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An Interview With Firefighter, Techie, And E-Publisher John Sundman On What It Takes For Creatives To Make It In A Start Up

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John Sundman is best known for his seminal dot-com-boom cyberpunk novel, Acts Of The Apostles but in his long career he has been a truck driver, a fireman, a construction worker, and an early employee at Sun Microsystems. Sundman’s cult following has brought him world-wide acclaim. Now, however, he’s working at a startup.

Tasked with managing software quality at Zola Books, an ebook reseller that aims to add a cool social aspect to the process of discovering, buying, and reading books, Sundman took a moment to discuss what creative types can do to make a dent in the startup ecosystem.

TC: Tell us about yourself. Tell us about Acts.

Sundman: I’m a 60-year-old bald guy, married to long-suffering Dear Wife; I’m a member of the company of Tisbury 651 (ladder) on Martha’s Vineyard, currently on leave of absence while I work in New York City as Director of Quality for Ebook startup Zola Books. I’m a long-time, if accidental, geek, and a novelist of some talent, slight output, and preposterous literary ambition. Since 1980 I’ve worked mostly for computer-makers and software startups in Silicon Valley and the Boston area as a technical writer, manager of publications, and similar. I’ve also done stints as a forklift operator, construction laborer, furniture mover, and agricultural development worker in West Africa. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first person to ever have the title “Manager of Information Architecture” on a business card (Sun Microsystems 1987). My wife says I snore but she has never adduced evidence.

My novel, Acts of the Apostles, which I published in 1999, is a thriller about nanomachines, neurobiology and brain-hacking, Gulf War Syndrome, and the cult surrounding a Silicon Valley tech genius bent on world domination. It’s not a perfect book, but I’m proud of it. Some people have said it’s the scariest book they’ve ever read. It’s been called the “greatest hacker book ever” and “the first great novel of the age of synthetic biology.” It’s also properly read as a lampoon of the whole hipster-geek messiah thing, Steve Jobs as Jesus or whatever. Hence the title of the book and the Christian allegory all through it. In any event, it’s a geeky book in the sense that those readers who have a working knowledge of VLSI design, Unix internals, and the music of Frank Zappa will have an easier time guessing the surprise ending. Some of the science fiction stuff I made up for it in the late 90’s is actually happening now. The book has kind of a cult following. George Church, one of the pioneers of synthetic biology, is a fan.

Acts is part of a trilogy that I call “Mind Over Matter” (or “Mind Over Matter/Overmind”). The other two parts are the novellas Cheap Complex Devices, which is a meta-fictiony homage to Douglas Hofstadter and a lampoon of academic AI, and The Pains, an illustrated dystopian phantasmagoria that looks at chaos theory and Christology by way of a Reagan/Orwell 1984 mash-up. These three books relate to each other kind of in the way that the various “books” in David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” relate to each other. But I better shut up now, lest I sound even more literarily pretentious than I actually am.

It’s worth noting perhaps that I’m the publisher of my books, and I’ve peddled them at geek conclaves from Usenix to Defcon. Upon reading one of my blogs posts about this, (“Traveling Geek Self-Publishing Novelist Blues”), the cyberpunk impresario Bruce Sterling was moved to write that I’m the “future of printed fiction.” Which, he may have been being snarky, but I’ll take what I can get.

(Sometime this spring my (e)books will be available from my employer, Zola Books. In the meantime, you can them from the competition. [I've sold out of printed copies of everything except The Pains. Maybe I'll do a reprinting of "Acts" and "CCD" if I have some kind of Patrick O'Brien style resurgence; until then they're ebooks only. Acts and CCD used to be available print-on-demand from Amazon's "CreateSpace" but I just noticed that they're no longer there. I must make it a point to look into that.])

TC: You’ve been a novelist and a writer for decades. How does that square with your technical side?

S: My sensibilities have always been more novelistic and literary than technical. My undergraduate degree is in anthropology — I didn’t take any programming or math classes in college — and my graduate study was in agricultural economics — my master’s thesis was on West African farming systems. (That’s not exactly literary territory, but neither is it the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.)

Somehow I stumbled into a career in the computer biz, and I found it quite congenial. My first high-tech job, in 1980, was as a junior technical writer at Data General, in Westboro, Massachusetts, which some of your older or better-read readers may recognize as the setting of Tracy Kidder’s epic book The Soul of a New Machine, and indeed at DG I worked closely with Tom West and some of the other people mentioned in that book. I have no idea how I got hired, having spent most of the prior six years living among or studying subsistence farmers in northern Senegal. When I started out as a technical writer I was in way over my head; I had no idea what the hell I was doing. But I dove in and studied hard and within a decade I had written a few dozen hardware and software manuals. And I liked it a lot. I still do.

In order to be a good technical writer you have to be comfortable with not understanding stuff. You get an assignment to write about some subject you’ve never even heard of, something complicated and subtle. Your deadline is looming. And so you set off to educate yourself the fastest way you can, which often involves asking questions that expose just how pig-ignorant you are. And then you write your piece, presuming to instruct people in this very subject, as if you were some kind of expert, because you like finding out about stuff and explaining it. Journalists for TechCrunch know what I’m talking about, certainly. Anyway, I think this willingness to be ignorant has led to some of my best essays, like the ones I wrote for Salon.

I like programming languages and I like logic and I like being part of software engineering teams and I like hacker/geek culture. I’ve had a few opportunities to move out of engineering into, say, marketing, but I never have. I prefer engineering. But I’ve never really been the kind of person who programs for recreation. I am, on the other hand, a person who reads literature for recreation, and even literary theory. I believe very much in literature as a civilizing agent and I am pro-civilization. I want to write great novels that hang together really well and that people find profoundly moving, and I think that my experience as a technical writer serves me there, at least the “hang[s] together really well” part. When you’re writing a software manual, for example, you have to always ask yourself, who is my audience? What do they know already? What are they trying to accomplish? What do they need to know *right now*? This mode of thinking is helpful to novelists, I think. It’s helpful to me, in any event.

TC: What do you consider yourself? A writer? A tech writer? A manager?

S: I consider myself a toiler on the sea. That’s a joke. But everybody *should* take this opportunity to go listen to “A Toiler on the Sea” by the Stranglers, one of the great punk songs of the 1980s. As for the rest of your question, I think I’ve droned on enough about myself already.

What’s the best way for a creative to enter the high-tech job market? Should they want to?

Oh gosh I have no idea. In all honesty, I would think that somebody who is 21 years old and trying to get into the high-tech market should talk to people who are 25 or 30. My knowledge is very stale. I’m just glad I have a job.

TC: What’s next in your writing career? When can we expect a new book?

S: For a bunch of reasons that I won’t go into (well, it was for a contract with a publisher, which both parties later agreed to walk away from) I spent a year re-imagining and updating “Acts of the Apostles”; in its new incarnation it’s called Biodigital. It shares most of the plot and most of the characters with Acts, but in many ways it’s an entirely new book. It has a lot more brain-science in it than Acts does, and it’s even scarier, I think. If I can ever get off my duff and finish the last tweaks to it, it will be published as an ebook “exclusive” by Zola Books. You can expect that before the end of April.

I’m also working on my epic novel Creation Science, which I launched in a Kickstarter campaign in 2009. I feel kind of guilty that I haven’t finished writing this beast yet, especially after so many people took out their wallets to help sustain me. However, like many novelists before me, I’ve found it hard to capture the story that’s running around in my head. I do sincerely count on finishing and publishing it in 2013. Creation Science deals with all my usual preoccupations: the convergence of biological and digital technology, sex, vast evil conspiracies, sex, Christianity, Overmind emergent, Christology, sex, language, fundamentalism, class warfare on Martha’s Vineyard, and a secret tunnel to the center of the earth marked by stelae left by Vikings (and/or possibly by Cherokee visitors from a nearby solar system).

TC: What’s your advice for programmers who want to write something (anything, really)?

S: Have fun. Keep in mind that life is short, therefore your ultimate goal should be to create something meaningful. Do not be afraid to make an ass of yourself. As Gertrude Stein allegedly said to her dog, “Be like Hemingway. Be fierce.” And study the wise words of Zero Mostel when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He offered some very cogent advice for all artists.

[Photo Credit: Peter Simon]