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.
The first chapter describes how the Gant Phoenix skyscraper was built to replace the Empire State Building, which was destroyed “when a fully loaded 747-400 [was] struck by a meteorite just after takeoff from Newark International and [came] screaming out of control across the Hudson.” Is this some sort of sick 9/11 joke?
No. The book was written long before the September 11th attacks. The bit about the Empire State Building is based on a real incident, though: on July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber on its way to Newark Airport got lost in the fog over Manhattan and crashed into an upper floor of the skyscraper, killing 14 people. Knowing about that, I got to wondering one day what would happen if a bigger plane hit the Empire State Building…
After 9/11, did you consider revising the first chapter?
No. I do remember saying to my wife at some point on September 11th, “I think it’s going to be a while before I read Sewer, Gas in public again,” but I would never have seriously considered rewriting it.
Is it weird, rereading the book now?
It is weird, but the plane destroying the Empire State Building actually isn’t the weirdest part. The first chapter also contains a direct reference to the World Trade towers—“the twin giants overlooking the Battery”—that I found much more startling the first time I reread it, because I’d forgotten it was there. Then in the third chapter, where I’m describing New Bedford-Stuyvesant, there’s a throwaway line about how “white liberals shied away from the neighborhood out of a belief that the many Arab residents would oppress women or Jews who lived near them, while white conservatives feared being kidnapped or blown up.” Boy, does that read differently post-9/11. And of course there’s the whole shtick about Morris Kazenstein and his Palestinian cousins—at the time I was writing the novel, Middle East peace seemed like a real possibility, and for a while I wondered whether the idea of Israeli-Palestinian conflict might become an anachronism before Sewer even saw print.
What about in chapter fifteen, where you wrote that “those who offended Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] had a high incidence of death under mysterious circumstances.” Is that a veiled reference to Princess Diana’s car crash?
Nope. When I wrote that line, Diana was still alive. Spooky, eh?
Is Joan Fine your alter ego?
No. I’m not a political activist or a street fighter, I don’t smoke, and while I did have a religious upbringing, my family were Protestants, not Catholics, which involves a different set of baggage. Joan and I do have similar styles of argument, but I’m much more comfortable in written confrontations, whereas she is definitely an in-your-face kind of debater.
The character I most closely resemble in terms of personality is probably Harry Gant, but he’s not me either.
How much of an influence was Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy on the writing of this book?
No direct influence. Despite the parallels noted by several reviewers, I’ve never read The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It’s possible I picked up some of the flavor of Shea and Wilson’s work from a secondhand source—like Steve Jackson’s Illuminati card game—but I think most if not all of the similarities are just coincidence.
So Philo Dufrense is not based on submarine commander Hagbard Celine?
No. Philo was my answer to Ragnar Danneskjold, the blond, blue-eyed, pro-capitalist pirate from Atlas Shrugged. As fans of Atlas know, Ragnar was able to conduct his pirate raids in a surface ship because socialists are too stupid to use radar or satellite tracking. But Philo was going up against representatives of the free market, so I figured he’d need to travel underwater to have a fighting chance. Also, I was a fan of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and thought it would be cool to have my own submarine battle.
Why did you make Philo Amish?
A couple of reasons, beyond the sheer goofiness of it. First, because part of what I was doing with the Electric Negroes was making fun of stereotyped media portrayals of African-Americans, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time worrying about whether I was guilty of the same sin. Making Philo Amish was a way of stopping myself from asking “Is he black enough?” every ten minutes.
The second reason had to do with Philo’s temperament. One of my other literary inspirations for the whole Yabba-Dabba-Doo subplot was Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.* That book’s protagonist, George Hayduke, is a Vietnam vet and former POW who launches a campaign of sabotage against the polluters who are ruining his beloved southwestern desert. Hayduke is a pretty angry guy, but he also loves life, and in his own fatalistic way he remains an optimist (my favorite line in the novel, uttered at a moment when Hayduke’s luck appears to have run out, is “When the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about”). I wanted Philo to have a similar spirit, but my sense was that a typical survivor of the Black Pandemic would either be embittered and paranoid, like Vanna Domingo, or insane and homicidal, like Troubadour Penzias. Philo’s odd history helps explain why he is more psychologically healthy than either of those characters: because he doesn’t identify strongly as an African-American, he doesn’t take the Pandemic personally in the way almost any other black man would; and because he’s always been “a stranger in a strange land,” his pre- and post-Pandemic lifestyles really aren’t all that different. I probably could have come up with a more plausible way of handling this than giving baby Philo to the Mennonites, but hey, it’s a Matt Ruff novel.
*Another book that reads differently post-9/11.
Where did the character of Lexa Thatcher come from?
Lexa was inspired by sex columnist Susie Bright. Free love and polyamory are popular subjects in libertarian/anarchist fiction, and Lexa was my nod to that, sort of a shout out to the Robert Heinlein fans in the audience.
Is the character of Kite Edmonds based on a real person?
Loosely. There was a real Sarah Emma Edmonds (you can see a picture of her here), who joined the Union Army under the alias Frank Thompson and served with the 2nd Michigan Infantry. But unlike the fictional Kite, she never flew, and she survived the war with both arms intact. She also married, had three children—and died in 1898.
Is there any explanation for how Kite managed to live for so long?
No, Kite’s longevity is one of those unexplained and irrational things you just have to deal with.
Is the Cargo Cult for real?
Although an anthropologist might take issue with some of the details of Bartholomew Frum’s description, yes, there really were cults (plural) of Cargo, and even today, there are probably still a few Cargo cultists hanging around in remote parts of Melanesia. Fairness compels me to point out that there are also still millions of Americans who believe that prayer can cure disease, prevent airplane crashes, and aid in the fight against terrorism. And before you Objectivists start acting smug, you should know that Ayn Rand had a lucky gold watch.
Who is Mr. James E. Ray, and what really became of his rifle?
James Earl Ray is the man charged with the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In the tradition of ‘60s-era assassinations, there is some controversy about the case: Ray pled guilty to the crime in order to avoid the death penalty, but later recanted and claimed he was an innocent patsy. Though his attempts to appeal his sentence were unsuccessful, he did convince a number of prominent people, including members of King’s family, that he was not the real shooter. He died in prison, of cirrhosis, in 1998.
As for Ray’s rifle, if it’s not still in an evidence locker somewhere, it has probably been destroyed by now, but if it were to be offered at auction on EBay, I have no doubt it would fetch a high price.
Is there such a thing as a “gas-phase analogue” computer?
No, I just made that up.
Do you believe artificial intelligence is possible?
Yes, but I suspect it’s a lot more difficult than even skeptics make out. And because I think the form intelligence takes depends heavily on how it’s embodied, I wouldn’t expect a real AI to talk or act like a human being, any more than I’d expect a cat to spin a web. G.A.S. isn’t intended to be a realistic depiction of artificial intelligence, of course; it’s an evil genie in hi-tech drag.
In the latest edition of the novel, the description of Morris Kazenstein’s dreidel has changed slightly. What’s up with that?
It turns out there are two kinds of dreidels in the world. Dreidels manufactured in the U.S. and most other countries bear the Hebrew letters Nun, Gimel, He, and Shin, an abbreviation of the phrase Nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there.” The miracle in question, which involved a one-day supply of lamp oil that somehow lasted for eight days,* supposedly took place in the Temple of Jerusalem, in Israel, so on Israeli dreidels, the Shin is replaced by a Peh, and the phrase becomes Nes gadol hayah poh, “A great miracle happened here.”
Unfortunately, my primary source of dreidel-lore, Merilyn Simonds Mohr’s The Games Treasury, screwed up the description, combining the lettering from the non-Israeli dreidel with the translation from the Israeli dreidel. I’m a pretty obsessive fact-checker, so I really should have caught this before the novel went to press, but it slipped past me, and nobody at Atlantic Monthly Press or Warner/Aspect noticed it either. The book had already been in print for five years by the time a guy named Yoel Bogoch sent me an email pointing out the mistake.
Ordinarily I resist making changes to a published text, even to correct factual errors, because once you start down that road there’s no end to the amount of tinkering you can do, and I don’t want to turn into George Lucas. But I decided to make an exception in this case, on the grounds that this is really just a big typo. I know there are probably one or two fans out there who read the original version of Sewer, Gas enough times to memorize the botched dreidel description, who will find the change annoying. To them, and to the Jewish people, I offer my apologies.
*This strikes me as a minor miracle rather than a great one, but I guess you can’t expect YHWH to part the Red Sea every time.
Will there be a sequel?
No. Despite the unintentionally confusing use of the word “trilogy” in the subtitle, it was always intended to be a single book.
Are there any plans to make Sewer, Gas & Electric into a movie?
Not at the moment.