William Gibson Globe and Mail Story
The Globe and Mail, November 30, 1999
I got a call on Friday, November 19, 1999, asking
me if I could do an interview on Tuesday with
William Gibson for The Globe and Mail,
Canada's national newspaper. I was overextended
as hell, but this was too good a chance to pass up.
Besides, I'd never written for a newspaper.
The interview took place at 8:30 in the morning,
in the boardroom at the Penguin/Putnam offices.
Gibson was a surprisingly easy interview; I'd heard
legends of how laconic he could be. My big worry
was that I'd end up with a bunch of sparkling one-
liners but nothing I could build the article around.
What I got instead was a collection of sparkling
passages that lent themselves beautifully to the article.
My biggest dilemma, in fact, was pruning all the
gems down to 1,600 words. Gibson's one quotable
sumbitch. Accordingly, I've made a complete
transcript of the interview available , for those
of you who want the whole story.
William Gibson stumbled into our interview
at 8:30 a.m. with the kind of profound road-show
exhaustion unique to touring authors, IPO pitchmen
and carny barkers.
"You get me fresh from the dream state," he
said, and grinned the sly half-a-smile from his book-
jackets, deeply bracketed by vertical seams and
dimples sunk to middle-aged depth.
And Gibson is middle-aged.
No longer is he the high-style-and-glitz
young Turk of science fiction. Recently,
Gibson has abandoned the Hammett-
inspired storylines that made books like
Neuromancer and stories like
"Johnny Mnemonic" pop culture hits.
He's turned humanist tales where
the chapters end at existential crossroads
instead of cliff-hanging plot moments.
His latest, All Tomorrow's Parties (G.P.
Putnam's Sons, $34.99) is a mature work,
what Canadian science-fiction writer
Sean Stewart calls "Gibson's Winter's Tale."
All Tomorrow's Parties concludes the
trilogy that began with 1993's Virtual Light,
and returns to the defunct Bay Bridge, where
techno-squatters have taken up residence,
building an attenuated neighbourhood
crowded with hipster bars, shadowy
knifemen, and fantastic treehouses suspended
from the high cables.
On the bridge, we find Rydell, an ex-cop
who's been with us since the first book,
contemplating the paradoxical banality of
violence: he is drawn to the romantic vision
of the lone warrior while being repulsed
by the stupid, ugly reality of bloodshed.
Is Gibson repudiating gunplay and gladiators?
"I'm owning romantic violence, as they
say these days." Gibson says, then pauses.
Gibson pauses a lot. He has a storyteller's
cadence married with a southerner's laconic delivery,
and his eyes seek out the poky corners of the room
while he assembles his next sentence. People who
know Gibson can't help doing Gibson impressions,
good-natured homages to the steady rise and fall
of his voice.
"I'm owning Rydell's awareness of its banality.
It probably had something to do with being southern.
For some reason, I've been much more conscious
of that over the last few years. It's probably because
my friend Jack Womak has a thesis that he and I
write the way we do because we're southern and
we experienced the very tail end of the
premeditated south, in a culture that violence
had always been a part of. It wasn't an aberration,
though I realise that in retrospect, it was. I grew
up in the part of the U.S. where all of Cormack
McCarthy's novels are set -- that's a pretty violent
place. There's violence in my culture. It's an
American thing, but it's particularly a southern
thing, and its romanticization is hyper-southern.
And it's still irresistible to me, even in middle age.
There's something that pulls me to that, but at the
same time, I have this increasing awareness of
how banal it really is -- that evil is inherently banal."
Gibson also provides us with an academic on the
bridge, a film-student who acts as mouthpiece
for the architecture-obsessed author, providing
commentary on "Interstitial Zones" -- the lawless
areas where self-organising collectives rule by
rough consensus, the Gibson hobbyhorse du jour.
Aren't the interstitial zones just another kind of
romantic delusion? Certainly, there's not a lot of
romance in the riots and rapes of Woodstock '99,
nor in the terror-peppered former Soviet Union.
"Well, to some extent I'm guilty of wishful thinking.
The absence of the interstitial I find unbearable, but
not as unbearable as the idea that interstitial is
necessarily as banal as the infrastructure, so I think
of what I do with that stuff as a glorification of
possibility. Very probably, it's at the cost of naturalism,
but to go in the other direction would be to despair. "
Gibson's prose is incredibly tight, hyperdense
with image and eloquence. The natural assumption
is that he struggles over his exquisitely crafted
sentences, piecing them together like literary
assemblage sculpture. But fifteen minutes into
the interview, it's apparent that Gibson thinks
in these highly rarefied, polished terms,
tossing off profundities at speed.
"To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia,
I have to believe that there are viable degrees of
freedom inherent if not realised in interstitial areas."
Bohemia is the place that Gibson inhabits. In the
1970s, he was a fixture in the hottest spots in
Toronto, and now he makes his home in
lotusland: he's a committed Vancouverite,
who, if faced with the deportation, would
opt for swinging London over his native
Virginia. He's got a funny take on Toronto
"What strikes me about Toronto, and it's
been very strong on this visit, is that the city's
great misfortune was to have too much money
in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently,
it built in the style of those periods, which is hideous!
It's as though the city were being forced, forever,
to wear very wide ties. A lot of the buildings around
Yonge and Bloor are the architectural equivalent
of Kipper Ties and eight-inch collar points.
It's ghastly and no amount of street-level
retail glitz can lift it.
"But then I look at it and think 'Well, perhaps
my grandchildren will someday look at this stuff
with the sort of appreciation I once held for
Art Deco.' Although I've come to find Art Deco
quite creepy too."
There's a gleam of nostalgia in his eyes, which
crinkle charmingly with fine squint-lines: the eyes
of a keen cultural observer. Nostalgia has
featured heavily in Gibson's work since his
1984 breakout novel Neuromancer,
and it returns in force with All Tomorrow's Parties,
where an autistic computer genius and a junk-
shop owner combine forces to scour a futuristic
eBay for antique watches -- another of Gibson's
famous obsessions. In the Antiques Roadshow
world, Gibson has hit popcult paydirt: collecting.
"I think that the collectible ephemera craze/awareness
is probably driven by a reverse market, rebounding
off the sense of everything being mass-produced.
It's the last step you take in trying to find something
"Every shop in every High Street in Europe is filled
with basically the same stuff. There's a street in
every city of the world that has a Gap and
Benneton's, and the upscale versions of those.
"For me, the melancholy of the late Twentieth
Century is walking late at night by the Mont
Blanc pen store, and seeing these things that
always strike me as simulacra of luxury items.
They seem like fakes: you know that they're
on every High Street on the planet, but a 1925
Mont Blanc pen of a particular provenance
becomes a real luxury item."
"I worry about what we'll do in the future
about the instantaneous co-opting of pop culture.
Where is our new stuff going to come from?
What we're doing pop culturally is like burning
the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture
is really, really in danger. I didn't see it coming
until a few years ago, but looking back it's very
"In 1977, it took about eight months for the
recommodification machine to put punk in
the window of Holt Renfrew. It's gotten faster
ever since. The scene in Seattle that Nirvana
came from: as soon as it had a label, it was on
the runways of Paris. There's no grace period."
Gibson is a vigorous 51, rail-thin with a slim
phone clipped to his belt, looking more like a
well-dressed systems administrator than a
literary pop-star, hardly the vision of
It's paradoxical: as Gibson has achieved what
he calls "the very limited celebrity available
to writers in North America" that his work
has become less distant, more personal.
"I've observed it in the process of writing the
book, and my reaction to it was to scratch my
head and say, 'What's that?'
"The construct of William Gibson the
Writer is coming down, becoming more open.
It's more of a Glasnost -- transparency!
Transparency is what it is.
"I think that I've always written about
things that are very personal, but initially,
I coded everything. I buried everything
under layers and layers and layers of code,
but the signifiers of my emotionality were
there for me. I knew where the magnets
were, behind the gyprock, and the magnets
were very powerful. I think they had to
be powerful for me, otherwise the reader
wouldn't have a reciprocal experience.
But I was very careful to bury them
deeply, deeply in the plaster and paint
over them. I didn't want anybody to
directly access them, and that's gradually
changed for me."
Celebrity for him has been an
anthropological opportunity to observe up
close the people with "raging, life-threatening
celebrity, people who would be in grave
danger if left on the street without their
minders." Gibson has steadfastly refused
to contract the bug, to become the
visionary that the world would have
him be. But when asked about the
future of publishing, a subject near
to any author's heart, Gibson can't
help belting out a sharp insight:
"You know, it's funny, for decades people
have been coming to me and saying,
'Whoah, Cyberspace! What's the future
of the book, that sacred object?' I've been
through the whole western world, and it
seems to me that there's more retail
floorspace devoted to the sale of books
than food, more than there's been in the
entire history of humanity! It's grotesque!
Simpson's in Piccadilly has been turned
into the largest bookstore in all of Europe!
How can they fill it?
"If publishing is expanding to fill that
retail space, it seems like there may be a
necessary and unpleasant correction
waiting down the road. How many books
do people want?"
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