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The L:In terms of the past being more spatial than linear, Noir possesses a deceivingly complex structure in which past and present alternate so that the past tense is evoked in just as immediate a manner as the present tense. When writing, how do you translate the spatial past into the linear narrative form of the novel so it retains a multilayered or almost superimposed effect?RC: Thanks for the thoughtful read here, but not sure "translation" is part of it. Our daily lives and our memories—including of the minutes just passed—simply coexist, and for all the spatial nature of memory, the accessing of it is also experienced usually as linear. But your question is at least partly about abruptly shifting verb tenses, and I was admittedly having some labyrinthine fun here with perceived time.
The L: 18 years ago you wrote an essay about the possibilities of hypertext fiction, "The End of Books." What do you see now as the future of fiction writing and how have technological developments played a role in shaping it?
RC: Though for the foreseeable future the novel, like other books, will continue to exist, whether read off paper or a screen or a passing cloud, narrative art in the age of programmable media will certainly look different. We are witnessing a revolution in human communication, we all know that by now, and, insofar as all new technologies tend to absorb the old, print, we can see, is easily taken into the hypertextual and hypermedia digital world, but the reverse can't happen. Consequently, the traditional print novel is becoming a mere subset of the larger category of digital literary art. It will take a generation or two to discover what shape that art will take; we are still in the setting-forth stage with constantly evolving technologies and protocols. But we can already see, with the convergence of media, genres, and disciplines, fundamental changes in the forms of storytelling. Some time ago, I was asked by the editors of the eventually forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel to supply the final chapter, which—"A History of the Future of Narrative"—is focused on this question. Your readers can find an edited portion of it online.
The L: You've spent your career breaking up conventional structures and narratives, and with your last book of short stories, A Child Again, you even used a new medium to do so by offering a story told on a set of playing cards. Do you see yourself publishing—if that's the word—the sort of hypertext fiction of which you've been such a proponent?
It's possible, I've played around with a few little finger exercises over the years—in fact that story you mention began as one—but it is a hugely demanding medium technically, especially for one not born into it, and there may not be time to master it. And I still have a number of unfinished print projects to get through, or at least at the moment they look like print projects. But my hypertextual play predates by a few decades the advent of digital hypertext. Back in the 1960s I was developing fictions on edgenotch cards—letter-envelope sized cards with holes around the edges with a wedge-shaped punch and steel needles as tools. I developed punch codes for each side, one side binary, others two- or three-punch, some specific for writing projects, others (with a punchcode thesaurus) for general note-taking. The idea was that you could toss the cards into a pile, shuffle them, stack them, run the needles through the coded punched holes of the desired term, shake the deck under the needles, and what fell out were the next pieces of your story.
The L:: A short story titled "White Bread Jesus" appeared in Harper's a little over a year ago as the first published excerpt of a sequel to your first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. Why have you decided to return to that novel's setting, characters, and situations? Does the return of eschatological Christian fanaticism and fundamentalism onto the American scene have anything to do with it?
RC: In a word, yes. Even before completing Origin I had in mind a sequel, began outlining it, taking notes. I carried it around with me over the intervening decades, working on it from time to time in a desultory fashion, but inevitably finding myself drawn away to more innovative work, more immediately pressing themes. But then, as the millennium turned, with the election of young Bush and the rise of the fundamentalists, I decided I had no choice, it was time to get back to it in earnest. I have been engaged with it pretty strenuously ever since, obsessively so since the completion of Noir. It's something of a monster and, as it happens, Bush has come and gone in the course of finishing it, but those forces who brought him to power at such dreadful national and international cost have not retreated to their caves, so it still has relevance.