One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, visited Google Kirkland on Tuesday of last week. I was lucky enough to have lunch in a small group with him, and then hang out with him for about an hour in the game room before he gave his 2:00 talk.
I did my homework and read his website before he arrived. He says a lot about how giving talks and doing tours and book signings is generally not a good use of his time, and that he would much rather be at home writing. He also links to an article about being an introvert and says it describes him quite well. I felt honored he had decided to come and talk to us at Google, and like we'd better have some pretty great questions to ask to make it worth his while. I think on the whole we did all right in the question-asking department.
In person, Neal (can I really call him that? It's not like we're on a first-name basis now, but "Mr. Stephenson" seems pretty stilted) is personable, thoughtful, and easygoing. He took all of our questions seriously and tried to give the best answers he could. He asked a few general questions about the Google Kirkland office and our relationship to Google HQ, but mostly he talked about whatever we asked about.
In the game room, he idly threw some darts with a Googler while chit-chatting with us. He was OK at darts but he really dominated once he switched to playing Robothon on the arcade machine. He managed to rack up a high score before it was time for the talk and he entered his initials. Granted, the office we were playing in had just been set up a month ago, so the pre-existing high scores had not had time to become truly impressive and entrenched yet. He says he doesn't play as many video games as he used to due to RSI issues, but that he plans to buy a copy of Halo 3.
So... on to the questions and answers!
Things I particularly wanted to know, or that friends asked me to ask:
Q: What's up with the Diamond Age miniseries?
A: He said something along the lines of, "I wish I could give you a better answer than this, but unfortunately the only thing I can say about that right now is that it is 'in production.'"
Q: What are you working on right now and when will it come out?
A: He's writing a science fiction novel unrelated to Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. It's set on another planet and has aliens and so on. It's really about Platonic mathematics, but he needed the aliens and space opera-ish elements to spice it up a little bit, just like the pirates kept people engaged in the Baroque books. He's nearly finished writing it, and if he doesn't finish by the end of the calendar year he'll have to give some money back. If everything proceeds according to schedule, it should be available in stores in about a year.
Q: Would your earlier books have been longer, or were they kept short by editorial pressures?
A: No, the earlier books were about the length they were meant to be.
Another interesting tidbit that came out in response to someone else's question is that Neal has really gotten interested in swordfighting lately and has taken it up as a good form of exercise. "Much more interesting than jogging," I think he said. It came about as he was researching a fight scene for one of the Baroque books, in which the characters are fighting with rapier and dagger. When he went to write the scene, he realized he didn't know what he was talking about, so he started to read heavily on the subject. Soon he was practicing the moves himself. Now, a few years after publication, he's still swordfighting. He didn't say how he finds practice partners.
One last anecdote. About 40 minutes into the one-hour Q-and-A session, someone asked about Neal's characteristic "sudden and unexpected" style of ending books. In response, Neal said, "It's been a pleasure speaking here at Google" and made for the door. He was only kidding, of course; he was just making a sudden and unexpected ending to the talk. He quickly returned and gave the more serious answer that he likes his endings just as they are, and that while they are apparently not to everyone's tastes, it's not that he just gives up and stops writing. He dislikes pat endings that explain everything and tie everything up with a neat little bow; in real life, there are no convenient termination points. On his website, you can find a longer version of what is surely a standard set speech for him on this topic, so I will suddenly and abruptly end my paraphrasing of it, and of this entire blog entry, here.