Conversations on “Confessions”: Talking Dante, Ducks, and Infocom With Eric Raymond

Nick Bray, the protagonist of Eric Raymond’s novel Confessions From a Dark Wood, is in over his head. Following the death of his father and the loss of his job, he finds himself employed by an enigmatic management consulting firm, LaBar Partners Limited. His friendship with a poet whose day job is at the TSA seems healthy; his romantic relationship with a woman planning a spectacular suicide is less so. Did I mention that one of the offices at LaBar is occupied by an orangutang with a penchant for doing awful things to the firm’s interns? Or that the ghost of Nick’s frustrated-academic father periodically shows up to provide aggrieved commentary on Nick’s increasingly frenzied life? Confessions From a Dark Wood situates itself in the bleakest reaches of comedy, and it’s remarkably effective throughout. I caught up with Raymond to learn more about the origins of his novel.

There’s a lot to ponder in Confessions From a Dark Wood — beyond the management-consulting satire, there’s also Sadie’s highly conceptual planned suicide, the spectral appearances of Nick’s father, and the observations on daily life in San Francisco. Did the novel always have all of these elements, or did they accrue over time as you wrote it?
They were all a part of the initial draft. I had Sadie’s character in mind in an early draft of a different book, along with the poet, Jake Hawkins. When I decided to let Nick’s father speak, rather than have him as this looming presence in memory only, the writing of the book opened up. I realized I could put all of it in, and at that point I figured I could do anything.

The novel’s title alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy; if this novel’s plot corresponds to hell, do you plan to touch on the themes of paradise and purgatory in future books?
I love the idea. I am also wary of loving “ideas” for books. I love the idea so much I would probably write bad books chasing the idea. I did wonder if I could ever return to Nick in a later book, much in the way Bret Easton Ellis resurrects the world of Less Than Zero for Imperial Bedrooms. I guess the answer is “not now.” At times I think of ways to continue to expand Confessions beyond the book, but not in a way they iterate through Dante’s trilogy.

LaBar Partners Limited takes a giraffe as its logo; the name of their rivals Canard brings to mind that most fearsome of creatures: the duck. Where did this pair of mismatched creatures come from?
Successful logos always have a story applied in retrospect. This is one of those things brand consultants love to do in meetings, to talk about how the logo’s natural integration into the story of a brand was so vital to its success. Of course, this is almost always utter bullshit. It’s about cherry-picking successful companies and attributing outsized importance to details within their story, many of which were improvised organically by entrepreneurs. But enriching these details you can charge a fat consulting fee for is paramount.

So, in thinking up the logos for LaBar Partners Limited and Canard, I knew I wanted animals. The giraffe, the definition of the giraffe, and the interpretation of the giraffe as Pontius applies to to the firm had to sound preposterously self-important. Also, giraffes are known for farsightedness, which on one hand relates to the nonsense of seeing the future, but on the other describes a real inability to see things which are very close to you. Like the facts of a situation, in Pontius’s case.

As for Canard, the word itself turned out to be so useful. First, the duck, of course. Then there’s this aviation definition about a small set of forewings which stabilize and control the jet (this would be Canard’s own corporate consulting story, I’m sure.) But ultimately there was the idea of a canard as a fake story, a falsehood, or a groundless rumor. As much as Canard represents Pontius’ professional sense of insecurity, and the fact we can’t really be sure Canard exists at all, it seemed right in every sense.

You show up as a character late in the novel. Did the framing story of this book as a collaboration always exist?
It did exist at the beginning, but I didn’t know why at the time. It’s funny what you leave yourself, even if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it later. The advance praise and the foreword were planted to play with that continuum of truth/fiction and reality/artifice. But along the way I kept asking myself: Why was Nick telling this story? When is he telling it? So, near the end, when he meets Eric, I found I could answer both of those questions. It clicked in then, both the ending and the title, and the idea of the affidavit.

What are you working on now?
Last year I wrote a novella based in part on the old text adventure gaming company, Infocom, so I’m trying to decide what to do with that. I think it has such a narrow audience I may just give it away in hopes that the handful of people who might enjoy it can read it.

I’m also playing around with some location-based audio fiction. I might extend some of Confessions with this in the near future.

As for new writing, I’ve spent a lot of time fishing for projects worth a novel. I used to have an ironclad rule of one project at a time, but after a bunch of 80-page dead ends I’ve given myself more room to cast about. I think whatever comes next is about brothers.

As someone who grew up playing Infocom’s Zork and Deadline, I’m curious to know more about this novella — what attracted you to the company as a source of literary inspiration?
I loved those games. I loved the spirit of the culture that created them. There’s a lot of talk right now about the potential technology holds for literature. There’s always been, really, but there’s remarkably few instances where the experiments have captured or compelled readers. There was this sweet spot between 1976 and maybe 1985 or so, when both the Infocom games and the Choose Your Own Adventure books were consuming people. Some essential element existed between the technology’s limitations and the reader/player’s imagination. That constrained interactivity.

Then, extinction. It had this perfect storm of circumstances— technology with graphic infancy, post-60s/pre-Yuppie dreamers and smart-asses, talented writers with voice. I wanted to write a little about that time in transition, to imagine fiction arouvond the sort of guys behind it all. The novella seemed like a perfect form for a fleeting time the equivalent of blockbuster formal experimentation.

This novel is informed by the geography of San Francisco and Atlanta — do you see future books as being set in other cities, or finding other corners of these to explore?
Florida, certainly, as I grew up there. The novella is in Central Florida, which is not at all where Infocom happened. I like place in fiction. Some writers are afraid of concrete locations. Place can be a shortcut to finding out how you feel, and by proxy a way to a worthwhile voice. Most of the time I have no idea how I actually feel. I have to visit it and find out.

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