Playing it by ear: a short interview with Jack Womack

Jack Womack is one of speculative fiction’s secret treasures. His 1995 novel Random Acts Of Senseless Violence is one of the most remarkable and emotionally affecting works I’ve ever read and the seed of my thinking about the whole Grim Meathook Future thing.It’s not science fiction, per se; it’s the story of how American civilization sputters out over the course of a year or two, told from the perspective of the diary of a 12 year old girl who slowly, subtly transforms from innocent child of the upper-middle-class to an almost feral street urchin. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking and as powerful in its way as Lord Of The Flies or even A Clockwork Orange.

I recently emailed Jack and asked him if I could do a short email interview with him. He very graciously agreed, and here’s the result.

jze: Random Acts Of Senseless Violence is part of your “Ambient” series, and yet it seems to stand alone as its own work. Where did the idea for this come from? Did you want to write a sort of prologue to the other books, or did it begin life as a separate work? How did you, basically, come up with the idea for Lola’s story?

jw: Random, like all the books in the series is intended to both be mostly read on its own (the final volume Going, Going, Gone being the only one really requiring that the others have been read in order to fully appreciate everything about it) and as part of the overall series, in Random‘s case to serve as the gateway to the others in turn — Heathern, Ambient, Terraplane, Elvissey, Going. The intention, for the overall reader, is to make the dialects in the later books more comprehensible.

Random was conceived as part of the whole; as the introduction to the world as well as the word, this particular part told by a young girl at the verge of enormous changes physically, emotionally, and socially; ideally the reader, like she, is changed between the first sentence and the last.

As I’ve noted in earlier interviews, the essential figure of Lola Hart is patterned on how I imagined a friend of mine was when she was 12; after I did the first twenty pages or so I showed it to her and said does this sound OK so far, insofar as a 12-year old girl growing up in your neighborhood in NYC would sound? And she said yep. And from there she and the other characters took on their own lives.

jze: It does certainly have an authentic-sounding voice; it’s one of the strengths of the novel that you can’t hear an adult behind the child’s voice.

The book describes a society that seems to be going out with a whimper, not a bang. How did you envision the subtle way in which Random‘s America falls apart? Was it inspired by any specific thinkers / schools of thought?

jw: Essentially I took current events and projected possible futures, finally picking the one that seemed, unfortunately, likeliest.

There is in fact considerable going on that is not good in the background in Random, but it’s not on Lola’s eye level yet. At the same time, most of the characters in the novel try to adapt to their society in flux to the same degree that we try to adapt to ours; and they, like we, find themselves more and more concussed rather than enlightened by the pace of change.

Never would have foreseen that NYC would have been so regooded so thoroughly, however.

jze: One of the most interesting aspects of Random, to me, is that not only Lola but most of the characters don’t seem to really understand how bad things are getting, other than Lola’s father, perhaps. How far do you think things have to go — how bad do they have to be — before people start to wake up and realize that some line has been crossed? At what point do people finally say “Oh, shit” and start noticing?

jw: It takes an extremely long time for members of any given society to wake up and realize what lines have been crossed while they weren’t looking. A majority of members have to be directly, and unpleasantly, affected by ongoing or new events in order for any response to begin reaching critical mass. And, those prone to optimism are going to see everything as well as they possibly can, for as long as they can. Sometimes the optimism will be justified.

jze: Let’s talk for a second about the language of Random: obviously, one of the most intriguing things about the work is the way Lola’s language sort of devolves from beginning to end. How did you approach the idea of this? The slang she uses is, I assume, mostly invented by you: how did you go about creating a realistic patois?

jw: The point of the language transformations in all of the books in this series was to give the reader a direct idea of the mental and emotional differences between these folks of a possible near-future and ourselves; the point being that as events transpired ever faster, so language and internal thought would transform as well — not within a matter of months or a few years in actuality, but over the course of time (this, like the title of the book, has been taken too literally by some readers and critics.)

Lola’s voice in Random reveals her own emotional and mental tranformations as she adapts to her new circumstances and allows herself access to emotions she’s never tapped before. By the end of the book, the reader has not only seen one additional way in which Lola transforms (as well as the way through which the other transformations are made evident) but should be used to reading the adapted language well enough to proceed to the succeeding books with much less trouble in understanding them.

As to how I made it up, I can only say I played it by ear — if it sounded right in the head, that’s how it went down on the page.

(Thanks again to Jack Womack, both for the interview and the great work!)

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  1. Excellent interview. I remember when Random came out, I really loved the title (teen angst anyone?) but I put off reading it when I found out it’s a girl’s diary (hey, I was like 13, gimmie a break). I followed up on it a few years later (the phrase itself stuck with me) and I always thought it was an under appreciated treasure. I have since lost my edition of the book… I think I might just buy it again.

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