Further Adventures in Dream Recording

I am thrilled to report that my science fiction story “Dogs in the Snow” has been selected by judge Kim Stanley Robinson as one of the winners of the 3 Minute Futures contest, sponsored by the public radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. A radio play adaptation of the story, produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles and directed by Gates McFadden, airs on the show this week. You can stream or download the radio play, and the original text of the story is also available.

A version of the dream recording technology depicted in “Dogs in the Snow” already exists. What first captivated about it were the videos generated to represent a person’s dreams, like this one.

Readers of my first novel know that this isn’t the first time I’ve explored the idea of recording dreams. But this is the first time I’ve tried to extrapolate from actual science—a challenge for someone who’s usually comfortable with simply making this stuff up. In “Dogs in the Snow,” the technology has progressed to the point of near perfect accuracy. For the characters, this creates an opportunity for artistic collaboration, then figures into a moral and personal dilemma.

I’m grateful to Emily Houk for her feedback on the first draft of the story, and to everyone at To the Best of Our Knowledge, The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and The Center for the Humanities at UW–Madison for this honor, and to Gates McFadden and the actors of EST/LA for adapting the story so beautifully.

The Will-o’-the-Wisp and What It Told Me

During some recent cryptozoological investigations, I discovered a previously unknown trait regarding the elusive will-o’-the-wisp, also known as the “hinkypunk,” the “hobby lantern,” or the “bumble light.” That trait, which I am not permitted to reveal, is inscribed on materials which must remain secret, and sealed in an envelope somewhere in Cincinnati, Ohio. I think.

In support of WordPlay, a Cincinnati-based tutoring center for children, I am joining over a dozen other writers—including George Saunders, Sherman Alexie, Nikki Giovanni, Leah Stewart, Lauren Groff, Emily St. John Mandel, and Fiona Maazel—to collect previously unknown facts regarding a handful* of mythological creatures. WordPlay’s own Urban Legend Institute will auction the results as part of a fundraiser.

More details about WordPlay, the Urban Legend Institute, and the fundraiser are available here. Or head straight to the auction page if you’d like to see what’s available.

As an added incentive, I’ve decided to send a signed copy of The Manual of Detection to the winner of the will-o’-the-wisp auction. Of course, that person will have to get in touch with me and prove that they know the secret.

The auction ends on December 12th.

*Holding the hydra and a zombie in the same hand is not recommended. Zombie hydras, even small ones, are a serious nuisance.

William Weaver: A Remembrance

I discovered the work of Italo Calvino in the late nineties, while a student at Bard College in Annandale, New York. An excerpt from Invisible Cities served as epigraph to an essay assigned for a course on critical theory; I no longer remember the essay, but I remember tracking down a copy of Invisible Cities and reading it, over the course of several days, in something like a state of intoxication.

The name of the translator was familiar, because William Weaver’s classes on Italian literature and translation were listed in Bard’s own course catalog. I knew little of the language, but with a friend who shared my interest in Calvino’s work, I approached Professor Weaver and asked if he would sponsor an independent study on the topic. He was known to be attentive and generous with his time, yet it seemed to me as though he had been waiting for someone to make this very request.

Professor Weaver was soon Bill. We met for several hours in his study each week, fire crackling on the hearth. I didn’t drink coffee then, and at our first few meetings I declined his offer of espresso. Then I saw that this disappointed him. Not because he timed the making of the espresso so that it would be ready just as we arrived, and brought it downstairs on a little tray, but because it was part of a ritual of hospitality, meant to welcome me as I arrived over the border into the language and culture that was so vital to his life and his work.

And so with head buzzing from the unprecedented rush of caffeine, I listened as Bill Weaver wove stories of that life, that work. I picked up a little Italian, but it was, in these sessions, through stories that Bill did most of his teaching. He told us about serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during the Second World War. And with great humor, he described some of his earliest jobs as a translator, writing Italian subtitles for American B movies. He told us about Italo Calvino himself, and about his own process in translating his works and others, Umberto Eco and Eugenio Montale and Alberto Moravia, others too many to list.

We did not read all of Calvino’s work that semester—Bill told us from the start that we would discuss only the books which he himself had translated. That left us with no lack of material. CosmicomicsIf On a Winter’s Night a TravelerThe Castle of Crossed DestiniesMr. Palomart zero, each a puzzle, a revelation, detailing journeys to the beginning of the universe and to the moon, books within books, stories within stories. Bill Weaver’s love of  language was evident in all his lessons—he spoke of sentences as living things, to be released rather than pinned down.

To hear him describe it, his relationship with Calvino was occasionally tempestuous, but the two clearly loved and respected one another. Italo, he said, once presented him with a print of Saint Jerome, and inscribed it to him with the words: To Bill, translator as saint. I have often cited Calvino as a major influence on my work, but William Weaver’s influence is no less profound. He put his own spirit into the translations, and his care and insight have helped make those volumes classics of the English language.

William Weaver died this week at the age of ninety. He has been much on my mind these last months, in part because I find myself back on the Bard College campus, a visiting faculty member in the Written Arts Program. I often drive or walk past his old house, now the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. I haven’t visited yet, but I hope they still use the old fireplace.

Regarding Calvino’s work, there was one point to which Bill Weaver circled back again and again. Though the author experimented with many styles and structures, he said, one could always identify him in his sentences, in the consistency of his vision, which dwelled even in the minutest detail.

Something similar could be said, I think, of William Weaver. The consistency of his warmth, his generosity, and his humor, in service to his keen intellect, is a model to which an artist and teacher might aspire. His contributions to literary culture are immeasurable. I am grateful to have known him, and to have learned from him.

William Weaver's A TENT IN THIS WORLD, a largely autobiographical novella published in 1999.

Spy Dreams & Dream Spies

Crossing borders, assuming identities, infiltrating the unknown with the intention of uncovering and transmitting secret maneuvers, fraudulent agendas, hidden lives: the spy and the artist, I think, are kindred spirits.

And in that spirit, I’m writing a series of stories called The Watchers. The stories are all short and mostly very strange. In one, an agent infiltrates a sleeping man’s bedroom via the miniature submarine in his aquarium. In another, a band of partisans falls in with the only thing more dangerous than enemy soldiers: a group of carousing teenagers.

This is some of the most personal fiction I’ve written, mixing up autobiographical elements with bits and pieces of my dream life. The first story, “What We Trained For,” came ready-made in the form of a dream about a mission I was on with a childhood friend. After I wrote that down, I started having more dreams like it, and I wrote those down, too. Once the feedback loop took over, I gave myself over to its logic. My friends and I are super spies now, and it turns out that we have a lot of work to do.

A selection of these stories appears in Conjunctions (read online, audio), with more in the current issues of Unstuck and matchbook. Others are forthcoming—I’ll update my news page as they appear.

Image: Brodsky & Utkin, “Wandering Turtle in a Maze of a Big City.” Source.

So Far

A fat crow in a field, hopping around and making the noises crows make. Gusts of wind steal snow from the cemetery across the street. Blue ink on white pages and on my fingers. Orange ink: notes for later.

Also, a James Blackshaw album on repeat. Have you heard his music? It works for days like this.