Yesterday Neal Stephenson appeared at the Coolidge Corner Theater to read from his new novel Reamde and answer some fan questions, followed by a book signing across the street at Brookline Booksmith . I was fortunate enough to make it down there for the reading and wanted to share my impressions of the event.
Stephenson’s manner can best be described as “reserved,” but not in an off-putting way. I feel like Stephenson has a lot of information that he is seeking to convey at any given time, and wants to do so in the most efficient manner possible. He also doesn’t speak at a breakneck pace, either; instead he is measured without being plodding. He has a dry sense of humor; if you’re not paying attention, a joke can slip right past you, particularly since Stephenson doesn’t appear to celebrate his humor the way some people do.
Stephenson’s appearance started with him reading a couple selections from Reamde intended to introduce us to two of the main characters in the novel: the protagonist Richard Forthrast and his neice Zula. Reamde marks a return to the thriller territory covered in Snowcrash , and as a result is not so information-dense as The Baroque Cycle or esoteric like Anathem. Continuing in his dry manner, Stephenson does not read in a dramatic way, but matter-of-factly, once again focused on information transfer. Stephenson was a little more animated when reading an exchange between two characters, providing different voices for each to make the conversation easy to follow.
Following his reading Stephenson took questions from the audience. Here are my random notes from the Q&A session:
- Reamde was inspired by stories Stephenson had read about massive worldwide computer viruses that broke in 2006/2007, as well as stories about gold farming.
- While Stephenson’s publisher refers to Reamde as “more accessible” than Anathem , he disagrees with that assessment, saying that he just wanted to return to writing thrillers.
- I was fortunate enough to ask a question about a long-form article Stephenson wrote for Wired in 1996 about trans-oceanic cable-laying. I was curious if he pitched the story to Wired or vice versa and if that had any role in Cryptonomicon . Stephenson replied that Wired actually had to sell him on the story, as he originally didn’t think there was enough in the material to come up with a compelling story. However, once he started on the road, he found enough material and also parlayed some of his research into Cryptonomicon.
- In Reamde the characters roll dice to come up with the name of Corporation 9592, the business owned by Richard Forthrast. Stephenson was asked if he rolled dice while he was writing the novel and the author replied that he had wanted to do so, but a search for his thirty-year-old Dungeons and Dragons dice came up empty.
- Stephenson lists his inspirations as Dickens, Gibbon, and Churchill, whom he refers to as the “holy Trinity of English prose.” He also claims inspiration from William Gibson and David Foster Wallace. Stephenson also talked about how Snowcrash took partial inspiration from the fact that his brother-in-law studies ancient Sumerian texts.
- Stephenson was asked a few questions about Anathem ; he jokingly noted that he originally set out to write Anathem so that it didn’t need a glossary, but the invented language “got out of hand.” He also was asked about the design of the Daban Urnud, the ship in Anathem, and Stephenson said it was inspired by the work of Kurt Godel.
- An audience member asked if Stephenson was going to revisit the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle. While not entirely ruling out the possibility (“they’re interesting characters”), Stephenson said that too much rehashing of existing material can get an author into a “cattle chute” and he likes to jump around. Speaking of jumping around, Stephenson said that he had two major candidates for his next novel.
- Asked if he would ever consider self-publishing, Stephenson said “Absolutely not. Publishers have figured this out.”
I have just started reading Reamde and the writing thus far is a little less dense than some of Stephenson’s earlier work. I hope to have a review when I finish the novel, but I’m not the quickest reader, so don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE (09/29/11): I came across a link to an interview with Stephenson in Forbes , so I wanted to share it.