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Voice, Style and Batman

September 27th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer and send me some questions about the book recently and which I’m repeating here, if only because these are the sorts of questions people often ask. This was the second part of his questions. (The first part was here.) Another of my questions was whether you write with a certain style in mind or a certain effect? As you write, do you use certain styles and techniques with the intent of them having a certain effect? Or do you just write what comes, and that, in and of itself, has the desired effect? Specifically, in cases where Robbie would get a text or an email, you would go on, not telling the reader what the message was until after you had described Robbie’s reaction. Or when you write only in gerunds, leaving it all in fragments, do you do that with the purpose of creating a sort of detached feeling? Or do you just think, wow I would really like to write it that way? I mostly write my way into a style. Originally, I think I set out to write a much more comic book about office life. (I started Shimmer long before The Office hit TV, but it’s probably good I didn’t write an office-based comedy. It’d be like getting a Batman tattoo in 1987, years before the Batman movies came out, but then after the series of movies do come out you have to live with the Batman tattoo on your chest for the rest of your life while everyone asks you things like, “So do you like the Michael Keaton Batman more than the Christian Bale Batman?” and you have to say, “Well, I’m really more of an Adam West guy.” Not that I know anyone who did this and is, still, living with the ramifications. I’m just throwing it out there as a hypothetical-type example.) But as I wrote, I kept finding my way into these darker, less comic places, and into a more personally, internally conflicted narrator. Still, I never thought about using a particular style, and definitely didn’t think about issues like fragments versus sentences. That all just sort of happens for me, and then evolves as I edit. It’s part of the overwriting that I mentioned, the sense that I keep writing in multiple different directions until I find a direction (or directions) that stick, that make sense, that interest me. (Even these answers I’m writing to you, I’m writing all of this out of order, focusing on one question, then another, with multiple unfinished sentences throughout the message, then copying and pasting pieces around.) And out of that overwriting also comes a voice. In this case, Robbie’s voice. But I never set out for it to sound one way or another, or to use a certain style. I always find those answers through the act of writing. More about my erratic way of writing here: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2009/06/04/124/
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Research and Technology in Shimmer

September 12th, 2010 Comments off
A student of my wife’s was nice enough to read Shimmer recently and send me some questions about the book, which I finally managed to answer. This was the first part of his questions. I’ll post the second part next week. Dear Mr. Barnes, I am the student of Mrs. Crosby’s that read your book. I liked your book very much, but I had some questions, and she said I should ask you, since this provided a rare opportunity to ask the author why he wrote the book the way he wrote it. I noticed in your book that parts of it were very technical, and I wondered whether or not you studied all the stuff you discussed, if it just came naturally to you, or if you made it up. My greatest fear no only as I write but also as I converse with people is that they might stop me in the middle of what I’m saying to tell me that in fact I’d gotten it all wrong, there was something I was missing, didn’t know, or had forgotten. Do you write with those people in mind, making sure that every fact is correct? Or do you write in a sort of science fiction setting, where everything works, no matter what? I did very, very little research for the book. Mostly because I hate doing research. (Don’t tell Ms. Crosby.) I get chills and become short of breath just thinking about research. The technology in Shimmer was based on my own interests and experiences. I’d worked at a dot-com type company in the late 90s and had been at a number of publishing companies that were transitioning from old paste up to desktop publishing. This was in the early 90s, which, to my endless surprise, is nearly two decades ago. But comptuers were still new to the workplace back then, and the idea of designing a print publication on a computer screen was pretty radical. I’d always been something of a closet computer geek. Even though I was an English major in college, came out of college wanting to write and be a reporter, I was always interested in computers and technology. So that led me to a whole host of jobs in publishing that, for better and worse, went far beyond writing and reporting. (People ask me if write now for The Daily News, where I’m publisher, and my standard — probably tiresome — joke is, “Not really. But I do put together a really great memo from time to time.”) And so with that background, writing about the technology in Shimmer was relatively comfortable for me. It isn’t real — the technology described can’t and doesn’t truly work — but I didn’t particularly worry about that. I simply wanted the technology to be true itself, true to the reality I was creating in Shimmer. In that sense, yes, it’s like science-fiction in a way. But, really, all books have this problem or challenge in one way or another. And so I wouldn’t worry about someone stopping to question you on a given fact or detail. You have to take control of the reader in a way that negates those questions. If you’ve pulled the reader in, engrossed them in your writing and the story you’re telling, they won’t question the technical details any more than they question the believability of your characters or their dialogue or the setting. Put another way, you have to write with tremendous confidence — really, it’s arrogance, but that’s an ugly word — an unrelenting, unbreakable confidence in all facets of your work, the tone, the characters, the dialogue, the breaks, the style, and, yes, the details. But no one part is more important than the other. You have to own the reader. You have to control them. The hardest part about the technology for me was a concern about how much detail to include because, in including too much detail, I might lose the reader. I tend to overwrite anyway — if Shimmer was 280 pages in final form, I probably wrioe nearly 400 pages over the course of writing the book — and wrote way, way too much technical detail in the early drafts. Parly, I simply needed to define the world and the technology within it to myself first. Maybe this was a form of research, in a way. Writing out a far too detailed framework of how Shimmer and the shadow network and the entire operation of the company all inter-related. Once I had all that detail on the page, then I could come at it from the point of view of a reader — what does a reader want to know? What details are, for a reader, extraneous? In a sense, I had to cull the relevant facts and pieces from my own writing — i.e., do some research within my own writing. It’s all very circular and self referential. Writing, for me, requires a great deal of personal self-denial, constantly removing myself from the words I’ve written, the characters I’ve created, the world I’m trying to create. (By the way, some of the best writing I’ve ever read about the process of writing comes from Kurt Vonnegut. His essays, which are collected in a couple of different editions, are lucid, helpful, practical, self-deprecating and, thankfully, extremely entertaining.) One other thing I did that vaguely smelled of research was putting together a series of spreadsheets that calculated the value and scope of the financial and technical fraud underlying (undermining) the company. And I did a series of big, detailed timelines. I even had to put together a layout of the building — which group was on what floor, etc. Those things weren’t research necessarily, but it’s about as close as I got. Few of those details needed to be in the book, but I, as the author, needed to know all those facts, from which I could choose the necessary details to share with the reader. Ms. Crosby, in fact, was a great source for this sort of perspective, because she’s not someone particularly interested in technology, but she and I tend to like very similar books. My last thought on the technology is that I love when people tell me, “Well, I didn’t fully understand the technology and, actually, I skimmed some of those passages, but it didn’t matter, because of the writing and the characters.” In the end, for me, that’s what the book is about: The people, the characters, the unraveling of their lives. I was actually very disappointed that the publisher marketed the hardcover edition of the book with a lot of talk of the book being a “high tech literary thriller.” All the reviews had to unwind that notion — the book isn’t about high tech and isn’t a thriller, any more than Blood Meridian is a Western literary adventure novel, or Sirens of Titan is a Sci-Fi adventure. I actually wrote about some of these sorts of questions here: Fact and fiction and how a genius called me out on an impossible plot point: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/07/19/mensa-and-me-how-from-now-on-im-only-talkin-to-geniuses/ Timeline: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/07/14/countdown-to-collapse-a-timeline-for-shimmer/ Spreadsheets: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/07/10/calculating-the-fraud-blue-boxes-spreadsheets-and-shimmer/ Early notes on Shimmer: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/06/28/early-notes-on-shimmer-part-2/ Early ideas for Shimmer: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/08/17/layoffs-excel-how-i-started-writing-shimmer/ More early influences/ideas: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2009/04/19/nature-didnt-make-nutrasweet-shimmer-towery-and-the-dot-com-days/ And More: http://www.ericbarnes.net/blog/2010/08/29/lost-in-an-office-building/ And this review, I thought, was very interesting in terms of his take on the techonology in the book: http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2009/09/07/eric-barnes-novel-shimmer-science-fiction-meets-ponzi-scheme
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All About Me, Me, Me

September 6th, 2010 Comments off
I had to write a biographical blurb about myself recently as part of the promotion for this TV show I’m going to start hosting on our local public television station. I hate writing biographical blurbs. My tendency is to write something short, flat and restrained. But not in an interesting or even self-deprecating way. Instead, I do this in a fearful and insecure way. Thankfully, this time, the person who requested the bio rejected my first blurb, and insisted on more details. And she gave me some questions to answer — What do I read? When did I first start writing? What sort of TV do I watch? My answers follow (and my original blurb is at the bottom of the page): I first got into journalism in 8th grade, when I started writing for the student newspaper and where my deeply sarcastic columns about the holidays caused tremendous discord and not a small amount of confusion among a student body most concerned about buying the newest Journey album. Later, after college, I became a reporter because that seemed like the only paying job an English major could get. That first job was as a community reporter in Old Saybrook, Conn., where I covered everything from the town council to the opening of a new sewage plant. I moved to New York City in 1992 and worked in book publishing, then for a business magazine, as well as getting my MFA in writing from Columbia. I started publishing short stories in 1994 or 1995. I moved to Memphis in 1995 and started working at Towery Publishing. Shimmer, a dark and sometimes funny book about the people and friends at the heart of a company built on a lie, was an American Booksellers Association IndieNext Pick in 2009 and came out in paperback this past summer. Fredric Keoppel was nice enough to say: “One is reminded in Barnes’ language and locution of Don DeLillo’s scalpel-sharp delineation of American corporate culture and paranoia, and of David Foster Wallace’s penetration into the heart of the relationship between human consciousness and rapidly changing technologies.” I have 600 channels on my TV, but seem to only watch Charlie Rose, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I listen to a great deal of Miles Davis, but, if pressed, I will admit that I remain fan of Led Zeppelin. If I’m alone in my car and a Neil Diamond song comes on, I won’t necessarily turn it off. In phases, I read too much Cormac McCarthy, which can leave me feeling as if life has no purpose and hope is just a dream. At those points, I switch to reading narrative nonfiction focused mostly on various obscure scientific endeavors such as island biogeography and string theory. For reasons I don’t understand, topics such as those have a deeply calming effect on me. I read a great deal of Don DeLillo and most recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I’ve watched, in their entirety, each of the 8 episodes of Ric Burns’ PBS documentary “New York” at least six or seven times. Here was the original blurb: Eric Barnes is Publisher of The Daily News Publishing Co., which includes the daily business and politics paper, The Daily News, the weekly edition of that paper, The Memphis News, the real estate information service Chandler Reports, and a newspaper in Nashville, the Westview. He has been publisher since 2003. Prior to that, Eric held various positions at Towery Publishing, the Memphis-based national publisher of city guides, hard cover books and business directories. He worked in publishing in New York and Connecticut before moving to Memphis. Eric attended Connecticut College and Columbia University. He is the author of the novel Shimmer. Eric lives in Midtown with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.
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Lost in an Office Building

August 29th, 2010 1 comment
Some of the very earliest ideas for Shimmer came while I was working as a marketing assistant for a big accounting firm in New York. I hated everything about the job. Except for the view. I was in the World Financial Center next to the World Trade Center. The group of 20 or so people I was in were positioned next to what was essentially a wall of glass, floor to ceiling, one end of the building to another, all of it looking out on the Hudson River. I couldn’t figure out why we had such a nice space. We were consultants to an investment bank, actually, and were only supposed to be in the building temporarily. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the scope of the accounting firm’s work for the bank wasn’t very well defined because, many days, I did nothing. I just stared out that wall of windows. I was only a marketing assistant, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but I started to realize that a lot of the full-blown accountants also seemed to be doing nothing. It was as if we’d been forgotten, there on the 15th floor of the building, taking up a huge swath of space, sitting in our cubicles in a deeply pleasant quiet. All of us just looking out on the Hudson. The experience led me to write about the Unoccupied Territories in Shimmer, the fresh and pristine office spaces that the company built in advance of them hiring a new group of employees. And it also led me to include the Rogue Sections, the groups who’d managed to completely remove themselves from any meaningful contribution to the company. And it led me to have Robbie just standing at his window, and staring out, looking at the Hudson and the sunset beyond the river. In the World Financial Center, one day a woman walked into the middle of our group with a clipboard, looked around at all of us, and said, after a moment, “What in the world are all of you doing here?” We weren’t supposed to be there. She was in charge of space assignments for the entire building. And she’d had no idea we wee there. She was moving some group in the next day. She was furious. To her, we didn’t exist. She kept checking her clipboard, looking for some reference to our existence. Within a week, she had us moved to a cramped basement office. Thankfully, it was August and I was going back to graduate school. I think I spent one day in that basement. Maybe not even that. I can’t really remember.  All I remember is that view.
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Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010 Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Genres and the Voices in My Head

August 4th, 2010 1 comment
I don’t think I ever picked how I write, or even a genre in which to write. It’s more, for me, about the voice in my head. I’m not sure I know where that voice came from. Maybe I don’t even want to know where it came from. But I started to write because, somewhere in my mind, there was a story and a voice and a fundamental thing that I wanted to say and that I thought people would want to read. I’ve written in a variety of different voices or styles, now that I look back on it. Many of the first stories I published were in a much darker, more barren, even sometimes violent style. But that changed over time so that, while Shimmer is still often fairly dark, it’s also sometimes funny. There are light moments. And, certainly, it’s a book without violence, in style or content. That said, to some degree, I’ve always been influenced by, or even tried to emulate, writers I like, particularly Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. And yet I don’t think I ever particularly sound like the writers that have most influenced me. Shimmer certainly doesn’t sound anything like Cormac McCarthy and similarities to Delillo are, maybe, there. Maybe. And so it really comes back to the unexplained voices in my head. Excerpts from an interview on This Book For Free. http://thisbookforfree.com/?p=1002

Robbie Case and the Real-Life Frauds – The three parts of Robbie

July 28th, 2010 Comments off
Someone asked me about the similarities between Robbie and any real-life frauds who run companies around the world. One note about the following is that, a year or so into the first draft of Shimmer, I realized that Robbie, Perry and Trevor had never appeared in the same room together. That realization, and the way in which each of the three formed the kind of whole described below, is what led me to end the book the way it ends. Without going too far with this, when I think about whether Robbie is symbolic of any real-life corruption, I have to think of him as three people — he’s Perry, Robbie and Trevor all in one. They are three views of the executive in the midst of the fraud. Trevor is at one extreme — the person who knows about the fraud, who was actually part of setting it in motion, and doesn’t care. Perry is at the other extreme — living in a kind of hopeful denial, wishing what he feels to be true wasn’t real, yet nonetheless working quietly to bring the fraud to an end. And then there’s Robbie, in the middle, knowing what he is doing is wrong, struggling with the ethics and morality of it every day, wanting not to benefit from the fraud, but unable to confess to the fraud, or to reject the fraud completely. So how does that relate to real-life frauds? I think the truth is that real-life frauds are more varied in their motivations than we want to admit, more so, at least, than the press often shows. Some of these people are purely and consciously diabolical. These are the Trevor’s of the world. But some are clearly more conflicted, they are swept up in a corruption that, while it’s of their own making, they want to undo it, like Robbie. And some are blind to the truth because they believe in what they’re doing but are, eventually, too smart and too caring to deny the truth forever, like Perry. Perry, for instance, in my mind, would have become a whistle-blower had Robbie not agreed to give everything up. Whistle-blowers — of corporate or government corruption – are modern heroes, I think. The pressure and threats that they face when they fight their bosses, when they speak truth to power, it’s unimaginable. We all can talk a good talk about doing what’s right, about avoiding anything unethical, but if it’s you’re job — the paycheck that feeds your children, that heats your house, that puts food on the table — if all that is on the line, would you speak up? Would you put yourself at risk? So many people wouldn’t. Perry, in that sense, is the true goodness in the novel. Not just because he listens to his own ethical voice, but especially because he helps — pushes, goads, enables — Robbie to find his own best self, the self that can give everything up, that can do what is right. Put another way, some of these frauds we see are, I am sure, awful people. People I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, wouldn’t enjoy a drink with. But other people who we see getting led away from the courtroom, I think that most of us would, if we spent time with them and learned what led them to them to their fraudulent and corrupt acts, we’d find that they were actually quite nice. Quite decent. Well intentioned. Human.

Sex, Shimmer and the Space Between Reality and Fiction

July 22nd, 2010 Comments off

I’m too old to be remotely embarrassed by the amount of sex in Shimmer. I suppose there’s the requisite discomfort about my mother reading the book. But even that is minimal.

None of which is to say I wasn’t ready for some negative reactions to the sex. There had been a couple of editors, in fact, who, in rejecting the manuscript, registered a quite serious level offense at Robbie’s obsession with prostitutes. And so as I’ve done interviews and, especially, book clubs, I’ve been ready for someone to register a similar complaint. The sex scenes in the book turn increasingly dark and disturbing. I’ve thought someone would be offended. I always knew I wanted to write a series of scenes that, through the first third of the book, would offer a certain voyeuristic appeal to the reader. Yet I knew that any sense of appeal or attraction would need to disappear for the reader as the book — and the darkness of the sex scenes — progressed. I even wanted readers to, maybe, feel a latent guilt that they’d maybe enjoyed the earlier scenes. What I didn’t at all expect was the way in which many women who’ve read the book simply brush the sex off as silly dalliances. They aren’t offended. They aren’t bothered. They just take it for what it is: One more sign of Robbie’s inner weakness. Men are more apt to express that discomfort I was trying to engender. They stammer uncomfortably, glance around the room, wonder exactly who to reconcile what they clearly felt with what is appropriate to say. An issue men do register with me, although it’s always been privately, is the apparent sexual prowess Robbie seems to display, night after night. A friend of a friend said to me, leaning close, “Now I’m not sure he could be having sex that often, now could he? Must have been a bit of exaggeration there, right? Right?” One of the many problems with the book having been called a thriller is that for some readers the thriller label inevitably created an expectation that the book should be taken literally, as if each word and sentence were one more clue in the evolving plot. It’s a maddening reaction for me, the way the thriller label diminished (or shut down), for some readers, the possibility of experiencing the book in that murky, vaguely magical space between reality and fantasy. Put another way: What matters, in a thriller, is how many times Robbie has sex. What matters, in a work of literary fiction, is that Robbie is struggling to understand his need for sex with prostitutes. It’s too bad anyone ever saw Shimmer as anything but a work of literary fiction. I can’t quite imagine reading the book, sex scenes included, in any other light.
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MENSA and Me – How, from now on, I’m only talkin’ to geniuses

July 19th, 2010 1 comment
The local MENSA group was nice enough to invite me to speak to their book club about Shimmer. This was a very nice thing for them to do, not least of which because it meant that, for weeks, I kept telling friends and family, “Sorry, but from now on, I’m only talking to geniuses.” That’s the kind of thing I find hysterical, even if my friends and family don’t. I was horrified when I met the group, though, because one of the first people I talked to was a former mainframe programmer from IBM. He’d worked there for many decades. I wanted to turn and run, sure he’d tear the book apart, exposing me as a hack writer fraud who’d made everything up. He didn’t. He enjoyed the book. He had many interesting questions and comments. Late in the conversation, though, he said he had one more question. “There’s just one part of the plot that I couldn’t quite follow.” And from there he proceeded to point out the one truly impossible aspect of the lie at the heart of Shimmer. I was fully aware of the point. But no one else had ever raised a question about it. Shimmer is fiction, and is fiction filled with exaggerations and untruths. There was no Frederick Fadowsky. There is no Core Communications. But fictional or not, the book had to be true to the world it created. A part of that, is that the company and the people who ran it all needed to seem possible. The schemes, the lying, the notion of a company built on a secret lie, these things are all clearly possible. We have real world examples, big and small, to which most anyone can compare the world in Shimmer. Yet there’s an aspect to the fraud that is simply impossible. I’m torn on whether to point it out here. I won’t today. Maybe soon.
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Countdown to Collapse – A timeline for Shimmer

July 14th, 2010 Comments off
I don’t do research. And I don’t make outlines. These are my conditions when writing. Of course, they’re only conditions I’ve set with myself.  (Punch line: Even then, the negotiations are ugly.) I do, however, make outlines after I’m well into a project. It might be 50 pages in, it might be 200, but at some point I have to start planning how everything I’ve written will come together. Sometimes, it’s as much as anything a need to catalog the many disparate parts that I’ve put on the page. That catalog then becomes an outline. With Shimmer, one part of the catalog was setting the timeline for the impending collapse of Robbie’s fraud, especially as the lie manifests in the shadow network (the series of servers and satellites and networking that is secretly supporting the actual company). I didn’t remember doing this until I found it on my computer, but, as part of sorting out that timeline, I apparently put together a detailed spreadsheet of scenes and dates.

(There’s a PDF of the file here.)

This doesn’t reflect the final timeline — there was no need to update it as the text changed — but the timeline is pretty close to how the book was published. Interesting note on the side:  “Need to accelerate decline [before this point] OR heighten need for extension beyond collapse.” I think I did the latter. Maybe I did both. I’m continually surprised by how people read Shimmer and say it was such a fast read. A page-turner. To me, there were so many details — as reflected in this timeline (and the financial spreadsheet I had to put together) — that my experience of the book was slow, a slog through the minutiae. I guess things like this timeline are part of what made the book quick?
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