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Not very much. I have never been a fugitive, of course. But I have lived in the places I describe in the novel. I find it easy to project myself into another’s experience and to write from their point of view. It is my strongest asset as a writer. I have always had an intense interest in other people’s experiences. I could always imagine living inside their skin. I convince myself of this, in any case.
Weren’t you in Seattle during the time of the World Trade Organization demonstrations? My feeling is that Eat the Document makes the protests of today seem clichéd, compared to ‘60s-style radicalism. Is that what you were trying to convey?
I lived in Seattle in the early ‘90s, well before the WTO protests. But the Northwest has always had a healthy culture of rebellion. When I was there, there were plenty of protests. I loved it. My intention was not to make the present seem cliché but to describe how difficult rebellion has become in post-’60s America. The present corporate-dominated culture absorbs and commodifies rebellion at a faster and faster pace. I was interested in investigating what subversion and rebellion required in these different time periods. I think it is complicated, and much of it has to do with the overall cultural climate as much as protesters themselves. I do see the Internet as a really powerful contemporary tool for rebellion and organizing. It has great potential as a portal for alternative culture, in art as well as in politics. Of course, it is also potentially a huge portal for even more hyper-commodification, so we’ll see. I don’t write fiction as polemic or as judgment. I write to investigate and explore. Most of the things that interest me as a writer are complicated. A novel is a place in the culture where things are allowed to have complexity. I see the novel as a potentially subversive medium, because so much of the culture is so anxious to reduce everything to simple black-and-white terms. Look at the way Bush loves to paint the world in such simple strokes. It is usually much more complicated than what is allowed in the 30-second snippets we see on the news. Understanding a particular cultural moment requires time and a willingness to engage at a deeper level. It requires looking at things in an unprocessed, unsimplified way. The novel—at its best—is really good at examining the culture in all its contradictions.
Each character in Eat the Document has such intense and in-depth investigations into their identity; their voice, thoughts, and feelings, even the music they listened to became an integral component of their character. There is a particularly strong reference to music through out the novel. What’s the importance of this element?
Rock music has been such a large part of youthful rebellion in the last 50 years. And it’s also a place where the culture is constantly absorbing that rebellion and selling it out. It seemed a crucial part of the story of these characters.
So you feel that analyzing the music one listens to shows evidence of one’s inner character?
I can be a snob about music. I admit it.
Beginning with the title, there are references to Dylan throughout the novel. How, exactly, does his influence come into play?
Dylan reinvented himself on his 1966 tour. This is documented in his film Eat the Document. He went from folkie to electric rock ’n’ roller. Also, Dylan never released the film, so it is an underground artifact of the era. It fits in many ways.
What compels your interest in a story? What gets you writing?
I usually start with a lot of questions. I like to say I write about what I don’t know. Then, after I have written, I end up with a series of deeper, more interesting questions. Questions about characters, questions about ideas. I am not interested in making things simpler or easier. I am not interested in judgments. I am interested in truth and authenticity. But I am interested in creating a formal whole to get at that truth. I am interested in language, structure—the novel as a beautiful thing.
The power of words…
Language is everything. The truth of a character comes out when you focus on words. Use language in a true, specific way and things are revealed that you would never have arrived at any other way. Language allows you to access your intuition and your subconscious. It is kind of a funny trick.