I am a Relentless Note-Taker: A Conversation with Robin Sloan

Dear Reader,

Robin Sloan, author of the criticallylauded Holiday 2012 Discover pick, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – a reboot of the classic quest narrative that we can’t stop recommending  to readers of all ages – discusses being inspired by William Gibson, the differences between writing for the web and writing books, and playing in a “technological  border-zone,” among other things with Discover Great New Writers.      


You’ve spent your career in the tech world – most recently, working at Twitter – and have published your creative work in unconventional ways. So, what drew you to writing a novel?

It’s all about attention.

Here’s what I mean: working in tech, you think about attention a lot, but you think about it in a weird way. I mean, if you make a website and your visitors stick around for 10 or 15 minutes, that is shocking success. Or, if you’re designing an iPhone app, you’re very consciously battling for little interstitial moments—somebody waiting in line or bored in a meeting. Those stakes start to feel pretty depressing after a while, especially contrasted with the kind of serious, undivided attention that people still (!) give to books. If a person decides to read a novel, in print or e-book form, she’s going to spend hours with that author—with that voice. I mean, that’s just incredible. So for me, that’s the reason to write a book: you get to play for totally different stakes, attention-wise.

Your writing career started online, and you still do a lot of creative work online. Is ink and paper part of your creative process at all, or are you all digital all the time?

I am a relentless note-taker—words, phrases, street names, scraps of conversation—and I pour plenty of those bits and pieces into little Field Notes notebooks. That’s a lonely island of ink in an otherwise digital sea, though—as soon as I get home, I transcribe the scribbles into my computer, and it’s all screens from there on out.

Mr. P feels like a very 21st century novel, if such a thing can be said to exist. It even glows in the dark! Was that a particular ambition? And if it is in fact something so current, are there other novels or novelists that especially inspired you?

That was definitely my ambition. I love fiction that feels like it’s perfectly in sync with the zeitgeist, or even a step ahead of it. William Gibson has been my lodestone in that regard. Even his choice to locate his most recent books a few years in the past is somehow, counterintuitively, the perfectly zeitgeist-y choice.

Charles Yu is another inspiration. You read his stories and can’t help feeling they were written approximately fourteen minutes ago. (Robin and Charles’s earlier conversation for the Discover blog, “>You Are Standing in a Dark Cave”, is here.)

As much as the novel is about technology and newness, there’s also something old-fashioned feeling in the storytelling – the classic quest narrative, etc. Do you feel like there is – or should be – something timeless in a novel? And was there something different in the creative process knowing you were writing something that was going to be finished – as in, it was going to be printed and bound up and sold instead of being potentially forever iterated online?

I don’t know that novels should be timeless, but I do feel like they should be whole. They should give you a sense that you’re sitting down with a complete, considered object, not just a sketch or a first stab (which are both characterizations that apply to plenty of my web writing).

But really, the biggest difference between writing for the web and writing for a book wasn’t the sense of permanence but the sense of readers’ investment. I’ve been writing for the web for a long time, and it’s given me this instinctive fear that if the words slow down, if they go on for too long, people are going to get bored and click away. Command-W. Close the tab. That fear showed strongly in the first drafts of Penumbra: whole sections were choppy, almost skittish. I had to learn (really, make myself believe) that when somebody buys a book, they want to read a book. They’re willing to let you take your time and develop things a bit. In fact, they’re eager to enjoy that development! Who knew?

There is a murky line in the book between what actually exists now and what you’ve simply imagined or speculated could exist or could be a certain way – and some of the most outlandish things in the book actually do exist (GrumbleGear, for instance). Is that something you were keenly aware of while writing, something you wanted to play with? And did you – or do you still – worry about the real world catching up with or perhaps outdoing your speculations?

I definitely wanted to play in that technological border-zone—the things that don’t exist yet (but soon will) and the things that do exist (but most people don’t know about). It’s great territory for the imagination, because you can slip all sorts of things in under cover of plausibility. That sense in the reader’s mind of “Wait… is this real?”—followed perhaps by a Google search to verify—is one of the most delicious reactions I can imagine.

The world did indeed catch up while I was working on the book. Google plays a starring role in Penumbra, and people’s perception of Google has changed; a couple of years ago, it was pretty unquestionably the benevolent king of the web, but today I think people view the company with a bit more suspicion. So I had to make some changes to reflect that. There were smaller details, too. In the first drafts, MacBooks were all white plastic; in the final book, they are, of course, solid aluminum. But details like that, if you time them right, can add up and lend a novel that fourteen-minutes-ago feeling.

As an avowed technophile, do you read only ebooks? Mostly ebooks? Do you think we’re losing anything as we move from print to digital?

I read both. I love e-books—a lot—but I think print books are still really powerful. And I mean that in a modern, vital way; I’m not just talking about nostalgia or a weird smell.

For example, I’ve lately become very conscious of the fact that e-books tend to disappear when you’re finished with them. You read something on your laptop or your phone… and then it’s gone, unless you specifically go in to find it again. Printed books, on the other hand, stick around. They sit on a shelf in the real world and remind you, quietly but persistently, that they exist. That’s basically a super power. I’ve been reading mostly print books this summer for precisely that reason: I saw them sitting on the shelf and thought, Oh right. I wanted to read that. Or, I loved that. Time to read it again.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new novel and always doing lots of digital experiments, including an iPhone app called Fish and a short video series on my website called Summer Reading in which I recommended non-new, non-famous books that I think deserve a bigger audience.

Who have you discovered lately?

I think M. John Harrison is one the best English-language writers alive today. I’d read his all of his newer novels but none of his work from the 70s and 80s—this loose series describing a strange future city called Viriconium. I just read the first one, The Pastel City, and absolutely loved it. It was a yellowed little pocket-sized paperback printed in the 70s, and I think that was part of the fun.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.