Maybe We Need New Words: The Millions Interviews Nicholas Mennuti

September 19, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 1 13 min read

coverWhile plugging away at a novel in some dark corner or café table, a writer can only hope and trust that following the energy of obsession will lead the narrative to a vital destination. And yet when the novel’s timing and focus coincide with significant events on the nation’s stage, there’s also some serendipity involved. And so it goes with Nicholas Mennuti, whose fiction has long been preoccupied with the new forms of Internet surveillance. Mennuti’s story “Connected,” which was published in Agni in 2008, told the story of an intelligence agent who becomes obsessed with the subject he’s monitoring. This summer Mennuti’s first novel, Weaponized, written in collaboration with screenwriter David Guggenheim, proved to be all too prescient in its imagining of government surveillance systems in place. In the novel, Kyle West, a government contractor and genius programmer, hides out in Cambodia after he’s outed as the mastermind who devised the U.S.’s secret surveillance program software. At the time of Weaponized’s publication, Edward Snowden had just released classified documents revealing the extent of PRISM and other U.S. Internet surveillance programs and was still holed up at the Moscow airport seeking asylum. And regardless of chance, it seems that in this case Mennuti had his finger on the pulse of the techno-zeitgeist.

Weaponized, too, has its own pulse and inner rhythm: this thriller pulled me in and kept me turning pages with its quick pacing and intelligence. Mennuti and I corresponded during the summer months about the Snowden scandal and just what makes him weary regarding Internet surveillance and personal privacy, the burdens and pleasures of writing genre (vs. literary) fiction, and what he’s learned from masters like John le Carré and Graham Greene, as well as the perpetual issues of exile, identity, public versus private, plotting, and pacing that inform his writing.

The Millions: Surveillance and, specifically, surveillance states figure prominently in your fiction. In your story “Connected” an intelligence agent becomes obsessed with the woman he’s monitoring, and now in your novel, Weaponized, the programmer Kyle West has created advanced surveillance software that the U.S. government uses to spy on its citizens. Can you talk more about your interest in surveillance and how (as we’ve recently discovered) events in your novel parallel the government’s existing surveillance programs, specifically with regard to Edward Snowden and the US PRISM program?

Nick Mennuti: I think my ongoing relationship to surveillance themes stems from two factors. First, there’s my love of ’70s and early ’80s Hollywood paranoid thrillers like The Conversation, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Blow Out, Prince of the City, The Parallax View. And some of the ’90s versions like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days too.

But, and this is probably the bigger one, as writers, we really are essentially voyeurs, so commenting on surveillance culture allows me to sort of auto-critique my own psychopathology. I’m a voyeur who is writing about other voyeurs. Clearly, I find this far too comfortable, because I’ve mined the hell out of it for fiction, as you’ve noted.

I used it in “Connected” and now again in Weaponized, but I did switch around their relationships to the surveillance state, per se. In “Connected” my protagonist is inside the system. In Weaponized, he’s running from the system he helped create. Kyle’s scenario is slightly more ironic and certainly less tragic.

Regarding PRISM and now XKeyscore and all the other code words that Snowden has revealed — it didn’t take Cassandra to see that one coming. Our government never stops using a program if it’s working for them, no matter what the outrage. All they do is take it further underground and go off the books.

That’s what I posited in Weaponized, after the whole Bush uproar that we would further privatize wiretapping and rely less on the NSA, which has partially happened (Snowden worked for Booz Allen after all). What’s going to happen next is further automation and less relying on humans to monitor all of this, and that’s what Weaponized was kind of getting at. Eventually, the machines will watch us. Because machines can’t defect to Russia.

I don’t think I have an overriding interest in Internet security/surveillance; I just think it’s the new telephone. It’s the new bug on your car’s dashboard. If you write tech thrillers, you have to use the tools of the trade, and the Internet was a gift to all of us.

And of course, I’m going back into surveillance again. My new book is all about East Berlin in the ’80s. So I’m pre-Internet this time.

In fact, I’m beginning to worry that surveillance for me is what psychiatry and discipline were for Foucault. The themes that dog your career no matter how hard you run. Although, I’m not sure how hard I’m running — or that Foucault did, for that matter — it’s just that this societal shift really got under my skin that I can’t shake.

TM: You have a mixed background of training as a screenwriting, as a fiction writer with high literary aspirations, and now as a thriller novelist — who just sold the film rights. Would you talk more about the difference between writing genre fiction and literary fiction as well as the commonalities that you perceive? I recall you once said your genre fiction has a literary sheen. Please divulge.

NM: Did I say my genre fiction has a literary sheen? I can sure be pretentious! And thanks for exposing The Millions world to it.

TM:, Is that really pretentious? I didn’t think so. I thought you were attempting to describe your authorial intentions. Honestly, I would prefer to read genre fiction with literary ambitions than genre fiction with a demotic sheen.

NM: I’m kidding. I actually think genre fiction could use a little more pretentiousness at times. I think the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction varies for a lot of people, but I’ll try and give you my own definition.

Genre fiction frequently relies on well-mined archetypes both on a character and narrative level. Even the best genre fiction is mining the same tropes. Guys like John le Carré and Graham Greene, even at their most trenchant and deconstructive, retain certain genre tropes. One man against the system. Usually a romance with someone from the other side. And narrative momentum really is the essential thing in genre.

In literary fiction the archetypes still exist, but you have more to choose from and they’re far more malleable. Plus, people are willing to tolerate more experimentation and purplish prose in literary fiction (and I mean “purplish” in the best way possible). Genre fiction is meant to be very accessible and sort of shorn of linguistic personality. Even at its best, the prose is supposed to be very workmanlike. The author is supposed to disappear in service of the story.

And that’s where I sometimes get into trouble and where I think my “literary sheen” comes into play. I have trouble staying the hell out of my work. I’m all over the place. I’m not deliberately trying to alienate the reader, but I think both my genre and my literary fiction aren’t designed to lack personality. And this is way, way more of a problem in genre fiction.

covercovercoverTM: Your shelves are filled with books of serious philosophy, European history, literary fiction — for example, the contents of  just one stack include Aristotle’s Poetics, Bataille’s Visions of Excess, Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, Fritz Lang’s Interviews, Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Genet’s Querelle, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, Martin Amis’s House of Meetings, and Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Times. Even in this fast-paced thriller you’ve dropped in ideas from Cioran and Freud, among others. And you’re probably even better versed in film than you are in literature. Could you talk about the books and films that have most influenced your own writing, and specifically what you channeled for Weaponized?

NM: I’m kind of a sponge. I just look for what fascinates or inspires me, and there’s no plan. There’s no strategy to my reading or my watching. That said, once I decide what I’m going to work on, my reading and watching become very focused. They have to — otherwise I’d never start working. I’d just keep going through the shelves.

Cioran and Freud both spent significant time as exiles, so that was important to me for Kyle in Weaponized. I wanted to draw upon the literature of the exile. So you end up with Highsmith, Conrad, Greene, Hemingway, Duras, and that ilk. They’re all part of the literary DNA of Weaponized.

For movies, I really studied Michael Mann and Hitchcock very closely. Mann in particular because he knows how to use landscapes and architecture to express psychological states — and that was key for me in Weaponized. I wanted you to experience the state of being an exile in Cambodia in a subjective way. Mann and Hitchcock really are the kings of subjective cinema and to be more specific—subjective thriller cinema, which obviously Weaponized owes a great deal to.

When I’m not in depth on a particular project my reading is all over the place, but it’s usually going to contain some liberal dose of J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Martin Amis, Alan Glynn, William Gibson, Thomas Mann. And then I do like cultural theory, science, and politics a great deal. I’m also an avid consumer of what Ballard called “invisible literature” (internal documents from corporations and PR firms, filled with awe-inspiring statistics and data-analysis) and the Internet is really a great place for that. I spend far too much time every day searching out esoteric ramblings and numbers online.

TM: I’m interested in the idea of identity and the disintegration of the public / private dichotomy, with regard to your novel. In Weaponized, it’s evoked with the surveillance program that Kyle West creates.  However, despite having developed the U.S. government’s surveillance software, West shuns revealing personal information about himself. He hates appearing on the television news and having information about his personal life disclosed publicly. His foil, Julian Robinson, seems quite the opposite, charming and comfortable in his own skin despite his chameleon-like ability to transform his identity. And of course, the two end up trading identities. Could you talk more about this paradox in relation to the book, and what identity means now, and what it will become?

NM: Identity is a huge concern for me because it really is the common human denominator. No matter what advances we make in technology, it’s going to stay the same. Humans crave recognition. And we construct ourselves through the eyes of others. We become who we are by how people see us, recognize us. So no matter how diffuse we get socially — we’re still going crave this. What I think we’re seeing now is people negotiating the new boundaries of recognition and some really kamikaze it.

I sometimes think the amount of social media is really just a sign of how desperate for interpersonal recognition we really are. And it’s become a sort of cultural blackmail. If you want recognition, you have to use it. I’m not even sure if exhibitionism as a psychological trait really exists anymore. I think we’re all exhibitionists now whether we want to be or not. I mean people are posting amateur porn and their deepest thoughts and anxieties on a 24/7 basis with no let-up. But it’s not exhibitionism, really, and it’s not over-sharing. It’s just trying to construct a self in the new digital era. It’s a constant process of negotiation and whatever application allows you to best construct a self survives. It really is like Darwinism in that sense. Poor MySpace.

I think one of the reasons literature has been having so much trouble is that maybe we need new words. We have new numbers to express the new world. We have quantum numbers. No one can understand them except a few, but we have those numbers. But do we have those words yet? Can we get them? And maybe the new literature will have to be a formal creation instead of a lexical one. I don’t know.

Robinson is uniquely qualified to live in a quantified world because his identity is fluid. He’s able to adapt to whatever the form requires. Kyle has adapted technologically — well, he’s done better than that — but he’s still living in the 20th century in regard to identity, to the sovereign self. He’s fixed. He’s rooted. And of course that’s probably how he ended up on the run in the first place.

To be honest, I’m way more Kyle than Robinson in those terms. I’m not ready to surrender my identity to a bunch of pixels.

TM: You’ve said elsewhere that with Kyle West you inadvertently created a pseudo-doppelganger for Edward Snowden, as both are seeking to escape the consequences of their actions with regard to their government’s surveillance system. The greatest difference is the offence — Snowden merely leaked the information about the secret surveillance programs to the public while West created the software that made this kind of government surveillance possible. It seems that you were rather prescient in this respect, so I’ll ask, what do you think is most important to keep in mind both with regard to the Snowden case and the government’s ability and willingness to eavesdrop on every part of our lives?

NM: The first thing to remember is that the government has never, ever respected your privacy. At least not since post-WWI and the Communist threat in America. They’ve been opening your mail for years. They’ve been wire-tapping without warrants for years. The only difference is that it’s easier now.

The Internet was created as a doomsday device for Continuance of Government. It has always had a military function, just like the highway system in the U.S. The Internet may seem like the Wild West, but I don’t think it’s ever been as free as people would like to think.

I think we’re going to see more and more Snowdens and Mannings because the government classifies SO MUCH these days. You’re a leaker if you divulge classified information — well, what do you do when most things are classified? Manning just did a data dump on WikiLeaks. Half that stuff should never have been classified. Some of it deserved classification, but a lot didn’t. So I think the culture of leaking has been facilitated by a government that’s more and more reliant on classifying everything in its path to punish people.

I chose to make Kyle the victim of a leak as opposed to the leaker because as a writer I found that more provocative. How do you get people to feel for that guy? As you’re well aware, I love ambiguity in my characters and to me Kyle is more ambiguous than Snowden. I can make a case for Snowden. It’s harder to make one for Kyle and that excites me as a writer.

TM: The question of a disregard for ethics is central to the narrative, too. Kyle West and Julian Robinson and Andrei Protosevitch are all powerful men who do what they do because they can. Protosevitch says that he’s ruthless because no one has ever stopped him. The same applies to Robinson and West — they readily remove themselves from the ethical equation and personal responsibility in the ways they pursue power. West is perhaps more self-aware and conscious of an ethical imperative than Robinson — it seems to be both his downfall and his redemption. Do you see a need for a stronger ethics of accountability? Or is it a lost cause at this point?

NM: I certainly see myself — as clichéd as this sounds — as an ethical writer. I hope that ethical accountability isn’t a lost cause, although it depends on what day of the week you ask me.

In my opinion, the problem is that the people who need to be held accountable — we know who they are, thank you — are not. And that is a habitual matter of process. So if the people we expect to be held accountable escape responsibility, then what are all of us regular folks supposed to think? And I’m not just talking about our government. I’m talking about religion. I’m talking about finance, the law, all of it. All of the purported moral barometers have proven to be naked underneath and we can’t find a reason to be good — for lack of a better word.

At the same time, we’ve never been more self-entitled, and I don’t blame us entirely. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that we have to happy. We are almost demanded to be happy unless. And we are largely not. And I think people began to assume that leading an unethical life may provide a shortcut to at least short-term fulfillment. It’s working for our leaders. It’s a vicious cycle. We’re desperate to be happy and no one is giving us any guidance as how to behave.

I agree though. Kyle, at bottom, is an ethical human being. Flawed, but trying. And I choose to think that’s how most of us really are.

TM: I thought I’d introduce something Evgeny Morozov wrote into the equation. He argues: “NSA surveillance, Big Brother, Prism: all of this is important stuff. But it’s as important to focus on the bigger picture — and in that bigger picture, what must be subjected to scrutiny is information consumerism itself — and not just the parts of the military-industrial complex responsible for surveillance. As long as we have no good explanation as to why a piece of data shouldn’t be on the market, we should forget about protecting it from the NSA, for, even with tighter regulation, intelligence agencies would simply buy—on the open market — what today they secretly get from programs like Prism.” Morozov also states that ethics is removed from the equation — that market forces have replaced morality.

What is your response to this, with regard to the previous question on ethics, and also his argument that information consumerism is a greater danger than government surveillance programs?

NM: I both agree and disagree with his diagnosis. You cannot separate the military-industrial complex, surveillance, and capitalism. Because the thing is that surveillance is the newest notch on the military-industrial complex. The twilight is coming on traditional means of warfare. Unless something utterly catastrophic happens, I just can’t see another ground invasion occurring.

The military-industrial complex is tremendously adaptable. They can see the writing on the wall and they know that Systems Intelligence is going to replace traditional Human Intelligence and also standard means of warfare. It’s why the CIA has transformed itself from an intelligence gathering organization to an international hit squad. They are getting with the program. Systems Intelligence finds the target and the CIA whacks them.

That said, I think Morozov has a point in that information overload and market forces have rendered us basically morally agnostic.

Ironically, both our culture and the NSA — and this is something I tried to get at in Weaponized — have the same problem. We have lost our moral compasses because of filtering issues. We have too much de-contextualized data and no way to process and filter it all. You end up with everything being weighted equally. Which produces an utter vacuum.

So, although I agree with Morozov philosophically, I disagree with his separation of government surveillance from capitalism. And I think he knows you can’t, which is why he decided to put the burden on us. You can argue that point; you can’t really argue the other one.

TM: Plot, pacing, and structure are central to your fiction as well as to your conception of what makes good story. You could probably teach a semester-long class on this, but let’s say you have to compress the lesson down to a two minute craft talk on how these elements function within a story and how to approach them as a writer — what would you advise?

NM: I think those factors are what make a good genre story and also what makes a certain “type” of literary fiction story work. And if you can write like Amis or Nabokov you can get away with certain things that us lesser mortals cannot. We lesser mortals need to follow some rules.

My first rule is just to outline. Outline. And then do a little more outlining. I know some people feel that it kills the spontaneity, but I find it frees me up. If I know the story when I start in, I feel like I can really concentrate on the characters, the prose, the mood. If I know where I’m going, I can really play on the margins. And I actually love the margins more than the meat sometimes.

Plot, structure, and pacing are all interrelated. Plot is clearly the first thing and needs to be differentiated from story. Story is — what is this thing about? Plot is — how am I going to get there, to tell this story in individual beats. Structure is — the most effective means to do so, to maximize drama. And pacing ties into structure. You just need to make sure there’s room to breathe between the big story beats.

Really most writing just comes down to one thing: What is the most effective way to dole out the pertinent information for this particular scene or moment?

I can be obsessive about construction, but I secretly think it’s because I don’t like to rewrite. I like to rewrite prose and dialogue — but I HATE having to rebuild a story from the ground-up once I’m halfway through the book.

I’m not offering any of those tips as a panacea. I’ve just seen too many writers get 2/3 of the way into a book and realize that the plot is not working. And you lose a year trying to save what you love, while reshaping the whole thing. That’s my nightmare. And I’ve been there.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She currently lives in Chicago, where she's at work on a novel. Read more of her work here: http://annekyoder.tumblr.com.

One comment:

  1. After the Travyon Martin case, the word “weaponized” has acquired a whole new meaning. George Zimmerman’s lawyers argued that young Travyon had “weaponized the sidewalk” by bashing Zimmerman’s head against it. A lethal argument that seems to have carried the day. Sidewalks, those zones of safety, were subverted by that clever phrase.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *