Neal Stephenson @ Waterstone’s 15-Oct-2008
Situated on Sauchiehall Street, bang in the centre of Glasgow, is my favourite Waterstone’s store. There, on the first floor, safe from the hordes hovering around the promotional tables, one can find a mix of displays, regularly imaginative. Recent displays have included ‘Prague Spring‘, offering a range of Czech fiction; ‘Beginners Plagiarise, Professionals Steal‘, in which books borrowing characters from the classics sit side by side; and ‘A Taste Of The South‘, serving up a fine list of fiction from the American South.
Beyond static displays, the store hosts regular author events, most of which tend to pass me by. Not so Neal Stephenson’s event, a poster for which has been resident on the door for some time now. I’ve never read Stephenson’s work, in fact I’ve only a slight acquaintance with Snow Crash (1992), the novel that made his name. I put it down to not been a sci-fi fan. Or rather, since I’ve enjoyed some speculative works, not actively pursuing a path of sci-fi reading.
Stephenson was in town as part of a book tour promoting his new novel, Anathem. I knew nothing of it, other than it falls just short of a thousand pages, is set on another world, and is rife with neologisms. Three things, right there, that are a surefire way to send me running in the other direction. But I liked the cover, was intrigued by the brief synopsis I’d read, and was swayed to attend after reading a genial article in the Arts supplemental of the Glasgow Herald.
When he took to the stage he pondered the microphone for a minute, testing whether it was onmi- or uni-directional, before heading straight into reading two separate passages from Anathem. He needn’t have worried about the microphone, it crackled out after a few minutes, forcing him to project his voice over a crowd of perhaps a hundred.
The passages he chose were both heavy on dialogue, the dialogue heavy with its own nadsat. With Stephenson intoning the voices of his characters, there was a sense that they were rather stock in nature, one coming across brattish, the other authoritarian, both with little flexibility beyond that mould. While most laughed at the right moment, I admit to being lost in lines of reference to Farspark generators, Praxic Orth, speelycaptors. If you are like me and don’t know your Fluccish from your Farspark, fret not: Anathem comes with a twenty-page glossary.
Indulgence appears to be something Stephenson enjoys. When he stops reading and takes questions from the audience, he mentions that he likes writing big novels and, acknowledging it’s a self-serving statement, that he wouldn’t say no to a backlash against the internet. This is in response to a query about whether the internet is helpful for story telling. The internet, he says, has condensed activities, reducing them to small packages: you check out this or that site, you read your email, etc, and thus there’s been a movement to smaller, more digestible reads. An uprising against the internet would see more return to larger books. You can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes.
But it’s not about the money, he says. When asked if he would continue to write if he weren’t enjoying, Stephenson seems happy to say that no, he won’t. As it is he only writes when he has an idea that needs exploring, partly the reason why he’s only written so few books in the last twenty years. And he’s quick to shrug off any notion of his writing as an art form, distancing it from more “high-falutin'” works, a general sweep that casts its net wide but ultimately captures nothing.
It’s the act of writing that most obsesses those gathered around. Was he taught to write or did he get to where he was today with natural talent? He refutes both, saying that he started writing at a time before creative writing was an educatable vocation, and introducing his cabinet maker motif, noting that a person couldn’t immediately produce a cabinet but would require regular practice – likewise, the writer.
When he first went full-time as a writer, Stephenson muses on how he felt that it had to mean full-time, forcing himself to sit at his desk for every hour of the day. It was only when he realised that his best work came in the mornings that he freed up his afternoons for other pursuits: engineering, construction work, anything removed from his writing and the ideas that occupied it.
On the subject of his desk, which interested someone enough to ask, Stephenson commented on the sparsity of his study. It’s more a box, a window behind him bringing light in on where he sits, his first drafts written with a fountain pen. Stuck to the walls are notes and photocopies of relevant research. It’s in this environment that he spent two years working on Snow Crash, three-and-a-half on Anathem.
Returning to research, it’s something that defines his work. There, history meets science meets anthropology meets a whole lot more. When starting out on a book ninety-nine per cent of his time is given up to the task, the amount inversely proportional as time goes on until, nearing the end, ninety-nine per cent of the time is spent with his pen, with that last per cent referring back to books to confirm some fact or other. A street name, for example. The amount of research he does, he admits, has seen him look into ways to present it to those that read his works and are interested in that direction. With Anathem he has provided a short list of acknowledgements with a URL to an extended list of research material.
With such a wealth of information, much regarding intricate ideas and theories, one person wonders how he goes about dumbing down his books for readers. It’s something he’s conscious of, when writing, although he wouldn’t calling it ‘dumbing down’, and to this he riffs on an old college story about communicating with a disabled student, trying to make an idea comprehendible and digestible and doing so with some success. It’s an experience in his life that has taught him something, and one that he returns to when communicating ideas in his books.
His fans aren’t just interested in his books, though, and the questions soon turn to who, when at leisure, Stephenson reads. At this point he takes a few minutes to remember and recommend the late David Foster Wallace, explicitly referencing Infinite Jest. Another name was Dennis Lehane, author Mystic River, before turning to a list of recent reads (The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist; Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth and World Without End), and that he noticed, while looking through the store earlier, that Bernard Cornwell had a new title out that he’d be looking to read. One woman noted that he hadn’t mentioned any woman writers, which he laughed off, saying she had found a character flaw.
Although he’s there to promote Anathem, there’s little talk of it, the multitude of questions overlooking it to satisfy curiosities regarding previous works. The island of Qwghim, for example, has its origins in a need to make a convenient location that required no research, it soon becoming too much of a convenience. And an overlapping of details between Cryptonomicon and the later Baroque Cycle exist because it was too late to edit into the former.
The questions continue until Stephenson calls for two more, generously taking a number beyond that. Then, it’s over to the scheduled signing, where piles of Anathem tower over him. With a snake of fans circling the basement of the store, the signing is almost as long as his books. It’s been an interesting evening, even for this uninitiated reader, and goes against the author’s opinion that he does his best work in the morning.
October 20, 2008