Originally published at Unlikely Story. You can comment here or there.
The mash-up of self-aware AI, modern day information pirates, and traditional pirate ballads in The Confession of Whistling Dixie, works surprisingly well, not to mention being a lot of fun. Could you tell us a bit about how this story came to be, and how you wove the elements together?
The initial idea actually came from a more traditional call for submissions — the horror publisher Knightworks Press put out a call for stories for an anthology called “Dead Men’s Tales”, that were a) about pirates, but b) the narrator had to be dead. Straight away I had the idea of doing a story about data pirates, narrated by the AI they’d developed to help them (who, of course, had never strictly speaking been alive). What with one thing or another I missed the deadline, but I was having too much fun with the story to stop writing it.
The songs came in when I sat down to write. Straight away, the first line, “Fifteen million petabytes on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho and a botnet of RAM” came into my head, and that was the point when I got a handle on Dixie’s character — that it was intelligent, and had a sense of humour of sorts, but that its points of reference for how to interact with humans, and how to understand the human world, were largely derived from the sources it had contact with, and that one of these would be pirate ballads. This also determined the medium by which it would attack the agent from the CIA; music is the lens through which Dixie sees everything, but it’s also Dixie’s main weapon.
In the first draft, I also included a few modern songs on pirate themes, which I then went through and edited out for copyright reasons. I think the version focused on traditional ballads is better, but the one which I do slightly regret losing is that, in the original version of the segment where Dixie talks about how it understands the concept of pornography, it sang a couple of lines of “Frigging in the Rigging” by the Sex Pistols.
Speaking of pirates, which historical pirate do you consider the most intriguing, and why?
I’m fascinated by Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Particularly because there’s no record of what happened to Anne Bonny after she was captured; some think she took a new identity and went back to piracy, and I would like to think she did.
Your writing profile is quite diverse. In addition to short stories, you’ve also written non-fiction business books and articles from an anthropological standpoint, guidebooks to television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Blake’s 7, plays, and audio dramas. Do all these different types of writing mesh for you and inform each other, or do you find yourself compartmentalizing each form in a separate part of your brain? What appeals to you about each type of writing?
On one level, they mesh and inform each other. I tend to work on different projects separately, but I’ll be working on an article and then I’ll get an idea for a story, or I’ll get an insight into a character on a television show from a story I’m writing. I tend to write a lot about artificial cultures — speculating about the sort of cultures that AIs might develop, once they become truly independent — which seems to me to be a logical outgrowth of my anthropological research; after studying real-life human cultures, I can go away and speculate on what a really non-human culture might be like.
On another, they’re more complementary. I tend to switch from one type of writing to another: I write fiction as a distraction from my more academic and analytical work, but on those moments when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I’ll work on a more academic or critical article instead.
The appeal of both fiction and non-fiction-writing is the same for me: it’s the joy of discovery, of seeing the data, or the elements of a story or play, come together to make something new.
Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?
The strangest job I’ve had was as a historical interpreter in a living-history museum based at a Victorian fortress. I alternated between playing the fort’s schoolmistress and a soldier’s wife. I’ve never directly put anything from the experience into a story, but it did teach me a lot about storytelling and holding an audience.
Some authors require complete silence when they write, others need their desk arranged a certain way, or their favorite tea mug at hand. What does your ideal writing space look like — either the place where you actually write, or the imaginary place where you wish you could write?
I do most of my best writing on the sofa, feet up, with my laptop. It’s my favourite place to write, as long as the cats will let me anyway. I like to listen to music or have the radio on while I work; background noise helps me focus.
Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had (e.g. Tolstoy’s long-awaited and even longer page count sequel to War and Peace.)
I’ve always regretted that Mervyn Peake never continued with the Gormenghast series; apparently he had lots of ideas of where Titus Groan would go next, but we’ll never know what happened to him in the end.
One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education — who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.
As an undergraduate, I had a professor who subscribed to Freudian theory, in defiance of all the criticisms of it. So I had to learn a lot about Freud, which I didn’t think was much use at the time, but which turned out to be surprisingly important in terms of understanding mid-twentieth-century films, like Forbidden Planet and Vertigo. Once you get your head around the fact that they’re all operating from a Freudian basis, they make so much more sense.
We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?
My first paid publication was a poem which appeared in On Spec magazine. I was really proud of it at the time — I still am — but I find I can’t really get my head around writing poetry these days.
When your creative brain needs recharging are there any particular hobbies you turn to, people you talk to, or places you go to refresh yourself?
I like to go for walks around Portobello Road, usually winding up in a cafe somewhere. Alan Stevens, who’s my collaborator on the guidebooks, plays and some of the articles, and I tend to use each other as sounding-boards for new ideas or problems we’ve come up with when writing.
Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?
I think Dixie is going to take over the world. Seriously. I really think the end of human civilisation has begun with Dixie and Mister Langley, we just won’t know it for a while yet.
We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.
A Scientific Romance by Roland Wright — he is well known as a nonfiction writer, but I haven’t met too many people, in the UK at least, who read his novels. I first read the book in graduate school; it’s a beautiful story, ostensibly about an archaeologist who travels in time to the future, and pieces together what happened to our civilisation, but as you get into it, and as you realise that the narrator is decidedly unreliable, you start to see different meanings to the story’s events.
What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?
I’m going to be giving a keynote talk at the Telefantasy and Society Symposium at Lincoln University on 6 May — it’s going to be a great conference, with people from TV, publishing and academia sharing their insights, and I’d encourage everyone to come along if you can. Also, keep an eye out for volume 2 of the Battlestar Galactica book, coming out any day now from Telos Publishing!