Cover of 'Echelon' by Josh Conviser ISBN 0345485025 Shaun Farrell interviews Josh Conviser
Shaun's Quadrant—August 2006

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I first met John Conviser through his myspace page. So, I guess we hadnít really met yet, but I was pleasantly surprised to see him on a panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Sitting alongside Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, Kevin J. Anderson, Elizabeth Bear, and Karen Traviss, the panel discussed the dark trends of science fiction literature and whether the genre is becoming too depressing. Given that Joshís book delves into Echelon, the NSAís enormous program that surveys billions of phone calls and emails, it seemed more than appropriate to have him on the panel. His book examines, among other things, the loss of privacy and the birth of a new world order.

We spoke after the panel and arranged to meet the next morning. I had a great time hanging out with Josh and doing my first in-person interview. His book grabbed me from the first page, and I highly recommend it. To learn more about Josh and his first novel, Echelon, visit his website.

Shaun Farrell: The first thing I noticed looking at your book is that you have praise from Chris Carter, Jack McDevitt, and several others. Being that this is your first novel, how does it make you feel having engendered the praise and the confidence of such big names?

Josh Conviser: Itís incredibly encouraging. I was excited enough they were willing to read it, let alone actually put their names on it and give it a nice blurb. Itís a funny thing asking people for blurbs. Itís a little tough to do, but I ended up meeting a whole bunch of writers I didnít know before. I had a reason to introduce myself to them, and Iíve become friends with a lot of them, which is fantastic. As a young writer itís an amazing experience to pick the brains of these guys who are so experienced and so effective as writers.

SF: Thatís cool. [Getting praise] is kind of scary.

JC: It is. You feel very exposed because youíre forcing the book upon them, and you donít want to pressure them too much. You donít want them to feel uncomfortable, but youíre asking them to do something for nothing. But it ended up being great.

SF: And a plus for you is that their fans see their names on your book and could gain an interest they might not have had if those names werenít on there.

JC: Of course. In the SF world Chris Carter really means a lot, and I do feel there is a link between Echelon and the X-Files. There are similarities between those two stories. I was thrilled that he enjoyed it.

SF: That sounds like a good segue, so why donít you tell us about Echelon.

JC: Echelon is a spy thriller set in the future, and itís about the NSAís eavesdropping network. Basically, it looks at what weíve started doing now, which is surveillance on billions of communications per day. The problem right now within the NSA and with echelon itself, which is a real part of the NSA, is that we can patrol the communications soup for interactions, but we canít actually process the information. The conceit of the book is that weíve (learned) to fully process this giant pool of data that we already get. (This) makes echelon a very powerful organization and allows it to start to control the shape of humanityís future. For awhile that works out great. Thereís this benevolent guide toward a more stable, peaceful existence. But, as with everything, it starts to breakdown. Thereís a conspiracy that starts to rise up within echelon itself. My main character, Ryan Lang, who is an echelon agent, gets caught up in this conspiracy and ends up on the run, hunted by everybody, and trying to figure out why heís been targeted.

SF: So thereís this idea that with all this information, you end up with a handful of people who are in control of everything in the known universe.

JC: Exactly. Echelon is about the creation of Big Brother, how that kind of world would come into existence, and how it might breakdown.

SF: Were you inspired by 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451?

JC: Totally. Thereís a lot of Brave New World in there. Thereís a good bit of 1984, and even a good bit of Island, which is one of Aldous Huxleyís other books.

SF: What else was the initial inspiration behind your book?

JC: Itís something Iíve been researching for a long time, and Iíve known that I wanted to write something on echelon and the NSAís massive surveillance of communications. The problem writing a modern-day story about it is that (echelon) doesnít work very well, as you can see in the nature of the world around us. The NSA has been in the news quite a bit recently with the wire-tapping and the eaves-dropping stuff. That said itís not incredibly effective. So that led me to saying, what if it became as effective as it wants to be? And, because it has opened itself up to such a huge pool of data currently, when weíre all desperate to gain a little more control of our world, how then, when computing power is strong enough to really process this information, will the world look?

The theme of the book is about echelonís attempt to control humanity. On a personal level with my character, Ryan Lang, has issues with control. He is basically the first person to become a trueó cyborg sounds cheesy and I never used it in the bookóbut thatís the idea. He actually dies in the first sentence of the novel, and he is revived through an advanced form of nanotechnology. Internally, he has to learn to deal with the fact that he has lost some control within his own body and mind because of this presence within him. His smaller story is linked to the larger story of echelonís loss of control of the shape of humanity. Both need to come to terms with that, but in the endó no, I wonít tell you that.

SF: No, donít spoil the ending. That would be a bad thing.

JC: (Laughing devilishly)

SF: You were on a panel yesterday (at Comic Con International) and you called your book spy-fi, mixing SF and thriller. I must confess some ignorance here: is this a newly developing genre?

JC: I donít know. I have never seen another one.

SF: Youíre the founder.

JC: I doubt that! I think thereís a big place for it because the technology we have currently allows for great ďwhat ifsĒ in the near future, and the shape of our political world allows for a lot of very juicy and emotional content as far as the standard, spy-thriller genre.

SF: I think thereís some precedence for it in television. Alias had a lot of science fiction and fantasy elements in it.

JC: Iím a big fan of Alias. I come at this from having varied influences. Iím a big science fiction fan. I really like the larger, political SF stuff, like the Dune series, that creates this huge world and these interlacing struggles within it. I like a lot of Orson Scott Cardís stuff. Even William Gibsonís stuff, that is less political, but more social commentary. Iím really interested, on the Gibson side, in how technology effects individuals. And thatís what I looked at in how this nanotechnology effects Ryan Lang personally. What is it like to have this within you? Not so much how it works, because who can say how it ends up working, but what would it be like to have this experience?

Iím a big spy-thriller fan as well. Ludlum, Frederick Forsythe, John le Carre, are guys I read constantly. When it came time to write my own book, this is the idea that immediately came to mind. It will be interesting to see if people are willing to read a cross-genre piece. I can talk very comfortably here with all the SF guys, and I was just at Thrillerfest in Arizona, and I can talk comfortably there as well.

SF: There are more and more books now that are mixing genres. Maybe itís a result of our postmodern culture where everything is mixed anyway, but I think there is less resistance to that than there used to be. Often time, people are reading science fiction without realizing they are reading science fiction.

JC: And itís such a fine line now. Because of the speed at which our technology is advancing, who can say whatís science fiction and what is stuff that just hasnít come out yet?

SF: Microsoft has something, they just havenít released it.

JC: Right. Itís amazing the kind of things we are working on right now, in terms of hardware and software and larger theoretical ideas about the shape of the universe itself and our existence within it. But the reason I picked this story over other stories for my novel is I felt strongly that this was a great character and a fantastic, gripping story to force him through. It kept me up at nights thinking about, so I figured this was the one I should get down on paper.

SF: Itís that one that wonít let you go.

JC: And youíve got to love it. I donít think I had any idea how much time I would be spending with these characters, both with Ryan and thereís a very strong female character in the story, Sarah Peters. They are part of the family at this point, especially now that Iím writing the sequel, which theyíre both in.

SF: We mentioned Alias earlier. I did notice that Sarah was recruited from college.

JC: All of that was developed before I had really seen Alias, but it is very similar. There were a couple mentions of echelon within Alias and I thought my book was going to be moot. But, they never did (go there). I think there are some similarities between Sarah and the Sydney Bristow character, and there are a lot of differences. (Sarah) is more of a data geek. Sheís more on the quantitative side, or at least starts out more as a nerd than Sydney did. Sydney was much more active.

SF: She was a kick-ass chick.

JC: Exactly. Sarah becomes a kick-ass chick, and her character is very kick-ass. She is probably a stronger internal being than Ryan is, at least at the beginning. That said sheís not trained in field craft. Her deal is the analytical side of the echelon system.

SF: You were talking about this issue of self-identity and how the infusion of technology could change our perception of self. This is a little esoteric, but where do you see that going with spirituality, and sexuality, and who we are?

JC: Who can say? The fact is that we will soon be dealing with a lot more technology a lot closer to us. Itís not out of the realm of possibility. Itís not some far off thing. Itís coming and itís coming quickly. Having our technology mesh more with our physical being, and with the way we think and interact with other people, will effect many people in different ways. I think there will be a lot of consternation about it, and there already is. You can see it in these online social networks like myspace. Itís a totally different means of communication which an older generation might not understand and certainly doesnít feel comfortable with. Within myspace there are threats, and there are issues, and there are things to think about. That said itís also the way millions of kids are communicating now. The evolution of communication is a very interesting thing.

Beyond that itís very hard to say how we as humans are going to adapt in our physical being, in our mental state, based on the technology we have. But I do think weíll adapt. I donít think itís going to be catastrophic. I think it will be fantastic and horrible and we will prevail somehow. I personally have a very optimistic view on that. I think that allowing people more freedom is inherently a good thing. It also offers people more distractions, which can be a way to not (see) the world around you so clearly. The thing I worry about is that technology comes with a priceó literally a price tag. Iím hopeful we wonít end up creating two classes of people.

SF: The ultimate social division.

JC: Exactly, and I think we certainly will for a long time. Thereís no way to get around it. We already do. Weíre on computers all the time, weíre talking on cell phones, and thatís not feasible in many places of the world. So it does already exist. Hopefully as technology gets more advanced it will also get cheaper and cheaper. While everyone might not be on the cutting edge, the more involved everyone can be the better.

SF: So you would not necessarily say you are a believer in the technological singularity as prescribed by Vernor Vinge and others?

JC: My own belief is that itís hard to get to a point where (technology) just immediately flips over into something totally different. Technology and human advancement moves quickly and itís been moving more quickly than it has in the past, or at least it feels that way. But I think weíre very malleable as far as the environment around us and that we can adapt to whatever comes our way.

Now, that said, Iím not sure weíll adapt well to it. But I think we can. I donít see a singularity in the near future where from that point on itís a totally different universe. I could be wrong, but Iím more on the prevail side. Some people will embrace these things and some people wonít, and there will be conflict using all these technologies, and hopefully weíll just keep meddling through.

SF: As much as I love Vernor Vingeís (work), I hope youíre right and heís wrong.

JC: (laughing) Me too!

SF: Letís talk about you a little bit. I was reading Echelon last night and noticed some things about your style. You have a very compelling style. I felt like it was pulling me from sentence to sentence, and you didnít have any unnecessary words in thereó it reminded me of Nick Sagan in that. I was wondering how your script writing career impacted your novel writing career.

JC: There are two things that impacted the way I write prose, and script writing is definitely one of them. Writing a script is really writing a blueprint, so there is no room for anything extraneous. Even when Iím writing prose and I feel like Iím being flowery, it is still so much more (sparse) than a lot of other peoplesí writing. Itís actually something Iíve worried about, that I had gone too far in that direction.

The things I like to read are often very sparse, especially in the nature of putting words into a sentence.

SF: The less is more idea.

JC: Exactly. Iím a big Hemmingway fan. I read a lot of work by an author named James Salter, and itís a similar experience. Very spare, trying to make each word have a punch and drive you forward. People like Nick Sagan do that very well.

I love that coming out of the screenwriting world has given me a voice I wouldnít have had before. Itís a really neat thing for me. Itís fun to see that your past really does have an effect on how you put the words on the page. I think itís given me a style thatís a little more my own than had I not been a screenwriter.

SF: Well, it gives you a set of tools that a lot of great novelists havenít experienced or exercised.

JC: A screenplay is all about dialogue. Thereís a difference between literature dialogue and the way we actually speak and the way you feel comfortable hearing someone speak in a film. I like the idea that I can bring that gritty ďhereís how people actually talkĒ sense to literature. Again, thatís not across the board. (Many) people do fantastic dialogue, but itís something I think about a lot.

I tried to make the way (the characters) talk very comfortable. Thereís a lot of humor in Echelon as well. Just to pull (readers) in and to get them caring about these people, youíve got to create a full character. Even in the worst of times people can be funny. Often that tells you more about what theyíre like than their fear. How well I did all this, who can say?

Often I think about (shoving) a character into an event and whatís the most obvious thing they would do, and whatís the opposite of that? And how might they go about doing that opposite?

SF: Did it take you a long time to come to your final manuscript? How many times did you rewrite?

JC: I do a lot of rewriting. I bang out pages on the first draft. I try to get it all out there, because Iím inherently uncomfortable that I donít have the whole story until the final page is written. At least then I feel comfortable that Iíve got the story from beginning to end, and then the real work starts of going back through and honing it down. I go through a lot of drafts. Having a professional editor is an amazing experience. Betsy Mitchell at Del Rey was fantastic at helping me further hone that work. And the copy editor was fantastic at catching little logic issues.

SF: Did you have a contract before you started doing revising, or did you do all that work first?

JC: I wrote Echelon on speck. And I was probably right in that I didnít think anyone would take me seriously with anything else. I have some experience as a screenwriter, but that doesnít mean much as far as being able to write a book. Once the book was finished, thatís when it went out, and Del Rey picked it up very quickly.

SF: You didnít flounder in writer purgatory for years.

JC: Iíve done a lot of floundering in Hollywood. When I finished the book I got an agent within weeks, and sold it weeks after that. Itís incredibly lucky. I totally hit the jackpot. The only thing that beats that is actually having the book come out. Itís a weird thing to go into the bookstore and to say, ďOh my God, they werenít kidding! They really published it!Ē You definitely feel a little exposed having it out there and having people read it who you donít know. Itís also really neat to have all these people involved in your inner life, basically.

SF: Writing in Hollywood, youíre not nearly as in the spotlight as you are with a novel. People look at the director and the actors and the producer. For the most part, the average fan doesnít pay attention to the writer.

JC: Exactly. Itís a big difference. I wonít lie, itís kind of fun to be the center of attention, not in the very back of the room. Itís also a little uncomfortable. Thereís a lot of marketing that takes place, and you have to get used to the fact that itís your name and your face going out there to the world. I donít dislike it, but itís a big switch. The cool thing is that it connects you with a whole bunch of people with similar interests. Itís fun to find people from around the world who have similar ideas or like what you like, or donít like what you like but want to connect.

SF: Weíve talked about Hollywood a little bit, so why donít you tell us exactly what you do in Hollywood.

JC: Iíve been a screenwriter and producer for almost ten years. I am the executive consultant on HBOís series Rome, which is now in production of its second season. I also have a film in development at Fox, and a couple other projects around town. Iíve made my living as a screenwriter and producer, though not (many) of my projects have actually made it to the screen other than Rome.

SF: Thatís the normal way of things.

JC: It is. It takes so long to get through the studio system that there are many writers like that. Not to say itís a bad life. Itís a very nice life. But I got frustrated that all these projects I had written and put so much time into, even though they had financed my lifestyle, hadnít come to fruition in any material way. I really wanted to see something from beginning to end that I could push. I became a producer to push my own writing because I was fed up with sitting around and waiting. Even that wasnít enough control for me, I guess. Thatís why I decided I wanted to write a book. I wanted to do something that was totally mine so when itís done I can have some idea as to whether or not I really have talent in this creative endeavor. Itís been incredibly satisfying to do. I still do write screenplays, but novel writing is really my passion.

At this point my preference would be, if I could get someone to pay me to write a book on almost any topic, Iím in. Iíve got the sequel to Echelon coming up.

SF: When will that be out?

JC: I believe next summer. And from there I have a couple other books on deck, ready to go.

SF: What about the chances of Echelon being adapted?

JC: I donít want to speak too soon, but there is a good chance. Things are moving along briskly, and we have some very big names interested. Weíll see what happens. The people who have reacted to it in L.A. are big shots, and people who can really make quality, great films. Hopefully the studio will bite.

SF: What writers have inspired you the most?

JC: As far as science fiction, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Orson Scott Card, Frank Herbert. The Dune series really inspired me as a kid. I still think itís one of the most incredible creations in all of literature, creating that world and a very complex series of events.

And a lot of spy-thriller stuff. Ludlum, LeCarre, Forsythe, Robert Littell. As far as literature, Hemmingway, James Salter. Iíve been obsessed for awhile with a series of books about Africa by Bartle Bowl, about a safari guy who gets caught up in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia at the beginning of World War II. As you can see, I read a lot of different stuff from (many) genres. Maybe thatís why I didnít think so much about a specific genre when I started writing (Echelon).

SF: Which is advantageous for you because you wonít be pigeonholed into a specific genre.

JC: I hope not, but anytime I can get paid to write Iím a happy man. I do have a lot of ideas in different arenas, and thereís not a huge difference from creating the Rome project to creating Echelon. Theyíre both the creation of a world, and you have to figure out a way to describe it so people can immediately fall into it and care about what goes on there. If itís the past, the future, or the present you always have to do that.

SF: This is a question I ask everyone. I donít know why Iím fascinated by thisó

JC: My favorite cuss words? (laughing)

SF: No! We are not inside the actorís studio. Itís about collaboration. If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?

JC: Wow. This is a tough one, because I have done a lot of collaboration in screenplays. It is a very tricky, difficult thing. Itís almost impossible for me to imagine collaborating on a book because itís such a private event. Itís one thing to write a screenplay together. Youíre writing a lot of dialogue, the description is small, itís all about the plotting.

As far as a writer whom I would love to see how he comes up with stuff, Iíd go with Hemmingway. Why not? But I donít think heíd be that much fun to collaborate with. I think I would end up shooting him at the end of it! As far as people alive, someone like Orson Scott Card would be incredible. Iím a huge fan of his work. I love the way he combines these large political ideas into very personal stories. Thatís something I try to do, and I hope I succeed in Echelon. Itís something I need to keep working on and I think heís the master.

SF: Josh is there anything else youíd like to tell us?

JC: I donít think so, other than I hope readers enjoy Echelon. I fashioned it to be a page-turning, exciting summer read. There are some larger ideas in there, but I think the characterís fun, the world is exciting, and I hope itís a gripping story.