Cory Doctorow’s direct involvement with the comics world is a relatively recent occurrence, beginning earlier in the year, when the author leant a number of his works to IDW, for sequential adaptations. Few people in his position, however, have proven quite so vocal and articulate about issues of free speech, the blogger and sci-fi novelist having become one of the most outspoken proponents of the non-profit intellectual property licensing group, Creative Commons, which has published all but on of his works.
With that in mind, the Little Brother author was an ideal fit as the host of a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a title he happily shared last Thursday with turntablist, DJ Spooky.
We spoke with Doctorow shortly before the Manhattan event. In this second part, we discuss the author’s comic book ambitions, the merits of fanfiction, and why Docotorow may have glorified terrorism, just a smidge.
Most of your books have been licensed under Creative Commons.
All of them, except for the first one, which I didn’t have the rights to—it came out before Creative Commons. But otherwise, all of my novels,and my new collection of essays and comics are CC licensed.
Do you have this extended universe of fan fiction in mind when you work on these books?
No, not at all. It’s actually kind of interesting, I think. The way I approach the creative element of what I do and the critical element are almost completely separate. I sit down and write almost as a therapeutic exercise. When I’m finished writing for the day, I often don’t remember what I’ve written. I go back and review it, and I’m often surprised by it. I’ve written stories and novels and things that have taken me years and years to write and when I got to the ending, I didn’t like it and rethought it entirely and then rewrote the ending and then turned back to the first page, only to realize that I’d foreshadowed that ending, four years before, but hadn’t known until that day.
I have almost no premeditation on cultural-political things when I write. Even on a political book like Little Brother, it was actually an emotional reaction to a bunch of things that I was feeling in regard to the “war on terror.” I didn’t sit down and say, “what’s the best way to alarm children about surveillance?” I sat down and thought, “how can I artistically approach this subject in a way that I find the most aesthetically pleasing?”
But you are hoping that, once it’s out there, readers will adopt the work in creative ways.
Yeah, well, in the same way that there’s a compositional and editorial process, when you do anything creative, when I finish with the story, look at it, edit it, and prepare it for publication, and show it to my agent, and so on, I certainly do think of that at that stage. But the creative process, for me, is all about getting into a nice space and doing something totally creative that has almost no agenda aside from a creative one.
But you hope that, at some point, it lives on beyond the life you’ve given it.
Oh, absolutely. So, when it’s all done and I tpye “the end,” I really hope that people will talk about it, read it, and that it will have a life of its own and become part of people’s cultural vocabulary. There’s kind of a “have your cake and eat it, too” mentality around people who worry about trademark of character and having their stories very tightly controlled, which is to say that, if your story is successful in becoming part of the cultural make up—the metaphors that we use to frame our society—Orwell is a great example here, Big Brother, double think—all of those ideas that came out of Orwell’s novel became a really important piece of how we talk about the subjects in Orwell’s novel, once that happens, an author can’t say, “well, you can only do this in an authorized way.” That’s the whole point of a piece that has a life of its own—it has a life of its own.
I actually think that fanfiction is an interesting part of this. I think the way that we know and care about people in out lives, like your mom, say, is you’ve got a little simulator in the back of your head that you use to model your mom’s behavior, so when you do something that you think will make your mom proud, what you’re really doing is showing it to that little simulation of your mom and simulating your mom’s reaction. I think that that apparatus is exactly what we tap into when we tell stories. We simulate people in the backs of our head. We simulate terrible things happening to them, and that’s what we call “dramatic tension.”
In order for a story to work, those people have to come to life in some meaningful sense in the audience’s mind. You sometimes hear authors and other storytellers talk about how they wanted a character to do something, and the character didn’t want to do it. I used to think that that was just being a precious artiste, but actually, at this stage in my life, I think that what that means is that you’ve programmed the simulator, and now you’re asking the simulator to do something that doesn’t ring true to the little person in the back of your mind. And I think that same mechanism is exactly what works in the mind of people who write fanfiction. Just because they closed the back cover, that person is still functioning in their heads. It’s a natural thing to want to continue to write the stories about the things that the person is doing, having taken on a semi-autonomous life, since then. I think that the litmus test for whether a story is successful is if the characters go on inhabiting a story in the readers’ heads, after the cover has been closed. To say, “now that I’ve finished telling you the story, you have to stop thinking about it,” is just crazy.
When IDW issued the comic versions of your stories, were there elements that didn’t mesh with the story as it played out in your head?
Well, I have the rights to oversee the scripts. The scripts were very good, and I only had some very small edits. The same with the art. I got to review work from the artists’ portfolio, so, for the alien in Craphound, I took it back to artist about five times to get it right. But that was really fun. It was really collaborative.
There was only one case that was really unfortunate. There was an artist that was really good, but not really right for the story. Rather than doing a sketch or two for me, he was so into the story that he laid out the entire book. I looked at it and it was completely wrong. After the Siege—it was the last of the comics, and it’s really personal to me. It’s a fictionalized version of my grandmother’s memoirs of being a little girl during the siege of Leningrad and being inducted at the age of 12 into the Civil Defense Core and hauling corpses and digging trenches, and doing all of those terrible things that really came to define her whole life—she’s still alive. She told me these stories, and I went from listening to writing about them. He’d drawn it in the style of a political caricature. It was a very political story, but it was wrong. I thought it was just way too cute for a really gritty, horrifying story. We ended up having a discussion about it, and I ended up commissioning someone else. I felt very bad for the artist. There was nothing wrong with what the artist did, it just wasn’t right for the work.
Are you interested in being involved in the creation of a comic from the ground, up?
At the end of the IDW project, I actually wrote my first ever comic strip, having read through all of these scripts. It’s just a real short, very funny throwaway script for eight pages of the last Haunted Mansion comic that’s coming out sometime this summer or autumn for Kitchen Sink. I ran into them at Comic Con and they had the first five or six issues of the book. I’m a giant Haunted Mansion fan. My first novel takes place in the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland. The film was really terrible, but Kitchen Sink had done these great comic books. They’d gotten all of these different writers to write about the origins of all of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion.
I was just sort of rhapsodizing about it with the editor, and she said, “you know, we’ve got eight pages left in the last issue. Would you like to take a crack at it? We’ll pay you a whopping $150.” So I went back and actually wrote it. And it was really fun to write. I got the actual comic pages and they did such a good job that it really fired me up. So I went out and wrote up a treatment for a graphic novel series and my agent said, “actually, this should just be your next novel.” He sold it to Tor and Harper-Collins in the UK. But I still have hope that it will become a graphic novel, at some point.
Do you feel like you’re more suited to prose?
Well, I don’t know—to my mind, script writing is prose writing, and if I drew figures, it would be stick figures, and not the good kind of stick figures that they draw for XKCD, the really bad stick figures that look like they had been drawn at a rehabilitation facility for someone who had had nerve damage in their hand. I’m definitely never going to be a visual storyteller. But I don’t know, I’ve definitely done a lot more traditional prose writing that scriptwriting, but I’m totally game for trying, anyway.
Getting back to something that you touched on earlier, with regards to your involvement with the CBLDF, you mentioned the cases they defended as being almost specific to the political climate in the US. Do you think they’re unique in that respect?
Well, you know, I haven’t lived [in England] long enough to have encountered that, but I would be surprised if that wasn’t the case. Britain has a worse case history on free speech issues than America. I forget which agency it is, but there’s a UN agency that oversees human rights, and they do an annual report on human rights around the world, and they specifically targeted Britain, giving it a failing grade on freedom of expression. They’ve got a law on the books here that prohibits “writing works that would tend to glorify terrorism.” And it makes it a very serious offense that, even if you don’t intend to glorify terrorism, if someone reading your work decides that you intended to glorify terrorism and decides to become involved in terrorist activities as a result, you can be tried as a “glorifier of terrorism.” This is just a revolting excess of the Blair/Brown government, and I’ll be glad to dance on their grave, after the next election.
But when I had to renewed my visa, a few months ago, I had to sign a declaration saying that I’d never glorify terrorism. And there’s this bit at the end of Little Brother, where this kid has been kind of a terrorist throughout the course of the novel, is watching the news about the US military person who had waterboarded him basically being exonerated and shipped off to Iraq under a cloud of secrecy, rather than facing a trial on American soil that might reveal who ordered her to waterboard as part of an interrogation program.
He says, “oh god, one more terrible thing we’ve done to Iraq. If they sent her to my country, I’d sure become a terrorist.” And his girlfriend says, “well, they sent her to your hometown and you kind of did become a terrorist.” He says, “I guess you’re right.” So here is the hero of the book admitting to having become a terrorist. So I read this to my immigration lawyers and said, “am I glorifying terrorism?” And they said, “just sign the declaration.” And so I did.
But you know, I was a donor to the ANC when they were a terrorist group, according to apartheid laws. I used to wear an ANC badge and go to their marches and give them money. The idea that anyone who has glorified terrorism shouldn’t be allowed in the UK—as we discovered in the US, the definition of a terrorist is so broad that not even Nelson Mandella was allowed to travel there.