At 10 I wanted to be an artist, practiced a hysterical form of Christianity, talked to trees, and turned a sunset at a local park into a visionary experience. My great-aunt lured me to Evangelical Christianity with the strangeness of Gospel stories where Jesus always ended up angry at his disciples’ failure to understand. I sympathized with being misunderstood, and latched on. Besides, Christianity was a forbidden fruit in Soviet Russia so I had to worship in secret. This was unnerving but also alluring. I was a breathless romantic who wanted to be surprised by a knight on a white horse. From the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s, my childhood was formed by the images, atmosphere, and allusiveness of Soviet songs.
I grew up in an artistic family where emotions flew high. I was the kind of imaginative child who could spin an entire tale from an oblong stain on the kitchen table. But there’s more to it than that. My family was not always idealistic or romantic, especially not in New York in the early ‘90s when they were too busy looking for a job or navigating the Byzantine rules of the pluperfect in English. So I attribute at least half of my preteen sensibility to growing up on Soviet songs that embarked on flights of fancy, made an idol of hope, and regaled its young audiences with a strange perspective on time.
Remembering my childhood now that I have a child of my own, I realize that it’s not so bad for childhood to be a land of illusion, ideological and otherwise. After all, “illusion” comes from illudere which means to “play with”—so every kind of illusion can become a playground for imagination. To harbor illusions is to hope, to dream, to construct imaginary landscapes and characters. But illusion does more than stimulate the imagination; it can also stimulate emotional development as the child dares to imagine a better existence or learn to face her fears.
The earnestness with which they approached the pains of childhood, as well as the equally painful idea that childhood is bound to end—stayed with me through adulthood. Even now, I see the flood of irony in our culture as a certain anxiety about emotional engagement; funny that the Soviet songs’ simple lyrics seem more emotionally mature to me that a lot of mainstream fiction published in The New Yorker.
These songs were also making me self-aware. While enveloping me in the fog of whimsy and illusion, Soviet songs also showed me how to notice of the work of mythmaking, the snares of narrative, the “ardor of art.” The songs taught me to dream while distrusting the hopefulness of dreams. Hopeful yet often uneasy about what’s to come, they made me interrogate my future—and my childhood—in ways that were revealing and even frightening. To cope with this ambivalence, I started making art. Perhaps the best way to harness illusions is by creating your own.
1. “The Winged Swing”
The Soviet songs of my childhood were replete with images of clouds, the sky, or even flight. “The Winged Swing” begins with a boy’s melodious voice over some shimmering piano chords and then is backed up by a lush children’s chorus along with some ’80’s electronic percussion. This is the main song from the 1980 miniseries The Adventures of the Elektronic (about a robot boy posing as his human double) and it includes the following lyrics:
The beginning of the April
Snow in the park begins to thaw,
And the jolly winged swing
Is beginning to take off.
Everything has been forgotten,
Frozen heart inside the chest,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!
The winged swing is a pretty straightforward metaphor for something that takes you away from your troubles and literally brings you closer to “sky, wind, and gladness,” allowing you to come closer to the beautiful unknown. Weirdly, the swing also makes you painfully aware of the end of childhood:
Childhood won’t last forever,
It will be over in the end,
Kids will turn into grown men,
Each will go his own way.
But so far we are still children,
We have time for growing yet,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!
This cultivated, somewhat maudlin nostalgia for childhood becomes even stranger when you consider that the robot singing the song about the swing is posing as an 11-year-old boy in a local Soviet school and that his audience—within the fictional framework of the film and outside of it—consists of other children. Why does the winged swing take us out of the painful present, make us realize we’re children, and move us towards the future? And what is Soviet about this whole set-up?
Addressing the stars of Soviet literature at the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, the Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov gave an important speech that codified Soviet aesthetics for decades to come. In this speech, he argued that Socialist Realism was to depict reality in its revolutionary development. (If writers didn’t conform to this aesthetic policy, they would be unpublished and shunned.) This demand is a contradiction in terms, and a fascinating one: it’s already difficult to depict “reality,” whatever we believe this reality to be, but what exactly is its “revolutionary development”? Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky, and others dictating Soviet aesthetic policy saw no contradiction since they saw the reality of the Soviet Union—its rapid industrialization and growth, as well as its high-ranking literacy—as being precisely in line with the goals of the 1917 October Revolution. So for Party officials, all art had to reflect the ways in which Soviet society followed revolutionary goals. But the way this policy trickled down to the producers of mass art and media was to cause a permanent confusion between past, present, and future. In children’s media, “revolutionary development” became simplified to a vision of the future that was immanent in the present but still had to be aspired to.
Thus, the “winged swing” is a metaphor for a kind of faith—in the system, or in a better life—that will literally propel children to the future of “gladness.” They will leave aside both the troubles of the present and the realization that adulthood is inevitable. Paradoxically, what gives the winged swing momentum is the very nostalgia for the childhood from which it’s taking us away. This song impacted me precisely because of this mélange of sadness and hopefulness, vague and manufactured as it may be.
As a child, I felt a certain nostalgia about endings. The end of summer, the season of our dacha with its many hours of shadow-dappled indolence spent making a long-legged man out of Play-Doh, watching the family of hedgehogs drink milk out of a saucer on the attic balcony and easing my phobia of the attic, practicing my TV-announcer skills on the pear trees in the orchard, watching the electric-green dragonfly drag its exotic body across the train platform. The end of an illness when I wouldn’t be pampered anymore. The end of a train ride, even.
And hope, joy? There was always hope, a kind of banal hope, that it would all repeat, that it would all be as wonderful as before. The tension between this hopefulness and its counterpart, a sinister air of foreboding, an anxiety about what’s to come, is at the crux of the way the songs I listened to defined my Soviet childhood.
The ambivalence of Soviet songs stemmed from their bittersweet treatment of childhood as a time of possibility but also of losses, present and future. The 2015 American Disney film Inside Out made headlines in the world of popular culture because it valorized sadness as the emotion that help the child protagonist come to terms with big changes in her life. But children’s media in the Soviet Union had been aware of this at least 35 years ago. As strange as it can sound, making a child nostalgic for her own childhood can be beneficial in forging self-awareness, specifically, the understanding that this period in her life is not permanent. Perhaps this self-inflicted nostalgia also doubled as a wink towards the childhood of the Soviet Union—the Russian Revolution, whose aims were betrayed at its inception.
Some of the songs of my childhood pointed not towards the future but towards the eternal Now. The 1962 song “May There Always Be Sunshine!” was written by the famous children’s writer Korney Chukovsky, who claimed that the refrain was composed in 1928 by the four-year-old boy Kostya Barannikov. Written by a child, the song was about a child and performed by a child, and thus, seemed to give children agency. “May There Always Be Sunshine” juxtaposed a children’s choir with a march rhythm and a child solo singing the refrain. Translated into English, the song was adopted by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and became an anti-war anthem:
“Bright blue the sky,
Sun up on high –
That was the little boy’s picture.
He drew it for you,
Wrote for you, too
Just to make clear what he drew.
May there always be sunshine,
May there always be blue skies,
May there always be mommy,
May there always be me!”
The song ends with “Down with all war!/ We want no more./ People stand up for you children.
Sing everyone -/ Peace must be won,/ Dark clouds must not hide the sun.” A couple of years after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and a few years before its invasion of Czechoslovakia, it seems sentimental and downright disingenuous to associate the Soviet Union with peace. Yet singing about peace—even if such peace is a counterfactual—can become the first step to envisioning it as a viable possibility.
Commenting on two impossibly “hopeful” texts, the late philosopher Richard Rorty bids us to “concentrate on the[ir] expressions of hope. We should read both [The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto] as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’, rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human destiny.” In other words, it’s not as important that The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto do not reflect humanity’s faults in a viable, realistic way; what’s more important is that they show us a different way to be. These documents are aspirational and idealistic; they are literally visionary in displacing the reality of the present moment with a dream of a better (more virtuous, more just) future.
“May There Always Be Sunshine” also hovers in the uncertain verb tense of dreams—the conditional/subjunctive/future. Singing about peace might not help achieve it, but it might help us envision a world where peace is, indeed, possible, against all odds. It’s a dream of a child who wants herself, mommy, and blue skies to persist in the Eternal Now, which is especially poignant given that 1962—the year the song was written—was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heart of the nuclear threat.
In the 1980s, I was secretly an Evangelical Christian. I believed in the parables of The New Testament and the miracle math of feeding a crowd of 3,000 with five loaves of bread. I believed in the vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and turned a blind eye to apocalypse. I also believed The Little Prince was real. After I read The Master and Margarita in the early ’90s, I believed that “to each will be according to their own belief.” Yet this, too, was a fierce belief like any other. I was drunk on belief, and the idea that belief—my belief!—has consequences. “May there always be…” always excites me with its ellipses, but the first part of the phrase, the invocation of a hidden force, is even more inebriating.
Many Soviet children’s songs also thrived on nostalgia as well as a longing for the idyllic future. The classic 1966 cartoon Cheburashka is about a misfit toy that is “an animal unknown to science.” The Cheburashka birthday song created its memorable tune through the accordion riding on top of some gentle percussion. With monkey ears and the body of a cub, Cheburashka is a lovable misfit who wants a friend and resists all labels. One of its musical numbers became the iconic birthday song for children of all generations to come. These are the coveted wishes of the birthday girl or boy:
“A wizard will suddenly appear
In a blue whirlybird,
And will show me free movies.
He’ll say Happy Birthday
And just before he flies away
He’ll probably leave 500 ice cream cones for me.”
In a country where children’s programming only appeared for two hours a day on a meager two channels in the ’80s and where you had to stand in a long line for an ice cream cone (you also had to wait in line for milk, butter, toilet paper, and many other items), the pleasures were simple.
The “Blue Train” song is even more iconic; nostalgic for the past, it heralds the Soviet promise of a better future ahead as the train propels Cheburashka and his best friend Crocodile Gena into the unknown:
“Slowly the minutes swim far away,
And even though we’re a little sad to let the past go
The best is, of course, yet to come!
Smoothly, smoothly, the far road runs along
And runs up right against the skyline
Everybody, everybody, believes in the best
The blue train rides and rides along.”
“Blue Train” matched the energetic melody of the accordion with the train’s rhythmic to-and-fro; the cartoon ends with the characters riding off into the future we’re not privy to as they sing along to Crocodile Gena’s accordion. As a child in the United States, I longed for the future. I harbored wild fantasies of all the adult things I would do at 12, of trips to Manhattan for “real” chocolate and artisanal bread and the FAO Schwartz Toy Store, of the thrill of high school with its boys and high heels and all the books I would read and the poems I would write. It is a little sad to be living your childhood believing that “the best is, of course, yet to come!” because, in a way, this diminishes the life that you’re living right now. But “hope is the thing with feathers,” and dreaming of a better life really did save me from the doldrums when I was an awkward big-nosed 15-year-old who dressed exclusively in black and read Jean-Paul Sartre. Like “real” Communism for the Soviets, adulthood seemed sweet with promise unattainable, or at least very far away.
I don’t remember what I ate or who I talked to, but I do remember that in sophomore year, I was high on William Shakespeare monologues, scribbles in the school library, trips to the Brooklyn Heights Starbucks cafe (my writing haunt) and the Promenade. I didn’t so much dream of the future but surround myself with the dreams of others—Virginia Woolf’s short story about a perfect piece of colored glass, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, and even a dream gone wrong, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. The prison house of language became my playground; my future, consciously or unconsciously, became enmeshed with stringing together (or pulling apart, for closer inspection) the glass beads of words and meanings, my own and those of others.
Now I can’t help falling into old habits and keeping to the mantra that “the best is yet to come.” At 34, dealing with my mom’s recent death, meager job prospects, and Donald Trump’s presidency, this is becoming harder to believe than it had been at 15. But I can’t help dreaming, wishing, and hoping. Such hope is often painful in the face of the unpalatable present. Yet it also gives me the capacity to dream of a future that makes a laughable illusion of the present—through the process of making art.
While “Blue Train” propels us to a beautiful future, “The Beautiful Faraway” plays with our assumptions about time yet suddenly turns very serious in terms of the speaker’s inner journey. The song appears in the 1985 miniseries The Guest from the Future, which is about a girl from the future who travels to the present and a boy who lives in the year 1984 and travels to the future. The song confides in the listener with its child singer, intimate guitar accompaniment, and some flutes chiming in while the singer implores the future to not be cruel:
“I’m hearing a voice from the wonderful future
The morning’s voice in silver dew
I’m hearing a voice, and the glittering path
Makes my head spin like a carousel from my childhood.
Oh wonderful future,
Don’t be cruel to me.
Towards a wonderful future,
I’m beginning my journey.”
While the voice from the future is beguiling, it also asks “What have I done today to earn tomorrow,” implying the future will only be wonderful if consequences from the present make it so. The song makes childhood a state that is always and already absent, or at least receding into the past as the future, however wonderful, makes its way into the present. The sense of responsibility for the future—and not knowing exactly what this responsibility entails—always made me slightly anxious as I listened. Maybe this was because I didn’t have many responsibilities as a child, and even the knowledge that more will come was anxiety-inducing. Just as in “Winged Swing,” the foreboding tone of “The Beautiful Faraway” was winning over its hopefulness.
In a strange sense, this song rendered the future as well as beauty itself more abstract and weirdly interchangeable. Was the Beautiful Faraway beautiful because of its abstract positioning in the future? Or did it reside in the future precisely because that was the space for beauty? It was hard to tell. If childhood entails dreaming of the beautiful future and also making sure it comes to be through responsible actions, the song also made childhood come to terms with its own absence. The dream becomes an act of erasure, and the song doesn’t hide it since the narrator is “… hearing a voice, and…hastening towards its call/ On a road with no footprints.” This road with no footprints is the road of childhood. It seems to exist only to bring us closer to the impossible future. And then it is no more.
When I was six, I entertained myself by taking an empty box of chocolates and, Joseph Cornell-style, inserting a miniature character in each empty niche. I would make princesses out of matchsticks with cotton and loose strips of fabric; attach buttons to tall clothespins to make a lopsided face; adorn an empty niche with a shard of glass found on an Odessa beach at night. I didn’t even need dolls or stuffed animals to keep myself amused.
Yet, at other times, dreaming made it impossible to be present or connected to the everyday world. For one thing, my dreams were solitary and didn’t require a companion; so detailed was my fantastical inner life that any intrusion would shatter its fey fragility. And I was encouraged to while my days with my dreams by my parents, sister, and grandparents. Of course, this fueled my imagination, but also became the reason why I only learned to wash by myself at age 11, would fail to make my bed every morning, and never really had any responsibilities.
5. Irony vs. Art
Thus ends the whirlwind tour of the Soviet songs that formed my childhood. Beautifully orchestrated, at times schmaltzy, they imbued me with a sense of longing for my own childhood (almost like the 1960s Soviet bard song “Nostalgia for the Present”). This childhood was like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s God, a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. It was a void that didn’t have any definable characteristics except for longing itself, a space where I could long for an opaque future that also provided a convenient escape from the past. Childhood was a space to dream, even if the dreams I conjured—of kissing my best friend, getting an American Barbie, growing up—were vacuous. They were vacuous because they were born of the collective unconscious of Soviet childhood and were not especially unique to me. But they also provided me with the ability to connect with others, and this was significant. Dreaming the same dream as other little girls made me feel less alone.
And now I’m going to assert something very strange: that Soviet songs (and Soviet popular culture) encouraged me to make art because of their unironic belief in hope. To be capable of enacting even inner change through art-making, you first need to believe that this change is at least possible, that art is even worth making in an age when, most likely, no one will pay you for it and it won’t reach a whole lot of people. To be an artist you need to have hope even when your vision of hope comes against all odds, when others will judge you as naïve for such hopefulness.
According to David Foster Wallace, the so-called “New Sincerity” movement was a cultural response to postmodernist irony and cynicism; its heroes are the anti-rebels “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.”
Interestingly, New Sincerity became relevant in the post-Soviet context as scholar Michael Epstein employed it in response to the sense of absurdity permeating Soviet culture. According to Epstein, “Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen’, dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm.” Because their emotional kernel speaks to a bygone era in the Soviet story, the outmoded languages of Soviet songs should re-emerge for analysis and scrutiny. They speak to the hopefulness of childhood, as well as to our genuine fear as to what will happen if we give in to such hope.
I had such hope because of my Soviet upbringing. Irony doesn’t have to be the opposite of hopefulness, but too much skepticism—the very precondition for irony—can wither ambitions and narrow artistic horizons. At 12 I began writing breathlessly and badly, manically overestimating my abilities, overreaching my boundaries of knowledge and life experience. I was naïve as to the power of language to effect real change in the world and even more naïve about romantic love. But sometimes I think that realistic expectations and the whip of irony would have helped me achieve one thing only: failure.
On the surface, it seems like the Soviet songs I mentioned here aim to imbue us with hope, a confidence in the future. Yet on deeper inspection, they also show the future to be a kind of “confidence game”—constantly receding, never certain, only definite because of a break from the past. The songs make childhood into a state that is defined by perpetual dreaming. The etymology of “child” comes from Proto-Germanic *kiltham (source also of Gothic kilþei “womb,” inkilþo “pregnant.”) In a way, children are pregnant with the future, with the confidence of what’s to come. They are professional dreamers, and this is fascinating and anxiety-inducing at once. Paradoxically, their dreams almost always have to do with the displacement of childhood by a shadowy future self. (Children always play at being doctors and firemen, mommies and daddies, almost never other children.)
On my daughter’s second birthday, my father played “Blue Train” on the accordion and we all sang the Cheburashka birthday song about the wizard descending on a blue helicopter as she blew out the candles. Will she be taken in by songs about “The Beautiful Faraway” and “Winged Swings,” or will she find their sentiments groundless? I really can’t say. But one thing is clear—even now, so many years after my own childhood came and went, I still find myself humming to the tune of “May there always be sunshine.”
His novel with the glow-in-dark cover, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, came out in October, though it actually started years ago as a short story on his website. Of course, the seeds for it likely started back even farther, during his years working at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.
I’ve inhaled almost everything Robin has written: Annabel Scheme, a novella; “Fish,” a thoughtful essay in app form; and, of course the new novel. I grew even more intrigued when I learned Annabel Scheme was initially a Kickstarter project (you’ll hear more about that in the interview).
Robin is frightfully creative and incredibly open-minded. He also happens to tell really good stories. Below is our conversation, conducted over email, about stories, technology, and giving up the iPhone,
The Millions: You call yourself a “media inventor” and it’s quickly obvious you have a deep appreciation for history. What’s your belief about what the past has to teach us? Have you always been so fond of books?
Robin Sloan: Yes, I’ve always loved books. I was a kid who spent a lot of time in the library, scouring the stacks for the next installment of whatever fantasy series I was tearing through. But I’ve always loved technology, too: when I wasn’t at the library, I was planted in front of my family’s Mac Plus, writing or programming or slowly surfing the nascent Internet. I’m not convinced that one of those worlds is the past and the other is the future. I think both are vital components of our very capacious future-present, and both have been for a long time. In any case, I’ve always immersed myself in both, side by side. I think a lot of people have.
TM: What’s the order of your writing adventures: “Fish,” the Penumbra story, Annabel Scheme, the new novel? And what’s the single most important thing you’ve learned in that journey?
RS: It goes like this: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” the short story, Annabel Scheme the Kickstarter project, Scheme on Kindle (and free on my website, “Fish” the app, Penumbra the novel. Along the way, going from blog posts to short stories to novellas to novels, I’ve learned how to suppress the feeling that I’ve come to recognize as “the paranoia of the screen” — the creeping sense that your reader is about to lose interest, close the tab, and never return.
TM: You found a community of readers in a rather untraditional manner. How did that happen? (I’m thinking particularly about Annabel Scheme and your Kickstarter project to make a print version of the novella).
RS: I’ve been working in public for years now, sharing inchoate ideas and notes on process along with finished work, and when you do that, you tend to pick up people who stick with you. I’d argue, though, that the manner is not particularly “untraditional” these days. In fact, I think it’s becoming the go-to model for people building new careers and communities.
Twitter is a big part of it; there’s something about the way people find and follow each other over there that seems to support this kind of slow, organic, durable growth over time.
And maybe that’s the key: it has been slow. I started my first blog (Snarkmarket, written with Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody) back in 2003, so, if between then and now, I’ve found just one new person every day…well, that adds up to a lot of people!
TM: Tell me more about your decision to release Annabel Scheme under a Creative Commons license. That’s a big deal for a writer — or any creative. Why did you want to do that?
RS: Oh, that’s easy: because about the coolest thing I can imagine is other people taking my stories and making them their own. In other words: fan fiction. And not just fiction, but creation of every kind: drawings, costumes, games…everything. Now, a Creative Commons license is not strictly necessary; people create things based on copyrighted media all the time. But a CC license can be like a welcome mat — a neon sign that says “open for remix.”
In the case of Annabel Scheme, I was so serious about it that I allocated a few thousand dollars from the Kickstarter project into a “remix fund” to support some of the early projects. For example, a 3D artist named Emily Cooper rendered these postcards from the alternate-reality San Franciscos from the story and got paid to do it. Pretty cool.
TM: Penumbra started with a short story hosted on your website. How did it then evolve?
RS: It was clear, pretty much immediately after posting it, that “Penumbra” was resonating in a special way. It found its audience quickly. That’s a virtue of working on the web, I think: you have access to so much data about how a piece of writing is doing; how it’s being shared; how its audience is changing over time. The data is not the whole story, of course — there are plenty of crappy, cynical blog posts with millions of views — but it does help when you’re a writer just starting out, trying to figure out how to allocate a finite number of keystrokes.
TM: When you’re building tension in a novel — as you did in Penumbra — the stakes get higher in terms of making it worth it for the reader. I was getting nervous but I felt like, in the end, you nailed it. Were you worried about that at all?
RS: Midway through the writing of Penumbra, when the stakes and the resolution were still up in the air, I decided there would be no fistfights; no guns; no deaths. It’s easy to raise the stakes by putting characters in mortal danger, right? And for some stories, it’s absolutely appropriate. But my own life hasn’t featured many gun battles or assassinations, and it has seemed reasonably dramatic to me — so I figured there must be some other way.
Now, judging from the reviews, more than a few people wanted more action. Maybe a darker edge. I’m okay with that; writing would be boring if everybody reacted exactly the same way. Personally, I like the fact that the story’s urgency comes from quieter quarters, with no sniper rifles required.
TM: There are very few people writing, as you ultimately have, about the relationship between humans and technology, even though it’s something so familiar to us. Why do you think people fear it so much?
RS: I think a lot of the fear is based on a misapprehension: that the history of humans (or books, or food, or…) is separate from the history of technology. It’s not. It’s one history, one story — and when you realize that, it tends to defuse the whole debate. So you ignore the “camps” entirely, and turn your attention instead to the figures wandering between them, or better yet, away from them — the pilgrims just cresting the far-off ridgeline.
I don’t mean to sound techno-utopian — I’m decidedly not — but the simple fact is that everything we cherish today was, at some point, a strange and challenging invention. Printed books are no exception. So I think it’s really important that people who have strong beliefs about books, about attention, about life itself, ought to be out there inventing things, and embedding those beliefs in their inventions.
TM: How much research did you have to do on the inner workings of Google and data visualization and complex book scanners? Are these familiar terrains to you? Somehow you made those topics far less intimidating.
RS: I didn’t have to do much special research, because I’ve been fascinated by places like Google and disciplines like data visualization for years. This book was an opportunity to bundle up those fascinations, all those years of scribbled notes, and turn it all into something I could share.
And I’m glad you found it interesting and approachable! That’s one of the best things a book can do, right? Provide a window into an otherwise strange, or even hostile-seeming, world.
TM: You chose not to include Acknowledgements in the book — and there’s a bit of a debate about that in the literary world. What was your reasoning? I’ll say that having the last echo of your book be your last lines (vs. a list of names) mattered more than I expected. Was that your intention?
RS: I’m glad it worked that way for you! Yes, it was definitely my intention. I have nothing against acknowledgments — certainly, there are many people to acknowledge for Penumbra’s creation (and I do that on the book’s web page — but in this particular case, I wanted readers to reach those last lines, and then simply close the book. I guess you could say I was trying to design a moment.
TM: Your book launch for Mr. Penumbra was an all-day event. Tell me how that came about and why you chose to interview the folks you did. You were promoting the new book, yes, but you had a bigger goal, too. Looking back, how do you think it went?
RS: When you write a book with “24-Hour” in the title, I think you’re obligated to do at least one 24-hour event, right? My collaborators at FSG and I all thought so. And there was just something over-the-top and appealing about the idea of a 24-hour livestream; like a strange modern telethon.
So my editor Sean McDonald and I brainstormed a dream team of writers, thinkers, and provocateurs from across a wide range of disciplines, then extended invitations. Almost everyone said yes, I think in part because they were intrigued by the format. Like: “This is just crazy enough to make me want to come over and see what the hell you’re doing.”
There were really two bigger goal behind the 24-hour livestream: First, I wanted to put these people in front of my audience — to celebrate them, and frankly to thank them for the influence many of them had (knowingly or not) on Penumbra. Second, I wanted produce an event that people from all across the world could enjoy. In general, I’m quite frustrated with the limited scale of most book events, so this was a chance to do something that was anchored and site-specific (thanks to the beautiful Center for Fiction in Manhattan) but also open and scalable (streamed online, for all to see).
TM: What are some of your favorite books?
RS: I’ve reread David Markson’s The Last Novel more than any other book. As a kid, I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and I find that they hold up with age (both theirs and mine). This summer I’ve been rereading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s like the unadulterated The Little Prince — the real-life source material from which that story was distilled. Finally, I’m enjoying Aaron Diaz’s strange and beautiful Dark Science, which is still unfolding right now, page by page.
TM: I heard you have an old Nokia phone, which I love. Did you give up an iPhone? And you’re surviving okay?
RS: Ha, yes! I’m not just surviving, but thriving. For me, the iPhone had become a toxic compulsion. It had completed its invasion and occupation of my interstitial time — all those minutes riding the train, waiting in line, that used to be such fertile territory for daydreaming and storymaking. So I canceled my AT&T plan and switched to a bare-bones Nokia on a pay-as-you-go plan.
And sure enough: in the months since the liberation of my interstitial time, I’ve been daydreaming more, jotting down scraps of stories again.
Full disclosure, though: my iPhone does still work at home, on Wi-Fi. I couldn’t ditch the device entirely; I need to be able to try out apps like The Silent History.
TM: What would you say to other writers following in your footsteps — whether that’s experimenting with an online audience or working on making something that lasts?
RS: Two things.
The first: learn a bit of programming. Spend some time with Codecademy or Khan Academy’s programming course. The goal isn’t to become a programmer. Rather, it’s to understand what’s possible, and to experience what it feels like to make things happen with code. In the same way that the (then very new) feeling of the industrial city influenced so much great writing a hundred years ago, I think the (still very new) feeling of the programmable internet should be influencing more writing today.
The second things is going to sound like it contradicts the first, but it doesn’t really: focus on the text. I’ve enjoyed designing web pages and building iPhone apps, but I’m not convinced that any of it will be accessible for very long. That’s just the nature of the internet right now — we’re still in shakedown mode, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Plain text, though, already made it through the shakedown. Invest in text — learn to design sentences and build stories — and it’s a sure bet, no matter what the future holds.