Questions and answers with Neal Stephenson

by Joey deVilla on October 24, 2003

Here are my fleshed-out notes from the question-and-answer segment of Neal Stephenson’s appearance last night. Enjoy!

Photo: Neal Stephenson and Mark Askwith at the Q&A.

How do you decide to end a story?

Stephenson said that he generally knows the ending to the story from the first day, from the “very first time he puts pen to paper”. “It’s just a matter of getting there.” In the case of the third book of the Baroque Cycle (to be released in about 12 months), large portions of the ending have been already been written. He’s current writing across that gap to “meet up with the end”.

For Cryptonomicon, what old manuscripts on crytography did you consult?

“The way I do research will seem disappointingly shallow,” he replied. He relies primarily on secondary sources — in the case of Cryptonomicon, he read other books on those manuscripts.

The superhuman character in Cryptonomicon — we think he’s dead, then he isn’t, now I think it’s him on Quicksilver — just what is it with that guy anyway?

“Ah, Enoch,” he said with a little grin. “The point of that character is to be somewhat mysterious.” He offered a tiny little spoiler: we’ll find out a little more about him in the second volume.

You’ve consulted with Bruce Schneier — what are your opinions on cryptogrpahy and security?

He leaves the research and opinion-forming stuff on crypto and security up to Bruce. He says that six years ago “for a brief time, I was up to speed on crytogrpahy and security.” Nowadays, thanks to the resarch for Quicksilver, he’s more up-to-date on seventeenth-century matters — he can tell you now what sort of wigs men wore in Versailles, expound for five minutes on the various sizes of barrels in use, and the code-writing techniques of that era.

He then said that he’s bought into Bruce’s basic argument: 2048-bit keys are useless if you can simply phone up people and con them into telling you their passwords. He says that he is fortunate that he doesn’t need that much security.

What’s more interesting to him are issues of privacy. He remarked that it “might have something to do with sitting onstage with people watching me”.

This provided him with an opportunity to tell a stroy about his flight to Toronto. He’d flown in from London, and over the duration of the flight started to feel feverish. On the “three-mile long walk from the plane to customs (Toronto, despite the fact that it’s a major Canadian hub, has what has to be one of the most poorly-designed airports on the planet), passed by a customs officer, who was seated with a laptop. The laptop was attached via some kind of interface cable to a pole, on which sat a box. This pole/box setup was position in such a way that all passengers had to pass by it. After Stephenson walked past it, the customs official stopped him and asked him to walk past it again. When he asked why, the customs official showed him the setup — the box was a sensitive infrared camera which was hooked to to the laptop. While the other passengers who walked past showed up as moving blue shapes, Stephenson registered as hot red flare. A nurse showed up, and after a brief interview during which he assured her that he hadn’t been spending the last few weeks “hanging out on a pig farm in Guangxing”, was free to go.

He remarked that while many things don’t surprise him any more, the fact that SARS monitoring like this existed and was so precise did.

Is Cryptonomicon’s Bobby Shaftoe based on anyone in particular?

He’s based on “a class of people” rather than any particular individual. He was inspired by stories about a group of US Marines stationed in Shanghai in the 1930s, as well as accounts of marines who fought in the Pacific in WWII, some of whom are people in his extended family.

Did you have the Baroque Cycle storyline thought out when you wrote Cryptonomicon?

He didn’t have idea for the Baroque Cycle through most of the writing of Cryptonomicon; the idea came near end. “Sheer dumb luck” allowed him to leave “hooks” that would allow him to tie in both stories from the past and future. In addition to the hooks that allow him to link Quicksilver to Cryptonomicon, there are also “forward hooks” to a novel that takes place in the future.

He then added that he is “strenuously avoiding thinking of what to write next”. If he does, he said that he’d never get the Baroque Cycle done. Hence, he has a policy of not giving any thought to any future projects.

What makes you write novels about geeky things?

Askwith prefaced Stephenson’s answer by telling Stephenson that he didn’t write Cryptonomicon “because I’m going to love it; you wrote it because there was fertile ground”.

Stephenson said “It’s what I do for a living.” He said that he was happiest when he can get his “few hours a day” of writing. As for subject matter, technology appeals to him the most. He has chosen not to speculate as to why this is the case; he said that he’s not good at self-analysis.

I loved the article you wrote forWired [Mother Earth Mother Board, quite possibly the longest article ever written for Wired] about laying undersea cable around the globe. Are you planning to do any more non-fiction writing?

He was surprised that he was he was asked to write that article. As for the question about non-fiction writing, he replied “That falls into category of things that I might do in the future”.

How old were you when you wrote The Big U, and how has the process you use for writing changed?

He was 23.

As for the process change, he says that the way he wrote novels back then was not a process at all: it was “more like random experimentation”. It’s more like a process now that he’s been doing it for 20 years.

The first draft of The Big U was hurried and badly written. He wrote it using an electronic typewriter which used a plastic ribbon. He wrote in Iowa City on a particuarly hot July. It was so hot that ribbon often “became semi-molten” and would get stuck to the machinery or the paper. When this happened, he had to dismantle the machine. He discovered that if he stopped typing for more than a minute or so, the ribbon would get stuck. The ribbon would only get stuck if he stopped typing for longer than a minute, a situation which “encouraged lengthy run-on sentences”.

The first draft, written over about ten days, was “sort of bought” by an editor, who was willing to actually buy it if he fixed it up. The fixing up process took better part of a year. Stephenson said that it would have been a more efficient use of his time to get it right the first time.

He summarized his early approach as “Generate a huge mass of low-grade material, and then sift” for the good parts. He said that it’s attractive appraoch if you’re a young writer — it “feels kind of low-risk”; there have “gotta be a few nuggets in there” if you “sufficiently large pile of…crap”.

The approach turned out not to work for him in the long run, so he altered his writing process to its current state. His approach is simple: produce a smaller volume of higher quality material, and to “recognize that moment in the day when you’re tired and your attention starts to wander” and do something else “as soon as you see that first crap sentence”. He said that it’s more orderly, and in the end involves less tedious editing.

What are your sources of inspiration? What makes you want to pick up pen and paper, to be an artist?

He said that he doesn’t really know how he gets inspired. It’s just pleasant to do the work — if he does it a little bit each day, he’s happier than if he doesn’t. He referred to the concept of “Flow State”, in which you are so into your work that you lose track of time.

He expressed surprise at being called an artist.

How do pronounce the name of The Island?

The pronunciation is covered on the annotation site.

The language he used is unrelated to any other Indo-European languages — uses sounds we don’t use, so we can’t pronounce it properly. They have their own writing system, so what you see in the book is the roman-alphabet transliteration. The “bilabial click” sound is transliterated as the letter “Q”, while another sound, which sounds like a gulp, “gets transliterated into all the other letters”.

A usable, but not terribly close approximation of The Island’s name is “Tag’m”.

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