I’ve been looking for this article for a long time. This particular quote was really important for me:
My old school got me in a few times to do “careers advice.” I was the token writer, and people would come up to me and say “How do I get to be a writer?” and I said “Well, first of all, if you can do anything else, do that. You know, there are lots of other things you can do that are an awful lot more fun, pay a lot better, will let you sleep far easier.” [laughs]
I also really like this bit:
Your fans are known as serious gift-givers. Jill Thompson says you’ve probably gotten more tapes than any writer at Musician magazine.
NEIL: Most of the tapes I’m given are terrible. You know, Scandanavian death-metal or whatever. You know: [sings in a deep, slightly American voice] “Oh, Morpheus, come down from the sky and give me good dreams CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG” or one guy accompanies himself on a harmonium or whatever.
Well, that last one sounds interesting…
NEIL: It wasn’t. But I still play them. I had a tape given to me in San Diego a couple of years ago by somebody who said “A friend of mine is a huge Sandman fan, she’s just recorded this, she wants you to have it, she talks about you on one of the songs.” About three weeks later I got around to playing it, and it was terrific. Absolutely stunning. There was an address on it, and I wrote to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful, and thank you very much for mentioning me on the song,” and that was Tori Amos, and that was the tape that later became a number of tracks on Little Earthquakes.
I’d give that same advice to anyone else considering a career in writing. I tried to find something else I could do for living, but I was never able to.
I thought I remembered a part with him talking about deciding to become a journalist, but I guess it was a different interview from around the same time. I did find this interview with him telling more or less the same story:
I’d always wanted to be a writer and I had a really bad night, the kind of long dark night of the soul, one of those nights you only get once or twice in a lifetime and I got one when I was about 20. I remember being unable to sleep and about four in the morning I keep thinking “I keep thinking I’m a writer. I like to think I could write stuff just as good as anybody else out there but I’m not really doing anything about it.” And that’s not the bad thing. What’s the bad thing is that in 50 or 60 years time I could be on my deathbed and I would say to myself, “I could’ve been a writer,” and I wouldn’t know if I was lying or not. It was the long dark night of the soul that genuinely changes everything. So I said “Okay, I’m gonna try and be a writer because even if I’m not, at least I’ll know that I’m not.” So I started writing. I wrote a children’s book, I wrote a bunch of short stories, and a lot of other stuff and sent them out to people . . .and the stories came back. Then I thought, “I’m doing this wrong. Either I’m not a very good writer (which I choose not to believe), or I’m doing this wrong. I want to understand how publishing and all that works. So I got up the next morning and said, “All right, I’m now a journalist. I’m a freelance journalist.” So I got on the phone to editors and pitched them story ideas about things I wanted to write and by the end of the day—by dint of lying cheerfully about previous experience—I now had several commissions and then had to turn them in.
FWOMP: And how did that go?
Neil Gaiman: It actually went fine although I must say as long as I had a typewriter, which was probably the next couple of years, there was a piece of paper taped to it that said, “Don’t let your mouth write no check that your tail can’t cash.” I think that’s a quote from Muddy Waters. And every now and then it would make me think, “I just got myself into a book contract. How the fuck did that happen? What do I do? I’ve never written a book and now I have a book contract.” So I’d write books. But it was good. There’s nothing for getting you good fast like having to be good fast, if that makes any sense.
What Alex is referring to here is something I’m going to call “writing while black,” because I honestly don’t know if there’s a proper term for it yet. In short, there’s a tendency for a certain subset of comics fans to view books written by black writers with a suspicious eye. The motivations of the writers come into question. Sometimes that suspicion manifests itself as viewing a book as a “black book” instead of a regular old comic book. Other times, it’s a kind of defensive, twisted white guilt, like when fans declared that Black Panther and Storm were only getting married because they’re black, and how offensive that is. (They didn’t. It’s not.) And other times, it’s just straight up racism, of course.
The specific thing that Alex is getting at, though, are the times when fans look at a book written by a black writer that feature a black character winning at something (or even being present, which I suppose is a type of win in and of itself) and go, “Hmmm… I dunno about all this. This seems pretty anti-white/preachy/political/angry/etc.” The accusations tend to reveal more about the complainer than the complained, in my experience. Nine times out of ten, it isn’t what they say it is.
The Guardian did a group interview of five of the six nominees for the the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science books 2012 — Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer.
Here’s an exchange between Greene and Pinker:
How has the formal, technical way scientists write journal papers affected popular science writing?
BG: I was looking back over some quantum mechanics papers from the 1920s and in one article the scientist described an accident in his laboratory when a glass tube exploded, a nickel got tarnished and he heated it to get rid of the tarnish – he went through the whole story himself in the technical article. You don’t really see that much these days. I don’t know if that is a one-off example, I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but have journal articles moved away from telling the story of discovery to just a more cut-and-dried approach?
SP: They have; I think that’s been documented. There is scientifically a problem with that, as opposed to narrating what happened. The problem is that since you’re under pressure from the journal editor to tell your story leading up to your conclusion without talking about all the blind alleys and accidents, it actually distorts the story itself because it inflates the probability that what you discovered is really significant. If you tried 15 things that didn’t work and one thing that did work and didn’t talk about the 15 that didn’t work, then the statistic that makes it significant is actually mistaken. The statistic has to be computed over all of the experiments you ran, not just the one that happened to work. In the social sciences especially, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of damage done by the practice of only reporting the successes and telling the story as if it was a straight line to a successful result.
I wrote for TechCrunch about the way automation and machine learning algorithms may start putting writers out of jobs:
Discovering news stories is actually the business that Narrative Science wants to get into, according to Wired, and CTO Kristian Hammond believes finding more stories will actually create more jobs for journalists. I’m not so sure. It will depend on a few things, like how much more efficient writers can be made through technology and how much risk publishers will take on “unproven” story ideas vs. safe computer generated ideas. The idea behind Current was that it could help publishers find lucrative stories to run to subsidize more substantial reporting. Of course publications will continue to run original, differentiating human written reporting. But the amount resources dedicated to that sort of content may change, depending on the economics of automation.
And the possibilities get weirder. Look at drone journalism. Today drones, if they are used at all, are just used to extend journalists capabilities, not to make us more efficient or replace us. But how could drones change, say, event or travel coverage in coming years? Will one reporter with a suitcase full of drones and a server full of AI algorithms do the work of three?
You can listen to or download the interview at Disinfo. Here are some of the points Ellis made:
In Transmet Ellis was more interested in the effects of celebrity on Thompson.
Celebrity had a corrosive effect on Thompson. Although he became more well known, he was portrayed as a cartoon character and that resulted in him being defanged and not taken seriously.
Because Thompson’s work is so seductively well written, it can actually be a bad influence on writers who try to imitate his style.
The point of drawing on 60s and 70s politics in Transmet was to show how little things had changed in the 90s and 00s when Ellis was writing it, and how unlikely it was that things would change substantially in the future.
I love Thompson’s work but think he can be a bad influence on writers and journalists who wind up writing crappy prose in an attempt to be edgy and play it fast and lose with the facts to be “gonzo.” And because of his image and style, his message was often lost. Too many people remember him as a character.
These aren’t Authonomy-esque, publish-and-be-encouraged-by-fellow-writers sorts of sites, though, or even collections of self-published novels. The websites host what is being dubbed “freemium” publishing. Publishing Perspectives has more details: a growing number of self-publishing websites host thousands of free-to-read web serials – anything from historical epics to sci-fi – posted by their authors. As a serial gathers critical mass, the author is invited to become a “VIP”, and readers have to pay for the new instalments – only a few yuan, but these micropayments from readers can number in the millions: China Daily reports that one author, the 26-year-old Huang Wei, makes more than more than Y1m a year (£100,000).
Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.
Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?
Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.
One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.
Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.
Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!
Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?
For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.
Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.
I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.
Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?
I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.
I read “Songs in the Key of F12″ around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”
That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.
Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?
Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!
In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?
Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.
What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?
Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?
I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ‘em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.
In Henry Baum’s novels Golden Calf and North of Sunset he explored the American religion that is Hollywood. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, delves into religion more directly – specifically apocalyptic Christianity and New Age ufology. It’s likeThe Stand as written by Philip K. Dick. You can buy the book here or download a free copy here. Henry’s now serializing the sequel online here. He took the time to talk to me about music, writing and fundamentalism.
Klint Finley: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. I’m actually listening to your soundtrack to The American Book of the Dead for the first time right now, in fact. I’m wondering if you see yourself as more of a writer or as more as a musician, or whether you make that distinction.
Henry Baum: I started as a musician – age nine, guitar lessons. My dad was a fiction writer growing up (now a playwright). So in high school, the way for me to rebel against my parents was in a way to be anti-writing. So I was in punk bands and such. Played in indie rock bands in New York City. My own songwriting was always on the backburner. I always thought of myself as a drummer and fiction writer first, rather than a songwriter. Now, though, I’ve got a copy of Logic and can record any way I want, so I’ve been working on this whole backlog of songs I’ve had through the years. But still…I find fiction writing more satisfying for some reason. I love writing and playing music, but it’s not the thing I wake up thinking about, even if I’ve been playing music a lot longer than writing fiction. It’s less in my bloodstream, maybe.
How long have you been writing? What made you decide to start after avoiding it for all those years?
In college I lost that teenage rebellion and realized I was fighting the inevitable. I started working on a novel and realized how much I liked it. The novel wasn’t so great, but I at least found that I enjoyed the process. So I’ve been writing since I was 18 – which means, 20 years. Damn. The American Book of the Dead is my sixth novel, though I’ve published three. The first two were practice. One ripping off Richard Yates, who I was once obsessed with. The other trying to be a twenty-something Charles Bukowski. I’ve excised everything that was readable from those two novels and put together two short stories – i.e. 20 readable pages out of hundreds.
You’re serializing a sequel to American Book of the Dead right now, so I take it you think serializing the other novel online was a success? Do you have the novels written ahead of time and then release them piece by piece online, or do you write them as you go?
I actually abandoned serializing the novel almost as soon it was started. I put it up on Blogspot and soon realized I wasn’t ready for it. The site’s still live but what’s there is basically half of the introduction. Instead, I started posting a blog called “God’s Wife” which was part one of a completed novel I wrote about a porn star who joins a religious cult. I posted the porn part – it’s first person, female, and I posted it as if it was being written by a real porn star. People bought it. It makes me sound like a James Frey type, but this was in 2004 – blogs and Blogspot were new, and it was a literary experiment. Some people were pissed when they found out, some were supportive. Now, many years later, I’m ready to start posting something online as it’s written, which I’m trying to make a part of the story – but it’s also kind of terrifying because it doesn’t give me as much time to get used to something before publishing it.
How much of both books is autobiographical? Have parents at your daughter’s school really confronted you about ABOTD?
Ha, no – that’s totally a projection of my worst worry, as was the chapter in the first novel – about a father discovering his daughter doing porn online. Basically, that confrontation is one I’m having with myself. I’m torn about writing this whole sequence because at some point my daughter’s going to be reading what I wrote. It’s an honest fear though, and something many fathers out there are dealing with, so my self-judgment isn’t totally overwhelming.
I’ve only read the introduction and first chapter of the sequel, but so far it’s much more personal, while the first one is more, I guess, universal. Is that why you decided to do a sequel? To work out more personal rather than universal issues?
A little bit. The first novel is about me in the year 2020, so it’s purely a fantasy about what I could be. Whereas Part II covers this time period. Eventually though it gets pretty far out – and revisits the 2020 character. Part II is going to be much more about the UFO issue: what first contact could do to the world’s psyche. How the world’s psyche could be prepared for that “awakening.” The first novel’s more about far right fundamentalism and the damage that can cause. I always intended it to be three parts, but the autobiographical writers are the ones who appeal to me most – Kerouac, Bukowski, Philip K. Dick’s Valis books. So it’s nice to be writing about who I actually am in real time.
That’s interesting, because yours is one of the few “writers writing about being writers” novels that I actually like – along w/ Dick’s stuff, though it’s not as expressly about writing. I couldn’t make it through Ask the Dust for that reason. Records about how much the recording industry sucks annoy me too.
Wow, thank you for that. I like Fante. To be honest, I’m not sure I need to read Post Office or On the Road ever again. They’ve been formative, but that period’s over. I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Valis books because they mix the totally far out with autobiography. I recently read Anne Dick’s memoir (and interviewed her) and it’s pretty remarkable how autobiographical ALL his novels are, which is why he appeals to me more than other science fiction writers. I read Jonathan Lethem recently say that Dick is continuing the legacy of Kerouac more than Asimov. So that’s what I’m attempting to do. Emphasis on the word “attempt.”
Do you have a particular process or ritual for writing?
I pretty much write in an insane trance for three months at a time and then have long spells where I don’t write at all – recovering from the trance. That’s why music’s been helpful to me. On my fiction writing downtime, I often dive back into recording. It’s rare when I go full-on with both at once.
How much do you buy the fringe ideas that have influenced the American Book of the Dead novels? For example, do you really think the world is in need of a mass die-off to curb over population?
It’s a disturbing concept and one I’m still exploring. I look at the recent mosque controversy and wonder, for instance, what would happen if there was UFO disclosure. If people think Obama’s a socialist Hitler terrorist now, they might be turned into David Ickean conspiracy theorists at that point – he’s a reptilian. There’s just so much volatility that seems like it could end in violence. People are crazy – how do we introduce new radical ideas into the culture if a centrist like Obama is seen as a radical? I’m not advocating genocide of any kind – but metaphorically at least, many different types of thought need to die, especially different aspects of fundamentalism. And now it seems fundamentalism is getting a louder and louder voice in the mainstream. It’s like the culture is primed to create mass conflict. So while it’s not something I desire, it does seem inevitable.
It can suck to be prescient sometimes, huh? You started the novel, what, 8 yeas ago? Those seemed like dark times then, but fundamentalist rhetoric just seems to be getting worse and worse.
Sarah Palin didn’t even exist when I started this book. I was fearing the Bush/Cheney cabal and what they were capable. Sarah Palin makes Bush look like, I don’t know, Bill Clinton.
Speaking of Clinton – you’re a little older than me so you might remember this period a bit more clearly than me – was the right so apocalyptic during the early years of Clinton’s presidency? Some elements certainly were, it seems like, reading those old Ron Paul Survival Report issues that were published online during the presidential primary.
And those seem to fit my very young memory of Clinton’s early years – I lived in rural Texas then, but I was only 11, I think, when Clinton was elected.
The far right’s always existed. But 9-11 really blew a hole in people’s last shred of rationality. The vitriol then seemed to be aimed at Hillary Clinton. But post 9-11, post electing a person named Barack Obama, and people have totally lost it. I mean, 9-11 blew a hole open in how I look at the world as well – it was then I started looking at conspiracies, UFOs, mysticism, and everything else that went into this book. I asked, as many people did, What the fuck is going on?
You’ve said that you write because you hope you can change people’s thinking. If you could change society’s thinking in just one way, what would that be?
Whoa, big one. The main thread here I think is the problem of fundamentalism. First two novels I wrote were about Hollywood – which I see as another religion, with the same kind of blind worship. I also mentioned porn up there. Though sexual taboos are a problem, being overly devoted and thinking sex is the only thing that matters isn’t the alternative. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are next in line. I just posted a piece on Reality Sandwich which expressed the possibility of skepticism about 9-11 truth, and people were PISSED. Frankly, I don’t think this kind of true believerism makes any more sense for the fringe than it does for Sarah Palin devotees. So, short answer, the thing I think needs to go away is: blind devotion.