Touch

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A Year in Reading: Heather Scott Partington

A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move.

To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence.

I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting.

I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl.

I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it.

Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul.

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The End of Touch: The Millions Interviews Courtney Maum

Courtney Maum’s first novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, landed her on a slew of “Best of 2014” lists, and her latest, Touch, continues her exploration of relationships and love by telling the story of Sloane Jacobsen, one of the world’s top trend forecasters, who is hired by tech company Mammoth to lead their annual conference applauding consciously childless couples. They hope Sloane will push them into new technological directions, but she instead begins to question the use of devices, deciding consumers will soon rally against them. This causes her to butt heads not only with Mammoth’s owner, but also with her lover, Roman, who considers himself a “neo-sensualist” and predicts the death of touch in sexual encounters. It’s a warm, smart, funny novel that’s bound to create conversation amongst readers.

Since Touch speaks to the importance of face-to-face conversation, Courtney and I decided to meet at her home in northwest Connecticut one cool, rainy afternoon to discuss her writing, beliefs, and how we can all do a better job of paying attention.

The Millions: I know your first book had a long life before it was published. What was the genesis of this novel?

Courtney Maum: When I looked back two or three years ago, I noticed that for all of my friends, without exception, our friendships were being devastated because of our cell phones. We’d be out at a café and our phones were on the table. I became friends with my friends and also their phones, which were always there. And then gradually over those two or three years the phones were held upright, and they were taking photos and branding our interactions and we were on people’s timelines and Instagram feeds.

Not that I’m perfect. Not that I go around everywhere with a typewriter or something. I’m a modern person too.

TM: You don’t carry your record player to the café?

CM: I do carry my record player to the café. [Laughs.]

But I think what led me to write the book, what really drove me nuts — more than that we were all distracted — was watching people who were bright and creative — fashion designers and photographers and painters — people who were creative and paid to make decisions become incapable of making decisions. If they were hungry, they went for their phones right away to tell them what to eat and where to eat it. My single friends, instead of looking around at a bar and feeling things out, would instead be staring into their phones, swiping left and right and giggling about what someone looked like in their photo. And I started wondering: what is becoming of human instinct? I tried to find a structure and a way to turn my question into a book, and it didn’t happen until I found the main character’s job, which is a trend forecaster, a job I used to do.

Once I gave myself permission to tap into those memories of what that job had been like, then things started to come together.

TM: How does the timeliness of the book play out, considering our political climate and failure at day-to-day interactions?

CM: Having any published work out post-November 2016 feels like a huge risk. You never know what’s coming. But if there’s a silver lining to having a book about smartphone addiction under this current political reign, with a president who is addicted to his smartphone, is that it may make people who don’t consider themselves interested in technology take a second look at how they’re using their own devices, as well as the role of cell phones and the Internet in our personal lives.

I think it’s pretty clear that it’s actual face-to-face connection that’s going to change things going forward. If you look at the success of the protest marches that have occurred — and by success, I don’t mean necessarily that they’ve changed things politically — but it takes a lot to get an American out onto the streets. I say that as someone who lived in Europe for five years, where it takes nothing to get a European out onto the streets. More Americans are marching, and that’s a big deal, so it’s a good time for people to begin reevaluating their relationships with their smartphones. Especially as we arrive in what will be known as the era of AI.

TM: It’s funny, because every semester I have my students write a paper about their relationships with technology, and whether they think their devices impact the ways they function face-to-face. When I first started, I assumed that every paper would be about the merits of technology–

CM: Why’d you think that?

TM: Because they’re always on their phones. But the essays were all pretty negative about technology…

CM: That’s so interesting because I feel like our assumption is to look at people on their phones and to assume that they’re having a positive experience. Even if that’s rarely true! Yesterday, I was writing by hand, (because I now write by hand in the morning in order to not be online), and after 90 minutes of writing I let myself check social media. And inevitably what ends up happening is I come out of that social media rat hole feeling bad about something, and when I go back to my writing, I end up abandoning it, because I’ve lost whatever magical private world I was in when I woke up, whether it’s the news cycle, or it’s something happening within my social circle.

TM: Is it also that immediate influence of other people’s thoughts?

CM: Yeah. It’s so weird that I think of my social media break as a reward. I would never invite a friend over for coffee at 11 in the morning. I try to have my workday run from nine to at least two in the afternoon, so I would never, ever, invite not just one person, but 3,000 into my house to start rattling off at me what they’re doing with their lives. That’s my idea of a nightmare, but I do it virtually.

TM: Many of us do, and now, because I’ve read so many of my students’ negative social media papers, I see them on their phones in a very new way.

CM: That’s interesting. I mean, they could be sitting there with needles in their veins. It’s not necessarily a good thing for them, but they’re doing it anyway. We’re doing it, anyway.

TM: Sloane, your main character, is a trend forecaster. Do you see trend forecasters and storytellers in a similar light?

CM: No, not really. Storytellers seduce you with a narrative, and trend forecasters just announce an outcome, without seduction (although the best ones craft some pretty powerful PowerPoints). You either believe what they’re saying to you, or you don’t, but a trend forecaster is not going to take 300 pages to tell you that off-the-shoulder tops are going to be the big thing for this summer. They’re just going to show you a picture. It’s more immediate, whereas storytelling is slow. But there is a build-up, though, with trend forecasting. This thing you’re learning about…it might not come for many, many years down the road. So you hear about it. And then you have to wait. So I think I’m changing my opinion. There’s a slow seduction to both arts.

TM: Maybe it also has to do with how one views storytelling? Like, are you trying to create something everlasting, or are you driven by something you want to talk about in that moment?

CM: Right. By nature of the job, trend forecasting is seasonal and is rarely told with words; instead it uses film and texture and photography and textiles as accessories. I used to work on trend books, which are these very expensive, giant tomes that look like a crazy person’s scrapbook. Maybe they don’t look like that anymore, but when I started out in the early aughts, these books would have actual swaths of fabric and rubbers and plastics, because they cover not just fashion but also home design. So there’d be chips of porcelain and fans of color and paint swatches, and that’s how they’d tell their story. Now things have changed and you can have a Pinterest board, but when it comes time to tell a company that all the accessories for fall of 2018 need to be charcoal gray, you want to touch things. It’s not enough to go up and tell a story, whereas a storyteller can sway people with words and nothing else.

TM: As someone who works in branding when not writing, how do you brand this book? Did you have the title Touch from the beginning?

CM: No, actually. That title was my editor’s suggestion. Originally it was called The Future, but someone came out with a book using the same name. Then I liked The End of Touch, but my agent thought it was too sad. [Laughs.]

My editor suggested Touch, and I liked it because it was short. My first book’s title was so long. When I first started to think about it, I was a little intimidated, because it felt a little Jonathan Franzen-ian. It’s ballsy to have a one-word title. But I gave myself a pep talk and thought, well, this is what the book is really about: touch screens versus tactile touch. So it’s a perfect title.

I’ve been really lucky as a female novelist that no one at either of my publishers tried to push cheesy-ass covers on me. With both books, the first PDF they showed me was the cover that we have. They just got it right away. In this case, they hired Rodrigo Corral, who’s a demigod in graphic design, and he totally nailed it. I really love the cover.

So the branding is really thanks to my team at Putnam. I wrote the book, but they instinctively “got” it and did a great job.

TM: Another sort of branding: how do you name your characters?

CM: That’s a good question! Sometimes it comes right away and it can’t be anything other than that. Sloane was always Sloane. Roman, for a while, was Romain, but my agent kept calling him “Romaine Lettuce,” and I realized nobody is going to understand what “Romain” sounds like, so he became Roman.

In this book, everybody’s name came easily, but in the thing I’m working on now, no one’s name will stick. I have this terrible manuscript where I’m writing “MC” for “main character,” or “Last Name” because I don’t know what their last name is yet.

Nothing’s continuous throughout the manuscript. It’s a hot, hot mess, but I believe names have power. I went through a phase where I had this mug from a college where I’d attended a writing conference that had the names of graduates I didn’t know, and I’d keep it on my desk and mix and match those names. I moved recently, and that mug is gone. None of my characters will ever have a name again!

TM: You often create worlds within worlds. In Touch, all of these fake products, Roman’s New York Times op-ed, and the porn video Sloane watches are quite detailed. The reader experiences the media that these characters consume in a very real way, which isn’t something you see all of the time in fiction. Why are you drawn to include these kinds of elements?

CM: It would feel completely unnatural for me to not write that way, partly because I do a little screenwriting on the side with my husband, who’s a filmmaker. And I really do love film as a storytelling medium. Sometimes it helps me to understand where the plot is going by watching the film in my head. I specifically remember, when working on the first novel, that when Richard was getting his installation ready, I was watching him, almost as an employee in a hardware shop as he bought this and that. I watched him go into the public Laundromat to try everything out, and I watched him make a mess. I let the reel unspool. For me, writing that way is partly an aid to help me figure out plot.

TM: Many writers could gloss over the storyline of, say, the porn video Sloane watches, yet you take the time to explain it in detail.

CM: Sometimes I go too far with it. It’s awful to say how many hundreds of thousands of words I cut in the different drafts. I can go too deep into the world building. For example, I wrote up corporate structures for the company “Mammoth” in Touch. All of that was cut because it wasn’t necessary, but to not have written, or included, say, Roman’s op-ed would have been a major disservice to the plot. For me, I hope that the layers have purpose and that I’m not simply proving I can do the layers upon layers thing.  

TM: Roman’s op-ed, in particular, is a huge character moment.

CM: I didn’t want him only to be a jester. Whether or not you agree with him, I wanted to prove that he’s a thinker.

TM: In Touch, you tie in actual products with those you invent. Is there a balance you have to find to make that work?

CM: There are sometimes legal reasons why you can’t use a company’s name. People writing about Disneyland aren’t calling it Disneyland. Most times, I’ll change the name of something if it carries too much weight, if it has too much of a monopoly of significance. I don’t ever call the phones in the book “iPhones,” for example. I’m trying to create a world where you can imagine whatever you need to, because it’s just a smartphone. If I called it an iPhone, all of a sudden it could feel like Apple owns my book, or that I’m directly criticizing Apple, which I’m not. Also, in Europe, more people are using Androids, and I want it to be ”democratic” in terms of product names.

On the flipside, though, there might be a scene where someone uses Arm & Hammer toothpaste, for example, because using that brand name wouldn’t distract too much from the narrative and it has such a distinctive flavor. It comes down to whether something monopolizes the pace.

It’s true that there are a couple of real apps included in the book, like RunPee. That’s a real thing, and I also include artist Craig Ward, who makes photographs out of bacteria. I used these because reality here can’t be topped. I have a real Davy Rothbart quote in Roman’s op-ed about dating our own computers, which was said incredibly well and fit in the time setting of the novel. The blending of real and imagined is incredibly fun for me.

TM: Does it assist in creating a reality for the novel’s invented products?

CM: I hadn’t thought about that, but it might give some validity to the products discussed in the book. Like, “OK, I recognize some of these.” I never mention Uber. That was a conscious decision, and I’m glad I did that because look what happened with Uber since I wrote the book. Mentioning a current brand time stamps what you’re writing, but with today’s culture, brand value is mercurial. If I had a character drink Pepsi, and it was published right now, instead of being engaged in the chapter, you’d think, “Oh God, how can this character be drinking Pepsi after that awful ad?”

TM: Staying with the theme of connectedness within the book, I want to talk about how you’re trying to embrace these ideas.

CM: I believe in In-Personism and face-to-face interactions and calling people on the phone. I truly think if we had less smartphone addiction, Hillary Clinton would be our president. The fact that we all have these curated realities because of algorithms and preferences means we read what we want to read. We see only posts from our friends. We’re not exposed to things we don’t want to see.

With The Cabins, a creative retreat I’m running for the second time this year, I purposely try to find places with shitty Internet. It’s become a luxury to sit around with others for three or four days to talk about whatever — art or writing or pop culture — without the interruption of our phones.

We don’t understand what’s happening with our neighbors anymore. We need to all pay more attention to each other and take the pulse of what’s happening, because we’ve misunderstood a lot.

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