We live in a contradictory age where surveillance and self-promotion lie side-by-side. In many ways, we should be paying attention to who accesses our data, yet at the same time we are constantly being affirmed for sharing, self-promotion and joining the conversation. I didn't care much about my privacy at all before reading Patrick Flanery's new novel, I am No One, published by Atlantic Books. I've been raised to want people to see me. However, after reading the book and meeting with him last week, my attitudes to privacy are starting to shift.
Tell us a bit about I am No One, for those who haven't read it yet?
It's about an American professor of history who specialises in the history of post-war East Germany and the Stazi. The book begins when he returns to New York after more than a decade at Oxford where he's been teaching and trying to rebuild his academic career after having failed to get tenure at Columbia. Returning to New York feels like a fulfilment of his desire to be back in the city that he loves, his home country and near his daughter who is now married to a very influential magazine editor. Immediately, things start to seem quite strange. He begins receiving file boxes that suggest that he's being watched in a very intrusive way. The book is about whether those boxes contain what he thinks they contain, and if they do, why would somebody be watching him, and why would somebody betray the fact that they're watching him. That sends him off on this reflective journey through his years at Oxford, thinking about relationships he had that might have contributed to putting him on the radar of the security services.
Did a particular event or instance in your own life spark the idea for the novel?
The initial germ was being in New York City in spring of 2014. My partner and I had been at a coffee shop on MacDougal street, where my character begins the book. We were walking back to the silver towers, a three building development of high rises owned by NYU which serves as graduate and faculty student housing. We were staying with a friend who was living in Silver Towers. I looked up from Houston Street and I could see her standing at her window. I waved at her and she didn't see me. We went upstairs and I said to her, "I could see you from downstairs, couldn't you see us?" It was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way from outside. She very quickly shut the blinds, but I was very interested in the way in which New Yorkers in particular live these constantly half-public lives. It was something I was conscious of when I was living there, but hadn't really thought of in the intervening years. If you're living in that kind of high density high rise landscape you have to shut off your awareness of neighbours potentially looking into your own home.
I suppose it's very different to here in South Africa, where we are defined by shutting ourselves off and making our walls higher and higher...
Well, if you can afford to have high walls. I think that's interesting too. Privacy is a privilege, which is one thing the book is interested in. It is concerned with how the super-elite are the ones who are able to protect their privacy the most rigourously.
I felt from the beginning of the book that the character is quite defined by isolation and dislocation. You feel a great sense of loneliness as you enter the book with him. Yet in our current society, we are defined by hyper-connectedness. Why was it important for you to have an older, less connected character as your protagonist?
I wanted somebody who might potentially be dabbling in social media, but not integrated into it the way some people are. I wanted him to stand in the position of somebody who doesn't think actively about the ways in which they are relinquishing their privacy. I do think that some of us who are more active on social media are increasingly conscious about the ways in which we are revealing themselves to our friends and the wider world. I needed somebody who would experience a gradual realisation of the ways in which the landscape of privacy has changed. He simply appeared to me - I think that's often what happens when I'm creating characters. There's a germ, and then it grows, and then very quickly somebody forms.
What's interesting about his voice is that there is a character arc that he follows. His sober voice seems to fray a little bit as he goes on - even that voice isn't static.
Initially I wanted him to have a kind of pedantic quality and be an ambiguous character that elicits ambiguous responses from readers. Some readers really like Jeremy while others respond really negatively to him but still seem willing to go along the journey with him and find themselves sympathising with his situation. I wanted some sort of sense of his realisations about the extent of surveillance that he is under to have an effect on his psychology and have that expressed in the wildness of his prose.
Why did you choose a single voice for your narrative as opposed to the four-person narrative you used in Absolution?
I wasn't certain how to handle it at first. The first impulse was to have two perspectives: Jeremy's perspective and the perspective of whoever might be watching him. However, it seemed that introducing that other perspective was going to completely give the game away and I didn't know that that's the book I wanted to write. I decided it was more effective to stick to his perspective so you have to rely on his impression of the world and impression of what's happening...
...and how that's not always reliable
No, we don't really know if he's compos mantis. He doesn't know if he has dementia, his daughter suspects he has dementia, he doesn't appear to have dementia, but those questions about the state of his mental health are always hanging over his narration.
A subject such as security and surveillance takes a lot of reading and research. What was the most interesting anecdote or fact that came up in your research?
It seems like the whole landscape of surveillance is shifting so rapidly. Every day I was looking at the news and something new was coming up. There were a couple of things: I was skyping with a journalist friend one day. His video came on and the screen was yellow. I said, "Are you there?" Then, he pulled a Post-It off his camera. I asked,"What is that for?" and he said, "Because they can activate the cameras." I said, "What do you mean 'they'" and he said, "You know, the NSA or whoever could activate the cameras." That was so startling to me that I immediately put a Post-It on my webcam. The technologies we're relying on so heavily for our life and work are some of the primary ways in which we are relinquishing our privacy. Information gathering and collecting, whether by a government or corporation is a form of surveillance.
Obviously digital in all it's forms - whether through how we communicate or gather data - is changing so quickly. As a writer it is compelling to write about as its something so essential to the human experience, yet at the same time its changing so quickly that you can write something and by the time you've gone through a few drafts everything has changed. How did you navigate keeping your book relevant yet speaking about issues that have a global appeal?
In the first draft of the book there were more specific references to things that were dated clearly. In conversation with my editors, we decided to take a lot of them out. When I'm writing, I often think about trying not to reference brand names and using other modes of describing things that may become ephemeral technologies so it doesn't read as completely out of date in six months, a year, or two years. Some books fill their writing with brand names - I don't mind reading that, but it's not the kind of book I wanted to produce. If you go back to books written 100 years ago you'll find that unfamiliar brand names don't diminish the work necessarily, but they create a kind of distancing effect for the reader. I'm trying to write in such a way that the proximity between the reader and understanding the text is as close as possible.
By you omitting the references, I was not quite sure what era we were in, which was quite haunting in itself...
It's something that Hanya Yanagihara does with great success in A Little Life. There's no reference to any kind of proprietary brands or reference to technology. I thought that was such an extraordinary choice to place the story in no specific era. It was a very interesting experience for me as a reader, to feel this dislocation and to not quite be sure where we were.
Did your attitudes to privacy change while writing the book?
They did, but not in ways that I would have anticipated. While I was writing the book I felt quite paranoid about Googling the sorts of things I needed to Google for research. When I finished writing it I delivered the manuscript to the agent in hard copy. I didn't email it and asked initially that it be delivered in hard copy to my publishers. In the process of revising it with my editors that kind of anxiety went away. I think because I realised that even in writing the book, it was already potentially on the radar of anybody who might want to look. It was silly to try to police it's activity online. I moved from a place of anxiety about surveillance to resignation, which is not to say that I'm happy about the state of surveillance. I've come to accept that this is the world we live in now, and I'm trying to think about what that means for us ordinary citizens as we go about our lives. What could we potentially demand of corporations and the people we elect in terms of providing more safeguards for our privacy. Maybe that's naive, but I'd like to to mobilise wherever we are to secure a sense of privacy that seems to have slipped without us being fully conscious of it. The technologies are so seductive and the ease that they create in everyday life means that we forget about all that we're losing.
Your title spoke to me quite a bit in terms of how I engage with privacy. 'I am No One' - that is how I've always engaged online. I'm just Amy, nobody cares about me and what I'm doing. Would you say that your book seeks to challenge the perception that the everyday man doesn't have anything to worry about?
Yes, that is the idea. I wanted Jeremy to be an everyman or everyone. Even though he is from the exceptional circumstance of leaving his home and coming back, I wanted him to be quite ordinary, with some trivial flaws. I didn't want him engaged in activity that was clearly criminal or that morally ambiguous For me, he's the person at the beginning of the book who would say, "Why should we worry about surveillance when we've got nothing to hide." It's about a process of raising awareness.
In South Africa we've had an interesting year so far in terms of people making racist statements on Facebook and Twitter, seemingly without the knowledge that this will be shared. People don't seem to understand that every person becomes a broadcaster when they publish online.
I think the whole world must be struggling with this in different ways. It's really interesting that here it is inflected in the way that it is.
It's incredibly fraught.
I think that for some people, that if they have very tight privacy controls on their Facebook accounts, they believe they are only publishing to a closed circle of friends. They don't think that someone can easily take a screen grab of your message and it can go viral. We have to completely recalibrate our sense of what private discourse is. In a sense private discourse is now almost impossible unless you're alone in the room with no technology present.
What do you think that does to the freedom of discourse? In any intellectual debate there will be some inflammatory statements. With all the online shaming it's a lot safer to just be boring.
It's certainly safer to be boring. Without defending surveillance, this new age of greater transparency might potentially have a positive effect in that it would create fewer opportunities for people to say really outrageous things.
Perhaps it will eventually provide a space for difficult conversations.
In some ways I feel that the social media landscape has made possible the very rapidly moving changes we're seeing in debates around intersectionality and inclusivity and representing the complete range of voices out there.
You can find I am No One, published by Atlantic Books, online at Takealot.com, Amazon.com or at your local bookstore. Go out and get it - it makes for a thought-provoking, and unsettling read!