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September, 2008 : Interview:

An Interview with Cory Doctorow

I called Cory Doctorow in Toronto, where he was celebrating Passover with his family, and wandering around his old haunts with his wife Alice Taylor and his new daughter Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. We talked about birth, probability, brain function, government surveillance, Cory's new books, and writing workshops.

Interviewing Cory was interesting, even at seven in the morning. Any mundane question starts with a simple answer, and then he starts riffing on it in a rapid-fire burst of ideas as exhilarating as fireworks while your tardy pen rushes to catch up…

Keyan Bowes: There've been some major changes in your life recently: You moved from California to London and became a new dad. What prompted the move and how's it working out?

Cory Doctorow: There never was any question of my staying on in the US. I'm Canadian, and was there on a "J" Visa, as a Fulbright scholar teaching in Southern California. Now I have an "O" visa that allows me to give lectures and so on—it's for "aliens of extraordinary ability" which makes me feel like Zoltar the extraterrestrial or something. The application was 600 pages of letters and testimonials.

Alice is British, and was working for the BBC. She's accepted a job as Commissioning editor for Channel 4 television.

We were having a baby; we decided to have it on the NHS, which pays for everything. They paid for a birthing pool in our home. Because we were having a home-birth, they also provided some extremely strong pain medications, essentially heroin. When I went to fill the prescription, the druggist said, "Oh, this is for a pregnant lady. In that case, it's free."

At one point, all we had in the fridge was a bottle of champagne, a box of very good chocolate truffles, and this heroin. It was such a party fridge!

The birthing pool was an inflatable pool, about waist high, with a soft bottom, a seat, and handles. You fill it with warm tap water through a hose-pipe. When the baby's born, she doesn't start to breathe until she breaks the surface—she still gets oxygen through the umbilical. It's a very gentle process.

We returned the medications, we didn't need them. The birth only took five and a half hours, and we used hypnobirthing.

I was there, running up and down the stairs, getting hot water and tea for the midwives.

My old office is now the baby's room, so I moved to an office in Clerkenwell. It's a wonderful old neighborhood with a storied history—it was the center of the Longitude Challenge, the Manhattan project of its era. So it's full of these little precision instrument shops. There's a great food market nearby. I've painted it and put bookcases up to the high ceiling, and taken my stuff out of storage. There are pictures on my Flickr Stream.

KB: How's being a parent? Has it changed your worldview?

CD: It's awesome but tiring. I'm feeling emotions I've never felt before. I'm being colonized by this kid who's changed my brain chemistry.

The other day, I took the baby out for a walk in her pram, and a car turned the corner sharply and just missed us. I felt this overwhelming rage, I wanted to chase down the car, and break the glass and pull the driver out... I wouldn't have felt like that if I hadn't had her with me.

I read a book, "The Scientist in the Crib," describing kids as scientists. Babies formulate hypotheses about how the world works, and test the results. I can see that happening as she looks around her intently.

There's a co-evolution between babies and parents. Take nursing, for instance. An adult would probably want the ability to put off nursing, which may have made evolutionary sense if the reason to put it off was to escape from a predator or make a long trek out of a drought zone. But when the baby cries and the milk lets down, you have no choice, you have to feed her. It's a trade-off, and it's interesting that it's better for your genes to feed the baby immediately after it cries than having that discretion.

And yes, it's changed my worldview. I recently sold the UK rights to Little Brother, my novel about teenagers fighting back against government surveillance. The UK is as bad as the US, seeing terrorists everywhere. The head of Scotland Yard actually advocated DNA testing of all children to see if they had criminal tendencies and the head of the Metropolitan Police has put up posters asking you to call in if you see people looking at the CCTV cameras that are everywhere in case they're thinking of ways to defeat them.

It has gotten to a point where you're told not to look too closely or too hard, where asking is suspicious in itself. At an airport, you can't ask why you have to put all the liquids in little tubes or how anyone could blow a plane up with a moisture bomb, you'll get arrested.

As a parent, I think it's really important to make my child and her generation aware of the freedoms that existed. It's too easy to lose them and not realize what's gone. I want her to be security literate. I'm pleased that my book has come out in the society where I'll be raising my child.

KB: Your book Little Brother launched on April 29th 08 and you made draft versions available earlier. Can you talk a bit about the book and the reactions you've been getting?

CD: Several people have told me that they waited for it to come out to buy copies for every child they know. It's about freedom and fighting to keep it. No one has said anything negative.

When my Dad was young, he was a radical and also a computer scientist, and the two things were considered incompatible. Computers were seen as this instrument of oppression, agents of dehumanization. By the time I was growing up, it had changed completely. Computers were enabling freedom of speech, providing a means for anyone to say what they wanted. Now it's come 180 degrees from there, back to the computer as oppressive.

As people at all computer-literate levels know, the technology can be used to spy on everyone and everything. Under the rubric of drug enforcement, and preventing terrorism, or child predation, the technology is being developed so it can be monitored. But actually, crime is dropping. It's not a big problem.

People are being scared. We humans are bad at intuitively estimating risk and probability. Las Vegas is proof. If you got off the plane looked at the casinos and thought, How are they building $100 million casinos if the clients win? You would get right back on the plane. But instead, people look at it and think, That's a great building; there must be something to this gambling thing.

So we're irrationally scared for our children. There's an interesting blog called "Free Range Kids," by Lenore Skenazy, who lets her 9 year old son ride the subway alone. Her theory is by overprotecting our children, we're raising incompetent adults.

We're designing infrastructure for surveillance and control, without asking what happens if unfriendly interests get access to it.

KB: But hasn't that horse already left the barn?

CD: Not really. Technology is moving fast, there are new generations of technology coming along. We can use it to overcome surveillance; all we need is tech-savvy and time, and kids have that in spades.

Society is experimenting on restrictions starting with kids. It always starts with those least able to refuse. Next it'll be the homeless, then criminals. There's mission creep.

There's been a proposal here in the UK to fingerprint every passenger who checks in at Terminal 5, and then again at the aircraft, to make sure it's the same person. The data will be deleted after 24 hours. But it will be made available to the police, and they won't delete their copy. So you could enter the criminal justice system just by taking a domestic flight.

They already take DNA swabs for everyone's who's arrested or detained, and maintain that record even if the person is released. A guy wearing a jacket was walking down to the Tube looking at his cell-phone for messages from his girlfriend. He didn't make eye-contact with the guard at the top of the escalator. When the train came, he was engrossed in his messages. Before he could catch his train, he was arrested by police who took his cell-phone and downloaded all the data, searched his apartment, took his computers and searched them, and took his fingerprints and DNA swabs. He spent the night in jail, was released on bail, and then all charges were dropped—but they didn't return or delete his data. His life is still on file {

There's a company here that's developing uniforms with RFID trackers in them, so you can see where the kids are at all times. Of course, it's easy just to give your jacket to a friend to move around for you.

I think it's important to resist this. The book's an explicit exhortation to fight back. I hope it will make a difference. The audio book rights have been sold, and so have several foreign rights.

KB: You once said that you wrote that book in a burst of activity that was intense but not necessarily pleasant?

CD: Yes. I normally treat writing as a job. I sit down and write regularly, maybe a page a day, maybe a bit more. I set goals. I never thought much of waiting for a thunderbolt of inspiration to strike me on the forehead. But when it does strike...

This book came to me fully formed, when I was out for a walk with Alice. I started telling her about it, and she said, "You could call it Little Brother." That was it! I went home and did a thousand-word treatment that I sent off to my agent. He showed it around and got a great response. By the time he came back to me, I had already written ten thousand words. I wrote all the time, everywhere. I wrote on the Tube, missed my stop, went to the next stop, got out, crossed the platform and got the train back, went up the escalator, still typing. A couple of days I only stopped because my wrists hurt so much. The story was battering its way out of my finger tips. And eight weeks from the first proposal, I typed the last words of the story.

It felt like passing a coconut. It's not the way I'd choose to write. Holy ecstasy isn't compatible with a job.

KB: You've been coming out with a book a year since 2003. Do you have any favorites among them?

CD: I guess it's always my most recent book. The books I wrote years ago are strangers to me. I don't remember everything that's in them, and I don't always recall writing specific parts of them. They're like letters from myself as a different person to the person I am now. But what's interesting is the revelation that ideas I've later discussed in speeches or essays are there, only reflected as fiction, even before I knew I had them.

There was this friend I had, years ago at summer camp, with a degenerative form of epilepsy. He had an operation to sever his corpus callosum, cutting the connection between two hemispheres of his brain. If he saw something with one eye, he would recognize the object, but not know its name. With the other eye, he would know its name, but not what it was. If he said that name out loud, however, then he could hear it, and connect the two.

I have a theory of cognition: that sometimes writing is telling something to yourself, communicating from one part of the brain to another.

KB: What are your new projects?

CD: I have three books coming out this year: Little Brother, a collection of essays called Content, and a collection of six comic books based on my stories. The collection will be available under the Creative Commons License as a PDF, though the individual comics aren't. The essays have a foreword by John Perry Barlow, a lyricist, a former GOP back-bencher who ran Dick Cheney's campaign, and the author of the Declaration of Independence of cyberspace.

I'm also working on a book for children based on Anda's Game that will come out after my next adult book. It's going to be called "For the Win," which is a superlative like "awesome" used by gamers. The theme is about Trade Unions getting on the internet; capital has been moving around the globe for the last twenty years, but labor is fragmented. This has several virtual worlds, which are run by corporations, and everyone's on them. The virtual economies are huge, there are markets and there's hedging activity in virtual gold. They're like the real world, but the rulers aren't accountable to the people, they're accountable to the shareholders and the clients. So if someone's a trouble-maker, they just disconnect the account.

In this environment, some people learn to game the system; they pay "gold-farmers" in poor countries to just perform the repetitive tasks needed to win this virtual gold. The International Workers of the World Wide Web, IWWWW ("neo-Wobblies"), sees an opportunity to unionize the gold farmers, and through them, other workers. The management of the virtual worlds is ambivalent about this; they're not thrilled by gold-farming. Eventually, the IWWWW decides to bring down the four largest virtual worlds through a series of Ponzi schemes.

KB: You taught at the Clarion Writing Workshop last year, and you're teaching Clarion West this year. What draws you to the Clarion experience? What would you advise others?

It's exhilarating to be with a new group of writers who are starting out, making interesting mistakes. You see people making uninteresting mistakes all the time, but these workshops are beyond that. Reading so many manuscripts closely is the best education a writer can have. In fact, I tell the students that the real value of the workshops is not in the writing but in the critiquing—thinking up exactly what you want to say about a story, and understanding others' points of view.

What I'd advise anyone who's teaching at Clarion for the first time is to try to get as much reading done beforehand as possible. You need to read several pieces by the same student to get a sense of the trajectory. It's a huge amount of reading, especially if you're teaching late in the session. I taught not only Clarion, but Viable Paradise, but I'm going to take a five-year hiatus on workshops now while we raise the kid.

What I'd tell Clarion students is that it isn't about writing the perfect piece and polishing it to a publishable finish; it's about changing yourself as a writer. It's much better to write an ambitious work where you can develop.

I'd also warn them not to expect immediate results—that they'll burst into publication after they leave. Sometimes there's a hiatus while they digest what they've learned. That's what happened to me. I was published before Clarion, and then for five years I did nothing. I was bummed. Any rational person would have given up. I didn't. I think that's what distinguishes a writer or an entrepreneur or a parent, for that matter—you have to continue when any rational person wouldn't. You have to believe you'll beat the odds.

Of course, it can be overdone. There are times when irrational exuberance and survival don't mix. Like the trader at Societe Generale who lost 5 billion dollars (Or was that Euros? Dollars are the American Peso now). And Las Vegas.

Copyright © 2008, Keyan Bowes. All Rights Reserved.

About Keyan Bowes

Keyan Bowes is frequently ambushed by stories, and took the 2007 Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers in self defense. Keyan’s work has been accepted by Strange Horizons, Lucrezia and Big Pulp, and will be included in two upcoming anthologies, The Leonardo Variations and The Book of Tentacles.


Sep 2, 05:27 by IROSF
Do you have a comment about Doctorow or this interview?

Article can be found here.
Sep 2, 15:41 by J Andrews
Excellent interview!

I really loved "Anda's Game", so I'm looking forward to that book.

I like your bio too, Keyan.
Sep 3, 07:12 by Keyan Bowes
Excellent interview!

I really loved "Anda's Game", so I'm looking forward to that book.

I like your bio too, Keyan.

Thanks! yeah, I'm looking forward to Anda's Game, too. I LOVED Little Brother.
Sep 3, 18:48 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I must admit to not having read much of Doctorow's work (heresy! He's Canadian!), except for his semi-regular columns in Locus, and his numerous essays on Creative Commons and IP. I am, though, very interested in reading Little Brother. His concerns dove tail mine (and many other people) and I would like to see if he is as eloquent and intelligent in his fiction as his non-fiction. Are there any other Doctorow books that are recommended?
Sep 6, 04:32 by George Oliver
What I really want to know is what he was typing on when he was riding up the escalator.
Sep 13, 01:33 by Dario Ciriello
That's a terrific interview, Keyan :) Thanks!

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