Bruce McCabe – Skinjob – Podcast

Bruce McCabe talks about his dark debut novel, Skinjob. Skinjob explores the near future Silicon Valley.

It has taken virtual sex to the extreme, encouraging men to act out their darkest and most violent sexual fantasies. Militant feminists and churches are bitterly opposed. Powerful corporations battle for market control. In the midst of a fierce protest campaign, a bomb goes off in San Francisco. This is a page turner.

http://www.coop.com.au/books/skinjob/bruce-mccabe/9780593074091


Rob:
You’re listening to the Co-op book Podcast. I’d like to welcome Bruce McCabe to the Co-op chat and we’re speaking directly at the [St. Albans 00:00:23] Writers’ Festival. How are you today Bruce?

 

Bruce:
I’m very well. This is tranquility, isn’t it? What we’re sitting in here.

 

Rob:
[inaudible 00:00:32] just to give you a little bit of context, we’re in our makeshift studio in a donated houses living room looking out to cows and hills and a bit of rain, but as a couple of city slickers, I think we feel very privileged to be here in the semi-rural areas.

 

Bruce:
We do. No mobile phone coverage, so it’s just really nice.

 

Rob:
Now, Bruce, you’re not one of these authors that’s started and only ever written. You’ve got a whole career before you became an author and they’re intertwined, I would say. You’re an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and passionate about the future. You’ve written for The Australian and set up innovation practices for consulting. How did you come up with this blockbuster novel Skinjob? How did that fit into your busy lifestyle?

 

Bruce:

I think you hit it on the head with that word, intertwined. Much of my life and my professional life has been about exploring what the impact of technology is on people and how it’s changing us and what’s coming. I’ve made a living, if you like, for many years helping companies understand the implications of what’s just around the corner and what’s really coming out of the labs, not the science fiction, but what’s really coming. That really lead the inspiration for this story. I obviously love writing and did a lot of that, but all short form non fiction. There was a technology I had seen in my work that I found quite provocative and it often happens. This one was the genesis of this story.

It was effectively lie detection software being used in a call center, an insurance company call center. The company demonstrated to me and I got to listen on a phone call where the person making a claim on the phone would say something about the car being stolen and every now and again there’d be a little beep in the ear of the person at the call center. We’d actually be listening to someone being alerted that the other person on the phone might be lying. I found that very provocative and that’s just an example of the sort of thing that gets me going and thinking. That lead to Skinjob because I followed the produce of that technology and when I began writing fiction that was the genesis of this novel.

 

Rob:
That’s interesting because I imagine in many corporate environments you go through a scenario, planning and lots of in the consulting world the “what if” phrase is probably overused.

 

Bruce:
Yep.

 

Rob:
Does fiction give you the license to actually take that to the next level?

 

Bruce:
It was quite a profound experience when I first started writing fiction. Skinjob was actually the first time I’d ever wrote fiction. I sat down, I wrote the first few chapters of that in a pub in [Holbrook 00:03:27], I was staying the night on my way down to Melbourne, driving down a little town Holbrook. I haven’t actually written much if any non-fiction since because I found it profoundly liberating. I can’t emphasize just how powerful that’s been because for the first time I’ve been off the leash in the ability to portray the real truth about what’s coming without worrying about names or reference checking or whatever, making sure you have all your ducks in a row with facts and so forth. This is about what’s coming, what I believe will come but on an emotional level and a personal level. I could be very provocative with the scenarios. Much more provocative than I could ever be with a business audience. I found it profoundly liberating. It’s actually, everything about it is liberating.

Rob:
There are some really interesting things in Skinjob and I don’t want to give away too much because it’s like any page turner, you want people to read them and have their own experience. The issues of privacy that you’ve already eluded to, I think a few years ago we would have thought this is way too science fiction. What you’ve touched on in the book, that sort of omnipresence being monitored is not too far in the future.

 

Bruce:
No, it’s here now to be honest. All of this technologies, they form the back bone of the story, or the background of the story. They’re all real. By the way, there’s very different technology written into the story. The enormous effort [inaudible 00:05:03] was to write it out and just to make sure that it was the background, the real stories how to fix the lives of these people. That lie detection software led to me seeing trials or getting wind of trials in the US military of hand held lie detectors in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then seeing a study in the US by Lockheed Martin, which showed that this was the number one item for future technology on the wish list of US police departments.

Now the “what if” there and the very provocative thing to think about is what happens when a policeman in the streets stops you and actually holds a lie detector on your nose while you’re having the conversation? The technology does exist. It’s not perfect. It’s not nearly as perfect as I’ve portrayed it here, but it’s getting rapidly better. It’s about audio and visual and looking at the eye blinks and the face flush detection with thermal cameras, all which are very small. All of which, all the technology’s on an average Xbox today, to give you an example. It’s all happening very quickly.

That’s one thing, what does it do to the life of, not only someone who’s interviewed by the policeman, but also how does it affect the policemen. How does it affect them when internal affairs comes in with those things? How [inaudible 00:06:26] differently? How does the law change? A lot of these things are quite negative, quite provocative and very interesting.

 

The other side, the other major thing explored in Skinjob, and hence the title, is the future of where Silicon Valley takes the adult industry. Where digital sexual entertainment goes. I’ve sort of painted that picture of sleaze and so fourth. Really there’s a very, very strong thing of what’s the nexus between ultra realistic simulated sex and roboticized sex dolls, which are in the media this week and Time Magazine and so forth because there’s a campaign to stop them and before, that sort of relates to, it’s too late. What happens to society and what’s the nexus between that and violence against women. Where does it go when they introduce roboticized child sex dolls and all these very provocative things because they’re doing child sex dolls. These things exist as well already.

Rob:
I think there may be arguments from manufacturers in saying this is stopping the real thing happening, the idea.

 

Bruce:
That’s right. All of that’s explored in Skinjob and it was one of my great pleasures doing book groups. The first thing women ask is what’s your position on this? Where do you think it’s going? That’s really a big part of why I wrote this story. It’s a [inaudible 00:07:41] about two very different law enforcement officers and how their lives are affected, but underneath there’s this poke at the reader, where are we going? What’s it going to look like fifteen years from now?

 

Rob:
Bruce, you’re speaking at a festival and your relationship with a writer with your audience is often theoretical. You’re now meeting your audience, what’s that experience like?

 

Bruce:
It’s fantastic. It’s really, really good. I get so much energy from these things. One of the contrasts is I used to do, and still do a lot of professional speaking in the [inaudible 00:08:17] on what’s coming. A lot of those festivals don’t have any money. There’s no money involved, you know? You’re lucky if you can get lunch or something, but what you do get is this tremendous energy from people who care about something you’ve written, want to talk about it, extend yourself intellectually in conversations with those people and they tell you they want the next book. You go away that that pumps you up for two weeks worth of writing, I can tell you.

 

Rob:
In a way, it’s old school technology in an intimate kind of way because when you’re reading a book, it’s in your head. You’re really getting deeper than most conversation’s getting. Then when you’re processing book, you’re interacting with it in your brain and putting your own perceptions on it, but at the end of the day it’s a really intimate thing, so people do feel like they know you.

 

Bruce:
Yeah, yeah. It’s always a big moment when someone comes up that you’ve never met before in your life and they say, “I read Skinjob,” or even better, “I made my husband read it.” You go, oh this is good, it made a change somewhere. Someone’s actually being provoked by the ideas in the story.

 

Rob:
You’ve portrayed and I’d say the near future is quite a dark kind of place. Do you think that’s the truth? It’s not a great indictment on humanity.

 

Bruce:
True. This novel definitely shows the colorful side of religion, the sex industry, the dark side of police work in all its glory. That’s the fun and dramatic part. I think about, and I step back, and think about the world, I’m equal parts optimistic and pessimistic. I guess I’ve been trained to be a realist to try and think about practical and plausible outcomes and scenarios. This is part of that story. I’m leaning towards the darker stuff because it’s great. If I’m asked a question about something like where genetics is taking us, as an example. You can look at the dark side and look at, well genetic testing on unborn fetuses, for example, and profiling which is happening. That’s potentially very dark. Or you can look at the new cures for cancer that are about genetically engineered viruses to attack cancer cells, and that’s amazing. Not necessarily the greatest novel, so that probably doesn’t make it into my fiction, but I’m inspired by that as much as anything.

Rob:
Now, you’ve taken what’s seeming to be a well worn path of first time authors in fiction field of self publishing and then being picked up by a big publisher.

 

Bruce:
Yeah.

 

Rob:
Tell me about that experience.

 

Bruce:
Well, if I’d known how hard it would be when I set out, I would never have had the courage to do it. The amount of work has been phenomenal. I’m sorry, you can’t shy away from it. People too, they glass over it and you’re an overnight success and all that. Right! Three years of working and writing the novel before I even thought about the publishing process. Three years of hard work and that’s the real love and joy of the process. I then, I call it, I like the term [Indie publishing 00:11:38] only because there’s always other people involved. I got a lovely editor involved and a wonder cover artist who only did work, before me, for major publishing houses. I convinced him to do me as his first independent author. Which was already a great human experience because people were getting on board my bandwagon and doing stuff.

 

I published electronically and in print, and all the conventional wisdom says, “Electronically, you put all your effort there. There’s no costs and so forth.” Well, that didn’t go anywhere. Having an author tell you that you should read their book doesn’t work. I learned that the hard way after months and months of very hard draft of blogging and getting out there and, I made a list of hundreds of journalists, met them all and got back no responses. That’s just the reality. The magic for me, happened with bookstores. What happened was a bookstore picked up, one store in Sydney, agreed to stock it. The bookstore manager read a proof copy and went, “I want it.” Then the next store came the next day. You guys came on board and some of the bigger players came on board. Most independent bookstores came on board, and then I had sixteen stores. Enough readers were getting it through those bookstores and then word reached an agent in the UK and is a really big name agent. He contacted me and then the publishing deal followed. It all became the fairy tale then.

 

I learned a lot about keeping your options open and not assuming anything. I learned a lot about bookstores because the people that really love books were working in independent bookstores and they read the books! That’s what I couldn’t believe. All these managers are reading all of the books they stock and making individual decisions, “No, actually I will stock that.” It was an amazing and very humbling experience, the whole thing, but it was very hard.

 

Rob:
Now, you know have audiences, a lot of [UNE 00:13:40] students or recently post UNE students, what was your time like at UNE?

Bruce:
I loved UNE. I love learning anyway. I am very motivated by learning and love writing as an excuse to go interview people and meet interesting people you’ve never met before and talk to them about what they do. It’s just an extension of it. UNE was a great time for me. I think I was a little too intense. There were so many parties going on that I missed out on. It was such a good time. I really was committed to getting good marks and I was very into science. I think now, gosh, I should have had a better time really, honestly.

 

Rob:
Youth is wasted on the young.

 

Bruce:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I did love it. That was at Sydney for my undergrad and then UTS for post grad.

 

Rob:
Who do you read?

 

Bruce:
I read very widely. Right at the moment I’m reading a Michael Connelly book called The Poet, which I’m enjoying. I love The Lincoln Lawyer, but I didn’t like one of his. I read widely and test. My favourite author, is probably a little bit unusual, I don’t know how many people know me, actually a best seller, it’s Robert Harris. Not Thomas Harris, but Robert Harris. Now, Robert Harris wrote a book called Pompeii, a detective story set in Pompeii before the volcano blows up. Another one beautifully researched. He’s written some amazing, very well researched books. Another one called Fatherland, which is detective stories set in postwar Germany where the Nazi’s won. The list goes on. There’s quite a few. There’s Archangel, which is set in Russia and it’s in a story on a detective journey, if you like, of discovery.

 

What’s in common in all his books and what I’m in love with and what I try and inspire to in my writing is that there’s a big backdrop. Yes, there’s a thrilling [inaudible 00:15:38] and that’s the first mission of the author. You’ve got to have ripping out. That’s what it’s all about, but beyond the first layer of the story, there’s all this stuff to consider about what Pompeii was really like, or what the world could have been like if WWII ended slightly differently. You’ve got so much to think about and intellectually be stimulated by. I’m trying to do the same thing in my books, for this and the second one.

 

Rob:
There you pumped up my next question. Come on, tell me about, is it a follow up or is it a separate book?

 

Bruce:
Well, it’s not the same characters. It is exactly the same genre, so it’s a techno thriller. It’s definitely that sort of same flavour. Set ten to fifteen years from now, but this [inaudible 00:16:27] is set in Japan. I have a variety of colourful characters in Japan in the second book. Some of the issues deal with some of the things that effect the national psyche in Japan, the way the economy works, where some of the darker areas of that country and the brighter ones and energy issues. You know, their love/hate relationship with nuclear power. I’ve got that simmering in the background and it’s taking a while to write. I’m on my second visit to Japan in a couple months because I love the place, very evocative. That’s probably as much as I’m giving away at the moment, but it is very much the same flavour. The third novel I’m tossing out two plans that are evolving, but one is to return to these characters in the first one. I think I’ll do it. If it’s not the third, it’ll be the fourth, I’ll come back to.

Rob:
Bruce McCabe, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

 

Bruce:
Thank you very much.

 

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