Cory Doctorow Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner and today it’s my pleasure to present a conversation with Cory Doctorow. Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, and blogger. He’s the coeditor of the blog “Boing Boing” and the author of many books, including the award-winning young adult novel Little Brother. He is also the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and cofounder of the UK Open Rights Group. Cory’s newest novel, Homeland, is now available as a DRM-free audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, at Downpour.com.
MH: Welcome Cory. Thanks for speaking to us. Little Brother was very well received when it came out in 2008, winning the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Prometheus Award, and White Pine Award, and being named a finalist for the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, and Abraham Lincoln awards. Last year, you wrote a sequel, Homeland, which you recently published in audio. Why did now seem like a good time to return to this world you created and your main character, Marcus Yallow?
CORY DOCTOROW: I hadn’t ever intended on writing a sequel to Little Brother. I’m generally not much of a sequels guy. For me, a lot of the fun of writing is discovering a new world lurking in my subconscious. Or, you can think of it as making and then solving a puzzle. Your subconscious throws up lots of elements of a world as you write the story, which are, what the writer Jo Walton calls “in-cluing,” things that clue you in to what that world is like. And your subconscious is like, “Well, this would be a cool element for this world to have, so would this, and so would that.” As you go, another part of your subconscious is chewing on them and trying to figure out how they could all be fit together to make a story—a coherent narrative. How would the world have this and that. That discovery is very exciting and it’s one of the main reasons I enjoy writing so much. I don’t write a lot of sequels because there aren’t as many opportunities for that. But a couple years ago, I was in New York and I just had the idea. I think it was probably Occupy that kicked it off because I’d just been down at Occupy in Zuccotti and maybe that’s what got my juices flowing. But to be honest, there wasn’t anything that really precipitated it so much as when I was out for dinner with my agent, and he asked, “Do you ever think about doing a sequel to Little Brother?” Just as I was about to open my mouth and say, “No. You’ve got to be kidding me.” I found myself saying, “Maybe.” Then eight weeks later, I had a sequel in hand.
MH: Little Brother has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984. Are there any other authors who have had an influence on your work?
CD: There are a lot of authors who have influenced my work. I’m one of those people who has ten thousand favorite books—not ten, so it’s hard for me to sum it all up in one go. There’s a young-adult writer who I really admire named Daniel Pinkwater. I don’t know that you can find any clues in my work that show you how much Daniel Pinkwater has influenced me, but given how many times I’ve reread his books, I think it’s hard to claim that he hasn’t influenced me. A bunch of friends who are writers influenced me in as much as they got me thinking about writing young adult fiction. People like Justine Larbalestier, Kathe Koja, and Scott Westerfeld who all spoke about the real pleasure of writing for young people, discussing the books with young people, and meeting young people who took the book seriously enough to want to argue with you about them, who really had made them part of their world view. That’s quite an exciting thing. Those writers were definitely a very strong influence on me. I was taught by some very good writers, including James Patrick Kelly, Nancy Kress, and Damon Knight. I often return to their advice. I’ve been mentored by other writers who were very good to me, like Judith Merrill and Bruce Sterling. So really, it’s quite a wide range of writers who’ve had some influence on me, and I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some of my contemporaries, writers like Charles Stross and Benjamin Rosenbaum who’ve also been very influential on me.
MH: Although you are a magazine contributor and a very active blogger on your website, craphound.com, you write fiction—predominantly young adult fiction. What is it about this medium that is appealing to you?
CD: Young adult fiction is something that is very exciting as a writer for several reasons. The first one being that the audience is hungry for fiction that tries to explain the world. Not because they’re empty vessels in which writers can pour their view of the world, but rather they’re kind of answer-seeking machines—young people. They’re people who are trying to piece together answers about how the world works and how they can be in it. And fiction is a big piece of how we can tie the world together because it lets you be inside the head of other people as they experience things that would otherwise be potentially very harmful if you experienced them yourself. It’s the next best thing to making those dire mistakes yourself and having to learn from them the hard way. Writing young adult fiction, writing for that audience, is very exciting for those reasons. I’m also very excited to write young adult protagonists because young adult protagonists are exciting characters per se. Young adult characters, young adult people are people who are learning to be adults by making mistakes, by trying things for the first time, literally, without any way of being able to predict what the outcome will be. You have young adults out there who have never told a lie of consequence or never done something noble for a friend who do so for the first time. And when they do, they do something incredibly brave and really remarkable, something that just trumps most of the risks that we take later in life. It’s a risk that you take without any way of predicting how bad it could be if you get it wrong. And those characters, their lives are full of so much moment that they’re a real pleasure to write about, and from whose point of view to write. Writing that kind of fiction is very rewarding.
MH: Downpour is very honored to be able to offer the audiobook of Homeland. One of the reasons that the partnership has been possible is that Downpour titles are DRM-free. You are a very strong proponent of removing digital rights restrictions on creative content. Can you tell us a bit more about why you think this is so important?
CD: We can talk about the problems with digital rights management from the perspective of readers or from writers. I think there are some really good reasons to not like digital rights management from those perspectives. As a writer, the law says that if I let Amazon, Audible, or iTunes lock up my audiobook with their DRM, only they can give you, the listener, permission to take the DRM off again. What that means is that if later on Amazon, Audible, or iTunes demands terms from me that aren’t good, like they’ve just done with Hachette, one of the biggest publishers in the world, where Amazon wanted deeper discounts and Hachette didn’t want to give them to them. If I cut them off, if I say, “Great, well I’m just not going to sell through you anymore,” you, as the listener, can’t convert your audiobooks to move your library over to whomever I go to next. So we’re guaranteeing Amazon, iTunes, and Apple a perpetual monopoly on audiobooks by allowing our works to be sold with DRM. I think that’s a pretty bad deal for the creator side of things. From the perspective of a listener, for starters, there’s lots of things that you can legally do with an audiobook that you can’t do because there’s DRM on it, like lend it out or leave it to your children. I have books that came from my parents and I have books that I plan to leave to my kid. The idea that just because it was delivered digitally, it’s not mine to dispose of, I think is just wrong. I think there’s a more important issue than how the copyright works and who gets to listen and how. A much more important principle at stake—the principle of being able to determine whether or not there is something wrong with your computer. Under the laws all around the world, it’s against the law to remove digital rights management, and it’s against the law to tell people information that would be useful to remove digital rights management. I’m not allowed to tell you there’s a bug in your digital rights management program, and if you install this software it can exploit that bug to remove the DRM, and give you a file that you can move somewhere else. That nominally protects the DRM, but it also means that I can’t tell you about bugs in DRM-restricted software and DRM-restricted platforms. So if there’s a bug in your iPhone that lets someone watch through the camera, listen through the microphone, grab all your passwords off the keyboard, or intercept your other sensitive communications it’s against the law for me to tell you about that bug to the extent that that bug would also help you remove DRM or jail-break your phone. As a consequence, security researchers are very leery about investigating and reporting bugs on these platforms and we’ve seen an explosion of both crime and government surveillance that exploits these bugs. Governments that use these bugs as a way of installing software on the computers, phones, and devices of people they don’t like in order to watch them through the camera, listen through the microphone, and track them as well as intercept their communications. Also, sexually exploitative extortionists, criminals who take control of your device in order to capture photos of you in compromising positions, and who then threaten to release them to your social media account, which they’ve also captured passwords for, unless you perform sex acts for them on camera. There was just an arrest of over a hundred people who were in a gang that was doing this and each of them had more than a hundred victims. Miss Teen USA last year, Cassidy Wolf, was actually exploited by a criminal who took over her computer with one of these. Unless you can know what your computer is doing, and unless you can know about the flaws in your computer, you can’t protect yourself against this stuff. And that’s pretty grave because computers are really the heart of the twenty-first century. They‘re our nervous system. We put our bodies inside of computers. Your house, if you live in a modern house, is just a computer your body happens to be at rest in. We put computers inside of our bodies. If you’ve spent as many hours as I have on earbuds, which you probably have because you’re an audiobook fan, then you’re going to lose your hearing someday, and so am I, and when we do, were going to end up with hearing aids, and those hearing aids are not going to be beige, plastic, retro, hipster, analog, transistorized hearing aids. They’re going to be computers that live in our body. So, it’s really important that we get this right, that we not have laws or incentives that make it illegal for you to find out when there’s flaws in the computers that your life depends on in order to ensure that you listen to audiobooks the right way.
MH: In order to have more control over the licensing for Homeland, you used some unusual copyright methods, including producing the audiobook on your own. Can you tell us more about the production process?
CD: The production process for Homeland was a bit rushed. I knew that I wanted to do something with the Humble audiobook bundle that was coming up and I’d spoken to them about it, but when they actually told me what the deadline was I was pretty unprepared. So, I called up my friend, Wil Wheaton, and I asked him if he would be willing to read the audio. He was doing a bunch of other stuff at the time: I think he was pitching his TV show, the Wil Wheaton Project that’s on Syfy now, so he was flying back and forth from LA to New York. But we managed to make it happen. He went into Skyboat Studios and recorded the whole audiobook while I was traveling both for work and with my family. Every day he would go into the studio and record, and the studio technicians and the director, Gabrielle de Cuir, would send me the audio. I’d listen to it and give him notes the next day to patch up. We were passing these all to my sound engineer who does my podcast, John Taylor Williams, who was mastering this as we went, and it was all pulled together. Meanwhile, I knew that I wanted to get independent audio recorded for the afterwards. So, Aaron Swartz’s brother, Noah, agreed to go into a studio in Seattle, and then Jake Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks volunteer living in exile in Berlin because he can’t come back to America, found a studio in Berlin run by the guy who used to front Atari Teenage Riot, and he recorded his afterword there. It was just a matter of pulling that all together, getting it to John, squeaking it in under the wire, and then putting it up on the Humble Bundle where you’re able to name your price for it as well as a whole bundle of other books. We sold about forty thousand copies that way.
MH: Wil Wheaton was selected as the narrator for Homeland and he also has a cameo appearance in the book. Was it just serendipitous that he was cast? How did that come about?
CD: I knew I wanted to cast Wil for the book because I had heard him read some of my fiction before. He read my story “Scroogled” for the audiobook of my short-story collection, With a Little Help, and it’s really, hands down, the best reading any of my fiction has ever gotten, and that’s really saying something because my fiction’s gotten some pretty amazing readings. Wil is a tremendous voice actor. I’d also heard him narrate Ernie Cline’s book Ready Player One, where he is also a character, as am I, and I love the meta-ness of it. I’d made Wil a character in the book because I thought that would be fun. It all seemed inevitable that he would be the narrator. He was my first choice.
MH: There are many audio clips and outtakes on your blog. Wil obviously had a great time recording the audiobook. Were you pleased with how it turned out?
CD: I couldn’t be more pleased with how this audiobook turned out. I am so proud of it. It’s the first one I ever produced all on my own. Really, it’s down to the production team--the director, Gabrielle de Cuir, mastering engineer John Taylor Williams, and, of course, Wil Wheaton. I couldn’t have asked for a better sounding product than this or a better acted product. I’m really happy with it.
MH: It is not uncommon these days for the movie rights to popular books to be purchased, but Little Brother was actually produced as a stage play. What was that process like? How was it to see your characters come to life on the stage?
CD: Little Brother’s been adapted more than once for the stage. I’ve only seen one of the stage adaptations, the one that played in Chicago. The one that played in San Francisco, which has since been played elsewhere in the world, including Austria, I’ve never seen because I live in England and it was mounted in America, so it was hard for me to time that so I could go and see it. My understanding is that it’s very good. I’ve seen videos of it, I’ve read the play, obviously, and had a hand in its adaptation. Joshua Costello who did that adaptation is just brilliant. It was great to see the characters come to life that way. The other play that I saw, the Chicago adaptation, was also tremendous. It’s really an honor to have these creative people put their creative efforts into adapting your own work, to have them bring their prodigious talents to bear on source material that’s your own. It’s an experience that I’ve had with this audiobook too. Having someone who is just as talented as Wil Wheaton take a go at my book was a fantastic honor. It just left me all aglow. The same is true with the graphic novel I have coming out this autumn, In Real Life, that Jen Wang adapted from my story, Anda’s Game. Jen, again, is one of my favorite comics creator. She made an amazing comic called Koko Be Good and having her turn her hand to my work—wow. What a treat it was to read it. It’s this weird double feeling. On the one hand, enjoying it as a creative work as though it had been written by someone else, and on the other hand feeling this sense of authorship. It’s like being the author but not being the author all at once.
MH: Besides being involved in the production of your own works, do you listen to audiobooks? Do you have any favorites?
CD: I listen to audiobooks all the time. I actually go to sleep listening to audiobooks almost every night. My favorites, I think, are the Corgi adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s novels read by Tony Robinson. It’s a pity they were abridged. They’re all about three hours long. But Tony Robinson is an amazing voice actor and he really does a terrific job with it. And the Terry Pratchett source material is so good you couldn’t ask for any better. I’m also a great fan of a long out-of-print audio adaptation and that’s William Gibson reading his own breakout first novel, Neuromancer. I love hearing Bill read and that is such a great recording. You can find it on the pirate sites, but it’s no longer available as a commercial product. Someone should really bring it back.
MH: Thank you for joining us today. We’re really excited about the audiobook release of Homeland. Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Cory Doctorow. You can find Little Brother, Homeland, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and Cory’s other titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in June 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
In Cory Doctorow’s wildly successful novel Little Brother, young Marcus Yallow was arbitrarily detained and brutalized by the government in the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco—an experience that led him to become a leader of the whole movement of technologically clued-in teenagers, fighting back against the tyrannical security state.
A few years later, California’s economy collapses, but Marcus’ hacktivist past lands him a job as webmaster for a crusading politician who promises reform. Soon his former nemesis Masha emerges from the political underground to gift him with a thumb drive containing a WikiLeaks-style cable dump of hard evidence of corporate and governmental perfidy. It’s incendiary stuff—and if Masha goes missing, Marcus is supposed to release it to the world. Then Marcus sees Masha being kidnapped by the same government agents who detained and tortured Marcus years earlier.
Marcus can leak the archive Masha gave him—but he can’t admit to being the leaker because that will cost his employer the election. He’s surrounded by friends who remember what he did a few years ago and regard him as a hacker hero. He can’t even attend a demonstration without being dragged onstage and handed a mike. He’s not at all sure that just dumping the archive onto the Internet, before he’s gone through its millions of words, is the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, people are beginning to shadow him, people who look like they’re used to inflicting pain until they get the answers they want.
Fast moving, passionate, and as current as next week, Homeland is every bit the equal of Little Brother—a paean to activism, to courage, to the drive to make the world a better place.