In the first of a new series where writers show us around their working lives by revealing what’s on their computer desktops, Tom McCarthy explains how technology is woven into his creative life.
Interview by Ben Johncock
I don’t have a desktop image. It’s best to write against nothing, rather than something. Just having white, pure white, is seductive. Anyone who’s ever pissed on snow will understand this.
I must belong to the only generation of writers who’ve written with all three of inkpen, typewriter and computer. It definitely matters: the technology colours not only the rhythm but the whole logic of what you write. Think of Kafka’s obsession with writing machines: the harrow that inscribes the law onto the skin in In the Penal Colony or the mysterious writing desk in Amerika: writing technologies themselves are imbued with terrifying and sacred dimensions, and become the subject, not just the medium, of the story. I used to have a beautiful old German typewriter, that you had to throw your fingers at and the keys would smash into the roller. It felt like a machine-gun or something. I do everything on the laptop now, although I print notes out and mark them up.
“Satin Island” is the provisional title of the next novel – hence “Research for SI” and “si world stuff”. It’s all about pollution and mutation. It’s going to have a leitmotif of a parachutist falling to earth, having realised that his parachute has been sabotaged: his relation to the landscape, death, technology. It’s only half-formed at the moment – less than half – that’s the ‘Parachutist stuff’ document.
The “Columbia talk” folder and presentation is a talk I gave to the students and faculty at Columbia University in New York. It’s called “Noise, Signal and Word: How Writing Works”. I trace the figure of Orpheus from Ovid through Rilke to Cocteau, looking in particular at the roles of transmission and reception. Rilke’s Orpheus is associated with a giant ear; Cocteau’s spends half his time listening to the radio. I think this has something vital to tell us about what the writer – any writer – is essentially doing.