20 Questions: Cory Doctorow

Photo (partial) by © Joi Ito

Cory Doctorow tells PopMatters 20 Questions about how an indulgence from a librarian and an insult at a sci-fi writing workshop were the best encouragement – and advice -- he ever received. The latest result from those prods, both gentle and not so: For the Win (May 2010).

The award-winning author, activist, journalist and blogger, Cory Doctorow, really “… likes the way that video games became a natural way to tell a story about complex and important economic ideas, both traditional quantitative economics and neuroeconomics.” He tells PopMatters 20 Questions about how an indulgence from a librarian and an insult at a sci-fi writing workshop were the best encouragement – and advice -- he ever received. The latest result from those prods, both gentle and not so: For the Win (May 2010).

Book: For the Win

Author: Cory Doctorow

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

Publication date: 2010-05

Length: 480 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $17.99

Image: The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I'm a terrible weeper, especially since I've become a father. Basically, anything schmaltzy puts a tear in my eye. I come by it honestly, by way of my Ashkenazi ancestry; a family wedding in my clan generally involves entire crates of Kleenex as everyone weeps and weeps.

The fatherhood thing is freaky: I now get misty at any dramatic exposition of a child in crisis, a child saved, a child not saved, whatever. My toddler has certainly rewired my brain.

All this is a longwinded way of saying that I can't even remember the last thing that made me weep, since it happens so often.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I don't think I'm much like any fictional character. Even the most complex and nuanced characters are still mostly symbols for things the writer is trying to do with the story.

One of the occupational hazards of writing and especially of teaching writing is that the symbolic character of story-people leaps off the page, making it hard for me to treat them as real.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I just suck at these kinds of questions. I'm not a "greatest" anything kind of guy. For ten years, I've been writing on Boing Boing, the blog I co-edit, about all the things that excite me. If I was a "greatest" kind of guy, I'd have just posted once and had done with it.

Since MP3s became a reality, I've ripped all my music, rated the tracks I liked most and put them on shuffle. Haven't listened to an album all the way through in at least 12 years.

At this very second, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys have just finished singing "I Betcha My Heart I Love Ya" and the Novos Bainos have started performing "Sao Do Serena". Next in the queue are the Zydepunks "Finesterre" and "Is My Pop in There?" by Louis Jordan.

OK, all that said: Tom Waits' Rain Dogs is a pretty amazing album. But I don't know that it's the best, ever.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek. For some reason, all the awful franchising in Star Trek has failed to turn me off the way that the first three Star Wars movies have. I love Episodes IV-V-VI, though (my daughter's first word was "Chewbacca!"). I thought the latest Star Trek reboot was really smart, even though I usually hate time-travel stories for cheaping out on exploring the implications of being able to move through time.

Book: Makers

Author: Cory Doctorow

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

Publication date: 2009-10

Length: 416 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $24.99

Image: Your ideal brain food?

I have a tab-group of about 200+ websites and about 3,000 RSS feeds I subscribe to. Every morning (and several times per day), I open that tab group in Firefox and flip through them all very quickly, looking for cool new stuff. I skim the feeds all day, flipping back to my RSS reader (I use Liferea, which is a free reader that runs under Ubuntu, my Linux flavor of choice) and zipping through the new headlines.

I really love a well-crafted headline, I must say. The Christian Science Monitor -- a really top-notch news organization with no religious agenda -- has seriously improved its headline writing in the last couple months, with the effect that I often find myself reading its long, thoughtful investigative features. The article on systematic corruption in carbon-trading was fantastic and awful. (see "Buying carbon offsets may ease eco-guilt but not global warming" by Doug Struck, 20 April 2010.)

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I've been noodling around with the ideas behind For the Win since 2004, when I published a short story along the same lines called "Anda's Game" (originally published on

It's one of the most popular stories I've ever written, and I've been working ever since to find a good way to attack the story in more depth at novel length. I really like the way that video games became a natural way to tell a story about complex and important economic ideas, both traditional quantitative economics and neuroeconomics, which is my favorite subject at the moment.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

I'm enough of a science fiction writer that I half hope that I'll live long enough to see the cure for death, in which case, I won't be remembered per se, since I won't be dead.

But if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I suppose I'd be remembered for pushing the envelope on using exciting adventure stories as a framework for talking about important political ideas, and vice-versa.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Again, I'm not one of those "top ten" guys. So in no particular order, I'll sing the praises of Daniel Pinkwater, Abbie Hoffman, Rosa Luxembourg, John Steinbeck and Robert Heinlein.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Daniel Pinkwater's magnificent and convulsively funny Young Adult (YA) novel Alan Mendelsohn: The Boy from Mars. It made me the happy mutant I am today.

Book: Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present

Author: Cory Doctorow

Publisher: Running Press

Publication date: 2007-01

Length: 304 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.95

Image: Your hidden talents...?

It turns out that I'm a fair toddler-wrangler. I have a lot of peek-a-boo-fu.

I'm also not bad at yoga, can improvise a meal using whatever's around, and I'm a compulsive and thorough house-cleaner.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

James Patrick Kelly gave me the single best piece of writing advice I've ever received -- on my first day of Clarion, the sci-fi writing workshop.

The night before, he'd called for volunteers willing to have their "audition" stories critiqued the next day, as none of us had written anything new for the workshop. Being a cocky 20-year-old, I immediately put my hand up and submitted "The Adventures of Ma n Pa Frigidaire" (of which I was inordinately proud). That evening, my fellow students came around one after another to tell me how great the story was, and the next day in the critiquing circle, my roommate started his critique with "I share my toilet with a genius."

Then it came to Jim and he said, "Cory Doctorow, you are an asshole." (He was smiling when he said this). "You've managed to convince 16 intelligent, talented writers that this story has something to it, despite the fact that it's all pyrotechnics and no heart. You need to learn to sit down at the keyboard and open a vein."

That one piece of advice turned out to be the single most important thing anyone's said to me about making art in all my career. I suppose I could have gone home after day one and worked on it for the next five years (and that's how long it took me to figure it out!), but then I would have missed all the camaraderie and tutelage that followed.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

The first book I read on my own, Alice in Wonderland, was borrowed from the school library at Crestview Elementary in Toronto, Canada, when I was seven. My teacher, Bev Panikkar, was clever enough to recognize that I was onto something and she let me hide out behind the cubbies and read for three straight days. That's where my life-long love-affair with books really started.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levis, or better yet, some repro vintage jeans from a shop like The Stronghold in L.A.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I've never eaten at the Ritz, but I assume that they're able to seat a big dinner party and then leave us alone to gab!

I'd have Rosa Luxembourg, Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, Kathe Koja, Brazilian President Lula and his culture minister Gilberto Gil, graphic novelist Brian Wood, webcomics writer Randall Monroe, and activist Jamie Love as well as scholar James Boyle. And Tom Waits and Django Reinhardt and Peggy Lee. It'd be a fun dinner.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I've given this a lot of thought, believe it or not. I'd love to go back as an adult to the year of my birth, 1971. My early life -- say, the first ten years -- were filled with the echoes of those years, cultural references in books and movies and conversations and cartoons, like a conversation that I entered in the middle. I feel like I spent that decade trying to decode what all that stuff meant. Now that I've got a handle on what it meant and where it was headed, it'd be a kick to go back.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Spa vacation. I'm a massage junkie and my back is royally screwed up.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Sleep. Which I never get enough of -- too much travel, plus a toddler, plus too much work!

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

City, certainly. Not sure where. I'm in London now, which has lots to recommend it.

But I'm really fond of some eastern North American cities like Boston, New York and Montreal (but having grown up in Toronto, I feel like I've done my miserable winter penance and have no urge to repeat it).

I love Hong Kong, especially for its proximity to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, which are amazing and weird places. I lived in L.A. for a year once and loved it, which I didn't expect. I lived in San Francisco for several years and mostly hated it, but now find myself nostalgic for it.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

To Gordon Brown? I guess I'd say: You're going down in the next election and good riddance, you corporate lickspittle.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Working hard on my next YA novel, Pirate Cinema, a book about kids in the UK who end up on the streets after their families have their Internet connections terminated thanks to piracy accusations (this has just become law in the UK). (For more on this, see "U.K. Approves Crackdown on Internet Pirates" by Eric Pfanner, The New York Times 8 April 2010).





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