An interview with author Colin Dodds about one of his recent novels
Jim Blackburn — I found the beginning of WATERSHED to be inventive and at the same time it manages to introduce all the main characters in a way most novels do not. It is sort of what I think of as an erotic and entertaining similar start to a James Bond opening, which is not easy to do. What was your inspiration for this and/or how did the idea come to you?
Colin Dodds — I was thinking about the post-coital moment. For men, it’s a relief from the constant heavy weather of desire, and a chance to think clearly for a few moments. That often comes with a desire for solitude in which to do that thinking. And I tried to imagine how that impulse for sudden, absolute repose might be fulfilled from a logistical standpoint. The contraption I came up with, where the book begins, was absurd, but not impossible. But the two people in the contraption — Hurley and Raquel — would have to be two very particular individuals. And so, I started to reverse engineer what their stories might be, what situations and desires would inspire and allow Hurley to build it and have the resources to recruit Raquel to join him, as well as what immediate circumstances, and more distant events throughout her life would lead her there. The man she meets on the ground below is Norwood, a man alone in a truck, on his own trajectory.
The character of Norwood is part of a futuristic sort of Ludite community. What is your interest in these sort of anti-tech communities and do you think they will grow in a more technology driven future?
The reason is that there’s a very anti-human undercurrent to new technology and its cheerleaders. Imagine it’s 1990 and someone says they have an invention that will let you deliver notes and letters to your friends almost instantly. Sounds great, right? But then they say it will also put three quarters of professional musicians and half of professional journalists out of work. What then?
I mean, the convenience is great. But at a certain point, so what? Is that what’s sweet in life — convenience? What about waking up in a world that’s a desert? No record stores, fewer bookstores, the former serendipity of your experience now relegated to a half-dozen dominant marketing algorithms, the cities unaffordable, the towns wastelands of empty strip malls. What about the public spaces being full of people staring into small screens, entertained into a stupor half their waking hours? And above it all some cabal of vindictive nerds scheming to automate you out of the meager living you manage to make for yourself.
It starts with convenience. But soon, it becomes apparent that we’re the inconvenience. We’re just the inefficient component that was once attached to earlier models of the iPhone.
This is something we sense — a very bad, seemingly inevitable thing taking shape. It has changed how we treat each other and ourselves. And you see the terrible dread of it in the rich kids who could do almost anything but they choose to become old-timey bartenders, whole-animal butchers or carpenters. But that’s more an agglomeration of personal choices based on a shared inchoate dread.
The difference in WATERSHED is that dread and the destructiveness of our society’s headlong plunge into “our digital future” has combined to form a clear ideology. The result, the Ludlite neighborhoods, are something like the Hasidic areas in Brooklyn or the Amish in Pennsylvania. They’re people who look at the wave of progress and say, “here and no further.” But for the Ludlites, that stopping point is closer to 1990.
I’d definitely like to see these communities crop up. I heard about a bar in the UK where the owner built the equivalent of a Faraday cage to block the cell signals. I heard people there talk to each other. Maybe it starts like that — one bar at a time.
Yes, I agree in that it seems every step “forward” in technology seems to come at an equal price to humanity in how people live their lives in an almost a karmic sense of give and take. I wanted to get your opinion on something not particularly connected to the novel, which is the debate surrounding basic universal income as a solution to unemployment that will be caused by automation. And also, the ethics of biometrics. As an author who contemplates the future and the role technology might play in it, I wanted to get your opinion on these recent ideas?
I like the point you make of a sacrifice involved in every new technology. If you’ve ever driven with someone who has the GPS lady telling them where to go, it’s hard to escape the impression that this person has willingly throwing away one of their human faculties. This isn’t a new anxiety — Plato warned his friends that they were losing their memories to a popular technology of the day — the written word. And as we pick up new technologies with each year, that sense of what we’ve lost seems to deepen.
And I guess my opinion of biometric kind of technology depends on how voluntary it is. There’s the real rub. The most fantastic element of WATERSHED, from what people tell me, is that a group of intelligent, young people would realize that mobile devices and even the internet are not compulsory companions to their every waking moment. But these things are still optional, and that realization is completely obvious, if you want to make it.
People like Elon Musk love to say that the kind of stuff they like and want is inevitable. But none of it is. It all requires the repeated, consistent consent of many, many people. And people tend to be refractory and inconsistent. That, along with the congenital incompetence of those who would rule, are among my fondest hopes.
The second one, universal income, has its champions. Some say we can afford it. Some say it’s the only humane way. Some say that the real economic value of an individual in today’s world is not as a worker, but as a consumer. And I guess ancient Rome paid for bread and circuses for the citizens who lived in the city. But they had slaves to bake the bread clean up after the circuses. And the citizens were known to make the lives of the ruler’s hell if they weren’t kept occupied.
The thing is, though, that work sucks.
The “do what you love and the money will come” clowns have never stared down a one-year-to-life sentence of mopping floors or entering data. And I’ve heard people say they love going to work every day, but only ever on stage or to a camera. No one I have ever met otherwise has said that.
And even if we had robots enough to bake the bread and clean up after the circuses, who’s going to fix the robots? How do we compensate, and/or coerce them? How do you keep the cleverer income recipients from ripping off the others? How much control do people have over how they spend that income? These are questions that would violently reshape society, and I don’t see any of the champions of the idea having the will to make much of it.
There are two characters that really interested me in WATERSHED: The Geometress and Petronius. They are mostly in the background but seem to be central in shaping the events surrounding the main characters.
The Geometress in many ways made me think of Pythagoras, not only because of the mathematical aspect, but also that Pythagoreanism was a way of life different than the ancient Greek mainstream as the Ludites in WATERSHED. Petronius I did not recognize till this passage: “The thing in Hurley had loved its life under that bad Caesar, loved the shape of it, the glib betrayals, the ways it devoured the best and elevated the worst.”
But is the Roman writer Petronius that lived during Nero’s reign the same, as a sort of parasitic creature, which has lived within other people down through time to the character of Hurley?
Hurley and Petronius both played a bigger role in WATERSHED’s precursor, a book called WINDFALL. That fleshes out Petronius — a possessing spirit that’s a few thousand years old, who may be the writer of the “Satyricon,” or just someone like him. Regardless, his situation is a cruel irony — spiritual bankruptcy in a mostly disembodied spirit. It drives him and, by extension, Hurley to all kinds of wild mischief, from starting wars to throwing women out of planes. He’s a pure consumer, who can’t appreciate a feast except for the levels of waste involved.
The Geometress has that intense Pythagorean drive for purity, and she acts as a spiritual center for the Ludlites. And through her, we start to see how such an impulse might sound in the book’s version of the future, as well as how it might begin to go quite wrong.
They’re very different characters, but both take a powerful interest in Raquel’s unborn child. They drive much of the action, and the meditation on parenting that frames the tension of the book. Hurley/Petronius sees the potential for escaping his condition in the baby, whereas the Geometress sees the fulfillment of her utopian designs. And each presents very different but equally grave dangers for child and for the kid’s parents.
Would you recommend any other of your works for the backstory on WATERSHED?
I would. WINDFALL is the book’s predecessor, and it’s got a few of the characters that show up in WATERSHED. But it’s a separate, different book, about alternative energy, demonic possession and a plot to engineer a second American Civil War. It’s a wild ride. You can find it or order it wherever you buy books.
And lastly, do you have any plans for your next project?
The timeline of these things is long. WATERSHED was pretty much finished by April 2015, and bounced among the desks of sundry agents and editors for a while, before coming out in May 2017.
In that time, I finished a shorter, first-person novel about a ruthless careerist in the communications department of the Tower of Babel. You can see some of it here and here. As for the rest, well, we’ll see. Now I’m hacking through the first draft of a long, ambitious novel.
Colin Dodds is a writer from Massachusetts. His novels include WATERSHED and The Last Bad Job, which the late Norman Mailer praised as showing “something that very few writers have; a species of inner talent that owes very little to other people.” His work, appearing in more than three hundred publications, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. The poet and songwriter David Berman (Silver Jews, Actual Air) said of Dodds’ poetry: “These are very good poems. For moments I could even feel the old feelings when I read them.” His book-length poem That Happy Captive was named a finalist in both the Trio House Press Louise Bogan Award and the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, and his screenplay, Refreshment, was named a semi-finalist in the American Zoetrope Contest. Colin lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. You can find more of his work at thecolindodds.com.