Bad Monkeys — frequently asked questions


If you haven’t finished Bad Monkeys yet and want to be surprised by what happens, come back later.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

The story of how I came to write the book can be found here.

Did you always know how the novel would end?

Certainly by the time I started writing I did. If you look at the opening paragraph—which was there from the very first draft—you’ll see that it essentially tells you what the white room is. Of course, until you’ve read Robert Love’s explanation of ant farms, you may not recognize what it’s telling you, but the clues are right there. And once you understand that the story is taking place in an ant farm, the only other question is, “Who’s the ant?” That wasn’t a hard choice for me. I always thought it was much, much more interesting to have it be Jane.

Dixon tells Jane that he wants to demonstrate the futility of evil. Was that your goal as well?

For me, Bad Monkeys is more about demonstrating the glamour of evil. Just as the novel tells you up front what the white room is, Jane tells you repeatedly what she is—but the way that she does it causes you to continually draw the wrong conclusion. Jane lies, and you know she lies, but still you trust her. She kills, and steals, and commits other wicked acts, and yet despite this mountain of evidence you believe that she’s really a good person at heart. She tells you that she’s a bad seed, and instead of backing away you drop your guard. That’s the glamour of evil.

Do you like Jane?

Of course I like Jane. I like Tony Soprano and Hannibal Lecter, too. But liking someone doesn’t change what they are. The key to dispelling the glamour of evil is to not confuse charisma with virtue.

What are your thoughts about vigilantism?

Like torturing people for information, I think it works a lot better on television than it does in reality.

So you wouldn’t be in favor of creating a real-world “organization”?

Well, the catch is that what makes the organization effective isn’t just the magic technology or the lack of legal restraints, it’s that it’s run by very smart, incorruptible people. Now if you’ve got people like that, you don’t need an organization—you can just put them to work in our existing institutions. Despite what you may have heard, the Bill of Rights really isn’t that big of a stumbling block to the pursuit of justice.

The Panopticon division with its Eyes Only program takes the notion of “total information awareness” to the level of a comic nightmare. Do you worry about the abuse of surveillance technology?

As a citizen, sure. As a novelist, though, I’m less interested in deliberate abuse than in the way spying can lead even well-intentioned people to do wrong, by presenting them with moral quandaries they don’t know how to solve.

For example, let’s say in a moment of curiosity I rummage through your briefcase, and find evidence that suggests—but doesn’t prove—that you’re a danger to society. Now I’ve got a dilemma. I don’t want to destroy your life with a false accusation, but I also don’t want you to go off and hurt somebody.

One way to resolve this, of course, is to keep digging until I find solid proof of what sort of person you are. But that approach isn’t always practical—I may not have the necessary time or resources, or it could be that the proof I need is locked away in your heart where no amount of digging can get at it. Another problem is that my motives aren’t entirely pure. Yes, I want to do the right thing, but I also want to avoid being blamed for doing the wrong thing—or for doing nothing. If it comes down to a snap decision, I may prefer to risk the false accusation, not because I really believe you’re dangerous, but because it’s an easier mistake to justify. “I acted to protect society” sounds a lot better than “I didn’t think I should say anything until I was sure.”

Your author bio says that you received “an interesting moral education” from your parents. Could you elaborate?

My parents were both good people, and I was lucky to have known them, but because they came from such different backgrounds, their approach to moral issues was very different as well.

Dad started out as a pastor and later became a chaplain, both jobs that involve a lot of counseling, so he was a good listener and a sharp psychologist. He had definite opinions about right and wrong and wasn’t afraid to share them, but at the same time he wasn’t particularly concerned with getting people to agree with him. If you had a problem you were struggling with, he’d give you his advice, and then it was up to you to decide what to do.

Mom came from a missionary family. Missionaries do care whether you agree with them—getting you to agree, or at least bob your head enthusiastically, is item number one on their list of career goals. So Mom’s way of dealing with moral questions was a lot more combative, and because she was also the moral enforcer in our house, I didn’t always appreciate it.

With hindsight, I can see merit in both approaches. For working through complex issues, I still prefer my father’s low-key, thoughtful style. But when I need to draw a line and say “OK, debate’s over, this is where I stand,” that’s where my mother’s style comes into its own.

So if you were going off to fight a group of bad monkeys, and you could only bring one parent as backup…

Oh, no question. I’d bring Mom. And those monkeys would be sorry.