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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Having Coffee with Author Paul Levinson


This week, it is my honor and pleasure to present an interview with the man who always has his eye on the future and on the media--Paul Levinson.  Paul is an author of science fiction author and non-fiction, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, former President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, songwriter, recording artist, and frequent guest on local, national and international cable and network television and public, commercial, and satellite radio programs.

Interestingly enough, I first "met" Paul on Facebook and struck up a conversation on writing. I have a massive level of respect for him and when he speaks about writing, the media, and social media I close my mouth and open my ears widely.

And now . . .the Coffee with David interview with Paul Levinson:

David Alan Lucas: Your book, New New Media, covers the promise and the danger of various social media (from Facebook to Twitter and beyond). As a professor of Communications and Media, Science Fiction author and commentator on media and its effects, where do you see the (r)evolution of social media going in the next several year? Do you think this will be a phase of this day or do you think it will continue to change and grow 100 or more years from now?

Paul Levinson: Predicting the future is always a hazardous undertaking.  But the human drive to create, to get into the mix, is so great, and so effectively expressed in the new new media which give all consumers of information the opportunity to be producers, that I’m 100% certain that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and whatever they may be called in the future will be as much a part of human life as reading, writing, hearing, speaking, and thinking.

DAL: How much research and what kinds of research did you do for this book?

PL: I’ve spent many enjoyable hours a day online at least as far back as 1984.  I combined what I learned in that way with what I learned reading media theory (Marshall McLuhan), philosophy (Karl Popper), and more for forty years.   And I mostly used to the Web to get specific references (articles in newspapers, etc)  about news events when needed.

DAL: 2011 was a year in which social media was instrumental in forming the face of our current world and has helped various nations in Africa and the Middle East over throw governments and form new ones.  They have only taken the first brave steps into a new world, but how do you see social media as a tool in continuing their quest for change?

PL: Marshall McLuhan’s global village, just a metaphor when he wrote about it in the 1960s (communities of television viewers were national not international, and could only watch not communicate), has become reality with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube available to everyone.  The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are just the beginning of a resurgence of direct democracy that the social media have engendered.  Representative democracy and totalitarian governments in their own ways are predicated on mass media, and the arm’s length to information that mass media dictate.   In contrast, social media put the power to comment and report upon information in everyone’s hands.

DAL: How do you see social media effecting "traditional media" and how do you think that "traditional media" will evolve and adapt to the consumer as a result?

PL: Just as in the biological world, media both compete and cooperate with one another for survival.  Some traditional media, such as paper newspapers and books, are clearly suffering from the competition of digital media.  Others, especially television, have figured out how to utilize social media  - for example, use blog and tweets to promote their programs.  In addition, radio and television are increasingly using the web and digital devices as platforms for their content.   As long as a medium does something valued by human beings, and does this better than any other medium, it is likely to survive.  I call this the “media ecological niche”.

DAL: You have used social media in some interesting methods to give author interviews.  One of my favorite examples is your use of the VR world of SecondLife to give VR live interviews.  What did you need to do, besides register to be a SecondLife resident, to hold interviews like this?

PL: You need a good acoustic set-up - a professional microphone is better than the one that your computer may have.  In Second Life itself, you can purchase clothes and accessories with “Linden” dollars to give your avatar a desired appearance.  For example, I purchased a monacle (for the equivalent of a few cents), which you can see on my face in a few interviews.   And, of course, you have to be invited by someone - another avatar, with a real person behind it - to do the interview.

DAL: Between 1998 and 2001, you were the President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  What do you see as the role of Science Fiction and Fantasy in today's literature?

PL: Science fiction was and continues to be the only form of literature that captures what most makes us human in this universe:  our capacity to dream, plan, envision changes in the universe, and implement them via our technologies.   Space travel would be the prime example of our success in this venture.   Time travel would be a prime example in which no implementation has worked, as far as we know.

DAL: When you are starting to work on a new non-ficton book, what do you find brings the story into focus for you? Is it different for a new novel?

PL: In both cases - nonfiction and fiction - it is the writing itself which brings the book into focus.   I don’t write from outlines.  I have a general idea of where I want the book to go, and, in the case of novel, I often have little idea about what the ending will be until I’m well into the novel.

DAL: What key things make your novels work?

PL: Pinpoint accuracy about what is real, true, and factual in the novel, and making the difference between the fact and the fiction as thin and transparent as possible, is the mainspring of my fiction.  I always like it when a reader seriously asks - is that really true, do the Amish have lamps that work with fireflies, did the ancients record sound on pottery?   And then, as far as characters go, writing them from your own experience, investing as much as possible of you in them.  When my daughter - then 12 - exclaimed after reading The Silk Code in manuscript, “Daddy, Phil D’Amato is just like you!” - I knew I had succeeded with this character.

DAL: What was the hardest part of a non-fiction book? Is it harder or easier than writing a fiction novel?

PL: Writing fiction and nonfiction is apples and oranges.  I guess the hardest part of writing fiction is when you get to a place and don’t where to go in the story - fortunately, the solution usually comes to me pretty quickly, from walking around the block, watching television, or taking a trip to England.  In nonfiction, the toughest part is tracking down a reference which I know I saw but I can’t now lay my hands on.   But this is not deeply difficult - it’s more like a paper cut.

DAL: What themes in your fiction writing seem to drive you the most?

PL: In no particular order of importance (because they are all important to me):  the paradoxes of time travel; the possibility that prehistoric people had sophisticated knowledge of which we know little or nothing;  the symbiosis of biology (how living organisms unintentionally help each other live - like bacteria which help us digest our food); back to time travel, how traveling to the past to prevent an event serves to make that event happen; the possibility that the person next door or in the pizza place may be an alien or a time traveler.

DAL: Do you work on multiple novels or books at once? If so, how many?

PL: In one sense, I have at least 5 novels and 5 nonfiction books on some kind of burner - more than in my head, at very least part of an opening chapter and usually more - at the same time.  But this same time can be and indeed is a long time - years - and once I start really writing a novel or nonfiction book, I put the others aside.   Only exception: I had the idea, when writing my doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s, that I would write that and my first science fiction novel at the same time.  Didn’t last too long - I soon discovered that I was enjoying writing the novel so much, that’s all I was writing.  So I put it aside, so I’d have a chance of finishing the dissertation, which I did.

DAL: How easy was it to take the leap of faith to become a serious writer and chase this career?

PL: I’m the type of person who thinks that anything I really enjoy as a fan, in popular culture, is also something I can do.  As a kid, I loved rock ‘n’ roll and science fiction.   Before too long I was writing both, went on to release an album, “Twice Upon a Rhyme,” and get my science fiction published.   In both cases, for me, the leap of faith to writing took place when I first fell in love with the genre.

DAL: In years past, new writers would battle their way in the pulp magazines to build their readerships and their careers. Do you think that is still the case in the explosion of electronic readers, blogs, e-zines, and other like media? Who do you see as the current gatekeeper of the good writers and those who are still developing?

PL: Gatekeeping rusts and crumbles with every digital advance.   The new non-gatekeepers are the people, the readers themselves.   When something is published online - as a blog, a tweet, or a YouTube video - it has already breezed through what the traditional gate kept out.   The content of new new media live or not based on their reception by the ultimate audience - the world at large.

DAL: When you plot your novels, from whose point of view do you plot from? The protagonist’s? The antagonist’s? The narrator’s? Someone else?

PL: Always primarily from the protagonist - who, as I indicated above, is always some form of me.   But I’m in the antagonist’s mind, too - and, for that matter, the narrator’s.  Every conceivable thought or perspective I could have on a subject, or in a situation, is a potential resource for a point of view in my stories.  If I’m writing a villain, you’re reading what I can imagine doing were I not the civilized being that I hope I am.

DAL: Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that when science catches up with the science fiction writer, the science fiction writer needs to make a leap forward.  How do you stay ahead of the game?

PL: When it comes to time travel, there is no need to move forward, because not only has science not caught up, it has not even moved one inch or second forward.  (That’s because I think as a matter of fact that time travel is impossible.)   Regarding other elements of science fiction, all that leaping forward requires is consultation with your unbridled imagination.   When I experience anything, I can’t be help but move it to the next step in my mind.

DAL: What is your writing schedule like?

PL: Writing whenever I please, and not letting any of the myriad of good reasons not to write - professional and social responsibilities, and enjoyment of non-writing activities - not letting these other worthy and wonderful things get in the way of my writing.   If you lead a zesty life, with lots of opportunities for meaningful work and fun other than writing, finding time for writing can be tough.  But you’ve got to give your muse close to absolute authority to preempt anything else you might want to do.

DAL: If you could have coffee (or drink of your choice) with four other authors from any time period, who would you choose and why?

PL: Marshall McLuhan, whom I had many lunches and dinners with in the last years of his life (he died in 1980), was the smartest person I’ve ever known.  I’d love to have another cup of tea with him.

I met Isaac Asimov once, but spoke to him on the phone and corresponded with him over the years.   In my view, he is the greatest science fiction writer of all time (Foundation trilogy, robot stories, time travel).  I’d love to have a cup of tea with him.

John Stuart Mill’s philosophy on freedom, especially freedom of expression, has been a great inspiration to mine.  A cup of tea with him would be just the thing.

Of all the ancient philosophers, I’d  probably choose Aristotle, over even Socrates and Plato, because Aristotle understood and could talk about their philosophies, as well as his own work in science and politics.  I might go for a little ancient Falernian wine as the libation.

DAL: You, with Tina Vozicik, had founded and operated Connected Education from 1985 to 1997, which offered online Masters Classes and degrees in Media Studies and Creative Writing. You are currently a professor at Fordham University.  In both roles, where do you see the future of higher education possibly going? Will the days of lecture halls fade away some day for halls in an internet or virtual reality or will there be a balance?

PL: Lecture halls are already being replaced by online (text) and video classes.  But there is an irreducible appeal of in-person presence - we are, after all, flesh and blood beings - which means that the in-person lecture hall will be totally or even mostly replaced.   Certainly in-person classrooms will do better than hieroglyphics did in competition with the alphabet, and even better than theater did in competition with movies and television.  In fact, I’d say in-person teaching will fare better than movies have done in the age of television.   Higher education will flourish both online and in-person.

DAL: How could my readers learn more about you?

PL: The single best place, I’d say, is my blog, accessible in all kinds of ways but most easily via http://PaulLevinson.net  - it consists mostly of my TV reviews and political commentary, but also has links to my music, books, and all kinds of other things.  Following my Twitter account - I’m PaulLev - is probably also a good idea, and I follow most my followers back.

Thank you for reading and please visit www.davidalanlucas.com and www.thewriterslens.com. You can also follow me on twitter @Owlkenpowriter and the Writer’s Lens @TheWritersLens. Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.

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