Ellen Kushner
Sara Zettel

12,736 words
posted:  september 3,  1998

[The material below is an edited version of a
discussion held at MIT on december 4, 1997.]

Thomas The Rhymer and the Child Ballads

Joe Haldeman: Ellen, Your book, Thomas the Rhymer, draws its inspiration from the Child ballads. I suspect that most of the audience doesn't know what the Child ballads are. Maybe, you might give them a paragraph about that. It'd be interesting.

Ellen Kushner: I'll sing some. (APPLAUSE) Wait, wait, you haven't heard yet! (LAUGHTER) This is not going to be very good because it's really hard. It's a fiddle tune, and I shouldn't be doing this, but you'll recognize this from what I just read.

Jack O'Ryan was as good a fiddler
As ever fiddled on a string
And he could make young women mad
With the tune his fiddle could sing.
For he could fiddle the salt from the saltwater
And milk from a marble stone
And the milk out of a maiden's breast
Oh, baby, she'd got none.
Jack O'Ryan is down to the King's high court
And there he's played them fast asleep
All but for the love of a young princess
And for love she stayed awake.
I will not go on, but you can guess what's about to happen. That's one. It's a fiddle tune instead of a singing tune. But the record I have did a nice job with it.

The "Thomas The Rhymer" ballad, I'll just sing the first verse, so you can hear some variety.

True Thomas lay on Huntley bank
Verily he spied _____ was he.
And there he saw Lady Bright
Come riding down by the elden tree.
True Thomas, he, took off his cap
And low _____ down at the knee
All hail, thou, mighty queen of heaven
For thy peer on earth I did never see.
As you can see, I steal all the plots.

So, basically, when you hear people say "Child Ballad," what they're talking about is a system of classifying the ballads. There was actually an American, kind of a poor boy who grew to become, through cleverness, a professor at Harvard--who's not English; he's not "Sir"; he's just Francis James Child. And in the late nineteenth century, he did what late-nineteenth century scholars did, which was catalogue everything he could get his hands on.

And so he did this hu-u-ge, five- or six-volume categorization of every single ballad that he could find in print. He didn't go into the field. But he developed the defining classifications for all of the traditional story ballads. And so the number that he put them in his books is the number they're known by. "Thomas" is Child Ballad Number 7 or something. Anyway, it doesn't matter. So that's what the "Child Ballads" mean.

There are other places to find ballads. He didn't get them all. And he was a little bit prudish about what he would put in. But still when you refer to that giant opus of collected oral tradition, sung verse, those are called the "Child Ballads." OK?

Haldeman: Sounds good to me.

The Tradition of Storytelling

Henry Jenkins: You're both writers who have very deeply invested in preserving certain traditions of story-telling. Sara Zettel's science fiction includes a lot of reference to the continuity of traditional religions and cultures into the future and, clearly, Ellen's work is interested in making cultural traditions from the past available to the present.

And, so, I'm wondering what you think the continuing relevance of these folk and religious traditions are for contemporary society and what do you think the likely future of those stories are?

Sara Zettel: Well, these stories are still relevant because they still amuse us; they still entertain us; they still inform us. They still color our lives. I mean, here's a story that is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Nostra Deem, the wise fool, runs up to a neighbor of his: "Congratulate me, I am about to become a father." "Congratulations! Is it a boy or a girl?" "How did you know?" (LAUGHTER) That story is thousands of years old, and we still laugh at it.

And as long as it's funny, you're going to tell it to somebody else and tell it to somebody else, and tell it to somebody else. And it's going to stay with us; it's not going to go away.

Kushner: Do I have to answer? I don't know. (LAUGHTER)

Haldeman: Well, folk songs and folk tales have become marginalized, too, because there was a time when this was the way culture was transmitted from one generation to the next. And now things like traditional ballads have to compete with very loud and grab-you-by-the-throat kind of past-times.

Zettel: I would say it's not necessarily so much "other" but as additional. I think the realm expands, and, yes, there's more competition and, perhaps, we spend less time on one thing as we've got these multiple choices. But it's not that people still don't tell stories, the culture is not still transmitted orally anymore.

How many of you know the one about the lover's lane murderer? Hands up. How many of you have told that as a kid? Yeah, the guy with the hook. Right. Yeah, that one, see? How many of you know the one about the guy with the hook? How many of you sat around and did "akka backer, soda cracker" to pick somebody out to play a game at a kid? Or "eenie meenie minee moe"? Yeah.

How many girls here, hands up, how many of you know still know at least one jump-rope rhyme? Yeah. Or a hand-game? You know, "Miss Susie had a baby. . . ." Yeah, OK, all right. And these are things that are transmitted orally.

How many of you ever read those? I mean, they get written.

Kushner: Wait, before the age of 15 we're talking about.

Zettel: You hear different jump-rope rhymes in the inner city than you do in the 'burbs. You hear different ones passed down through the African-American community, through the Hispanic community, through the Caucasian communities. There is still an oral tradition out there. It may stop these days when you're 18, but it hasn't quite gone away yet.

Creating Your Own Art

Haldeman: I wondered, when I was 20 or 18, or 19 or 20, it seems most of my friends knew what Child Ballads were and knew a few of them, and most of my friends played guitar or harmonica or something like that. And when you had a party, people would sit around and sing. And now that's very uncommon.

Kushner: I have to agree, but I think that what happened when we were teenagers was that there was this big revival. And that was a media-induced revival. I just have to tell you, I did a show on riddles for " Sound of Spirit," that I had a great time with because I took all of these old ballads that are riddle songs. But I discovered that in order to get them onto my radio show, I needed to go back to the albums I had when I was a teenager that I got from my parents--old, scratchy LPs--because the specific songs that I wanted to use which were very text-based as opposed to instrumental-based, and sometimes were Child Ballads, are not being recorded now by very many people. Whereas they were all on these wonderful old LPs from the '60s.

It's not that it was a continuing tradition that we were the last gasp of; it was this revival. And there's still a huge traditional folk revival going on, but it's focused on different sounds than on the Child Ballads.

But I am very concerned about "Why we don't make our own art?" which includes singing and story-telling. And that's something that I feel technology has really robbed us of culturally, and that really upsets me. I think fan-writing, fan-fiction, to me, is the folk art that people still are holding on to.

I don't know why I'm so fascinated in pre-technological life, but I am, and I've really made a study of it. Until about 95 years ago, if you wanted a picture for your wall, you had to make it yourself. If you wanted to hear music, you had to make it yourself. If you wanted to know what a new piece of music sounded like, somebody had to bring it or mail it to you from the city and then you had to sit down at the piano and play it.

And this is all still pretty high-tech; this was like 19th century stuff. You had to be able to do it yourself, and that's no longer true. Now if you want to hear a piece of music, new or old, you can press a button and get the greatest musician on earth to play it for you in your living room. What an enormous difference. And, unfortunately, people now say, "Why should I play Mozart badly when Arthur Rubinstein can play it well?".

So the pleasure of sitting down and engaging with Mozart is pretty much lost to everybody. I mean, that's at the high-art end and then there's the sort of telling stories and singing songs kind of thing. And, god, I'm like a total home-made art fascist--I always make people at my parties sing whether they want to or not. There's just this physical pleasure and this social pleasure in making your own art. To me, it's a form of robbery to deny people the right to participate in their own culture. It's like what you were writing about in your book, TEXTUAL POACHERS, that you're taking away somebody's culture and sombody's life by denying them this thing that is their birthright.

Zettel: And you don't think that we're going to get back a form of that with computers' becoming more easy and more accessible and more linked together--with not us but the kids who are growing up with it now?

Kushner: Oh, yeah.

Zettel: . . . who are growing up with computer as art, with computer as communication tool?

Kushner: Yeah, I actually think that's great.

Haldeman: There seems to be more narrative going on than there was 10 or 15 years ago.

Kushner: And there's physical art, too, because people will play with MacPaint or whatever it is.

Zettel: Yeah, exactly. And the modeling programs that you can do.

Kushner: But that'll get taken over by perfectionism too.

Haldeman: In the Washington Post "Sunday Magazing" last week, they had a story about this guy who does paintings for people to hang on their walls, but he does like 30 at a time. He'll find 30 canvasses and he goes through with a rag and goes "beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep." He makes the same painting. He makes 30 copies of the same painting, and they're all hand-made, and he sells them for like $15, $20 a piece.

I mean, each one may be two minutes of work, and he takes them down to the mall, and he just covers the wall with all of these paintings, and people go, "Ah, somebody painted it." And they take it home--it looks like shit but, at least, somebody did. . . .

Zettel: He must be stopped. . . . (LAUGHTER)

Kushner: . . . it's a value that people still have. . . .

Haldeman: He says, "I'm not an artist; I'm doing decorations for people's walls,." But this is what they want. They can't afford a thousand-dollar painting, so here's something that at least somebody did.

Kushner: Well, look at something really functional, like a spoon. I can go to Woolworth's and get a really good spoon made out of plastic for $.99. Why, then, do I go to a crafts fair and get a hand-carved cherry spoon for nine bucks? People want that contact.

Zettel: Yeah, and because they do want that contact, again, it's got competition now. It's become one of a number of options.

I'm not a great fan of the gloom-and-doom of the electronic age. I believe it's opened up new vistas and, yeah, it's getting more and more crowded out there, but you will notice, if you look, nothing has quite gone away. We've still got blacksmiths; we've still got people who carve their own spoons.

Down River Michigan, which is where I grew up, every single community had an arts and crafts fair, and most of these people were doing it on the side--something to make their lives a little more colorful. Most of it was terrible; most of it was the gingham geese and the dried flower things, and the really bad pine furniture, but people do still do this. They do this because we have this drive. We are engineers. We have always been. Being able to make things is what kept us alive when the other chimpanzees kicked us out of the trees. We lost that fight. They were better in the trees than we were, so we got the Savannahs and we've been making things ever since because that's how we stay alive. We're always going to make something.

Haldeman: If you're a crafts person, you make the little beaver with a propeller on it--it keeps the moles out of your garden--and you go into the next booth where the lady does these big silhouettes of cowboys leaning against it, you've got to buy a silhouette. And she'll come over and buy a beaver from you. It's a whole subculture. . .

Kushner: There are high-end crafts fairs, too. There's a weaver wearing one perfect necklace and you go, "I traded this for it."

Haldeman: I have a question that goes back to something Ellen was saying and, maybe, you can actually answer it better than the three of us. Is there any other kind of roll-your-own fiction outside of science-fiction fantasy? Are there people who read romances who write their own stories?

Jenkins: Sure. I think any genre of fiction--some genres are harder to do than others. Writing your own mystery requires a lot more thought, I think, to try to piece it together, but I think amateur writing is alive and well. And the rise of the photocopy machine led to the Zine revolution, and there's a lot of writing your own stuff of all kinds out there.

Kushner: The other thing is you can write your own stuff and not publish it. I stole this from Delia Sherman, but it's really true, because if you work in publishing, which we both have, you get a lot of manuscripts, and 9/10ths of them--99/100ths of them--are not remotely publishable. But I remember back in the early days, they would be typed on beautiful typewriters, on really lovely paper. They would be physically beautiful objects that were literally unreadable. And somebody wrote a novel; it's never going to get published; and this is, again, where the perfection thing comes in. For us now, the fact that it didn't get published makes it completely worthless and invalid. But flip the page a little bit, and you see that this person made their art, just as those paintings on the wall. This is a watercolor that, maybe, the daughter of the house took two years' worth of lessons in order to make a really nice tree and an urn. And, by god, that's what you put on the wall because that's what there was, and Celia made it-- it's a grownup refrigerator art.

So, anyway, I respect the validity of just making it, whether it's ideal or not. Creating your own art is important and is going to continue to exist.

Zettel: A friend of mine and I wrote this little program on one of the first Apples that came out --I designed it and she wrote it--called "George." "George was a very serious program." "I am?" "George never smiles." "I don't?" And we showed George's face. It was this blocky thing with these two little eyes and a straight line for a mouth. "But now George is going to stand on his head." "I am?" "Stand on your head, George." "OK."

And it was the same face, upside down. And this was never going to go anywhere. No one's every going to see it but us. But we were so tickled when we got George to stand on his head. We spent days in the basement getting this thing just right. It was a blast.

Haldeman: I went crazy, I guess, 20 years ago, when they came out with a cartooning program for the Macintosh. And you could take an arm from Column A and a leg from Column B and make this guy and have him do pornographic things.

Kushner: New mediums are most frequently first used to transmit pornography. Some of the earliest stuff done on the printing press was little obscene stories--this is a true thing.

Information Infrastructures: Past, Present, Future

Jenkins: One of the things that struck me as interesting about the two pieces you read is that you're both describing in a sense information infrastructures. You're describing the ways in which stories in language or communication medium get embedded in the everyday lives of people and are used for a wide variety of purposes.

And I wondered if the two of you might address the similarities and differences between the different information structures that the two of you are telling us about--one past and one future.

Kushner: And one in an imagined past, too. I mean, I could have totally gotten it wrong. I don't think I did, but I could have. And really this is something that people don't always think of which is that all historical fiction is an act of pure imagination, bolstered by the same set of facts projected backwards that you could project forward.

Zettel: What I've been doing deliberately--I did it in Fools' War and I've been doing it, again, in Playing God, which will be out next November in hardback; you are all going to buy a copy, right? OK, good.

Kushner: If you save a dollar every month from now until then, you're golden.

Zettel: Yeah, you're golden. It's all set. But is the fact that we are getting closer and closer to where being hooked up to constant information is going to determine almost your social status in the world? It's certainly going to become more and more a part of your job, and for some people, it's going to become more and more of just part of their life.

Well, you want to be hooked in. You want to get this information. I became aware of this during the Gulf War on CNN. It was the first time, we were getting reports every 30 minutes and for a while there, I was watching every 30 minutes: "What's going on? What's going on? What's going on?" And it surprised me how slowly I realized that just because I could watch something every 30 minutes didn't mean there was something going on every 30 minutes. It was a real personal revelation for me in a weird sort of way, but we're going to get real soon now media becoming more invasive and things becoming more wired, and you're not going to have to carry your laptop around with you anymore. You're going to be able to sit down at the table and you're going to be able to punch a button, and it's going to be able to hook into your home computer and bring it all straight to you.

So it's going to be everywhere, whether we want it or not, unfortunately, and that's the part that scares me a little. But it's going to be a different kind, a broader spectrum. I mean information is everywhere in the medieval world, too, but it's of a different kind, and the reception of it is perhaps not as varied.

Haldeman: A lot of it then was predicated on knowing a language that the commoners didn't know. For access to the broad amount of information, you had to read Latin. You had to have access to the libraries that very few people could get into.

Kushner: Also, the other thing that was important then is that it didn't matter. You usually didn't give a fuck what was going on more than about five miles from your house, and it was very unlikely to have any effect on you whatsoever unless there was an invasion or something pretty major. It just didn't matter. You didn't need to know.

Zettel: But, then as now, your access to information helped define your in-group, whether it was Latin among the priests in the upper classes or the tinkers who had their own language or, at least, their very own dialect that was a Cajun. The gypsies spoke and still speak Romany, and being able to understand these defines you as an in-group. It may not be a very high-class in-group, but you can get information from the other people who speak this language that nobody from the outside could get.

And now it's the same thing on the Web. Are you hooked up? Or are you not hooked up? Because if you do have Web access, you can get access to information faster and more easily than someone who is not on-line, and it's defining our in-groups, once again, I think.

Kushner: I guess the point I was also trying to make was that, nowadays, what happens around the world does have a pretty strong effect on us, or, at least, we're conscious of it in a way that we weren't before. We are more connected to the bigger world.

Personal Communications on Digital Media

Jenkins: One of the things that interested me in both of your writings is this idea of fitting what's out there--the communications mythology out there--to intimate affairs. In the passage you read, Ellen, Thomas is using pre-existing folk ballads, in some cases--and some he's written--as language of courtship to express something personal and intimate within a larger mythology that's already out there.

Sarah, the husband and wife moments in Fools' War are very moving, speaking as someone who's at least had a year in a distant relationship. You help us to think about how what might seem a cold and impersonal technology connect people in their social relations, in their romantic relations, over time.

Zettel: Well, anything can be exchanged on a personal level, and a lot of it depends on who you're talking to at the other end. Are you talking to a stranger or are you talking to somebody you know really well? I do a lot of e-mail. I do a lot on bulletin boards, and I was having, not surprisingly, a long-distance relationship at the time. My now fiancee then lived in Virginia, and we were exchanging e-mail almost every day. And I got a lot of e-mail, but no one could make my heart leap like Tim's e-mail.

And it's not that he was especially eloquent or anything but I knew that was Tim on the other end of the line, and this was a little piece of Tim that I had right here. And I didn't find it cold or distant at all. I found it to be an amazing connection.

Speaker: Could you recognize the qualities of his voice in his e- mail?

Zettel: Yes. Yes. Interestingly enough, I don't always do that. If I've gotten e-mail from somebody, and then I meet them, I still have this separate little e-mail voice, even though I know who it is talking on the other end which is, by the way, really strange.

Kushner: No, because they are quite separate. I am amazed at how different people's on-line personalities are from their in person personalities; it's really interesting.

Haldeman: Well, you can't take your body off-line, edit it, and say, "Hi, I'm really much better looking on e-mail."(LAUGHTER)

Kushner: No, no, it's not a physical thing at all.

Zettel: Don't we wish you could.

Kushner: It's a personality thing. People have completely different personalities on the Net than they do in person often, not always--I, for example.

Speaker: People often have very different personalities on the Net than they do in person. You, yourself, as an author, have a very different personality as a narrator of the novel. And I think that might be a little bit what's happening when somebody is projecting a different personality on the Net.

Zettel: That they become the author of themselves.

Speaker: They're becoming a character.

Zettel: They're becoming a character. Yeah, I think so.

Yeast as Nanotechnology?

Zettel: I think every technology that we develop develops out of a human need. We find a new way to do old things. For example, the nanotechnology that I use in this story is really nothing more than very carefully controlled biochemistry.

We've been using nanotech for years. How many people here drink beer? How many people here eat cheese? I mean, this is all nanotech. We're using microscopic things to make something new. Bread is an extremely unnatural product. I don't care what you've heard about bread. Bread is the least natural thing on this planet. But we're using a microscopic organism to make something new.

Again, it's the need to build, the need to make, the need to grow, the need to communicate. We're just finding new ways, faster ways--possibly better, possibly not better, ways to do it. So that's the connection. It's an outgrowth of things we've always done, in my opinion. What's your opinion?

Kushner: I think it's a very interesting point. One of the defining facts of this earlier age was that nothing could be verified unless you were an eyewitness. Writing Thomas meant projecting myself into a world where that was true; it's inconceivable for us. But, getting back to Celia and her watercolors, you took the grand tour; you went to Europe; people said, "What did it look like?" You could either try and describe it or you could whip out your watercolor, period. That's it. No photographs. No postcards. You experienced it personally or you did your best to describe it through art, words or painting.

Haldeman: Some of us still do that. I keep books of watercolors of my travels.

Kushner: Yeah, why do you do that?

Haldeman: Well, you own a place when you paint it. If you take pictures of it, they're just pictures. You might as well be buying postcards and paste a little picture of your wife in there. "Hey, look at that." But when you sit in front of something for hours and paint it, it becomes yours, and it's yours forever. Nobody can take it away from you.

I had a thought about bread and nanotechnology, and, in essence, it's a way of trading information when you send a friend some sour dough starter or something.

Zettel: Yes.

Haldeman: Sending starter dough is like sending all these little machines.

Zettel: You've been doing the Amish friendship bread thing?

Haldeman: Yeah.

Zettel: Oh, that's such a pain.

Haldeman: Well, but this is not Amish. This is more kind of hippy-dippy. I got a mason jar with some medium in it, and it had magic mushrooms.

Zettel: I was going to say, I'm betting this part shouldn't be on tape.

Haldeman: These are some fans in Minneapolis. They said, "OK, now you grow these and send some spores after the mushrooms. So you need to shake them over filter paper and transfer it to some peat moss and send it on to the next person, and we will all have the same hallucinations." (LAUGHTER) And we're supposed to eat these damn things and see patterns in your projectile vomiting and bring you closer to god. This is not my idea of a great spiritual experience.

Zettel: I like this idea; if we send these along, you will all have the same hallucinations. That's a beautiful idea.

Kushner: I think it's called a video. I like the fact that we don't all have the same hallucinations. What happens when your book gets out there and people actually read it, and it turns out to a completely different object from what you made. I love that. Nobody is having the same hallucination I am, even when I read it to you.

Zettel: Well, there's always three stories. There's the one in your head--I mean, at least three. There's the one in your head; there's the one on paper; and there's the one the reader reads which means it goes from their being three stories, to their being 300 stories, 3,000 stories, if you're lucky.

Haldeman: Well, I wrote an essay once called "A Million Wars," the introduction to the board game of my novel, The Forever War. And it sold about a million copies, and I said, "There are a million different stories out there that have my characters walking around in them, and, for some reason, they have the same words, but they aren't the same story at all." Because we all bring our own richness of experience or paucity of experience to the works and make something up.

Zettel: No matter what, everybody is going to pick up something different from whatever it is, so no matter how electronicized it is, no matter how distant it is, you've got your own life experiences; you've got your own baggage, if you will, coming at you; and some people are going to look at the landscape and say, "Wow, that's beautiful. All those colors." Somebody else is going to look at it and go, "God, the impending storm is coming. Oh, no, all this bucolic beauty is going to be washed away in the flood." Somebody else is going to look at it and go, "Where did that person get that brush technique?"

So we're never all going to have the same hallucinations. I don't care how many mushrooms we eat.

Reading Aloud

Speaker: I think as a reader, if I pick up a book and read it, it's very different from if I go to listen to someone read. Just like you hear someone, when you read a letter from them, when you go and read a book after the first time you've heard them, if you've heard them read for the first time before you ever read one of their books, then things are very different.

The Porcelain Dove is a great example of this because I've heard Delia Sherman read from it n New York City when I was in high school. And every time I pick up the Porcelain Dove, I think of Delia reading it, and it's very nice. And it's very different from this kind of run-of-the-mill, pick-up a book, and read it yourself. I guess you lose some amount of creativity, but it's very nice.

Kushner: I think we all hear--I do, anyway--you hear your own voice reading it in your head as you're writing, unless you're someone who's really, really detached from the read-aloud sensuality aspects of it. But I think most of us aren't. So you hear your own voice, and there are just little twists, and I'll, like, desperately try to write it so that you'll read dialogue, which is a particular favorite of mine, the way I want the people to say it. And I'll say, well, he said, "Reilly," or I'll put the pause in a certain place. And there's going to be a little twist to the end of the word that you're not going to read yourself. There is a point to this.

Haldeman: There's also the linearity to it. When you're listening to somebody read, it's so much different from a book because in a book, you can stop and go back and say, "Boy, that doesn't make any sense."

Zettel: There's also interesting little tricks that you have to play when reading versus writing. This is actually a special, read-aloud version of this chapter because it's got an extra line in it--that bit where she's reading the letter with the English words in it? If you're reading that, you can track it because you've got your eyes on the page, and you can put the sentence together. I had to put the extra line in where she says all the words together to make out the English message because I realized if I was just reading this, no one was going to be able to hear the sense of the warning written in the message.

So it makes a difference as to whether you're writing something to be read or writing something to be spoken.

Haldeman: It's also possible to write things that can't be read aloud--Tristram Shandy for example. And things that you wouldn't want to read aloud.

Kushner: I'm sort of the last of the red-hot, read-aloud babes. Traditionally novels were read aloud. I mean, there was a long period of time when novels were going to get read aloud-- again, because they were expensive, and everybody couldn't have their own, and, anyway, you didn't have TVs. So you'd read them aloud after dinner or on a picnic or what have you, and the assumption was that your work would be read aloud.

And that's sort of gone now. I think the reason my stuff really reads aloud well is because the way I learned to write was in junior high school. I'd be writing these stories about all of us on a starship and nobody could read my handwriting but they all wanted to see what was going to happen because they were in it. So I'd read them aloud to all my friends, and that's how I learned to write and be read aloud.

Speaker: There are people whose fiction looks beautiful on the page, and it sounds good in your head. But I've heard them read aloud and I've tried to read their fiction aloud, and it's impossible. The beauty is visual; it's not oral; they don't have prose that can scan.

Speaker: I'm interested in this notion that novels used to be read aloud and now they're not read aloud. I think exactly the opposite is the case. I think there's a gigantic market out there for people listening to their books on tape. As a matter of fact, I do all my pleasure reading by listening. I don't have time to read for pleasure at all. So I read for business. And then when I want to enjoy myself, I go jogging, and I listen to a book on tape--I have one in my car.

When you do listen to books on tape for a while, what happens is, you develop an ear. And it must be the same ear that people had when these novels were being read in the nineteenth century because it does take a certain skill to be able to apprehend things in real time. Maybe it was lost for 100 year but I think technology is bringing back the skill of listening to the written word being read well.

Haldeman: Have you ever gotten a book on tape and found that you couldn't stand it and you had to turn it off? That happened to me with one. I'm driving along and I said, "I would much rather have silence." (LAUGHTER) This is a bad book. James Patrick Kelly: The other odd thing--when you hear your own voice when you're reading your stuff and then you have the opportunity to have one of your things re-produced by someone else, and have some stranger trampling around in your works? That's the kind of thing I find very hard to listen to.

Kushner: I tried to start a panel at a science fiction convention where people read aloud the author's work with the author in the room and then the author reacts. It can be real dicey. It can really bomb. But I love it because people used to come up to me and say, "Oh, oh, my husband and I read your books to each other every day," and stuff. And I said, "What does it sound like? I really want to know."

And the few times I've heard people read my stuff out loud just for fun, I hear things in it that I didn't know I put there. So it's pretty great; it can be pretty great. It can be pretty sucky.

There was a program in Boston for years called "Reading Aloud." And Thomas the Rhymer was one of the last things he did. Half way through the first page, he slipped into a broad Irish accent and never went out of it to the end of the book. I did not write this book in dialect, and it's not Irish. I haven't had the nerve to listen to the tapes. He did beautiful readings of it, but everybody was Irish. It was really weird.

Speaker: Sometimes, I come home, sit down and read. More often, I will read in 20-page chunks on the train which is the amount of time it takes to get between stops, then I pick up and change trains and then I've got to find my page again. And I find that this is a very different story being told when you're being told it in 20-page chunks as opposed to remembering what storytelling was like when a group of us would get together and read three chapters each. Do you actually aim for a book that you would write to be read out loud?

Kushner: To be read out loud? You're talking about a time issue. I tend to write in scenes. I tend to write very theatrically. So, for me, you're safe. I have lots of commercials. Look at the older novels, and look at the novels now, and compare the white spaces. I always think of those commercials.

Zettel: I actually think that there may be natural 20-minute breaks in mine because I get to write in 20-minute chunks. (LAUGHTER)

Kushner: And I have a 20-minute attention span. Don't laugh.

Sound Bytes and Gossip

Zettel: I think in terms of getting our information in the sound-byte thing, I think it may not be so much a new phenomenon as going back to a very old one. We're not getting news stories; we're getting gossip. When something happened in the local village, you said, "Oh, my god, George has been murdered in the pub." That's the first thing you hear.

Next thing you hear, a little later . . . .

Speaker: Doesn't anybody get up to go and look at George?

Zettel: Well, you can't; you're boiling your laundry here. You can't go look at George. But then somebody else comes by and you ask, "Oh, my god, was George murdered in the pub?" "Oh, no, no, no, he just was knocked on his head, and somebody pulled a knife. But it didn't come to nothing." You're boiling your laundry, and you get your information like that. It dribbles in and eventually the story, with more or less accuracy, gets assembled.

And with this instant--never mind "Film at ll:00"--with this 30-minute thing, 5-minutes now, we're getting back to a gossip stage. The story is getting assembled as it goes, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy.

Kushner: So I agree with you that books can be read in very different ways depending on how much time you have at a stretch. And being on an airplane with a novel is one of the great experiences of life. You know, six hours. You can read almost the whole thing at one swallow. It is a very different thing from reading it every night for 10-minutes before you clunk out.

The Writing Process

Haldeman: Well, I write orally. I say the words over and over until they sound right, and then I write them down.

We found this out once. We stayed in a friend's cabin in the Ozarks, and there was only one place I could put my typewriter, and it was right outside the bedroom door. And I always get up to work about 3:30, 3 o'clock in the morning. So I'm sitting there and because I was never virtually in the same room where Gay sleeps. She didn't know that I sit there and go (mutters). So I kept her awake all morning by mumbling.

Kushner: Is this a sentence at a time? How big a chunk is it before you write it down?

Haldeman: A line at a time. I'm still basically a poet. I've never changed that, and they do that a line at a time.

Zettel: That's really interesting because I design something much differently if I know it's being designed to be read aloud or being designed to be read on a page.

If it's going to be read aloud, my sentences are much shorter. I use far fewer adjectives and adverbs, whereas if it's going to be read, I can do these wonderful, long, run-on sentences, when the action is just going, "Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom," because nobody has to pause and take a breath. OK, I'm not doing paragraphs, long Patrick-O'Brien sentences here.

Haldeman: When Greg Benford read here a couple of months ago, I was sitting next to him and watching the manuscript as he read, and he edited it. He dropped whole sentences, and he paraphrased things and so forth. He just used the manuscript as a guide for a story that he wanted to tell, which is interesting.

Kushner: The fact is that writing and telling are very, very different. One reason that I could write Thomas the Rhymer very quickly was because everything was in first-person. Everything was somebody speaking out loud, which I love to do and I find very easy. Whereas when I'm writing my radio scripts, I used to just bang my head up against the wall because I'd be writing, "While Mozart in his youthful ability to write compositions was really quite extraordinary." I 'd just look at this on the screen and go, "What the hell are you saying?"

I'd say, "All right, what am I really trying to say?" And I would say it out loud. "I'm saying, 'Mozart wrote really well for a person of his age.'" "Good, 'Write that down.'" We get tangled up when we write, whereas some people are really articulate and beautiful writers and can't tell a joke to save their lives. Whereas I have friends who are amazing story-tellers. I mean, you would walk 10 miles to hear my friend, Caroline Stevemer, tell a story, and the beauty of her prose spoken off the top of her head isn't always there on her pages.

And it's just a matter of what your primary medium is. Is it speaking? Or is it writing? I mean, there's a lot more that could be said about this and there are a lot of variants that invalidate what I just said, but. . . .

Haldeman: You know Poul Anderson. He speaks with a broad accent--I guess Scandinavian--and he's got a stutter, and you're tearing your hair out listening to him because you say, "Please, get this over with." But if he tells a joke, it's just like a tape; it's perfectly performed, and everybody laughs. And then he says (stuttering) "Well, it's. . . But. . . Now, I. . . . Two kinds of brain going on.

Zettel: And yet he's one of the most eloquent writers.

Kushner: For every gain there's a loss; for every loss, there's a gain. The great story-tellers are now often good novelists, you know. The things that people are best at, depending on what century you're in, some of them there's going to be a demand for, and some there isn't.

Will Science Fiction Survive?

Speaker: Is there a danger that science fiction will lose its audience? I see fewer and fewer young children reading SF books anymore.

Zettel: I mean, there are, maybe, one in a thousand writers who are really going to outlive their own lifetimes. And one in ten of those thousand may be, possibly, will be known in a hundred years. It's the way it works, gang. We are not all of us Shakespeare and we not all of us are going to deserve to be. And, come to that, never mind Shakespeare, we're not all H.G. Wells.

Kushner: And people disappear and come back, too. Everything is fashion. My father said this, and he's right. Everything is fashion. Nobody wanted to listen to Bach in the l8th century. They didn't like it; it wasn't very good. Then Bill Mendelson brought it back, and it was good. And now everyone is listening to Bach, and probably in a hundred years, they'll think it's boring and they'll be listening to whoever. So, things cycle around. People get lost and re-discovered, too.

Jenkins: I think his question, though, has to do with what age people start reading science fiction. That is, if the whole readership of the genre gets older and older and doesn't replenish itself. . . .

Zettel: The best-selling children's series right now is called Anamorphs. It's solidly science fiction. It has got Goose Bumps beat out by a mile these days. I refuse to panic. I refuse to panic. Kids like stories about spaceships and about weird alien thingies. They did 20 years ago; they do now. And, God willing, and the creeks don't rise, they will in 20 years. They may get it off a screen; they may get it in an interactive electronic form, but as long as technology is a part of our lives, we are going to need and like stories about technology. Until the tech goes away, the science fiction is not going away.

Kushner: That doesn't help me any, and I'm worried. I'm really worried. But, you know, I try to be philosophical, I really do. And one of the interesting things about getting old is you have to watch the world change. And there's a moment when you could be crappy about it or you can go, "Oh, so this is what the people 5,000 years ago were talking about when they said that the world was coming to an end because nothing was the way it used to be."

They were right. They were literally right. I mean, people who a hundred years ago said, "Nobody's learning Greek or Latin anymore. They're not going to be educated." Don't laugh at them. They were right. But our definition of education has changed, and you gotta go with the flow or you can be crappy. It's your choice. But it's been happening since we left those chimpanzees; in fact, when we left those chimpanzees.

Haldeman: Or you go with the flow and be crabby.

Kushner: But then you just sound like everybody else.

Children and Oral Tradition

Speaker: I have a question that sort of relates to children and oral traditions and oral story-telling. Why do you think that oral traditions are maintained by children as opposed to adults?

Zettel: I think it's because children are still learning the rules. Children are learning how to communicate and how to communicate with each other. And also children are playing. We get told as adults that it's not OK to play, that it's not OK. Children have a greater range of stories available to them than we do, as adults, in this culture. We aren't allowed to tell each other fairy tales anymore by the greater mass of society. We aren't allowed to believe in ghost stories anymore.

Yeah, you can go to a movie and so on. But you can't tell the one about the guy with the hook anymore, you know. Because, one, it's not socially acceptable. And, two, of course, none of us believe the one about the guy. . . . Although didn't Wes Craven, like, make this movie? You know, we're not allowed to believe that anymore. But kids: One, they're learning to communicate; they're learning the rules and the lines between what is really true-- whatever that is--and what is a story, and they're still getting the fun of scaring and entertaining each other in that way.

And, plus, children have things they need to do that adults don't need to do in the same ways, like the one about picking people for a game. You know, that's a very set childhood ritual; and you know the rhymes and you know the way this works. As adults, we have different rituals.

Haldeman: It's also the way children can isolate themselves from the grown-ups who, otherwise, have all this power. We'd go down into a little sewer where the real sound was full of echoes and we would tell ghost stories to each other. And one reason we did it was that grown-ups wouldn't do it. They didn't know where we were. We were doing something slightly forbidden, but certainly not adult, because all the time the adults were trying to make you act like little adults.

Kushner: But also you had more time, at least we did then. You didn't have to be productive all the time, and back in the older days, you couldn't be productive all the time because light was too expensive, blah, blah. There were spaces for this stuff to happen in, and there are for children still.

The Young Trollopes

Jenkins: Let's shift gears a little bit. You were telling us at dinner that you have a new literary movement that you're trying to create. I thought the audience might be interested in hearing about it.

Kushner: There are a couple of ways I can run at this, but I'll run at it the funny way. The young Trollopes, with an "e,"-- watch the attitude shift. Who, here, is familiar with the work of Anthony Trollope in any way, shape or form? A little bit. Little bit.

Nineteenth century novelist. Really small print. Page after page after page in which what basically happens is, people run around, talk to each other, get married, don't get married, argue, get elected to Parliament, don't get elected to Parliament. It's sort of an alternate-reality England because there are dukes and duchesses in Parliament, but they all have names that didn't really exist.

And Delia was reading one of these books, and she came back and said, "Hey, look at this. Basically, these great novels that are definitely world-class literature don't have a lot of plot; they're just about all these people doing stuff; and not only that, but Trollope doesn't even worry about literary stuff like foreshadowing and making sure he gets the information in in a clever way. If he wants you to know something, he just kind of stops the action and tells you: "Rothwell went up to his aunt's door. His aunt, by the way, was the widow of a wealthy merchant". I twist myself into pretzel knots trying to make sure that I can get that information about the aunt in in a really good way, in some dialogue two chapters earlier, so you have it when you need it.

But the fact is, nobody minds because it's great fun. And, really, all it is in book after book after book is the same bunch of people. It's like your friends. And what he does that's so wonderful is the main characters of one book will be the, sort of, side characters in another book, so you're always just getting more and more yummy stuff about the same group of people.

And get real. I mean, that's what Star Trek is all about. Or Battle Five, or the Patrick O'Brien books. It's the characters. I think there has never been an entirely successful television show which has not been based entirely on the characters. I mean, that's what we all want--I don't know, am I just being a girl? The Kirk and Spock and Bones, it was watching them riff off each other that was fun. The plots weren't always that good, but it was watching these characters riff off each other.

So, anyway, there's been such a tendency in 20th century literature to go beyond the characters and the fact that it's all these people you really want to know about into being horribly, horribly clever about structure. I'm not talking about plot versus character. I'm talking about 20th century novels that are great art. Well, Trollope is still allowed to be in the great art canon because he wasn't a 20th century novelist, so he didn't have to make it be lean and spare and hard.

So, anyway, we think that everyone should be a young trollope now and that we're going to lead this movement and really say, "Listen. Let's face it. When you read a book, you want to know about the people and what happens to them."

I know there are many people for whom this is not what a book is about. But we feel that we have been suppressed for far too long and our time has come. How are we going to do this practically? Well, I, for one, volunteer to take my opus and turn it into one long Trollopian novel about the same cast of characters whom I'm really into, but for a long time I didn't want to write about them over and over because that might make me look like one of those peoples who write sequels, which is kind of trashy, but I'm literary? (LAUGHTER) But, see, this way, I can be literary I guess the point I'm trying to make is really, honestly, is not this is the only way to write books. It's not the only way to write books, but it's a way to write books, and let's do it, and let's have fun, and let's enjoy it.

Michael Berstein: They always complain when a science fiction writer stops the action to explain a scientific principle you need to know; but no one ever complains when the soprano stops the action to sing for hours. It's not fair.

Kushner: Well, aesthetically, it's fair.

Zettel: Well, it depends on what's your aesthetic and who's your audience. I write for a magazine called Analog, and Analog specializes in really hard, granite-cracking science fiction, and I write Analog stories like this: Plot. Plot. Science Break. Plot. Plot. Science Break. And I sell them because that's the aesthetic for that audience.

Kushner: Let me answer your question, now that I've had time to vamp. Yes, to be in the vanguard of the young Trollope movement, you probably have to be pretty dedicated to just making the characters happen. But we hope that our influence will spread throughout the world. And if you really feel a Trollope feeling rising in you that you should feel that you are joining a cool, fabulous movement. (LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE)

Zettel: I feel it, sister! I feel it! (screaming in mock ecstasy)

Kushner: And bring them to Analog, because people like it. I don't think anyone would complain if your Analog stories suddenly started having really sexy characters, too. Do you think?

Zettel: Well, no, I don't think so. Actually, I hope. . . .

Kushner: In fact, they probably do.

Zettel: Well, I hope they do. Fools' War started out as an Analog story.

Kushner: Cool.

Haldeman: Does it have a trollop(e) in it?

Zettel: Well, it's got several tropes.

Jenkins: Is there a gender dimension to your idea of the young trollopes?

Kushner: You know, the thing that saves it is that Anthony Trollope was a male, and the disgusting thing is, that gives it legitimacy. It does. Like, boy things are cool; girl things are girl things. I know we don't really believe that but, in fact, it's an interesting thing. First of all, it means you can't say, "Oh, this is just some girl thing." And there were plenty of women who wrote like Trollope, too, and they're not famous.

Haldeman: Jane Austen is sort of post-Trollope Trollobite.

Kushner: A Trollobite? And you're the expert, Henry Jenkins, on whether it's true or not. We were talking at dinner about all the little studies that have been done on the primacy of plot and directed action for male readers and of character interaction for female readers. But, you know, it's a big world, and there's plenty of people who cross those lines.

Zettel: And also when you talk about genre-fiction, genre- fiction has gotten much more sophisticated in recent years. You read stuff from back in the '30s; you read something like Cold Equations, say, which is the mother of all hard SF stories. I finally read that story in just the past year.

For those of you who don't know Cold Equations, it is about a guy in a stripped-down space ship, he's barely got enough fuel to make the trip; everything is calculated out to the last vapor to deliver medicine to a crew of minors who are on this planet and who are all going to die if he doesn't get there. He discovers that a little girl has stowed away on the ship. And this guy has thrown out stow-aways before, but they've all been grown men. But here's this little girl, and she's making the ship too heavy. And there's nothing he can do about it, and he pitches her out the air lock; actually, she walks out the air lock.

And the point of the story was, sometimes the dragon wins; you cannot change the laws of physics. And it was great news, tremendous; and it's still, if you don't know what's coming, a shocker. But the characters and the writing, "Oh, my god." I mean, this thing clunks. And the little girl--we've got Bambi. Huge, huge eyes. Blink. Blink. Blink. "Oh, gee, I guess I have to walk out the air lock. Gosh, that's a bummer." And this would not even an Analog on its worst day now sell.

But the genre has gotten more sophisticated in matters of character, as it has frequently in matters of science, and what is allowable and what isn't allowable, both in social terms and in scientific terms. So that was really much longer than I intended.

Kushner: I have another thing to say about the young Trollopes. It helps me as a writer because it helps with the internal censor which every writer has, and they come in all shapes, colors and sizes. I'll be writing a scene that I'm really loving, with characters that are great and dialogue that's really funny and think: "Oh, dear, well, does this advance the plot? Or does this really belong here?" And then I'll think, "You know, it's fun to read." Young Trollope says it's OK.

Haldeman: Well, I've been called an Analog writer, and I basically write character stories; the plot's generated by the characters anyhow. After a while, something final happens, and you have to stop typing. (LAUGHTER)

Kushner: I think that the other thing about the young Trollope thing is we're trying to connect it into another thing which we're calling "interstitial art," a term we stole from a great Boston area musician, a Warren Senders, who has a group called "Anti-Gravity." He's like one of the few Massachusetts white boys to be a really good music performer of Indian traditional classical music, and he's also a jazz man.

He went to India and he got Indian musicians to play jazz, classically trained ones; so it's this bizarre fusion of these two traditions to create something that's new.

And there are so many places in the arts where two fairly pure forms are coming together and making something new, and nobody knows what to do with it, what to call it, and how do they know if they're going to like it. Another person I can think of is June Tabor, the singer; she's not a folk singer, but she's not an arts singer; she's not a jazz singer. What is she? It's this gorgeous stuff. So we're also trying to find a place for ourselves in there where we're casting an awful lot of the traditions of the genre and using a lot of 20th century novel techniques, and definitely it's work of the 20th century. And it's not an attempt, it's not a William Morris sort of thing to copy something that's old and re- create something that's old. Very much not.

And yet we're using--I never know if I'm using this word right--the tropes, the trappings, let me say, of fantasy or science fiction or historical fiction. What is that stuff? It's kind of interstitial. I mean, god, anybody who writes a decent story has decent characters in it. One hopes that goes without saying. So we're still kind of roughing out how to describe what we mean by all this.

Speaker: Is this "we" you and Delia, or is it a bigger "we"?

Kushner: Yeah, it's a slightly bigger "we." We just haven't got off our butts and put the web-page up yet.

Delia Sherman: Terry Widling has got a new web-page that should just have gone up, and this is going to be the venue where we hammer out some of the theoretical and philosophical problems and try to agree. But we're going to try to get a lot of people to play with us and to get a web-page together, so that it will be constantly being updated by the number of artists who are on it-- not just writers but visual artists as well.

James Patrick Kelly: What do you see as your future relationships with the pre-Joycian fellowship? (LAUGHTER)

Sherman: Tangential.

Kelly: I kind of like this "hey-let's-all-get- together-and-make-a-web-page-thing," since that's kind of the way you do it. So it's very late 20th-century because you have a theory but no substance. Is that correct? (LAUGHTER) But I mean, you've come up with a school that works are then going to appear in as members of. So it's more a marketing category than . . . . We're here to help you.

Kushner: But it helps me to put a box around what I'm doing; it's like a safe zone. It's like a safe zone; it's OK to be doing what you're doing which is not like anything else that anybody else is doing.

Alex Zablokov: Ellen, do you know how Trollope wrote?

Kushner: Yeah, horseback. Alex Zablokov: Well, he was a lawyer, but he wrote, what?, a page every 15 minutes before going to work, like 8 pages he had to watch; got 8 pages done and went to work. Do you do that?

Zettel: There's absolutely nothing wrong with being a hack. There's a page in the Paris Bibliotheque that is Alexander Dumas, and it's the last page of the Three Musketeers. And same page, he writes "The End," same page, and it says, The Count of Monte Crisco. Crisco. (LAUGHTER) It's past somebody's. . . . Somebody hasn't had quite enough coffee, tonight. It's The Count of Monte Cristo, An Adventure by Alexander Dumas, and they analyzed this page. He didn't even put the pen down. This is my ideal. I want to be like this. I want to go, "Well, well, that's done." Flip. "Next."

Kushner: And, also, Alex, the fact that it's not like "Hey, let's think of a theory, and then write like that." It's, "We want to write like this. Let's have a theory to validate it so we can just really kick out all this stuff."

Yeah, I'd like to write a page every 15 minutes, and, maybe, if I were a true Trollope, I could.

Zettel: It's something you have to aspire to. It's a goal. It's a Zen-thing.

Kushner: I feel like I have been oppressed by post- modernism, and I want to kick over the traces.

Berstein: Weren't you supporting something you were calling the Manner Punk movement a while ago?

Kushner: I already did that. No the fantasy of manners is kind of what I write. It's very social-based; it's very much about how people work within a society that has a lot of rules. That's what that was, and I probably am always going to do that because that really fascinates me. But that's a topic.

Someone else proposed that as a school. I'm not responsible for the criticism of others.

RealAudio and the Future of Radio

Jenkins: Ellen, let's spend a few moments talking about radio. What do you think the impact of RealAudio is going to be on the future of the medium you're working in? Any thoughts?

Kushner: Yeah, actually. It's interesting that Sara said that there were still blacksmiths and roof thatchers and people carving wooden spoons, and it's true, but the place it has in society and in people's lives has shifted so radically.

Zettel: No question. No question.

Kushner: So when I describe the great public radio people who produce, like, radio theater--I mean, it still exists, and the technology is wonderful--and there is absolutely no market for that level of production. So that the people I know who can do it, it's like they're great roof thatchers. It's an incredible luxury and an antiquated thing. And it's a pity, but that's not what you're asking, I know. I don't want to get too far into this because it's kind of obscure, but I know real horror stories of people who can't really do it and can't get the money to do it because they can't be paid enough, for one thing.

But, anyway, real audio and radio. Everybody in my industry is really interested with what's going to happen and sees very dramatic stuff as happening. One of the things I'm looking forward to is having stuff archived and accessible to people. I mean, the shows that I do, Sound and Spirit,--thank you for asking--are incredibly labor-intensive and production-intensive.

I'm not sitting down with an album, occasionally starting the music while I talk off the top of my head. It's produced the way a video is produced. There are something like 150 sound cues in every one of those shows, and it takes a total of about, maybe, more than a hundred person hours for me and a staff of four to get an hour of that show on the air every Sunday.

And it breaks my heart that it's going to be gone the minute they stop airing it. That's it. All that work and all that art, which is really what it is--radio art. So I'm hoping that. . . .

Haldeman: What is real audio?

Kushner: Sorry. You know, I'm not really the person to describe it, can you?

Jenkins: Well, I can't give a very technical explanation, but it's a sound system that's distributed via the Web, so you can click on and listen to. And increasingly radio stations are using it. I have a student who was listening to a Bosnian radio station to maintain contact with what's happening back home. It's a station he used to work with and he listens to it almost every day to get the news and music from his mother country.

So no longer is radio tied to a local audience or a local community, it becomes national or international in its listeningship. It seems very important for kinds of music that attract narrow-based but broadly-distributed audiences. You wouldn't have a Zydeco station any place other than New Orleans, but you might have a Zydeco real audio station where people all over the world would listen to Zydeco or polka or various forms of music that simply wouldn't be supportable otherwise.

Kushner: But, you know, people have been able to listen on shortwave radio to stuff from around the world for a long time. You have to have the shortwave radio. By the same token, to get real audio on your computer, you have to be able to afford it and have the memory. Yes, I think that's coming and I think that's going to make a big difference.

Just guessing. I don't think it's going to dramatically alter the way that people use radio now because it's like a car thing. One of the reasons there's less and less classical music on radio of any length or seriousness is that most people listen to radio in the car. And, you know, you don't listen to your Mahler. And it's, again, what you were saying about the 20-minute thing: The assumption is that people are listening from 7 to 14 minutes, I think it is, that you can assume that that's a long time for somebody to be listening to your work, which really makes "Sound and Spirit" kind of an anomaly because it's an hour long. And we discovered that our average TSL--or time spent listening--is 45 minutes out of a 59 minute show.

So people do listen to it the way they used to listen to long- form radio, which is great because when we started it, we got a whole lecture on how they wouldn't listen that way, so we had to cut it up into 14-minute chunks. But, you know, we've kind of gotten around that.

The public radio world and the classical music world are in a lot of ways like the publishing world. I hear the same sob stories. All you have to do is change the word from "book" to "album," and you get the same, you know, "The barbarians are coming; the world is coming to an end."

Things are definitely changing; there's no question. I'm waiting for the sky here.

Final Thoughts: Why We Write

Jenkins: Maybe, I should ask you each to offer whatever closing thoughts you have for our audience.

Kushner: I have a sort of question that's been bubbling in my mind, which is: Why do I want to write about and re-create the past? And I suppose we could say: Why do you want to do the future? And I don't know why it seems so important to me.

We live in a society that is so well-to-do that you can spend your life becoming an expert on Etruscan pottery, and you know you will not starve, presumably, or the society will not fail to feed its young because you know more about Etruscan pottery than you do about making bread.

First of all, I have the luxury of being able to spend time doing it, and it really interests me. And I'm not sure why, but I think it's for the same reason--and this really is part of my show- -that I want to know about other cultures anywhere. I think if you just don't think of past and future so much as you just think of endless cross-sections of different ways that human beings live their lives because Sound and Spirit is partly about the past and old traditions. And it's partly about traditions and ways of living that are quite different in other countries right now, usually filtered through their music.

I just feel that the more we know and understand what human beings do and how they do it, and how people encounter the big questions of life--and not so big issues??--that we'll have this knowledge pool that we can draw.

And the past has particular resonance for me. I mean I'm writing about a world very different from my own background. I'm a Jew; I'm not racially connected to the British Isles or even to Western Europe, but I think it's immensely racist to say that one needs to be. The culture that I live in--the American-Anglo culture--is a culture that has its roots in the British Isles in this case, since I'm American and I speak English, and so the past of that culture very much influences the present that I currently live in. And there's a real deliciousness to following the lines back to seeing where we came from. This seems terribly important and terribly interesting to me.

I don't think for a moment that because I write that way or I'm really interested in it that it's a better way to be than what we are right now, and I do want to set out, for the record, since I've been doing a lot of "Gee, we've lost all this great stuff." We have--that's the way the world is--but I think it's really interesting and valid on its own. I think that with novelty and new technology and new ways of doing things comes a tendency to sneer at the old stuff--the Western idea of this perfect arcing line that's always going forward, forward, forward; progress-- things are always getting better. You know, you don't necessarily want to lose what there was in the past, even if it's only to give it a little bow as you go by it.

I hope that made sense.

Zettel: No, it did. The first reason to write and to read for me is entertainment. This stuff is cool. I've always found this stuff cool. I learned to read out of The Wizard of Oz. After you do that, there is no turning back. The twig is bent; that's the way the tree is growing.

But also it allows us--especially when writing about technology, the effects of technology, the effects of the lack of technology--it allows us to look at ourselves because our culture is, in part, defined by the artifacts of that culture. And if you take those artifacts and change them for another, it's not plug-and-play. It does create a different situation, and what science fiction, what fantasy allows us to do is to look at humanity in those different situations, and we can examine ourselves, and examine some of the questions we have about ourselves.

Ellen does it in the past, and I do it in the future, but we're doing the same thing--we're writing to entertain; we're writing to look at humanity and humanity's surroundings, and the good, the bad, and the indifferent, what do they mean, and how do they affect us. And there is a freedom in science fiction and fantasy to do that, to take the pieces and re-arrange them in the puzzle and see what the picture comes out to be in these new combinations.

And, as I said in the beginning, "Wow, that's cool."

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