At this point, it feels safe to say that Sean Michaels is fond of big ideas in his work, whether he’s telling stories of starcrossed lovers during the Cold War or asking big questions about technology’s ability to create art. The latter concern is at the heart of Do You Remember Being Born?, in which an acclaimed late-career poet named Marian Ffarmer is offered an unexpected and lucrative job: collaborating with an algorithm on a new literary work. Michaels’s novel never goes where you’d expect, and in doing so raises a host of bold and thrilling questions about creativity, identity, and intelligence. I chatted with him about the novel’s origins and the challenges of writing a book that echoes emerging technology.
Things like large language models and ChatGPT have been in the news a lot this year. How much of that were you aware of and to what extent was the technology being developed as you were writing Do You Remember Being Born? Did you have to change any aspect of the book as you were writing and editing and revising it due to advances in the technology?
Surprisingly little! When I started working on the book in 2019, one of the seeds for it was GPT-2 — seeing that in action online and being stunned by it. In a lot of ways, the subsequent large language model stuff since then — GPT-3, GPT-3.5, ChatGPT — have been evolutions of that. In terms of the work that in terms of writing fiction — for instance, prose — it’s sort of like evolutions and refinements rather than a real state change. If you look at something like how large how good large language models are at dealing with computer code and writing code, there’s a huge difference between 2019 and today — but in terms of fiction, not so much.
That said, when I started working on the book, I really imagined that it would take place in the very near future. The book is kind of hand-wavy about this, but it’s sort of understood that [the AI] is possibly alive in a way that nobody’s claiming that the AI we’re using now is. The premise of the book is, here’s an AI that there’s more to it than just guessing the next word. What that means exactly goes unexplored because I just wanted to use that as a premise rather than go all Isaac Asimov, chew on every rule and consequence that that would have.
Initially I did think it would take place in the future, and so initially the opening page was something like “five years from now” or “the day after tomorrow” or something like that. Then that became “one year from now.” At a certain point, my editors and I said, “Forget it,” because it really feels like it could be six hours from now by the time this comes to press
Us Conductors had a very different take on technology and art, and The Wagers had a subplot involving a tech company, so i’m curious: do you do you see commonality among these three novels or were you surprised to be reckoning with these themes throughout your work, or have they always been interests of yours?
I’m surprised by it but I guess by this point I should recognize it as a theme. I think that really it’s less tech that interests me but the collision of the subconscious and numinal unknowable sense and intuition-based — stuff of art and life and magic, the collision of that with rules and math and probabilities and the laws of thermodynamics and whatever it might be. I think there’s something really strange there and a lot of our lives take place at that intersection of the humdrum realities of material existence and the floating stuff of the spirit.
In the acknowledgments, you brought up your sources for both the inspiration for the poet at the center of the novel and the way you created a believable artificial intelligence that that could write poetry. Was it a challenge to come up with a fictional poet — poets, really — and create poetry where some of it is better than others?
The thing that I was most insecure about in the early work on the book was the realization that the book had to include some of their poetry. If I avoided it, it becomes this weird vacuum, this absence that your eyes would constantly be drawn to, so I had to include some poetry. Then it was a sense of “Well, how well can I write this fictional poetry?” I came to think of it as fictional poetry in a way that feels convincing. In a way, writing a character’s poetry isn’t that unlike any aspect of a character.
Describing Marian, my protagonist, a 75-year-old woman buying a bikini at the swimsuit shop required a certain imaginative muscle and curiosity about life and openness and observation and all of the stuff that a fiction writer works hard to do. In a way, that’s very similar to then saying, “Okay, now what is the poetry of a woman like this?” Or, “What is the poetry of a machine that’s been trained in a certain way and has a certain kind of personality?”
I had to work to build an AI that could write lines of poetry as much as I was editing them and playing with it like a slot machine. Saying, “Try again, try again, try again, try again,” and after a hundred “try again”s getting a phrase I liked and using that. As much as it was semi-random in that way I needed what she was producing to sound like the character in my head and what the poetry of that character would sound like — and so getting a machine to be able to express things in that voice was was hard even if I was then able to revise it myself.
At what point in the process of writing this did the highlighted words and phrases become part of the structure of the novel?
That came right away, that was when the lightning bolt came and the lightning bolt was this recognition that I could draw on Marianne Moore and her history, her personality, and her experiences with Ford. That inspired part of the book and then the lightning bolt was the apprehension that the book itself could be sort of contaminated by AI in the same way and it wouldn’t need to be explicit. Hopefully, I could find a way to gradually make the readers suspicious of the manuscript in front of them in a certain way — confusion that leads to speculation that leads to suspicion or wonder.
I had that notion early but I wasn’t sure how to do it and then I had the idea I had of using highlighting which is what it finished with. I decided to make that design choice and then see at the end of the process when I’m working with publishers and their designers if they have smarter ways to express this — but we couldn’t come up with one. It was the best solution we found.
Just via Marian Ffarmer’s interactions with Charlotte, you’re able to bring in a lot of grand ideas about art, intelligence, and sentience. And when Marian interacts with a younger generation of poets, that introduces even more big ideas to the proceedings. How did you find the balance between these ideas and keeping the book relatively concise?
I’m a very political person and I feel this book is a book about artistic labor and maybe even labor in general, but I really wanted to avoid kind of any notion of polemic. Most of us live under capitalism and we make art in the system and the experience of that is rarely one of big speeches; it’s more one of surviving and making compromises. But at the same time, one of the things that one of the catalysts for any book project for me is really a vibe, a certain weather. I imagine a book having in it a kind of feeling both tonal and genre-wise but also at a sort of rhythmic, verbal lyrical language level.
Us Conductors is this very snowy longing book with little jokes in it and then a lot of grief in a certain sense. The Wagers, I wanted to be this noisy, oversaturated, over-kinetic pop fizz rice krispies kind of feeling that goes into the absurd. And then this book, the vibe that I imagined from the outset was I want this to be much shorter. In the end it’s somewhat shorter words-wise — I think it’s a good 20,000 or 30,000 words shorter than the other books, but because of there’s so many chats the page length isn’t that different.
I wanted to write a shorter book, an airier book. There was a sort of David Hockney painting California feeling that I wanted to let in — the kind of the feeling that I landed on very early in the first few pages when she’s still in New York, this sense of being in a quiet room and there being space to think.
I really like this idea of of a book where a lot of the book is spent with an older woman alone in a room staring at a screen — and yet how do you make that sensuous? How do you fill it with memory and all these things but without losing the tranquility there? But also having a sense of humor anyway — so in order to maintain the integrity of that vibe it required me to to skim off the things that might add too much volume.
There’s temptation to fall into like a deep silicon valley satire and there’s a temptation to go into the full life story of Marian, like a Eugenides kind of novel or something, and didn’t want to do that. There was a temptation to go into other elements of the politics of this — the scary evil robot stuff um or more conversations with other writers. But then I thought, let it be this like a duel, a kind of conversation between these two characters and then a few other voices that we allow in and let that be the world. Let the world stay small and by keeping it small and hermetic let that actually be a lot of air to breathe and a lot of space within the manuscript.
I noticed that the company Marian is doing this work for is never named, and there are a few moments where characters discuss music and the artists aren’t named. You use descriptions of album artwork or of the music itself — like the phrase “a looping pastoral.”
With that passage I was really thinking about William Basinski. That was really in my mind. There’s a Cat Power reference, but things like proper nouns are like paint. They change the feeling of a book; invented places and companies give the book a certain feeling, and real-world bands and companies give the book a certain feeling. Avoiding it outright gives a feeling and I didn’t want it to feel completely dreamlike by having not no reference to anything like some kind of fairy tale parable. When I was younger I read some early Douglas Coupland books, like Microserfs and Generation X, and I liked some of the feeling there but I didn’t want to be back in an AdBusters or Office Space 90s office satire either.
One of the things that’s most chilling and and confusing about contemporary high tech and especially these AI companies that act with such dignity and express such moral fiber — it’s very confusing because they’re still these ambivalent devouring corporations and I think to accurately represent that complexity you can’t let them be these utterly cynical golems all the time. You have to depict the confusion of where they sit in the imaginary.
There was one phrase in the novel, “art is husbandry,” which really resonated with me. Is that something that you feel that just the character believes or is that something that you have come to believe as well after having made a lot of art of your own?
I feel like it’s a thing I sometimes believe. I feel a lot of contradictory things about what makes art tick and what makes art work. There are days where I feel it’s like it’s unknowable and other days where I feel like it’s engineering — but certainly I think that there’s a strong case to be made about this thing of bringing together images and ideas and then nurturing the product of those encounters.
Towards the end of the novel you used the phrase “unyoking” as an act that one can take part in and that struck me as both a very definitive phrase but also something distinctive; I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “yoked” in a very long time. How did that as an image come up for you?
This book is about work and this book is about family and this book is about the bonds we have with our community or the bonds we can create. We’re born into families and bound to them accordingly but we can also create these bonds to a community around us. I think that there’s a certain vision of artistic genius and of solitary artistic genius that is particularly challenged by AI and that it is one of the challenges posed by AI that I worry about the least. I believe that this idea that collaborating in some way with some other tool is infecting and and deleterious — that it morally and existentially puts everything at risk, like all of creativity — I don’t think that’s true. I think that art can be made in this hermetic bubble where it’s just the genius alone on a mountaintop creating great art and it has happened over human history — but just as often that work has been navel-gazing garbage that doesn’t enter into relationship with the real world around them.
I think there’s so many more examples of work that’s made from a place of community and connection with real-world struggles, with real-world loss, with all the diversity of human existence — and so I think that sometimes people such as Marian can be confused by the idea that I can only work if I have enough time thus I must kind of escape jobs somehow, and I can also only work if I have enough time and space, thus I must escape parenting. Down the line, that becomes the idea that you must unyoke yourself from everything in order to be creative, in order to be an artist.
To me that is not true — but I see that that delusion comes from seeing all of those different aspects of life as the same problem, the same mantle on your shoulders.
Photo: John Londono