The Perfect Storm, or rather, The Monster InterviewOr better still: The Best Q & As from…
...Pulp n.66 (March 2007), Il Mucchio n. 633 (April 2007), Tribe n.101 (April 2007), Carta n.12 (Year V, 31/03/2007), Off (23/03/2007) and ilveronese.it
Interviewers: Alessandro Bertante (Pulp), Maura Murizzi and Aurelio Pasini (il Mucchio), Lucia Fabrizio (Tribe), Giuliano Santoro (Carta), Monica Mazzitelli (Off), Jonathan Zenti (Il Veronese)
Translated into English by Jason Di Rosso
a. Ad originem
b. The historical research and the writing
c. The setting, the characters, the style
d. The website
e. The here, the now and the here on in
f. Literature and the role of the writer
Q. How and when did the idea come to write Manituana?
WM1. After 54, for some time we toyed with the idea of writing a ucronic saga. It would have taken place at the end of the 19th century, but in a temporal continuum where the U.S.A. didn’t exist and the eastern coast of North America was still part of the British empire. More than a hundred years earlier, the Six Nations of the Iroquois had sided unanimously with King George and had helped his army crush the rebellion of Washington and company [...] Then we thought: In the collective novels we’ve always focused on the moment that precedes the fork in the road created by the “what if?” We’ve always been balanced on the edge of ucrony without ever practicing it. We’ve dealt with periods in which many options were possible and it would have taken little to change the history to come. Therefore, we thought, Why not set the novel—and the saga of which it is part—smack bang in the middle of the War of Independence, treating the conflict as if we weren’t taking the outcome as a given and we didn’t know how it would end up? In the beginning we had three stories, three intertwining subplots, but they were all so extensive and full of stuff that we decided to make three separate novels.
WM2. Above all, we realized that the story of the American Revolution was already a ucrony. With all due respect to the history that they taught us at school, how else would you be able to explain an Irish baronet who goes into battle painted like a warrior and an Iroquois matron who offers tea to her guests in a Chinese porcelain tea set?
WM4. We haven’t written a novel about the American Revolution. We were interested in going to the roots of the extreme West, of the rot that lurks in the origin of the category of “West” itself [...] In the slums of London, when a criminal or a petty thief had been executed, they used to say he’d gone to the west, because the public gallows were beyond the West End, but also because it was the place where the sun set, a symbol of the afterworld.
Q. Why did you choose to tell the American War of Independence from the Indians’ point of view? Usually we don’t remember that there weren’t just the English on the losing side, but also the Indians. Is yours a postcolonial statement?
WM1. If you look at the American War of Independence from the point of view of Indians and slaves, the relationship of oppressed and oppressors is completely reversed. It was a revolution waged to a large degree by slave owners who were defending slavery (already abolished in London and soon in all of the Empire) and by speculators who saw the Crown as a protector of the Indians, a power that stopped settlers from usurping and exploiting for profit immense stretches of land. The frontier began at the Appalachians, and white settlements beyond that line were prohibited, and this really pissed people off. It was in those years that the “frontier ideology” was born, something that both justified and at the same time covered up the genocide. I don’t think we can use the term “postcolonialism”: that expression indicates the social, cultural and psychological condition of people in decolonized nations like, I dunno, Ghana or Indonesia. We also define as “postcolonial” problems linked to the migration from those places to the north of the world. But for the native Americans there hasn’t been any decolonization. On the contrary: when North America was a British colony, they weren’t colonized. The Indian nations were not subjects of the king.
Q. Can a narrative covering a brief period of time encompass all the complexities of a historical era?
WM4. It’s not about compressing complexity, fitting it in a hole. We aim to open a gap, a passage that allows the reader to descend into an era and a context. It’s true we work with history; we use it as a mine where we find stories and bring them to light, but it’s only because we’re convinced that the past is not behind us, but on our shoulders. The past weighs on the present, it’s all still here. The portrait of George Washington is on the most circulated banknote on the planet, Canada still has a governor (actually, a governess) nominated by the English Crown and the Six Nations of the Iroquois are still struggling to regain their lands.
Q. With regard to Q, you’ve said that the end and the beginning of an era resemble each other. Do you think this applies also to Manituana, which recounts the origins of the United States of America?
WM4. Yes and no. The difference is that today the United States is suffering heavy blows on the fronts where they’re engaged militarily, while two centuries ago the country was born precisely thanks to a resounding military victory (aided by France). The similarity rests, rather, in the expansionist attitude that has characterized American history right from the beginning. The Stars and Stripes’ republic was born of a colonial push so strong that it demanded independence from its point of origin, that is, the mother country. Today that process has culminated in extreme consequences.
THE HISTORICAL RESEARCH AND THE WRITING
Q. The novel is very vast and the historical research really thorough. How did you organize the documentation process?
WM1. Libraries, films and Amazon.com. Dozens of essays ordered on Amazon, as usual. Hundreds of euros invested in research. For the next novels we might just draw up a wish list and ask the readers to donate the books. If fifty readers gave us a book each, that would resolve the problem of the research. To tell the truth, there was also one of us who traveled from New York to Quebec City, with a brief stopover at the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation. But that was in 2001, when none of us had yet the idea of telling a story that followed the same route.
WM2. More than ever it was a work in progress. The material was so vast that you couldn’t conclude the research once and for all and only at that point begin the writing. In the very first rundown, and in the first chapters written, the journey that makes up the first part of the novel was completely absent. For this reason we were thinking we’d be able to interweave three main narrative threads. When we understood we’d got our hands on a story that was this powerful, the three subplots went to hell (or rather, they were transformed into a trilogy).
Q. I imagine that in your research the most easily traced sources of material were those for the “good guys” side of history. How did you reconstruct the past of people who've passed on their stories principally through the oral tradition?
WM4. Luckily, the descendants of the Six Nations of the Iroquois are very keen on staying in touch with their own history, and even the descendants of the white pioneers are starting to debate some key premises of their historical tradition. In reality, the sources have always been there and they’re accessible; you only have to look with the necessary attention. The biographies of people speak for themselves and recount a different history from what we’ve been told until now. So much so that in our novel there are very few completely made up characters.
Q. In all these years of collaboration has the Wu Ming approach to the construction of collective novels changed?
WM1. It changes every time; the method is always undergoing variation. The work on Manituana was special, because for the first time there were five of us writing. When the collective started and we went from four to five, the work on had already begun, so Wu Ming 5 participated from the outside, above all with advice on Bolognese folk culture. So in fact Manituana is our first novel written as five. The contribution of WM5 was fundamental, especially to the mystic and shamanistic “feel” of the novel.
Q. With respect to your earlier novels Q, Asce di guerra and 54, Manituana, in spite of the complexity of the story and the many characters, follows a more linear trajectory. Was that an aesthetic choice?
WM2. In the drafting of the first chapters we did a writing experiment using the typical omniscient narrator of 18th-century novels. The result was good, but it risked becoming tiresome in the long run. So we decided to take a more extreme path: a historical novel with a “classic” structure, told, however, from a dozen different points of view, always very near the “heads” of the characters. Apart from two or three chapters, the camera is always hand-held and at the center of the action. In Qthere were the letters to offer a panoramic vista; in Asce di Guerra there were full-blown historical chapters; in 54 the Bar Aurora played a similar role, enhanced by newspaper headlines. In Manituana there’s none of all this. We are still convinced that you have to “experiment” with the unfolding of the narrative, not just the language. In the other novels this aspect leaped off the page. Today we think that the best narrative feat is the one you don’t notice.
THE SETTING, THE CHARACTERS, THE STYLE
Q. At a certain point in the novel there’s a description of London at the end of the 18th century. It’s a modern metropolis with all the signs of what will be industrial urbanization.
WM4. There is no doubt that London in the 18th century was the prototype of every contemporary metropolis, for better and for worse. However, we underlined and focused on certain characteristics, zooming in on the urban horizon of the era. We imagined London as a sort of Gotham City, inhabited by characters as bizarre as they were modern. It’s a reflection, too, of the ucrony from which we started. If we changed the second numeral in the date and turned 1776 into 1976, on the streets of Soho we'd still be able to spot curious figures with “Indian” haircuts and painted faces, demonstrating right down to their clothes an opposition to ordered British society.
WM5. All of the second part of the book is set in London, and this allowed us to break through into the contemporary. The capital of the Empire was a megalopolis. The American landscape is archetypical, therefore atemporal. London, on the other hand, is rooted into a specific sense of time.
Historical novels deal with the present. We authors live in the present. Writing a historical novel doesn’t mean hiding in the past to avoid taking stances today. On the contrary. [...] As a novelist you choose your historical period for features that bring you nearer to the present. In Manituana liberalism is in its first bloom. Today, almost three centuries later, that beginning resounds heavily with all its ideological burden. The envisioning of history helps the readers consider the present as they read your reflections on the past. It’s a very interesting fluidity. Writing about the present, you'd run the risk of being pedantic, as if you were writing captions.
Q. And it’s in the London section that you describe some particularly significant episodes, such as the royal reception of an Indian delegation and the events surrounding a gang of outlaws who copied Indian style. What role do these have in the development of the novel?
WM2. The London setting serves to show the rotting core of the empire. Without it, you might think we’d lost our minds and made the English the “good guys.” The visit to London is the mechanism that drives all the choices that play out in the third part, up until the end of the novel.
As for the criminals of the Mohock Club, they’re inspired by a real group of crazies who prowled the streets of London in 1712 waging a sort of media guerrilla warfare. Jonathan Swift mentions them in his Journal to Stella, and on Manituana.com you can download a short story narrating those events.
Within the structure of the novel, the Mohock Club is of central importance: just keep in mind that one of the keys to the interpretation of the whole novel is suggested in this section’s outlandish writing.
Q. This is a novel that welcomes and makes its own the feminine aspects of the world, even the masculine world. How did you arrive at that?
WM1. Things have changed a lot with respect to the early years of the collective. We have steady relationships, emotional lives that we’ve built with effort and patience. Some of us have become fathers, of girls too. Bringing a baby into the world changes your perspective on life and things in general. Bringing into the world a baby girl changes your perspective even more radically. This regenerating experience has surely found its way into Manituana, even without and beyond our will.
Q. There are many great characters in the novel, but above them all the figure of Joseph Brant looms largest, the legendary Thayendanegea, war chief of the Iroquois, who like many of the other protagonists actually existed. Where does the historical research finish and the fiction begin?
WM2. Up until now we’d become used to working with incomplete sources. In Q there’s the missing page of the Manelfi Confession, whose contents historians still wonder about today. In Asce di Guerra there’s the story of Vitaliano Ravagli, the only survivor of a tiny international brigade in the Laotian “dirty war.” In 54 there’s Cary Grant’s depression period, six months that no biographer has been able to shed light on. These are holes that can consume a historian’s attention, but for a storyteller they’re manna from heaven. You can fill them in whatever way you want, as long as it rings true.
In the American Revolution there aren’t any such holes: it’s all mapped out on a 1:1 scale. There’s an exorbitant number of primary sources that are available online, without limits: diaries of the period, documents, dispatches. Then there’s the research done by the reenactors, the people hooked on bringing the great events of American history to life. Elmore Leonard describes them really well in “Tishomingo Blues”: people who’d snub you just for wearing boxer shorts underneath your Butler’s Rangers uniform instead of long johns. With this type of material it’s easy to let yourself get obsessed: if you like, you can work out if the wood around Fort Stanwix was made up of larch trees or oak. You have to always keep in mind that you’re writing a story, that you have to make things lifelike, create an environment, but also exert your influence, allow yourself license, though without distorting the facts—otherwise your literary intervention is of little worth. Luckily, two of our main characters were completely fictitious, and this allowed us a certain freedom when we needed it.
Q. How were Joseph’s and Philip’s characters born? To what extent do their personal destinies reflect the events of which they’re part?
WM1. Well, Joseph was born, without any help from us, in 1742. He’s one of the most famous Native Americans of all time, certainly the most famous (and infamous) Indian of the 18th century. He’s even mentioned—anachronistically—in the film adapted from The Last of the Mohicans. In Canada he’s considered a sort of founding father. The Mohawk territory of Tyendinaga, in Ontario, takes its name from him. Thayendanegea means “Two sticks bound together”, “Tyendinaga” means, “Sticks gathered together.” He was one of the protagonists of the American Revolution, although on the other side, the “wrong” side. Philip, on the other hand, is completely our own invention. They represent two ways of straddling the Indian and white worlds.
WM5. Philip is the unknowing emissary of the Great Mother, and the Great Mother’s logic is a terrible one, based on the alternation of life and death, on the implication of the one ending where the other begins. The Great Mother is essentially a crown filled with menstrual blood. It’s from there that life germinates and this, specifically, is the Great Mystery. Only a mystic can accept the inevitable, the masked face that smiles, revealing sharp teeth. Philip is a half mystic. He’s a tragic character. Except for Molly, he’s the only tragic character in a Shakespearian sense: tragic because he’s aware of his own fate, not because he doesn’t know it, which is instead the case with the characters in Greek tragedy.… What does Lacroix know exactly? He knows that the logic of the frontier has always been the logic of the massacre, and that in great massacres the peoples who count their members in the hundreds don’t come out victorious. Those numbering in the millions win; victory lies in the vulgar weight of numbers. The era of the individual warrior has passed. Furthermore, Philip is a man raised by French missionaries who becomes a man of the woods; he has known Western culture and knows that salvation can’t be found by coming into contact with it.
Q. The historical setting is certainly fascinating. What’s amazing is the communal lifestyle of the first settlers together with the Iroquois–it’s an example of cohabitation and cross-cultural contamination.
WM4. When we think of American Indians we think of herds of wild horses, buffalo hunts on vast prairies, soldiers in blue destroying villages of tepees in the name of progress and the railways. We’re all too influenced by the mythology created in the Western film genre to remember that there wouldn’t have been a conquest of the West without a conquest of the East. Before the clash of civilizations culminated in the systematic extermination of an entire population, white and Indian civilization had influenced each other for at least a couple of centuries and had created the embryo of a third culture, a Euro-Indigenous one. You only have to think that when Benjamin Franklin had to create a constitutional template for the American colonies he was inspired by the Six Iroquois Nations.
Q. But there’s also a certain left-leaning, pro–third world “reading” that tends to depict the Indian as the noble savage. Manituana is as surprising as postcolonial studies of recent times, which depict the “South” of the world way beyond the stereotypes: as a profoundly hybridized reality and connected to the “West.”
WM4. Yes, absolutely. We also wanted to keep well away from that other view. First of all because it’s worthless, it’s just a fairy story that’s not even interesting from a literary standpoint. There were good and bad guys on both sides, and the Indians practiced politics exactly like everyone else. There were differences of opinion, attempts to deceive, private interests mixed with collective ones. The reality was much more complex than what has usually been represented. And we didn’t try to simplify anything; we tried to depict this complexity, even in the psychology of the characters.
Q. It takes the reader a while to get used to such a different description of the king of England.
WM4. We tried to demolish step by step all the possible pegs, banal and extraordinary, usually associated with those events, in order to try to bring the reader into new territory. Even though we know how the story ends, and everybody knows the Indians lose, we felt as if we were operating in an in-between territory, a fantasy space in which everything was possible.
Q. In this particular section there’s a change in stylistic register that relates to the band of wannabe Iroquois. it seems to me you invented a language. How did this choice come about?
WM2. We try to be very attentive to the voices of our characters. In the 18th century, English didn’t have a standard pronunciation. Even among speakers of the same social class or city it wasn’t a given that people could understand each other. Between different social classes, or the two sides of the Atlantic, the Babel effect was guaranteed. We wanted to depict this phenomenon, and as the chapters of the Mohock Club are written from the point of view of the gang leader, we didn’t limit ourselves to changing the dialogue. We took inspiration from Bruce Alexander, who writes crime fiction set in the London of the end of the 18th century, with a character known as Judge Fielding as the hero (he's the brother of Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones). And of course we were heavily influenced by the way Floriana Bossi translated into Italian Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange.
WM1. There isn’t a syllable written in the book that we haven’t thought over ten times. Our obsessive care for the language reached the point where we’d have half-hour discussions on whether or not to keep a pronoun. But this effort shouldn’t draw attention to itself; on the contrary, it should be discreetly done, in the service of the story. We often quote an allegory of Paco Ignacio Taibo, the one where he says that experimentation—even linguistic experimentation—has to be like an “invisible seam.” After having worked on the alchemy of the language, you need to make another effort, just as difficult, to conceal that work. THE WEBSITE
Q. One of the things you’ve said you want to do is to be storytellers, to transform events into stories and give them back to the community. Which community does Manituana speak to?
WM4. To whomever wants to be guided on a journey through unexplored territories and to map out a fantastic world. Narration is the sharing of stories, nothing more. The more people choose to populate the Manituana world, the more possible it will be to expand it, make it vivid, give life to its peoples and characters.
Q. Apart from a splendid book trailer, the Manituana Web site is rich in many other elements. How did this idea come about and what does it seek to achieve?
WM1. We’re becoming more and more aware of a fact: we don’t do literature in the strict sense of the term. “Pure” literature, the world of academics, makes us feel claustrophobic. It’s a narrow space inhabited by self-referential cliques. We are “storytellers by every means necessary.” We’ve made incursions into cinema, comics, role-playing games. We came up through the Luther Blissett Project, which was as multimedia and cross-media as you could imagine. The novel is perhaps our principal instrument of expression, but it’s not the only one.
Q. You’ve set up a section of the site dedicated to “sounds.” What types of sounds will enrich this section in the future?
WM5. It’s hard to predict. The tendency is toward diversity. We hope the section becomes a happy Tower of Babel. Everything’s good, from garage punk rock to free jazz; it depends only on the ability of the novel to light the spark of inspiration in the mind of whoever’s playing.
Q. You’ve developed a Level 2 on the Manituana site, to be tackled by those who have read the novel. How does the written word relate to other ways of fleshing out a story?
WM1. All of the different ways are present in each phase of our perception. The written word sparks mental images in the reader, it evokes sounds, it stimulates thought and the reader’s interaction with history. Potentially, the written word already contains every type of experience. We try to make this potential a reality.
THE HERE, THE NOW, THE HERE ON IN
Q. What has Manituana given to Wu Ming?
WM1. The odd health problem, weakened eyesight, exhaustion, the need—impossible as it is—for a rest. Some more knowledge, new collective work methodologies, a better command of language with respect to Q and 54. And the most important thing we’ve acquired: the conviction that from here there’s no turning back, we can only raise the bar each time. The outcome of this novel will define the future of our collective project.
Q. Philip Lacroix’s reflections on London trace perfectly the relationship between center and periphery. What is, if it exists, the link to the present?
WM4. What we’ve described was already a globalized world, for better and for worse. The relationship between center and periphery was intense and vital, a source of exchange and conflict, of cultural richness and large-scale disaster. The American War of Independence was a world war that saw not just the principle powers of the time involved but also native populations and local cultures. In this sense, the identification of the inhabitants of the London slums with the Iroquois was one of the novel’s key concepts.
Q. In the trailer, when the voice refers to the historical setting at a certain point it says: “When everything was still possible.” What was possible, in your opinion?
WM4. Let’s try and rephrase the question: what would’ve happened if the American rebels hadn’t kicked the king out, abolished the aristocracy and founded the republic? History is not written based on “what ifs”. And yet there is a concrete “what if” right there, on the other shore of the Great Lakes that are the backdrop for our novel. It’s Canada. In 1775, the American rebels weren’t able to export their revolution there and so Canada didn’t enter into the federation of the “brave and the free.” On the other hand, thanks to that it didn’t experience a bloody civil war to abolish slavery, much less become the most dangerous and uncontrollable force on the planet, with ten million destitute citizens and fifty thousand firearms deaths a year. In return, today Canada has an African-American Governor General. A nice paradox, there’s no doubt, a great “what if” to wonder about.
WM1. In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore wonders about this exact thing and decides to do an experiment: he crosses the border and enters the first Canadian town he finds, tries the handle of a door, sees it’s not locked; he looks inside from the street and greets the owner of the house. He waves good-bye, his back’s turned, but then he realizes something. He turns to the bloke and says a last word: “Thanks for not shooting me!”
Q. What’s left of all of this in the culture and psyche of today’s U.S. citizens?
WM4. There’s certainly a huge literary precedent, like the cycle of five Leatherstocking novels, which include the one from which “The Last of the Mohicans” was adapted. The hero, Nathaniel Bumppo, or Hawk-eye, finds himself halfway between white and Indian culture. Obviously we had more freedom, given that Fenimore Cooper wrote those books in the 19th century. In the United States’ memory there’s the echo of that hybrid culture. But later, when the frontier moved west, the image of the Indian became that of the usual western movie cliché. But that’s already different from reality, because the conquest of the West was a brief moment in historical terms: it was a race without limits for people wanting to grab a piece of land after the Revolution. There wasn’t that long intermediary phase that embodied the friction between the Thirteen Colonies, the Six Nations and the inland Indians. East of the Appalachians, the slow process of colonization had taken more than two centuries and allowed room and possibilities for the birth of a hybrid culture. At the time of the conquest of the West, King George was no longer around to put limits on the expansion of the colonies. And this is another historical paradox: sometimes the figure that represents the nasty tyrant for all good revolutionaries becomes the last hope for others who need to save their skin.
Q. On your site I read that Manituana is the first novel of a trilogy that will keep you busy “at least until 2012.” From that it seems that you’ve taken the American Revolution to your hearts and you’ll be maintaining a fearsome tempo of production (if, that is, the other two novels are to be as large!) Did the idea of a trilogy come to you during the writing of Manituana (because of the large amount of material gathered) or did you begin with the idea of an American serial in the style of your beloved James Ellroy?
WM5. In the beginning we were thinking about a global novel, even more vast, with the Atlantic Ocean as the interface through which various parts of the world and different stories would interweave. We quickly realized that this was an impossible novel to write and there was the risk of it being unreadable. So we decided that the three principal narrative threads of the novel had to become three distinct moments, the three aspects of the tryptich.
LITERATURE AND THE ROLE OF THE WRITER
Q. Chuck Palahniuk says that the advantage of books lies in their ability to deal with themes and describe scenes that no other means of communication can. Since hardly anybody reads, and books are given much less attention from the public, writers are actually privileged to be able to reach certain extremes. Do you agree with this theory, that is, with the idea that writing allows an incredible freedom precisely because books don’t matter to anyone?
WM1. In the last few years one of the writers who has experimented the most, pushing and breaking almost all the rules of the novel, inventing idioms, “amputating” parts of the narrative usually believed to be fundamental, hybridizing, digressing ad infinitum, risking failure and looking ridiculous, is Stephen King. A writer who even when he falls short nevertheless sells tens of millions of copies worldwide. He’s someone whose books are awaited and devoured by a huge community, by a whole universe of affection and expectation. He’s someone whose works never cease to influence all of the arts, from cinema to video games and cartoons. Despite what Palahniuk says, I believe that the more interest your books arouse, the more freedom you can carve out for yourself. In our case, without having the success of Q and 54 behind us, we wouldn’t have produced difficult books like New Thing and Free Karma Food.
Q. You’ve been very hesitant to appear on television shows or to release photos for interviews. Is this only for a technological reason, given that radio allows you to maintain anonymity, or do you have a special relationship with this medium?
WM1. We’re not only hesitant, we’re actually against it. No photos, no filming. Once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated (in a literal sense), it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context. A photo is witness to my absence; it’s a banner of distance and solitude. A photo paralyzes me, it freezes my life into an instant, it negates my ability to transform into something else. I become a “character,” a stopgap used to quickly fill a page layout, an instrument that amplifies banality. On the other hand my voice—with its grain, with its accents, with its imprecise diction, its tonalities, rhythms, pauses and vacillations—is witness to a presence even when I’m not there; it brings me close to people and doesn’t negate my transformative capacity, because its presence is dynamic, alive and trembling even when seemingly still.
17.04.07 · on interviste