Eliot Peper is an american author that belongs to the independent literary industry. He stills works as a strategist while creating a numerous body of work as a writer, accounting to five novels so far, considering this August’s Neon Fever Dream. We have reached him to talk about Cumulus, published this same 2016, a work that has already reached cult status among the workers of the technological industry, mostly in California, the novel’s setting.
First things first, apart from being a novelist you’re also a strategy consultant, mostly with tech companies. Do you considerer yourself a strategist that writes novels or a novelist that works as a strategist? When did you decide to become a writer?
It’s hard to separate my work as a strategist and as a novelist because they inform each other. Many of the skills are the same: asking hard questions, imagining how the world might be different, and making something from nothing. I’ve always loved reading and when I started working for a venture capital firm, I discovered that although there were many nonfiction business books available, there weren’t many novels set in the world of tech startups. I found this hard to believe. Silicon Valley is full of high-powered personalities, world-changing technology, and fortunes won and lost. It seemed like the perfect canvas for fiction but I couldn’t find much to read. So I tried to solve my own problem. If I couldn’t find that book to read, I’d try my hand at writing it.
You consider yourself an independent author, and the distribution of your books proves you right. Do you think that indie authors like yourself may become full-time writers? Is being independent a decision you make or something that the industry imposes upon you?
There are many bestselling indie writers. Authors like Hugh Howey, Douglas Richards, and Barry Eisler remain independent because they make much, much, much more money that way than by working with one of the large publishing houses. Some indie writers make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. That said, most indie and traditionally published authors earn much more modest incomes from their work. Author Earnings is probably the best source of data on this question. There’s never been a better time to start writing. It used to be that a writer’s only option to earn a living was to go through a large publisher. Technology has given writers more options and having more options is always better. I’m a pragmatist. With every new book, I ask myself: Would it be better to retain the creative and financial control of independence or partner with a publisher for that story? The answer varies from writer to writer, and from title to title.
Your novels so far are, in essence, technological thrillers. How much of your personal opinions about the tech industry do you put in them? Have you thought about changing genre in your future novels?
Writing is a selfish act. I write about what fascinates me. I weave in ideas that pique my curiosity. I draft stories that I would want to read. For that reason, I don’t pay much attention to genre. Genre is a label that gets applied after a story is written, to let readers know what to expect. The reason my stories deal with technology is because technology is something that’s always interested me. If something else captures my attention, then future stories will be about that instead!
Your work rate is really refreshing and impressing. This August you will publish your fifth novel in three years. What’s your secret? Is it easy to reset your mindset in order to create something new so soon or do you bring some of the old novel into the new one?
Enjoy the process. Many people struggle with productivity simply because they think they want something that they actually don’t enjoy doing. Being a baker might sound fun, but if you want to be a professional baker then you have to get up at 3AM everyday and go to work. I write because I enjoy the craft of storytelling. Because I enjoy storytelling, when I finish one novel I’m already thinking about the next one. With every book, I focus on something different. For example, I might be trying to improve structure or plot in one book and character development in the next one. Or maybe I’m fascinated by a particular trend, topic, or philosophical question that ends up being the seed for a story.
Between 2007 and 2008 you studied in the University of Taiwan. There are some aspects in Cumulus about a division between “castes” according to where the people are able to live that seems to remind us of what’s happening in some Asian nations. Do you think that city-states like Hong-Kong, Singapore or even Taiwan itself are already on the road to a distopic future quite like the one you present on your novel?
The economic inequality in Cumulus is actually based on my experiences in the United States, not Taiwan. California is a world center for economic growth and technological innovation, but we struggle with endemic social problems like racism, poverty, and urban crime. Silicon Valley is building the future, but is it a future we want to actually live in?
In relation with the previous question. It seems clear to us that you are deeply troubled about the growing inequality in the United States. Do you think that’s the greatest issue the American society is facing?
It’s certainly one of the big ones. If you grow up poor in the United States, it is unimaginably harder to achieve success than if you grow up rich. That gap is growing and the social implications are staggering. The American Dream is premised on an even playing field. If we can’t provide that, we’re cheating ourselves and our children.
Is the real Oakland so close to becoming the nighmarish city you show us in your novel?
I certainly hope not! Cumulus should be a warning, not a prediction. I love Oakland and am thrilled to see all the positive things happening here. But it does feel like we live on the frontlines of many of the issues facing the nation. We enjoy tremendous economic growth, yet entire swaths of the city are plagued by crime and poverty. Our schools and public services are underfunded. Our wealthy neighbourhoods are hiring private security services and sending their children to private schools. It will take empathy, sacrifice, and persistence to systematically solve any of these problems.
We may understand Cumulus as a technological thriller, but it’s also been called a Cyberpunk novel by many. Did you think of a particular genre while writing it? Is there a real difference anymore between the technological thrillers and the Cyberpunk novels?
I don’t think about genre at all while I’m writing. I just try to write the best story I possibly can. Most people associate cyberpunk with a certain gritty atmosphere in a world that’s often controlled by megacorporations. The technological thriller genre can be a little more broad, including writers like Daniel Suarez or Ramez Naam that write near term science fiction.
I can’t help but notice the many basketball references on the novel. Are you a basketball fan? Who will win in a game between Frederick’s and Curry’s Warriors?
Huan Li, as CEO of Cumulus, uses the database of a great technological company for her own profit, to investigate the lives of whomever she chooses. Lately there has been some talk of the vulnerability of our data on the web, about the encryption failures or the way some goverments use their free access to some information. If you question this, the response, most of the times, is something like “if you don’t do anything illegal you have nothing to fear.” Looking at it from your personal experience, and in your opinion, do we need to protect even our most trivial conversations as much as our personal data?
Every piece of information on a networked device is vulnerable. No data is ever truly secure. That’s not a criticism of current information security practices, it’s just how computer and network technology work. As we build computers into everything we own, everything we own becomes vulnerable to software incursion. Your car is a computer with wheels. Your stove is a computer with gas. Your house is a computer with rooms. That allows us to do incredible things. We live in a world of wonders that any previous generation would see as literally magical. But like all dreams, this has a dark side. We may own all of these incredible tools and toys, but we never quite know if we control them. It used to be that ownership and control were so highly correlated that it made sense to think of them as the same thing. That’s no longer true when a hacker can hijack your car or drain your bank account with a few lines of code. If every email you write, every text you send, every photo you take, and every search you make might one day leak and end up under public scrutiny, wouldn’t that affect how you act and communicate online? Well, that’s the case today. It’s a lesson we’re all learning, slowly and painfully. But the logic of “you have nothing to lose if you have nothing to hide” is a fallacy. That’s political argument, not a technical one. That’s the excuse of every hawk trying to extend the reach of legitimized surveillance. That argument has been widely made throughout history by leaders trying to build police states, long before computers made that so much cheaper and more efficient to accomplish. So, while we must be careful with technology, we must be even more careful with policy.
After publishing the novel you received a phone call from William Gibson himself. How did you feel after your work was recognized by such an author?
I was flabbergasted! I’ve been reading William Gibson’s books since I was a kid and talking to him was an incredible experience. He’s a brilliant and unbelievably sweet human being. I nearly went into a fan boy coma. I just can’t wait to read his next story…
From the outside the independent literature world seems almost like an uncharted territory. Do you read independent novels in addition to writing them? Could you recommend some titles for us?
You might be surprised. Most readers don’t realize that they’re reading an indie book, just as I can’t remember the publishing house that put out Harry Potter. I highly recommend the work of indie authors like Hugh Howey, Barry Eisler, Andy Weir, and A.G. Riddle. There are also many “hybrid” authors that publish traditionally and independently, check out Chuck Wendig, Warren Ellis, and Jason Gurley.
In Cumulus you have created your own universe, a fresh one where one could see the development of literary sequels or even some derived works. What does your instinct tell you about it? Is there room for new works in the same universe, even from different media? Does your next work, Neon Fever Dream, take place in the same universe or is it a stand-alone novel?
I’m glad you enjoyed the Cumulus universe. I loved writing in it and would be happy to return to that world to tell new stories. There’s a lot of room to explore it further with new novels. Cumulus is already being developed into a digital serial complete with art and extras. There has also been film/television interest from Hollywood. It’ll be fun to see where it goes.
Neon Fever Dream is not set in the same world. It’s a contemporary thriller about a dark secret hidden in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man. It’s dark, gritty story with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime.
Keeping with Neon Fever Dream. This new novel will also be self-published. Do you think that self-publishing is the future of the industry and the editorials will lose ground?]
I think there are many opportunities for the large publishing companies to reinvent themselves and focus on curation and promotion instead of distribution. I also think that self publishing will continue to capture market share as more and more writers realize that they have options. Good editors are invaluable, but stories are no longer confined to a single business model. That’s good for writers and readers both.
Your vision of the intelligence networks in the novel is clearly a critical one. Do you think they have lost the north in the current world? Is there a place for the old idealism today?
I’m not convinced there ever was an old idealism. The nature of intelligence work requires a certain amount of cynicism about the human condition, and that’s what I was trying to channel with Graham. That said, I think that like any large organization, intelligence services are made up of people with diverse motivations. I think many are true patriots who fundamentally view their work as public service while others seek the personal power and influence that the job affords them. I don’t know who are more effective, or dangerous…
We grew up with the writings of Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson, with roleplaying games like Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, with films like Blade Runner and TV shows like Max Headroom. All of them told us about the growing power of the megacorporations, the growing inequality and the environmental chaos. But still we seem to be going to the same almost apocalyptic future they spoke about. Do you think we can change that? Are we bound to travel the road until arriving at such a future?
I’m an optimist. Technology has allowed us to take incredible steps forward as a species. We’ve eliminated most infectious diseases, extended lifespan, reduced child mortality, reduced crime and war, and lifted billions of people from subsistence lifestyles. Nearly every piece of human knowledge or entertainment is available for free or cheap from nearly anywhere on earth. We can travel anywhere on the planet in a day and communicate with our loved ones no matter where they are. These are things that Roman emperors could only dream of. In historical terms, we are all royalty. For the sake of our descendants, I hope we can keep civilization heading in that direction. Gibson and Dick’s work, or Cumulus for that matter, tell us more about the present than the future. Cyberpunk worlds illustrates the social issues we wrestle with today, not an apocalyptic tomorrow. Their power lies in empowering readers to re-evaluate their own lives and societies from a fresh perspective, and maybe find new solutions.