Storyglossia Interview with Scott Lambridis

Synopsis: In October 2009, Scott Lambridis talked with Anne Valente, Assistant Editor of Storyglossia about what went into the creation of "The Hum of Broken Things," which appeared in Storyglossia #36: Musical Obsession. Contact Scott Lambridis at scott@omnibucket.com with any further questions.

1. Where did the premise of this story come from? I doubt you’d ever guess it, but the original premise of Hum was “What if someone discovered time was no longer infinite?” Everyone, including Morris, was given hourglasses that measured their lifetimes, and Morris had just inherited his wife’s time. Yup, a whole strange speculative slant. I loved the idea, but as the story became what it is, those elements just got in the way. Many thanks to Molly Giles and the other participants of the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop this year for helping me wizen up and simplify these last few drafts. That said, the underlying idea remains: how do we understand and cope with the differences between mental and physical time? My academic background is in neurobiology and I’m still obsessed with it, particularly how our self-awareness, consciousness, “I” – whatever you want to call it – is generated as a consequence of our brain’s sense of time. I mean, recording patterns is really all that wet bag of jelly does: “this followed this followed this, so this probably follows too”. You could make a strong case that memory is just a survival technique for predicting what will happen next.

1 of 6

And that’s basically where this story began. Could a physical thing like music affect Morris’s perception of mental time, and could those mental experiences affect his understanding and experience of physical time? I had this gruff character and wondered what would rattle him; what would piss him off while simultaneously obsessing his inner scientist. I love the ironic turnaround of having someone with such strong associations towards something like music face stressors that flip those beliefs upside-down. In this case, making him obsess over music even more than the person who turned him away from it in the first place.

2. Music is so often tied to memories or certain spaces in our lives. Did this human tendency inform the shape of this story? Yeah, music tends to find its way into anything I do. Listening has always been a part of my life, and I’ve been playing music in some form since I was ten and forced to take trumpet lessons. (I cannot to this day play a single note of the trumpet). After college, I was in a band for eight years called Wigglepussy, Indiana. We toured the Midwest playing weird, dark, theatrical rock with lyrics that asked a lot of the same questions about what the hell a human being is in this weird universe. We were – how shall I say this – we were a bit odd for the Midwest. From the brain science side though, music is unique among sensory experiences. We know it affects a lot of brain regions, but have no real comprehensive idea of what it’s doing in there. It’s also unique in that you experience it across time, or not at all. Very different from a painting or a smell, or a touch sensation, all of which can be enhanced by time, but can exist just fine as a moment. This can make your mental time seem very different than the passage of actual physical time, and thus an interesting way to explore memory, and memory’s affect on the present. I bet if

2 of 6

you plotted our brains’ encoding of information on staff paper it would even look like music, with each note able to trigger the beginning of billions of other pieces of music.

3. There's a pervading loneliness to "Hum" that music seems to fill, becoming an actual person of sorts by the end. Was this always a central theme of the story for you, for Morris to create beauty from what has been broken? Or did it evolve as you wrote? Stories begin very patchworky for me. I don’t know what they are, I just observe and make notes and throw it all on a page, and then pick out chunks that seem to go together. Once I’ve got these puzzle pieces, I can start to see what story they might form. I encourage this process – which I know is not the same for everyone – and have taught it in some children’s workshops at 826 Valencia in San Francisco. It should encourage people who think they’re not creative that all it takes is curiosity, tenacity, and patience that the process will yield what it yields. “Hum” started with two scenes that seemed to fit together: Morris knocking over and replacing his wife’s horn (though originally it was a bassoon because, well, I love the bassoon), and the technology swamp at the fleamarket. There was a strange sort of sadness to Morris’s action, like an awkward lament. I wondered how to push it out of him more, so I took away his livelihood, leaving him with idle hands that would inevitably start tinkering, and then threw more unwanted instruments at him. This seemed to fit great with the fleamarket, so you can see how the connection between the two started forming, and how the brokenness of things grew out of that. The plot details and the interconnectivity changed with every draft, as did his relationship with the old woman, but the emotional undercurrent of loss and fear stuck around. All the writing happens in these dissociated parallels until they finally click and I sit back and say “oh, that’s

3 of 6

what that means,” and then clean up the mess I’ve made around it. Funny how long it can take to see the connections though. I’ve always been in awe of the way my wife paints – by throwing paint on the canvas and looking for forms and characters within the patterns to tease out with ink – and I love that my writing over the past couple years has adopted that same sort of style. It’s an exploration, which keeps it fun.

4. Morris is such a great, empathetic character. How did he come to you? It’s funny: Morris’s physical characteristics are that of my neighbor, even though I don’t mention them too much. So is the sound of his voice, at least in my mind, which obviously you can’t tell from a story. I find it far easier to really get under the skin of a character if I have a good physical reference. My neighbor is quite a character, and he just plods around in my head a lot. I’ve spoken with him enough to get a feel for his attitude and voice, but not enough to prevent me from completely inventing the rest. He’s just enough of a blank slate to have fun with. I am very glad to hear you say he’s empathetic because I don’t think he was at first. I had to work to make sure the character underneath the initial gruffness was clear. With Morris, it was finding the middle ground. He’s sad, but it’s not the typical, sentimental sadness of loss. He expresses himself in very unempathetic ways at first, and that always made me laugh. I love stories where the well-meaning characters fuck everything up, and end up doing essentially evil deeds without even realizing it. That’s a nasty, fun tragedy. I tried to end a different story with that sort of punch. For this one though, I wondered about the opposite. Could I write a story about a self-absorbed character that doesn’t want to help anyone else, but somehow does? I wanted this fixer to fix things without meaning to. Other, more crucial aspects of the story ended

4 of 6

up overshadowing this question in subsequent drafts, but it’s still there underneath.

5. What are you currently working on? I started an MFA program this semester at San Francisco State, which I’m using as a boot camp for writing a full-length book. As soon as I cut that science-y chunk out of Hum, it began rattling around and evolving in my head, so it’s now the subject of the book. It began with a few paragraphs describing some NASA scientists who, by listening to space’s background radiation, discover that the universe is running out of time, and start portioning human lifetimes out into hourglasses. I really want to tell the story of the scientist who made this world-changing discovery without even meaning to, or wanting to. I want to stick him in very pedestrian circumstances (like having his mother move in with him and his wife) and then use him as a casual filter for questions looming in the background: what his discovery might do to our cultural perception of time and fear and value. I’m tidying up the first sixty pages now, and working on some other intermittent shorts, many of them playing with neurological and psychological themes. Transfer magazine will be printing one of them, a medieval one, in their next issue, available in December 2009. I’ve been running a limited edition press called Omnibucket for the past five years with a few artists and musicians, and I’m hoping we’ll put together another illustrated and soundtracked release soon. We have a few things in the works with some other writers, and I’m always looking for artists and musicians to help turn stories into illustrated, multimedia projects. Including my own, of course. And as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been hosting some workshops at 826 Valencia. I’m trying to

5 of 6

promote the idea that demystifying the creative process is better for our society’s imagination, and ultimately our empathy. So we’re trying to get these kids to think about how art converses with the world, and then using web tools to document the process behind how their questions and inspiration become sketches, drafts, and finished pieces. The grand hope is a system that encourages everyone to believe they’re creative; that it’s not inborn genius, but curiosity and discipline. And thank you, Anne, for your curiosity!

~
Contact Scott Lambridis at scott@omnibucket.com with any further questions.

6 of 6