Apr 23 2012

    Bookforum talks to Ellen Ullman

    Justin Mitchell


    Ellen Ullman’s latest novel, By Blood, is narrated by a psychologically unstable academic who, while on a forced leave of absence in San Francisco, discovers that he can hear a young woman’s therapy sessions through the walls of his office. He gradually becomes obsessed with the patient, going so far as to surreptitiously help her uncover disturbing truths about her family history. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of 1970s San Francisco, a world that Ullman depicts through her narrator’s troubled mind as an urban nightmare. In addition to By Blood, Ullman is the author of Close to the Machine, a memoir that recounts her experiences working as a computer programmer during the tech boom, and The Bug, a psychological thriller about two employees at a start-up whose lives are changed by a mysteriously flawed code. I spoke with Ullman earlier this month about her latest novel, the differences between programming and fiction writing, and how after years of working with computers, she wound up as an author.

    Bookforum: Your first two books are about how our professional lives can consume us. By Blood takes a different turn, focusing instead on how our personal histories determine who we are. How did this novel come about?

    EU: The story of By Blood came together through several strands. The first was a New York Times piece about the post-WWII displaced-persons camp in Bergen-Belsen, Germany. The piece described the community that the internees created for themselves: the governing bodies they formed, the schools they established, the marriages they celebrated, and the children born there. I knew someone whose parents had met in a D.P. camp, and that gave me a more immediate and personal view of what happened to Jews left "stateless" after the war.

    A year later, I came across a report about Jewish parents who had given their children to monasteries and convents in the hope that even if they did not survive, their children would. However, when these parents and relatives came back after the war, they found that many of the children had been baptized, were now considered Catholics, and the Church would not give them back. This story horrified me. I am Jewish and adopted. So I wondered: How would someone feel if she learned she was one of those children?

    Finally, there is the "present" action in By Blood, which takes place in 1974. The mid-1970s were a particularly strange and dangerous time in San Francisco, and I did my best to incorporate as much of its gritty atmosphere as I could reasonably fit in the book.

    So there are multiple "pasts" in the novel. The narrator looks back to events that happened "several years ago." He begins with 1974. The story he overhears—and tells us—takes us farther back in time, to the post-WWII period.

    BF: The Holocaust figures prominently in By Blood. I’m curious whether you had any reservations about tackling it, and what sort of research you did to prepare.

    EU: I had tremendous reservations about taking on the Holocaust. So much has been said about it, yet it seems that there are still infinite things to say. It touches upon questions ranging from the particular—historical details—to the unanswerable: What makes us human beings?

    So I decided that I would not discuss the Holocaust directly, but focus on the times immediately before and after it, the parts of the history that are less well known.

    For the "before time"—as a character’s birth mother calls it—I wrote about the experience of being an assimilated German Jew: the attempts to survive by converting and marrying "Aryans”; the reality of living under a perverse Nazi hierarchy. In the end, converts were taken, but it did matter whether this happened early or later in the war. Those taken last had the best chance of survival.

    Then there was what came after the Holocaust. I think we know a good deal about the concentration camps and their "liberation," but another story also followed, one that needs telling. This concerns the Jews who were forcibly interned in displaced-persons camps, their heroic determination to return to life, and, despite all, to achieve a measure of happiness.

    The only part of the novel that actually takes place during the Holocaust is the account of the Lebensborn. This is a controversial subject: There are several explanations of what it might have been—a Nazi eugenics program, a collection of maternity hospitals, the abduction of children who looked "Aryan"—but none has ever been proven conclusively. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, whatever the exact truth about Lebensborn was, it existed and had dark purposes.

    As for research, yes, I spent a long while reading about the Holocaust. However, researching a novel is hazardous. Do too little, and you can look like a fool. Do too much, and you run the risk of unloading "research dumps." There is a terrible temptation to say, "Look at all this stuff I learned!" The details have to be pared back to the meet the needs of the story and the characters. It’s a hard balance to achieve. I cut nearly a hundred pages of historical information. But then my editor felt the background had gotten too spare, so some of the history went back in. In the end, each reader gets to decide if the balance is right—or not.

    BF: Both of your novels feature male lead characters. Is writing from both a male and female perspective something you consciously set out to do, and does it present special challenges?

    EU: I think that all of us contain both male and female aspects, and that the ability to see this varies from person to person. Some people can sense the other in themselves; some can, but with effort; some not at all.

    Scott Rosenberg, writing then for Salon, asked me if Ethan Levin and Berta Walton in The Bug were two parts of myself. When I thought it over, I decided the answer was yes. I had not set out to understand them as a “male” or “female,” or to divide myself between them, but so it happened. Similarly, the narrator of By Blood came to me one night. His being a man, and a weird one at that, was a surprise to me. But once a voice comes to you, as a writer, you'd be a fool to send it away.

    BF: You often write about how individuals struggle with standards of authenticity imposed on them by groups. In your memoir, Close to the Machine, you discuss how computer programmers who develop projects for “end-users” are considered “uncool” in the “libertarian world of computing.” Likewise, in By Blood, the patient’s refusal to conform to her partner’s narrow definition of lesbianism eventually leads to the end of their relationship. What is it that draws you to combative relationships between insiders and outsiders?

    EU: I don't think I have considered this question before, at least not consciously. I did not set out to define the relationships in the books as insider/outsider conflicts. But yes, I see you're right. The characters (and myself in Close to the Machine) feel that they don't fit in. They suffer under the illusion that others do fit comfortably, which pits them against (perhaps) imaginary enemies.

    I suppose this deep sense of unease reflects my own psychology. But then again, have you ever read a great piece of literature about someone living happily in the world?

    BF: Your own backstory is pretty fascinating. You spent many years working as a software engineer before publishing your first book. I even heard you were offered a job at Google years ago. How did writing come to be one of the main focuses of your life?

    EU: About my turning down a job at Google: I already knew Larry Page and Sergey Brin through personal connections, and, well, from everyone hanging around in the days before the 2000 tech crash. It happened at one of those Friday beer-and-wine parties. We were at a start-up in a warehouse down the street from where I live in the South of Market district of San Francisco. Larry, Sergey, and I got to chatting, and I mentioned that I was interested in symmetrical multiprocessing. Larry and Sergey looked at each other, and one of them (I forget which) asked me, "Do you want a job?" It was a casual question, and I have no idea how serious it was, if at all.

    What I remember about the moment is how quickly I told them I wasn't interested in being a programmer anymore. I was consulting by then and figured I'd had enough of sitting by myself talking to a compiler. Now that I think of it, though—in light of your question about my characters who feel like outsiders—maybe my immediate "no" came from a sense that I was not up to the job. Larry and Sergey are so smart that they can seem like advanced beings from a far outer planet. I was an ordinary coder, I felt.

    I came to writing in steps. Nancy Peters, the publisher of City Lights Books, got a proposal in 1994 for a collection that would become Resisting the Virtual Life. She urged the editors to get something from me, and that piece was later reprinted in Harper's "Reading" section. Nancy came back to me and said, Why don't you write us a little book? And when I asked, What sort of book? she answered, Like the piece in Virtual Life, only longer. That "longer" piece became Close to the Machine.

    Sean McDonald, then an editor at Doubleday, read Close to the Machine and stayed in touch with me over the years, asking what I was writing, if anything. If not for Sean, I never would have finishedThe Bug. And now he is the editor of By Blood.

    So the short answer to the question of how writing became the focus of my life is Nancy Peters and Sean McDonald.

    BF: What, if any, similarities do you see between writing and computer programming?

    EU: Aside from the general isolation involved and the deep focus required, programming and writing are completely distinct experiences for me.

    Code is not language; it is a severely bounded conversation. While great minds do create beautiful and graceful algorithms, and one sometimes can sense the person behind the creation, the code itself is not expressive. If code is ambiguous, that's a fault. Its meaning comes from what it does. If it doesn't do what's intended, it's got a bug. It's broken.

    Language, on the other hand, is imprecise. That is its beauty. If it were otherwise, there could be no poetry, no great prose.

    BF: What about music? You reference classical music in By Blood and Close to the Machine. Do you listen to music while you write?

    EU: I cannot listen to music while I'm writing. Words have a delicate rhythm. The stresses in a sentence, the beats of long and short sentences; the shape of a paragraph: these are gentle and subtle and easily invaded.

    All the same, I feel I have been influenced very strongly by music, particularly by early rock (I briefly sang in a band), jazz, song standards, and classical music, which includes contemporary "classical" music. Frankie Lyman singing Why do birds si-ing so gay; Beethoven's rising, rhythm-leading notes in “The Ode to Joy”; The swinging duets between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong; Billy Holiday singing just this much ahead of the beat—these can tell you all you need to know about rhythm.

    Oddly, I find the sound of voices soothing. I can write perfectly well to talk radio, maybe because talk has a gentle cadence, and the voices feel like company.

    BF: Most of your writing is set in California, where you live, but your roots are in New York City. Do you think you’ll ever set your fiction there?

    EU: It's funny that you should ask, because, as of last year, I began spending part of the year in New York. We rent an apartment there.

    I have started two new novels set in the city. The first takes place in 2005, the year I was pulled into a family real-estate dispute. The other is based on my childhood. I can't address the years in between—from the time I went to college until I was drawn into the family business—as I had "left home" to move to San Francisco.

    I am not sure which, if either, will come to fruition. But if I had to bet on one, it would be the earlier one. As you’ve noticed, I'm inclined to look backward, to what has been consolidated in memory and may therefore be best understood.

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