Making Sense of Senseless Violence: An Interview with Jack Womack

Tottenham Aug. 7, 2011. (Lewis Whyld/PA/AP) via The Big Picture

This summer when Britain was gripped by civil disturbance, it was suggested by some in the SF community that if you wanted to understand the underlying psychology of those involved, you should read Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, originally published in 1994. Random Acts details in diary form the tribulations of twelve-year-old Lola Hart as her New York City, family, and persona come apart. It also serves as an entry point for Womack’s six-book Dryco series, which presents post-disaster America as trailer-trash corporate dystopia, complete with Elvis worship, unchecked rape and murder, and its own argot. Recently I met with Womack and asked him about the creation and particular prescience of these novels.

Your novels make me unbelievably anxious.  

I relieve my own anxiety by writing them. So, yeah, it’s transference.  

One of the things that’s so anxiety-inducing about Random Acts, as well as your first novel Ambient, is that there’s always scarcity: there’s never enough money, never enough food, never enough security. Which seems to me extremely, though not exclusively, New York.  

Oh, at the time it certainly was. The New York in Ambient was what I saw happening if everything had kept getting worse. When O’Malley is walking home to his apartment in the Lower East Side, that’s the way it used to be. What the predictive element missed was that New York would skyrocket back, and that neighborhoods you couldn’t go into at night thirty years ago, you now couldn’t afford. I moved up here in 1977 right after the blackout and the Son of Sam summer. So the fear definitely comes across. When you see Taxi Driver, that’s what it looked like. There’s no exaggeration. When you see any seventies movie, and you say, “I cannot believe how horrible New York looks,” that’s how it looked. You came up here because that was part of the charm. Unlike every other city that was falling apart and collapsing, New York still worked, but at the same time it was collapsing enough that you could come up here and live cheaply, and, y’know, thereby began the whole art scene from the ‘60s on. Because you had the space and opportunity.  

And that’s why you moved here.  

Yeah exactly. Because there was stuff going on. I mean, I had to get away from The Eagles. I’d heard The Ramones; I wanted nothing to do with where I was.  

Were you in Kentucky at the time? 

Yeah, I was in Kentucky. Lived there till I was 21, moved up here, and I’ve lived in my present apartment for 32 years in April.  

Wikipedia gives the copyright date for Random Acts as ‘95; my Grove Press edition says ‘93.  

It was purchased in ‘93. It was published by Harper UK first in October ‘94, and then it came out the next year, in the spring I believe, from Grove.  

So you were writing it in ‘92, ‘93  

Yeah, I started it in late ‘92. Random Acts wrote itself very quickly. Once I got the voice right, I wrote it like it was a diary. Every day would just be a new day. I’d advance the plot like that. Random Acts took me less time to write than anything else. Took me about five months.  

Spinning off from what you said about AmbientRandom Acts feels very much as if you took the early ‘90s and basically made everything get worse from right there.  

When I started writing Ambient, I had no idea that the multi-volume series was really the tradition in this genre, that it was going to take several to get the point across. Then there was this one review of Ambient in The New Republic where D.T. Max said I’d obviously written it for the movies. My answer was, “I wish I’d written it in English then, which would have helped those movie sales.” It also referred to the characters as comic book characters, so I thought, “Okay, alright, I’m going to take the most comic book-like character in Ambient and make her the character you care the most about in the entire series.” This was when I was planning it all out, and I remembered during the roller battle, the one who goes out the window, and I thought Crazy Lola, how did she get there? [This refers to the second chapter of Ambient, featuring a Dyrco “conference”, during which rival corporations engage in a battle royale, with their respective scantily clad female champions wielding medieval weaponry.] And you never find out exactly how she got there, and that’s just like a double knife twist in the series. Because you finish Random Acts, and I mean, as horrible as it is, Random Acts has to some degree its positive aspects because she has lived, she is surviving, she has adjusted. Her family didn’t, she did. And then you find out in Ambient that soon enough she’s killed. She’s the security guard who’s lasered as soon as they hit the planet.  

You said in a previous interview that you’d written Random Acts partially to show how the Dryco series argot came to be.  

Exactly. I developed it furthest with Elvissey. I mean there are parts of Elvissey that even I have to re-read at times to remember exactly what I’m saying. I realized having gone full into it with Ambient that I should provide an introduction to the series, as well as a way to be able to read it. I’ve had to change things very rarely because of editorial request. Once was forTerraplane, where my editor told me white college students would never be listening rap, so I had to change it to blues. Another time was with Ambient. O’Malley is watching the news and hears Woody Allen’s died. That would have been just like this little touch to remind people we’re not that far away, but you know, they could never accept that this was only twenty-five years from when I was writing. They were like, “No it couldn’t be, has to be a hundred years from now. Things don’t fall apart that fast.” And, of course, we’ve seen they do.  

We’re going to talk about prescience in a minute, but at the end of Random Acts, when she’s full on in the argot, it’s almost like the end of the bourgeoisie.  

She’s gone fully over in that in that paragraph; she’s accepts it, she’s still not that happy about it, but she’s not going back.  

And that whole universe isn’t going back either. Ambient doesn’t have a middle class. There’s the poor, the serving class, and the served.  

Exactly. Which is how you could see things were going in 1980 when Reagan was elected. That was basically the plan.  

That’s still an accurate prediction. The particulars have shifted, but...  

All the particulars have shifted. In Terraplane, I have the Soviet Union for God’s sake.  

When I read the comments on Twitter about Random Acts being a good primer for understanding the mentality of the rioters in England, I didn’t particularly buy it at first.  

My family and I were down in Puerto Rico when those were going on, and I was keeping track of Twitter on my IPhone. I realized I was getting retweeted all over the place in England. That was unexpected. Random Acts isn’t available in the UK right now. Contracts are ongoing for it to come out next year. I don’t think of it as being particularly prescient, just seeing it as a pessimistic thing.  Because when Reagan got in there was going to be the good and the evil, the sons of darkness and the sons of light. Up until Bush, I didn’t think they’d take it this far, but for the past twelve years, they’ve taken it upon themselves to outdo everything I could possibly have guessed in termed of sheer gleeful stupidity. The Drydens are ignorant, but the old man is intelligent, very sharp, shrewd, cunning. His son was an idiot, but wealthy sons are always idiots. What I didn’t expect was this constantly profound love of ignorance, the spontaneous levels of stupidity, where you’re expecting them to believe in spontaneous generation. Shaw said to never get into a debate with a member of the Flat Earth Society. They’re working from a completely erroneous beginning; their logic would be flawless and they could always out argue you, but you’d still be arguing with a lunatic. Barney Frank, I heard a quote from him this morning, and he was shouting at someone at saying, “It would make more sense to have an argument with a dining room table!’  

After some consideration, Random Acts does make very good required riot reading, in the sense that it’s a good way to understand the mentality of someone who’s ready to undertake that level of antisocial violence.  

Yeah. I didn’t keep it, but one of my most notable fan letters was from a guy in South Carolina on death row. It was very well written letter. He was a huge fan of Random Acts. He said, “It’s really amazing how close you get to how exactly it works.” I was tempted to write back, but I never did. There’s something in me that said it’s just as well. I think it’s more plausible now. Well, it was just as plausible then, but in the middle of the ‘90s things were pretty cheerful by and large. At the time I remember thinking, well, there’s no lead up of pre-millennial lunacy. But there was, it was just so subterranean. It was just like the cranks whose books collected in my library became writers of policy. I don’t know what has happened. I cannot even make a guess for what will happen in the next five years.  

It’s something that the nice rich white family didn’t understand in ‘95, and they don’t understand it now. And, of course, Lola starts out as a nice rich white girl, although you can tell, even from the first line, that there’s something else in her.  

“Mama says mine is a night mind.” And mama knows, mama knows her daughter. Yes, she says it right off, I’m open, I’m here, I’m ready. She’s already different, and she knows she’s different, and she gets around to expressing her difference. One of the nicest thing about Random Acts is about how various friends of mine have told me how their young nieces or sisters who are coming out say this is really great, say this is the right thing. When I get into the character, I try to get all the way into the character. That’s why I write in the first person: I want to sink as deeply into the character as I can to get the voice right. With Random Acts, I wrote the first entry and the last paragraph at the same time. Then I needed to go from point A to point B. I remember saying to my British agent at the time, “Here’s the start and here’s the end.” “How do you do that?” And I said just watch me. It’s the clearest ending I’ve ever had for a book. It’s a coming of age novel. A lot of the readers have been teenagers, older teenage girls, just judging from empirical, anecdotal evidence, but you go by who you hear from. What’s interesting is that it was never even considered as a YA book. And I have no idea if they would have tied it into the YA market now. It’s pretty heavy. I prefer it coming out as adult, because it’s certainly an adult novel. At the same time if you’re fifteen and you can read it, there’s something here for you. I’ve never heard any complaints like ‘my daughter blah blah blah.’ It’s taught in college. University of Santa Cruz, UC Riverside... 

You think they’d teach it at Columbia in a gentrification course.  

Lola’s building is still there. It still has the 24 hours ‘Trespassers Reported’ sign out front. It’s up by Broadway and LaSalle. Right under the L there at the left. It’s all totally gentrified now. But what’s funny is that the building still has the familiar signs: Drug Watch, 24 hour patrol, Visitors Reported.  

What are some, if not inspirations, then possible precursors for Random Acts? People keep saying A Clockwork Orange, but the trajectory for Alex and Lola seems to be the opposite.  

I’d never read the book, just seen the movie. It’s funny because Gibson and Sterling have talked about influences on cyberpunk. Which is what I never was, but we all had similar concerns. A Clockwork Orange is an overall precursor, but then the great unknown influence on all of us, which is funny because we didn’t know about it until we started talking about it, was Diamond Dogs. Especially the title track and 1984 [the seventh track, not the novel].  

In an interview with Paul McAuley you said you came to SF from the “outside in.” 

I had no experience with the literature. The genre I read growing up was ghost stories, Shirley Jackson. In the early ‘70s I read Childhood’s End because it had been reference by John Keel in his Strange Creatures From Time and Space, and I read it and thought, eh, this is really boring. And then I read the Paul Williams article in Rolling Stone in the mid ‘70s about Phil Dick, and I thought this guy sounds like a lunatic. I found and read The Man in the High Castle, which I was very impressed by, and I still think is one of the best things he wrote, if not the best, frankly, because Dick has his weaknesses. Bill [Gibson] said it’s hard to read Dick when you’ve already read Pynchon, and that’s true. Because I’d already read the first three Pynchon and Burroughs too, and that’s one of the problems I have with a lot of New Wave Science Fiction. Disch was different.  

Do you read much SF now? You started not reading much... 

And now I’m here not reading much. I read mostly non-fiction and have for many years, professionally.  

Your new novel, Ashland, which you’re still working on, isn’t SF.  

No, it’s not. It’s my family history, selectively chosen pieces of it. It’s Southern Gothic, which is what I’ve always been doing, just not covered up. I expect to have it finished late next year.