Part III of our Interview Spotlight series shines brightly on Cory Doctorow, author of such cyberpunk titles as Pirate Cinema and Little Brother. Well-known throughout the interwebz as a figurehead for the decimation of the DRM, Doctorow has been at the forefront of the fight for Creative Commons rights and other intrepid intellectual property battles. We recently caught up with Doctorow while touring Pirate Cinema, and, among other things, managed to get his take on the loose translation of the idea of “piracy.”
ASP: It’s widely known that you are a strong advocate for Creative Commons licensing – which encourages reuse and sharing – and formerly served as the Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Can you tell us a little bit about your role there? How has your passion as a technology activist affected the content of your novels, as well as the dissemination of your writing?
Doctorow: I went to work for Electronic Frontier Foundation after a software company that I helped found was sold to a company called OpenTech. I went to work there as kind of an evangelist, and very quickly got involved in standards setting and in treaty making. This led to my involvement in a bunch of fights about standards and standards mandates, where there was an effort on the part of the big studios and broadcasters to get the FCC to pass a law that said that all new technology features would have to be approved by a core of studios and broadcasters before they could be released as products, which is a pretty crazy idea given that those are the industries that thought of the DVR and TV remote control as tools of piracy. I moved to Europe to be their European director, and was even more involved in standards and treaties, particularly United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization, where I helped to stop a treaty called The Broadcast Treaty which would have created a sort of pseudo-copyright in audio visual works videos that would belong not to the person who created it but to the person who put it on the air. So even though you might have a license from the copyright holder or fair use might allow you to use it, you would also need permission from the broadcaster, even though the broadcaster hadn’t put any creative labor into it. This would also apply to public domain works, so it would essentially represent a kind of perpetual copyright. And we beat that back too. As to how it’s informed my stuff, my career as a writer and my work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation really grew up together. And I knew even before I went to work for EFF that there really wasn’t any way that you could prevent people from copying things that they wanted to copy. And I also understood that copying was not in and of itself evil. In fact, copying is kind of the basis of humanity. You know, four billion years ago some molecules used some process that we don’t understand to figure out how to copy themselves and we are their descendants We have a name for things that don’t copy themselves: we call them dead. So it’s pretty hard to condemn copying as wrong when everybody biologically copies all the time. And I felt like, as an artist, there was something profoundly intellectually dishonest in proclaiming what I did to be original. Obviously I do a lot of verbatim copying as an artist and my life is filled with mixed tapes and with things that I copied as part of my journey, as it were, to becoming the person I am today. But also every time I write a novel, I copy Cervantes who invented the Western novel. And every time anyone writes a detective novel, you copy Edgar Allen Poe who invented the detective novel. And it’s very tempting to say well, what I’m doing is a creative input of what those people did. But I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act. So that’s really informed the way that I both create and disseminate my work. And clearly it’s one of the themes in my work. For example, right now I’m touring a novel called Pirate Cinema and that’s all about people who make their own movies and share them.
ASP: How did you get started as a writer, and what drove you to become a science fiction and fantasy writer in particular? What recommendations would you give to aspiring authors?
Doctorow: My earliest writing excursion was in 1977. My dad had taken me to see Star Wars and I was six years old, and in those days there weren’t a lot of narrative options for young people. If you were six years old, typically your access to video was limited to three UHS channels; we didn’t have VCRs or DVRs, didn’t have DVDs, so the stories were pretty simple. You basically got these stories which were designed for small children, and they were very linear. They had single points of view, there weren’t really many surprises, there wasn’t much by way of dramatic tension. So going to the movies that day really kind of blew the top of my head off, not because of the virtuosity of Star Wars, which is a pretty good movie, but because it had that kind of braided story line with multiple points of view, lots of surprises, very well managed dramatic tension, and non linear storytelling. And so when I got back home, I took some paper and I stapled it together and I trimmed it to the size of a paperback novel and I just wrote out the Star Wars story over and over again as best I could recall, like a pianist practicing his scales. And it was very exciting and satisfying and I said, “I think I’m going to be a writer when I grow up!” I was only six so I had lots of other things that I decided I would do in the years that followed: deep sea diver, candy factory owner, astronaut. But when I was twelve, I wrote a very bad Conan novel, which again I found very satisfying. And when I was sixteen, I started putting stories in the mail. They started selling when I was seventeen to some of the smaller magazines, so then I broke into the bigger magazines about ten years after that, and then about five years after that my first novel came out and about five years after that I quit my day job. So that’s kind of the arc.
As to why science fiction… A lot of it has to do with that’s what I read. But also Toronto is a good city to grow up in as a science fiction reader. Judith Merrel – one of the great editors, writers, and critics in the field – had actually left the States to move to Toronto in 1968 after the police riot in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. She set up a library there with her personal collection which she donated to the Toronto Public Library that’s now the Merrell Collection and it’s the largest public science fiction reference collection in the world. And because she was the writer-resident, she would welcome writers in and mentor them and tutor them and put them together in writing groups. We also had a very good science fiction bookstore, which is still there, called Bakka, where I eventually ended up working. It’s a great used and new bookstore, and when I was about nine I went in there and working behind the counter was a woman named Tonya Huff, who is now a very well known and well regarded fantasy writer. And Tonya listened to the stuff that I liked to read and took me back to the used section and found me a cheap paperback of HB Piper’s The Fuzzy which was a very satisfying book and remains one of my favorites. So I grew up in that science fiction milieu.
I really don’t have any advice for breaking into the field. The great irony of career advice from established writers is that it’s always about how to break into a field that hasn’t existed for twenty years. But I do have some advice for being a writer who is productive and moderately happy about what you produce. The first thing is to write every day, even when you’re not feeling inspired. I think that’s advice that a lot of young writers hear, but assume it’s kind of aspirational, like in a perfect world you would do it. And I don’t think that’s right. I wish I had figured out earlier on that writing every day, even a small amount, just a regular amount, you set a target and you reach it, even 75 words a day, half a paragraph, will turn into a novel every couple of years. It will also give you a writing habit, and a habit is something you get for free – it just happens. You know you roll out of bed and you do what’s habitual. I would also advise to finishing in the middle of a sentence rather than at the end of a scene or the end of a paragraph. I find that sitting down and having a few words to type when you sit down that you know what they are and you don’t have to imagine what they might be is a great way to prime the pump and sort of get things going. A friend of mine who drives a standard transmission car compared it to parking your car on a downhill slope so it can roll a bit before you have to put it in gear. And then the other advice: don’t revise while you write. I think that’s very important. I think that just pins the butterfly to the board and kills it. Resist the temptation to rewrite. And ditch real-time communications media especially while you’re writing. But in general, using email and message boards is much better than using live chat and voice communication because they are less interruptive. You can sort of store up the social part of your life or the professional part of your life for when you’re done with your creative stuff.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist. He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing (boingboing.net), and a contributor to The Guardian, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Wired, and many other newspapers, magazines and websites. He was formerly Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org), a non-profit civil liberties group that defends freedom in technology law, policy, standards and treaties. He holds an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University (UK), where he is a Visiting Senior Lecturer; in 2007, he served as the Fulbright Chair at the Annenberg Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.
Interview done by Linsey Duncan & Kevin Cullen