Monday, August 3, 2009

Interview with Robert Bonomo, Author of Cactus Land


Parker Voll of the San Francisco Literary Monthly interviews Robert Bonomo, author of Cactus Land.

San Francisco Literary Monthly (SFLM)
Q. Mr. Bonomo, it is has been an interesting few months for you, from unpublished author to the center of attention on the coasts, and not just literary folks, environmentalists and even some religious fundamentalists. How did you manage to create such a buzz in such diverse groups?

Robert Bonomo (RB)
A. I think only because I didn’t try. Really, I was writing a very personal story, and I thought it might have some traction with the sci-fi folks, but I never imagined the environmentalists or fundamentalists would see so much in it. And of course, the sci-fi crowd has not taken much interest. Go figure.

SFLM)
Q. You have talked about how the story came from a dream you had as a teenager. Did you think that the dream had some global significance, or did you assume it to be something personal?

RB)
A. At the time, I really didn’t know. Strangely enough, one of the persons who played an important part in the dream appeared soon after the dream, and encouraged me to read Jung. I was only 16 years old at the time and it took me a while to understand his concepts, but eventually I began to understand the dream as something collective, and I still do. The test was to write the novel and see what the reaction would be. I had a feeling, if it really meant something to the public at large, it would catch on. The reaction has allowed me to understand it as something collective. But in the end, it is not for me to say.



(SFLM)
Q. How do you approach such charged collective symbols. If you really think they have collective importance, weren’t you afraid that even the slightest change could alter their meanings?

(RB)
A. Absolutely, it was one of my biggest fears. One thing that helped me enormously was reading Black Elk Speaks. When Black Elk has the big dream about the future of his people, he acts out the dream as close to the way he saw it as possible. That is what I tried to do with the novel. I kept what came from the dream world, which is maybe 20% of the novel, as pure as I could. The rest I worked into to the dream part, not vice versa. The story moves completely in terms of the message from the dream.


(SFLM)

Q. The world you paint is very dark, people don’t seem to understand each other, even with the one set of characters that might give some hope to the story, Maurice and Carolina, even they lie to each other. And all the others fade into a terrible undertow of deceit. Is your view of human nature that negative?

(RB)
A. I see the lack of connection among people as our biggest struggle. Most people say that what they most want in life is love, but if you ask them, has love been good to you, has love been true, most will say no. Drugs, sex, vice, war, all of it, I think, is part of feeling connected. I am not saying it is good or bad, I just think that we are driven to find some kind of connection with the world, that in most cases is impossible.

(SFLM)
Q. How can war be part of our need to connect?

(RB)
A. In two ways. First, the frustration that “disconnection” causes, I think, reveals itself in our aggression. And that very aggression, by clearly marking off who “WE” are and who “THEY” are, makes us more connected to the tribe so to speak. I try and show that with the propaganda campaigns, and the deep divisions they cause, but also how the divisions unite. It is the dark side of patriotism, we don’t like to talk about it, but it is there.

(SFLM)
Q. Some things about your bio tie in with the novel, I would like to know how much of it you think plays a part in the novel. Alex, the main character, works in internet marketing, as you have, and also experiences a terrorist attack, and I understand that you were very close to the bombings in the Madrid commuter trains.

(RB)
A. Absolutely. I use much of what I learned working in the advertising world to create the atmosphere that Alex works in. And the bombings, while I was not on the trains, I was at home, happened so close to where I lived, that I felt them psychologically, and that was definitely where the material came from for that chapter. I actually even used one of the news images that they kept showing in the novel. Maybe it’s part of the way we work traumatic events out, I don’t know. But I can say Alex began as something based on my life, but became something completely different, another person. I suspect many writers will say something similar happens to many characters they write.

(SFLM)
Q. And the love story, maybe a bit indelicate on my part, but I have to ask, is Matilde based on someone you had a relationship with.
(RB)
A. I will have to take the 5th on that one.

(SFLM)
Q. Well, let me ask this, and I will drop the subject. If she is based on someone, and she read it, would she recognize herself?

(RB)
A. If that were the case, than yes, she probably would. Strange though, I had a relationship later, after the novel was finished. She read the book, than did a wonderful job of becoming Matilde in real life. I asked myself later, did I find her, or did she just play the part because it was there. Freud would say I found her, and knew she would play the role in our first moments of contact. I’d like to believe the Freudian version; I suppose it’s more romantic.

(SFLM)
Q. In the novel, Alex is very involved with drinking and drugs. Is that something you have had to deal with in your life?

(RB)
A. I suppose this is the least attractive part of having had some success as a writer, so much is revealed, that I think it is obvious, though I understand you have to ask the question. Yes, I have abused alcohol, though I’d like to think I have it under control at the moment. I never had any problems with drugs, though I experimented liberally, especially when I was younger. But Alex not only escapes with drugs and alcohol, he escapes with love itself, with video games, he is an escape artist, really.

(SFLM)
Q. The novel has had political significance to many who have read it, especially the environmental groups. I understand a group in the SF Bay Area has got together to discuss its political implications. How political are you? Do you see yourself as a political activist?

(RB)
A. I think we are in a difficult situation politically; but the novel is NOT political, in the sense that I am not supporting one side or the other. I think it just describes something that has real political implications. I think the way the novel plays out, it is not clear what was finally right or wrong. Nonetheless, I think there are major issues in the world today that could play out in a similar way. Peak oil I think is the primary force that will change the world, and maybe bring us to the brink, and I think it will show itself as a major force on world events long before the second key element, climactic change, will. If you think of the world as a Petri dish, and humans as the bacteria and oil as the medium used to grow the bacteria, I think it is clear that exponential growth in human population and complexity is directly related to oil. As that oil begins to run out, the reverse course will be equally exponential. Many will argue the “whens” of Peak Oil, but that fact is many countries are well past it, the US hit peak oil in the 1970’s. If, by chance, we are at Peak Oil now, or in 5 years, does anyone think we have the global political will to do anything about it other than fight for what is left of oil? I don’t think so.

(SFLM)
Q. But isn’t the green movement addressing this?

(RB)
A. Not really, they are focusing on the damage that we are causing, but not on the much bigger problem, which will be what happens when we really can’t feed ourselves, when there is no world financial markets left to finance major projects, when we devolve. In the 4 billion year history of Planet Earth, I don’t think 200 years of industrialization will have a major impact on the health of the earth, but if we don’t act soon, we could easily fall into another dark age, literally and figuratively.

(SFLM)
Q. But many say technology will evolve exponentially also, and will fill the gaps. You must believe there is some hope; it can’t be all that bad.

(RB)
A. I think in the next ten years we will see the beginning of this, and in the next 20 the whole thing will play out. Once this actually starts, and people see it, it will be like watching the speculative bubbles of the last 10 years burst. It will happen very fast, and people will be very scared. I think the only solution is massive localization not only of industry but of know-how, and a simplification of life. We can’t all be flying around the world and drinking water from Fiji, and eating salmon from Alaska, and drinking Scotch Whiskey, snorting Colombian cocaine, and driving Japanese cars. The world we know today was one brief, very euphoric episode in human history, but now we must prepare for the future, but I am not sure we are ready.

(SFLM)

Thank you Robert for a fascinating interview, continued success with the book.

(RB)

Thank you.

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