JANUARY 31, 2018
PUBLISHING IS A TOUGH GAME, and as much as I’d like to believe the cream rises to the top, I also know that finding a phenomenal, outside-the-box book can take a bounty of luck. Three years ago, my neighbor Scott — a non-writer who knows, by my count, two novelists, including me — mentioned that his best friend since childhood had written a novel that had been published by a small press. I might have forgotten the title if I hadn’t heard it later that week, while hanging out with Jim Ruland and Ben Loory, two writers I admire, and whose book recommendations always make my reading life more interesting. Jim had told Ben to read a book called Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, and Ben was raving about it (still raves about it, actually — it’s his favorite book of the last five to 10 years). It was a debut put out by Equus Press, based in the Czech Republic, written by Damien Ober — my neighbor’s best friend. When I looked it up on Goodreads, I discovered that Jim and Ben were two of four people who’d left reviews.
Even with their strong endorsement, I was surprised by how much I loved this novel. It’s an ingenious book, unlike anything else I’ve ever read, a bizarre combination of 18th-century American history and science fiction. Built around the deaths of all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, it features an internet plague that leaps into meatspace and wipes out a majority of the American population. If you like experimental fiction that does weird things to your brain, this is a must read — and lucky for you, it’s out in the United States now, published this month by Night Shade Books.
I quizzed Damien about his life, his process, and Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America. You can also catch him at Skylight Books on February 1, where he’ll be in conversation with superfan Ben Loory.
STEPH CHA: I know this is kind of a terrible question, but given the uniqueness of your novel, I have to ask: Where did this all come from? What came first? And how did you strike upon the vignette structure?
DAMIEN OBER: What came first is not a terrible question. It might actually be the ultimate question. The structure definitely came first; I wanted the novel to take place only at the deathbeds of the signers, which provided me with confines, structure, themes, and timing — the characters are already there; it even came with a built-in research plan. Bringing in an electronic element was more of a sideways bolt. At the time I was trying to decide which to write next: something Colonial, something about the internet and communications, or something sprawling and darkly sci-fi. Shortly after landing on the idea of the deaths of the signers, I realized I could do all three at once.
I’m curious about how one goes about researching a sci-fi novel that’s so entwined with actual events in American history. I’m guessing you’re a history buff. What kind of research did you end up doing? What did you borrow and what did you change?
Beyond all the sci-fi and fantastical elements, I wanted the novel to be as historically accurate as possible. In the book, the signers all die when they really died, and often in the same way and place. A kidney stone becomes an alien crystal and a hand tremor uncontrollable time travel, but most of the novel’s events and politics are pretty dramatically accurate. To get the fabric of the world right required a ton of research. I read basically anything that had anything to do with America from the 1400s all the way up to the start of the Civil War. I’d already been pretty interested in the presidency and the history of American politics so I had a spine to build off of. And I’m not messing with any primary sources; I never went into letters or journals and I would not characterize my research as professional in a historical sense. Another gift of the structure of the novel is that it requires learning about the lives (and deaths) of at least 56 different people. There are biographies of a good number of them, sometimes multiple. Those without their own treatments are often mentioned in other biographies. You come across something that leads you on a tangent to another book, and so on, forever. I was never at a loss for what to look into next.
This is a book made up of dozens of short chapters, with no real main character, no repeating POVs, and several story lines that overlap sometimes only tangentially. It doesn’t depend on the usual flagpoles of novel writing, but there’s a coherence and a thrust to it even without them. Can you talk about what you see as the through-lines of this book? I’m wondering how you managed to build a novel on this unconventional skeleton. Did the constraint of the structure help at all? Was there anywhere you hit a wall?
For plot lines, more or less you have an intelligent internet virus, aliens, a sea monster, and a curse. There’s also the running question of what the fuck is Jefferson up to. Another major through-line is the Declaration itself. It’s the little strand of DNA from which the whole rest of the political intellectual structure of America has been derived. There’s a sort of sci-fi game at play. What happens when an idea from the Declaration gets out, mutates, expands, and unpacks itself? How much freedom are we talking about? Who exactly is created equal? What falls under the rubric of “life,” “liberty,” “happiness,” and its pursuit?
The structure was a lot to manage. I had an Excel spreadsheet, an indispensable resource that almost itself became intelligent by the end of the project. It helped make sure plot arcs weren’t dropped off for too long. Some stories needed to be more present, would take over whole sections. Others worked well as spooky background fabric. Sticking to the order of deaths as they happened in real life also helped. You have to be careful and plan ahead because you don’t want to build a story around a bunch of characters who are going to be dead halfway through the book.
There are always walls in writing; with this novel, researching actual events was a great way to get past those obstacles. If the creative process slowed down, I’d add more reading and inevitably find some real-life detail to build off of, or some strange abstraction worth exploring, or some weird Revolutionary political issue. “Virtual representation” was really a thing back then. There really was a Battle of the Clouds. Jefferson really did write a letter to every signer when he became president.
Did you write the book in order? How much information did you have about the individual signers? Were there any blank slates, and if so, were they easier or harder to write? Who were your favorite signers? I’d imagine with 56 to get through, some were more fun than others. Did you have a grand plan going in for each of them?
I really wanted to avoid writing something out of sequence and then have to write my way to it through such a confining and inflexible structure. So almost without exception I built each chapter in order. I’d go signer to signer, one at a time, knocking them out. I remember looking at my spreadsheet and thinking how far away John Adams seemed. If one of them really didn’t have anything to work with, sometimes I’d research his state, or his family history. Lots of them owned semi-famous houses. Thomas Lynch was a good example of a blank slate, but not his life as much as his death: he and his wife went to sea in the middle of the Revolution and their ship was never seen again. So really, you can invent anything you want, and place it wherever you want. Who can say you’re wrong? They could be out there still …
There were lots of favorites, but Josiah Bartlett and Francis Hopkinson come to mind. They were both kind of gentlemen scientists and more omnivore thinkers than a lot of the others. It was Hopkinson who designed the American flag and was called upon often for arty kind of stuff like coins and what the money would look like. Iconography and function. He was a poet and musician, too, and all around zany weirdo. Bartlett was more of a medical scientist and had participated in some of America’s earliest autopsies. He’s the guy that the president in the West Wing was descended from. He lived on this farm in New Hampshire and was always tinkering with something, trying out some new intellectual fad. Something that is too often lost about the American Revolution is that it took place at an extremely secular moment in history, where science was finally becoming more powerful than the old superstitions. America, for the good or the bad of it, was very much a product of an Enlightenment experiment in democracy, cutting-edge, risky and future-seeing. There’s a touch of the Royal Society to some of these guys, but a more barbaric cowboy American version, messy hair and pants on backward, flying a kite in a lightning storm. It’s cool to see a few scientists and artists kicking around while all that’s going down.
Beyond the overall structure, there wasn’t a real lot of planning. I wanted Jefferson to be a near-constant presence but for the readers not to see him until the end, and to take it even one step further with Washington. He feels sort of twice removed, hugely important but at an arm’s length, and he never actually appears in the book. For Adams, I wanted him to seem always about to sneeze, or holding in a massive shit. In other words, he’s not exactly rocking the image control of Jefferson or Washington. There are a few who I had a good understanding of going in: John Hancock, Elbridge Gerry, Franklin, Roger Sherman. But for most, I let them come to life and pick their plots more organically. Of course, a few had to be sacrificed, because it’s a novel in the end (Sorry, Lyman Hall).
This book first came out with Equus in 2014 but is just getting its US release now. A lot has changed in the United States since you first wrote this novel. I’m thinking about, like, Pence getting booed at Hamilton and Trump raging about it on Twitter. That’s a scene that wasn’t really imaginable a few years ago. Do you feel like your novel would’ve been any different if you were writing it now? Did you set out to write a political novel? I wasn’t thinking about it that way when I first read it, but I wonder if an alternate history about the Founding Fathers can be pure of politics.
Many of the scenes from the last few years are jaw-droppingly strange. The president’s morning crap thoughts are basically attached to a live running scroll for all the world to read. But the present always feels like a silly over-teched future that has been reached too soon. And America’s politics are so cyclical nothing can be that surprising or lacking of historical irony. Pence’s theater experience is no exception. Hamilton actually argued for a king-like figure at the Constitutional Convention and was not shy about putting his hands where propriety would have them not. Susan B. Anthony was just about to take over the 10-dollar bill and here comes a serial spaz-out with bankruptcy issues and big song and dance behind him and another long-serving woman gets bumped by a red-headed womanizer. Pence getting booed is a price both he and Hamilton understand. You have to be willing to tiptoe around a few moral compromises to get into position to drive an agenda.
I know you’ve been doing a lot of screenwriting in the last few years. Are you still writing fiction? This is your only novel to date, and the concept and execution are so singular I find it hard to imagine what your others might look like.
Film and fiction are two things I’ve always been into. Not sure exactly where or how, but I ended up trying to write a novel before trying to make a film. DBFDA took me five years to write, not counting lead-up research and a few years of editing/rewrites. It was a very intense process that involved basically moving into the 18th century. I remember being at bars or parties hoping someone would bring up the War of 1812 so I’d have something to talk about. I was a little burned out so hadn’t written any fiction since, until this previous summer when I started what I hope will be my next novel. So mark your calendars for summer 2031.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading? Are there any books or authors that had an outsized influence on your novel, or on any of your other work?
I read probably one-third novels for my own amusement and the rest is either research, things I’m considering for work, or stuff I’ve convinced myself I should know for some reason probably only tangentially related to work. Recently, I really loved Alan Moore’s Jerusalem and Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, Finale by Thomas Mallon, and this crazy novel called The Autograph of Steve Industry by Ben Hersey, though I read all of those long after I finished DBFDA. Other writers always echoing through my head: Philip K. Dick, Lydia Davis, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, William Gaddis. But if you ask me tomorrow, the list will probably change.
You write on The OA now, and you’ve done some work adapting other people’s work for the screen. Do you find that screenwriting exercises the same muscles as novel writing? How do you like the collaborative part of it? I get the sense that the Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America was the work of one intensely dedicated perfectionist, though feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
For me dedication and intensity are the most important things. It was the same with sports when I was a kid; I was the opposite of natural. But I figured out if I just played as hard as I could and as rough as I could, I’d end up out there and being sort of functional in the low post or on the line of scrimmage. I could figure out how to fight through a double team and I was definitely willing to destroy my body for some block no one would ever notice. It’s probably not for everyone, but I took the same approach to this novel: head down, don’t notice the blood, keep your mouth shut, and in five years look up and see what you have.
Screenwriting and fiction do use some of the same muscles, just like you use the same muscles to run on an indoor track as to climb over a mountain. Novel writing is just more: more intense, more work, more commitment, more risk, more accountability. A script may be the most crucial step for any movie, but then a whole team of producers comes in and a director and actors and sound and camera people and hundreds of other artists and it’s like a whole town is raising this little art project. Writing a novel is more like disappearing alone into the woods and not coming out until people think you’re dead. Then you come out.
The collaborative part of writing for a TV show was a challenge coming from a place where I’m usually alone in a dark room making all the decisions by myself. But it’s also liberating and empowering because you’re surrounded by weird geniuses, and you’re all working on the same thing, and they come up with ideas that you never ever, ever would have thought of. They point out mistakes and they don’t settle for things that aren’t right. They’re hard to keep up with too, which makes you work even harder. I would go home and work five to six hours sometimes just to have good ideas to bring to the table. Sometimes I wish I had someone lurking in the shadows of my office waiting to challenge every writing decision I make. Sometimes.
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I find it interesting that you’re part of the minority of writers who are able to write for a living. Because what with the 56 point-of-view characters and the unusual genre hybrid and the general demand for hyper-attentive engagement, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America strikes me as almost aggressively non-commercial. Like I’d be surprised if you don’t have a few emails from agents saying, “This is brilliant, but I don’t think I can sell it.” Did you worry about selling the book when you wrote it? Did you have a day job? Were you already screenwriting for work? Has writing for a living changed how you think about writing?
I wish I’d gotten emails like that. My rejection letters — there are thousands of them — were 99.99 percent form responses that are basically the equivalent of being actively ignored. I do remember one agent writing me this really rude email saying not to bother writing anything ever again until I learned third-person past tense. I still have no idea what agents or publishers are looking for, same as I have no idea why which movies or shows are made or get popular. Throughout the writing of DBFDA, I honestly never thought about its marketability, nor did I ever really think it would make money even if it did sell. But I did believe for some unknown reason that things would just work out somehow. For over a decade, I’d been paying for my writing habit with service industry jobs. I helped run an outdoor book flea market in Washington, DC, for a while. Bars and restaurants for a long time. I’ve done everything you can at a bar, from making martinis to washing dishes, to throwing people out the door. I have cleaned up a lot of puke. My last “day job” was as a projectionist and popcorn maker at an art-house theater, which I loved. I loved all those jobs and the people I got to work with. I was fine doing that forever. I liked it a lot. I had also doubled down so many times on the writing that I really didn’t have much choice but to keep adding chips. I have no idea how to wear a suit, basically is what I’m saying. Not long after Equus agreed to publish the book in the United Kingdom, I optioned my first script and have luckily been working pretty steadily as a screenwriter since. Entertainment (books, media, music) is a baffling business and people are probably exhausted listening to artists bitch. But I do find it sadly funny: I’ve made an okay living for a few years now as a screenwriter for TV and film and not one word I’ve written has yet to make it onto a screen of any size. But here’s this finished book with a cover and everything, something that took five-plus years of 80-hour work weeks and it will never ever pay the rent. It’s a sad idea, like watching an independent video store close down in slow motion. There’s nothing you can do but try to rent everything.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.