Tottenham Aug. 7, 2011. (Lewis Whyld/PA/AP) via The Big Picture
Making Sense of Senseless Violence: An Interview with Jack Womack
By Brendan Byrne | Wed Dec 7th, 2011 9:12 a.m.
This summer when Britain was gripped by civil disturbance, it was suggested by some in the SF community that if you wanted to understand the underlying psychology of those involved, you should read Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, originally published in 1994. Random Acts details in diary form the tribulations of twelve-year-old Lola Hart as her New York City, family, and persona come apart. It also serves as an entry point for Womack’s six-book Dryco series, which presents post-disaster America as trailer-trash corporate dystopia, complete with Elvis worship, unchecked rape and murder, and its own argot. Recently I met with Womack and asked him about the creation and particular prescience of these novels.
Your novels make me unbelievably anxious.
I relieve my own anxiety by writing them. So, yeah, it’s transference.
One of the things that’s so anxiety-inducing about Random Acts, as well as your first novel Ambient, is that there’s always scarcity: there’s never enough money, never enough food, never enough security. Which seems to me extremely, though not exclusively, New York.
Oh, at the time it certainly was. The New York in Ambient was what I saw happening if everything had kept getting worse. When O’Malley is walking home to his apartment in the Lower East Side, that’s the way it used to be. What the predictive element missed was that New York would skyrocket back, and that neighborhoods you couldn’t go into at night thirty years ago, you now couldn’t afford. I moved up here in 1977 right after the blackout and the Son of Sam summer. So the fear definitely comes across. When you see Taxi Driver, that’s what it looked like. There’s no exaggeration. When you see any seventies movie, and you say, “I cannot believe how horrible New York looks,” that’s how it looked. You came up here because that was part of the charm. Unlike every other city that was falling apart and collapsing, New York still worked, but at the same time it was collapsing enough that you could come up here and live cheaply, and, y’know, thereby began the whole art scene from the ‘60s on. Because you had the space and opportunity.
And that’s why you moved here.
Yeah exactly. Because there was stuff going on. I mean, I had to get away from The Eagles. I’d heard The Ramones; I wanted nothing to do with where I was.
Were you in Kentucky at the time?
Yeah, I was in Kentucky. Lived there till I was 21, moved up here, and I’ve lived in my present apartment for 32 years in April.
Wikipedia gives the copyright date for Random Acts as ‘95; my Grove Press edition says ‘93.
It was purchased in ‘93. It was published by Harper UK first in October ‘94, and then it came out the next year, in the spring I believe, from Grove.
So you were writing it in ‘92, ‘93
Yeah, I started it in late ‘92. Random Acts wrote itself very quickly. Once I got the voice right, I wrote it like it was a diary. Every day would just be a new day. I’d advance the plot like that. Random Acts took me less time to write than anything else. Took me about five months.
Spinning off from what you said about Ambient, Random Acts feels very much as if you took the early ‘90s and basically made everything get worse from right there.
When I started writing Ambient, I had no idea that the multi-volume series was really the tradition in this genre, that it was going to take several to get the point across. Then there was this one review of Ambient in The New Republic where D.T. Max said I’d obviously written it for the movies. My answer was, “I wish I’d written it in English then, which would have helped those movie sales.” It also referred to the characters as comic book characters, so I thought, “Okay, alright, I’m going to take the most comic book-like character in Ambient and make her the character you care the most about in the entire series.” This was when I was planning it all out, and I remembered during the roller battle, the one who goes out the window, and I thought Crazy Lola, how did she get there? [This refers to the second chapter of Ambient, featuring a Dyrco “conference”, during which rival corporations engage in a battle royale, with their respective scantily clad female champions wielding medieval weaponry.] And you never find out exactly how she got there, and that’s just like a double knife twist in the series. Because you finish Random Acts, and I mean, as horrible as it is, Random Acts has to some degree its positive aspects because she has lived, she is surviving, she has adjusted. Her family didn’t, she did. And then you find out in Ambient that soon enough she’s killed. She’s the security guard who’s lasered as soon as they hit the planet.
You said in a previous interview that you’d written Random Acts partially to show how the Dryco series argot came to be.
Exactly. I developed it furthest with Elvissey. I mean there are parts of Elvissey that even I have to re-read at times to remember exactly what I’m saying. I realized having gone full into it with Ambient that I should provide an introduction to the series, as well as a way to be able to read it. I’ve had to change things very rarely because of editorial request. Once was forTerraplane, where my editor told me white college students would never be listening rap, so I had to change it to blues. Another time was with Ambient. O’Malley is watching the news and hears Woody Allen’s died. That would have been just like this little touch to remind people we’re not that far away, but you know, they could never accept that this was only twenty-five years from when I was writing. They were like, “No it couldn’t be, has to be a hundred years from now. Things don’t fall apart that fast.” And, of course, we’ve seen they do.
We’re going to talk about prescience in a minute, but at the end of Random Acts, when she’s full on in the argot, it’s almost like the end of the bourgeoisie.
She’s gone fully over in that in that paragraph; she’s accepts it, she’s still not that happy about it, but she’s not going back.
And that whole universe isn’t going back either. Ambient doesn’t have a middle class. There’s the poor, the serving class, and the served.
Exactly. Which is how you could see things were going in 1980 when Reagan was elected. That was basically the plan.