In this two part interview, Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang talk to us about their new graphic novel "In Real Life," that dives into the world of economics, adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture-clash.
Charlie Chang: This is such a dense book and there is so much subtext. Can you talk about conceptualizing and the beginnings of this book?
Cory Doctorow: Sure, the way that I write fiction is usually this very agglomerative process, I kind of think of it like a super saturated solution of story ideas or fragments and eventually two of them will knock together and glom onto each other and that will nucleate a spontaneous crystalline formation of several ideas that are seemingly unrelated but when you start to think about them they all piece together. It started with the first accounts of gold farming.
There was a guy who gave a presentation at a GDC (Game Developer's Conference) about paying Mexican workers on the US border to do Everquest farming and he may have been a liar, he has a reputation for not being very truthful but the idea really got a hold of people not least because there was a big debate about whether he was lying. So I wrote this story and I wrote it in part as a parable about what I saw as the failings of the trade union movement and the labor consciousness in general that having lived through the car wars in Ontario in the 80s and watched as Canadian and American workers blame Mexican workers for taking their jobs instead of American bosses for sending them to Mexico. The idea that people who want to pay you less will try to make you hate the people who are taking your job for less money is not a new one. The history of the trade union movement is full of Irish workers being brought in to replace striking Germans but they seemed to have lost track of that.
Then I was living in Silicon Valley and all these techies I knew were freaking out about Indian outsourcing and I said, "Indians aren't taking your jobs, American companies are sending them to India. Not only that, unlike the UAW who at least had the excuse that they didn't speak Spanish and they couldn’t get across the Mexican border. These Indian guys speak better English than you do and they're on the same internet as you and you and they know how to use the internet better than their bosses or your bosses ever will. Why aren't you talking to them about this?"
So I thought, games are a natural way to tell that story that we have in games, guilds, which are precursors to trade unions anyways. Then you have a similarly paternal relationship with the companies that own the games and really difficult relationship with properties. The theory of why their allowed to kick gold farmers out of games or ban gold farming is that it's their property. If you don't want to play by their rules, go away and property is the most important thing there is. Except if the property is virtual gold in which you have no rights to it at all. Like, property is the most important thing in the world unless it's your property, in which case it's my property. So I thought that again, this would service some of that self-serving nature. Funnily enough I was arguing with a friend about the underlying nature of injustice and whether economic injustice is the root cause and then racism is an epiphenomenon of economic injustice or whether it's inter-sectionalism. I'm not an inter-sectionalist, I'm an economic fundamentalist. I think that the lesson of the Irish conflict where you have two people who to anyone the people who isn't in Northern Ireland who essentially believe in the same thing and look exactly alike and are the same kind of people who view each other as different as black and white people do in this country tells you that this is not about how you look, how you talk, or what color you are, that it's about economic relationships. So my friends and I just had a huge argument about this and one of the ways that I argue about things I believe is by writing fiction about it.
Although I didn't think about this consciously at the time, looking back on it, one of the lessons of this because it's a story about gender inequality and solidarity with people who are living under conditions of economic inequality that is perpetuated by racism that is to basically say that although every one of those injustices stands on its own as something that's important. That the thing that underlies all of it and the only way to break through it through solidarity.
CC: Very interesting stuff, super complex and thought provoking themes and topics.
CD: Right, which is why I wrote a short story for young adults about it instead of an economic manifesto because when you tell it like that it's a big complicated economic idea. In the post-Snowden era, people have spilled enumerable words about the relationship of privacy, autonomy, and the state but Orwell wrote a novel about it. You don't need to absorb all of the arguments about privacy to just understand why Orwellian is an adjective and why once Orwellian is applied to a system, it's a system that you want to look more closely at before you accept it right? That's the beauty of fiction, all fiction is science fiction in that it has the pretense that you can be telepathic and know what's going on in someone else's head. Which no one in the history of the world ever has done. So all fiction pretends there's such a thing as telepathy and all fiction is like a flythrough of what it feels like to live under some other circumstance. So by causing someone to empathize with the situation you don't have to unpack the ideology. The situation carries with it an ideological story. That's an old story as old as “Uncle Tom's Cabin” as old the Exodus and other narratives that have been part of the dialogue around social justice.
CC: Can you talk a little about the collaborative process. This is such a beautiful book.
CD: Well in some ways it's like the world's least dramatic collaboration.
Jen wrote an amazing script, I edited it, there were a few areas where we disagreed and someone else broke our deadlock to our mutual satisfaction. Then Jen drew this amazing comic from her script and I gave her some feedback. I had already done some comics adaptions of my work which cured me of my preciousness about asking artists to change things. As someone who can't draw even a stick figure, drawing stuff seems to be a form of sorcery and asking someone to redraw something feels to me like someone just built you a house and you're asking them to move it a little to the left. I was cured of that through the other collaborations that I had done that for an artist, changing the way a picture looks is not significantly different than me changing the way a paragraph is laid out. I also had an ace in the hole which was my wife. My wife is both visually very acute because she was a former graphic designer and she was a games developer, she was the first woman ever to play on the British Quake team and she is someone who has a very advanced aesthetic sense. She was able to help me express in those places where there was stuff that wasn't spot on she was able to help me find that vocabulary. Also, Jen is very good and a pro in that she is not precious or dramatic about not wanting to change things based on feedback. She surfaced a lot of that was laden in my story that I didn't know was there that was very gratifying for me to see. I wrote Anda's Game because the story was about Mexican gold farmers I wrote it about workers in Mexico but it quickly became very obvious that all of the real gold farming action was happening in China and to lesser extent Vietnam and a little bit in Eastern Europe. I went and lived in Shenzhen and Guangzhou to research it but I think Jen writing as someone who is of Chinese ancestry writing about Chinese gold farming, there is a complexity to her relationship to the material that in the best books that I read about China are books written by people who are people of Chinese descent who are one or two generations into being Americans or British for whom that critical distance and that closeness gives them insight that really was surfaced in those books and I think there are elements of that in Jen's work. There's an amazing book called "Factory Girls" by Leslie Chang who's the Wall Street Journal's China correspondent and head of their China bureau and she's second generation out of China, one generation in Taiwan, one generation in the U.S. and her family are Fujianese and so it's a memoir of living with the factory girls in Shenzhen and the first year she goes back with them to their hometowns at mid-Autumn festival and sees how Confucianism is challenged by economic independence for these young women but the second year that she's working with the factory girls, she goes back to Fujian and meets her family and basically has a, “this could have been me” experience that is informed by her first year and it's a very illuminating way to treat the material. My family is from the Soviet Union and I feel a bit of it when I go to Russia I get elements of that and I wrote a novella about my grandmother's experiences as a child soldier in the Siege of Leningrad called After the Siege that I recognize in that elements in what Jen's doing and what I saw Leslie Chang.
There's a guy name Bunnie Huang who's a hardware hacker, who's the same situation, first generation Taiwanese, second generation U.S. and he founded a couple of really amazing electronics companies who did all the fabrication in China and he went back to work with line engineers to design the production runs and he's the guy who broke the DRM on the Xbox and he wrote this great book called "Hacking the Xbox" when he was doing his PHD in electrical engineering at M.I.T. and he has this great presentation about being someone of Chinese descent who grew up in America, went to M.I.T., got an engineering degree, going to China and meeting line engineers who have engineering degrees too who could've been him and comparing their two lived experiences. Really really interesting.
CC: Very cool stuff. Last question, what are you most proud of in this finished product?
CD: I think the thing I'm most proud of is that someone as talented as Jen did such beautiful work starting from my source material. It's very curious experience to have your name on something that you can feel unabashedly proud of without feeling boastful. It's not one I've ever had to this degree before and I just found out this Snowden documentary just came out and there's this scene where he's reading my novel "Homeland" and talking about how the books he read inspired him and it's something like that. It's knowing that someone who did something that I think of as wonderful and heroic was inspired in part by something I did is what makes me proud. Other people have said "I went and did this because I read your book and it kind of inspired me a little" but literally she took my thing and made something awesome out of it. That's an amazing honor and so to have Jen's name on my work is thing I'm most proud of.
Charlie Chang: This is such a great book and as a gamer I feel a real affinity to the subject of this book. How did you get involved on this project?
Jen Wang: I was approached by First Second and they told me that they had acquired the rights to Cory Doctorow’s short story, “Anda’s Game” and it was an older short story that he had done. They wanted to adapt it to comics and I hadn’t read it before but it was online because Cory publishes a lot of stuff. So I read it and I really liked it and connected with it so I said “Yeah! I’ll totally do this.” I had never done a project like this before where I had to adapt somewhere else’s work so I just thought he’s a very distinguished author now and it would be a really good experience to try my hand at this.
CC: There are so many instances in this story where you’re going back and forth between Anda and her game avatar. Are you a gamer? Did you look on your own experiences in creating the visuals for this book?
JW: I just identified with Anda as a nerdy teenager.
Own a very basic level when I was a teenager I spent a lot of time online. I didn’t really go hangout very much. I had online friends which I eventually ended up meeting at comic-con so I think I kind of got where she was from and being bored by real life. Being excited by all the things that are happening on the internet and the social interaction she gets from that so that was what I really connected with and the experience that I drew from.
CC: Going back to how beautiful this book is. Did you focus on color palettes between real life and then the Coarsegold world?
JW: Yeah, I wanted to present real life in muted tones and obviously with Coarsegold I went a little crazier with the colors. I actually had different texture files I would lay over on top and Coarsegold has a lot of different watercolor spots and the real life stuff was one single texture so there were little things like that that I would try to make subtle changes to the two worlds.
CC: When it comes to drawing, do you work purely digital or do you do anything by hand?
JW: This was half and half. I did the pencils and inking in the traditional medium and I colored it in Photoshop. I would like to actually make the leap to full digital because scanning and everything takes so much time.
These interviews were conducted and transcribed by Charlie Chang. Interested in comics and graphic novels? Sign up for Comics Delivers, a weekly email featuring the best in comics each week - from weekly booklists to deals and exclusive content from creators.