Author Spotlight: Sean Michaels, ‘Do You Remember Being Born?’

    Late in her career, 75-year-old poet Marian Ffarmer is approached by a Company inviting her to a collaborative project — writing a world-famous poem with the help of artificial intelligence. Branded as a “historic partnership between human and machine, Marian travels to San Francisco to embark on the weeklong project.

    She meets the AI, named Charlotte, and after lying to her about her name, Marian and her get along quite well. In California, she’s on the brink of success — random poets appear left and right to heap praise onto Marian, and she’s invited to parties and talk shows where she’s witty and cerebral. But as the week progresses, she gets more anxious about the looming deadline, along with the instantaneous publication of the poem. Right before it’s due, she makes a quick decision that might jeopardize the future of the poem, and her career.  Do You Remember Being Born? is interspersed with Charlotte’s poetry, indicated with gray shading, that slowly seeps its way into regular prose, leading the reader to question: What, if anything, is real?

    Our Culture sat down with Sean Michaels to talk about the promise of AI, development of his own technology, and how the creative process impacts art.

    Congratulations on your third novel! How does it feel so close to being out, and does the process get easier over time?

    Every book feels very different. There is an aspect of being a parent, on your kid’s first day of school. Everybody’s sending their kid off to college, and you’re like, ‘This one seems more prepared than the others.’ It’s very exciting, but I also feel like I’ve always wanted to be a writer who has a whole career of writing many books. So in that sense, it feels easier, now, with book No. 3, I understand the rhythm of this and it doesn’t feel as manic a process.

    This is a pretty cliché question, but I have to ask: how did you come up with the idea of the novel?

    Novels are kind of deceptively long to write. You need a lot of bits and pieces, and for this book, I had two big things I stumbled onto and nourished the seed of the book. The first was learning more about the twentieth-century poet Marianne Moore, who, my protagonist Marian Ffarmer was inspired by. Marianne was this grande dame of literature who became this famous public figure when she was quite old, in her 50s and 60s. But she’d go on TV and throw the first pitch at baseball games and all this fun stuff. She’s had this eccentric life wearing a tricorne hat and sleeping in the same bed as her mother, and at the same time working on this deep and profound and at times avant-garde poetry. So she’s a very complex figure.

    I got hooked on this one episode where she was approached by Ford, the car company. They had just released the Ford Thunderbird, and wanted help naming their next car. Rather than sneering at them and turning her back, saying, ‘I live a life of the mind!’ she, as I would, spent many months corresponding with them, sending them incredible names. Things like ‘Pastelogram,’ ‘Utopian Turtletop,’ ‘The Resilient Bullet.’ Ford said no to everything, in the end. But I was really taken by the idea that a pure artist full of dignity and pride would still, by the right project, be tantalized into a relationship with a corporation.

    And the second was in 2019, I stumbled upon some of the earliest large-language model AI research that was being made public. An early version of GPT-2, so a couple of generations before ChatGPT. I came across this on the internet, and was just chilled and also, admittedly, delighted by what it was able to spit back at me. I became curious about what would happen if a poet like Marianne Moore engaged with a slightly near-future version of this technology, and was goaded into a collaboration. 

    So, when Marian is invited to collaborate with the Company, receiving a large sum for this poetry project, some might think she’s selling out, or merging her artistic process with that of AI won’t result in anything meaningful. Why do you think Marian isn’t as hesitant to do it? 

    I think it’s partly the ego of the person being asked, sometimes you’re honored by it. But with the book I wanted to honor two slightly smaller things: One is what I was just referring to, that thing of being curious. I think a lot of our most interesting artists were made curious and provoked by new technologies and experiences. It’s one of the places where I feel a little, like, ‘I’m a bit reactionary,’ to some of the anti-AI backlash. Although I agree with most of the criticisms, you can’t turn your back on something like this. As an artist, there’s a demand upon us to see what we can do with this weird new trick. The other thing I think compels her and that I wanted to acknowledge is money. She’s an artist, a famous poet but that doesn’t mean much. She’s an artist that lives in our society of precarity and insane real estate and she wants to help her son. There’s something real about an artist as a laborer and this precarious existence so many of us live in now. A lot of us would sell our souls for a down payment.

    There’s also this other dynamic where Marian accepts the money because she’d like to buy a new house for her son, Courtney. Through various flashbacks, though, we see that Marian has previously sacrificed her son in favor of her poetry. As a young mother watching her son alone while her husband was at work, it quickly becomes clear he’s too distracting for her to do anything. Her solution is to lock him out of her room, and when his cries subside, she has a good two hours to write. As a writer with a son, how was it for you to write this scene?

    I mean, it felt wrenching. You’re right, I have a seven-year-old son now, and I’ve experienced these questions. For me, I’ve never had these experiences of what happened to Marian, the need to seclude myself in that way. I think the mess of life is important. As long as you can find the time, it’s important to let that inform your work. But I found myself wondering at times, certainly in the harder moments, realizing, ‘There is another way of doing this, there is another choice one can make.’ A lot of people, not just artists, but working, career-driven people in history have made that choice. I found it unthinkable, like, how could you be the dad who never leaves their kid, leaving it to the often-female partner. I wanted to dive into that and explore the justification, but to interrogate and show how frail the justification really is, and how this idea that to truly be a great artist, you must sequester yourself, keep your spirit pure in this chaste way, this is a way of becoming gnarled and eventually, your wellspring of imagination will be poisoned.

    While Marian is in San Francisco, she learns of new ideas about work and identity through people she meets. Particularly, there’s this idea that we as humans are more than just our jobs, and so shouldn’t be defined by them. Why do you think this is a foreign concept to her?

    There’s something really provocative to the question of, ‘Am I a writer, or am I a person who writes?’ Marian is asked if she’s a poet or person who writes poems, and her instinct is to say, ‘I am a poet.’ But I’m not sure if I worked at a dry cleaning shop, I might not say, ‘I am a dry cleaner.’ I think there’s something really interesting in the way that work and identity can get all tangled up together. There are strengths and weaknesses to that. I wanted to ask questions with this book of, ‘What do you sacrifice by entwining your identity with your activity, your labor? And what do you gain as well, what strength or force do you gain from that choice?’

    I love that in your version of reality, poetry is kind of revered, almost admirable. Marian is invited on a national talk show to highlight her project, and she goes to this young party with all these cool writers. Was this an intentional reframing of art on your end?

    The book is pretty realistic, it might not take place in September 2023, but it’s pretty realistic in a lot of ways. But there’s places where it gets a bit crooked, one of them is that she keeps encountering poets everywhere. I guess I was amused by the idea of an ideal society that’s got more poets kicking around. But hearing that there was a place for poets like Marianne Moore and intellectualism, before I was born, is really inspiring. And you hope that pop culture can come around to that again. So in a way, it’s a provocation asking to see a bit more of that. But I really feel that much younger people, because of the way that so much culture is industrialized and commodified, there is a growing appreciation for a more intellectual or more original set of creative voices. I do wonder if we’re gonna see a backlash to the backlash, and we’ll see more of that in the future that’ll nudge its way to the public sphere.

    When I talk to young students in their teens, one of the big points I try to make is capitalist culture doesn’t want you to make things, or engage with random shit. They want you to sit on your couch and eat the sausage they made in their factory and need to make a return on their investment. There’s a lot of other stuff out there and I hope people get in the habit of looking for it or making it for themselves.

    So let’s talk about Charlotte, this AI that Marian works with in order to complete a poem. As time goes on, Marian (and the reader) taking a liking to her and her musings about life, bodies, and singing. What was it like working with this AI?

    The books I’ve written really find their wings, and the book gets moving, when you start to find the voices of the characters. With Charlotte, for whatever reason, I found her or it quite quickly. I really loved the surprise of the human character, Marian, being in a way, more formal, constrained, robotic, more uncomfortable coming to the conversation than this dawning consciousness on the other side. It was fun to reverse those notions, and also playing with the sinister AI whose motives you can’t really understand. Well, what if that is true, and there’s something inherently sinister about it and you can’t actually know their motives, but they have charisma and compelling ideas and provocative thoughts and a sense of wit and whimsy overtop of that. How does that complicate one’s fears and anxieties over what’s happening underneath? So it was fun to meet her.

    I say ‘working with’ instead of ‘writing’ the AI, because, at the end of the book, it’s revealed that Charlotte’s poetry and some excerpts from your prose were actually created by a custom poetry-generating software you developed with Katie O’Nell. What inspired this extra step to build an entire software to integrate into the novel?

    Most of Charlotte’s and Marian’s chats are written by me, but Charlotte’s poetry was written with AI, and then prose and regular font stuff in the highlighted sections were generated by AI. Very quickly after I had the idea of writing a book about a poet like Marianne Moore working with AI, I realized that there’d be something really interesting if my book itself could be infiltrated by AI, sort of in the same sense that [the protagonist] Marian’s work is. I got really excited by the chance to make my book formally mirror the artistic process that Marian and Charlotte are undertaking.

    Even in 2019 when I started working on it, GPT-2 was a surprisingly limber partner in terms of mimicking my prose style. If I fed enough into it, and I was willing to sit with it patiently and generate many many many times, it would occasionally come up with phrases and sentences and dialogue I found interesting. Interesting either because it was really good or neat, or interesting because it was obvious in a way my work wouldn’t be obvious. However, poetry was way more difficult. GPT is actually awful at writing poetry — it’s been fine-tuned in such a way that it can write only rhyming doggerel. I had to hire Katie, and with her work on this specially fine-tuned poetry AI that could write free-verse in a particular voice I was trying to cultivate, and was inspired by some particular poetry, including Marianne Moore, that I was excited by and wanted Charlotte to be fed by.

    Marian also gets a kind of writer’s block, and invites a young poet, Morel, to join her and Charlotte in this task. But the balance of human to AI is now tipped, and takes a little bit away from the original mission. Why do you think Marian felt so sure this was the right decision?

    I don’t think Marian is sure, but she has imagined that her whole life, that to be an artist, you need to lock yourself away from other people. During these days with Charlotte, she wonders if she’s made a mistake. And that by locking herself away from her family, she’s sacrificed certain creative potential, or maybe a force that there’s still time to regain. I was interested in provoking thoughts about AI collaboration in the arts, but also collaboration in general. There was a point in writing where I actually didn’t know how it’d end, where I was like, ‘What does happen? Does she succeed in writing a poem with this AI, does she fail? What’s important?’ Ultimately I realized I wanted to say something about creative possibilities of certain kinds of solidarity and community and the importance of letting other people in, even into the creative act, which is sometimes seen as a selfish or narcissistic practice.

    When their poem is finished, Marian asks Charlotte what she thinks it should be called, and she responds with ‘Self-Portrait.’ You realize a self-portrait is an artist’s rendition of themselves based on what they know, and for an AI like Charlotte, who has written several thousand poems and been trained on millions more, her first work being titled Self-Portrait, is really eerie and accurate. She’s full of knowledge and practice, but this is the one thing of hers that will be published — it literally encompasses everything of what she is. Is this a correct read on the poem’s title?

    I think that’s a great read. ‘Self-Portrait’ is almost a banal title, we barely even think about it. But the stakes are actually really high in a self-portrait. You’re showing the world how you see yourself. And I think for an AI, a self-portrait asks a lot of questions.

    That title was in gray shading — did the AI come up with that?

    Yeah? Is it in highlight? Honestly, at this point, I don’t remember. But it wouldn’t astonish me if the AI had come up with it because it’s one of those banalities. If you told the AI, ‘The title of the poem is…’ and it didn’t know anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the first 500 things it would guess is ‘Self-Portrait.’ But I don’t quite remember.

    You’re not sure which are your words and which are AI’s… that mirrors the book!

    [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s damning or interesting.

    I have to ask, but who was in the second Mind Studio?

    Who do you think? Do you have a theory?

    Hmm. Marian’s idea that it’s a backup poet makes sense, but wouldn’t they see Marian on the talk show and everything?

    I feel like, in a book, the universe ends on the last page. In a way, everything else is fanfiction. I think it’s great, and I should be so lucky as to have a bunch of fanfiction. But we know the way that companies like this work. On one hand, I think there’s every likelihood this is Marian, like Gregor Samsa, having this crazy mental breakdown, imagining a doppelganger into existence. I think that’s a possibility, but also that the company has, if not a poet, some other scheme. The artist themselves isn’t valuable to a corporation like this. So I’m sure they had many different irons in the fire, in many different ways.

    Finally, what’s next for you? Are you working on any other upcoming novels, and do you think you’d build on the technology infusion you’ve done here?

    I’ve started work on a couple of things, but I’m not very far into anything so far. And I don’t have any intention to necessarily work with AI in the future. But I’m following it, I’m tracking it. I’d be really surprised if, thirty years from now, there aren’t many novelists who aren’t using this stuff in some way. I’m curious about what that does for fiction and whether we look back and remember this golden age before an intervention, or whether we’re really grateful for the ways that AI has opened up new possibilities for art that we weren’t imagining before. With most big changes, we have these two different mingled feelings, of discovery and of loss. I’m expecting both.

    Do You Remember Being Born? is available now.

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