IT'S ALWAYS THE SAME
Interview with Jack Womack [August, 1995]
by Dike Blair
We live in a world nervously approaching the millennium with little in terms of surety other than the fact that the future is getting here, and getting here fast. More and more people, our writers included, are spending more and more time trying to find the formula that predicts what tomorrow will bring. With tomorrow being today's subject for many writers of contemporary fiction, it seems quaintly antiquated that we apply the label "Science Fiction" to only a few. Jack Womack's books take place in a possible future of a world much like ours, so they have been marketed as SF and are sometimes grouped with the cyberpunks, for the lack of a better category. On a literary level, however, his language shares more with Cormac McCarthy than with Bruce Sterling and his visions are more Charles Dickens than Neal Stephenson. Womack's latest book, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, has found success with a mainstream (non-SF) audience, thereby making the labeling of his disturbing and compelling fiction both more difficult and less important.
To date, Womack has published five novels: Ambient (1987), Terraplane (1988), Heathern (1990), Elvissey (1993) and Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1994). These novels, taken together, plot (non-sequentially) a time-line that begins in a very near future and ends roughly 50 years hence. They can easily be read independently of each other and calling them a series does not seem entirely accurate. They all share a world, some characters and Dryco, a transnational corporation that functions as a combination of family, government and church; but, each novel features very distinct (if uniformly bleak) voices and visions. Womack takes our most frustrating and demoralizing problems--violence, homelessness, injustice and exploitation--then amplifies and extends them. His future does not titillate with wonderful and strange possibilities but terrorizes with the grimmest possibility of all--more of the same. The most impressive thing about these works is that as they chronicle the development of Dryco, they also plot an evolution of the English language. Womack mutates grammar and etymology to create a WomackSpeak that is perfectly molded to the unique and depressing contours of WomackWorld.
Womack's new novel, Let's Put the Future Behind Us is due out in April1996--it is a non-Dryco book set in contemporary Moscow. He has several other projects going: a film treatment with a Kazakh director Rachid Nougmanov, Spin wants him to do a series of articles on the '96 presidential campaign and he is co-authoring a non-fiction book, Subtexts, with Jonathan Letham and Richard Kadrey. Terraplane, Elvissey and Random Acts of Senseless Violence are all translated into French and published by DeNoel.
Dike Blair: You use many of the same devices as other contemporary fiction writers, but it seems by choosing the Science Fiction genre you avoid the annoying auctorial voice. Your near future is not so different, for example, from the one created by Martin Amis in London Fields.
Jack Womack: No, it's not. What I've done in all my novels is used a first person narrator--something that goes against conventional wisdom if one is not writing an autobiography. I try to sink myself so deeply in the character before I begin writing so that if I get the voice right in the first 10 or 20 pages I can use it effectively and relatively effortlessly for the rest of the book. I try to sound like reports from the future; a Russian writing in English or a 12 year old girl writing a diary--so far I've been lucky with this. At the same time, I think I've developed a distinctive enough style that my voice permeates the novel--a kind of WomackSpeak. I do know what you mean by that annoying voice--I try to keep the auctorial hand as invisible as possible.
Dike Blair: Is that a result of writing within a genre in which there are certain rules?
Jack Womack: I never knew what the rules were--with Science Fiction at least. I'd never read Science Fiction, except maybe Jules Verne when I was a kid and, in the seventies, I read Man in the High Castle because of a Paul Williams article I'd read in Rolling Stone. When I was writing Ambient, I realized that it was going to take more than one volume to get what I wanted. I was unaware at the time that one of the most popular forms in Science Fiction, almost a standard practice, is the trilogy--it's not really used that much in regular literature. Of course as I went on I became aware of the conventions of the genre, so when I wrote Elvissey, perhaps my most Science Fictional, I tried to turn those conventions inside-out. For instance, the Gibsonesque razor implants in my character's fingers--they seemed, to me, to be very convenient things to have if you wanted to kill yourself. So when I used them for the members of my security force, who would naturally be homicidal-depressives, I put them to the obvious use. I was pleased when Elvissey was a co-winner of the Philip K. Dick award as he was one of the few Science Fiction writers whose work, by and large, I've liked.
Dike Blair: What about Ballard?
Jack Womack: Ballard's another one but I'd never read him until Ambient was already out. A reviewer in the Voice described me as a neo-Ballardian, so I borrowed Crash from a friend and really enjoyed it. Even if they're coming out of the field, both these guys' world views end up being very different from traditional Science Fiction, and they're more talented writers as well.
Dike Blair: I imagine that the literary quality of your work doesn't appeal to Hollywood.
Jack Womack: Actually, I've sold options on two of the books. Ambient has been in the hands of Bruce Willis's people for a few years. When they re-optioned it this year it enabled me to quit my day job.
Dike Blair: How does your stuff go over with the traditional Sci-Fi audience?
Jack Womack: A friend of mine always berates me for not literally designing the organizational structure to Dryco. I tell him it's a metaphor. I've gotten complaints from people like, "everyone uses that plot line," but I think they're missing the point.
Dike Blair: The fact that some of your extrapolations fairly obviously won't happen, makes them more disturbing than if they were plausible.
Jack Womack: Anybody can take Microsoft and just make it bigger--then you, essentially, have a business text-book. That's one of my big problems with Science Fiction--so much time is taken explaining how something works, "He tied his shoelace beginning with eyelet A and proceeding to eyelet M," rather than just saying, "He tied his shoe." I prefer to say "here it is--deal with it." Some readers really like that and some really hate it.
Dike Blair: How does WomackSpeak translate into other languages?
Jack Womack: I've been told not too well in German, although I have been getting better translators with the newer books. French, I don't know. I turn a lot of nouns into verbs and vice-versa. I'm not sure if any language has the kind of flexibility as English for this kind of thing. Luckily this is all out of my control.
Dike Blair: What are the ingredients of WomackSpeak?
Jack Womack: For Ambient I took contemporary English and pushed it a degree. AmbientSpeak itself resembles Elizabethan language. I borrowed from Thomas Nash's, The Unfortunate Traveller--a great source book for this kind of thing. In terms of the rhythms, I always read aloud to myself to make sure it's got the right beat--not a metric beat, just a rhythmic pattern.
Dike Blair: There's the cliché that Southern writers have good ears.
Jack Womack: By and large I think that might be true, although I have no scientific evidence to back this up. It's a fairly oral culture. When I was growing up you'd sit around and hear what so-and-so did back 30 years, or so, ago. There really wasn't much to do so you'd sit around and make up stories to keep each other entertained.
Dike Blair: While reading Random Acts I was struck by your vision of the tenuousness of any kind of physical security in our society.
Jack Womack: Everybody in America is one paycheck away from disaster. Everyone convinces themselves that they're not, but you get two bad weeks in there and you have real trouble. In Random Acts I'm saying, "this could happen to you--think about it."
Dike Blair: Your books suggest that your politics are pretty radical. What are they?
Jack Womack: I'm pretty far left--I'm pretty anarchic. The thing is, the Left, here and in England and Europe, has been pretty much in utter disarray for about the last 30 years. I want to kick my fellow Leftists, although I certainly don't have any solutions to the problems of the day. You can see where things are heading but that doesn't mean you just throw up your hands and say, "Well, it's 500 AD and the King and his minions live up on the hill in the castle and everyone else lives out in the horse shit surrounding."
Dike Blair: One can stay vigilant and conscious?
Jack Womack: Right. One can be aware of what's going on around you. Any artist hopes that whatever he, or she, does in their art is, first, for the artist's satisfaction then, second, to make an impact on one single person's mind. That's why the writer tries to seek their own broadest possible audience. I know that I will never have the audience of a James Michener or a Stephen King, I just don't have that popular touch. I know my limitations and abilities, and try to do the best I can artistically. What I try to do is just write, try to get the ideas across in a non-didactic way because nothing turns an intelligent reader off more than being hit over the head with politics. The options are similar to describing how the shoe laces tie--you can do it the obvious way or with subtlety.
Dike Blair: The Left seems to have no political model upon which to build and this also seems to apply to our technological ideologies.
Jack Womack: We're fortunate/unfortunate enough to live in an age which is the equivalent of the late 1700's in England where you not only had fairly sweeping political changes but also changes from an agrarian society into an industrial one. No one in 1750 England could guess what 1850 England would look like--there were no futuroligists at the time and one could simply not have guessed what would come. Even now, with all our experience with projections and with computer models, there's still no way of telling what things will be like 50 or 60 years from now. We can figure things will probably be, to some degree, the same.
Dike Blair: You've said that people don't learn from history.
Jack Womack: We'd certainly like to think that people learn from history, but they don't--certainly not in America where things that happened 6 months ago may as well have happened in 1840. This is not only in a broad political sense but in people's personal lives as well. I think this is just human nature. Sometimes I fear this fairly low opinion of human nature lands me in the same territory as people with much more conservative agendas. Where we differ is that they would leave things as they are while I would change them--I just don't know how.
Dike Blair: For someone with seemingly populist politics you don't seem to have much faith in The People.
Jack Womack: Well, again, that's what puts me uncomfortably close to certain conservatives who have an elitist outlook. My view of human nature makes me elitist in a number of areas--I think there are very few people who actually know what's going on. I have an equally jaundiced view of liberal-elites who tend to get so detached from reality that their well-intentioned master plans go wildly astray for no other reason than their inability to understand the human dynamic. Shall we just say that I think both sides should be equally bashed? I would hope that that saves me from being a standard elitist, but probably not.
Dike Blair: Do you spend time on the Internet?
Jack Womack: Very little. I use it for e-mail and I check out some alternative sites. I don't really want to go on a bulletin board with people who if they're not 14-years-old act like it. The whole debate about whether the Net is a good thing or a bad one is like that Certs ad--Is it a breath mint or a candy mint? Both sides end up looking equally idiotic. Any new communication technology breeds this enthusiasm about how smart and well-informed people will become--ultimately it only seems to further distance people from each other. It's always the same with these utopian hopes that arise around new technologies.
Dike Blair: Shouldn't we be grateful for utopian fantasies?
Jack Womack: They keep people going. Many of my characters are, at heart, utopians placed in dystopic situations. Hope helps keep them going.