Lab Intern Kirsten Dualan Interviews Writer and Novelist (and Labber!) Jessica Powell, author of The Big Disruption

Sun, 04/19/2020 - 10:23am

Interview by Lab Intern Kirsten Dualan

The Big Disruption begins with a mythic tale that might be described as “a reverse-Noah's Arc.” Soon after, all falls apart when the exiled prince/sanitation engineer comes to the start-up. Each chapter of your book opens on a shift in a character's point-of-view or a new setting. I was curious about the first stages of this project: did it begin with a character or setting? Or did it come from submersion into start-up culture? Do you remember the first line or scene that sparked what would eventually become The Big Disruption? 

It began as a mess, like most everything I write. But in this case, in particular, I had no idea it would become a book. I was working at a start-up in London, and I felt like we were marketing our product and company in these humanity-saving terms, while actually behaving in very suspect ways. The hypocrisy wasn’t unique to us--a lot of other companies in the tech industry (not all of them, of course) were also guilty of this. I originally started writing The Big Disruption for catharsis, trying to make sense of my work world, which I found simultaneously exhilarating and horrible. The first scene I wrote was a character starting his first day of work, which is still in there today.

From the beginning, readers experience your portrayal of the wonderfully strange office-world of an internet giant called Anahata. We see the volleyball courts, bean bags, frozen yogurt machines, beds, walking conveyors, light-sabers, and robot butlers that feed the characters calamari. It's absurd, almost uncanny, but utterly believable within the world you create. People with larger-than-life egos necessitate larger-than-life amenities. Matthew told me that since I loved your novel so much, I might also enjoy A Confederacy of Dunces. Can you talk a little more about your choice of satire for this novel, and speak about some influences? 

Not everything about tech was or is bad, of course, but at the start-up I worked at, I found that whenever I raised questions about what we were doing, I was told I was overreacting. And so there was part of me that was like, “If you don’t think what we’re doing is bad, how bad would it have to be for us to agree that this is unethical?” While I had no idea at first that I was writing a satire--to me, I was just writing--it makes sense to me now that this was the form it took. Satire leans on exaggeration and deformation as a way to put a mirror to reality.

The biggest influence on the book was Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a send-up of the newspaper industry in which the wrong journalist gets sent to cover a war. That book really unlocked things for me. My first pages were all written from the perspective of someone who worked within the industry. Reading Scoop, I realized that by using an outsider-type character, I could reveal much more about the world I was writing about; the outsider would act as a more effective guide for the reader. Confederacy of Dunces was also hugely helpful, because the characters are larger-than-life and generally disagreeable, but you’re sufficiently hooked on them to keep turning the page.

I love the way you characterize Jennie. She's one of the few women at Anahata and the voice of reason. She's self-aware and can clearly see how others treat her. I think about this line from her first chapter. "She had done everything he wanted--told him that his penis and sales strategy presentation were the biggest she'd ever seen; she even let him balance his computer on her back so he could send few urgent emails right after sex." Unfortunately, of all the things in the novel, the treatment of women like Jennie is relatively close to reality. How do you balance representing real-world issues while creating a compelling fictional narrative?

I struggled with that at first because there was part of me that thought I should write a more inclusive world. But then that would have confused some of the points I was trying to make. And with satire, you are working with a hammer, not often nuance, so I think you need to be clear about what you’re trying to do. So I intentionally have only one significant female character in the book.

Tied to that, I wanted to make Jennie as deep and despicable as the rest of them. I didn’t want a savior-type. Nothing irks me more than when you see a woman or someone from an underrepresented group show up in a movie or book with almost zero character development, as if it was some sort of tick-box diversity exercise. So Jennie is very practical and can see some of the company’s problems the way the reader might, but she’s also ridiculous and ruthless in her own way. She’s really clever and resourceful and proves to be more talented than any of them. Though none of that changes where she ends up!

I read in an interview (in The Guardian with Lauren Smiley) that you wrote most of your novel in 2012. The world right now is a much different place than it was when you began writing The Big Disruption. Since then, there have been many more women opening up about gender discrimination in male-dominated spaces. Your novel brings the "boys club" within the tech industry to light with lines that consistently remind the reader about the culture's rampant misogyny. How does technology perpetuate bias? How do you suppose we bridge this gap and bring more marginalized narratives into the picture?

If you’re building for everyone--as any tech company focused on scale is--you’re going to make better decisions if you have more diverse viewpoints in the room. And yet on the whole, tech companies are very homogenous across gender, race, age, and class. 

As an industry, we need to hire people who are different from us but also retain those people and help them be heard. It’s not just a pipeline problem, as many companies will often claim; it’s also about how people are treated once they arrive at a company. I remember once walking in Google’s Zurich engineering office and as I walked across the floor, men’s heads popped up from their desks like groundhogs on the first day of spring. It struck me as funny at the time--this wasn’t by a longshot the worst I experienced as a woman working in tech--but it’s one of those everyday moments you have, as a woman, that reminds you that you’re not “normal,” that there aren’t other people who look like you in the room. 

Which characters or chapters went through the most changes and why? 

The biggest work during the revision process went into deepening the characters. It’s a balance--satire often relies heavily on archetypes, and characters are often subservient to the larger humor and criticism that the work is trying to convey. But you still need people to care about your characters, no matter how despicable they may be. If there’s nothing redeeming or interesting about them, people may not care enough to turn the page.

Your novel was the first book published by Medium with great success. Had you known during that it would be published digitally, would there have been changes to the writing process?

The book had a long path to publication. I wrote it in 2012, and soon after the manuscript made its way to several big publishing houses. All of them rejected it, saying only people in the tech industry thought the tech industry was interesting. (This was long before Silicon Valley the show.) By the time I went back to work at Google, that was starting to change--for example, the TV show Silicon Valley came out in 2014. But I moved on to a new book idea--something I started writing in The Lab, actually. It was pure luck that The Big Disruption ended up in Medium’s hands. A friend sent them the manuscript, even though Medium didn’t publish books. But they liked the book and wanted to experiment, and bought it. From the time they read the book, to when they published it (with graphics, copyediting, etc), only about three months had passed. It was a great experience, and they offered such an incredible platform. The book was read by hundreds of thousands of people--nothing I write will ever likely have that kind of audience again. 

The only thing I might change would be to try to do something in parallel in print. Not everyone wants to read everything online, and so having a physical book available at the time of launch would’ve been great to do. The book did so well online that Medium ended up doing a print book six months later. Then the Audible audiobook came out six months after that. Obviously, it would’ve been better to do this all at once...but I can’t complain!

In your testimonial for The Lab, you spoke about coming into a writing class with hesitation. What first brought you this generative workshop? What were you aiming to achieve at the end of six weeks? What shifted in your vision of your project?

Other than a poetry seminar in college, I had never taken a writing class before, and I had nightmares of people ripping each other’s work apart in a public setting. What I loved about The Lab was that it was very focused on generating work--work that yes, you could share, but that in many cases I kept for myself and used as building blocks for things I was working on, or was then inspired to work on. I loved the prompts, which pulled from a broad range of sources and media, and took me in very different directions. 

Many of Matthew Clark Davison's students can attest to a moment, a story, an image, or a quote, that finally puts the gears in motion, and they begin to place trust in the process. Which experiment or artist resonated with you? In the time since you've taken The Lab, have you returned to any of the experiments for current projects or created your own? Are there any artists that you're influenced by at the moment?

I remember an experiment where we looked at some of the art of Nick Cave, in which life-sized forms moved liked humans but their faces were entirely obscured. It made me think of what we hide and what we show in different settings. It was just a notion, but then in the writing time that followed it, I ended up writing a scene from what has become my next book. 

How are you doing in the face of Social Distancing? What are you working on now? 

I have three kids under 5 at home, plus my day job (I still work in tech!), so my days are pretty full with just keeping the wheels (or some of the wheels) on the proverbial bus. During the evenings, I sometimes write, but I have found it harder to let my brain wander to more fictional realms. Instead, I’ve been working on personal essays. Part of that is wanting to keep writing, even when my brain finds it hard to do so. The other part is probably fueled by a desire to leave some written snapshots for my children—no doubt inspired by the heavy air of mortality that hangs over the world right now.