A locked-room mystery taking place at a rest home for burned-out futurists, Warren Ellis’s Normal explores what happens when you spend all your time staring at the end of the world. A darkly funny book, Normal was initially published during the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election. In early December, as the general American populace was getting a true taste of #abyssgaze, Ellis sat down with Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, at Kepler’s Books to discuss haunted rocks, if all writers are commercial writers, and how exciting the world is when it’s on fire.
Robin Sloan: It’s a rare opportunity to be here with Warren Ellis in the Bay Area, but also to be here talking about his novel, Normal, and to be talking broadly about writing novels and writing prose. Before I get to Normal, I would like to start by going a little deeper, because there’s actually a lot of things I don’t know about your history.
Warren Ellis: Oh god no, anything but that.
RS: You were part of a conversation online just a week and a half ago or so, where you said, “I grew up with two loves: the future and history.” So I’m curious, to start, what future, and what history? I’m thinking about a young Warren Ellis, maybe before you’ve written anything, or even thought about writing. What was the future that captured you, and what was the history that grabbed you?
WE: So you mean back when I had hair, basically. The future . . . well, I was born in ’68, and probably my earliest memory is being held up in front of a little Philco black-and-white portable TV, for the ’69 moon launch. And my mother holding me in front of the TV and saying “Remember this, this is history.” So that might be it right there. Not least because the future I grew up with never happened, and is therefore history. But I grew up in a village that started out as a clearing in the woods, cleared as a place of worship for Thor. I am from the part of England that was colonized by the Vikings as the Danelaw, way, way back then. And it was just little patches in the woods. It’s almost like Essex was the last place in Britain to have been populated. Even four or five hundred years ago it was still the Royal Forests, and there were not a lot of people there. In my particular part of Essex, right out on the edge of the river there, nothing happened until 1850, when the Victorians stuck a rail line through there. Before then, it was just an ahistorical space, where people just stopped and went to the toilet on their way to somewhere more interesting. So I almost live in a place without history, which might be why I’m so fascinated by deep history.
RS: So you are a young person with a full head of hair in the history-free forests of Essex. I’d love to know if you remember, or if there’s a moment or an experience that is your first awakening to the possibility of writing a story or writing a book. Was that there from the beginning, did it come later?
WE: I want to say it was there from the beginning, I want to say I was making vague narrative scribbles when I was like three or four years old, or according to my family I was. I want to say I was just weirdly hardwired for it; it’s pretty much the only thing I can do.
RS: What is the first piece of writing you were paid for?
WE: I did a paid comic strip for someone when I was like eighteen. That might have been it, but I was a zine kid when I was thirteen, fourteen.
RS: Meaning, you were publishing your own zines?
WE: Yes. There was a big, big comic zine subculture in London and by post, because I am talking about the stone ages. People had to carry your mails by hand. I mean, my god, we were peasants, you have no idea. We had to get up before we went to bed. Lived in a ditch by the side of the road. Bats killed us every night.
RS: I think when people talk about your work—and I succumb to this often—you kind of want to put it into this bucket of Comics, and this bucket of Prose Novels, but of course that’s wrong, because it’s actually this pretty wild collection of different sizes, lengths, formats, things that they plug into in the economy. It’s an amazing collection of different ways of putting words in boxes.
WE: It’s an absurd Frankenstein’s monster of a career. It’s comics and graphic novels, it’s prose books, journalism and articles of commentary, I give keynote talks at festivals and conferences every now and then, and those are all pre-written, and I work a bit in TV, and I work a bit in film.
RS: Please, smack me down if I’m wrong, but as a long-time subscriber to your newsletter, in which you narrate your thinking as a writer, in some parts—at least, your career—you seem to actually wear the badge “commercial writer” with honor. Right?
RS: So I think there are other people that either say, “Oh, commercial writer, what do you mean,” or it’s something that they’re trying to flee; they’re trying to ascend into being a literary writer. But I’ve always appreciated, deeply appreciated the way you’re always just like, “This is what I am.”
WE: Literary writers are still commercial writers, I don’t care what they say.
RS: What do you mean? When you say it, I feel you just talk about, like, “This is the life of a commercial writer.” What do you mean by it?
WE: I mean, I get paid to write, and when I write, I expect to get paid so that I can write more. I work in the popular arts, and all things good should flow into the boulevard. The public space is there to be filled by our speech and our observations, and maybe that speaks to people, maybe people have fun with it, maybe it says something to them. I still think the smartest lyric David Bowie ever wrote was at the end of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”: “You’re not alone.” That’s a big part of what popular, commercial art does. It is, in fact, the most effective way to reach people who may not have access to culture in any other form. Maybe just to tell them, “You’re not alone, we see this too.”
RS: When your palette in that broad field of the market for culture and pop culture is keynote convocations, teleplays, comic book series, web comics, novellas, novels—how do you decide what to write? How do you decide what fits in what bucket? Is it instinctive? Does it come naturally?
WE: I kind of want to give the glib answer, which is, it’s whatever the bill on the table is. But I’m old now. I had to get a white board. I’m so embarrassed about this. The reason I got a white board is that my agent phoned up one day in March and says, “How’s that job coming?” And I said, “What job?” She said, “That job you’re supposed to be writing.” “Uh . . . New phone, who dis?” Because I realized I’d completely forgotten about it. So now I have a white board and I write everything down on it so I don’t do something as stupid as forgetting I have a job. How I decide what to write . . . this is why I work on multiple things—because, frankly, I’m not that smart, and on any given day, I may not have the brain for whatever job is supposed to be on deck. It’s a complex bit, or it’s a bit I don’t have the emotion for. But if I’ve got two or three other gigs on at the same time, chances are I will have the brain for the next stage of whatever that is, so I make sure I’m productive every day. I think the question now is probably more about how I decide what format each story falls into.
The example I use is Gun Machine. Gun Machine is a strongly interior story. There are like five pages in that book of a guy looking at an ashtray made out of an old Blondie 45 single. If I did that in comics, the artist would try and murder me. The artist will be on the phone like, “You’ve given me ten pages of someone looking at a fucking ashtray. Doesn’t really work in a strongly visual medium.” So the medium is often decided by the nature of the idea.
RS: One thing that is interesting, and maybe distinct, about your varied output is, I think there are folks who work in different domains and they often have different fans in those different domains. I have the sense that might be the case for you, but you also have a lot of readers that have been reading you for a long time, and will read whatever you put out.
WE: Oh, I met a guy in L.A. last night who said, “I’ve been reading your newsletters for ten years. This is the first time I’ve actually spent money on one of your stories.” [laughter]
RS: How many newsletter subscribers in the audience? [cheering] Awww yeah, yes!
WE: If you could all just leave a buck by the door . . .
RS: I have this thought, actually, often. You’re sort of a dark impresario of whatever . . . no, no it’s true! It’s a skill—
WE: If that ends up on the back cover of my next book . . .
RS: So many people try to do this. They try to promote themselves and they fail. You have a talent for it that you’ve honed over many years. And at this point, you have this audience, and it seems like you understand them, to some degree. You know, roughly, how many there are. Is that . . . empowering? Is it paralyzing?
WE: You don’t let it become paralyzing; you can’t. And you also, frankly, have to accept that when people engage with you or your work, or they talk about you with other people, they’re talking about a version of you that is not necessarily you. And you have to accept that from the get-go, that you are going to be confused or frightened by people’s stated perceptions of you. You’re not necessarily going to recognize that person. I’ve never actually killed anyone [long pause] and gotten caught. So, you know.
RS: Dead Pig Collector has one scene that has a narration that is . . . I don’t want to ruin it, but there’s a narration of a process so specific and nuanced, it’s a literary achievement and also deeply suspicious.
WE: I swear that story is not autobiographical. I also deliberately left out a step in case anyone used it as a manual.
RS: Oh, good. I want to talk a bit about Normal now. First, a point of process: Noting the history built into some of those opening paragraphs, I’m curious—have you ever been to coastal Oregon?
WE: Not actually as far as the coast, but I have spent a lot of time in Oregon. On and off, I was out there for like a year.
RS: So those depictions are not based on zooming in on the Google satellite imagery, but on actual travels and actual roads.
WE: I’ve actually spent time out there.
RS: What was the genesis of the project?
WE: First off, I gave a talk in Berlin about the future of the city, which meant I was listening to a lot of urban futurists up close, and seeing the processes and the failings. And also, as I’ve done at a lot of these events over the years, I have gotten to know a lot of people who work in futurism and foresight. And you start to realize that gig takes a human toll. You start to realize that people who work in, for instance, climate foresight, can do that successfully for like eighteen months at a go, and then they have to be given a shitload of Valium and put to bed for six months, because if your job is staring at the end of the world all day, eventually it’s going to get hard to get up in the morning. I’ve met a lot of people like this, and that just got me thinking about the stresses and strains of trying to look at the future all day.
RS: How did that observation turn into that story, and, to connect it back, did it seem from the get-go that it was going to be a book of this shape, or might it have been a short comic series? There are certainly images and scenes in here that are spectacular.
WE: It’s got a little more visual kick to it than, say, Gun Machine did, but I knew there was going to be a lot of conversations. I knew, right away, there was going to be a lot of monologues, because we are talking about hyper-verbal people. That was going to be both easy and, frankly, more effective to do as printed monologues. Once I started thinking about depressed futurists, and the interweaving of institutes and nonprofits and corporations and non-state actors who fund these people, it was kind of easy to get to the idea of, essentially, a rest home for futurists. And then I realized there was going to be the divide down the middle between the people who work at nonprofits and universities and are doing something that is openly more benign or at least softer and cuddlier, and the people who do this for governments and corporations. Because I’ve met both, I’ve seen both at the same table. I did a thing at Downing Street once. Their tech ambassador was trying to get an expo thing going, and there was a mix of us around the table. I was trying an e-cigarette at the time, I was fiddling around with it, and this woman started talking to me, and afterwards the organizer scuttled up and said, “What was she talking to you about?” “Fucking e-cigarettes, what’s the . . .” and she says, “No, no no, she works in strategic foresight for one of the spooky Palantir-style security corporations now, but she used to be in government. She used to work with me at the Foreign Office. She would work in different countries and embassies. She would do six months in a country and move on. And after she moved on, the country would inevitably collapse in flames.” So just by the trail of dead behind her, you knew she was a spook futurist.
RS: You have the one character whose job it is to go to conferences, wait for everyone to get drunk, and write down the secret things they say. I feel like you’ve probably done that a few times before in your life as well. So you’re writing all these characters who are doing this future thing: detecting signals, trying to make sense of them, trying to tell stories about them. Of course, that’s something you do, too. How much did that flow into it? How much was this a reflection of yourself, a warning sign for the work that you’re engaged in?
WE: I mean, I’m neurotypical to the point I may as well be a lump of timber. I’m probably a sociopath, so I don’t really suffer with these things the way other people do. Frankly, I like it when it all gets weird. When things started blowing up everywhere this summer, I’m taking it all in for a couple of days, and then I sat there and I said to myself (because I don’t talk to anyone day-to-day), I said to myself, “Thank God I’ve been so fucking bored for the last three years. Now the world’s on fire, things are happening, this is interesting. I’m a terrible human being.” Which is probably why I’m a writer. I don’t think it’s the other way around.
RS: You’ve chronicled or described your ever-changing information flow. I’m curious to know how that stuff gets transformed into story.
WE: I mean, Normal is pretty much a culmination of letting this compost down in the back of my head.
RS: Does it happen in the brain, does it happen in notebooks, or is it all just sort of stewing?
WE: I always have a notebook on hand. But I always think of it as compost. Or a connective process. You just have to wait for it to cook down, and then datum one will plug into datum two, and that will create the germ of something. And that’s when something pops up back here, and that’s when I make the note. But it has to work. I can’t force it, unfortunately. It has to work completely subconsciously, until something catches light back here and I note it down.
RS: And does that pop up over a pint, is it a spark?
WE: I create a lot of spaces for myself to just be. I’ll put on some ambient music, there’s nothing else around, everything else is switched off, and I can just look around, see where I am, get my feet on the ground and know where I am today and just drift. I can’t force it, but that is sometimes when it happens. Sometimes, honestly—I don’t smoke in the house, so I just go downstairs and outside for a cigarette—I light up, I take a breath, I look at the sky, and think “That’s the thing I was missing right there.”
RS: I love that. That’s actual, literal magic.
Let me go back to the history thing. Do you think that it’s been fully expressed in your work? Is there more of that waiting, and you kind of feel that it’s out there, still for you to do? And is there something that might just be pure history? Are you going to just write the story of the Vikings?
WE: Well, I’ve done pure history; I did a graphic novella called Crécy that was about the Battle of Crécy in France in the fourteenth century between the English and the French, where the English utterly annihilated the French aristocracy. So yeah, I’d like to do more. It’s just finding the time, and finding a publisher who doesn’t think I’m nuts, because they’re not the easiest sell. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing something about the origins of World War One, just because the map of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is so fascinating.
RS: How so?
WE: You could actually make a map of the city, and you could follow it around to the two attempts, including the grenade that bounced off the carriage, and then you could extrapolate it out to other maps of where the Black Hand gang formed, and where they staged, and how Ferdinand came in. So I’d like to try that sometime, but that one is going to be finding the time, because it’s going to be a lot of reading. But the third Injection volume that Declan [Shalvey] is drawing right now, it’s all rocks, and it’s all the expression of big time. It’s one of those things I’m just getting to now, where I can combine the future and the past in a single story.
RS: Right on! Let’s try a lightning round. Instagram or Snapchat?
WE: Snapchat, honestly?
RS: New York or L.A.?
WE: New York.
RS: Self-driving car or self-writing book?
WE: [laughs] Self-driving car.
RS: Hollywood or Bollywood?
RS: A penthouse at the top of a skyscraper or a moss-encrusted hobbit home?
WE: Skyscraper. Getting Wi-Fi in those hobbit homes . . .
RS: Foresight strategy or strategic forecasting.
WE: Foresight strategy.
RS: Trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy in London or trapped in a nice hotel in Moscow?
WE: Hotel in Moscow.
RS: Finally, a kid named Skyler or a kid named Wheat.
RS: Wheat it is. That’s a good start.
Warren Ellis is the author of FSG’s first digital original, Dead Pig Collector; the New York Times bestselling novel Gun Machine; and the underground classic Crooked Little Vein. He is also the award-winning creator of a number of iconic, bestselling original graphic novels, including Red, Ministry of Space, Planetary, and Transmetropolitan, and has been behind some of the most successful reimaginings of mainstream comic superheroes, including the Fantastic Four and Iron Man. He has written extensively for Vice, Wired, and Reuters on technological and cultural matters, and is working on a nonfiction book about the future of cities for FSG Originals. He lives on the southeast coast of England.
Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. His second novel will be published in 2017. He grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet.
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