Neal Stephenson Answers Our Questions


Thanks to Neal Stephenson for taking the time to ride in my pedicab for an interview last week. Lesson learned: it’s difficult to bike and interview at the same time. Fortunately, Neal sat down w/ me for a less-strenuous interview after the ride. Here’s his message to aspiring makers:

Here’s what Neal had to say in response to our questions:

I read you have an english wheel in your basement, and the article where I read this said something like ‘thanks to the wonders of Harbor Freight, cost has come down from thousands…’ does this mean that you subscribe to the dangerous drug that is harbor freight?

An English wheel is a really simple device, so I figured there wasn’t that much that could go wrong with one from Harbor Freight. And, that was really the only option to get one… sometimes, I’ll buy the first version of a tool cheaply and then upgrade if I’m using it a lot.

What’s the most surprising technological development you’ve seen over the last 10 years?

It’s a boring answer, but I have to say the growth of the Internet.

What technology today do you think will really surprise people over the next decade?

I’m not big on making predictions like that…

Do you think nanotechnology development has been slowed by government policy, and do you think it’ll ever reach the levels of Diamond Age?

Honestly, I haven’t been following nanotech closely enough to stay abreast of the latest in the area of government regulation. I tend to dive into a topic for a book and then let it go.

Why make a video trailer for Anathem?

It’s a popular trend in publishing. I’d never heard of the idea until I got an email from my publisher announcing that they were going to do it. So I was more intrigued than anything. The filmmaker, Brady Hall, put the thing together amazingly quickly. He paid close attention to the book and listened to my input. Now he’s working on one for Neil Gaiman.

I’ve read you ‘went all in’ with Snow Crash, writing what you wanted and not what you thought would be commercially successful. If nobody bought it, what would you be doing today?

At that point, I knew enough about the world of publishing that I probably could have bounced back and eventually written something else to keep my career going… if I had gotten a normal job, it probably would have been some kind of gig in the high-tech industry.

What DIY projects don’t seem to be receiving the manpower that they should

I’m kind of surprised that people don’t use composites more. I think there are a lot of things done with wood, nails, and metal that could be done with composites. It’s a different toolset and a different way of thinking. But it’s very accessible now: it doesn’t take much to tool up for. Scissors, gloves, experience… but amazingly versatile. I suspect many get turned off because they try to go cheap and use polyester resin, which is hideously smelly. If you work with epoxy, it doesn’t stink and it’s stronger. The good stuff has a high mixture ratio, 4:1 or even 5:1 of resin to hardener. Don’t use 2:1 or 1:1 epoxy unless you specifically want a flexible result, e.g. laying glass over wood where you have to account for differential expansion.

Is there a composites resource or project you’d recommend starting with?

Braided tubes are a good starting point: they come in a bunch of different sizes, and they’re relatively easy to work with. They work like Chinese handcuffs. You can put them over any kind of tube or strut, pull on both ends, and the braid will tighten over the strut. Apply resin and a little while later you have a very strong, nice-looking structural member.

what’s your favorite tool, and why?

It’s a tossup between an oxyacetelyne torch and a portable Lincoln wirefeed welder. The welder’s infinitely more useful, and the torch is just cool because of what it is.

What’s the grandest failure of a project you’ve achieved?

I’ve had some pretty grand failures with composites, because once you start to get ambitious, you can have a catastrophe on your hands when the epoxy starts to cook off ahead of schedule… Actually, my grandest failure has been with rockets that didn’t do what i wanted them to… a few of them that came to bad ends, but i think the worst was one where I was using a hybrid nitrous oxide motor that was supposed to work a certain way based on my computer modeling. It was at a rocket launch meetup and something went wrong with the motor so that it delivered only about a third of the expected total impulse. It went up 100 feet, nosed over, and slammed into the ground.

How do you choose what projects to work on when, and how do you know if you’re working on the right things?

With books, I’ve just got a sense now for what’s going to work. I didn’t used to. Now, I can tell what’s gonig to go or not, just from experience, having done it before. As far as building stuff, what tends to happen is if I can keep doing it on my own with the tools I’ve got and maybe a couple of collaborators it goes. But it gets stuck if it requires tools I don’t have or cumbersome processes.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, in their cubicles waiting to have that ‘big idea’ for the next great novel?

Just keep writing. The big mistake is to write something and then stop for a long time while you try to sell it. Don’t ever stop. If you stop, you get out of practice. And writing is like cabinet making or soccer playing, it’s all about practice.

If you could change one thing about one of your books, what would it be?

Well, technically I can: they’re my books, and I can change things for future editions. But, to go back and start rewriting is really a mistake. There’s a saying in the bible about dogs returning to their vomit…

You have a magic wand to make one change in the world. what would it be?

Hmmm, a magic wand question. I would move us decisively away from oil, which seems to be at the root of all sorts of trouble.

Do you think that ‘Snow Crash’ led to a boom (then bust) in virtual communities (e.g., Second Life) before their time?

I’m not close enough to the industry to know if there was a true ‘boom and bust’ in that field. There have always always booms and busts… The basic idea of a metaverse is sort of obvious; it’s nice that people look to “Snow Crash” as inspiration but I’m sure that similar things would exist now even if I’d never written that book.

Anathem raises the new question for me: Are human beings evolved to only think short-term, or is civilization warping us? You would think that if nature is about wanting to preserve your bloodline, ensuring the world is habitable in 100 years is a pretty reasonable evolutionary imperative, no?

Evolution only relates to having kids, so once you’ve gotten past the age when you’ve had kids evolution ceases to really fuction. I would be awfully surprised if evolution has done us any favors whatsoever in the long-term thinking department. It has been incredibly effective, however, at making us want to have sex with each other.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I don’t analyze myself enough to know where I get inspiration from… I’m disturbed by how little I’ve been reading of late… so many things can be done on a computer and I just chain them all together: socializing, mail, taxes, work, phone calls, entertainment.

Do you do all of your own historical/technical research or do you solicit help?

I do all my own research, and I don’t use any proprietary databases. Although, I did hire Lisa Gold, Research Maven to help generate some family trees and a few other ancillary things for the Baroque Cycle after the books had been written.

What’s your favorite creation outside of your books?

A telescoping practice sword… you can put a pad on the blade of a sword so it doesn’t hurt so much but the thrust will still hurt. I made a sword that telescopes inward on impact.

How deeply did you imagine the culture of Arbre? For example, there aren’t texts for the Hylaean Anathem in the book. Did you conceptualize more than you wrote down about music, language, architecture, etc.?

Very little… not one of those projects w/ a whole world created around it. And yes, I am wondering how much more development Jeremy Bornstein will do on the Orth grammar. That’s up to Jeremy, he seems to be having fun with it… I don’t think they’ll be a klingon or elvish demand for it, but I could be wrong.

I’ll post about Neal’s telescoping sword later today. Thanks again, Neal!

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Luke Iseman

Luke Iseman makes stuff, some of which works. He invites you to drive a bike for a living (, stop killing your garden (, and live in an off-grid shipping container (

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