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An Interview with Zachary Mason
By Ryan Yarber

Zachary Mason is a computer scientist specializing in AI. He is the author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey. His novels Void Star and Metamorphica are forthcoming. His short story Minos appeared in Pleiades issue 33.2 and can be found here.

I understand you used a fake bio in the first edition of Lost Books, and that you later used your real bio which included your work in I. Can you elaborate on why you made those decisions?

I’ve always thought author bios were boring.  Either preening, or pitiful, and never helpful.  “Joe Schmo went to thus-and-such-a-school, lives in Schenectady with his wife, two daughter, three cats and five computers.”  Meh.

There were two author bios I liked: “Carrie Fisher and her daughter want to see the aurora borealis” and “Anne Carson lives in Canada.”

For the first edition, I wrote my boring little biography, was bored, decided to make something up.  The book already had a frame story written from the point of view of “Zachary Mason,” humanist scholar and cryptographer extraordinaire, and the book is about, among other things, an adept liar, and layers of deception without end, so it was natural to make the bio part of the frame.

The idea was to make the bio superficially credible, but, under even casual scrutiny, obviously a joke.  (For instance, “I” purport to hold the John Shade chair at Magdalen College, Oxford - there's no such chair - John Shade is a characer in Nabokov's metafictionalish “Pale Fire”.)

I chose Magdalen because I thought it was a pretty name, and I wanted schools I not only had no affiliation with, but had never seen, and my boss at the time was cool, and had gone there, so I thought why not? Later, I met an actual classics don from Magdalen, and told him about my joke - he invited me to come have lunch at my home college if I was ever in England, which I was, a few years later, and I got to stay in college, and see the deer park, Oscar Wilde's rooms, and so on, which was great.  Honesty the best policy?  Surely not.

For the FSG edition, I included the bit about artificial intelligence as a hook for journalists, but it’s colored the way people approach the book, never in a good way, and I wish I’d kept it to myself.  I’ve seen the aurora, so I guess in the future it will have to be “Zachary Mason lives in California.”

The introduction to The Lost Books of the Odyssey reads almost as a fictional story itself with the deciphering of older texts and the discovery of new interpretations. Is everything you mention in the intro actually true, especially in regards to Dr. Stryzinski who played an important role in translating?

Some non-zero fraction of it is made up.  Poor Stryzinski, for instance, is actually a rather sad drunk, and has dedicated most of his energy to chasing dot-com riches, without success.

What is/are the “original” Lost Books of the Odyssey, if they are in fact real? If not, why did you create such an elaborate back story for you own book?

If you read the preface to the first edition carefully, you’ll see that it’s thematically consistent with the rest of the book.

But of course they’re real.  Soon I will publish a triumphant slew of technical papers and at last be recognized as a leading light in the fast-growing field of archaeocryptography.  Finally, my many enemies at the International Unified Society of Archaeocryptographers will pay!

What originally drew you to the idea of writing Lost Books?

I was looking for something to write, really.  I wanted it to be Oulipan (originally, the Lost Books was highly Oulipan - now, there are just a few traces of that).  I had just read Queneau’s “Exercises in Style” and the same operation, applied to the Odyssey, worked rather well. 

Really, I sometimes think I just want something to write about.  If I can just find some framework with which to get started, I’m happy.

 

Your statement, “I have one life in math and science, and another in literature” really struck me.  You have a large background in computer science and you work on artificial intelligence, and you have established yourself as a creative writer. How does each side influence your writing?

The two sides scarcely interact at all.  I suppose both are forms of problem solving, though most of the problems one sees in CS are more highly constrained.  I have an unromantic view of the creative process - consider the phrase “writer’s block”, how there’s an underlying conceptual structure where creativity, or prose, or whatever, erupts out of some place deep inside of one, and this natural flow has been occluded by some unwelcome outside force.  More accurate than “writer’s block” is, I think, regular old, “I haven’t figured out what to do.”

I had a strange experience the other day - I was giving a little presentation to some venture capitalists, one of whom had once been an English professor (an extremely rare background for a VC) - we were chit-chatting, and I mentioned the name of my editor, and he said, “Holy shit, you’re with FSG” - probably the only time in history that literary publication has been of use in tech fund-raising.

Silicon Valley is a cultural wasteland, but on the other hand it’s very, very expensive.

What are you working on now? Does it have similarities to your previous work?

I’m working on a book called “Void Star.”  It has no particular resemblance to the Lost Books.  This is by design.  It’s conventionally novel shaped.  It is, by my standards, enormous – I just hit 100,000 words, and it’s still not done.  It will, in theory, be out in 2015.

And then, in 2016, “Metamorphica” comes out.  It bears a relationship to Ovid’s Metamorphoses analogous to the relationship between the Lost Books and Homer.  Note the analogy between analogies.  The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam might have been pleased.  It’s meant to be a mirror, inverse and companion to the Lost Books.

 

When did you first become interested in writing fiction? What was your reason for avoiding writing workshops and/or an MFA?

I started writing when I was eighteen or nineteen.  It seemed like the most valuable thing one could do.  I had no particular hope of ever getting published, much less writing anything worthy of note.  That said, the goal was to write something that, if I’d had nothing to do with it, and found it in a used bookstore, I would like.  (In the fantasy, it’s always a *used* bookstore.  There’s a peacefulness about finding the book there, the pages already browning, smelling like old paper, the time of reviews and sales figures past, and finally it’s reached its mature state of a quiet object in the world, waiting to be found.)

I didn’t tell anyone I was writing for about ten years.  I suspect this was advantageous - many, perhaps the majority, of the kids I knew in undergrad promoted themselves as blooming Faulkners, and squabbled over whose literary star would one day shine brightest, and it worked out for 0% of them.  My theory is that in the same way one can talk a book away, one can talk away the possibility of any books at all.

An MFA seems like a really scary thing to do.  They give kids a sense of definite progress in the arts, but that progress is, I think, illusory, and after two years, and maybe some student debt, leave them no closer to their goals than they would have been otherwise, and now they’re waist deep in their twenties with, in most cases, no clear way to make a living.

 

(Disclaimer: Nerd question) Have you seen Transcendence starring Johnny Depp?

Honestly, it looks awful.  And here I thought Johnny Depp was famous for turning down commercial scripts.

Fictive narratives around AI seem always to be Frankenstein or Pinocchio, which isn’t really where the action is.  It’s a huge field, literature-with-AIs, but, for me, the interesting ones are pretty much limited to William Gibson and Stanislaw Lem.  Lem was a big polymath but Gibson, as far as I know, isn’t a quant at all, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable.

Read his short story Minos here