20 Questions: Ellen Ullman

What do Star Trek‘s Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura, Next Generation‘s Security Officer (and superb martial artist) Tasha Yar, and Voyager‘s Starship Captain Janeway have in common? Besides they rock? Technophile, humanist and storyteller Ellen Ullman reveals the answer in her replies to PopMatters 20 Questions, below. (Star Trek geeks rejoice!)

Among other things, Ullman is the author of By Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2012), a tale set in San Francisco in the ’70s, which involves an eaves-dropper whose fascination leads to research into Heinrich Himmler’s Nazi Lebensborn program. Discoveries from her research for that book have touched her deeply, as you’ll see, below. The Bug, recently reprinted by Picador, was a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine (also reprinted by Picador), is based on her years as a computer programmer — a rare occupation for women — in the early years of the personal computer era. Indeed, Ullman is well known and respected by technology geeks (perhaps especially ‘girl geeks’) and of course, cultural generalists alike. She has written numerous articles for Harper’s, Wired, The New York Times and Salon.com, and appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered as an engaging commentator on technology.

From the sterile, dry-air environs of an airport terminal while touring for By Blood, Ullman recalls a glorious range of artists and intellectuals (and the work they have produced) and yes, even fictional characters, that have shaped her.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I’m pretty bad at crying. Just ask my therapist! So I’m going to talk about the last thing that made me cry. I mean sob. No fair you’re asking this question if you’d like replies that are “playful”, as you said when you sent the questions. I repeat: No fair. You did ask about crying…

When I was working on By Blood, I did research about the period immediately following World War II, particularly what happened to Jews who survived the war. Many were stateless, set upon by pogroms when they tried to return home, especially to Poland. I came across the BBC recording made by the reporter who was with the British soldiers who first came upon the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The internees at Belsen, which became a displaced-persons camp, recreated themselves as a thriving, self-governing community within months.

The BBC reporter was at the camp before help had arrived. We hear the recording of internees, barely able to stand, singing the Hebrew song “Hatikvah”. Whatever distance I had from the material melted. I could not stop crying. And it still affects me so.

It’s nearly always a bad idea to quote oneself, but it’s easier if I fill in with excerpts of what I finally wanted to say about it. From By Blood:

I was surrounded by the rising chorus of this song… One woman in particular leading, a very strong voice, a steady alto, and everyone followed… What sort of people have such determination and courage, even before all the dead have found their graves? What was giving them such strength, such hope?

The URL of the BBC recording is the last thing a reader sees in the book. That’s because the sound of the actual singing conveys much more than I could ever say. The recording can be found here: Listen to Hatikva, sung at Bergen-Belsen (BBC).

2. The fictional character most like you?

As you’ll see as we go along, I can’t seem to pick the “one” in each question. In this case, the moment I decided on a single character, others knocked upon my door and demanded entry. The two heroines who most recently walked in:

Gwendolen Harleth, in Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot.

The book opens with Gwendolen gambling in a luxurious casino, where she is losing consistently. She doesn’t appear to mind, but she will quite shortly.

The next chapter begins with her receiving a letter. It says: “a dreadful calamity has befallen us…we are totally ruined.”

A sense of impending disaster is very much a part of my character. Gwendolen burst into my thoughts two days ago, while I was planning the trip for my book tour. I had “spent” 50,000 frequent-flyer miles to get myself an upgrade to Business Class.

The next morning I got an email from my accountant: I was being audited by the IRS.

Lucy Snowe, in Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.

She constantly faces adversity. Her way is to persevere, batting down “Hope” and “Desire” with “Reason” and “Reality”.

In the end, it seems that, after all, she has gotten her heart’s desire. But maybe not? Brontë coyly leaves the question open.

As per my gloomy side, Lucy and I dare not count on being happy.

Twelve years ago, I had the great fortune of finding a wonderful life partner. Then again “Reader, I married him” assures nothing. It simply begins the great and perilous challenge of marriage.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Ah, I see you want to back me into a single corner yet again. But I refuse!

Jazz vocalists, three-way tie: Nina Simone and Piano. Sarah Vaughan – anything. Verve, Jazz Masters 24: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong.

Jazz instrumental: Bill Evans, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961.

Classical: Far too many to select one, but for a powerful experience, compare Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations” with the one Gould made shortly before his death, in 1982. It’s a lesson in creative maturity. The youthful performance is virtuosity, played breathtakingly fast. Though many believe that Bach’s music is mathematical and cold, the later recording breaks your heart.

Rock: On the grounds that it might tend to date me, I respectfully decline to answer.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars: Boys shooting. A princess with donut braids.

Star Trek: Original – Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura. Next Generation – Security Officer (and superb martial artist) Tasha Yar. Voyager – Starship Captain Janeway.

And the award goes to…?

5. Your ideal brain food?

I think many people have wonderful stories inside them and the talent to tell those stories. But the writing life, with its isolation and uncertain outcomes, keeps most from the task. Short answer: discipline (and a seat cushion).

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

I am privileged to have had two wonderful readers: Sean McDonald, my editor; and Laura Miller, the respected critic. After reading early drafts, each answered in ways appropriate to his/her profession. The editor said, “It’s great to hear your voice again” before opening the scaffold trapdoor. The critic, with the trap already open, said: Lots of this stuff is pretty bad.

I threw away hundreds of pages. Threw away; rewrote, threw away; rewrote. You get the idea. If I am proud of this new book, it’s mainly because I managed to finish it.

7. You want to be remembered for …?

Not-a-playful-answer alert: I pretty much think that when you’re dead, you’re dead. Anything that happens after that, I have no way of knowing about it, and so (at the risk of appearing to be callous) I can’t care about.

Life is for the living. Those still alive are free to understand the past as they will.

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

Ah, this follows nicely from the question above. The living looking back. But, oh my, another contest… At least this question allows for a plural reply. I can only freely associate:

Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language, who led me to understand a new way of thinking and understanding.

Bert O. States, distinguished essayist and interpreter of dramatic literature. The college professor who most changed my idea of what it means to learn. I understood that learning comes through a person. There is an unlimited store of information out there in the world. But knowledge is not the same as information. True knowledge, in my experience, comes to us embodied in a human being. (So much for “distance learning”.)

The writers: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Marguerite Duras, Edgar Allan Poe, Willa Cather, Paul Celan, John Donne, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher… and a cast of thousands. What can I say? I was an English major.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Period.

10. Your hidden talents…?

Ducking questions about what I keep hidden, with one exception:

I used to be able to sing, then I couldn’t, then I somehow could again. I recovered what I had left of a voice after seeing a recent Broadway performance by Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone. We got last minute seats that, by great chance, put us eight rows from the stage. Patinkin and LuPone are “mature” singers. I saw how hard they were working to hit the right notes, the great shifts of jaws and facial expressions.

I remembered the sole singing teacher I had ever had, who said: “To reach the high notes, you have to make a face like the village idiot.”

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

“No memory, no expectation.”

It’s impossible to live like this. But holding on to memories too tightly can prevent you from seeing things afresh. And expecting too much will leave you disappointed.

The person who offered this wisdom I will keep to myself. Even in the age of everyone-knows-everything-about-you, a private sphere still exists. Insist upon it!

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

I respectfully refuse to answer on the grounds that it may tend to expose me to ridicule.

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

I’m sort of small-shouldered and short-waisted. Armani jackets fit me perfectly, as I have discovered on those very few occasions when I’m brave enough to walk in and make the sales staff think I’m good enough to buy their clothes (and momentarily feel that I might afford the merchandise). Levis… not so great. Banana Republic has awful jeans, but their size (n) slacks fit me pretty well.

It’s fortunate for me that I am vastly more in need of trousers than I am of fancy little jackets.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

When I am around people I most admire, I tend to hug the wall. Then, if by some wild chance, I wind up in conversation with them, I am tongued-tied — unless I am rather drunk, in which case I make a fool of myself. It is utterly self-defeating, but I try to stay away from people I truly admire. I find I inevitably say something that comes off as less than complimentary. I later rue my remarks so much that I can’t think of the person, and so I’m divorced forever from the object of my admiration. Pity me.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Never. Only in the imagination, but what else matters?

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

Meds, northern Bordeaux white wine, Pinot Noirs, Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne, Kettle One Vodka, Glenmorangie 20-Year single malt scotch, Remy Martin V.S.O.P cognac… but not all at the same time.

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

See above. Plus black tea.

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

City. Writing is a very isolating occupation. I rely on the knowledge that I can walk out the door and be energized by the street. Concerning those writers who want to repair to the country: I can only think that their lives are so hectic that they need the quiet to write. In my case, I have a surfeit of quiet.

On the map: San Francisco, South of Market neighborhood, where I’ve lived for 16 years. Now part-time in New York, energizer of energizers.

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

What country? You mean the United States? Are we still a county?

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

After The Bug came out, I found myself thrown emotionally this way and that. I vowed that, if I ever had another book published, I would keep my head down and just keep working on something.

Now, despite my determination, I find it a struggle. The publicist sends me the reviews. I am asked — and honored — to reply to questions like yours. Then there is the tour, not huge in my case, but disruptive enough, given how air travel is these days.

Still and all, I try to at least noodle on something every day. I’m working on a collection of essays. I’ve also started another novel — two actually. One that I’m not sure about, 35 long pages at this point. The other having two pages I may be too attached to. The former takes me in an entirely new direction. The other takes me more deeply (I hope) into the ethos of By Blood and The Bug. We’ll see. Maybe neither one. At this point, I’ve learned to throw away pages before I get into the hundreds.

Then again, there’s this novel I’ve been wanting to write for years, about the 4th Crusade…