When Ramsey Shehadeh combined a fascination with digital surveillance, robots, and the wild west inside his “fickle engine of creativity,” he ended up writing his latest story for Asimov’s, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” which appears in in our [January/February issue, on sale now!] In this interview, Ramsey discusses his writing process and literary influences, among many other fascinating topics.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Ramsey Shehadeh: “Cigarettes and Coffee” is set in a near-future America that’s rapidly becoming a digital surveillance state. The government has commandeered the surveillance infrastructure built by early 21st century tech oligarchs, and is using it to watch over everything, all at once, all the time.
But their influence hasn’t quite reached the small West Texas town of Amos—in part because Amos is a mostly-forgotten backwater, in part because of the quiet efforts of two people: Jake, the town’s sheriff, and Belinda, a gas station convenience store clerk who belongs to an underground hacker movement bent on undermining the state’s surveillance efforts.
As the story begins, Amos’ comfortable anonymity is beginning to fray. The Department of Observation has sent agents to town, and they’ve brought a new, unpleasantly life-like synthetic with them. It’s there to replace the town’s aging police robot, and to keep closer tabs on the sheriff’s activities. He and Belinda will need to do something about that.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
RS: I don’t think there was any particular spark, but the shape of the story came from my worries about the country’s burgeoning surveillance infrastructure. I wondered what things would look like if current trends continue apace for a couple of decades: What form would 1984 take in the United States?
The United States isn’t Orwell’s Oceania: It’s still mostly empty, its population concentrated on the coasts and in major cities. Huge swathes of the country are sparsely populated, and generally forgotten or ignored.
A small town like Amos would be as much of an afterthought in the future as it is now. I imagine the people who live were already disposed to distrust the government, even before it began to slide into surveillance totalitarianism. What would this version of the future look like in Amos?
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
RS: I’ve been inspired by so many writers. Here are a few of them:
In 11th grade, my English teacher, Mrs Pendleton, assigned us The Sound and the Fury, and I’m still grateful for it. I vividly remember the discomfort of the first few pages of the Benjy section of that novel: a first-person narrative told from the point of a view of an intellectually disabled man who doesn’t understand the passage of time, or the relationship between cause and effect. It was strange, confusing, difficult, and exciting.
Early on I tried to mimic Faulkner in my own writing, which was a fruitless and slightly embarrassing disaster. But I think the spirit of that first encounter with his work is still with me, flaring to life when I least expect it, showing me what’s possible in prose.
I met Jeff VanderMeer at Clarion East, in 2007, where he and his wife Ann VanderMeer taught for a week. Jeff and Ann need no introduction: They’re both luminaries of the speculative fiction scene, and just wonderful people.
I think that was one of the most important weeks in my career as writer: Jeff opened my mind to the power of the written word. I hadn’t felt so excited about the craft since my first encounter with Faulkner.
When I got home I picked up Jeff’s first Ambergris book—City of Saints and Madmen—and was blown away all over again. I’d never read anything like it. It was my first (but far from my last) encounter with Jeff’s ability to astonish, challenge and entertain all at once.
I always say Jeff’s the writer I want to be when I grow up. I’m well on the other side of growing up, but he’s still the light I set my course by.
Cory Doctorow was another one of my teachers at Clarion. I was very excited to meet him: I’d just finished his collection of short stories, Overclocked, and loved it. Every story in that collection pairs an enviable grasp of storytelling with incisive commentary on the dangers of the current technological revolution.
His fiction, in general, is a masterclass in how to both advocate and tell a good yarn. You don’t have to be didactic to be convincing, and Cory showed me how.
He’s a great teacher, too.
Whenever people ask me to recommend books, I always start with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s emotionally devastating, yes, but so exquisitely beautiful that the sadness feels worth it. The same applies to much of his work, I think. In simple unassuming language, he guides us through the world’s cruelties to a kind of essential human goodness that perseveres, despite everything.
I don’t know if I’ve learned anything about craft from him—what he does feels like a magic trick, and I don’t have the first idea of how he pulls it off—but it’s good to know what’s possible in the hands of a genius.
I’m not sure why I return to robots so much, but I think it’s mostly because they’re cool.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
RS: Some of my most reliable obsessions are: the creeping advent of the surveillance state, robots, and westerns. I don’t explicitly court these themes when I sit down to write, but if I’m not careful they often just happen to the stories. In the case of “Cigarettes and Coffee,” they all happened at once.
I’m not sure why I return to robots so much, but I think it’s mostly because they’re cool. Also they’re great stand-ins for lots of uniquely modern themes: the power and peril of technology, what AI says about our understanding of cognition, the question of what it means to be a person. But mostly they’re just cool.
As for westerns: Although I didn’t grow up in the United States, I got most of my cultural markers from here. The image of the rugged, individualistic, self-sufficient cowboy must have really seeped into my bones. As I was writing this story, I slowly discovered something delightful: The real cowboy isn’t the laconic Sheriff Jake; it’s Belinda.
AE: What is your process?
RS: I don’t have much of a process: it’s more of a practice, and even calling it that probably gives it more credit than it deserves. It boils down to two things:
1: Try to show up and write more days than I don’t. The best stuff arrives unexpectedly, not as bolts of inspiration, but as slow insights that grow out of the work in ways I can’t predict and generally don’t expect. It’s basically a long process of focused waiting.
2: Try to be alert to the things my subconscious is saying to me. I’m very bad at this, even though I know most of the good stuff happens down in the subterranean layers of my brain. I don’t have direct access to any of it, so—again—I just have to wait.
I’ve thought a lot about the fickle engine of creativity in my subconscious. I picture it as a closed door, with a mail slot and no handle. Every day I try to slip new material through the slot—interesting conversations I’ve had, scraps of prose from good books, images from good movies. I get no feedback at all; there’s no sign anyone’s on the other side.
Except, sometimes, when I’m writing, the door opens a crack and something flies out. This is easy to miss: it happens so quickly and quietly that, if I’m not paying attention, I might not even notice. And by the time I do, the door’s already closed.
I look at the thing that came out from the other side. It’s usually inscrutable, presented without explanation or context. Maybe it’s an image of a cat looking out the window at an approaching storm; or a scrap of dialog between two crumbling statues; or a glimpse of a woman gently lifting a dead raccoon off the road and putting it in a box.
The trick is recognizing the thing for what it really is: a gift from the secret generative force living in my mind. A key that unlocks a story it wants to give me.
I’ll need to work for it, though. So I pick the thing up, put it on my desk, look at it for a while, and go back to writing.
That’s not a process at all! you might say. That’s just superstition. And you’d be right! There’s a reason writers evoke muses, routines, practices: We don’t really know where any of this stuff comes from. Maybe there’s a god putting ideas in our heads. Maybe they’re messages from our Buddhist non-self, speaking to our illusory self in the only way it can. Maybe they’re just sporadic electrochemical interactions in unexplored regions of our brain.
It doesn’t really matter. All I know is that there’s something behind that door giving me stories. If I believe in that utterly and without evidence, and build an infrastructure around it, and feed it faithfully, and work hard in its shadow—if I do all that, sometimes I manage to write a good story.
You might say: That just sounds like goat sacrifices to pagan gods. You’d be right about that too.
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
RS: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I don’t really know why. I think my first character was a one-eyed Martian called Müeller from Mars. He had a trusty sidekick called Bananahead from Venus, whose head was a banana. They went on adventures together, hopping from planet to planet.
So my first stories were science fictions stories: I was instinctively drawn to the fantastical. Maybe all kids are? I don’t know. But it stuck with me, for whatever reason.
I do know why I kept writing, though: my dad. He was a journalist, and an amazing writer, and my first reader. I remember handing him drafts of stories and sitting impatiently on the couch while he read, waiting for him to pass judgement. I still cherish a thing he said to me once, after he finished one of them: There’s something about your stories that makes you want to keep reading.
I still go back to that when I’m losing confidence, and tell myself the same thing I probably told myself back then: Dad thought I could do this, so I can.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
RS: Most of the scifi I read is dystopic — either fully catastrophic end-of-the-world dystopia (The Road) or straight-line extrapolation-from-present-circumstances techno-corporate dystopia (Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Murderbot Diaries). As much as I enjoy that stuff, I wouldn’t want to live in any of it.
So I’d have to go with Star Trek. I’m very attracted to its ethos. In the Star Trek universe, technology has made us better people.
I wouldn’t want to be on the Enterprise’s crew—too dangerous!—but I’d love to live on Star Trek’s Earth, a post-scarcity society where everyone’s needs are satisfied, and hunger and privation and war are distant memories. All achieved and maintained without the aid of “market forces”, or the devil’s bargain we’ve made with capitalism.
From where I’m standing this all seems vanishingly unlikely—but so do most things about our world, in retrospect.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
RS: Just a couple of thoughts:
- Don’t wait for inspiration, don’t try to summon it. Inspiration rewards toil. Sit down and write as often as you can. It’ll arrive when you least expect it.
- Feed the mysterious engine of your creativity as much as possible: with books, movies, conversations, ideas, adventures. Anything and everything you can.
- Find a writing group. Writing’s a lonely business, and hard to talk about with people who don’t do it themselves. A writing group is a community.
- Treat dictates about technique with caution. You need to find your own way into your story. Other writers’ methods can be interesting, and maybe even inspirational, but there’s no recipe for any of this.
- Gravitate instead toward advice about the practice of making art. Two of my favorites are Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, and The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
RS: I write software for a living. I’ve tried for a long time to find some common thread between coding and writing, but really they couldn’t be more different: programming is goal-driven, follows a rigorous and necessarily inflexible set of rules, and has a defined end state. Want to know if you’re finished with a piece of code? It’s relatively easy. Does it compile? Does it match the specs? Do all your unit tests pass?
Not so with prose. There are no real answers, just an endless series of guesses, conclusions reached without evidence, plot devices and stylistic effects and structural decisions calculated to nudge a human brain that isn’t yours in more or less the direction you intend. It’s all so tragically squishy.
If we wrote software they way we write stories the world would be chaos. It would probably also be a lot more fun.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
RS: My website is https://doodleplex.com/
I’m on Twitter at @epidapheles.