Miles has been receiving death threats. As a software engineer at a popular company that allows players to talk and interact with virtual reality, his job has been interrupted when a few fringe users mention dissent with his particular experience, The Ghost Lover, where one is haunted by a spectral remnant of their past. His coworkers and family are all emotionally responsive when it comes to his needs — his wife won’t reassure him when he expresses anxiety about his future — and the notes don’t stop coming.
To help get the company back on track, Miles develops ‘the Egg’, a physical product that allows users to feel even more integrated within the software and the network of players that create their own endless streams of content, but a rogue experience within it leaves him at a tumultuous point with the blur between online and real-life spaces, and how he slots into both.
Our Culture chatted with prolific author Colin Winnette about morality in the tech industry, psychoanalysis, and writing emotionally uncomfortable scenes.
Congratulations on your new book! This is your fourth novel and seventh book — does the process get easier each time?
Oh, no. In a lot of ways it gets harder, but in certain ways, yes, I don’t want to totally over-complain. The creative challenges are more and more difficult, I think, as you go, for me at least. Though I’m in my own head a lot less — whether I should be doing it, whether I can call myself a writer. All of this stuff I felt really acutely as a young writer and for several of those early books. I got to a place where I was like, ‘Clearly I’m going to keep doing this.’
What was it like with Users — how different is it from your past books?
The big thing that’s different about Users, I feel like, is that even though it’s not hyperreal or autobiographical in any way, I could feel my real life experience being turned into the material, and the distance between the two is the narrowest it’s been. Usually I’m drawn to experimental work and toying with genre, all of these ways to play that allowed me to get at personal and intimate things. I was writing about cowboys in the wild west or gothic ghost stories, and there’s so much of myself in those books, but it’s a little more obscured. This is the first time where real-world stuff is closer to the surface.
We meet Miles immediately through the random death threats he receives due to his work. Why did you want the audience to first see him as this target of hate?
Part of the interest in what he was experiencing was trying to establish existential stakes, which is always something that’s important to me, especially when trying to write a character who is very much in their own head, creating a situation where there’s an urgency to that experience. He’s wandering around thinking about a large and relatable problem of whether or not one is about to die.
We find out that this is not the case — Miles is being targeted by people who, through mental gymnastics, leaps and reaches, compare his latest virtuality experiment to a, quote, “rape dungeon”, when really, it’s just an immersive game. We’re seeing a huge uptick in morality dilemmas when it comes to advancements in technology — things like DeepFakes and artificially generated voices of deceased singers. Were you influenced by this moral side of innovation and the conversation that’s arising with that?
Well, it’s interesting, because I started writing this book five years ago, so that stuff was things that Matt Stone and Trey Parker were making funny animations with, and not at a level of concern. It has been interesting to watch reality get closer and closer to what I once thought was a very hyperbolic and absurd extrapolation from reality.
I’m definitely concerned with the morality of tech, and it’s more than just reality, it’s impact on our lives and the way we relate to and communicate with and think about one another. The book is very much about those questions and positioning yourself in relation to them when you’re so steeped in them. It’s hard to sit back and say, ‘These are all horrible, we have to go back to some archaic way of living.’ The book isn’t saying that, but it is saying that these choices have impact.
As for Miles’ protestors, it’s a few fringe characters that say that because the ghost in his VR simulation can’t agree to haunting the player, it’s a consent issue. Was this idea taken from some of the absurdity of what floats around online nowadays?
That particular argument comes from a user community that has built a life within a space with the tools that were provided for them, and they’re ultimately defending what they say is their justifiable use of the thing, and when they are being corrected or censored, they use the language of that censorship to accuse the other party of doing something wrong. We see that back-and-forth where each side picks the language of the other and says, ‘No, you’re the one that’s doing this.’ Nobody’s acknowledging their part in this, and it’s just this language shift and adoption of the language, so it just keeps going back and forth in terms of who is at fault.
Miles’ troubles don’t end at work, and I found it interesting that his wife and kids are also giving him a hard time, being emotionally distant, or in the case of his kids, just odd. Did you set out to make this sort of a nightmare situation for Miles, one where he can’t even come back to a nice night after work?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I was like, ‘Let’s torture this guy.’ In some ways, I wanted the novel to function as this slow reveal of Miles; we get all these situations he’s in through the penetrating voices of the people around him. He’s in his head, he’s very concerned with his own problems, and he’s very alienated, so at first we side with this alienation and then as we read more and more, we see that some of these characters are laying out what precisely he could do to improve his relationship with them, or improve their quality of life, or his own solution to a problem that’ll just catch up to him. And we just see him turn away from those things, or get lost in a self-absorption that won’t let him accept that gift from someone else. He perceives everything in his life as something that’s happening to him, rather than the consequences of his own doing.
One particular character I was drawn to is Miles’ wife, who is named only once. She’s so emotionally apathetic that she can’t even come up with a good answer when Miles asks her what she’d do if he was randomly killed one day, or admits that she almost left him one day. How did you develop this person?
I love the wife. She’s probably one of my favorite characters in the book. Part of it is that it’s the same thing Miles admires about her — that she’s someone who’s not very mired in the self-absorbed bullshit he is. She has a lot of clarity in how she thinks and feels and what she wants and how she’s going to get those things. I look at that conversation when Miles is like, ‘What would you do if some stalker killed me?’, and he’s ultimately asking for reassurance here because he’s scared. So the absence of sympathy in her response of ‘Well, why does he kill you? What are the details here?’ And he’s just like, ‘No, reassure me!’ and she’s like, ‘Well, I told you that my answer would be based on these determining factors which are pretty important considering what my response would be.
It is fundamentally two people whose conversational objectives are at odds, but they’re equally not serving the other person. But I loved her because she says what she’s thinking and means what she says. And she says it powerfully and confidently. I’m more attracted to characters like that rather than bad characters, and I still love the bad characters, too. As someone who is extremely anxious and overthinks everything, I relate to Miles in a lot of ways. So I really admire someone who is like, ‘I’m just going to do this thing.’
Miles is so anxious from the death threats that he calls a hotline operator, who actually gives somewhat psychological sound advice, and later down the line, she even recognizes his voice and talks him through it yet again. Did you research any tactics that psychologists or these kinds of operators use?
I did — it’s certainly not the exact reality to how it would happen, and there’s a dreamlike quality to those scenes. But yeah, my father is a psychologist, so those voices have been in my head for my whole life, but I’ve talked to a lot of emergency hotline operators or therapeutic hotline operators in various capacities and did for this book, and also, weirdly, my parents were both emergency hotline operators you could call with intense feelings or situations, a volunteer job they both did when they were dating. A lot of that is pulled from that, my own therapy sessions, knowing people who work in that form of education, working with kids and psychological education.
Now that I’m thinking of it, his conversations with her are kind of the only warmth he feels — the operator is real with him in saying that his anxiety is manageable and can be avoided. It seems like he gets the best advice from the person he knows the least.
And that’s one of the benefits of therapy — you get to talk to someone who doesn’t enter the conversation with their own psychological and emotional needs. They’re still human and they still have all of these responses, but there’s a certain methodology in place for a lot of those conversations that allows them to only respond to you. And that can get you places, it can be a really helpful thing to have, whereas for Miles’ situation, a lot of these people are ones that completely depend on him. His children, his coworkers… He’s a needy person, so of course he feels most comfortable in a situation where the other person is by definition needless.
There’s a turning point for Miles when he unintentionally imagines a situation in the Egg — I won’t spoil it here, but it legitimately made me drop my jaw. It’s the kind of thing I can imagine few writers even touching out of fear that it’d be taken out of context, or attributed to the author rather than the fictional character. What made you come up with it, and why did you include it in the book?
Yeah, it was super hard to write, and it made me really uncomfortable. It made me a little scared, because yeah, I don’t want people to think this is a desirable thing. But I hope it’s depicted in a way that’s not exploitative and it’s clear that we’re not delving into Miles’ hidden desires, it’s more that as our devices and ways in which we engage in reality narrow the distance between thought and action, and those spaces start to become infiltrated by other people at all times in unmeasured ways, it just felt very important to me to remember the complex human animal. What do we unearth when we completely close the gap between thought and action? And in that situation, where is the thought coming from, and who is responsible for it? That’s something that Miles is urgently thrown into a relationship with, that question, because he’s like, ‘I didn’t think of this, someone else did. Someone else put this in here. Or did it come from me? I don’t know.’ He deals with real-world consequences as a result from this manifested thought that he has no proper context for, because of his own creation. And my experience of being online is that it can be a fucking horrifying place. I wanted to get that primal, visceral feel you can get from just turning the wrong corner in a virtual space.
I also never expected the shocking twist near the end of the book, which was never really confirmed, just insinuated. In this way, Users has some thriller-like elements: did you set out to write a book that maintains this steady, almost suspenseful pace, or was that how it unfolded?
I definitely didn’t set out to write a book like that. The honest truth of the book was that I sat down and wrote the first three chapters. That was the first thing that came out of me, and I wanted to write about this fucked-up but deliciously dysfunctional family, where everyone is their own prickly bush, and then it was like, ‘Miles went to work.’ And all of this stuff poured out of me. I’ve been living in San Francisco for 11 years, I’ve been writing for a lot of different tech companies in a lot of different settings. All of this content just came pouring out. First it was the family, then I guess I was also writing about tech in San Francisco, and then it came with these questions of where are the death threats coming from, and how does it tie into the other two elements, and that gave it that reassertion of urgency over again. Also, as a writer, I like to keep myself interested and engaged, so the situation needs to be complicated and prickly enough for me to be active. It’s not this delicious thriller with this ultimately great satisfying ending, but it feels like to me like my own relation to the terrifying things in my life where it’s like, they’re there all the time and I don’t know why they’re there and I don’t know what will happen when they’re gone.
Finally, what’s next for your writing? Do you have another novel idea in the works? I saw your earlier tweet, about stress-writing right before a publishing date.
That’s the thing, I’m also working on this essay about failed novels. Between every book I’ve ever published, there’s at least one very long and very bad manuscript I wrote. I write it in this frenzied, adrenaline-fueled… You know, anything to not think about this book coming out, I gotta keep writing, just focus on that. I write this super-long brain-dump and it feels very connected to a creative impulse, but by the end, I’m like, ‘Oh, this is 700 pages that no one should ever read.’ It’s so boring, it’s so stupid, but it seems like I have to do that between each book. So it’s hard to answer the question of what I’m working on, but I have a little novel in the works.
Users is available now.