New R. Scott Bakker interview

Yes, I know that the last one was posted not so long ago. But with Neuropath (Canada, Europe)being released next month in Canada and the UK, and to address some points raised in the previous Q&A, Scott was nice enough to come to the dance one more.

Thanks to Larry, who was supposed to be my collaborator on this interview. He only ended up submitting one question, but it was a good one!

As always, Bakker has a lot to say, and most of it is interesting!;-)


- After writing a fantasy trilogy, what prompted the idea of writing a thriller? At this juncture in your career, did you or your agent think that it could be a risk to switch genres like that?

Three things actually came together in the genesis of Neuropath. The first was a family get together, though for the life of me I can’t remember what the holiday was. A Scientific American Frontiers show on brain science just happened to be on the tube, and over the course of several minutes all the people who had been lurching around laughing and drinking found themselves glued to the screen. Soon the house was completely quiet, except for the odd “No way!” or “Whoa that’s creepy!” That got me thinking about cognitive science, which I had always been interested in, as something that would interest a broad cross-section of people.

The second thing was teaching Popular Culture at a local college. It’s an axiom of human nature, I think, that if you lock a group of humans in a room long enough, they’re going to invent their own languages. That’s the way I think of philosophy, as a big room that’s been locked for a long, long time. So the challenge I set for myself teaching this course was to take a bunch of the issues I’d been writing about and debating and make them as accessible and as pertinent as possible to my students. I was also bent on taking a non-semiotic approach to the question of pop culture (just as the man with a hammer sees all problems as nails, English professors tend to see all problems as texts) so I came up with idea of interpreting contemporary culture as a prosthetic for our stone-age brains. The class was a blast – so much so I’ve actually dedicated the book to my old students. Many of the claims that appear in Neuropath were formulated in that class.

But my wife, Sharron, is the real reason for writing this book. Fantasy, well, let’s just say it isn’t her cup of tea. And yet she’s my primary reader and editor, so she’s been quite literally suffering for my art for a few years now. Since the psychothriller is her favourite genre, I suggested, as a warm, loving, generous gesture on my part, that I try writing one after the trilogy was completed. She laughed – a little too hard, I think – and told me (and this is almost a direct quote): “You couldn’t write a thriller if you tried! You-you, I know you. You’d have to stuff it full of all kinds of literary and philosophical crap, and that’s not what psychothriller’s are about. You’d just screw it up!”

So what began as a gesture of love on my part was instantly transformed into an exercise in spite. I had to prove the smug little… wonderful woman wrong! Given the fact that I’m always mucking up the wash, folding clothes “screwy,” loading the dishwasher “backward,” missing spots when I sweep or vacuum, and so on, I gotta tell you, it was pretty gratifying to actually hear her admit that she was wrong!

My agent did have concerns, but these seemed to vanish after he read the first draft. It’s always a risk when you jump genres, and things could still turn out to be pretty ugly with Neuropath – the business is just that capricious. But hearing your wife admit she was wrong – man, mission accomplished.
- How would you describe Neuropath to potential readers?

You are not what you think you are. Neuropath pursues that fact through a story of lust, betrayal, and a string of serial murders unlike anything you’ve seen before.

- Other than producing a good novel, were there any specific objectives you set about to reach with Neuropath? Looking back now that the novel will be published in a few weeks, do you feel that you have succeeded/failed in those endeavors?

I just got my mitts on the Penguin advanced reading copies last Friday, and I did what I always do when I get an ARC of one of my books for the first time, I play the Cringe Game. The cringe game consists of taking the book, fondling it for a minute or so, then randomly opening it here and there to this or that page, and reading a paragraph or two. Your fingers cramp. The muscles in your back tense. Your shoulders draw up. A burning in your gut bends you kneeward. You grimace, and a voice that sounds a lot like your own says, “Yeesh, I write like crap.”

This has been my experience with every book I’ve written so far: I want to take it back, to burn or to rewrite it, or to a least insert several footnotes apologizing to the reader. Or maybe slip a five dollar bill between the pages, with that note says, “Go to DQ, buy yourself a sundae.” I can honestly say that I suffered none of this with Neuropath. It was actually kind of surreal. Now this could be because the book is simply better, but since I was at Ad Astra (a con in Toronto), I was waylaid by Rob Sawyer and Hayden Trenholm before I could sit down to play the Cringe Game. I think I was on my seventh pint before I got a moment alone.

I just wanted to write a freaky-deaky thriller that would enthrall readers while making them squirm – both viscerally and intellectually. It’s not going to work for everyone – no book ever does – but I think it will succeed for quite a few.

- With this psychological thriller, you demonstrated that R. Scott Bakker has what it takes to write for a mainstream audience. And yet, do you feel that the mainstream readership is ready for something like Neuropath?

I don’t know who this R. Scott Bakker character is – Neuropath was written by Scott Bakker. What kind of pompous ass puts an ‘R’ in front of his name?

Are the muggles ready for Neuropath? That remains to be seen. The vast majority of readers will reject the vast bulk of the claims made in the book – that goes without saying, I think. Our incompetence as theory believers pretty much assures that people will refuse to acknowledge their incompetence as theory believers, and so muster all the power their myriad biases have to offer. Just for instance, you would think that encountering well-formed counterarguments would make people more skeptical of their own beliefs – after all, someone has to be wrong and it could very well be you – but research has shown that precisely the opposite is the case. Thanks to things like source bias, selective attention, confirmation bias, and so on, we almost always feel that we have utterly demolished those counterarguments, and if our position is so strong as to demolish well-formed counterarguments, well then, it simply has to be true! In other words, we draw the most irrational, self-serving conclusion possible.

This means the majority of those who find themselves arguing with the book will be convinced that they have “beaten it.” Since I knew this going in I tried very hard to make sure the story took priority, so that the book could be thoroughly enjoyed even if the cognitive science stuff was written off. At this level of engagement, my hope is simply that people will be curious enough to keep their ears pricked to all news cognitive, and that over time the itch that they are as every bit as deluded as all the people they disagree with will continue to grow and grow.

- The thesis underlying the novel is that there is no such thing as human free will and that consciousness as we know it is illusory. Do you believe that this controversial premise is the reason why it was difficult for you to find a home for this manuscript?

In the US, maybe. But I really think that the problem had more to do with the fact that the content was philosophical, more than the specific nature of that content. I had one very high profile NYC editor call me up to explain why he was passing on the book, even though he thought it was the most disturbing thing he’d read in 10 years! That’s literally what he said. What it came down to was that he thought the book was too cerebral to sell in the American market.

And who knows? He could very well be right. But since this is exactly what I was told when The Prince of Nothing first made it’s editorial rounds in New York, I’m inclined to think there’s a good chance that I may be right.

This does illustrate one big peril of jumping genres, though. It turns you into a first time novelist all over again, especially if your bona fides come from a genre with reputation as low as epic fantasy. So I’ve been forced to make all the same arguments all over again.

If you embrace the form, strive to entertain above all else, there really is no limit as to the crazy cerebral contents you can give the reader. I take the success of The Prince of Nothing as proof positive of this. The problem is that most writers interested in arguing with readers go to university, where they’re taught that forms, particularly popular commercial forms, are the devil. So they generally go on to write cerebral fiction that violates or “plays” with generic conventions, and as result end up generally writing for people who share their education and values. All their talent is squandered on people who already share the vast bulk of their thoughts – they simply become high end entertainers. Intellectual buzz merchants.

The editorial bias against intelligent genre fiction, I would argue, is the result of a pretty understandable equivocation: it’s the violation of form, the beloved rules, that turns off popular audiences, but since it’s so regularly paired with cerebral content, the latter ends up taking the blame as well.

The situation is certainly more complicated than this: there’s definitely issues of vocabulary and comprehension that are going to impact the overall accessibility of any book, but I’m arguing that it’s primarily the form and not the content that selects for or against certain audiences. Like I said, if you look at a set of generic rules as an opportunity to communicate with people at large, rather than the corporate devil, you’d be amazed with what you can get away with.

- Was it arduous to simplify all the scientific elements found throughout Neuropath so that readers could understand what's going on and follow the various plotlines?

It would have been, I think, had I not done so much work toward this end while teaching the popular culture class I mentioned earlier.

- After reading Neuropath, one can conclude that it is the work of a brilliant or extremely disturbed author. Which is it!?!

The only reason humans think they’re so smart is that our nearest competitors are still sniffing each other’s asses to say hello. All I try to do is to think one thought too many – something which is bound to make you seem crazy sometimes, I guess. The hope is that way I can expose the reader to a couple of thoughts they may not have encountered before. Whether I succeed or not is entirely dependent on the match between the book and the reader.

- What were the reactions of your first test readers? I reckon you probably scared a few people, even with the first draft.

My brother claims to still be freaked three years later. My friend Gary Wassner told me he had to go jogging for an hour after reading it. My friend Larry Nolen (whose evil intellect I can sense behind some of these questions!) says that he had nightmares. But not everybody had reactions this extreme: only those who found themselves genuinely arguing with book as they read it, I think. Others simply saw the consciousness stuff as a cool hook for a cool story. One reader I know of absolutely hated it, even claimed that it was proof that I was a sexist pig! (The whole sexploitation dimension of the genre is something I try to put under the narrative microscope. You’d think I would have learned my lesson with The Prince of Nothing…)

- Given the subject matter presented in Neuropath, do you personally have any hope that humans can overcome their "hardwiring" (whether it be via social engineering or genetic manipulation)? Or is "rewiring" something that scares you even more than the present condition?

We’re fucked.

Either we kill ourselves via anyone of a number of apocalyptic scenarios, or the technological optimists are right, and we’ll innovate our way out scrape after scrape. But if they’re right, ‘rewiring’ is inevitable. And as I like to think the narrative of Neuropath shows, rewiring is simply collective suicide by other means.

I’m not big on post-human debates because I have no faith in the kinds of conceptual arguments they rely on. It’s like the abortion debate: Where does ‘personhood’ begin? There is literally no decisive way to settle this question, which is why abortion law in most every developed country splits the difference on the issue. We know that the idea of the State moving in and telling a woman what she can or can’t do with her body is pretty damn creepy, but the idea of killing people is pretty scary as well. So when does an embryo become a ‘person’? We have no bloody idea, so we make abortion legal up to a point, then we suspend a woman’s reproductive rights – we split the difference.

Likewise, when does neural rewiring make a person not a person? You could cook up a thousand arguments, and you could probably – given how inclined we are to buy our own bullshit – convince yourself that this or that interpretation is God’s interpretation, or nature’s, or whatever. But what you can’t do is end the debate, because in the end, no matter how hard you believe, your interpretation is just as flimsy as all the others, just as susceptible to ‘death by a thousand qualifications.’

What you can predict is that the rewired will think they’re the real humans, and that the unwired will think they’re the real humans. That everyone will beat their breasts and shout “Me-me-me!” (with the exception of those rewireds who have shut off their selfhood modules). But in the meantime, because it’s our shared neurophysiology that gives us our shared experiential frame of reference, you can be assured that after a certain point the rewired will not be us. Imagine a world filled with different kinds of Kellhuses! At some point, thanks to technology, the whole of human history, its aspirations let alone it’s art and philosophy, will be little more than crayon scribbles taped to the fridge.

There’s no such thing as posterity, not anymore.

I dunno. Maybe we’ll cook up laws. But the competitive pressures will remain. Christ, we can’t even keep on top of doping in sports. I know this sounds awfully pessimistic, especially since the whole point of writing Neuropath was to make a stand against this particular Armageddon. But so long as we continue living in Disney World doom is inevitable, and I don’t see us moving out of the Magic Kingdom anytime soon.

- While portraying the Bible family, you have shown that you possess a rather deft humane touch. Frankly, based on your previous books, I didn't know you had it in you. Is this a side of your talent you wish to explore a bit more in future works?

In all fairness, The Prince of Nothing is a story about war, and war tends to grind sentiment down to the nub. It also has many, many characters, which forces you to shift narrative emphasis away from the personal and more to the public. The Prince of Nothing is a story about multiple machinations. Neuropath is the story of a Hapless Father struggling to become a Hero – it’s much more focused and intensely personal.

So I guess I’m saying it all depends on the story.

I have nothing against sentiment – it’s sentimentalism, the cartoon portrayal of human emotion that I take issue with. In that sense, I would argue that Neuropath is of a piece with The Prince of Nothing. Thomas Bible is a complicated father – as are all fathers outside of Hollywood and Disney World.

- I am aware that Neuropath has been optioned for a movie. Based on Hollywood's reticence to showcase anything even remotely controversial, if a production company decided to go along and do it, aren't you afraid that what they would come up with would bear no resemblance to the novel? Especially since what they show on the silver screen must more or less be accessible to the lowest common denominator.
Optioned? That would be news to me! Apparently it’s being considered by various high people in places – I don’t know anything more than that.

Even if it were optioned, that’s about as exciting as buying a lottery ticket. So few optioned books get made into movies. The best analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like putting together a crew for a pirate ship, then trying to sail out of a port blockaded by the British Navy.

But if it were to happen, I really don’t think I’d be one of those authors who would be bummed by the “distortions” that arise when you translate a story and character between drastically different media. If the resulting movie were crap, I’d be bummed, no doubt about that. But if it were wildly different and yet excellent, I’d be ecstatic.

I think the content of the book would have to be streamlined – there’s no way around that – but I do think, rather predictably I suppose, that it would make an awesome movie. It’s been quite awhile since the last high concept thriller. Aside from a strong story, it has a novel murder hook, and it offers an entirely new palette for CGI.

In fact, I think it would make such a great movie that it would win several Golden Globes and set a record for the most Oscars, before wrapping things up with a Nobel Peace prize...

But that’s just my brain’s impartial opinion.

- With such a controversial premise, depending on how hard your publishers will be pushing Neuropath, this book could potentially cause a bit of a stir. Are you hoping/dreading this? Knowing that controversy sells, are you and your editors hoping to cash in on such a turn of events?

Hoping, of course. And dreading, certainly. The “cash in” would be nice, but only for the sake of security: as well as things have been going with the fantasies it’s entirely possible, if not statistically probable, that I’ll have to take a day job in four or five years time. Most authors that make to the mid-list usually peak then sink back out again. Since my primary artistic goal is to complete The Second Apocalypse, it would be nice to be able to afford to write fulltime for the next several years at least. Otherwise, I can’t see upgrading my lifestyle any more than I have – my environmental footprint is too big as it is!

Outside that, I have an evangelical bent. I believe in human stupidity (my own included!) so fervently that I want to shout it out to the world. Look at history. Hell, look at the evening news. We’re surrounded by evidence of our folly, and yet all we do is congratulate ourselves all the time. Our kids spend two decades being educated, and nowhere – nowhere – are they taught anything about themselves, about the cognitive shortcomings that will lead to their divorces and their addictions, to their prejudices and their self-serving delusions. They come out of university not only ignorant of their limitations, their weaknesses, but convinced that they’re tough-minded critical thinkers.

I actually have a bad habit, which I’m sure has alienated many an acquaintance. Whenever someone tells me they’re a critical thinker – and let’s face it, everyone but everyone thinks they’re a critical thinker – I always ask them “How so?” Usually the answer is that they don’t believe everything everyone tells them. They make fun of Mormons, distrust corporations, or disagree with Fox news or some such. But when I point out that no one believes everything everyone tells them, so that can’t be a criterion for being a critical thinker, they get freaked out.

You get lots of valuable procedural knowledge in school, as well as a smattering of dogma, but nowhere – not even in most philosophy programs – are you taught how to think critically. We are hardwired to bullshit ourselves, and that’s a bloody fact Jack. And what are you taught? What does our system drum into your head at every bloody turn?

To believe in yourself! Believe in yourself when all the research shows that you are in fact the least credible person in the room. Though it seems the other way around, we’re actually much better at critiquing the claims and predicting the behaviour of others than we are ourselves. Check out David Dunning’s Self-Insight if you don’t believe me.

Ignorance is invisible, and so long as we remain ignorant of our cognitive shortcomings we will be slaves to them, we will be condemned to repeat all the same mistakes over and over, only with toys and tools that grow ever more powerful.

- Both Kellhus in The Prince of Nothing and Neil Cassidy in Neuropath are "over the top" intellectually. Do you relish the challenge posed by writing about such characters?

Definitely, but I actually think Kellhus and Neil are entirely different. The one is bred and the other is “tweaked,” but when push comes to shove, the threat posed by Kellhus is spiritual, whereas the threat posed by Neil is out and out physical – the spiritual stuff simply falls out of that.

- You have already made a name for yourself in the fantasy genre. What are your hopes regarding Neuropath and a more mainstream audience? Are there any other thrillers or non-fantasy works in the future for you?

I’m actually on the hook for a second thriller with Orion, to be completed following the sequel to The Judging Eye. But as I think I mentioned above, my focus is on completing The Second Apocalypse. I have at least four, maybe five books left to write. I’ve been dreaming this story for over twenty years now: I must see it through. At the same time I have all kinds of different books bubbling around in my head, and in all kinds of different genres. But quite frankly, unless Neuropath does really, really well, I’ll have no choice but to stick to fantasies and thrillers – you can only tempt the fates so many times.

Unless you’re Iain Banks.

- I know you thought you got off the hook in our last interview, but did you really think you could somehow dodge the question pertaining to The Judging Eye? Come on, man, you have got to give us something to whet our appetite! Give us something akin to a cover blurb, at the very least!

The world is not equal in the eyes of the God. Twenty years have passed since the Fall of Shimeh, and the Three Seas are united for the first time since the days of Near Antiquity. Bent on destroying unholy Golgotterath. Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, leads a new holy war, the Great Ordeal, across the wastes of Earwa, while his wife, Esmenet, rules as Empress in absence, warring against a rising tide of heresy. And Drusas Achamian, guided by two thousand year old dreams, embarks on a quest of his own: to find Ishual, the secret fastness of the Dunyain.

- The pub date for The Judging Eye appears to have been pushed back to winter 2009. Is that accurate or just a tentative release date? Has the book been postponed because the format of The Aspect-Emperor went from being a duology to a trilogy?

As far as I know that’s tentative, and it has more to do with scheduling issues arising from Neuropath than anything else. I’ve started writing the sequel, but I keep finding myself going back to fiddle with things – I’m a chronic fiddler, probably because of the Cringe Game. Revision really is a central part of the process for me.

- Now that you got the ball rolling, how long do you figure the wait between each installment will be?

I’m anticipating that The Aspect Emperor will roll out the same as The Prince of Nothing: the first two books a year apart with a several month longer gap before the final volume – because of the intervening second psychothriller. I tend to be the most productive when I have a gun pointed at my head, and right now I’m in the middle of a Mexican standoff. The words, they are a flying!

- If you could go back in time and make a few changes to The Prince of Nothing, what would those changes be? With that in mind, are you attempting to steer clear of some "mistakes" you may have made in the first series when you sit down to write The Judging Eye and its sequels?

Steve Erikson and I had a conversation about this very thing at the ICFA a couple of weeks ago. Both of us are building very tall series on narrow foundations simply because of the sheer complexity of our first books. My bold prediction is that Steve’s next series will be every bit as successful as A Song of Ice and Fire.

If I could go back, I would exhaustively rewrite The Darkness that Comes Before to include the Kellhus chapters that I cut out, and to add a couple of others. I should have stuck with him so that the reader could have learned the complexities of the world as he learned those complexities, then I would have slowly added the alternate POVs.

Another error I think I made in The Prince of Nothing as a whole is that I think I focused too much on interior action – I spent too much time knocking around in my characters’ heads. This is one thing that I tried to rectify in The Judging Eye: there’s still plenty of internal action, but I like to think I’ve done a better job balancing it with external action.

Even still, my bold prediction is that The Aspect Emperor will be nowhere as popular as A Song of Ice and Fire, but that the world junkies among us will be pleased indeed.

- Is there any chance we might see you up your game a bit in terms of internet presence, or is that too much of a distraction and it gets in the way of your writing?

Ever since I quit smoking my concentration, which was capable of marathon sessions, has become a lot more twitchy – brittle even. Now I do all my writing on a laptop with no internet connection, simply because whenever my focus wanes and I have this way of bullshitting myself into doing phony work, such as “research,” or “internetworking.” I seem to do it all the time. It makes me feel crazy-neurotic it’s so mechanical. I’m trying to build a routine-based “healthy balance,” but I’m 41 now, and my every attempt to “balance myself” in the past has been a failure. Whatever I happen to be doing I do too much of, whether it’s drinking or reading or writing or posting. What I want to do is write too much for the next five years or so, finish The Second Apocalypse, as well as look after a couple of side projects.

- Anything else you wish to share with your fans?

Buy Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of its Own: How your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Read it, ponder it, then read it again. Know thyself. Then you’ll see that the only thing for certain is that nothing is for certain.

It thinks, therefore we fantasize.

9 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I have not read any of Bakker's books. After reading this interview, I will be picking them up in the future. Agree or disagree, he sure does challenge ourselves to go to scary places.

Robert said...

What a terrific interview! I can't wait to check out "Neuropath" and I really need to read that Prince of Nothing trilogy that's just been gathering dust on my bookshelves...

Anonymous said...

Another error I think I made in The Prince of Nothing as a whole is that I think I focused too much on interior action – I spent too much time knocking around in my characters’ heads. This is one thing that I tried to rectify in The Judging Eye: there’s still plenty of internal action, but I like to think I’ve done a better job balancing it with external action.

Very interesting comment, that chimes with my main criticisim of the series. Can't wait to see where the story goes next!

Larry Nolen said...

Sorry I didn't have the time then to provide more, Pat, but it looks like Scott knew what to do with it. Good stuff there :D

Abalieno said...

Ever since I quit smoking my concentration, which was capable of marathon sessions, has become a lot more twitchy – brittle even.

I suggest green tea (strong). It does wonders on the brain.

Larry Nolen said...

And while I'm thinking about it, most appropriate Bakker pic yet?

Anonymous said...

fantastic interview. The guy has a great mind, fantasy needed him I think.
When he says read something, read it.(though in line with his critical thinking argument, avoid the confirmation bias and read the other side of the argument too. Make up your own mind ;O) )


Poppak said...

Excellent job, Pat. Lots of great info, looking forward to checking out the new book and starting on the 2nd Apocalypse.

Larry Nolen said...

I didn't have the time earlier to post my reaction to the interview, Pat, but here's a bit of a write-up over here. Bakker himself has responded, in case people are curious about that as well.