Courtney Maum has something to tell you, but you may not want to hear it. A master in the art of the letdown, her 2014 debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, exposed the ways that even a picturesque marriage can spider with cracks. The book sold well, netting Maum an advance for her new novel, Touch. And now, after years working on a remote homestead in Connecticut, Maum has returned for something more personal than a marriage: your phone. Is it making your life easier? Does it make you smarter, savvier, more synergized with the world around you?
Maum's answer (spoiler alert) is a resounding no.
Since Seattleites have a fraught relationship with the tech industry, the snarky attitude toward tech in Touch might be well received. But for the lanyard-bound hordes marching back and forth across 520 every day, Maum's notes could fall flat. So at the risk of turning her noontide visit to Elliott Bay Book Company on June 5 into a clash of the badge-haver versus the badgeless, I decided to play devil's advocate.
In the spirit of the tech industry, what is the "elevator pitch" for your book?
It's a satire about the effect of smart devices on our interpersonal relationships. If you take it a little bit deeper, it's about the trend forecaster [Sloane Jacobsen] who's hired to work for the biggest technology company in the United States [Mammoth, Inc.], only to get there and realize she's just not really feeling "tech" anymore. So, bit of a problem with her employer's bottom line.
The book reaches for sincerity at certain moments, though.
Satires don't have to be mean, they don't have to be ridiculous, but they should be making a commentary about the world in which we live. And I was trying to make a social commentary with this book, but at the same time I was trying to craft a story that hopefully resonates with some people and feels important.
Sloane's personal struggle, her relationship that's falling apart, her family from whom she's estranged, and the kind of misogyny she comes across in her workplace? Those are all things I care about, and I'm not trying to make fun of them in any way.
From a Seattleite's perspective, I was intrigued by your depiction of tech workers in general. Do you worry the jokes about that kind of work environment will translate as a lack of empathy for those people?
I guess I would ask you a question: What do you think the joke about the tech workers is? Keep in mind I'm a writer who lives, basically, in the middle of the woods. So if there's an element in which I treat any of the tech workers like a joke, let me know.
The Mammoth team wants to create a very predictable, controllable environment for themselves, shutting the public out but still keeping their phones on them at all times—
Is that specific to tech workers? I think that's very American and very modern. When I think about Blue Apron, or Seamless, or any of these meal-delivery services, isn't that a way of shutting yourself off from the world? Or even Uber or Lyft—you're inoculating yourself against the indignity of having to go out and wait for a cab like a common person. I don't think that kind of behavior is restricted to people in tech. I think it kind of starts with the general populace, and then people who work in tech seize opportunities.
The Mammoth CEO, Dax, comes to mind. He is manic and uses a clipped tone with everyone, and everyone's very afraid of him. I was wondering where this perception came from. Most of the tech workers I know are nerdy dudes who play tabletop games.
I don't really know a lot of people who work in tech. Maybe none? So I had no examples to go on. I wanted someone who was attractive and well-dressed, had an electric charm and a way of working the room, but was basically a walking, talking smartphone. Doen't give anyone the time of day, just moves from person to person quickly, quickly, quickly. This is basically someone who's swiping left on everyone who pops into his orbit.
Then there's Anastasia, the self-driving car. She's the only device, Sloane feels, that actually helps her.
Sloane needed a friend. She's estranged from her family, her boyfriend is bonkers, she hasn't had sex in almost two years, and no one's touching her. So this woman needs a girlfriend, but she hasn't had a girlfriend, ever! So I just thought of this scene in my head: It's Mammoth, it's a huge tech company—who's coming to pick her up at the airport? No one! It would be a self-driving car.
She picks up on all of Sloane's emotions when nobody else does.
Yeah! Because she's not dividing her attention. If you ask Siri or Alexa a question, he or she will wait—they'll listen! Whereas, if I speak to my friends, they're looking at their cell phones, they're cooking, they're doing something else. I can hear them typing when they're talking on the phone. A driverless car is watching the road! She has to be vigilant!
So you—and Sloane—think this moment in time has made us less vigilant.
Really, even if my life depended on it, I could not spell certain words correctly. Because we don't have to! Do we need fingers to write, to hold pens? Or should we have flippers to swipe? What's going to happen to handwriting? The back-and-forth that you and I are having right now—we're having a proper chat. If we knew each other personally, we would have inside jokes, and a lot of them would have to do with being online. We would just be hyperlinking our conversation with each other, which isn't how people used to talk. As long as someone was a reasonably healthy, functioning person in the world, it used to be sort of expected that you were able to make small talk with people. Now it's totally accepted that someone can be hysterical online, fluent from one feed to the next, but you can't invite them to a dinner party. I was thinking the other day, how long until a luxury jewelry company, like a Boucheron or a Cartier, comes up with, like, a sapphire blue check that people can wear around their neck.
A kind of double status symbol. Well, what's your response to someone who comes up and says, "I work for Amazon/Microsoft/Snapchat, and you are trashing the positive changes I've brought to the world"?
Read the book again. You might see some of those positive messages about technology. There are members of the Mammoth team who exist to be members of Team Tech.
It's interesting to hear that some people are going to be offended. I didn't think to be prepared for that. Now I'm steeling myself for Seattle and San Francisco, people being like, "Why are you such a hippie?" To them, I would say, "I think you're being sensitive, go back and read the book again," and then I'd give them a hug.
Because you're Team Touch.
I'm both! I'm definitely both.