Ask The Author: Devan Goldstein

Devan Goldstein’s wonderful piece, “Five An Hour,” appeared in the February Issue. This hour Devan answers six questions.

1. What factory would you work the line? What would be the fringe benefits?

The Dream Factory. I imagine that working the Hollywood line makes even the lowliest production assistant feel somehow special, which seems like a nice benefit for one’s job to confer.

Also, I often miss teaching composition.

2. What would a whale bitch about?

Whalers, giant squid, the danger that increased oceanic acidity presents to the global plankton supply. First-world whales would probably just complain about shitty iPhone apps like the rest of us.

3. What would we find if we cracked you open?

Billions of teardrops, a love letter that constantly rewrites itself, shockingly few memories, and a taxonomy of all possible affronts. Maybe one of those parasites that eats half your food, too.

4. Where did “Five an Hour” come from?

“Five an Hour” was an attempt to capture a voice that’s been with me since before I would’ve called myself a writer. I had to find content to follow the form, in this case, and in its mechanism and repetition—which may not even be a part of the published draft—the voice felt like it belonged to the factory line.

That connection probably comes in part from an old set of interests of mine. Like so many people, I have long been taken by the scene in Chaplin’s Modern Times (skip to 1:25 or so if you’re in a rush) where the Tramp steps away from his spot on the line only to find his body continuing to perform his task against his will. It’s not just the genius of the physical comedy; it’s the brutality of the social commentary: “This,” he says, “is what factory work does to you.” I have also loved Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (skip to 0:45 if you must) for its stark depictions of what kind of labor class might take shape in some future. It’s probably also worth mentioning the “sucking stones” passage from Beckett’s Molloy, which I think I prefer to any other moment in fiction, and James Thurber’s hilarious essay, “Sex ex Machina.”

Finally, if you’ll pardon some armchair psychoanalysis, “Five an Hour” seems to take up the issues behind my decision to leave grad school. My program was not alone in demanding a certain devotion to the field, and the intensity of the specialization felt contrary to my personality. (I am, in the scornful words of my former Dean of Graduate Studies, a dilettante.) Actually, not long before I started working on “Five an Hour,” I wrote another piece called “The Specialists” (not available online at the moment), a love story set in a dystopia where people from different disciplines couldn’t even speak the same language. I think the two pieces represent the same issue—my need to return to a broad set of interests—in different settings, namely, the knowledge economy and the industrial economy.

5. Have I asked you too many what questions? If so, how would you revise one of the what questions? How would you answer it?

I have enjoyed the what-questions and see no need for revision. What-questions lend themselves to zippy answers, and they have a certain primacy anyway. Once you’re born, it hardly takes a few months before you’re a pro at identifying objects, answering the question, “What is this?” You can’t ask “Who?” till you have a mental model of individual agency, which takes a long time to develop. “When?” and “Where?” require mature concepts of time and place, which take even longer. “Why?” depends on the domain. Are you asking “Why did that person do that thing?” Nothing needed beyond the “Who?” stage. But most why-questions are bigger: “Why are we here?” “Why do we have to die?” “Why does my fucking printer go through black ink so fast?”

6. How does being a tech geek influence your writing?

I do have some work in which technology plays a central role, but so do many non-geeks, if there are such creatures. I imagine that the bigger influence on my writing is my relationship to my writing tools. First, I use a lot of them, such that I find it easy at least to make notes about my writing in most situations. On my Mac, I use Word for standard-issue composing and final manuscripts, TextWrangler for very fast writing (as when I have a small idea that I know I can knock out quickly), OmniFocus to note ideas that I’ll try to write later. On my iPhone, I have a similarly wide array of tools for different scenarios (Dragon Dictation, Voice Memos, Mail, and Simplenote, which syncs with Notational Velocity back on my Mac—and again OmniFocus, which syncs with the desktop version of itself). I can’t imagine less tech-geeky people feel any worse off for using fewer apps, but I know I feel that using more helps writing fit a bit more seamlessly into my life.

Second, I experience many of these pieces of software as relatively invisible. Notwithstanding the incessant crashing of my current installation of Word, I tend to know lots of keyboard shortcuts and other software tricks that help minimize mousing around, clicking and dragging, menuing, and other distracting tasks. This can also be a disadvantage; I can’t really write well or do anything efficiently for any length of time on a machine that’s not configured exactly like mine. For that reason, I have only once in the last decade been without my laptop for more than an overnight, and that was on my honeymoon—which you’ll be able to read a little about in June’s online issue of PANK.