May 28, 2013

Barry Wightman: The CCLaP Interview

Pepperland, by Barry Wightman

Author Barry Wightman

Well, what do you know -- at the same time that CCLaP is running its latest virtual book tour, we've also been asked to participate in someone else's! Specifically, it's former Chicagoan and current Wisconsinite Barry Wightman, whose new novel Pepperland is making the blog rounds as we speak. I had a chance recently to talk with Barry via email, where we discussed the book's 1970s milieu, his background as an artist, and the interesting decision he made to delve into the psychedelic beginnings of the computer and online industries, and why he decided to make this play such a major part in his novel. The whole thing is fairly long, so if you're reading this on the front page of our website or via RSS, you'll want to "click through" to the archived page for the entire thing. My many thanks to Barry for sitting down and talking; and fellow Chicagoans, don't forget that Barry will be doing a reading and signing at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square at 7 pm on June 19th.

One of the things your book is best known for is tying together most of the elements of the countercultural era into one overarching story -- garage bands, the birth of computer culture, the implosion of '60s radicalism, the first signs of the Reaganism right around the corner. What is your personal relationship with these years, and what drove you to write a book within this milieu?

Yep. Pepperland is all about those cultural threads that still resonate in us today. I grew up in the thick of the late '60s, early '70s. Those were my high school and college years. While I try not to let hazy nostalgia take over, the more I think about that time, the more it seems to truly have been a golden age, a seminal time. Some of those years had a kind of radioactivity about them -- 1968 in particular, where everything went nuts -- the music, politics, technology, the whole bit. I selected 1974 as the primary setting for Pepperland because I think it can be thought of as a dividing line. With the Patti Hearst debacle, radical politics truly fell apart. Music became much more corporate -- money became king, the Rolling Stones put out a lousy record (Goats Head Soup) and arena rock truly became the thing. And Ethernet was invented at Xerox Parc. Understand that the formulas Sooz describes in Pepperland are authentic representations of CSMA/CD (a key enabler of Ethernet which in turn enabled the PC networks and ultimately the Internet we live on) -- many thanks and acknowledgements to Bob Metcalfe, the real inventor. And those crazy computer clubs in Palo Alto and Menlo Park (e.g. the Homebrew Computer Club) truly did happen right there in the spring of '74. You can look it up!

I'm fascinated with large cultural sweeps, the interconnection of everything. Pepperland is a humble stab at it.

Unusually for a book of this sort, a big part of your plot concerns the "nerd hippies" of the early 1970s who first came to northern California for the counterculture, but then stayed and created Silicon Valley, the personal computing industry, Xerox PARC, the World Wide Web and more. Do your readers find it surprising to learn that so much psychedelia and belief in utopia went into founding what we now think of as the "tech industry," and is this why you decided to make the topic play such a major role in your novel?

I spent about 30 years in the high tech industry (beginning in 1975) selling computers and high end networking equipment, so all of that stuff has always been very cool to me. I even thought about trying to get a job with Xerox in 1980 when they sort of introduced their Star 5000 computer, which was the very machine that Steve Jobs et al based the Mac on...it had a mouse, a GUI, the whole bit. But Xerox didn't know what they had.

Anyway, people have said, "Gee, did they have computers in 1970?" (Sigh.) Pepperland's opening scene is in the U of Michigan data center, which truly was one of the most advanced academic data centers. Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a monster success in the 80s, went there -- he would've been in Pepper and Sooz's class. He too, hacked the password. True fact.

I think it's important that people know where all this technology we use today came from -- all those nerd hippies who were trying to change the world. One revolution ended, another began. By the way, a good source for computer history lore is Fire in the Valley, by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, McGraw-Hill, 2000. Also, I spent lots of time in Silicon Valley (didn't live there) in the 80s/90s. Crazy wonderful bookstores and computer dealers with names like Weird Stuff. You gotta love that.

Your book takes place in locations across the United States, yet your references in each area are highly specific and detailed. How familiar were you already with these settings, and how much of this was authorial research as you were writing?

I pretty much grew up in Chicago, which, of course, is the primary setting for Pepperland. And I know downstate Illinois, St Louis, pretty well too. I've crossed I-55 countless times over the decades...and the Dixie Truckers Home...yep, been there. Palmer House, Marshall Fields, et al. Even the scene on Goose Island (during Pepper's crazed night journey at the end) is authentic. Many of the kids running from the cops at the Democratic Convention in '68 hid out with the bums on Goose Island. Bill Ayers helped me with that.

I'm fascinated by maps and am always aware of an area's layout...and I think that contributes to my sense of place, all those roads, intersections, streets, railroad tracks. And the view from the Hancock at night -- the way the city appears to Pepper and Sooz like a big computer circuit board, that's a great image. But I have to say I stole that from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

This is your first novel, after an entire career already as a lit-journal editor, radio contributor, poet, musician and more. Why now? What did you think of the process, compared to other artistic things you do?

Well, I spent most of my career doing what Pepper didn't -- I jumped into the computer industry straight out of school. I didn't jump off the creative cliff. Maybe I should've. All this literary stuff has always been my thing but I didn't do anything about it until a few years ago. Pepper is much smarter than me. And Sooz is even smarter -- they both figured out pretty early what their it was.

But I always knew that I needed to write. A novel. I started a couple when I was 10 or 12. Spy stories, since my dad was reading Le Carre's Spy Who Came in From the Cold. By the way, Sooz's flaw is her lack of moderation, which Pepper speculates might bring the both of them down. Karla, in Tinker Tailor, has the same flaw.

There's not too much better than being in the zone, writing good stuff -- the feeling of finishing up a good line, a good paragraph, the whole book -- that's it. We're all looking for it.

Another thing. None of the stuff in Pepperland happened to me. But it would've been cool if it did. I made it all up. Although, I did have a little brother who was killed in a car accident. So, I do have some skin in the game. Maybe it's an alternative speculative autobiography.

And finally, I couldn't help but notice that you're a professional voiceover artist on top of everything else. How does one even get started in an industry like that? I would guess that a job like this would complement the sometimes chaotic life of a creative person -- is that the case in reality?

Yeah, the voiceover thing. A million years ago I was a college disk jockey, wishing I could make it on WLS or WXRT. Sadly I didn't. But I got some great voiceover training and an intro to that world in Chicago. It's very fun but it all depends on whether or not you can deliver the written word effectively. And thanks to the training I've had in voiceover, I'm pretty good at reading my work aloud. I can deliver the goods at a Pepperland reading. Pepperland 'live!'

One other thing. Pepperland is strewn with obscure and not so obscure musical and cultural references. Yes, the footnotes highlight some. But there are many more. Musical freaks could have some fun. Stump the band.

Thanks very much for these great questions. And thanks for reading Pepperland.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:50 PM, May 28, 2013. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Profiles |