-the-trees, because it’s a little bit mind-blowing to watch the “Noir Prophet of cyberspace” interact with cyberspace, every day, in real time. It’s a feedback loop of the highest order. And it doesn’t hurt that Gibson has a great deal of interest in a wide array of topics, a quirky sense of humor, and is happy to connect with the thousands of people who want to talk to him.

At the start of the interview, he mentions that he’ll be making a cup of tea for his wife (“Mrs. GD,” as he refers to her on Twitter), and that it might make some noise. Which rather neatly sums up the William Gibson experience, both viva voce and on Twitter; it’s so utterly normal and easy that one has to kick oneself to be reminded—that’s William Gibson you’re talking to.

You have a keen interest in and aptitude for the details that tell a larger story; fashion, societal norms, weaponry, in addition to technology. And from your Twitter feed, it’s clear that there’s a certain extent to which you take note of these details as you go about your day…

Yeah.

Is it about absorbing them and letting them sort of cook in the machine? Or is it something that you actively consider when you’re preparing for a novel?

I sort of have a built in hopper, or I’ve acquired one, into which I toss every bit of novelty that I encounter when I’m not writing. It goes into the hopper, and then it just sort of cooks — it composts, or something. I pay absolutely no attention to it, until the day which, for some reason, it pops back out. When it pops back out, it’s been transfigured by somehow having melded itself with something that happened to be adjacent to it, and so  it’s kind of a made-up novelty. And that’s generally where the stuff comes from. Or, increasingly, like with this most recent setup, I haven’t had the need for it to transform. I can often just encounter it on the web and toss it directly into the narrative and let the narrative find its own use for it.

To a certain extent we’re already doing it, but how do you envision our having “internalized the interface”?

Every time I’ve thought how one might realistically depict the moment to moment experiences of the really average person in a much more fully locative media environment, it’s kind of like — I don’t even know if it’s possible. [But] I saw a video on YouTube a couple of years ago that actually got it. I think it might have been done for a Japanese electronics company. It was just a woman coming in and making a pot of tea in her kitchen. But the whole thing was desktop. Like, every surface was desktop and it was animated, and everything was giving her way more information than she needed to make a pot of tea, while it was trying to sell her stuff, and that was just visual; I wasn’t getting her audio. Her visual input, all the physical world, was completely covered with information.

The genuinely new things are really hard to imagine. When you do imagine them, they’re very hard to relay in anything like a sense in which the people who are totally used to them would use them. There’s always this factor in future-tech science fiction where somebody, be it the characters or the narrative voice, is really kind of wowed by future tech. It’s a powerful impulse. You want the reader to get a wowie. But there’s a way in which it’s not naturalistic; it’s not a genuinely naturalistic vision of the future, because that would be one in which people take it utterly for granted. You can do it, but it’s kind of harder to do; it requires a second level of self-awareness in the writing.

What approach do you take when you’re writing from a woman’s point of view?

I don’t know! I mean, I don’t really have that much of a conscious approach. The female point of view characters tend to evolve as people I’m comfortable spending 14 months with [laughs] because that’s about how long it takes me to do one of those books. Like, I’ve yet to do an unsympathetic, however interesting, point of view character. Particularly the women. They tend to be very sympathetic figures, and I think that’s just because otherwise I’d just go bats, you know, like, “Why am I stuck in here with this crazy bitch?” [Laughs] You know? Other than that, it’s just, I like women, and I’m a lifelong observer of them. Trying to figure out what they think and why they think what they think, and that’s kind of it.

When I started to write science fiction, I didn’t think there was much happening, culturally, at least in American science fiction. Unempowered, passive women were one of the clichés…so, [I thought] okay, we’ve got to specialize in kick-ass female characters. [This was] somewhat before it became the done thing; when Johnny Mnemonic was trying to get itself made, the studio scene didn’t want anything to do with it. You couldn’t have hot chicks kicking ass. It wasn’t that long ago they said, “No, no, no, they guy has to do that!” I kind of think those guys either all got sent to some educational camp or were fired, ‘cause they wouldn’t have been able to operate in that new environment.

I came late to your work. Three years ago, a friend told me I would love Pattern Recognition. He said, “I know science fiction isn’t your thing, but this is different. It’s a female protagonist, she’s in advertising, I think she’s a lot like you.” And from the first page, I was hooked. So I sort of worked my way backwards. Zero History seems to me your funniest, and also your most tender work to date. Do you see that, and if so, to what do you attribute the shift?

Well, let me see… [chuckles] kind of from the top, you’re obviously, like — you were my dream demographic when I wrote Pattern Recognition, because you’re a woman who hadn’t read Neuromancer. [Laughs] That’s kind of the window that I was holding up while I was doing that. “Okay, imagine there’s a woman, and she buys this book…” and it’s like having a fresh page, a totally fresh chapter to start with, and it obviously worked, so that’s great.

The thing about [Zero History] being funny…I thought there was a lot of really funny stuff in Neuromancer, but it couldn’t ever be reviewed that way. You can’t do punk-dystopian-dryly humorous. It just gets too complicated for what book reviews usually do. And that will affect the dialogue that sort of grows up around a book or an author’s body of work, and when I got to the Bridge books, I deliberately made the humor in those books a little broader. There’s a kind of Keystone Kops element to those books, where people are crashing around. Rydell is, up front, a tragic comic protagonist. You can like him, but you just have to perpetually groan at what he doesn’t get, and the ridiculous shit that he gets himself into. He’s sort of like a Candide figure. He’s trying to do right in this hopelessly flawed and snakey world that he inhabits, and I guess the experiment I did with those books, that I never talked about when they were being written and being published, is that I wrote them as though they were imagined near-futures inhabited, for the most part, by people from the year in which I wrote them. Like, Rydell is not a future guy at all. I didn’t touch the transform button that a science fiction writer has to have to make the character part of the environment.

And I didn’t know exactly why I did it that way, but it was part of getting to the next set of books. And it was sort of part of the humor allowing itself to show a little bit more. If I had gone from Neuromancer to writing a comic/satirical novel for my second book, it would have been kind of a tough sell. I didn’t have that consciously in mind, but I think I understood it intuitively. Like, After Neuromancer, we’re not going to make the reader laugh too loud at the environment or setting. We have to keep the wa-wa pedal going, you know, the “O-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The theremin, we have to keep the theremin going in the background. This is science fiction, after all. [Laughs]

I’ve sort of been shifting out of that. Maybe only temporarily, I don’t know. It was part of a semi-conscious program to widen, kind of get some elbow room from the genre I had started in. As for it being a more tender book, it’s part of some progress from when I started writing. Neuromancer’s a book where people don’t have parents. It’s a completely adolescent book. I wasn’t physically adolescent when I wrote the book, but my inner adolescent was still breathing heavily over my shoulder most of the time, and I sort of let him go for it, I sort of bounced things off my inner adolescent: Cyberspace! Cowboys! Butt-kicking chicks in black leather! Rich people in space castles! Yes!

It drives the book, but the emotionality is very weird and narrow and stylized. And pulpy, for the most part. I think I knew that I didn’t know how to do anything else. I got it as wide and deep as I could get it, and then with the subsequent books, it’s increased. The range increases: people may have parents, they have feelings about their parents, and eventually they have relationships that are more emotionally complicated. It’s an odd process. And it fills me with a kind of anxiety when I do anything that widens the emotional bandwidth in a way that I notice it, I go, Ohhh, I don’t know, it’s not safe! I don’t know where that comes from, but I keep doing it in spite of myself. [Although] every once in awhile, my wife would say, “I like Milgrim, but I don’t see what Fiona would see in him.”

I had the same thought! I love Milgrim to pieces, but I kept thinking, What does Fiona see in him?

Well, my guess is that she’s grown up in a somewhat toxic environment. I think that her family origin has predisposed her at some point to look for the opposite of what was bad news at home, at least to some extent, in relationships, so basically she’s not her mother. I don’t want to look to deeply into it; it would be really sad if it at some level she’s doing it to piss her mother off. But that’s a matter of happy endings being mainly about when we choose to roll the credits. I know some people will read that book and go, “Oh, that’s an awfully happy ending.” But you know, who knows where any of them are headed. We’re leaving the story feeling hopeful. That kind of thing always makes me feel quite miserable [laughs] — “Don’t be too hopeful!”

You may easily chalk this up to an overabundance of Deep Otaku Focus, but what, if any, is the significance of Milgrim’s name?

Milgrim’s name is actually a very common name in the very small local area of the American south that I grew up in. I can’t remember now why I chose it—it wouldn’t have been any kind of rational reason. In a way it’s kind of an antique American name. It made him seem real to me because I knew people with that name growing up. It’s not…an impressive name? A lot of people assumed it had something to do with Dr. Stanley Milgram, who performed notorious psych experiments, but it didn’t.

He also brings to mind the concept of a pilgrim; is that intentional?

Not really, but as I worked with it I could see how people might think that. A lot of where fiction happens is in the reader’s projection on the text and part of the secret of learning to do it is that you learn where to leave it open for the reader to project their own meaning and ideas of what something looks like. That’s why it’s really counterproductive to over describe a main character. Some people think Cayce is incredibly beautiful. They’re able to have that conviction because I was incredibly stingy with descriptors. She doesn’t think she’s good looking at all.

[At this point, the interview has run over its allotted time. Gibson generously says we can keep talking; your humble servant does her best to ask everything on a separate list of Twitter-related questions. But forgets several important ones, such as what the deal is with his love for Steely Dan. Another time, perhaps.]

Any more plans to work with clothing designers?

Not particularly. I’m kind of a groupie for that stuff, but the sort of thing I like is such a narrow testing field…there’s nothing to talk about, really. It’s more fun for me if it actually doesn’t produce artifacts. I love being able to sit there and listen to people talk about what they do and how they do it.

What are some of your favorite Nick Cave songs?

Almost anything on The Boatman’s Call, which is my very favorite Nick Cave record. One of those records I listened to so many times that I’ve become incapable of listening to it, if you know what I mean.

Have you been listening to Grinderman?

Not yet. I’ve been so busy. I plan to catch up on what Mr. Cave’s been up to when I’m on my tour.

Explain the appeal of Samuel Pepys [@samuelpepys, famed 17th century diarist, now with his own Twitter account!].

It’s like, there’s this guy, and he’s walking around having this deeply and sort of sometimes pathetically recognizable life. And he’s tweeting about it, but he’s tweeting about it from the 17th century. [Laughs] Every now and then I find myself thinking, “I wonder what Pepys is up to.”  He went to some trouble to have his diary bound in boards and put them in his library. He enjoyed the idea that one day people would read it.

What’s next?

Just the book tour. Other than that there’s nothing going on. In some weird way that I don’t understand, I get the beginning of the idea for the next book when I’m on the book tour. At the end of the book tour I’m so grateful [it’s over] that starting to write a novel seems like a good idea.

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For more of Gibson, visit his site and follow him on Twitter. Photo by Michael O’Shea

Emma’s unofficial motto has long been “PUBLICATION OR BUST!” Jack Move is her fifth from-scratch magazine. A writer and creative gun-for-hire, she’s had a hand in all types of media, at every step in the process. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter (@ealvarezgibson) and find out more at www.emmaalvarezgibson.com.

8 Responses to “William Gibson on wa-wa pedals, emotional bandwidth, and space castles”

  1. John Branch says:

    No time for comments on particular points, but thank you for this!

  2. Claudia Templeton says:

    I liked this interview,@GreatDismal never ceases to amaze. Intimate and tender, some revelations unexpected. Fortunately I didn’t miss his answer to the question about Steely Dan because I love it too. And I totally get what Fiona saw in Milgrim.

    • admin says:

      Claudia, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment! (Secretly, I too like “The Dan,” as @GreatDismal has sometimes referred to them.)

  3. Jens Reinke says:

    This is a great and insightful interview. Thanks for posting it!

  4. I’m 99% sure the video referred to near the beginning (the “fully locative media environment”) is my film/research project ‘Augmented (hyper)Reality’!
    Its very exciting for me, thanks for this interview!

    Film is at http://www.vimeo.com/8569187

    • admin says:

      Keiichi, I’m so glad you provided a link to your project, as I’ve been very curious about the video! Thank you for reading.

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