Signal to Noise

An Interview With Netchick Carla Sinclair

Carla Sinclair is former co-editor of bOING bOING, aka "The World's Greatest Neurozine," editor of the book Net Chick, and author of the cyberculture thriller Signal to Noise. She's been married for years to Wired associate editor Mark Frauenfelder and was recently the subject of an interview in Axcess, along with her sister, porn star Christy Canyon. She used the South Park/Bay Area/Wired milieu as background for Signal to Noise. Some reviews of the book played hip by pointing out the `real' counterparts to Carla's fictional world: Signal, the magazine where the protagonist works, is a take on Wired, and Going GaGa (the actual name of bOING bOING co-editor Gareth Branwyn's zine) is bOING bOING. Despite the references, the book borrows less from Wired and more from Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen.

Austin Chronicle: Carla, let's get right to the red meat: That magazine, Signal, sounds sooooo familiar... Could there be any resemblance to a real magazine? And is Going GaGa really that, or is it kinda like a zine we both knew and loved so well...??? Fess up: you did borrow from real life, right?

Carla Sinclair: I don't think I could write anything without borrowing from real life! So yeah, there's a lot of RL [real life] snatching going on in the novel, obviously from the goings-on in South Park, San Francisco, but it's certainly not a roman-a-clef, as everyone likes to say. I mean, I don't really know anyone who was kidnapped and taken to a trailer park after gambling at an online casino. So even though Jim Knight, and all my other characters, may resemble people I know IRL, they're twisted, diced, and reassembled into fictional folks who follow a fictional path. I was chuckling to myself as I typed out the story, in the same way I do when pulling a prank. Creating Signal's characters reminded me of plopping people in front of one of those wavy carnival mirrors and capturing the distortion on paper.

AC: It's obvious that you were writing about Wired and bOING bOING and people that we both know. So the more interesting question is how you decided to write a novel... is it something you always wanted to do? Do you plan to write more of 'em?

CS: Yes, I'd always wanted to write a novel, but since I'd never done it before (and never took creative writing classes in school) I was really afraid to try. But I always like changing directions, and as I'd already written magazine articles and nonfiction books, and co-edited my own zine, it was time I try something new - creating a piece of fiction. I think subconsciously I decided on a thrillerish type of story because I'm a pretty hyper person and I needed the story to move quickly to keep up with my nervous energy. I've started a new novel, another "thriller" (if I must categorize), but this one takes place in Hollywood. I think it'll be a while before I finish it, however, because I'm also working on a nonfiction book, which I think I should finish first.

AC: How was writing a novel different from the nonfiction projects you've worked on?

CS: Oh, it was very different, which surprised me. I started writing an outline of the whole story, the way I do with nonfiction. Then, each morning I'd write a micro-outline - that is, an outline of what I'd write for the day. But unlike nonfiction, which pretty much follows a course of facts and opinions that are planned in advance, fiction takes you places you may never have imagined. It was so exciting, because I never knew where my fingers would take me! I'd start off following my blueprint for the day - the micro-outline - but then I'd end up way off track, and I'd find my protagonists stuck in some weird predicament or a new over-the-top character would suddenly pop into the picture, and I'd think, Wow, when did I write this? Where does this fit in the outline? It's like you fall into a trance and your fingers run with the story and then you wake up a few hours later and find a whole new story in front of you. So every morning I'd have to reshape the mega-outline, incorporating the new direction I'd taken the day before (and sometimes, consequently, having to come up with a new ending). Then I'd write a new micro-outline, knowing I probably wouldn't follow it, but at least having something to kick-start the day's work. For me I found it's important to be structured enough to have a direction so that everything falls into place, but it's also essential to be flexible, to allow the creative flow to take over. There's a fine balance between allowing yourself to run wild and knowing when to pull in the reins. Chaos versus structure. I need both to write fiction, whereas with nonfiction it's much more structure.

AC: Jim in your book represents the typical new-media journalist type, the kind of guys that were plentiful at Wired. Did you know anyone similar to Jim... anyone who went through a life-changing experience and came out the other side with values? Have you ever feared that you would go to bed one night with Mark sleeping beside you and wake up with somebody like Jim in his place? Or, to rephrase the question, have you feared that you and Mark would fall into a soulless corporate lifestyle by association with the Jims and Jerrys of the technojournalism scene?

CS: LOL - what a scary thought, waking up to find Jim beside my pillow! Although, of course, there is a little bit of Jim in all magazine worker bees, digi-genre or not. And when we lived in S.F. Mark certainly was transforming more and more into a Jim Knight on a weekly basis. It was frightening for me, especially since we were so free before he got the job at Wired, living in Los Angeles as zine publishers, throwing huge bashes at nightclubs, zipping through life without any higher-ups (execs, bosses, advertisers, whatever) telling us what to do. (We had saved enough money from the sale of a house to live this lifestyle.) Then Mark got the job at Wired, we moved to the Bay Area, and suddenly we were both frantically working seven days a week, around the clock, for months on end without a break. It was ugly. I hated it! bOING bOING kept me as busy as Wired kept Mark - now that we were trying to become a "real" magazine and were accepting real advertisements I constantly had deadlines, and as a one-woman show, it was deadly. But to answer your question, yes and no. Yes, we did fall into a somewhat soulless lifestyle for a while - we never had time to kick back and groove on the pleasures of life. But I also knew it wouldn't last forever. Even though I didn't see a way out for quite a while, I knew that eventually I'd figure out a way to break the chains and get the hell away from South Park. Don't get me wrong, South Park definitely has a pulse, a beat that can invigorate creativity and a sense of being in the center of the universe. It's just not for me. I'm too reclusive for all that dog-eat-dog hustle-bustle digerati energy.

AC: Wow, I don't think of you as a recluse! Do you really prefer to stay at home? Or do you just like to move kinda sloooowly?

CS: I know, I'm a pretty good actress, aren't I?
;-) Maybe I'm not a recluse in the strict sense of the word, but I'm a definite homebody, spending all of my work hours and a huge chunk of my free time at home. I'm painfully uncomfortable with schmoozing or chatting with strangers at parties, or even chatting offline with people I know mostly through e-mail. I wish I were better at that kind of stuff (but I think I can fake it pretty well when I have to).

AC: You wrote some pretty violent scenes for the book... did they freak you out?

CS: No, not at all. I enjoyed writing them. Got my adrenaline moving. Of course, if the situations were true it would freak me out, but as a writer it was fun. Now this is going to sound really weird, but Jim's vulnerability in those scenes was actually a turn-on to me, made me like him better. I actually had a crush on him by the end of the book.

AC: You did a good job sustaining and pacing the narrative... did you study novel form or consult with other writers, or did you follow your instincts?

CS: Thanks. :-) I followed my instincts, but I would like to study fiction writing before I finish my next novel. There's so much to learn!

AC: It would've been interesting to read more about Jim's transformation between the last S.F. scene and the climax. Do you think you'll use the same character again?

CS: Not Jim Knight exactly, but I'm sure I'll create similar characters - it's a safe way to have crushes.

AC: How long did it take you to complete the book?

CS: Seven months for the first draft, which I then sold two months later to Harper. Then they wanted 2/3 of the book completely rewritten (new thugs, new location - they were originally kidnapped and taken to Costa Rica - and even a new set of circumstances in terms of why they were kidnapped) and they wanted all of that to be completed in two months. While I was pregnant, mind you. It was pretty intense there for a short time.

AC: Did you base that weird trailer park on a real place?

CS: No, the trailer park was made up, but I once did a documentary on a mobile home park as my thesis in grad school, so I had something to work from. Mobile home culture is fascinating to me and it would have been fun to have gone into more detail about "Love Park," but I don't think my novel was a detail-oriented kind of book.

AC: Why didn't the publishers like the original thugs and location?

CS: They thought the thugs were "too clichéd," which they may've been, but Mark and I really liked them. They were two Armenian brothers with huge mustaches and bushy helmet-shaped hair, a dumb-and-dumber kind of team, but really nasty too. And then they had a fat, handsome, charismatic boss named Cookie who was sociopathically evil. My editor didn't like Costa Rica because he thought the book should be "domestic," that it should take place in the U.S. I like both versions but I think my editor was smart in his suggestions.

AC: You and Mark were editors and publishers of bOING bOING, which at one point felt like it was going to become a "real" magazine - however, you've scaled back to a limited-circulation zine. Were you disappointed to let go of your ambitions for the magazine? Have you thought of reviving it as a commercial project?

CS: No, we're not disappointed at all. It was a choice we made. I could have continued running bOING bOING in L.A. the way I did in S.F., as a small magazine. Financially, it paid for itself, which is all we really needed. But it took up all of my time, seven days a week, since it had to come out on a regular schedule to please the advertisers. I hated that! The fun of doing a zine is that there are no timelines, no advertisers to worry about, no rules. Zines and the Web are both anarchistic mediums, which is why they turn me on so much. But when bb was a "magazine" it got to the point where we were reviewing music we didn't particularly care about just so the record companies would give us some money. I felt like bb had slipped into a straight jacket. Aaaargh! Finally we had enough. Now I can make more money writing books, and have more fun doing bOING bOING on the side. Actually, Mark was in charge of our last issue, #15, since I was so busy with my book.

AC: I heard a funny story about a reading you did recently where there were a lot of questions about your writing process, and you said something funny about writing best after you've smoked a big fat joint. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like doing readings and book tours, also a bit about coming from fringe culture into a more mainstream presence?

CS: Music really helps with the writing process as well. I thought I'd like readings and touring better than I do, because again, I'm a lot more uncomfortable speaking in front of crowds than I'd realized. I wasn't like this when I was younger! But I think becoming a writer kind of tweaked the way I process thoughts, so now I think better with my fingers - when I write - than on the fly - when I speak. I always think of what I should have said to someone's question or remark after the reading! I have had some great readings though. The best are when the audience participates in the conversation, and the topic veers way off course, and we've suddenly created a stimulating salon atmosphere talking about everything from genetics to the tao of surfing, rather than just me pontificating through a microphone about my book, or whatever. I still consider myself more on the fringe, but I guess being published by HarperCollins makes people believe I'm "commercial" now, or mainstream. Oy.

The thing I've learned most about stepping on the border of the mainstream is that suddenly people treat you differently... either with gooey-eyed adoration or with ugly, bitter contempt. Either way, it's as if you're not human anymore, not part of the gang, and you start thinking about how people perceive you, the image they have, which is so different from the real thing. You start worrying about stupid things like how your next project will influence that image. It takes the fun out of writing, because it takes you outside the creative flow. Makes you watch your creative process from some place outside yourself, which is a horrible way to work. But I've decided to try to ignore the noise and just do what I want to do. At least that's my goal.

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