The technique of creating memory palaces is something I have only slight familiarity with. How did you become acquainted with this method, and have you used it yourself?
I first got interested in these palaces—that is, organized internal structures of memory, laid out on an architectural model—by reading a book called The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, about a Jesuit missionary in sixteenth-century China, who attempted to interest his hosts in this particular device in order to bridge a cultural gap. Subsequently, I read Frances A. Yates’s great book The Art of Memory, which gives a history of how, before easy access to libraries, scholars and philosophers might try to store knowledge inside their heads. It’s interesting to imagine that necessity, which has more or less disappeared; in my story, the character develops his skill during a period of blindness and isolation.
Sure—I tried to develop one. When I was young, it was quite vast. Now it’s more of a memory hovel.
You included many specific, interesting details from Angola and Peru, and the work of a war photographer. Did you have to do a lot of research or did any of this come from personal experience?
Well, no—not much experience with war or war photography. I’ve travelled a good deal, though. Certainly I attempted, in the various locations, to reproduce the feel of various places I’ve been: the International Hotel in Kinshasa, and various small Asian cities and towns. I’ve never been to South America, but have always been fascinated by the description of the silver mines of Potosí, in Bolivia. I guess I wanted some proximity to that, at least in my mind.
I noticed two themes running strongly through this story: armed conflicts and memory. Most obviously, there are all the wars and rebellions that the protagonist encounters, both indirectly and in person. Between the memory castles and the photographs, the idea of memory recurs, too. And then, the effect that remembering all this violence has on the protagonist. Can you expand at all on the importance and connection of these themes? And are there any other ideas in the story you want to draw attention to?
In the story, I got interested in trying to imagine a way of looking at the world that was different from my own, the result of the character’s early blindness and his highly developed internal labyrinth. In the real world, he is not interested in content, or cause and effect, but only form. In a way, this allows him to protect himself from the trauma of observing misery and violence, because he is able to stay resolutely on the surface. During the miserable period of blindness and the internal construction of his memory palace, he learns how to dissociate his experience of the world from his perception of it. I wanted to give the effect of a consciousness that was missing the middle layer of its own experience, a consciousness that consists of perception and memory only, or at least primarily. In the story, clarity of perception takes the place of experience, and is heightened by the lack of it, in the way hearing and touch might sharpen in a blind person. In addition, memory has taken the place of thought.
Before the man was shot in the remote Peruvian village of Z—, a siren went off and there was some additional issue with the already-collapsed mine. I was unsure what exactly occurred. Can you clarify what that was about?
I’m not sure I can. I made it confusing because the character has almost no connection or even interest in actual events, no matter how urgent or potentially dangerous. He’s on the surface, operating, I hope, with a unique clarity of vision, and also underneath, inside the labyrinth of himself. The middle layer—again—of cause and effect, or politics, or personal engagement, or even of morality—he has no clue.
I have been an admirer of your work since your first novels came out, and I particularly love your sophisticated worlds. Do you have any advice for writers who hope to create science fiction of similar scope?
Thanks. My advice to young writers is: Pay attention. Examine the world. Think about it in terms of objects moving through space. Nobody cares about the insides, not at first. Nobody cares about your own internal struggles, or what’s happening inside your heart. Don’t try to express yourself. Make yourself cold. That’s the state of mind that will allow you to imagine entire worlds. They will coalesce out of what you see.
Your new novel, All Those Vanished Engines, came out earlier this year. What can you tell us about it?
Having answered question four [above] the way I have, I’m almost embarrassed to confess that there’s a lot of me in this new novel, and that for almost the first time I’ve tried to connect my fiction with actual events, distorted versions of actual experiences. The invented parts involve Martian invasions, an alternate history of the Battle of the Crater and the Civil War, a secret sonic weapons project during the 1940s, and a diminished and chaotic future world. The book takes the form of three novellas that are almost obsessively interlocked, one set in the childhood of someone named “Paul Park,” one set right now, during his middle age, and one in the future, when he is an old man, living inside his memories. Come to think of it, some of the last scenes take place in an underground library in the dark, though my character never progresses down to the sub-basement, where the mummified body of Huáscar Capac is doubtless locked away.
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