inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #51 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #52 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #53 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #54 of 104: 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) 
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #55 of 104: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #56 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #57 of 104: 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).
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #58 of 104: 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.)
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #59 of 104: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #60 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #61 of 104: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #62 of 104: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #63 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #64 of 104: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #65 of 104: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #66 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #67 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #68 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #69 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #70 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #71 of 104: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #72 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #73 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #74 of 104: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.205 : Ellen Ullman, "The Bug"
permalink #75 of 104: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 27 Jan 04 09:36
    
Sounds zenful.
  

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