Darin Bradley‘s apocalyptic novel Noise hit bookshelves, both physical and virtual, today. So I thought I’d ask Darin a few questions about his novel, the apocalypse, and writing in general. The resulting e-mail conversation, which has spanned the past few weeks, has turned out to be very long, which is a good thing, because Darin has a lot of really fascinating ideas to share. But, to make that conversation a little easier to navigate, I’ve decided to post this interview in “pages.” I certainly encourage you to read the interview straight through, but if you want to return to the interview later and skip to a favorite comment from Darin, feel free to use the page jumps below to navigate the questions.
- Noise and the apocalypse
- Academia and the writing life
- Zombies! and other matters of literature
- Darin’s bio
It’s all right — sleuthing ideas is, I imagine, every bibliophile’s secret hobby.
The idea itself is quite a bit older than the story as it ended up. Years ago, when I began grad school, I used to entertain a story about two young men who decide to remake the world “in their own image,” so to speak. It had a lot more in common with The Prince (in fact, that was my working title — ripoff though it was) than it did with anything apocalyptic. But, really, that’s all there was to it–an idea about remaking the world.
Later, as I started accruing student debt in the tens of thousands, and as my credit card balances climbed, I started to become predictably frustrated with the general progression of adulthood. Sure, I found my studies interesting, and I was running a number of creative projects on the side that kept my artistic inclinations in check, but the idea of graduating, getting a job, and then slowly killing time until I became old . . . well, the idea disturbed me. It was pretty straightforward, cliche, existential ennui.
So I became infatuated with everything falling apart — erasing the debt record, dissolving useless career paths, discarding fatuous social (or academic) discourse. Clearly, this was a form of escapist fantasy.
But then, after I graduated and moved away from Texas for a few years, now in the thick of the post-grad tedium I’d so feared, things really did start becoming collapse-y. What had once been a fascination with social liberation — a favorite topic I shared with some friends once a week at the pub — became an interest in the declining economy, the downsizing of American influence on world culture, and the rise of D.I.Y programs and local culture. By accident, all things came together, and my interest supplied me with the setting for the old story I’d never written. Now, on the other side of my degrees, I had a head full of cognitive theory and critical discourse — I wanted to explore how environments destabilize identity, including our feverishly held beliefs about life, the universe, and everything, to intone Adams. So, I decided that an otherwise normal person, when thrown into a social environment that no longer supports (or makes room for) the conveniences and niceties of social coexistence that we know now, would have to re-examine his or her personal mythologies to re-purpose them for a more violent environment. I mean, what good are the lessons you learned playing T-Ball when you’re concerned about people kicking in your door to steal your flour? What does it matter if you excelled at finger-painting when you spend all day hunting for desiccated potatoes in the barren earth? How could one change the meanings of these identity-building experiences so that they rationalized violent, survivalist behavior? What we know, what we think, about our selves and those around us is really just convenience. A lot of it doesn’t mean anything, even though we’d desperately like it to.
So, with this M.O. in mind, I conceived the rest of the details for the story, including the counter-cultural movement that calls itself Salvage. Salvage would be broadcasting, publishing, or otherwise communicating what I’d concluded about culture, destroying it, and successfully surviving to start anew. In order to really use Salvage to channel those old frustrations, that expired ennui, I decided I needed a handbook for how one successfully creates a post-collapse nation-state bereft of the civil luxuries we use now in our international relations — the point would be the survival of your people, even (often) at the expense of others. I was surprised at just how frightening, just how fascist, this blueprint turned out to be, and once I’d written it, I was ready to fill in the novel around it.
What do you make of the irony that you’ve created art about a future socioeconomic reality in which art is essentially pointless — an unproductive aside from, if not actually an impediment to, survival?
Or, to put it another way: Way, way, way back in human history, when we were all living in an anarchic, pre-governmental (in fact, pre-language) state, eking out a meager survival in caves, we were still making time to paint our daily observations on the stone walls. Some of this was instructive (how to hunt bison, for instance), but a great deal of it was also religious and/or decorative. So clearly, even in our most basic, most anarchic states, we still made time for art. Or, to use your analogy: Even as we were hunting for desiccated potatoes all day, finger-painting was still an important part of our lives. If so in the pre-historic past, why not in a post-apocalyptic future? (Or have I got it all wrong?)
The irony certainly isn’t lost on me. Luckily, though, I spent a fair portion of my formative reading years wrestling with authors like P.K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Vonnegut, so I’ve long since come to terms with the idea that speculative, prognostic literature grapples with the state-of-the-world now. The “future” is the hyper-present — the future as SF’s left-handed morality play, etc. This is especially true in apocalyptic literature, when collapse is corrective and the timeline of civilization has been flattened. So, that’s to say that Noise, whenever one might read it, is about one’s world at the time and not the “future” I’ve painted. After all, the future is no more real than the past, but that’s a bit of a red herring and probably a bit further down the cognitive theory rabbit hole than we should go right now.
But I think you may be on to something, Sam: a necessarily artless world is, for us, right now, simply an artistic construction. Things might be different if the zeitgeist changes significantly, but in the socially generated, semiotic rat’s nest of self and culture that determines conscious existence today, positing non-existent things, like artless worlds, is a good shorthand definition for the “artistic endeavor” — in the whole artistic simulacrum, Baudrillard sense of the word.
Anyway, I think the cultural importance of art in pre-history as opposed to post-apocalypse is not a two-sided coin. I think they’re two different conversations. In the past, when people passed the evenings scratching stick-figure portraits of themselves onto cave walls, they were doing so when they had the time, security, and environment that would allow them to. Primarily (and I’m making sweeping generalizations here — I’m no anthropologist), the consciousnesses of our proto-folks would have been informed first by securing food, securing shelter, and presumably securing a mate. Later, after one had spent a long day in the sun bashing enemies with a stick to steal their potatoes, one could unwind with a charcoal stylus and some bare cave wall space. Today, though, the psycho-social identities of most of us in the literature-reading world often do prioritize art over existence. I mean, how concerned are we that there won’t be food at the grocery store when we make our weekly trips? Or that McDonald’s will suddenly run out of burgers? Food, shelter, and security are such low priorities for most of us, they’re such “givens,” that we “lead” ourselves, so to speak, with our religious stances, our political theories, our personal fashion styles, etc.
My assertion, going back to the idea that the Noise future is a corrective hyper-present, is that conscious existence as we know it, the art-forward consciousness, would necessarily evaporate if our social architecture collapsed on us and we were plunged into an existence-forward type of world. That’s what I mean when I talk about re-purposing experience. Taking the, “survivally speaking,” “now-useless” experiences of your past and learning how to change what they mean to your identity. Now, all that practice in T-Ball isn’t about personal athletic excellence at all (with its concomitant importances of personal performance in a social environment) — now, it taught you what you need to know about hitting a moving target with a club, so you can eat.
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