March 2007

Colleen Mondor


An Interview with Scarlett Thomas

In the wake of her two most recent books, PopCo and The End of Mr. Y author Scarlett Thomas is attaining “best author you may not have heard of” status among many lit bloggers. PopCo focused on Alice Butler, granddaughter of two cryptologists and “a subversively smart girl in our commercial-soaked world who grows from recluse orphan to burgeoning vigilante, buttressed by mystery, codes, math and the sense her grandparents gave her that she could change the world.” The story includes a treasure hunt that reaches far into the past as well as revelations gained at a modern corporate “Thought Camp” where Alice and her fellow employees are charged with designing toys that have no intrinsic value but will be marketed as invaluable to today’s teenage girls. PopCo allowed Thomas to explore her interest in things as varied as pirates and vegetarianism while sending a stark message about corporate control versus personal freedom.

She followed up PopCo with the genre busting The End of Mr. Y a book with another smart and endlessly curious heroine. Ariel Manto finds a long lost book that seems to hold both a curse and a secret doorway into an alternate dimension. This time the central plot questions involve faith and science, good and evil (especially as it pertains to mice) and the very nature of life and death. With Mr. Y, Thomas showed again her utter fearlessness when it comes to attacking the big subjects and her determination to bring philosophical discussions into the realm of highly readable and entertaining literature.

I exchanged a series of e-mails with Thomas looking for answers as to how she conducts her research, outlines her books and yes – comes up with her ideas. She is by far one of the most compelling authors I have ever contacted and seems determined to push the literary envelope with her plots and characters that are always startling and endlessly fascinating for her fans.

I understand from statements you have already made that PopCo is about multiple topics that interest you: pirates, codes, trends, corporate (and consumer) greed, etc. What I do not grasp yet though, is that while many other people might have same wide ranging and varied interest, few (if any) would attempt to combine them into one cohesive novel, centred around one main character. Were you concerned when you started writing PopCo that you had too much of a story to tell and did you jettison any of the story along the way? I also have to ask, did you editor think there might be too much here, or was everyone onboard the project all along? 

I guess one of the things that characterises my most recent writing is this "patchwork" approach, which began almost accidentally. When I started thinking about PopCo, I knew that I wanted to make it big and complicated -- something a reader could really get lost in and not just plough through in a couple of hours. An experience that was different from, say, watching a film. I wanted to push the novel (or at least my sort of novel) as a form and see a) what it could do and b) how far I could go with it. So those conquering impulses were there all along -- wanting to go higher, further, deeper etc. I wasn’t 100% happy with my novel Going Out, which felt too easy, and I needed a challenge. I knew there was more to the novel than that.

But this way of writing is important to me in other ways too, and the more I develop it as a style the more possibilities I see it has. PopCo, like most of my work, comes out of, adds to and at the same time critiques (or tries to!) contemporary culture, where I’ve recently noticed it is now possible to zap everything (in the microwave, with a remote control, on videogames, scanning your own shopping at the supermarket), and all of us live with this tangle in our minds which just can’t have existed before the mass media and late capitalism. I have memories that aren’t real -- they’re from soap operas I watched in 1988. I dress myself with deliberate reference to what plastic, non-action figures in shop windows wear (usually the reference is "I don’t want to wear that," but it’s a reference all the same). I hum "Tragedy" by Steps, a rerecording of "Tragedy" by ABBA, while reading The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche (which I’m teaching next term) -- without even wanting to, because, like I said, with all this input, everything’s a tangle, and every time I read the word "tragedy," well.

So I’m putting the tangles into my work, but the idea is homoeopathic: to tangle things up in such a way that something else untangles. In some ways it’s about catching your brain unawares. If you want to write a novel, don’t think to yourself "What novel can I write?" because you’ll just think of a novel that already exists. The storytelling part of your mind has been trained to repeat, repeat, repeat, ad nauseam (with no rinsing) the stories from ancient myths which are now reworked as soap opera, advertisements, movies and so on. Read Joseph Campbell. Read Aristotle… You know what I mean, I’m sure. There’s this amazing part in Aristophanes’s The Frogs, where Dionysus has gone to the underworld to stage a competition between Aeschylus and Euripides to see who is the better tragedian (and who should go back to Earth to save Athens). They take it in turns to criticise one another’s work. Anyway, there’s this one bit where Aeschylus proves that any of Euripides’s tragedies could be about someone losing a bottle of oil. Every formulaic story starts with a conflict that’s later resolved -- like losing a bottle of oil and then finding it again -- but less formulaic stories, or stories that use formula to more interesting effect, while they may have similar levels of narrative drive, are about something more interesting than losing a bottle of oil. What I guess I’m saying is that when you sit down to think up your novel, what your mind will do, because it’s spent your whole life absorbing formula-stories like a novelty bath sponge, is give you one of these stories about a lost bottle of oil. So what you do is you trick it. It’s quite a simple technique: you write a list of everything you are remotely interested in at the moment and then the challenge is to work out a plot that connects all these things. And then another one. And again, until you get it right. It can take months, or even years, during which time you become interested in other things and you have to add those because otherwise you’d be cheating.

This isn’t a meaningless game, however, designed so that everyone can be a novelist. Far from it. People who find they don’t have a list… Stop writing. If your list is boring… Stop writing. If your list doesn’t add up to something meaningful… I think you know where this is going. It turned out that every item on my list for PopCo related in some way to capitalism: the pirate who is there at the birth of the economic system in which piracy (of a different sort) remains a crime; mathematics (capitalism at its most brutal is, of course, simply a numbers game played by stock market computers); puzzles (marketing has become a puzzle that you can solve and win a treasure) etc. etc. For me, PopCo’s central image is expressed in Newcomb’s Paradox -- the one with the two boxes -- and I got to that via all these connections. My aim now is to create a work of fiction -- a real tragedy -- that isn’t just about losing a bottle of oil and finding it again. I think The End of Mr. Y is the only book of mine so far that comes close to that. Maybe Bright Young Things does a little bit as well.

A lot of this has happened because I started my career writing formulaic fiction, where my editor even went so far as to remind me of the "rules" I should be following. I was writing this inauthentic claptrap that was superficially about pain but was really the furthest thing from real pain and confusion… It took me a long time to manoeuvre myself into a position where I could write the kind of fiction I wanted to write. I love working with my American editor, Jenna Johnson, because she loves all the crazy stuff. (For example, when I was working on The End of Mr. Y, I had a note in my notebook about Apollo Smintheus, and I wanted to do something with this god of mice but I didn’t know what. When I mentioned Apollo Smintheus in an e-mail to Jenna, she was like, ‘A god of mice? I love it’ which kind of encouraged me to make him huge and real and, well, like he is in the novel.)

There was a very vague reference to him [Apollo Smintheus] in Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones, but I was so intrigued by the idea of a god of mice that I noted it down. I have a thing about mice anyway, and worried that maybe this idea was too whimsical. But the more I thought about a real god of mice the more hooked I got. There wasn't much to find out about Apollo Smintheus in the end, but I thought he should exist properly so I made him up.

But what worked for me with PopCo was not having an editor in the UK at all (long story) and just thinking ‘Right. Now I’m really going to do it my way, and fuck everyone else…’  

I have seen your work referrred to as "revenge of the geeks" and "geek chic" which I suppose is in reference to Alice's love of codes and codebreaking [in PopCo] and Ariel's interest in such things as "properties of hydrogen, the speed of light, relativity, quantum physics, Schrodinger's cat, the wavefunction, light, the luminiferous ether experiment, paradox...." [in The End of Mr. Y]. There are not many female characters in contemporary fiction who mirror the sheer number of esoteric interests that yours enjoy -- do you actively seek to interest your characters in unorthodox subjects or is your writing just a natural offshoot of your own interests?  

The simple answer is that all this stuff is an offshoot of my own interests. I learnt a long time ago how unpleasant it is when you write about things you aren’t interested in -- and more recently how amazing it is to wrap yourself up in the things you are. When I think of geeks I can’t help but think of me as a kid, obsessed with going to the corner shop for my comic and sweets; obsessed with science fiction on TV, the order of the planets, changing my pocket money into 2 pence pieces so I could feed it all into this machine at the end of our street that gave you bubblegum and cheap, crappy, plastic toys. I also think of Alice Butler from PopCo, and how for her, as for me, it all started to break down at school when life becomes about hair and skirts and pop music. I have always been a bit of a geek, I suppose, and I have been helped in this by not having any desire to marry or have children or get swamped by any of the domestic stuff that often (but by no means always) snaps women out of their geekdom and forces them to think in terms of nappies and bottles of baby oil and to be normal for God’s sake because if you’re not normal other parents will look at you funny and eventually someone will come and take your kids away…

Aristotle says that fiction should do one of two things: reflect the world as it is, or make it better. While this is a little too cheerful for where I am at the moment, there’s a lot of truth in it nevertheless. People sometimes forget that real women, even ones covered in nappies and shit and bleach etc., do not spend all their time thinking about dresses and princesses and kisses -- it’s women in stories that do that. And these are stories that make things worse. So my stories seem different because they’re not like other stories, perhaps. I don’t know. Most women out there are geeky in some way, and you’re right that not much fiction reflects this. I guess the more common experience is for women to be somehow restricted by domestic life or to live under the threat of this restriction, and of course there’s a lot of fiction that reflects this beautifully -- like The Bell Jar, which is probably my favorite novel, in which Esther Greenwood pretty much has to stop being a geek or else. Oranges are Not The Only Fruit does something similar, too, where the character Jeanette has to try to find a new way of inhabiting all the fairy stories and religious myths she’s grown up with. 
In both PopCo and Mr Y you incorporate some historical passages -- this is particularly true with PopCo and the code breaking experiences of Alice's grandparents (not to mention the pirates). Is the history part, again, of your own interest, or did those passages develop as you were writing and become larger than your originally intended. (You could have written books without having the history "come alive" so to speak -- did you want to keep history relevant to the modern storyline?) 

In PopCo the historical stuff kind of "floats" there, unnarrated by anybody. I had so many fights over this part of the novel. My UK editor at the time (now, thank God, departed) wanted me to attribute the section to somebody, and cut it down to a couple of paragraphs. But I wanted to reflect the way that history seems to come to us in this form, unnarrated, seeming "objective" and always written in that style that simultaneously claims authority while admitting that not much is known and all else is conjecture.

In Mr. Y the historical stuff is presented very differently, as a novel-within-a-novel. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that enjoys the technical challenges of writing in a completely different style from my own; however, there’s also a part of me that hates this tendency in myself and can smell the vile stench of those Creative Writing Exercises in which you succeed by being inauthentic (write from the perspective of a blind person… write from the perspective of a homeless person etc. etc.) I guess my aim is to be able to do this -- write in different voices or historical periods or whatever -- but always use it to do something authentic and meaningful. So I can have fun finding Victorian words like "bombilations" but actually use the section to reinforce the plot and themes of the whole book. That’s the aim, anyway. Incidentally, one of my best moments writing Mr. Y was when I got to write Lumas outside of his fiction, right at the end where he burns his book, and he felt almost exactly the same way about finishing his book as I did about finishing mine, and that passage just flew onto the page -- all his thoughts about whether he should let his protagonist live, and his obsession over the amount of ink he has used and so on. I quite like the idea of merging with historical, fictional people like that. It’s like acting, which is what I wanted to do when I was growing up (if I didn’t become a writer). But the thing to remember is that you always put yourself into a role, in all the ways Stanislavski says. Neither acting nor writing is ever about becoming somebody else, it’s always about finding yourself in them, or them in you.  
Both Alice and Ariel are independent learners -- you make a point of writing about the puzzles Alice works on for her own pleasure and Ariel is happily working away at very deep subjects for her column before she meets the professor. How do you feel about independent learning versus academics and are you striving to make a point about "learning outside the box" with your books? 

All learning is independent. However, I’m not really striving to make any point about this. But now I think about it I realise that almost all "knowledge" I’ve been given within an institution is to serve someone else’s purpose, not mine, and most of it is just wrong, or not even wrong. I work in a university now, and the only way my students learn is by doing things themselves or by reading complicated writing that doesn’t give them any facts. I actually have some sort of undiagnosed medical condition, I think, because I am incapable of remembering any dates, facts or figures -- even ones I make up myself! I can remember long strings of abstract numbers, but not ever four figure dates. When I was younger I felt stupid all the time because I didn’t know Latin and Greek, and my mathematical skills weren’t that great, and I hadn’t read enough "classic literature." I think I’ll always feel like that, but now I am learning bits of Greek, and I’m reading stuff I missed out on at school, and I am finding that what all good professors and lecturers tell you is true: read books, all by yourself, and work out why they are or are not important yourself.

Incidentally, now you’ve got me thinking about the way I learn things and I realise that I actually learn everything on my own from books, including knitting, yoga, dog training, quiltmaking, playing guitar, Zen meditation… In fact there’s nothing I like better than going to bed with a bunch of instructional manuals and learning something like how to play a barred F chord (several years ago) or "knit two together through the back loop" (last week).
With PopCo you strive to bring a new level of awareness to your readers about corporations and consumers and the oddness of products like the Hello Kitty line, which exists merely to urge consumers to buy more products in the line, but not do anything with them. (I have to admit, I never really thought about this until you pointed it out, but I have often wondered just what Hello Kitty in particular was for.) It's all about possession, without any thought to where a product comes from or why you need to have it. (I especially liked the group who had the website that got teens excited about a product - and the whole thing was created and run by the corp.) Do you think that the time has come for a message like PopCo's -- and that it will be heard? The book is not earnest in its message but actually quite cynical -- even Alice's awakening to what she has become as compared to the lives of her grandparents is laid out as a predictable and all too typical journey -- once we strived to save the free world and now we want to invent the new Barbie. Has the reaction to PopCo led you to believe that a change can come to the way we live now, and did hope for that change spur you to write this novel? 

I’ve had an amazing reaction from readers about PopCo. A common response is, "Right. Now I see what’s going on and I’m going to change what I do." Of course there are different responses from people who know all this stuff already; these people fall into two camps: those who love the book for dramatising what they knew already, and then those who thought it was simply a statement of the bleeding obvious (there haven’t been many of these, but they do exist). I’m not sure how I feel now about writing a book with such an obvious moral message. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again -- life’s way too complicated for anyone to be able to provide "the answer" in 500 pages. But I also think that one of the purposes of fiction is to defamiliarise, to use Viktor Schklovsky’s term. You have to present the stuff people see every day -- the stuff they don’t even see anymore because it’s there every day -- and say OK, let’s look at this again like an alien might look at it, or someone who’s been living in the jungle with wild animals or something. That’s what Marcel Duchamp did with Fountain, his urinal-as-art, although in a much more subtle and effective way than I did, because he never said what you should do with the urinal. On the other hand, "What is art?", the central question posed by Fountain, is something we can afford to spend a long time thinking about, while some of the points I wanted to make about cruelty felt more urgent. Also, when something is so concealed -- like the treatment of animals, or the way products are created -- it’s not the job of the writer to conceal it further. I see PopCo as the third book in a trilogy (the first two being Bright Young Things and Going Out). All three are about the effects of pop culture on people, and each one comes at the problem in a slightly different way. Mr. Y is the beginning of something much different… 
Romance plays a small part in both PopCo and Mr. Y, although Alice and Ariel are admittedly far more focused on many other concerns in their lives than finding Mr. Right. (Not to stray into chick lit territory, but…) Why include the romance at all? Did both Alice and Ariel need to find a man along the path of finding themselves (and the treasure)? Or did they need somebody to flesh out the plot with, debate moments in the storyline and solve puzzles with? The guys are not critical to the story, in other words, but do they end up being critical to the women the stories are about? 

All good stories work according to one of two models: tragedy or comedy, as we all know. In a tragedy everyone ends up dead, and in a comedy everyone ends up married. In both you have a central love story. You can mess about with these: combine them to form quests or epics, invert them, subvert them, lighten or darken them -- but they are still there. People don’t seem to like to read novels where everyone ends up dead, for some reason, so what you usually find are novels that conform to the comedy structure, like chick lit and lad lit; novels that are actually short stories (they have no conclusive ending, no central love story and usually one concealed but relatively simple theme); and novels that work within the rules (sort of) but try to screw around with things a bit, like mine do. Of course not everyone notices when you screw around with things. You will see from the final scenes in Mr. Y that I have set myself the modest task of combining tragedy and comedy in one improbable, mind-blowing ending. Seriously, though, I read Mr. Y as a tragedy through and through. That isn’t a happy ending, not if you really think about it.

I think I’ve been terrible at writing about love and sex up until now, but I’m quite happy with what I’ve done with it in Mr. Y. Adam is central to the story, he’s complex and what I like best about him is that in the adventure parts of the story he pretty much has to do what Ariel tells him: it’s clear that this is her story and she’s in charge. I think my next novel will have loads of sex and not much love; and I think I’ll kill the hero but let the heroine live. OK, now I’m plotting inside an interview. Oh, well: you read it here first. Now I’d better go and grab my notebook…