Alexander Weinstein is director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His fiction and translations have appeared in Cream City Review, Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, PRISM International, Rio Grande Review, Quarter after Eight, Salamander, Sou’Wester, World Literature Today, and other journals. His fiction has been awarded The Gail Crump Prize (Pleiades), has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and appears in New Stories from the Midwest: 2013. He is a professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and a lecturer at the University of Michigan. A graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program and Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, he leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe. He lives with his son in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Weinstein’s “The Cartographers” will appear in TCR’s forthcoming Spring issue as our 2014 Winner of the annual Lamar York Prize for Fiction. “The Cartographers” inventively chronicles the rise and fall of Quimbly, Barrett & Woods—an enterprise in the future that creates and sells memories—through the lives of its three founders and purveyors, particularly Woods, the story’s narrator.
LS: What inspired “The Cartographers?”
AW: Two events inspired the story. The first occurred when I fell asleep briefly on a flight to Utah. In that moment I dreamed that the overhead seatbelt light was a projector giving passengers memories of the trip they were about to have. Then I awoke. The sci-fi aspects of the plotline were almost entirely outlined from that brief dream. The other major event was the deep state of heartbreak I was experiencing from a breakup with a woman I’d loved dearly for five years. I was thinking about memories in the light of a breakup. Without the other person, memories can often feel like phantoms. Who was this person I once loved? Did she still really exist? The answer, on a metaphysical level, is that the person we once loved doesn’t still exist. They have gone on to become someone different, a person who has new hopes and dreams which no longer involve us. And yet, there are still all those memories of jokes we shared, replete with punchlines that no one else will ever understand. Restaurants we once frequented and considered our own. Movies and songs which have the ghosts of our times together hidden in them. Everywhere we look we find residues of the person we loved, unseen by anyone else, still shared across vast distances with lovers we may never speak to again. This became the second narrative, which drove the story, of Cynthia and the narrator who still loves her even in her absence. I had no idea that I was going to write about love when I began the story, but Cynthia materialized as Quimbly, Barret & Woods developed their company, and as she did, I realized I was writing about my own heart.
LS: Experiential knowledge, which we typically deem most authentic, is completely manufactured in the hands of Quimbly, Barrett & Woods, making irony an integral part of the narrative. How did you keep from leaning further than you wanted into either social commentary or sci-fi and maintain a focus on characterization?
AW: I make an extra effort not to preach in my stories. I used to try to preach, and I found that it stomped on my characters (they became the soapbox that I stood on), and my characters consequently became flat. So my stories must relate to real-life issues (love, family, trying to seek goodness and peace, human kindness, etc.), and I access these by giving characters the same struggles and joys as my own. This is my way of giving characters actual hearts, and these hearts are what I need to drive my stories.
First drafts are almost always overloaded with the sci-fi elements and social commentary that I want to work in. Early versions of “The Cartographers” had children with oxygen tanks (there was a kind of fracking of the air going on) and three-page-long philosophical diatribes by Quimbly about the nature of memories. Luckily, I’ve trained my internal editor to cut out all the superfluous stuff and stay close to the characters and the plot. Also, I try to place the sci-fi aspects as backgrounds or settings of my stories, rather than making them the main conflict. I see this as analogous to our lives. We are surrounded by great tragedies and Earth crises. An open oil well at the bottom of the sea pumps endless crude oil into our waters; criminal banking scams and economic collapse spread across the globe; ice sheets melt; wildfires erupt; and yet for many of us, it’s all background, by which I mean that somehow we still go on with the daily struggles of our lives, where human interpersonal conflicts take precedence.
LS: The narrator’s love interest, Cynthia, is distinguished immediately from the dominant culture from the moment the narrator is first “fascinated” by her—as he says, “I hadn’t seen anyone using a pen since college.” Unlike everyone else, Cynthia creates memories through lived experience and reads books page-by-page, rather than “beaming” them. She explains, “I try to stay disconnected.” Timely choice of words; Sprint’s current slogan is, “Happy connecting”! Timely topic; in May, Guggenheim recipient and Columbia professor Anne Nelson is coming to Atlanta to give a lecture, “What is the Internet Doing to Our Children?” She will “explore how digital media is affecting learning and behavior.” As a writer and parent who thinks deeply on the subject, can you give us an idea of how you position yourself in relation to the ethics of technology, whether in the state of American letters or in the general culture? And what’s the deal with “cyberbullies”?
AW: We’re in a pretty bad state these days when it comes to humanizing technology. It’s only starting to dawn on some of us, it seems, as there’s a vast group (Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials) who continue to embrace new technology unquestioningly. They’re ready to buy every gadget that comes out, update to the latest iOS, and are even eager for implants (which are, indeed, on their way, though we may ultimately bypass surgery and find some sort of WiFi that connects to bioenergetics or electromagnetic frequencies). Either way, we’re all in danger of willingly turning ourselves into the equivalent of robots.
Recently, I had the frightening and fascinating fortune to try out Google Glass. Have you seen these things? Physically, they make you look like a robot. They merge our vision and thoughts with technology, shifting us into robot consciousness. Google Glass splits our awareness by separating our eyesight, and so we find ourselves in a virtual world while simultaneously engaging in the real world. In short, technology finally has the ability to enter our retinas and go deeply into our brains.
The problem is that our social interactions (while blossoming online) are becoming increasingly fraught in real life. The majority of my students tell me they’d rather text than have face-to-face interactions (they find real interactions frightening). We have scores of friends whom we never see but whose lives we follow though Facebook hyperlinks. We increasingly find ourselves poor competitors with those acquaintances texting our companions over dinner. Recently, I even dated a woman whose idea of foreplay was updating her Instagram. Welcome to the 21st century.
Meanwhile, as our online worlds are becoming more beautiful, our physical landscape is deteriorating. We have the ghost palaces of mini-malls dotting our horizons. Foreclosed houses and run-down storefronts are our new neighborhoods; the infrastructures of roads and bridges are crumbling; and drinking water is becoming flammable. Yet there are masses of people seemingly content with the contrast afforded by the streamlined atmospheres of the online world. Regardless, the smooth edges of technology actually demand great levels of dirty energy and exploitative human labor to produce (e.g. mountaintop removal; Apple factory suicide nets and child labor; and open-pit mining for the metals needed in cell phones, tablets, and laptops). There’s a horrible hidden cost to some of our technological advances. Our children will be left to pay the social, spiritual, and ecological price of our technological infatuation.
Of course, there are upsides. Ai Wei-Wei’s work is a powerful example of the socio-political power of the Internet. Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, and Arab Spring are all examples of how Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet can be used to bring about social and political change. And there are the daily online connections between family, friends, and loved ones, which can indeed be authentic and deeply meaningful.
I think the challenge for humans remains the same as it has always been: to learn the skills of human kindness, compassion, love, and the ability to live and die well. Without these sacred skills, all technology can do is grow the shadows in our lives. Cyberbullying is an excellent example of this. Jaron Lanier writes excellently about cyberbullying in his book You Are Not a Gadget. He points out that cyberbullying is merely the result of our worst human attribute exacerbated by technology, and suggests that the anonymity of the Internet has given our inner troll fertile ground to play. There’s another type of cyberbullying going on as well, which is pressure from tech companies to upgrade or seemingly perish in isolation. Thanks to technology we find ourselves increasingly busy and unable to disconnect. There are endless texts to respond to, Facebook posts to like, Instagram and Twitter accounts to manage, Online Dating profiles to search, and a stream of emails dinging our phones, demanding quicker and quicker response times. Rather than giving us more leisure, technology has afforded us more addiction.
Many of us are feeling the anxiety caused by our cyber age. It’s a deep knowledge that we’re not being nourished by the electronic world, and that for all its gadgets and apps, it’s leaving us famished for a more authentic connection with other humans and the earth. I expect we’re going to see an exodus from technology by certain people and groups in the next decade. Many will keep upgrading, but another group will begin to disconnect. Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle, George Saunders’s short story collections, and Spike Jonze’s film Her are all amazing and related wake-up calls.
LS: Company mastermind Quimbly addresses the appeal of manufactured memories when he says, “Turns out folks are just as happy thinking they’ve been to church than actually going.” Later, Quimbly adds a caveat: “The key to our success is to give people 99% perfect experiences. Make them almost happy, and they’ll keep buying.” However, Cynthia criticizes the memory-making business for pushing manufactured memories as a panacea for childhood trauma and disadvantage. “What you’re talking about is making a bunch of beam-heads who won’t ever work for social change.” As the story progresses, all kinds of contemporary connections appear, including one to the role and function of art. What stands out in your mind as a significant correlation or difference between fiction and secondhand experience such as the sellers of memories peddle?
AW: I think the key difference is that fiction is in the imagination business not the memory business. That said, we do experience deep connections with characters, settings, and stories. Fiction can bring us to tears, and can show us landscapes we may never have visited before. In this way, fiction and art can affect our hearts (in much the same way that the false memories in the story can). However, false memories have a darker, more manipulative side. I agree with Cynthia: there is something evil about the work Q B &W is doing. I think the evil resides in the fact that the root intention of these memories is to exploit people’s emotions for profit. Art has, at its heart, liberation. Falsified memories only keep people hooked.
Ultimately, this has to do with Buddhist notions of desire. We live in a society that has learned to sell us promised memories via media and advertising and capitalize on human desire. The idea of creating false memories is an attempt to tap our longings for profit. Good art/fiction, on the other hand, has the power to reawaken us, and to extinguish the longing mind by satiating it with wonder and beauty. So the key difference between fiction and the memory business is that fiction allows us to experience the moment of satori/illumination/beauty as it occurs in the present moment. The memory business only lets us remember what we once experienced, and because of this, it’s bound to make people hungry for the next memory.
LS: How do you think about this story in relation to your other stories?
AW: This story is part of the collection I’ve just finished, Children of the New World, which chronicles the effects of a society where technology has gone awry. All the stories in the collection deal with the disconcerting emotional and physical landscapes that technology has given rise to. There are malfunctioning robot children, relationships forged completely via texts, electronic reincarnation, and sex-lives which exist entirely in the virtual world. The thread of hope and optimism that runs through the collection is our need for human contact, the blessing of human kindness, and the importance of love.
LS: What’s at the top of your to-read list? What do you consider essential reading for writers?
AW: Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Tom Robbins, and Michael Martone are some of my all-time favorites. There’s incredible compassion and humor to their writing, and their imagination, mastery of language, and playfulness are awe-inspiring. I’m a big fan of the Russian Absurdists as well: Bulgakov, Gogol, Kharms, Erofeev, and Victor Pelevin are some favorites. I love the genre of New Sentimentalism that Pelevin belongs to—this idea that postmodernism became too cold, and lost its heart, that we can play with all the same tricks but still have soul. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Tatyana Tolstaya are simply mind-blowing. I’ve never seen anyone play with language like Tolstaya does.
LS: What are you working on now?
AW: I’m presently working on A Tour Guide to Triol, a novel comprised of tour guide entries that describe fantastical cities, museums, libraries, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries—each one a universe unto itself. It works primarily in the fabulist vein of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a kind of autobiography, as each of the destinations is a metaphor for the emotional/mental locations I’ve visited: museums of longing, hotels of joy, cities of heartbreak, and bakeries of hope. Whereas my first collection worked largely in the sci-fi realm, this new collection is rooted in magical realism. All the same, I seem to still be working with my favorite topics: nostalgia, longing, memory, and love.