Jack Womack was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1956, and spent a childhood which his biographical notes describe as “best left to an imagination other than his own” and which “could be called Kafkaesque, would it not be a disservice to Kafka.”
His education he describes as “haphazard”, but not unproductive: “I began writing when I was fifteen and still lived in Kentucky. At the time I started writing I had one of the very rare good teachers I had throughout school, and was able to express myself psychologically as well as artistically through the act of writing.”
After school Womack sampled the joys of further education.
“I went to one college, Transylvania University (yes, that is the real name!) in Lexington, for one year, dropped out and went to the University of Kentucky for two weeks, and dropped out and went back to Transylvania for six months, then I dropped out and moved to New York.
“I wrote while working in book stores for twelve years, and in a library for four years before that. I finished three novels with contemporary New York settings, and then realised that the situations and the characters just weren’t meshing somehow, I don’t know how.
“I decided to use my characters and to push the setting ahead by about twenty years, which is what I did with Ambient. I did it in such a way as to provide a background which could be as surrealistic as the situations and such that I came across in day to day life, but which at that point I wasn’t able to express on the printed page.
“Since then, I’m better able to deal with this sense that you have that everything is not quite right somehow, that things are somewhat off. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to set Heathern as close to the present as possible. Because I’m not the sort of author who feels that the things I write are predictions of any sort. But I do try to examine the current social situation, and by resetting my characters somewhat ahead, in the near future, try to make the reader see things that he or she may or may not have previously recognised in their own situation. Which in some way every writer tries to do.”
Womack moved into writing science fiction almost accidentally, and admits to having read little in the genre before beginning to write in it.
“I only started reading science fiction about a year ago. I’d really not read it at all before then. Except that I’d read The Martian Chronicles when I was about twelve, and I read Childhood’s End a couple of years later. I just never got into it. During the past year I’ve started reading it, but before then I had no knowledge of the field.
“I’m just now reading Mike Harrison’s wonderful Virconium series. There are so many authors, both American and English, that have just gone out of print in America — and I tend to find that those are usually the ones that I find most interesting. Until recently most of Disch was out of print in America; Chip Delany, a lot of Dick is out of print even now. Recently they brought some back into print, and they sell a few hundred copies, so they take it out of print about six months after it came out… Most books in America don’t have a shelf-life much greater than that of milk!”
“Nobody ever turns up for signing sessions, unless it’s for a book by a TV celebrity,” Womack says as we return to his hotel room following a slow signing session at Liverpool’s Chapter One bookshop. “I know that from working in bookstores. But I have no shame, I’ll sit there!”
He grins. In conversation Womack displays the same quirky humour found in his novels, equally black and often directed at himself. His biographical notes list his interests as “smoking, shopping, hanging around with women, smoking, reading, drinking and smoking.”
During the course of the interview we drink all the room’s coffee and Womack smokes constantly, grinding the butts and stirring the ash around as he ponders over an answer. In between we take turns bashing the tape recorder which, though described as ‘voice-actuated’, switches itself off the moment either of us speak.
Jack Womack’s most recent book, Heathern, is set in the same world as both Ambient and Terraplane, but takes place before the events in either.
“Chronologically it is the first book in the series. There’ll be a second book, called Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which will be the one I write after the one I’m currently writing — this is where it gets complicated! — and then will come Ambient, and then Terraplane, which is set a few years later; and then will come the book Elvisy, which I’m presently working on. And then will come the final book, which will sum everything up. I look at them all as individual books, but when they’re all completed I hope I’ll end up with a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Heathern is set in 1998, and tells the story of Joanna, a middle-aged, middle-management type who works for Dryco, the mega-corporation which featured in Ambient. Joanna remembers the world as it was, and feels trapped in her job, working for a company which increasingly puts its own interests before those of its employees or those of the people it supposedly serves. Into her life comes Lester McCaffrey, a young community leader who just might be the new messiah. The story also reintroduces the characters of Thatcher Dryden, head of Dryco, and his wife Susie, who featured in Ambient.
“What I hoped to do with Heathern was give a backdrop for the characters in Ambient. I didn’t realise I was going to have enough to work with for six books until I was about half way through the writing of Heathern, at which time Ambient was already sold and the plot done. I realised I had much more to work from. So at that point I began considering what I wanted to do where in the series.”
Between the events of Heathern and those of Ambient, Dryden’s wife Susie is killed, an event which occurs off-stage.
“You don’t actually see Susie getting killed. Susie is actually killed a couple of years before the action of Ambient takes place, but you see the foreshadowing of it in Heathern.”
Another character who reappears in the latest book is Jake, Luther’s bodyguard from Terrplane.
“This is Jake’s initial appearance. Jake will actually appear in one form or another in all of the books. I’m not exactly sure how yet, because a lot of it will have to do with what comes when I come to do the last book, but Jake I already know at this point is definitely the central character throughout the thing. His life, such as it is, and his adaption to each situation will be one of the main themes throughout the series.”
There is a certain ambiguity about Heathern, which leaves the reader wondering whether the events reported by its narrator, Joanna, are real or warped by her own perceptions, an effect which Womack planned.
“Heathern is deliberately written so that it can be taken in two ways. You can either read it as it is intended to be read — where what would seem to be occurring at the end of the book is actually what is occurring; or you can read it as the account of a terribly depressed woman who does what you suspected she might be prone to throughout the book… I’m being very non-committal in my answer, not wishing to give away the plot! Throughout the book you can see that at no point does anything supernatural occur that you couldn’t have a natural explanation for.”
Which means that Lester McCaffrey is either a spiritual leader or a fake…
“Well, you know, he’s intended as a sort of John the Baptist figure, where he’s come to say this is the way it is and you’re going to have to live with it. But it can also be taken the other way as well: you can either go on with it as it is, or you can end it.
“The ending that I intend is at least affirmative of life, and it’s one of the few books I’ve written where there is some glimmer of hope. But if you choose to read it on the other level, then it’s about as depressing as anything else…”
Womack does tend to have a somewhat fatalistic view…
“Living in New York tends to do that to one’s personality. And I was kind of of that mood myself to start with,” he laughs.
Heathern begins as a story about a Messiah, which will strike some people as strange, following the more straight forward SF stories of Ambient and Terraplane, a fact of which Womack is aware, but which doesn’t concern him.
“That’s fine. I’m sure this will throw a lot of people off.”
His sudden preoccupation with Messiah’s and faith might leave some wondering whether Womack himself has been born again, or something…
“Oh, God no! I just like to keep my readers on their toes!”
But when one learns that in Womack’s future world Elvis Presley is regarded as some kind of God…
“He’ll be reappearing in the book I’m writing now. That’s where you have Elvis as the Messiah who develops quite a different following. They go back into the other world of Terraplane and bring back Elvis, because the action in this one will be taking place fifteen years after Terraplane, which will make it 1954 in the other world. The narrator’s initial assignment is to go over and bring back, if he exists, the other world’s Elvis.”
Another difference between Heathern and the two previous novels in the series is that the slang, or future-speak, used in the first-person narratives of Ambient and Terraplane isn’t used by Joanna. Presumably because it has not yet developed at this stage in the future history.
“The interceding book, between Heathern and Ambient — Random Acts of Senseless Violence — will be in the form of a diary kept by a twelve year old girl, who is from an upper-middle class background, and as you see her own family’s dissolution taking place, and how she becomes more and more involved with the streets and street-life, so too will her language change, until by the end of the book, the language will be very close to that of Ambient. For stylistic continuity.
“The language difference is probably the one area where I forced the time frame as it were, where I’ve made things change more rapidly than they would seem to in terms of how people speak. The way Luther speaks has lots of making nouns out of verbs and language compacting, and this sort of thing. But I tried to look at present language trends and think ahead to how this might be a number of years from now. Because when you go back and study English as it was spoken by the Elizabethans, with the vocabulary and the ways of pronunciation and sentence construction, you’re essentially looking at a very different language. And I think this will be the case with English in the future: it may change for better or for worse, but it will definitely change. And this is not too often confronted in science fiction.”
The whole of Ambient, and Terraplane too, to a certain extent, is written in this form of future-speak, a style which must be difficult to maintain at such length and which must be difficult to dispense with when the writer leaves the keyboard and returns to reality…
“I can usually do a first draft fairly quickly, and then I’ll do anything up to forty rewrites to get the language and rhythms right, whether writing in fairly straightforward narrative, such as in Heathern, or in the more complicated future-speak, as it were, of Ambient and Terraplane. But I do find that when I’m using the more futuristic style I do find myself thinking in and using those terms, because I’ve been working with them for so long. I sort of have to smack myself to stop me talking like my characters, because the language isn’t exactly…” He laughs, shrugging. “You get used to it. I think if you heard people talking like that constantly, if you weren’t used to it, it would kind of tend to drive you crazy! But if you were used to it, I think it would just flow naturally as it does for the characters.
“I’ve heard people say that they’ve started the first chapter of Ambient or the first chapter of Terraplane, and they couldn’t get through it. And others have said, at first I thought the language was… you know, ‘What’s this?’, but as they kept reading they found themselves going along with it, and thereafter they can just read it.”
The kind of future-speak actually used by the Ambients themselves in Ambient is perhaps even more peculiar, reading almost like Shakespeare…
“That was deliberately so. Which goes back to the Elizabethans as I mentioned earlier. The Ambient-speak is actually a blend of a number of things: it’s neologism, Spanglish, some mix of the future-speak, but by and large the words in there, if they are not coined words, are very old obsolete Elizabethan phrases, most of which I got from Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, which as any number of wonderful words and phrases, things which have been lost for centuries. And in writing the Ambient-speak, I tried to fall back on the spoken rhythms of Shakespeare and the King James Testament, and various other texts of that time, because I think that was among the best periods for English qua English, just in terms of the sound of the words and the love of words.”
At times Ambient reads almost like a parody of the whole cyberpunk sub-genre, spoofing the idea of prosthetics and implants in having a hero whose ears are false and attached with Velcro…
“This is interesting, because I had literally not heard of cyberpunk when I wrote that. Ambient had been submitted and sold to Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the US about four months before I’d ever heard of Gibson’s work. I saw a review in the Village Voice of Count Zero, and thought to myself: Gee, this guy sounds like he’s doing stuff kind of like I am, I’d better check him out. So I looked through that, and I thought: This sounds fine, but it’s very definitely taken from a different approach to mine. Had I known there was cyberpunk, I don’t know if I’d have written Ambient. I might have thought: I’ll go and do something different because this has already been done somewhere.
“William Gibson and I talk to each other fairly regularly. He and I have been doing this screen treatment the past couple of months for this Russian director… it’s been fun working on it.”
Reading Gibson, you get the impression that he likes his sleazy high-tech future, that he could quite happily live there. Could Womack live in the future that he has created?
“I already do! New York is not that dissimilar from what I’ve described in Heathern, unfortunately. That’s one of the questions I’ve been asked most regularly since I’ve been over here: How close is New York to being like this? And I have to admit, truthfully, that it’s not that dissimilar to the present situation. It is to a certain degree, but not by much. So I’m kind of like the narrator in that sense, in that I don’t really have any choice, the future, such as it is, is already around me.”
Ambient out-punks cyberpunk too in the form of Enid, the hero’s sister, who embodies not only the rebel culture, but also in appearance is the ultimate punk, with her spiky ‘hair’ being nails surgically implanted in her head.
“I actually took the spikes in the head idea from when I was over in London back in ’82. There was a photograph, I think in The Sun, of a couple of punks who were gluing nails to their head, and they mentioned the fact that they would like to have them surgically implanted, but they said the doctor said: How would you sleep? Because of the problems with pillows and what have you. And that was one of the images… that is kind of how I find my material, I just happen upon it and I’ll just take it and seize on it and twist it around. But that’s exactly where that particular thing came from. How would you sleep? You’d have to have something like a polystyrene pillow, because your feathers would be all over the place each morning you woke up!”
Ambient, and to some extent Heathern, seem to owe more to Catch-22 than they do to Blade Runner or cyberpunk…
“That’s good. I had not seen Blade Runner until I’d finished Ambient, to tell the truth. But I had read Catch-22 as a teenager, and seen the movie. I’m trying to think now… Yeah, it probably did carry over. I hadn’t thought of that before. Both the sense of futility and the satiric side of it comes across. I mean, one of the things I try to do in my books is express things through satiric devices. Black humour is kind of unavoidable, certainly in New York, and it has always been my metier when it comes to writing.”
Luther, the main character of Terraplane, is a black ex-soldier, now working for Dryco. He is of mixed race and very definitely a product of the world in which he lives. Travelling into an alternative past, his character is contrasted with that of Doc and Wanda, a black couple who spent the early part of their lives as slaves in America.
“Luther is actually patterned after a friend of mine who is black, but who is very definitely from an American upper class world. His attitude and his speech and his dress are indistinguishable from that of every other preppie who goes to Harvard, which he did. And he is very much aware, of course, of his background and his heritage and such. And I thought to myself: What if you took someone a little younger, who has been brought up in a somewhat sheltered environment, but who is still adaptable. He’s come from a wealthy background, but at the same time, at the point when he joins the army, that’s essentially the only option open to him.
“But Luther was smart enough and intelligent enough and cunning enough to be able to work his way up through the ranks, but simultaneously he is not used to thinking of himself as a member of an oppressed group.
“I thought: What would happen if a person like that was thrown into a situation like that in Terraplane? Because the 1939 New York that I describe in Terraplane is certainly not that different from how it was to be treated in the South throughout the sixties, and certainly not that different from how they are treated in South Africa now. But if you put it together and just intensify it somewhat in an alternative past of 1939, which is where they went back to in Terraplane, and you just slightly change it so as to make it more intense still, then what sort of reaction would the character have? And that’s what I wanted to investigate in Terraplane.”
The kind of things Luther is given to react to in this alternative 1939 include the quite horrific circumstances endured by the characters of Doc and particularly of his wife Wanda.
“Doc’s wife is a very strong figure. The women in Terraplane are very much stronger than the men. Octobriana does of course fall prey to that dreadful disease I came up with, but she and Wanda are both the stronger. They are the ones who have some control over their lives. Wanda in particular, which is why even though Octobriana does not survive, Wanda does. Though other bad things do happen to Wanda… but then, bad things happen to all my characters! She’ll be seen briefly in my next book, as will Luther, but again only briefly.”
Have Coca-Cola said anything about Womack having them as users of slave labour in Terraplane?
“They haven’t sued me yet! But neither have they sent me a free case of their product, so we broke even, as it were. It is an alternate world, after all.”
In Terraplane, the character of Jake — the bodyguard — spends much of his free time listening to the Blues songs of Robert Johnson on his personal music player; Johnson almost appears in person in the novel, a performance of his in a small club playing the backdrop to one of Luther and Jake’s escapes; and Johnson’s lyrics are interspersed with the action of one of the final sequences. Womack is himself, not surprisingly, a fan of Johnson’s music.
“Johnson was by far the best American blues singer, certainly of the period, and one of the most influential for those who came after him in the rock world. I bought his first, and only, album after reading about him in the chapter in Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, which is a pretty good book on rock as these things go, and that chapter in particular is very good. It essentially sums up everything that was known about Johnson up to that period. There’s another excellent book which came out earlier this year in America called Searching for Robert Johnson, by Peter Guralnick, which I would highly recommend to anyone who has any sort of interest in Johnson, or the Blues in general…”
And one of Johnson’s songs is actually called Terraplane Blues…
“It is, and that’s where I got it. Since he was going to be in it, I thought I might as well use it. My grandfather owned a Terraplane…”
What is a Terraplane?
“They were a model of Hudson, which was a car built in America until about 1950. Terraplanes were made in the Thirties and were sort of big, boxy sedans that were made of two tons of rolled iron, and were just good solid cheap cars for the era. And at the same time, it sounded vaguely science fictiony, so that I thought it made a good title. It also played off various things, such as Captain Beefheart’s Tarotplane, which of course was based on Robert Johnson’s Terraplane, so I tried to get that sort of subtext into the thing there.”
There is a car depicted in the Peter Jones cover painting for the UK edition of the book. Is that actually a Terraplane?
“Yes, that is a Terraplane. In America I know they actually contacted the Terraplane club in Long Island to get a picture of the model they used. I know that is a Terraplane on both editions… they’re various year’s models, but very definitely the car.”
In Terraplane there is a subplot concerning a Russian scientist who goes into the alternative past in an attempt to bring back the alternate Stalin, and at one point it looks as though this is going to develop into the main thrust of the story, with the heroes having to return Stalin to his own time in order to prevent Stalin becoming a major political figure in their own world, yet this does not happen.
Womack grins. “No. Like I say, I like to keep my readers on their toes. I’m of that obnoxious breed of authors who prefers to leave the readers more discomforted than comforted by what they read, so long as it makes them think. Even if it annoys them or I get a bad review. My bad reviews are much more insightful than my good reviews.”
But if the reader can figure out what is going to happen in advance, surely he should be disappointed? If you can write the last four chapters yourself, why bother to finish reading the book?
“Exactly. But that happens all the time, and I hate that. That’s why I try to do something different.
“Usually when I’m writing I’ll start knowing how it’s going to start, and how it’s going to end, and where I’ll want it to go in between, you know, like the basic bones of the plot. But then when I’m writing it I’ll let the action take its own course and weave its way around.”
The tape recorder chooses this moment to turn itself off again, and Jack whacks it expertly to get it working again…
“It does seem a little bit… temperamental! That’s why I try not to depend on modern technology too much. It is also why, in my books, technology confounds my characters by breaking down. Because it will always continue to do this, and people will never know what to do with it except hit it! In Ambient the door won’t open and he ends up slamming his elbow against it to open it. Then there’s the refrigerator that keeps talking, and there are things in my other books.
“People are surrounded by so much technology now, and don’t know how to work it: I saw a statistic that half the people in America that have VCR’s don’t know how to program them to even tape a programme. You have all this wonderfully advanced technology, but it’s constantly breaking down or you don’t know how to use it. What good does it do?”
And we come to rely on it more and more…
“That’s the thing, we are becoming more and more dependent on it, and when it doesn’t work the effects can rebound to shattering effect. I think everyone was taking space travel for granted until Challenger blew up, and ever since then it’s been, sort of, why should we bother with this anymore? It’s not like it shouldn’t have been realised before that yes, if you fire people up in a rocket one of them will actually blow up at some point.
“One of the things I also try to get across in my science fiction, such as it is, is kind of an idea contrary to science fiction, which is that no matter how much things change, to some degree they are always going to remain the same. I’m working with the idea of progress being not something that is necessarily official, but something that is going to happen, and whether or not people adjust to it is going to be the interesting thing to watch. Not what changes are actually occurring, but how people react to those changes.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about cyberpunk was the way it said that people will take technology and subvert it…
“They’ll fit it to their own purposes, the ones that can understand what they’re doing.”
Apart from continuing the series of science fiction novels, Jack Womack has been writing some short fiction which we’ll be able to see shortly.
“There are three short stories. They are the first ones I’ve done since high school, and they were written in the past year. One of them will be appearing in America shortly in a haunted house story anthology edited by Catherine Kramer, called “Walls of Fear”, which is coming out in September in America. And I’ve just sold Ellen Datlow, the fiction editor of Omni a story called “A Kiss, A Wink, A Grassy Knoll,” and a story called “Life Blood” for a collection of vampire stories she’s doing. In the case of the haunted house and the vampire stories, they are related to that genre in much the same way that my books are to science fiction, that is, I’ve approached them through the servant’s entrance, as it were. “A Kiss, A Wink, A Grassy Knoll” is basically just a story involving a love triangle, but with a highly suspect metaphor as the background!
“Those stories are set in contemporary settings, and they’re told straight forwardly, so they’re different from my regular work, but they have not come out in England yet.”
And in the meantime we’ll have to wait four or five years for the series of novels to be completed?
“Oh, under five years, I’d say. I’m writing the next one now, and I already have the next one after that plotted out as well, so that’s the first five. Then I’ll just decide what I want to put in number six. I have a good idea already, but I just need to see what I end up with when I have the five done.”
Clichéd final question: Is Jack Womack optimistic about the future?
“Wherever did you get that idea?!” He grins. “I have this perverse sense of hope that things will, if not get better, will at least get no worse, though they tend towards that direction. With the one hand you have the Berlin Wall coming down, with the other you have the Iran-Iraq situation going on. People have continued to muddle throughout the Twentieth Century, for better or for worse, so perhaps once the century is behind us things can be examined in a fresh light. It’s not been one of the better centuries to live in, but then neither was the Fourteenth, or certain others…”
He shrugs and lights another cigarette.