Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 22 Jan 04 13:41
About the problem of the publisher not using electronic files: In correcting the galleys, I got so frustrated with having the code so full of typos that I asked them to send me a pdf, which I then corrected and sent back. They STILL rekeyed it (and of course introduced more errors). I was amazed.
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Thu 22 Jan 04 14:02
Thanks for the response to my point-of-view question. That was just what I was wondering about. So, just to clarify: did <lauram> say "you CAN just have this third-person viewpoint" or "you CAN'T"? I'm guessing that she suggested something like the SFO-immigration-agent chapter to provide a rationale for the switches back and forth.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 22 Jan 04 14:48
She said I could. I was worried about the change and how to justify it, but Laura said fine, just go ahead without any need to say where this new pov was coming from. It could be coming from some omniscient god or from Berta's imagination, but either way I, as the author, did not have to explain. That was what I was already doing, but it's wonderful when someone you trust agrees. Laura didn't exactly suggest the opening chapter. I had already written the scene at the airport, only it wasn't right at the beginning and it wasn't as elaborate. She simply pointed about 2 pages in, in a very early version of the manuscript, and said, It might be nice to start here. As I did, in gratitude for that fine advice. At the at point, the pov-switch had not yet been written, so the opening wasn't the justification for it. At any rate, the way I go about writing is not nearly so logical as thinking, Gee, if I have this scene here it justifies that technique there. I'm afraid I work rather chaotically, writing bits in folders I call "raw," then going back later to thread things together. The "raw-folder" method seems to let me have some messy passion in the writing, which I can always clean up later. But I don't find the the reverse to be true: I can't start with a neat plan then add the passion.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 22 Jan 04 15:36
Wow. That's great to know. (Hi, Ellen. Just delurking with my appreciation for you and for this inquiry into your creative process.) Because I have cinematic tendencies, the next question is one I almost always want to ask interesting writers, but please ignore it if it's a distraction: Do you look at your work as the possible root for film or adaptation in some other medium? Do you ever think of scenes you've written that way? (I know -- code in a film would be pretty strange, but I seem to like strange films)
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Thu 22 Jan 04 16:59
One little question nagged at me. How much money did Berta end up losing? Does she have to go back to work?
s 205 (lauram) Thu 22 Jan 04 18:13
One of the really tricky things about fiction is knowing what you can get away with not explaining. To tell the truth, I don't even remember telling Ellen that she didn't need to explain the switch to third-person, but that's probably because with all the new fiction I read, I see that kind of switch all the time and no one ever rationalizes it. It's one of those things that if you've got the rest of the book reasonably in hand, a reader will just follow along. But I do remember thinking that the kind of ruminative, retrospective voice that Berta has at the beginning of the book is a dangerous one for a lot of literary writers because so many writers are drawn to it, it being a very writerly frame of mind, and because it can step on the suspense. I loved the idea of the past breaking through Roberta's present complacency and driving her back into her memories of Ethan (and the way the pause in the processing is Proustian for her, which feels true but is also a witty variation on a famous literary device). I was concerned that too much of the novel would be told from "all the way down at the other end of the hall," as I sometimes think of it, from someone who knows what's going to happen and isn't feeling the urgency and immediacy of a character who's in the thick of the action. Fortunately, that wasn't a problem with "The Bug," and one reason why is that deft relay between the first- and third-person sections. You get a sense of the emotional import from Roberta, and a sense of urgency from Ethan's bits.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 23 Jan 04 09:29
>Because I have cinematic tendencies, the next question is one I almost always want to ask interesting writers, but please ignore it if it's a distraction: Do you look at your work as the possible root for film or adaptation in some other medium? Do you ever think of scenes you've written that way? Hi there, Gail. Good to hear from you. To answer your question, no, I don't look at my work as the root of anything but what it is. My agent and I were stunned when we got a serious feeler from Hollywood for The Bug, because from the outset we had agreed that it was the most uncinematic of stories, most of it happening inside someone's head. Watching programmers write code is a little like watching grass grow -- all right, maybe like watching grass grow in a stiff wind. (btw, the Hollywood thing fell through for reasons that had nothing to do with the book. And I can't really say more about it.) For a while I did have to consider if I wanted to write the screenplay. At first, I enjoyed envisioning how one might tell the story in images -- I have a background in video -- but when it came to the first line of dialog, I groaned all over. I realized I would have to spend more time with the characters I'd just spent 5 years with, and I really wanted to move on to something new. This dovetails into Laura's comments about ruminative voices vs. action and suspence (by "action" I mean unfolding action, not action-movie blow-em-ups). As an essayist, I am drawn to the contemplative voice, but even in essays, I've had to learn that there needs to be a sense of unfolding, a story, some way in which the next turn of events or next set of thoughts is unknown and unexpected from the reader's point of view. In some way, the story needs to be cinematic in that it moves from scene to scene and unfolds in the reader's present tense. I'm writing another first-person novel (actually a sort of progressive first-person story, narrator inside narrator inside narrator). And again I have to watch out for the dangers of both portenousness (the narrator oversignalling a big thing coming) and stasis (the narrator just humming to him/herself). I try to remain attuned to the idea suspense. I recall something I learned years ago when studying theories of tragedy. The important thing is that the audience feel two things simultaneously: that the outcome is open to change (some bad end might be avoided), and also that what is happening absolutely must happen (every step taken in avoiding the outcome brought it on).
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Fri 23 Jan 04 09:33
>One little question nagged at me. How much money did Berta end up losing? Does she have to go back to work? I'm afraid I'll have to give you a sort of therapist's answer: What do you think happened to Berta? I'm saying this because the outcome is beyond the scope of the book. Berta's "now" is April 2000, and the stock-market decline took place over 3 years. We're leaving her, as a character, at a point where her future is still unknown. And I'd like to leave it there, hanging, something of her story still in doubt. (Sorry.)
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 23 Jan 04 17:49
> I'd like to leave it there, hanging, something of her story still in doubt. Seems like a wise choice, Ellen. Lifelike, ya know?
s 205 (lauram) Sat 24 Jan 04 17:23
I've heard other novelists say that trying to write a screenplay based on their novel is excruciating, as well. They want to get on with the new thing that they're all fired up about creatively not go back over something they finished with at least a year ago. Ellen, were you deliberately setting Berta's now before the bubble burst because you wanted to leave her fate in question, or is that just when you happened to start writing the novel? My guess is that Roberta wisely put much of her capital in real estate and is not suffering too badly. She doesn't strike me as a speculator, more like someone who wants something solid under her feet.
s 205 (lauram) Sat 24 Jan 04 17:29
Another question: All along, it seems like there's been a divide in your writing between the often absorbing but somehow narrowed world of software engineering and the emotionally richer, yet increasingly marginal world of literature and culture. But I think it's easy to idealize the realm that you only have a toe in from the perspective of the place where most of you resides. Now that you're primarily a writer (I'm guessing, maybe you still do programming), what do you miss about the other work?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 24 Jan 04 19:12
Ellen, just popping in to say how much I enjoy the book and this interview. Sorry to be late!
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 25 Jan 04 12:24
>Now that you're primarily a writer (I'm guessing, maybe you still do programming), what do you miss about the other work? The tumult. The rush. The craziness. Being surrounded by very smart people, even if they're weird sometimes. The challenge. Of course, writing is challenging. But no one walks into the room and puts the challenge in front of you, in that do-or-die way. I'd guess I would sum up my saying I miss the *demands* on me. And of course those moments when you more or less finish a piece of code or a project, and you get to sit back for a moment and know it works. The demands I put on myself as a writer are at stricter and less achievable. I never thinks something works as writing, not finally. It's always a situation of having to it let go and move on, or else spend my entire life on 20 pages. I also miss the more tangible judgments of software engineering. You may like a piece of your own writing; someone else may hate it; and everyone is right. It's hard to maintain one's inner standards; you have to be fierce.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 25 Jan 04 12:27
>Ellen, were you deliberately setting Berta's now before the bubble burst because you wanted to leave her fate in question, or is that just when you happened to start writing the novel? The bubble-burst was on-going as I was writing. I felt too close to the events to want to put them into the novel. I did not have enough distance yet to know what it all would mean. In the end I decided that the readers would know about the bubble and that the "fall" of computing's heyday would be implicit.
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Sun 25 Jan 04 16:15
It seemed like Ethan's personal problems ran much deeper than the bug. And that they predated his going to work Telligentsia, based on the revelations late in the book. Wouldn't Ethan have selfdestructed even if he were working somewhere more stable?
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sun 25 Jan 04 21:17
I very much enjoyed the novel, Ellen, for many reasons. It was a compelling story, and I really liked the parallel between Ethan's interest in AI and A- Life and the lifelike character of the bug he was hunting. (The NYT Book Review -- who was it, Rothstein? nah, but I forget -- likened the book to *Frankenstein*, I remember, which seems to me apt.) I liked the ways that Ethan and Berta reflected each other. Very much I liked the intersections of Ethan's world with things that seemed out of place: the postcards from the travelers to India, the odd "date" with the other travel widow, the music of the sysad and the neighbors. There were all these things that seemed to have no place in his world, but that intersected perfectly neatly.
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Mon 26 Jan 04 06:34
Another book that came to mind while I was reading _The Bug_ was _The Diagnosis_ by Alan Lightman. In it, the "bug" that is never found is in the protagonist's body, but the process of personal disintegration it details is similar. This leads to the question for Ellen of whether you were ever tempted to leave the bug unsolved. I'm thinking of an alternate scenario where it just goes away once it doesn't have Ethan to torment. Had Lightman been a physician, he might have concluded with a medical explanation of an actual condition he had in mind. But I don't think this would have made his book stronger. But then his style does seem more akin to magical realism than yours.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Mon 26 Jan 04 09:46
>Wouldn't Ethan have selfdestructed even if he were working somewhere more stable? Oh yes, I think so. The bug was not the cause but the catalyst of his disintegration. Something else would have happened to him sometime or other. But a book can only take one path, or so I think. I'm no fan of hyerlinked stories; I think the author has a responsibility to make the choices and try to take the reader along. And in this story it happened the way it did.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Mon 26 Jan 04 09:51
>Another book that came to mind while I was reading _The Bug_ was _The Diagnosis_ by Alan Lightman. I am SO glad to hear this, since when I read The Diagnosis, as I wrote to Alan Lightman, I wondered if I had to write The Bug at all, as it seemed to me the story had in some way alreaady been done. I LOVE that book. But I think you and I must disagree about endings. It didn't necessarily bother me that Lightman didn't even give us the diagnosis. But the ending of the book -- the main character's long, rather too poetic disintegration -- seemed to me weaker than the rest of the book (the weakest part, I thought, was the representation of his wife, which was flat to the point of stereotyping). What inspired me about The Diagnosis was the way Lightman made the characters' going to work an absolutely terrifying experience. The tension in even the smallest task, clicking on a screen, was full of excruciating tension. Brilliant.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Mon 26 Jan 04 09:58
>(The NYT Book Review -- who was it, Rothstein? nah, but I forget -- likened the book to *Frankenstein*, I remember, which seems to me apt.) The reviewer was Ben Anastas, to whom I am deeply grateful. And I was truly glad Anastas understood the references to Frankenstein. I was surprised how few people got it, even with two monographs from Frankenstein. One of the quotes, the one that starts part III, even mentions that the quote is from a letter written by R. Walton to his sister. Robert Walton is the narrator of Frankenstein (most readers don't seem to recall that his story frames the narrative). I thought this would be a dead giveaway: Roberta Walton, Berta, is the narrator of The Bug. It's not that I wanted to make any kind of 1-to-1 relationship between the two books, but I hoped to simply echo Frankenstein, to have its themes revolve around the story of The Bug, to pick up its overtones, so to speak.
s 205 (lauram) Mon 26 Jan 04 11:51
No one every remembers the framing narrative! Think of Turn of the Screw or Wuthering Heights, which has about 5 nested frames, and you hardly ever remember it Probably you get asked all the time what programmers think of "The Bug," but I'm wondering how it was to be presenting the world of programmers and programming to literary types who are presumably unfamiliar with either. How was that?
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Mon 26 Jan 04 14:10
It was difficult going for both types of readers, I found. Technical people were on the lookout for all sort of of, well, bugs: in the story, anachronisms, mistakes in the code samples, things that didn't ring true (like saying Ethan's manager would have reassigned the bug to someone else, never mind that his manager, Harry, is portrayed as management-unable). On the other hand, some old-time and well-respected programmers wrote to send their thanks. One was Brian Kernhigan, one of the original authors of The C Programming Language, whose book is mentioned in The Bug. Getting his note was thrilling. Also a note from a programmer who says his group has a bug they haven't been able to fix for 15 years. They constructed a work-around that catches the effect, so that it doesn't show, but the bug after 15 years of hunting is still there! On the other hand, I think literary people were sometimes put off by the technical details. The best readers (by that I mean the ones who were most in tune with the book, as is "best for it") used the technical samples as I intended them, as illustrations. I thought it was very important, with all this talk of code, and all the mystification that has gone on about programming, that I simply show some of the stuff on the page. It was difficult for me to serve two masters, as it were. I felt I wanted to write a literary book but one that had to pass muster among technical people, if it were to succeed. Pleasing both groups wasn't really possible. Some nontechnical readers complained about the code being there and the feeling of not understanding it; programmers complained that most of the samples were so simpleminded as to be dumb (made simple for the sake of the nontechnical readers). So there you have it: rocks and hard places. These days I'm writing about technology for The American Scholar, for an intelligent but distinctly nontechnical audience. It is forcing me to find a way to talk about technical subjects that is both personal-emotional and intellectually interesting without being, well, technical. It's a good challenge. And it's more enjoyable for me because the work is not weighted down by the need for lengthy, intricate explanations. My current novel (such as it is, at this point) is not at all about computing or programmers. I think I have even decided to excise some of the "scientific" material I was going to include. In a way, technical/intellectual material has become something of a crutch for me, I think, and I'd like to see if I can write a good novel that depends less on its ideas than on its characters and their emotional lives. Of course I risk losing half (or more?) of my readers, but all the same I can't stay in the same place. I don't think I have another novel in me about computers, about programming per se, though I'm sure, given how much of my life was bound up in it, that it might make an appearance again.
a meat-vessel, with soul poured in (wellelp) Mon 26 Jan 04 20:00
One of the most note-perfect things were Ethan's lunches with Steghman. I've seen that over and over.
Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 27 Jan 04 09:01
Funny that you should mention that. For a couple of years, I shared an office with two men who did that every day. It seemed to me that they had wholly suppressed their visual sensibilities. Just to let you know it's not just men who do that: A woman later joined the group, and she bragged that she had nothing on her walls at home, just empty space.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 27 Jan 04 09:36
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