Writers Talk interview with Cory Doctorow

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Cory Doctorow has finished his tour of the United States, promoting his newest novel, Homeland. After a couple of failed intercepts, Doctorow and I sat down on Friday, Feb. 22 at opposite ends of the telephone network to talk about Homeland, writing sequels, writing science fiction and the absurdity of Hollywood depictions of technology.

The interview aired Monday, March 11 at 7 p.m. on WCRS and Wednesday, March 13 at 8:00 p.m. on WCBE.

WT: From the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University, this is Ben Keith. Joining us today is Cory Doctorow, author of Homeland, a book about young adults challenging government surveillance and corruption in the digital age. Welcome, Cory, to Writers Talk.

Doctorow: Thank you.

WT: Homeland is the sequel to your earlier book, Little Brother. For context, can you tell us about Little Brother?

Doctorow: So Little Brother is a novel about teenagers who, after a terrorist attack on San Francisco, find that their hometown has been turned into an airport checkpoint on steroids, where the Bill of Rights need not apply because the Department of Homeland Security is going to shake down every person who walks down the street, and if they don't like the look of you, you'll get whisked away because "Don't You Know That There's An Emergency On?" And what they realize is that the only way they're going to get the freedoms that they think they deserve as Americans back in their hometown is to kick the DHS out.

So they build their own network of hacked hacked Xboxes that they cryptographically secure using an off-the-shelf mesh wireless protocol. And they call it the Xnet, and by using it, they are able to communicate without the NSA eavesdropping on them. They organize a guerrilla army that kicks the DHS out of San Francisco and brings the Bill of Rights back to America.

In the second book, the characters are a couple of years older, and the crisis they're facing is a much slower kind of crisis, where all of a sudden it seems like everybody you know is out of work and no one has much money and people are getting kicked out of their houses and any kind of protest is met with a hyper-militarized, aggressive response that suggests that the police are so bed-wettingly afraid of any kind of dissent that it can't be tolerated even for an instant.

And against that backdrop, Marcus, the hero of the first novel, finds himself in possession of a giant trove of government and corporate leaks detailing all kinds of misdeeds. And he has to balance his desire to leak these and to make them public in a way that doesn't compromise him with his duties as the webmaster and digital strategist for a new kind of political candidate, someone who's running for office without party affiliation, without major donors, who is trying to get elected just on the strength of his integrity and honesty so that he will only be accountable to the voters who vote for him and not the moneyed interests.

So it's a story of a balancing act, and it's not just a balancing act between his day job and his secret identity, but it's also a balancing act between his activist instincts and the dangers that they put other people in when they follow him into battle.

WT: Is Homeland describing the present, or is it telling a tale of some dystopian future?

Doctorow: It's not really either. It's more like a ship in a bottle. People sometimes characterize science fiction as a predictive literature, but I think that's rubbish.

Science fiction has a terrible record as a predictive literature. The only way you can characterize Science fiction as being in any way predictive is if you do the intellectual equivalent of firing a shotgun at the side of a barn and then drawing a target around wherever the pellets hit. Science fiction has made so many predictions that some of them are bound to come true, but most of them never did.

On the other hand, science fiction has an excellent track record of predicting the present. That is, for telling people things that they didn't know about the world they're living in and the way technology was affecting them. I think what science fiction does is kind of a literary version of what the doctor does. When you show up in her office with a sore throat, she touches the back of your throat with a swab and then she rubs that swab on a Petri dish, a kind of artificial constrained world. And over the course of the weekend, that artificial constrained world becomes a kind of thought experiment where the one, totalizing force in it is whatever was growing in the back of your throat. And by consulting that artificial environment, the doctor can tell you stuff about what is going on in your much-more-complicated body.

A science fiction writer can pluck out a single idea, a single technological fact about the world as it is, and construct a world as it could never be, a world where that one fact is a totalizing force of the universe, where everything is organized around drones, or everything is organized around cyberwar, or everything is organized around clean energy. And by doing so, she doesn't make a prediction. What she does is she helps us see what's going on in the world around us, in the same way the doctor does. It's not set in any specific point in the future; it's the kind of contrafactual near future where some of the stuff is real and some of the stuff isn't, but the stuff that isn't is at least plausible, and by not pinning it down to any time and place, I try to signify to the reader that what I'm doing here is a thought experiment; it's not a prediction.

WT: What was the inspiration for Homeland, the swab-in-the-back-of-the-throat moment?

Doctorow: Well, there's a whole ton of it. Homeland, obviously its major inspiration was Little Brother. Having written Little Brother and having four or so years go by, I found myself kind of missing it. I have never written a sequel before. For me, a great part of the excitement of writing is discovering what I'm going to write. The plan of battle is the first casualty of any war, and a novel rarely resembles a thing that I think I'm going to set out to write. I always thought, "I want to revisit that old ground." The more I thought about a sequel to Little Brother, the more I realized that it would be really fun to revisit these people and their adventures. Writing the sequel turned out to be like discovering that your old best friends from high school are still all hanging around with each other, against all the odds, and still getting into great trouble, and they're happy to have you along for the adventure. That was really my major impetus to do this.

In terms of where the two books come from, or where they come out of, part of it comes out of a frustration with the technothriller genre. Like everyone else, I get dragged to the movies in the summer to see, basically, endless variations on Mission Impossible. And all of these movies, whether they're Bond movies or Mission Impossible or some no-name off-brand version of them, they all revolve around computers. But not computers as you or I have ever seen them - they revolve around ridiculous fantasy computers that are so unlike the computers we use that they seem to indicate a kind of fear and contempt on the part of filmmakers for information technology. I mean, what else would explain a computer where all the type is in capital letters, where it rolls across the screen one line at a time while making this horrible brrrt-brrrt-brrrt noise? If I had that computer, I would throw it out the window, and I love computers. I've used computers all my life. I started when I was six. My dad was bringing home terminals connected to a mainframe at the university, and I feel like they are genuinely exciting in and of themselves. They don't need to be tarted up with Hollywood ridiculousness. It's like making a film adaptation of Moby Dick but deciding that the film would be more interesting if whales could fly and had laser beams that came out of their eyes.

And so I decided that I would write a technothriller where the technology worked. The technology was if not real at least realistic. And that constraint - make the technology realistic - I think produced a technothriller that has really resonated with people. Incidentally, my friend Bruce Sterling defines a technothriller as a novel the president appears in.

WT: What's your writing process like? Do you have a set word count?

Doctorow: I always work to a daily word count. When we're talking about novel projects it's usually structured around deadlines, so I divide the number of days until the deadline by the number of words I think the book is going to be, and I write that many words every day. In the case of Homeland, I wrote a great deal of it while I was touring in Germany with the German editions of For The Win and Little Brother. We'd do anywhere between four and five school visits every day, and my German translator would speak for half an hour, and while my German translator was speaking in German, I had nothing to do except sit on stage so I'd get my laptop out and write the book. Inevitably, a kid would push her hand up and say, "Herr Doctor Professor Doctorow, what is it you're doing on the stage?" And I'd say, "I'm writing the sequel to Little Brother," and they say "Oh so cool!" And it was! It was fun to do that in public - a bit of showoffery - but it was also good discipline.

At one point, I could only write when I was inspired, and I think that that is a poisonous thing that writers fall into, to wait for inspiration to strike. I know some good writers who do it, but I don't know any happy writers who do it. If this is the thing that keeps you sane and makes you whole, to wait until something totally outside of your control occurs in order to do it is going to make you miserable and partial. And so I learned how to write because I had to write, and learned to write when it was time to write. To do that, you have to first acknowledge while you're writing the worlds you don't know whether they're any good. The way you feel about the words, whether you're writing well or you're writing badly, has no nexus with the quality of the words themselves. It just reflects your internal state. it has more to do with your blood sugar than your writing.

Once you get past, and teach yourself how to write on good days and bad days, you find after the fact that you can't tell the difference between the so-called 'good writing' and the so-called 'bad' writing, that it's just writing, and that some of it goes and some of it stays, but that doesn't have any nexus with how you were feeling when you wrote it.

WT: Thank you, Cory. This has been Writers Talk, a production of the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University.