>You Are Standing in a Dark Cave: Robin Sloan and Charles Yu in Conversation

Dear Reader,


I was rereading Robin Sloan’s debut novel and Holiday ’12 Discover pick, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, last night and not only couldn’t I turn the pages fast enough, I couldn’t stop smiling as I dropped back into Sloan’s charmingly oddball world. Penumbra is so much fun, a real romp, storytelling that’s at once modern and old-fashioned, and it’s easy to draw comparisons to Murakami and Stephenson (both Discover alums).

The Discover selection committee readers and I are hardly alone in our admiration: Charles Yu, author of the ambitious — and souful — 2010 Discover selection, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is also a fan. Both authors made the time to converse via email, and here they are on first person vs. third person narration, How Fiction Works by James Wood, and creating entirely new worlds with text, among other things.

(Yu’s terrific new story collection, Sorry Please Thank You was published earlier this summer, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is out today.)


Robin Sloan: Most of the stories in your new collection are first-person. My novel is first-person, too, and I have a theory that it’s the native mode of the early 21st century, because of email and the web and Twitter — all this first-person writing that surrounds us every day. But I guess I also have a theory that it’s just easier than third-person…and I’ll take any advantage I can get.

So I’m curious to know if you feel the same way. Have stories always come out naturally in first-person for you? Have you tried other modes and decided, “nah, ‘I’ is really more my style”?

Charles Yu: I think you’re onto something when you say first-person is “the native mode of the early 21st century,” although I would qualify that by saying that is much more true of writers who are just starting out or close to it, and less true for writers who have been writing since the last millennium. No doubt it has something to do with email and Twitter, as you point out, and also Facebook and video games and all of this first-person writing. Of course, people have always navigated the world in first-person — but I think the difference now is that everyone wants to be a protagonist. And if you’re living in the US, and relatively comfortable, you have the means and opportunity to do so, to construct reality so that you’re at the center of it.

There are, of course, tradeoffs. Although there are stories that can only be told in first-person, there are many more stories that don’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be), and among those, there are stories and storytellers who can do things with third-person that would just not be possible in first. And knowing this, it actually bothers me a bit, both as a writer, and in a broader sense: am I limited in the kinds of stories I can tell? Even more troubling: am I limiting myself in how I see and understand other people, putting a ceiling on my own empathy? With the first question, I think I probably am, and so with the novel I’m currently working on, I am in fact trying to write it in third. As for the larger issue of empathy, I don’t know that writing in different modes will necessarily help me in my efforts to be a less crappy human, but I can’t see how it would hurt.

Have you ever tried to write in third-person? If not, do you feel any desire to do so? And what do you think about the idea of everyone being a protagonist? That’s more egalitarian and enabling for people without voices or access, but aren’t there downsides? If everyone’s the main character, does that lead to a decrease in empathy? Also, if “I” is the new native mode, does that lead to a selection effect, limiting the kinds of stories that can be told?

Robin Sloan: I’m also trying to write something in third-person at this very moment. For me, it’s been like playing a familiar video game now set on Super Hard Extreme Inferno mode. I mean, I technically know how to play this game, and I’ve already beat it once…but…wow they are not kidding this is really hard.

I’ve been using James Wood’s How Fiction Works almost like a how-to guide, which is probably a little ridiculous, but I’m okay with that. The book is an explication of what he calls “free indirect style” — a third-person mode where the narration tends to merge with the protagonist’s thoughts, to dip into her brain without always signaling that it’s doing so. As a result, it preserves many of the benefits of first-person writing, but then also grants you the flexibility of third-person. Wood’s book is crisp and smart — I recommend it.

I’m actually optimistic about mass protagonization. One of the virtues of writing in first-person for an audience, even a very small one, is that it forces you to actually decide what you think. When you sit down to write, even if it’s just to share a link on Facebook, you have to render the fuzzy cloud in your head into something solid. There are ways to avoid the exertion, of course — instead of writing an actual thought, you can always just release a big loud LOLLL — but even so, I think today, in 2012, more people are deciding what they think about things than ever before, and I think that’s a healthy development.

You’re right that video games are part of this, too. Do you play them much yourself? What do you think of games as a medium, potentially, to do some of the same things you do with your stories — explore strange scenarios, provoke new feelings? If a company came calling and said, “Yu, enough with the books already! This is the 21st century. Come write our next game!” — would you be interested?

Charles Yu: I enjoyed How Fiction Works, especially the first part, which as you know is essentially a love letter to close third-person. Wood is better at reading than I realized it was possible to be — or maybe it’s that he’s just so good at explaining what he likes and why, especially the magic of the free indirect style. In the latter chapters of that book, however, he gets away from the descriptive and goes into full-on prescriptive, and I couldn’t help but feel that he does not have much tolerance for books that don’t work in the particular way that he requires of fiction. Even in his curmudgeon mode, though, he’s still quite a treat to read, but the assumptions he makes start to pile up — How Fiction Works is an audacious thing to call a book, and I can understand its appeal on many levels, but in those three words, he certainly presumes a lot about both writers and readers. A more honest title would have been How Certain Kinds of Fiction Work, but that wouldn’t have looked as good on the cover.

Your video game analogy is perfect, both in terms of describing the degree of difficulty and the type. For someone like me, writing in mostly first-person for the past ten years, trying now to write a novel in third is like playing a game with someone else’s hands. And someone else’s eyeballs. And yet, like you, I am determined to do it.

I do play video games, although not as much as I once did. There are definitely ways that games can, as you put it, allow people to “explore strange scenarios” and “provoke new feelings” and I think, because it’s a different medium, games can require us to access different (and maybe even more) parts of the brain than books do, but what I’m curious about is whether they will do the same for the heart (or, if I can say it, the soul). You’ve worked at some really cool places, and are a media inventor and certainly better equipped to speculate on such things than I am: what do you think? Do you think game worlds will rival or even replace book-shaped fictional universes? Or some other, newer medium, some convergence of books and games and movies and GPS and FourSquare and Reddit and who-knows-what else?

And yes, to answer your question, I think it would be cool to write a game, although I don’t know how interested anyone would be in a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones. How about you — would you write a Penumbra (or any other) game?


Robin Sloan: Oh man, people would totally play a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones!

I think the challenge for games doesn’t have anything to do with graphics or sound or interactivity. Rather, it’s all about how they’re made. Video game production today is a lot like blockbuster movie production — there are so many contributors, so many constraints. The results are frequently spectacular, but almost never subtle — almost never weird or truly original. (I say “almost” out of respect for the indie creators who make games that are both.)

If it’s the heart and soul you’re after, I just don’t think you can beat solo authorship. But I’ll admit, I do often find myself wondering if there’s some way to combine the creative power of a single imagination with the productive potential of a big team. The best I’ve come up with so far is wishing for a sort of writing super power through which I can spawn copies of myself to work on different parts of a story in parallel. (Which of course reminds me of the conversation between alternate selves in your story collection. I’m sure we’d be more organized, though.)

What would your writing super power and/or mutation be?

Charles Yu: So sorry for the delay. I’ve been working on my game, Super Sad Meta-Fictional Time Machine. I’m hoping to get the rights so that you can unlock the secret boss character, Gary Shteyngart.

What you said about games seems to crystallize the issue for me. So if I can paraphrase and extrapolate from there, the issue is that the machine is a die-cast, and the mold is cast in the shape of Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Titles — that’s the only kind of product that can be made from this machine (bells and whistles might change, but the basic shape is overdetermined by the constraints and the nature of the process. So my follow-up question to you is: is there (or will there soon be) an alternative to this process? In music, ProTools allows musicians to make music outside of studios, and in film there’s FinalCut Pro. Can one video game developer, working in her or his apartment, release the equivalent of a Bon Iver album, something with a singular, subtle, idiosyncratic voice? If not, is it an issue of constraints in technology, or economics, or distribution channels? I suppose iOS apps are already sort of a channel where a single person can release something to a mass audience, so I guess my question is more about PC/console games…

I like your idea for a writing power, and the one you chose totally makes sense for someone with your background and proficiency with technology — it’s sort of like having superhuman skill at project management. In my case, however, I fear that such a power would result in 200 copies of me, all of them with writer’s block.

My writing super power would be the ability to imagine what my Ideal Reader would say about my draft. Although that might freeze me into permanent paralysis and cause me to stop writing altogether.

Robin Sloan: I think a lone programmer can definitely produce the video game equivalent of a Bon Iver album in her secluded log-cabin laboratory. It helps if she’s strategic with her style. She almost certainly can’t produce all the art and animation that’s required for a Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Title…but 8-bit graphics? Or playful sketchy 2D shapes? That’s doable.

And so, of course, is text.

As we’ve been writing back and forth, I’ve been playing through a couple of old text adventures made by the long-defunct game company Infocom. These are the games where you type “go north” and the computer responds “You are standing in an open field…” and so on. I played a bunch as a kid, but had forgotten all the details, and it’s been fun to rediscover them.

(Some of these text adventures totally have the feel of your stories, by the way. There’s the same intelligence, the same humor, the same set of cosmic concerns.)

Playing these games, and thinking about this conversation, it’s occurred to me that fiction (of a certain kind) and games (of a certain kind) might actually be points on the same continuum. We apply the label “interactive” easily to games, but of course fiction is deeply interactive, too: you’re doing a lot of work when you read a novel or a short story. And we apply the label “literary” easily to fiction, but I think it can apply to certain games as well. It definitely applies to some of these old text adventures.

Now I’m imagining an alternate history where text adventures grew into a big, popular medium (instead of withering in the early 90s); where writers, people who love language, could decide: “Hmm, should this project be a novel…or a short story…or a text adventure?”; and likewise, where game makers, people who love systems, could decide: “Hmm, should this project be a 3D shooter…or a 2D platformer…or a text adventure?”

I really want to live in that world.

> You are standing in a dark cave.

Charles Yu: Oh man, that takes me back. In my childhood I was eaten by a grue so many times. You’d think I would have gotten over it by now, and yet thinking of it still sends a little dart of dread through me. Eight years old, sitting alone in the dark, dying a silent, textual death, over and over again. And then re-entering the text, over and over again. The books I’ve loved have always been like that: less like museums, where you passively admire the artful installations of prose, and more like sandboxes, places where you can move around a bit, change the terrain. Leave some footprints.

That’s how I felt about your novel from the very first pages — the spirit of experimentation, of something new, of really not knowing. Not just in terms of not knowing “what is going to happen?”, but in terms of “what is this thing that I’m holding?” Is this a new thing? Has there ever been a thing like this before?

I like the idea of living in an alternate history, and not knowing it. Of living in a reality that is the opposite of what everyone thinks it is. Of the invisible furniture of the universe constantly rearranging itself while we aren’t looking. So yes, I’m with you. Let’s go on an adventure:

> We are standing in a dark cave.

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.