This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Colin Winnette, whose new book, Users, is out today from Soft Skull. In this surreal dystopian novel, a troubled technology designer named Miles receives death threats after distressing content surfaces in the “Ghost Lover,” a popular virtual-reality program he created to simulate the experience of being haunted by a romantic interest. The growing unrest among users sets off a crisis at his Chicago company, threatening his job. Navigating minefields at work as well as at home, with his unhappy wife and children, Miles comes up with a new concept that he hopes will be his salvation: the Egg, a pod-like chamber in which users can immerse themselves in the ultimate virtual-reality experience. All the while, Miles remains haunted by the death threats whose origin he may at last uncover. Kirkus calls Users “a disquieting cautionary tale for an age of virtual spaces.” Colin Winnette is the author of The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull, 2018), Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio, 2015), and Coyote (Les Figues Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Believer, Bomb, McSweeney’s, Playboy, and others.
1. How long did it take you to write Users?
The straight answer would be that it took around four years. But it can be hard to say where exactly a piece of writing begins. The moment I sit down and start typing is often preceded by long stretches of worry, hyper-connectivity, and a kind of subterranean emotional tugging, like a fish nibbling at a hook. I used to call all of this “thinking.” Now I’m starting to think it’s more accurate to call the writing “thinking” and to compare those early feelings to a kind of emotional and psychological exorcism. It’s a kind of processing I seem to have to do before I can approach a piece of storytelling from a place that’s more than one of pure reaction. For Users, those early, restless feelings date back to when I first started doing contract writing for tech companies, which was close to eight years ago now.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Users was different from my other books because it was the first time that I felt certain specific details of a character’s day job were critical to the larger story being told. While realism wasn’t the book’s primary concern, there was the issue of plausibility. The industry Miles works in exists, so there was artistic opportunity in engaging with specificity. In my experience, the most impactful surrealism and satire have a foundation in the known or observable. I gravitate toward distortions with some foundation in the familiar. Getting that balance right in Users was a challenge, and it led me to read more articles about virtual reality and simulation theory and Web3 than I’d ever thought I would. I also spoke with people working in the industry and got feedback from them on the manuscript, and I watched hours of launch footage from various tech conferences. On its own, none of that is very interesting to me. But it is interesting to me when I think of it as a means to arriving at this weird little made-up thing called the Egg.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
At any given time, my specific answer to this question will be different, because the long-term goal is to keep myself engaged in writing by any means necessary. It’s different for every writer, but for me, specific traditions lead to anxiety about interruption, and preciousness around ritual leads me to feel I’ve squandered opportunities. When I was a younger writer, I had strict notions about maintaining a rigorous routine of 1,500 words each morning, written at my desk, before I would allow myself to do anything else that day. But toward the end of grad school, I was working as a teaching assistant and auditing classes on top of my regular course load, and I was so busy that the only uninterrupted time I had to work on my novel-of-the-moment was during my thirty-minute train ride to downtown Chicago. It was loud, often crowded, and pregnant with the possibility of me missing my stop, which would cause me to be late to my job. Still, I felt a tremendous relief when I started forcing myself to use that time to write, knowing there were limitations, but that, if I kept it up, it would still get me where I wanted to go. Since then, I’ve held myself only to the pursuit of living a life that puts writing near the center. At the moment, that means waking up an hour and a half earlier than I need to for work (which I go to in my kitchen), turning my “work” chair around so it faces the center of the room instead of the corner, and writing until it’s time to shower and turn the chair around.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I’m completely enamored with, along with the latest issue of Drift, featuring great new work by Percival Everett (a personal favorite), Garielle Lutz, and Tomaž Šalamun, among many others. I’m also working on a backlog of Texas Monthly magazines, which have been accumulating on my desk over the last three months.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
It’s a little odd to say it, because the books are so different, but one of the primary influences on Users when I was setting out to write it was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It’s a fantastic novel, and one that walks that razor’s edge of real/surreal, serious/satire with delightful, enviable skill.
6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Users?
The most surprising thing was when the book suddenly became about work, and about the tech industry. Despite the feelings I described earlier, I genuinely did not see it coming. My conscious brain initially set out to write a novel about this oddly dysfunctional family, but the moment I’d set them up, they went to work, and all this other stuff came pouring out of me. It was really wonderful, and a little scary, to feel it happening.
7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
One of my earliest memories of the crystallization of this book came after I encountered Jack Dorsey’s tweets about his ten-day no talking, no eye contact, no screens meditation retreat in Myanmar. There was something so striking to me about the then-leading personality behind one of the noisiest places to exist online making such a dogged pursuit of silence. Something clicked into place for me around that time, and I knew the shape the book needed to take.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Users, what would you say?
I would tell him to try and enjoy his strange mind. I would tell him that, someday, he will surprise himself by turning all the things he is worried about and scared of into something that makes him very proud.
9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I am an avid runner. That’s where the emotional and psychological Tetris happens, and all my broken pieces find some way of sliding (momentarily) into place. So I ran a lot, and I did the aforementioned research on the industry I was writing about. I also swam regularly in the bay, the coldness of which gives one’s consciousness a kind of temporary bleaching. I also did a bit of what my friend Lydia Kiesling calls “making arrangements,” which I take to mean working with the people and institutions that rely on you to carve out reliable periods of time in your schedule during which you can chase down a creative impulse uninterrupted, or give it the space it needs to grow into an idea.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I had a teacher once who told me that one of the most important parts of living a creative life is realizing that you will never get rid of the self-critical voice in your head, the voice telling you whatever your particular self-critical voice tells you: Who are you kidding? You should pack it all in now. No one cares what you think. You’ll never be as good as Percival Everett. You are a failure. You weren’t meant for this kind of work. There is nothing new under the sun. Your father will never laugh at your jokes. My teacher went on to say that, rather than wasting one’s energy trying to figure out some way of getting rid of that voice, the real trick is to simply move it to the back seat. That way, it can talk all it wants, but it’s not the one driving the car.