William Gibson interview: Boing Boing exclusive

William Gibson's most recent novel, Zero History, was recently published (Cory called it an "exciting adventure that wakes you to the present-day’s futurism").

I asked William a few questions by email. Here are his answers:

The paperback edition of your newest novel, Zero History, is out. Now that Kindle sales top both hardbound and paperback book sales on Amazon, it doesn't seem as important to have a paperback release. Or does it?
I think I bought a total of maybe four new hardcover novels, as an undergraduate, so I still think of the hardcover as a sort of word-of-mouth trailer for the mass market paperback. And I still see people expressing impatience, on Twitter, that a given title isn't out in paperback. Maybe Kindle et al aren't quite that evenly distributed yet.

What things are keeping your interest lately?

The sheer surreality of the Republican presidential primary, Libya, Iain Sinclair's monolithic ongoing anti-Olympics project (Hackney, That Rose Red Empire and now Ghost Milk), the "gray man" concept in personal security, the culture of personal aerial drones, parts of the United States as newly undeveloped sub-nations and the foreign outsourcing thereof...

How have your interests changed? By that, I mean, what used to interest you but now doesn't? And vice versa?

I don't really lose interest in things I've been very interested in, but there's limited room on the working face. 

Do you have a "daily carry?" If so, what are the things in it?

A very thin, almost weightless wallet, made of a material called Kuben (which is sort of like Dyneema but less fancy-looking) deployed in front pocket. (I had a walletectomy for a back issue; back-pocket carry is murder on the back, plus much less secure.) A steel-cable Muji keyring with keys and a SwissTech Utili-Key 6-in-1 tool (which looks like a key). A Montblanc roller-pen from before they become a luxury brand (I found one on eBay after reading Hiroshi Fujiwara's fascinating book Personal Effects).

What do you think of the DIY/Maker movement, with individuals now about to make 3D printed objects at home, and sharing 3D models for all sorts of things online?

My grandfather owned a small-town lumberyard, and old-fashioned hardware stores have always been among my very favorite retail environments. I grew up with the idea that most of the environment we actually inhabit is the result of human labor. Anyone who can make something really well, more or less from scratch, has my respect. So I see DIY/Maker activity as extremely healthy. I'm not sure that owning a machine that can make something more or less from scratch impresses me quite as much, but I have no personal experience of that yet.

What do you think of the way industrial design is going -- for cars, electronics, medical devices, etc.

Generally, I like the way those things are looking, but it's a rare day I see anything new that I *really* like. I saw a photograph of Dieter Rams' basement workshop recently. Man alive. Would I have liked to be a fly on the wall in there.

I'm not going to ask you about any specific movie development projects you have cooking, but I have general question -- Almost every fiction writer I know who has worked with the Hollywood movie industry has told me they hated the experience and hated the results. Has you experience been better?

Liking the Hollywood movie industry is like liking war. Some people do like war, though, and I've sometimes enjoyed my own experience of the Hollywood movie industry. People who haven't actually been there, been fully in it, with some paid role on which something actually depends, really have very little idea. One of the more oddly hellish things about it is that so many of its civilian consumers assume that they understand exactly how it all works. There's a huge subsidiary industry filmgoers pay to keep them convinced that they have insider knowledge, actual experience of the beast itself. They don't. 

You don't really get it until you're in a situation in which some entity has invested sixty or seventy million dollars in something and seems to be in the process of deciding that your creative input may be endangering that investment. It's an experience that will definitely get your fullest attention.

I enjoyed your recent essay in Scientific American titled, "Life in the Meta-City." Can you talk about why you wrote this?

Thanks. They asked me. And I suppose writing for Scientific American was a sort of bucket list item! Plus I have always been interested in cities.

You have a great Twitter feed. What are your feelings about reading and participating in social media?

Glad you enjoy it. I find it completely ludic, pure play. 

Twitter is really my only experience of social media, so far. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I'd had access to some sort of agreeable social media in my early teens. I think I would really have liked it, so then I feel a little sorry for my younger self. Then I remember that all of that stuff might still be around, and I feel a huge relief that it isn't.

What do you worry about? I'm talking about loose nukes, global warming, economic meltdown, creeping fascism.
All of the above, and anything else in that general ballpark. As one does. Sometimes I remember that I evidently assumed that Ronald Reagan was probably about as weird as it was going to get; that that all seemed a bit over the top, a grave if semi-comic but blessedly temporary anomaly. That's scary.


  1. Nice. One of my favorite authors, and I’ve been following his Twitter for quite some time – he has one of the most interesting twitter feeds of anyone, author or otherwise. And, like from this interview, you get a really good sense of who he is and what he’s like from it, which has affected (in a positive way) how I see his books – you get a sense of where he’s coming from.

    1. He’s always struck me as a fundemantally nice, humble and intellectually curious person, who just happens to be a fantastic writer. I can’t say that about every author – there are a lot of big egos about!

  2. What movie adaptations are possibly in the works? (The ones Mark said he wouldn’t specifically mention. :))

  3. currently accessing boingboing from my Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7, so I’m getting a kick out of the interview.  (and having enjoyed many books over many years from Mr Gibson)

  4. While sales of Kindle books are impressive, only about half of the books I buy are available in Kindle, even now. There’s still a long way to go. Also, prices are often the same or even more expensive in Kindle form than paperback, which is ridiculous.

  5. I really like this interview. You asked good questions, Mark, and received thoughtful, interesting answers. I would find it incredibly hard to submit questions to someone like that, someone whose work I have known and admired for such a long time, without coming over all fawning and fanboi-ish. So, kudos.

  6. I find Gibson’s prose a bit tough to get through now. His descriptions of objects and places have always been vivid, but as his novels have gotten closer to present day the style has begun to turn me off a bit.

    I don’t know if that was exacerbated by me only reading this set of books in audiobook form, but Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History just didn’t do it for me.

  7. Adolf Hitler was a human being, even though society has collectively ostracized him from the human race. Wrap your head around that fact, and you won’t be surprised by people like GWB.

      1. at least GWB never invaded Poland

        He got Poland to agree to host missiles aimed at Russia Iran, nearly precipitating a massive Russian arms build-up on the European border.  In other words, he got Poland to invade itself.

        1. Apart from that thing about 300,000 polish jews being ghettoized and then killed after Hitler’s invasion, there’s really very little discernibly different between Hitler’s invasion, and GWB’s, right? 20 years since Godwin’s law was formulated, and still the urge to make facile comparisons to Hitler is too thrilling to resist.

          1. The point I was making is that there are people – human beings – who are *a lot* worse than those in the governments of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, which means that assuming something like “it can’t possibly get worse than that” is ridiculous.

            Unfortunately, that is something that people like you prefer to overlook by invoking Godwin’s law and closing off your mind to the concept that such comparisons are necessary for an even remotely correct perception of reality.

            There is nothing to stop people out of even grosser perversion or mere ignorance to be even worse than the Nazis. Our societies have blind spots that could swallow that of slavery in the 17th century or 19th century imperialism whole without so much as burping. Take, for example, the 16mio unnecessary deaths yearly through starvation. Or the 800-900mio malnourished people. The, to put it mildly, not very helpful attitude in of industrialized countries to help poorer countries develop. (But I know that people don’t care to notice the hypocrisy of blaming poor countries for “ruining” rich countries economies through their low wages.)

          2. that is something that people like you prefer to overlook by invoking Godwin’s law and closing off your mind to the concept that such comparisons are necessary for an even remotely correct perception of reality.

            It is an observation so trite and obvious — Hitler was a human, therefore humans can be monstrous — that it need not be stated and only serves to inflame an adult conversation.

    1. Going over the deep end here, but what the hell: Hitler came to power thanks to the aftereffects of WW1, Tatcher stayed affloat thanks to the falklands war, GWB had 9/11 handed to him, and he (or his staff) managed to pull a epic run with it.

  8. My favorite author. I have read his books as a kind of adhoc post-graduate writing course [before I enrolled in a real one]. I have so many questions to ask. Alas, I am not a name as yet.

    Nice interview, Mark.

  9. I totally remember thinking the same thing about good old Ronnie “Raygun”.  I also remember reading a *lot* of sci fi from those days that all almost without exception predicted a complete right wing religious nut job as president of the United States or a completely religious christian state in the future.

    The future aint what it used to be.

  10. I don’t really get keeping your wallet in your back pocket. It’s so uncomfortable (if you have a typical amount of cards), and less secure.


  11. “Do you have a “daily carry?” If so, what are the things in it?”

    I really wanted him to just say “No.” or “What?”

      1. Because I think it would be funny if he rejected (or didn’t even recognize) this fad (that I personally find ridiculous) of fetishizing a bag of brand name items that are supposed to define a “lifestyle” and generally, among people who like to talk about such things, either includes an automatic pistol or an obscure SLR camera.

        Which isn’t to say I don’t think he should carry anything with him every day, but the question isn’t asked hoping for an answer like “well, I carry my cell phone, wallet, and car keys.”

        1. I follow Antinous’s example and always carry a top hat, monocle, and cane, myself.

          Well, somebody has to put on the Ritz.

        2. Can I assume that the question is only asked to men?

          (I, and every generation of women before me, have a daily carry, if that’s what you call a handbag. The contents have varied over the ages, and life stages, I suppose, but asking: hey, what’s in your purse?”, seems a bit personal.)

          1. Dunno. How many of you are concious about what you carry, and how many basically have a bag that everything and then some gets dumped into and “forgotten”? My mother seems to be of the latter, where she have found week old lunches and whatsnot when digging into her bag for something.

        3. Brand name? The kind of carry discussions i encounter — mostly online, mind you — as as much no-name as brand name related.

  12. I believe it refers to the idea of concealing oneself in legal and bureacratic misdirection instead of trying to go ‘off the grid’, which is increasingly difficult. For example, instead of buying a house with cash, you would form an international corporation in Belize, which would buy the house for you.

  13. I like a lot of Dieter Rams’ work, but the photo of his workshop horribly depresses me.  Sure, I expected the obsessive/compulsively racked tools, but the wiring run through straight carlon tubes with no elbows is a rejection of function in favor of form.

    Oh well, I enjoyed the interview anyway.

  14. “Now that Kindle sales top both hardbound and paperback book sales on Amazon, it doesn’t seem as important to have a paperback release.”
    BOO.  Until Amazon/Kindle and the other online book publishers grant purchasers the same exact rights to resell, lend or donate their books to a library, I can only hope for their failure.  I want to own a book and be able to do with it what I want, not have a “book license” that tells me what I can and mostly can’t do with it.  I’d like to have eBooks, but the cost to our rights is too high.
    Books are pretty much the last media form in the copyright world where the library model – lending, along with used sales – is still acceptable.  eBooks are trying to emulate the music/software model.  Book publishers are telling libraries that their eBooks can only be lent 10-30 times (depending on the publisher) before the library loses rights to it and must re-purchase.

  15. Good interview, Mark. Like penguinchris wrote above, I learned some things about who William Gibson is through this discussion.

    As an aside, down with hard covered books. I find paperback books to be much more visually appealing/elegant and a more enjoyable experience to pick up and hold. I assume paperbacks are less expensive to manufacturer. It’s a bummer to wait for paperback versions to be published, but I’m guessing it’s unlikely the companies/houses will look past the money they’d likely lose from the higher prices they charge for hard covers.

  16. “Liking the Hollywood movie industry is like liking war.” – Perhaps unusually, JGBallard was consistently publically happy with what Steven “Empire of the Sun” Spielberg and David “Crash” Cronenberg did with the movies of his books. But then Ballard also sort of enjoyed his time as a teenage civilian prisoner of the Japanese in Shanghai in WW2, and in the 1950s he joined the RAF and started pilot training, dreaming of flying nuclear bombers…

    I don’t know if this works worldwide, but the Desert Island Discs interview Gibson gave in 1999 is now available to listen to online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/3ade8915 . DID, for those who don’t know, is a BBC Radio 4 series that has been running since 1942 and is now on, I think, only its fourth presenter… the interviewee talks about his or her life and selects eight meaningful platters/discs/tracks/pieces/songs/symphonies/audio to take along to a notional desert island. Even if the interview doesn’t play overseas, the url above lists Gibson’s music choice (as it stood in 1999).

  17. http://forum.pafoa.org/general-2/101763-grey-man.html

    Perhaps this is the overview of “the grey man” that was earlier

    If so, then it’s scary, but legitimate.

    I talked with a couple last night at a fundraiser. After they asked
    what sorts of things I was concerned about (“oh, environmental
    collapse, for one”), they opened up: they called themselves
    “preppers,” part of the prepper community, going quietly about
    prepping for the collapse.

    They’re way past activism, or Transition Towns — they see an
    inevitable downward spiral based on short-term interests and inertia
    leading to environmental and economic collapse.

    I suspect there are many, many disparate folks and communities acknowledging
    that the police state will only increase, as the ecosystem and economy
    collapses, and are trying to find ways to become invisible to the info-grid, as
    well as get off the energy grid.

    “Grey Man” as null-set in fascist search algorithms for likely eruption zones, perhaps?

    It would be a very William Gibson sort of thing.

    1. Yea, the first thing that came to mind with the mention of “gray man” was to consciously assume a appearance that would not get a second glance by onlookers. I think perhaps the name comes from the 50s-60s office “uniform” of a gray suit and matching fedora, a outfit you would see plenty off on the city streets of the time.

  18. OT Re: Awesome thin wallets….


    Absolutely the damn best wallet I’ve ever owned.  $15 or less, lots of awesome designs incl. DIY, origami, tyvek paper, I get a positive comment on it per week at least.

    Now I just need an awesome small coin purse kinda thing.  I can’t find my Secret Base one from Tokyo.  :(

  19. Re Grey Man: How odd. I was just talking about this on the weekend, explaining to some friends how my company put me through a personal safety training course after 9/11. The idea of the grey man isn’t as exciting as posited above. It is essentially the idea that if you are kidnapped or otherwise being held by hostile forces you want to be a grey man, not overly difficult for your captors nor overly helpful. You want to blend in to the background and be faceless so that if the time comes when someone has to be chosen from the group, your captors won’t think of you.

  20. @beschizza:disqus , michaeljonjensen and phil day:
    seems like there are a few definitions. I wonder which Gibson was referring to.

    Neil Strauss’ Emergency is an interesting read. He goes through all sorts of things to prepare himself for an apocalypse–collecting a safe house in the Caribbean, a two-wheel-drive motorcycle and EMT training, among other things.

  21. Thanks for the great interview, but the link to Dieter Rams’s workshop and dwelling photos were the most interesting to me. That workshop hasn’t seen much work recently. And the tile and drywall work in the second-floor hallway would be disappointing to me, had I done it. In fact, choosing no trim for the floor-wall transition of a square-tile pattern, and relying on the hallway to be perfectly rectilinear to suit the decision, is not a good indicator of real-world judgement.

  22. Generally I prefer me some paperback to hardcover, and have no great interest in eBooks unless the rights issues are sorted out, but I recently picked up a used hardback copy of WG’s All Tomorrow’s Parties that I’m reading right now, and I have to admit that it being in hardback has somehow increased the enjoyment factor.

  23. Or to expand on this theme, how about the fact that people of rich nations are allowed to almost everywhere they please, being offended at the fact that North Korea won’t grant them that right, while all people of the poor countries are denied that right – to the point of fencing off borders, forcing people who want to enter the richer countries into risking their lives and very frequently losing it.

    There were some 150-250 people died at the border in Germany over a period of 28 years – with big commemorations each year, dripping in hypocrisy. 150 dead people on a ship in the Mediterranean near Lampedusa barely made the evening news – because that sort of thing happens all the time. Commemorations? Forget about it.

    None of this would be necessary if we had sane immigration policies – ones that would allow poor people to come into rich countries and not shut them out like some third class human being unworthy of loitering on European or US-American soil.

  24. HAY Mr. Gibson, please try to make it to Madison again soon! I was really stoked about seeing you… hope all’s ok…

  25. About the walletectomy… did the same thing after a very wise PT explained the link between carrying a wallet in a back pocket and my chronic lower back pain. Seems that sitting on the lump, however small, makes that butt muscle clinch a bit, and throws your spine into an ever so slight scoliotic curve. Your muscles compensate for this off balance through constant tension. After so long, the clinched butt and compensating muscles build up lactic acid, which causes pain, so the muscle around them tense in order to “guard” the sore area, and it just dominos out from there. When you’re young you body can ignore this sort of repeated stress, but once you get to middle age, the body’s longer recovery period leads to more compounding of the effect.

    Oddly, most people will look elsewhere for the cause of this chronic soreness, and overlook this one simple solution for alleviating some of the grief aging brings. It’s a bit like believing in “I slept on it wrong” when you wake up with an aching shoulder. Unless you are in a coma, physically disabled,  excessively sedated or confined, your body will adjust before a pressure injury will occur. The real source of the injury will have happened two to three days before and what you are feeling is the effect of cumulative inflammation of the injured area. Because it’s so obvious when we first wake up, we assume the injury happened while sleeping, but the real cause is the something like the heavy box of books we picked up dead weight (all back no legs) two days prior. 

    So, Mark, curious why you didn’t ask about any current writing projects Gibson may have going. William Gibson and Haruki Muraikami are the two authors I will by upon release of a new book no matter what format it first comes out in. Gibson runs roughly a three to four year release schedule so it may be early days, but it would be interesting to know where he may be headed now that he’s done the Bigendian trilogy. 

  26. Skip paperback because of ebook?  It’s bad enough publishers make me choose between paying far too much for a format I don’t want, or waiting FOREVER for the format I do want.  Except for one or two authors, I will always choose waiting (unless I happen to find the hardcover for a decent price on the used market), and sometimes I wait so long I forget I was interested in the first place.  But if a publisher/author ever makes the choice between “pay far too much for a format I don’t want” or “pay far too much for something I don’t even own”, then except for maybe 1 or 2 authors, I’ll just go without or get it through other means like the used market.

    Here’s an idea, skip the format wars and get print-on-demand running for novels, so we can choose whatever book in whatever format we want.

  27. Good interview, I’ve been reading Mr Gibson’s work since Neuromancer came out, and met him at the Brighton WorldCon in ’85, I think it was. Lovely man, I’ve read and own all his books, most as hardcover, and all except Monalisa Overdrive as eBooks on my phone, and Mona… I have as a PDF version because no-one has made a proper version available yet. Sort it out, please.
    I must say that the Bigend trilogy is my favourite, I guess because it’s so much of the present, but a heartbeat away from it. I wait in intense anticipation his next project.

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