William Gibson Globe and Mail Story
The Globe and Mail, November 30, 1999
I got a call on Friday, November 19, 1999, asking me if I could do an interview on Tuesday
with William Gibson for The Globe and Mail, Canada's
national newspaper. I was overextended as hell, but this was too good a chance to pass up.
Besides, I'd never written for a newspaper.
The interview took place at 8:30 in the morning, in the boardroom at the Penguin/Putnam offices. Gibson was a surprisingly easy interview; I'd heard legends of how laconic he could be. My big worry was that I'd end up with a bunch of sparkling one-liners but nothing I could build the article around. What I got instead was a collection of sparkling passages that lent themselves beautifully to the article.
My biggest dilemma, in fact, was pruning all the gems down to 1,600 words. Gibson's one quotable sumbitch. Accordingly, I've made a complete transcript of the interview available here, for those of you who want the whole story.
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And Gibson is middle-aged. No longer is he the high-style-and-glitz young Turk of science fiction. Recently, Gibson has abandoned the Hammett-inspired storylines that made books like Neuromancer and stories like "Johnny Mnemonic" pop culture hits. He's turned humanist tales where the chapters end at existential crossroads instead of cliff-hanging plot moments. His latest, All Tomorrow's Parties (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $34.99) is a mature work, what Canadian science-fiction writer Sean Stewart calls "Gibson's Winter's Tale."
All Tomorrow's Parties concludes the trilogy that began with 1993's Virtual Light, and returns to the defunct Bay Bridge, where techno-squatters have taken up residence, building an attenuated neighbourhood crowded with hipster bars, shadowy knifemen, and fantastic treehouses suspended from the high cables.
On the bridge, we find Rydell, an ex-cop who's been with us since the first book, contemplating the paradoxical banality of violence: he is drawn to the romantic vision of the lone warrior while being repulsed by the stupid, ugly reality of bloodshed. Is Gibson repudiating gunplay and gladiators?
"I'm owning romantic violence, as they say these days." Gibson says, then pauses.
Gibson pauses a lot. He has a storyteller's cadence married with a southerner's laconic delivery, and his eyes seek out the poky corners of the room while he assembles his next sentence. People who know Gibson can't help doing Gibson impressions, good-natured homages to the steady rise and fall of his voice.
"I'm owning Rydell's awareness of its banality. It probably had something to do with being southern. For some reason, I've been much more conscious of that over the last few years. It's probably because my friend Jack Womak has a thesis that he and I write the way we do because we're southern and we experienced the very tail end of the premeditated south, in a culture that violence had always been a part of. It wasn't an aberration, though I realise that in retrospect, it was. I grew up in the part of the U.S. where all of Cormack McCarthy's novels are set -- that's a pretty violent place. There's violence in my culture. It's an American thing, but it's particularly a southern thing, and its romanticization is hyper-southern. And it's still irresistible to me, even in middle age. There's something that pulls me to that, but at the same time, I have this increasing awareness of how banal it really is -- that evil is inherently banal."
Gibson also provides us with an academic on the bridge, a film-student who acts as mouthpiece for the architecture-obsessed author, providing commentary on "Interstitial Zones" -- the lawless areas where self-organising collectives rule by rough consensus, the Gibson hobbyhorse du jour. Aren't the interstitial zones just another kind of romantic delusion? Certainly, there's not a lot of romance in the riots and rapes of Woodstock '99, nor in the terror-peppered former Soviet Union.
"Well, to some extent I'm guilty of wishful thinking. The absence of the interstitial I find unbearable, but not as unbearable as the idea that interstitial is necessarily as banal as the infrastructure, so I think of what I do with that stuff as a glorification of possibility. Very probably, it's at the cost of naturalism, but to go in the other direction would be to despair. "
Gibson's prose is incredibly tight, hyperdense with image and eloquence. The natural assumption is that he struggles over his exquisitely crafted sentences, piecing them together like literary assemblage sculpture. But fifteen minutes into the interview, it's apparent that Gibson thinks in these highly rarefied, polished terms, tossing off profundities at speed.
"To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realised in interstitial areas."
Bohemia is the place that Gibson inhabits. In the 1970s, he was a fixture in the hottest spots in Toronto, and now he makes his home in lotusland: he's a committed Vancouverite, who, if faced with the deportation, would opt for swinging London over his native Virginia. He's got a funny take on Toronto these days.
"What strikes me about Toronto, and it's been very strong on this visit, is that the city's great misfortune was to have too much money in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently, it built in the style of those periods, which is hideous! It's as though the city were being forced, forever, to wear very wide ties. A lot of the buildings around Yonge and Bloor are the architectural equivalent of Kipper Ties and eight-inch collar points. It's ghastly and no amount of street-level retail glitz can lift it.
"But then I look at it and think 'Well, perhaps my grandchildren will someday look at this stuff with the sort of appreciation I once held for Art Deco.' Although I've come to find Art Deco quite creepy too."
There's a gleam of nostalgia in his eyes, which crinkle charmingly with fine squint-lines: the eyes of a keen cultural observer. Nostalgia has featured heavily in Gibson's work since his 1984 breakout novel Neuromancer, and it returns in force with All Tomorrow's Parties, where an autistic computer genius and a junk-shop owner combine forces to scour a futuristic eBay for antique watches -- another of Gibson's famous obsessions. In the Antiques Roadshow world, Gibson has hit popcult paydirt: collecting.
"I think that the collectible ephemera craze/awareness is probably driven by a reverse market, rebounding off the sense of everything being mass-produced. It's the last step you take in trying to find something unique.
"Every shop in every High Street in Europe is filled with basically the same stuff. There's a street in every city of the world that has a Gap and Benneton's, and the upscale versions of those.
"For me, the melancholy of the late Twentieth Century is walking late at night by the Mont Blanc pen store, and seeing these things that always strike me as simulacra of luxury items. They seem like fakes: you know that they're on every High Street on the planet, but a 1925 Mont Blanc pen of a particular provenance becomes a real luxury item."
"I worry about what we'll do in the future about the instantaneous co-opting of pop culture. Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we're doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn't see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it's very apparent.
"In 1977, it took about eight months for the recommodification machine to put punk in the window of Holt Renfrew. It's gotten faster ever since. The scene in Seattle that Nirvana came from: as soon as it had a label, it was on the runways of Paris. There's no grace period."
Gibson is a vigorous 51, rail-thin with a slim phone clipped to his belt, looking more like a well-dressed systems administrator than a literary pop-star, hardly the vision of iconoclastic bombast.
It's paradoxical: as Gibson has achieved what he calls "the very limited celebrity available to writers in North America" that his work has become less distant, more personal.
"I've observed it in the process of writing the book, and my reaction to it was to scratch my head and say, 'What's that?'
"The construct of William Gibson the Writer is coming down, becoming more open. It's more of a Glasnost -- transparency! Transparency is what it is.
"I think that I've always written about things that are very personal, but initially, I coded everything. I buried everything under layers and layers and layers of code, but the signifiers of my emotionality were there for me. I knew where the magnets were, behind the gyprock, and the magnets were very powerful. I think they had to be powerful for me, otherwise the reader wouldn't have a reciprocal experience. But I was very careful to bury them deeply, deeply in the plaster and paint over them. I didn't want anybody to directly access them, and that's gradually changed for me."
Celebrity for him has been an anthropological opportunity to observe up close the people with "raging, life-threatening celebrity, people who would be in grave danger if left on the street without their minders." Gibson has steadfastly refused to contract the bug, to become the visionary that the world would have him be. But when asked about the future of publishing, a subject near to any author's heart, Gibson can't help belting out a sharp insight:
"You know, it's funny, for decades people have been coming to me and saying, 'Whoah, Cyberspace! What's the future of the book, that sacred object?' I've been through the whole western world, and it seems to me that there's more retail floorspace devoted to the sale of books than food, more than there's been in the entire history of humanity! It's grotesque! Simpson's in Piccadilly has been turned into the largest bookstore in all of Europe! How can they fill it?
"If publishing is expanding to fill that retail space, it seems like there may be a necessary and unpleasant correction waiting down the road. How many books to people want?"