As I mentioned in my last post, William Gibson is one of my favorite writers to hear talk about his work, and I thought for this fortnight's Firmament, I'd celebrate his new Paris Review interview with a list of ten favorite Gibson interview quotes. These are hardly exhaustive: one thing I quickly realized when I started to dig beyond the Paris Review and my own two interviews with him was that he gives a lot of interviews (at least in recent years), with all kinds of outlets. He certainly says some of the same things from time to time--as you could hardly help but do, especially since he hears the same questions even more often: his line that science fiction is his "native literary culture" (the one in which he was born but may not always remain) is frequently repeated, but no less true or well-thought-out for being so.
But what's impressive is the thought and insight he brings to all of these discussions, no matter who is on the other side of the conversation and no matter how many times he's heard the "are you a science fiction writer?" question (yup, I asked it too). When I talked to him I felt like he would take anything I asked and run with it in ways I didn't expect, while still trying to answer the question. I was lucky enough to talk to him early in the publication process for both Spook Country and Zero History, but I get the feeling that even those interviewers who catch him later still find him doing his best to think through something new while talking to them.
And so the quotes below (and my search of his interviews to find them) are just a sample, and likely not a representative one: they are largely from interviews for his most recent trilogy. They don't include, for example, the Gibson doc from 2000, No Maps for These Territories, which I did see a while back and which largely consists of him holding forth in the back of a car as it drives around North America. As much as the film might try to build him up as a visionary technosage, he comes off there and elsewhere merely as a genial, thoughtful, and freakishly observant person who is too unassuming to really warrant the verb "hold forth" and who claims nothing more than being one writer trying to pay attention to what's going on around him: an anthropologist, as he often says in the interviews, rather than a futurist.
Here is some of what he's noticed (in no actual order, despite the numbers):
1. On what drove him through Neuromancer, from an early (1986) interview with academic Larry McCaffrey:
Panic. Blind animal panic. It was a desperate quality that I think comes through in the book pretty clearly: Neuromancer is fueled by my terrible fear of losing the reader's attention. Once it hit me that I had to come up with something, to have a hook on every page, I looked at the stories I'd written up to that point and tried to figure out what had worked for me before. I had Molly in "Johnny Mnemonic"; I had an environment in "Burning Chrome." So I decided I'd try to put these things together. But all during the writing of the book I had the conviction that I was going to be permanently shamed when it appeared. And even when I finished it I had no perspective on what I'd done. I still don't, for that matter. I always feel like one of the guys inside those incredible dragons you see snaking through the crowds in Chinatown. Sure, the dragon is very brightly colored, but from the inside you know the whole thing is pretty flimsy- just a bunch of old newspapers and papier-mache and balsa struts.
2. On the word, "neuromancer," from the Paris Review interview:
Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.
I believed that this could be induced at a number of levels in a text--at the microlevel with neologisms and portmanteaus, or using a familiar word in completely unfamiliar ways. There are a number of well-known techniques for doing this--all of the classic surrealistic techniques, for instance, especially the game called exquisite corpse, where you pass a folded piece of paper around the room and write a line of poetry or a single word and fold it again and then the next person blindly adds to it. Sometimes it produces total gibberish, but it can be spookily apt. A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite-corpse solitaire.
3. Also from that interview, on why his family background (he was orphaned in his teens) might cause him to write about loners and nomads:
Before we moved to Vancouver, my wife and I went to Europe. And I realized that I didn't travel very well. I was too tense for it. I was delighted that I was there, and I had a sense of storing up the sort of experiences I imagined artists had to store up in order to be artists. But it was all a bit extreme for me--Franco's Spain is still the only place I've ever had a gun pointed at my head. I always felt that everybody else had parents somewhere who would come and get their ass out of trouble. But nobody was going to come get me out of trouble. Nobody was going to take care of me. The hedonic risk taking that so many of my peers were into just made me anxious. A lot of people got into serious trouble taking those risks. I never wanted to get into serious trouble.
4. On his appreciation of the "hybrid vigor" of his adopted home of Canada, from a 2008 interview with io9:
Canada is set up to run on steady immigration. It feels like a twenty first century country to me because it's not interested in power. It negotiates and does business. It gets along with other countries. The power part is very nineteenth century. 99 percent of ideology we have today is very nineteenth century. The twentieth century was about technology, and the nineteenth was ideology.
5. From a 1999 interview with Cory Doctorow at Craphound, on the democratization of celebrity:
I realised that everyone in Western society, in some weird way, believes that they've had the experience of producing feature films. You can get in a cab in Vancouver and the 20-year-old driver speaks more knowingly of Michael Ovitz than anyone in the industry. They just know! And it's perhaps not unhealthy.
Although my own experience in that arena has left me convinced that the actual experience of being there remains esoteric, and that people who live there have a very powerful interest in maintaining the exclusivity of the real area.
There's always a real area. A couple of times I've gone to big stadium rock concerts at some artist's invitation, and there's this invariable, fascinating and rather sad situation of concentric circles of availability. There are Green Rooms within Green Rooms literally within Green Rooms. There are seven or eight degrees of exclusivity, and within each circle of exclusivity, everyone is so happy to be there, and they don't know that the next level exists. It's like Freemasonry, and eventually you find yourself in the room with the Radiant Being around whom all this is revolving. It's very bizarre, and it's quasi-religious, or possibly genuinely religious. Spooky. It's a spooky and interesting thing.
6. On his relation to his character Cayce's brand allergy, from his talk with About.com about Pattern Recognition:
I actually like to participate in the world of branding. I'm not an entirely unhappy camper in the field of late capitalism. I enjoy cities too much to be even a new-wave Marxist. I don't feel any puritanical aversion when I look at people buying things. Actually, I have nothing against the Michelin Man, but where I go "Cayce" on branding is with Tommy Hilfiger or something like that that seems to be a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of something, just sort of becoming further and further and further from what the initial impulse was.
7. On how he builds his fiction from observation, in a rather generous response to my remark that the intensity of his descriptions in Zero History approached the point of creepiness (in a good way):
It may just be the fundamentally creepy way in which I perceive things. The longer I do this, I suspect the more transparent I become with the nature of the authorial lens. I'm someone who seems to retain a lot of that information. I do recall that in my earliest experiments at trying to produce tiny fragments of prose, I was kind of stuck until I started describing objects, and immediately the description of an object would become a very complex thing, and narrative would start to emerge from it.
8. An observation, from someone always searching for the new, that that approach to novelty may be outdated, from a discussion with Wired UK when Zero History came out:
I think being genuinely excited about the new thing is getting rather old! The new thing might be a kind of atemporality in which the more sophisticated consumers and operators cultivate a very long "now". People who have a longer "now", regardless of their chronological age, if their "now" is long enough, they may know that the latest scam on the street is actually from the nineteenth century. They’re the people who might recognise a Ponzi scheme. Or a bubble. With the Twitter hive mind available for free on the internet to people who can access it, that sort of knowledge is not limited to people of a certain age.
9. And from that same interview, on the appealingly horrible "spider" at the center of his most recent trilogy, the seemingly all-powerful (and fabulously named) marketing executive Hubertus Bigend:
He’s incredibly useful as he’s like having a fifty-gallon drum of plot thickener, because he can decide to do absolutely anything… I don’t think there is really an answer to your question, because I wound up drawing him simultaneously in two or three ways -- he either is a Bond villain, or he thinks he’s a Bond villain, or he’s not. He’s either agnostic or neutral in some sense Luciferian or Satanic. He’s meant to be more of a sort of miasma of the zeitgeist. He floats in. He’s everyone worst nightmare of who might actually be running this place.
I guess he’s the worst composite nightmare that I could stand to live with. I mean I could have made him more like Donald Trump, but I couldn’t have stood it... I needed someone with charm, and someone whose dangerousness emerged from randomness, and as he likes to suggest, because at some level he has a fundamental disinterest in wealth, even though he’s very wealthy. In this book there’s a turning point in that he’s on the brink of losing his chance to control the entire world, and he turns out rather nasty. It’s not that he wants all the money, but he would always want to go to the next level, just to see what its like.
I need a certain stimulation. It kind of feels like when you're floating underwater and you're breathing through a straw. The open Firefox is the straw: like, I can get out of this if I have to. I can stay under until I can't stand it anymore, and then I go to BoingBoing or something.