Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Gabrielle Zevin: “We have a very white, male image of gamers”

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GAbrielle Zevin has all the stories. The author of Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, a great new novel about art, friendship and gaming, her work was dismissed as “charming”. “Nice”. “Carefree”. She knows how she was “always made to make me smaller and smaller as a woman writing novels.”

Literally, in one case. “There was another book that I know of exactly the same word count as mine, written by a man, that recently went to print to be 240 pages longer than one of mine.” She imagines critics, who review this “bigger book” as “pacier because the pages turn faster and it’s NOT FAIR”. That men are getting stronger and faster just because of the typeface? “Pff! YES! I thought early on that I wanted to find a big screen for myself and take up space.”

But with her super cool 10th novel Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, she has delivered a literary blockbuster destined to enter the Great American Novel category. The same category usually dominated by “the silverbacks” women don’t usually open the clubhouse door, “so we have to pry it open”. Equally determined to “make art and popularize it”, she is already working on the screenplay for Paramount, which bought the film rights for $2million (£1.7million) last February. Her dialogue is so expressive that I imagine she can transfer a lot of it directly from page to screen.

Sam, one of the two brilliant video game designers at the heart of the story, has a theory: “There is no more intimate action than gaming – even sex.” He holds this belief because of the lifelong bond he formed with his collaborator Sadie when they met Met as teenagers in a hospital playroom in the early 1990s. He was there as a patient recovering from a car accident that left him with life-changing injuries. Sadie was there visiting her older sister who was being treated for leukemia.

Although both fictional children have awesome IQs, neither is able to process the emotional fallout of their situation. So they escape together in Nintendo’s Super Mario games. They take turns controlling the same character. Trading tips and gradually trading trust, they develop together and merge their ideas. As the couple grows, they maintain an intimacy that goes deeper than anything either individual could share with a lover. And as adults, they create complex new worlds full of private jokes.

“As a member of Generation X,” says Zevin, who was born in 1977, “I wanted to ask questions about the people who grew up with the internet. I did. I think it influenced the way we think about identity. We’re like the middle child sandwiched between the boomers [who think of identity as fixed] and the Generation Y kids who think everything is fluid. We are the translators, so to speak, jumping back and forth between the real and the virtual world. Video games have totally changed the way we look at identity.”

As a fellow Xer, I agree. I spent many of my formative years running up platforms – in pixelated form. On screen I was an Italian with a comedic pain. i was a frog A cold straight bat that smashes walls. I don’t remember ever being a woman.

The mixed-race child of a Korean mother and a Russian-Jewish father, Zevin grew up between worlds. “One of the cities I grew up in was 66 percent Jewish, you know? When I was there, I identified more with being a Jewish person. But then, when I first went to Hawaii and saw so many Asians there, I felt more Asian. And… you know, less Asian at the same time. Identity is likely less fixed in biracial people.”

In the novel, Sam and Sadie’s first commercial game is played from the perspective of a genderless child of Japanese descent. Its graphics are inspired by Hokusai’s prints. “The word ‘appropriation’ doesn’t come to mind like it does today,” says Zevin. “They just love that culture and want to relate to it.”

She states that “people who do not publish their thoughts for many years can deny that they ever thought or felt in a way that is less acceptable today. They don’t notice the development of their thinking. But when I look back at the books I published 17 years ago, I see things I wouldn’t agree with now. Nothing extreme. But my thinking and feeling about feminist issues has definitely changed.”

She says some of the younger readers she met on this book tour were concerned that a misogynistic character was not confronted about his inappropriate behavior. “They ask why he is not punished. And I have to explain that the book ends in 2012 and people like him got away with it until then [the #MeToo movement] around 2017. He’s a boy prodigy, a star, he makes incredible games and his only criterion is, ‘Is it fun?’” Which, Zevin surmises, “isn’t a bad criterion for judging a lot of things in life!”

Zevin is a lifelong gamer; Her parents both worked for the IBM computer company when she was growing up. “My father was a programmer and my mother started out as a secretary and worked her way up to a senior marketing job in autonomous machine learning. We were all an IBM family. People don’t realize the extent to which that was a planned community in the 1980s and 1990s…” she laughs. “I make it sound weird and it was beautiful. There was something like an IBM theater company. Right? You know? For example, there were IBM parties and the IBM family day. When I went to college, I got the IBM scholarship…”

As an only child, Zevin says she liked computer games because she could play by herself: “A lot of the games I grew up playing were graphic action-adventure games, you know? text based. You solved them with words. And for me, writing novels is also a puzzle that can be solved with words.”

Like her hero Sam, Zevin ended up at Harvard, which she admits was “a disappointment.” She’s confident now about how she had pinned all her hopes on getting into college and “finding my tribe right away, you know?” But she didn’t. “I think that reaction is common. People try so hard to get there, and then there’s often a crisis.” In her own case, she had to admit, “You’re not extraordinary anymore.”

There’s an alluring cleverness to the games Zevin’s characters create. In one, players must blast lines of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (just google “Emily Blaster” to blast lines of verse yourself); in another, they have to collect points they earned as munitions workers in Nazi Germany – when does the player have to decide to stop? It has the effect of making readers feel included in a clique of wisdom. You don’t need to know anything about gaming in advance to close the book and feel like a tech insider, well versed in the mechanics of graphics engines designed “to render photorealistic light and shadows in water.”

Although the characters excel at their jobs, they struggle with their relationships. At one point, Sadie says, “I’m a fucking genius, so I don’t know why I fuck up all the time, but I do.” Though Zevin is happily married to film director Hans Canosa, who has this book “at work.” and in the game,” she refers to characters who “may have sorted everything out in art, but don’t know how to solve their problems in real life”. She admits, “The truth is, I’m a pessimist, but in literature I find all that hope… My books show the better part of me.”

Much of the novel’s bubbly optimism stems from Zevin’s playfulness. The book’s title weaves Shakespeare’s doomed soliloquy out of tragedy Macbeth into a player’s belief that life can be tried over and over again. Zevin gives her characters, like her avatars, multiple opportunities to re-enact situations and reinvent themselves.

She sighs that the book “has only been reviewed by white men in the US, while it was definitely written by a woman of color.” But Zevin believes her novel could encourage women to acknowledge their participation in the gaming world. “After 40 years of gaming,” she says, “I still don’t define myself as a gamer. But that’s because we have a very white male image of the ‘capital G’ player.” She sighs. “But if you do something online that’s rewards-based — Facebook or Insta or even shopping — and you enjoy it, then you could call it gaming.”

Though Zevin doesn’t use social media much because “privacy is the most important thing to me,” she believes many people are presenting their true selves online and “the mask they wear is their face.”

“Creating an online identity is a creative act, you know?” She shrugs at the fact that when she’s tried, “it turns out to be an odd accomplishment and a poor accomplishment — like a wooden person.” , you know?” She flinches. “I’m just too confident!” She walks away from our chat hoping I “don’t make it sound ‘easy.’ Because nothing that matters is right?”

“Yeah,” Zevin says with a lo-fi eye roll. Perched on the floor of a Chicago hotel room — “Sorry, that’s the only place I can plug my laptop into!” — she says she’s “referring.” Rattling through the US leg of the book tour, she’s excited to see fans of her young adult fiction (including the award-winning 2005 sci-fi story). Elsewhere) now enjoys her adult bestsellers The storied life of AJ Fikry (currently in film with Christina Hendricks and David Arquette).

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Chatto & Windus) is available now

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