Photographic evidence that Collin Piprell (center) dies his beard grey. During his Canadian mining days
KC: You’ve seen it all and done it all. On land, sea, and air. An elephant tracker, a miner, a scuba diver, and paraglider.
CP: Although I have followed elephant tracks, I’d hesitate to call myself an elephant tracker.
KC: Anyway, I’d rather hear about the dangers of being a traditionally published author in the 21st Century. You’ve got a new book out. Tell us about MOM. I hear it’s the first in a trilogy.
CP: Actually it’s no longer a trilogy – we’re now describing it as a series.
MOM kicks off around AD 2057. Feral self-replicating nanobots have very nearly brought about the extinction of the entire biosphere, including the human race, and the last two refuges – Eastern Seaboard USA Mall and Eastern Seaboard SE Asia Mall – are under siege.
Behind the story of how a few humans manage to survive the PlagueBot, we find another story: a war between the machine MOM and the human MOM she superseded, a 113-year-old who remains invisible to her in a hideout concealed in part by selectively blinding her with bugs he left in her operating system before she came to self-consciousness. So the machine MOM covertly recruits our heroes to help her home in on her human foe.
And behind that thread there’s yet another tale, one that unfolds more clearly in the second and third novels to come – i.e. the emergence of novel evolutionary developments of a significance comparable to the emergences of life, perception and motility, and the subsequent rises of intelligence, language use, culture, artificial intelligence and generated realities.
Ironically enough, the PlagueBot – the global superorganism that arose from the new grey-goo scenario – itself becomes one element of the basis for a human renaissance within a renewed, though radically different kind of biosphere.
That may sound way too stodgy. In fact MOM presents a lively, even funny, read that focuses on dramatic conflicts between our motley cast of characters. Or so I claim here. For one thing the book presents a story of elaborate revenge; here’s a teaser, something from Leary, one of the characters (see below):
“The Inuit, what we used to call Eskimos, they had a trick. An early kind of trojan. They’d bend a piece of sharpened whalebone over, wrap it in blubber, tie it up tight with something and freeze it. Then they’d take the string off the bait and leave this nice surprise lying around for a polar bear to find. The bear would see it, hardly believing its good luck, and wolf it right down. The blubber would thaw out way down there inside his gut and the whalebone would spring open. After a while the bear would bleed to death, or at least slow down enough the Inuit hunters could catch up and kill him some other way.”
KC: I don’t normally lose my appetite so early in an interview. What’s the upside (if there is one) and the down side to the digital age we live in for writers in particular and the human race, such as it is?
CP: The internet and 24/7 connectivity by way of our gadgetry can give us a godlike feeling that we’re parked at the hub of the universe with all that is right there at our fingertips. If you’re a working freelancer, for example, you can’t understand how anyone ever got along without it.
But our machines are fast learning how to do much of what has traditionally been reserved to humans. Already there are programs that churn out routine journalistic pieces and company reports and so on, a development that can leave us wordsmiths feeling less godlike.
Here’s something I blogged for fun a year or two ago, but I believe the real McCoy lies just around the corner: “Mickey’s Muse: Henry Ford for Writers.” I even had a couple of queries regarding where you could find the app. Before long that won’t seem so funny.
And there’s another downside to our enthusiasm for digital gadgets and the internet. We’re steadily outsourcing what we’ve always thought were essentially human capacities, and it’s quite likely we won’t recover some of them. Again, I’ve blogged on this issue, for example with “Outsource our minds? What a good idea!”
Of course there are also all the distractions. Many a professional writer has suggested, at least in so many words, that nobody can write a book on a computer that’s connected to the internet.
spring day darkening:
the locust digital swarm
eats my absent mind
KC: Do you have a routine?
CP: Wish I could say I did. I believe that straight out of bed to the writing in the morning is the best way to go. For sure go nowhere near the internet till you’ve spewed some hours of words. But given my basically undisciplined nature plus too many other commitments at any given time, I write when I can. Sometimes that’s straight out of bed, but not often enough.
KC: You once wrote a lot while you were at sea. Tell me about that experience. Were there distractions or was it pure bliss?
CP: I once worked some fragments up into a complete novel in draft during nine weeks on a derelict yacht between Israel and Thailand. I did it against all odds, against my own belief it wouldn’t be possible.
I really enjoyed the experience, but I wouldn’t describe it as bliss. I was doing odd jobs and standing watches all the while, and after a work crew in Cyprus stripped some cabins, mine for example, so they could patch a bunch of holes in the steel hull, I had nowhere to call my own to work or sleep. My nomadic approach to both sleeping and writing was complicated by the fact the rest of the pick-up crew were doing the same (aside from the writing, that is) and, by the time we hit the Red Sea, the temperatures were ranging to around 500 C and rather higher in the engine room. Nothing worked – not the air-con, not the fans, only the twin Gardner diesels, a pump or two and my laptop.
But yes, I find I work well on boats. The in-between times are ideal for gazing at the sea, which puts me in a fine semi-meditative frame of mind.
KC: Tell us about your body of work to date.
CP: DK Books published my first book, Bangkok Knights, way back when I was still teaching (mostly writing) at Thammasat University. A British doctor who used to live here in Bangkok recommended the ms. to Khun Suk, the owner of a chain of bookstores and a publishing house. Later DK also published Kicking Dogs, a novel. Both of those books were later picked up by bookSiam and then by Asia Books, who also encouraged me to write Yawn: A Thriller, which they eventually published as well.
Sometime around the time I came up with Kicking Dogs I left the university to make a go of it as a freelance magazine writer and editor. And during that period Post Publications brought out Bangkok Old Hand, a collection of mostly humorous pieces that had appeared in the Sunday Bangkok Post and various other local publications. I also did a book on coral reef natural history and conservation with the underwater photographer Ashley J. Boyd for White Lotus Press, as well as a collection of diving stories for Artesia Press and a diving guide to Thailand for Times Editions (now Marshall Cavendish, Singapore) and Hippocrene in the USA. I co-authored a book on Thailand’s national parks with Denis Gray and Mark Graham (IFPC, Bangkok); I did part of the introduction and all the marine national parks.
But most of my income was from magazine work.
KC: Where do the plots for your books come from?
CP: My stories generally emerge from hard dint of bashing my head against draft passages, dialogue, settings, whatever, till the structure and the point of it all finally appears. For me (and, I’d argue, for most writers) the writing activity is typically a conversation with the page, a process wherein the text evolves in the back-and-forth give-and-take of proposition and critique, experiment and revision. Or so I say.
To perform this trick successfully, I’d further claim, you have to wear two hats: that of the writer/editor and that of the reader/editor.
Two Hats Are Better Than One
You don one hat and then the other, role-playing on some level – switching back and forth and back and forth as the prose passage develops. The writer proposes a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. At each step, the writer swaps between the standpoint of the writer – proposing – and the reader or editor – critiquing. At each step of the way, the writer proposes a change and the editor – the same person, wearing a different hat – either accedes or doesn’t. And so on. In principle, this applies to virtually any written text. Even a shopping list, as we see in “Story: A conversation with the page.”
KC: To write one must read or so I have read. What have you read recently that impressed you and what disappointed you?
CP: I think you do have to enjoy reading if you want to write successfully.
Like a lot of people these days, however, I find my attention becomes torn in too many directions – we suffer from a surfeit of choice. I read too much and too eclectically online; I have digital magazine subscriptions and digital books on three different devices; I’ve got paper books stacked on all sides, some of them unread, some half-read, some awaiting a re-reading. This isn’t the way to do things. It’s overwhelming. Sometimes my default position is to read nothing at all, only sit there and reflect on how much I think I have to read and how little time there is.
Recent fiction? Someone gave me a copy of Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, a best-selling mystery now in translation. I enjoyed it, but I suspect you have to be Japanese to properly appreciate its 650 pages; not being familiar with the subtleties of relative status in the social hierarchy and so on I tended to get impatient and skim some of it. I’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy (Sara gave them to me.) Very good reads. And a bunch of other stuff.
I should say Thailand has a vibrant gang of English-language novelists. I’d like to mention some of them here, but I fear slighting all the others I haven’t had time to read. Maybe on another occasion.
The following – both reading for pleasure and theme reading for the Magic Circles series – are among the non-fiction books in progress: Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (some years ago I read Kauffman’s Re-inventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, and found it compelling, if sometimes difficult reading). In a similar vein, I’m reading Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. I’ve also recently read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Hold Still, Sally Mann’s memoir with photos.
KC: Why do you write?
CP: As I said in my interview with the publishers, it was mostly to annoy my father, who wanted me to be an engineer. But it’s really because of all the groupies and stuff.
KC: When did you first consider yourself a writer? Put another way, when did the whole groupie thing come together?
CP: I remember clearly one particular morning, just after DK Books published Kicking Dogs – that was some time after they’d already brought out Bangkok Knights – and I was getting enough requests for articles and things that I’d quit the university job to freelance full time. I woke up in my old shophouse in Bangkok, mentally reviewed the day’s schedule and thought, “Holy cow. I’m a writer! I really am.” And what a great feeling that was. Until that moment this notion had always been a never-never kind of thing – nice to contemplate, but maybe only true in another life.
KC: Who were your mentors?
CP: In part they were writers I enjoyed reading when I was younger. I’d always been a voracious reader, but by my teens I tended to favor novels such as The Lost Weekend, where the heroes were really anti-heroes, creatures of dubious character bound to come to grief. So I enthusiastically adopted that persona for many years before I ever wrote anything commercial.
When I was a kid, my father built me a bed with bookshelves for a headboard. Some of the titles I recall, favorites I read again and again, included Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Penrod, A Child’s History of the World, A Child’s Geography of the World, a couple of books by archaeologists, including Mortimer Wheeler’s Archaeology from the Earth, some fat hardback with B&W photos of Petra, a field guide to the denizens of pond water (my folks had bought me a microscope, a good one), and more. An account of some paleontologist’s expeditions in the Gobi Desert.
Many years later, when I was still in my twenties, I returned to my parent’s home to find that my middle brother had appropriated all my favorite fiction, and now called these books his favorites. A few of them come to mind: J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.; Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; a couple of P.G. Wodehouse novels; stories by James Thurber; stories by Damon Runyon; and lots more, many of them world classics, though itemizing these would feel pretentious. Plus I was probably too young and parochial for them, and tended to speed through everything from Tolstoy to the back of the cornflakes box as little more than pleasant diversions.
Among readers I especially admire now, in no particular order, I’d name Flann O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, V.S. Naipaul, Neal Stephenson and Margaret Atwood. There are plenty of others, but those will have to do for now. How much have they influenced my own writing? I couldn’t say.
KC: What inspired you to write MOM? When did you first know you had a series on your hands?
CP: Having read about the “grey goo scenario” – where almost overnight self-replicating nanobots turn the planetary surface into nothing but more of themselves – I found myself trying to imagine how anyone or anything could ever survive such a disaster. Plus I’d encountered intriguing notions related to nanotechnology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, virtual realities, theories of complexity and novel emergencies. As though against my will – I’d never thought of writing a science-fiction novel – characters and settings began to emerge in my mind and I wrote some stuff.
Wisely enough, I then relegated this stuff to a bottom drawer and went back to other writing projects. One of these I showed to a good friend who hated it; he asked me whether I didn’t have anything else to show him. So I dug out some chapters of what was to become MOM, and he claimed that this was what I should be doing. I didn’t really believe him but, what with one thing and another, including his offer to let me use his lakeside cabin in the mountains of Japan for a solitary writer’s retreat from all the chaos of my life in Bangkok, I went back to MOM with a will. And here we are today.
I knew I had a series on my hands the moment I wrote MOM’s concluding chapters. They pretty well demanded I discover what happened next.
KC: Would you say MOM is character driven or setting driven? Tell me more about the motley cast you have created.
CP: I think MOM is character driven. But the settings – the generated realities and the PlagueBot-ravaged surface of the earth – are also important. Especially later in the series, when we could say the planet’s surface itself takes a role in developments. Here’s an outline cast of characters:
MOM is the mall operations manager, a machine intelligence recently come to self-awareness.
The PlagueBot is a global superorganism. It is emerging from a failed grey-goo scenario, where feral self-replicating nanobots consumed nearly all of the biosphere, including humankind and its works.
Cisco Smith is a 22-year-old Worlds UnLtd test pilot. His best friend is Dee Zu, the only other surviving test pilot in the Eastern Seaboard, United Securistats of America (ESUSA) Mall. Dee Zu is also his lover. His main lover.
Sky is his other lover. What to say about her? Sky is Sky. You’ll have to read the book.
Leary, a 113-year-old baby boomer, is the last surviving inhabitant of the Eastern Seaboard SE Asia (ESSEA) mall, and a father figure to Cisco. He’s also an old drinking buddy, from Bangkok days, of Brian Finister.
Brian was sometimes known in the old days as Brian the Evil Canadian. Before he was put out to pasture by his machine successor, he was the last human mall operations manager.
Ellie, yet another Boomer relic, was Leary’s wife and long the object of Brian’s unrequited lust. Before Brian drove her to suicide.
Sweetie, a demented former psychiatrist once involved in US military intelligence, is Brian’s longtime consort.
Sissie is Cisco’s troubled adolescent sister of whom there’s no record in MOM’s databanks.
Joy Sequoia Bean, Smoke, Rexy, Toot, Rabbit and Muggs are other members of the cast, more or less important at any given point to the story’s unfolding.
KC: What are the challenges that writing a science fiction novel poses that, say, a crime fiction novel doesn’t have?
CP: I can’t say. I’ve never really written a crime fiction novel. I suppose some would describe Kicking Dogs that way, but I think of it simply as a comic thriller where Jack Shackaway, the hero, is suffering a massive case of culture shock he systematically refuses to acknowledge even when his Thai girlfriend keeps telling him he’s a babe in the woods and any minute now he’s going to get himself killed.
Maybe writing a science-fiction novel has this advantage over writing stories set in situations people are prone to calling “the real world”: nobody can say my settings lack verisimilitude. These worlds are of my own creation, and they are exactly what I say they are.
There. That was my moment where I was God. In fact, if they’re to work, these alternate worlds require just as much attention to detail as the “real world” settings do. And part of the appeal of the MOM species of science fiction is that readers need to consistently sense its very real relationship to the world we inhabit now.
Click the Book Cover to go to the Amazon USA web page – Amazon Pre-orders of MOM for April 5th delivery
KC: How has the experience of telling someone you are a writer changed from the 20th Century to the 21st Century, if it has?
CP: One change is that these days it has to seem less world-shaking to recognize yourself as a writer, given this syndrome seems to have become pandemic. (Let it be recorded that, at this juncture, the interviewee grinned.)
Collin Piprell, grinning. Sort of.
To learn more about Collin Piprell and his books go to his blog, Collin Piprell, in reality at www.collinpiprell.com
The Epub version of MOM is available now if you wish to support small publishing houses in an Amazon age, at Common Deer Press