Online Exclusive: Neal Stephenson - Complete Interview
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Category: Arts & Entertainment
Angie Baecker: Congratulations on finishing The Baroque Cycle.
Neal Stephenson: Thanks.
AB: Do you have any plans after this?
NS: No. The Baroque Cycle was finished almost a year ago, or rather in January. It's hard to get really going seriously on another project when I know that there's going to be little interruptions. It's always the case that when you're getting ready for a book to come out that there are a million little things to do-reading the page proofs, things like this-so there's no point in getting excited about a new project when you know that you're going to be interrupted a lot. I deliberately avoided getting excited about anything new. My future is a blank.
AB: I understand that each volume was published at a six month interval. Did you write them on this schedule?
NS: It's easy to get that idea because they came out six months apart, but I wrote the whole series over a period of about seven years. I was actually starting to write this before my previous book, Cryptonomicon, had come out. So if you look at the first volume, Quicksilver, which came out a year ago, most of that material was written many years ago. Probably, if we had wanted to do it that way, it could have been published a long time ago. But I was worried that I would want to go back and change something, to make it all work out in the end.
AB: How did you arrive at the decision to publish three separate volumes as opposed to one long book?
NS: Slowly, and with a lot of consultation with my editors. There was no obvious way to do it. The research was the same for all three of them, and it wasn't clear until fairly late in the process how we were going to divide the material up among volumes. We considered a few different ways of breaking the thing down into individual stories or books, but to make a long story short, three volumes was something that made sense from a publishing point of view, and it working from a point of view of the content, so that's what we decided on.
AB: Why the decision to write about the 17th century?
NS: The work that I had been doing before in Cryptonomicon had a lot to do with money, the early history of digital computers, the beginnings of the digital age, and codes. Toward the end of that project, I became aware that Leibniz, the great German philosopher, was one of the earliest people to think of what we now consider digital computers. He worked for a lot of his life on building machines that can do the sort of things that computers do.
AB: Did you find it challenging to make a figure so distant in the past engaging to modern readers?
NS: Well, I guess we won't fully know the answer to that question until readers read the book, but I found him to be a lot more engaging and sympathetic character than Newton. Newton's a pretty hard guy to like. He's a very easy guy to admire, but didn't seem to have a lot going for him socially, whereas if you read about the history of Leibniz, he had some famous pupils who were all women who were queens or princesses-Sophie Charlotte, who was the first queen of Prussia, and Caroline, who was the Princess of Wales-they were all protégés of Leibniz. He taught them, and if you read between the lines of these relationships, it's clear that he really respected them and wasn't just feeding them easy answers. He was really challenging them and getting them involved and philosophy and mathematics. They clearly adored him.
AB: That sounds very modern.
NS: Yeah, so one way for me to get modern audiences involved was just to say that he did this, to show how he interacted with these people, and that they respected him.
AB: How do you view some of your more recent works in relation to the science fiction genre?
NS: I think that people who know science fiction well think of it as a broad, comprehensive genre. They tend to take kind of a "big tent" view of what science fiction is, whereas people who think that they don't like science fiction tend to view it as a rather narrow genre-it's only about green aliens and laser guns. But I'm one of the first group. I've been reading science fiction since I was a kid, so I see it as a broad thing that includes large elements of fantasy, historical fiction and so on. When I was a kid, I'd read science fiction anthologies, and there would be historical fiction interspersed all the time, and nobody made a big deal about it, it just naturally belonged there. So, when I read historical stuff, or go back into history in my books, to me it doesn't feel at all like a departure from science fiction.
AB: How you feel about the label of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk?
NS: Labels like that are harmless for the most part. We're all just trying to write books and get them into the hands of readers who will like them. There are a lot of books out there, and there are a lot of readers, and getting the right books to the right readers is a pretty complicated job, so if you can put labels on a category of books to appeal to a block of readers out there, then that's great.
AB: Who would you say are the right readers for your books?
NS: I could give you the glib answer and say "anyone who enjoys it," but as to who, and what kind of person that is, I don't know. Earlier in my career, it seemed to be a younger crowd, but now when I come to these events, I see a lot more gray hair and a lot more diversity of all kinds.
AB: Looking back over the span of your writing career, what do you see as the major changes in your writing?
NS: Like anything else, I think the more you do it, the more familiarity you get, and the more confidence you get. It used to be that when I started a book, I would be unsure if I could get to the end of it. Is it going to make sense, are people going to read it? Now, when I start a book, I feel reasonably confident that I am going to get to the end, that it'll be a complete novel, and at least somebody out there is going to read it. Before, it was a question of if, and now it's a question of how.
AB: Do you see your current literature as more mature than past books?
NS: Yeah. I'm reluctant to openly say yes because I don't want to sound like I'm writing fuddy-duddy stuff, but I am currently twice as old as when I started writing, and I hope it shows.
AB: Do you have a favorite character you've written so far?
NS: There's a running group through a bunch of these book that people call the Shaftoes, and I'm quite fond of them. The one who really came on late that I ended up liking a lot was a guy by the name of Roger Comstock, who's an incredibly corrupt politician of this era. For some reason I find him endearing, and I wish he got more attention.
AB: I understand you were a geography major with a minor in physics. How did you go from studying geography to being a writer?
NS: By not being able to find a job. It was as simple as that. It wasn't the only option, but it put me in a situation where if I was ever going to have a job, I was going to have to go to grad school first. I was in a little hiatus between finishing my unmarketable B.A. and possibly going to grad school, so I thought since I've always been interested in writing, why don't I try that really hard for a couple of years and see if I can make a go of it. I tried it, and I managed to get a novel published, so that was that.
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