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One Question for Ander Monson

By Jessa Crispin

I recently interviewed Ander Monson, the author of Other ElectricitiesVacationland, and Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, at the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago. I had not noticed the tape had run out before he gave a very interesting answer, so I asked him to re-answer for posterity.

Q: Ander Monson, how has your criminal past (detailed in Neck Deep and Other Predicaments) affected your writing career?

From a practical standpoint, I suspect I would not be a writer at all not for my criminal past. Probably. I have been thinking about this lately, at what point does one decide to be a writer. I think I mentioned that my first publication was a plagiarism–that Hardy Boys book review published in the Daily Mining Gazette (reprinted on my website, copied originally from the back of the book in question) from when I was nine or so. I don't know how much speculation it's worth, but it seems to be that seeing that published (however shameful it may or may not be now) probably flicked a switch in my mind or my family's mind, to think of me potentially as a writer. That sounds self-aggrandizing, but keep in mind then that my whole career, such as it is, is potentially based on a plagiarism, which is thus kind of great. Towards the end of high school and in college, I was planning on a career in computer science or experimental physics, something mathy, programmy, interested in complicated systems. I was convicted of various computer crimes at 17 and then part of my probation forbade me from using computers for five years or so, except “for good” (to help others). By the time I got my computer back and was allowed to use it, the technology had evolved significantly so I was no longer an expert–I didn't know how to get around in the newest versions of Unix, I wasn't up on new technologies, security measures. My career trajectory was forcibly shifted by the US Government. I doubt I would have ended up in a fiction workshop without it.

Though: these two trajectories aren't as different, perhaps, as they first appear. They both involve a certain esoteric knowledge, interest in systems and varieties of language (C++, Pascal, Java, Assembler, English) circuits, codes, symbols, variables. And it's not like when I thought of myself as a hacker, I wasn't interested in literature, that other sort of virtual world. I think one of the things that I always liked about tooling around via computer was the preponderance of text–whole worlds of it–and communication, even via modem and bulletin board system, private branch exchanges connecting, and so on. So there's a kind of underlying theme there.

I think that my criminal career also represented a desire to transgress, to fuck around, to go places that I wasn't supposed to go. And I think you can see that in a lot of my work, an interest in adventure, as I like to call it, rather than experiment, since adventure connotes enjoyment, excitement, danger, glory. That's what's exciting about crime (and fiction involving crime, and perhaps crime fiction, too–as we talked about a bit) in that it intensifies what is going on. Thinking about breaking the law made what I was doing more exciting, romantic even, since this was in the early days of hackerdom, with movies like War Games that represented hackers as cool kids. I can see my old self now thinking about what I was doing as a kind of heroism, important maybe (that life certainly attracted–and continues to attract–attention, which is one reason why I'm hesitant to talk or write about it, since it seems somehow too flashy, the province of those legions of memoirists all endeavoring to capitalize on the worst things that they ever did or that happened to them). Or if not important, then at least risky and therefore somehow rich.