The Old Programmer’s Habits: A Conversation With Ellen Ullman

Ellen Ullman worked as a programmer for over twenty years and began writing about her experiences in Silicon Valley for Salon and The New York Times just as the dot com bubble was getting too big for its own good. Her essays in Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents form a distinct and fascinating portrait of the beginning of the way we live and breathe technology now. While her first novel The Bug is about a programmer and a software engineer looking back on a persistent and destructive bug, Ullman’s new novel is a departure from machines. In By Blood a struggling professor overhears through thin walls the therapy sessions of a patient who, among other troubles, is yearning to learn about her biological family. By Blood (FSG) explores the relationship between a person and two people he never sees, bringing to mind classic tales of obsession and questioning how much we need to know about our origins.

I talked to Ellen before she began her book tour, which commences officially with an interview with Maud Newton at Book Court in Brooklyn, March 1.

Reading your earlier work on programming, it’s hard to separate your descriptions of the programmer’s life with what I would normally consider apt descriptions of a novelist’s life.

If you look at writing and programming—look at them from the outside—they do look quite similar. The work is solitary, isolated for months and days, intensely focused.


Do you see old programmer’s habits pop up when you sit down to write fiction?

The internal experiences are quite different. Code-writing, in my experience, is emotionally jittery. The machine keeps cycling back at you, back and back. Compilers don’t get tired. They keep sending you error messages until you get it right. The equivalent in writing would be if you were composing, and, each time you saved file, you would be battered with reviews.

In programming, you are “talking” to defined, structured interfaces, whether to chips, devices, or other software. Even chip designers use specialized software, another structured interface. The “conversation” is therefore bounded. And no matter how much creativity must go into a writing new piece of code, there are hard edges you can’t cross. Code is not language as we know it. Its meaning is in its function, what it does. It doesn’t express; it works.

That said, there are areas in computing that break new ground in organizing how we can think about computers and create new edges. For instance, the devising algorithms. New algorithms reflect upon existing algorithms, which rely upon yet older algorithms, a conversation over time, you might say—maybe Talmudic in that regard?

In contrast to the structured human-machine interactions above, the “interface” I’m addressing while writing is a sort of perfect, accompanying consciousness—or that is how I imagine it. My job is to keep that consciousness with me. Not every moment, of course. That’s impossible. But it’s like running into someone you really like and respect, and you go out for a coffee or a drink, and you talk for an hour, maybe two. You don’t have to be completely fascinating. Your friend is a human being, imperfect like yourself, trying to understand and connect. You want to reveal yourself; your friend wants the same. But deep human interaction is flawed. The talk slips, meanders, maybe bores for a while. You might step on something painful or hurtful. But, given mutual sympathy, the relationship still “works.” You both leave happy.


Reading By Blood, I constantly was thinking about privacy and complicity in voyeurism.

It’s interesting that you connect the voyeurism in By Blood with the privacy questions we deal with today. It was not at all intentional. Fiction writing has to be pretty much unintentional in an intellectual sense, I think. But a friend asked me: Do you think that today the narrator would be considered so creepy? Or just normal. An information stalker like everyone else?


That’s interesting. Do you think the narrator would be considered normal today? Do you think there is still a sense of boundaries we’re not supposed to cross when it comes to other people’s information?

What’s considered out of bounds today astounds me. It seems that a young woman has to commit suicide, or a newspaper has to hack into the cell phone of a dead girl, before the public ire is aroused. Even then, that “ire” itself is darkly shaded with prurience: it’s a big news story on CNN.


Did anything particularly influence writing By Blood in the same way Shelley and Mann influenced The Bug?

Interesting that you say that Mann influenced The Bug. I have read The Magic Mountain four times, becoming more obsessed with it with each rereading, but it had been years from the last rereading to the writing of The Bug. If the influence was there, it was by virtue of my having made the book part of my existence.

As for By Blood, the situation came from a small office I rented in an old building on the fringe of San Francisco’s business district. There was a dating service next to me on the other side of a thin door. The prospective couple would be introduced, and I could hear everything, down to the sipping of coffee.


How did you feel about being able to hear everything on the other side of the office wall? Did you feel creepy, or rather, overstepping your bounds?

I told the woman who ran the service that I could hear everything. She shrugged and said they would be moving their business soon anyhow. Within a month of two, they did move. So I didn’t feel creepy. It was her choice to let me eavesdrop for a while.

One night while I sat listening—no way I could not hear—the narrator’s voice came to me. I tried to shake him. What sort of crazy person tries to write a novel when the narrator can’t see anyone? But he stuck to me. And that was that.

Then there are all those crows in the book. Where I live, South of Market in San Francisco, the bird neighborhood suddenly changed. The old west anchorage of the Bay Bridge, right next to my building, was demolished and rebuilt. Before this, there had been mourning doves and tiny songbirds. They suddenly disappeared; legions of crows showed up. I assumed it was all the rats and mice the construction unearthed. The crows unnerved me. I hated, and still hate, their cries and big beaks and slick black bodies. In By Blood, they became the incarnation of the “black drapery” of the narrator’s life. It was only when I was about one-third through the book when I went: Poe, for god sakes. As a kid I was obsessed with Poe. Pit and the Pendulum, Fall of the House of Usher, The Telltale Heart. And of course “The Raven.” Crows.


Did you ever think about leaving the city in the last decade or so? It’s a dramatically different city from the one you came to, at least cosmetically?

I never really meant to settle in San Francisco. For years I thought, Well, if I stay here for while…. Then I wound up spending most of my life here. I now live part-time in New York, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever leave San Francisco completely.

Yes, this part of town is unrecognizable. I moved to South of Market when there were no parking meters. Now a whole new city is being built around us, high-rises, luxury condos, some new development so generic that it could be anywhere. But a city, if it’s a vital place, has to keep changing. That’s the nature of urban life, which I love. I hate to drive. I feel I need the energies of the street.


In your article for the New York Times about New York replacing Silicon Valley, you say that “creative moments cannot be reproduced,” and in By Blood you explore the subject of an adopted child searching for a clear explanation of origins. What is it, do you think, about origins and reproduction that you’re drawn to?

I think the works you cite above refer to very different meanings of creation and reproduction. The creative moments in post-war Paris, or New York in the 1960s, or San Francisco in the late 1990s, and perhaps San Francisco again in the 2010s are fortunate accidents, wonderfully chance combinations of people, time, place, interests, abilities, money (or the lack of it), social life, and political atmosphere. They happen, and then they’re gone. The very definition of Zeitgeist.

The adopted daughter in By Blood—I am also adopted—and the narrator and the therapist are wondering about the meaning of one’s origins. Do you need to know where you came from? What good does it do to know or not know? Are you defined and bound by your ancestry—your blood—and, if so, can you escape it? What do you inherit from your parents, and what is wholly yours? These are basic questions we face as human beings. They are inescapable, endlessly ponderable, but finally unanswerable.

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