William Gibson reveals his past in a new collection of essays

First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (1/2/12)

E-books. E-mail. iPhones. Cyberspace. Virtual reality. We're living in the digital world that prescient author William Gibson predicted way back in 1984 with his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer. Since then, he's written many more novels and screenplays (including Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic). His latest book is Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of essays that reveal what shaped both his worldview and his highly original take on the future. He was recently in studio to chat with George Stroumboulopoulos.

Gibson's new book is notable for two reasons: it's a work of non-fiction from an author best known for his wildly imaginative fiction, and it's a deeply personal, revealing work from a notoriously private writer. "It actually is [revealing], which surprised me, because I've been tossing these pieces as they came out into a corrugated cardboard box in the basement without looking at them, perhaps because I knew at some level that if they were all put together they would be somewhat revealing," said Gibson. What finally got him to put them out into the world? Pressure from his publisher and agent. "I know it doesn't sound very high-minded, but at least it got me to do it."

Gibson's work has been strongly influenced by the fact that he lost his parents at an early age. "My father died accidentally when I was eight, and my mother had a stroke when I was 18, so it was like the other shoe came down because I was traumatized to begin with and then whacked again," he said. "In retrospect, I can see I was not doing very good for a number of years after that."

He didn't have much of what he considers a "support team" after he lost his mother. "You were supposed to kind of pull up your socks and get on with it, especially if you were a boy," Gibson said. "There wasn't a lot of moping allowed, and I was really into moping. I hid in my room and read H.P. Lovecraft and listened to the Kingston Trio, and that's where bohemia began...It indicated that there was 'somewhere else.'"

As a child, Gibson moved around a lot as his father's construction company transferred the family from place to place. "We were in the modern world, we had television and were in that post-war modern era," Gibson said. "When he died, my mother took me back to her small hometown, and it was like going back to 1935. It wasn't the modern world anymore, but I could see the modern world on television and I knew that it was out there." So young Gibson felt displaced, in a sense, in time, which has probably contributed to his ability to construct futuristic realities that readers buy into.

But Gibson's prescience, as it were, creates an added pressure for him as a writer. Each novel, when it comes out, is greeted by readers as though it may contain messages about what the future holds. "It's part of our culture to believe that science fiction writers are fortune tellers, but we're not," Gibson said. "We're not really talking about the future. Any imaginary future can only be made up of the present and the past up to the point where the story is written. Historically, it becomes about the moment. I knew that when I began, so I never bought into my own prescience, or the prescience of science fiction."


Distrust That Particular Flavor

by William Gibson

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From the publisher:

"'William Gibson is known primarily as a novelist, with his work ranging from his groundbreaking first novel, Neuromancer, to his more recent contemporary bestsellers Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History. During those nearly thirty years, though, Gibson has been sought out by widely varying publications for his insights into contemporary culture... "

Read more at Penguin Canada.