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A Conversation With Neal Stephenson
An interview with Catherine Asaro
September 1999

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's recent novel, Cryptonomicon, is making an impressive showing on numerous bestseller lists. It follows a line of successes. His first novel, The Big U, came out in 1984, followed by Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller, (1988), his acclaimed bestseller, Snow Crash (1992), and his 1995 classic, The Diamond Age, which won the Hugo Award. Under the pseudonym Stephen Bury, he and his uncle, George Jewsbury, have published two thrillers: Interface (1994) and The Cobweb (1996). Neal also writes nonfiction for publications such as Wired and is one of the only authors ever to write fiction for Time magazine.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
Neal Stephenson Interview

Cryptonomicon
The Diamond Age
The Cobweb

Avon Books launched the Cryptonomicon.com website in April, including a 37,000 word essay by Stephenson titled, "In the Beginning was the Command Line," a savvy look at the arcane universe of computer operating systems written with Neal's flair for dry humour. The demand for the essay was so big that within a few days it crashed the server for the site. Readers can soon buy a trade paperback version of "In the Beginning was the Command Line," when it goes on sale November 9, 1999.

I interviewed Neal over dinner in a Baltimore restaurant, one stop on his popular book tour for Cryptonomicon. He now lives with his family near Seattle, but he is no stranger to the Baltimore area, having been born only a few miles away in Fort Meade, Maryland -- also home to the National Security Agency.

"I grew up in a science oriented family," he says. "My father taught engineering as a professor and his father was a physics professor. My mother is a biochemist and the daughter of a biochemist. I had no formal training at an advanced level, but I taught myself subjects that interested me."

Neal remains modest about his impressive accomplishments. He is refreshingly unaffected, but also confident in his work. "I don't have much of a technical background. I started Boston University as a physics major and ended up with a BA in geography, though I did work as a teaching assistant in the physics department. I started writing about half-way through college.

"I'm pretty much self-taught in computers. I like to tinker with technical stuff for the fun of it -- circuits, computer programs, playing, tinkering, enough to remain semi-aware of what's going on. A degree in computer science wouldn't do that much good anyway. Computers are changing so fast that it's always necessary to do more research."

His research is thorough. As a physicist, I appreciated the attention to the science and math in Cryptonomicon, including the nifty equations and diagrams. The book doesn't require readers to know anything about the subject to enjoy the story, but at the same time it includes a wealth of clever nuances for those familiar with the background.

"It's more normal for me to do the research first, before writing," he explains. "I tend to stop after I get into writing the book. When deciding what to write, I pick a subject, dive into it, take notes. It gives me ideas, a place to start. Then I'm off and running. I knew I would start with cryptography on this one. The subject interested me when I was a boy, and that interest came out in my writing as an adult."

Neal's books all have that sense of "What if?" that characterizes the best science fiction. He says, "I always write with a science fiction feel to my stories, though for some of the books, the marketing may be more toward a mainstream audience. The science fiction approach doesn't mean it's always about the future; it's an awareness that this is different."

Despite the subject of his books, though, he doesn't actually spend much time in the electronic universe. "With the Web, it's hour by hour, day by day. I would go crazy trying to track all those conversations. I prefer big projects that let you totally focus on them for a long time. I like the rhythm of being a writer. People leave you alone for a few years. When the book comes out, there is a big burst of attention. Then it's over and I can concentrate on another project. I usually take about two years to write a book. I like the sense of a large project."

About the title, Cryptonomicon: "We wanted a word to catch attention, a one word title. The name is fictitious, the name of a book in the story. People keep expanding this book with their knowledge about cryptology, until it contains everything known about the subject. I liked the word Crypt, so I thought of Cryptonomicon. I liked what it evoked. Then I heard that a document existed on the web called the Cryptonomicon. As it turns out, it was actually Cyphernomicon, an excellent site by Tim May for cypherpunks." (May has a page on the contents at Cyphernomicon)

One reason I enjoyed talking to Neal was because of the obvious relish he takes in the story he creates for the reader. When I asked how he felt about his fiction being called the harbinger of our future, he laughed good-naturedly. "It's bullshit! Things that make a good story don't necessarily work out that well in practice. I think it's bad practice to try to deliberately convey a message. It's better to back off and let people form their own conclusions. I write to tell a story. My characters help me explore the ideas. I don't analyze how I do it."

His audacious prose in Cryptonomicon exhilarates, with a literary quality that puts more affected works to shame. He doesn't examine the nuts and bolts of his technique, either. "With plot, prose, and so on, I can't be analytical about it. If I tried to think of it at this level, I would be paralyzed. Self-consciousness is terrible. The writing has to come naturally. I don't have a favourite part to it, but I do find interest in both the topic and the characters of the story."

"I tell a story first," he says. "I write for the love of writing. If I didn't do it, I would get antsy." He pauses. "That's all I want from life, to be allowed to write."

Copyright © 1999 by Catherine Asaro

Catherine Asaro writes near future romantic thrillers and hard SF space adventure. Her next book, The Veiled Web comes out in December. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula and has won various other awards, including the Analog Readers Poll and Compuserve's HOMer. She earned her doctorate in Chemical Physics and masters in Physics, both from Harvard. Her husband is the proverbial rocket scientist. Catherine says she is a walking definition of the words "absent-minded" and has managed to spill coffee in every room in her house, which is a great source of amusement for her daughter.


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