Excerpts from the interview:
“At San Jose State I got very interested in the work of Stephen Wolfram, who wrote a pretty famous book called A New Kind of Science. Wolfram looked at all sorts of computations and did a kind of taxonomic study. If you don't try to make a computation do something but generate all the possible computations or programs of a certain kind and look what they do, broadly speaking you'll find three kinds of behavior, which you can call 'too cold,' 'too hot,' and 'just right.'
“The 'too cold' ones are predictable: they do something that's unsurprising and not really very interesting to watch. In literature, that would be some real low-end genre thing, like a Star Trek novelization where the characters are stereotypes that are known to behave in certain ways. It's tedious to watch something very obvious being worked out, like a movie that's not particularly good and after about half an hour you know how it's going to end. At the other extreme, 'too hot' is something that's completely random, with no structure, like a pile of garbage in an alley. And if somebody starts telling you their dream, it tends to have that kind of formless, inchoate lack of structure. There's nothing to fasten onto, and it's just not interesting. (People rarely write books that are that far out, so it might be interesting to try to write one, but no one will want to read it.)
“In between these zones is the 'just right' one I think of as the 'gnarly' zone, where you have something that's not predictable but not formless. That's the zone I like to work in. I started getting into that word when I moved to California in '86. Of course the original meaning of 'gnarl' is a knot on a piece of wood, but in surfer slang it came to mean rapidly changing surf conditions -- complex surf. So 'gnarl' is not so much a form as it is a process that's behaving in an intricate and unpredictable fashion. If I had a coat-of-arms, or for that matter a tombstone, I would put 'Seek the Gnarl' on it!”
“I like to do things that are surprising and different. Maybe it's partly from being the youngest child in the family. When you're the youngest, you're the baby and you get pushed around, so you grow up wanting to rebel against the status quo. Also, the government wanted me to die in Vietnam and when I weaseled out of it they called me a coward -- or at least I imagined them calling me a coward. It really turns you against authority. So I've always been somewhat antiauthoritarian. I like breaking the set. I like a book better if I can't predict what's going to happen.”
“[White Light was] the first book where I used the 'transreal' approach in a full-blown sense. That's the idea of taking a realistic description of your life, with a character similar to yourself, and adding some transcendental/science-fictional elements, both to heighten the realism and to show some of the higher realities that we live in. The book is about a mathematics professor who travels past infinity and goes into a world where Cantor's infinities are real things: there's a mountain that's more than infinitely tall (you go to infinity, and then it keeps going), so you can actually iterate that argument he did to get an endless tower of higher infinities. I had a lot of fun doing that book.”
“Some ideas you have to chew on, then roll them around a lot, play with them before you can turn them into funky science fiction. I recently finished a non-fiction book about gnarly computation called The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, and now I'm doing a novel using a lot of those same ideas, Mathematicians in Love. I wouldn't have been able to write it if I hadn't written the non-fiction book first. In keeping with my new resolve to have a plot in advance, I worked out this kind of intricate love story. There's the love triangle, but the love square may be more interesting -- that's where you start out with two couples, and then things get all embroiled. I did that in Spaceland, and Mathematicians is a bit like that, but complicated by the fact that there are going to be alternate layers of reality.”