Stanley Bing is the author of Immortal Life, a satirical take on the quest for immortality and the people that will do anything, bizarre technologies and exorbitant costs included, to get there. He graciously answered a few questions for us over at PageHabit HQ about writing, the (not-so-distant) future of technology, and why he’d go head-to-head with Dostoyevsky in a game of poker.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was a very young person. I started as a child writing stuff that a little kid would enjoy, mostly wild animals eating other wild animals. When I was a moody teenager, I wrote moody poetry, and I’ve continued to write poetry for myself since that time, although I know I’ll never be a real, professional poet because I can’t stop my poems from rhyming. Over the years, I’ve been an actor, a playwright and, for many years, an executive working for a gigantic multinational corporation is one of the worst kept secrets in business. A long time ago, I took the name Stanley Bing as a pseudonym because I wanted to be like Zorro or Superman and have a secret identity when I went to work as Clark Kent every day. That’s been fun. I was busted a long time ago, however, a fact that can be verified simply by Googling my pen name. So now I live quite openly as two people. Usually one of us is having more fun than the other. Bing does most of the writing, though. Since I created him, he’s written about 12 books and thousands of columns for magazines, when there were magazines.
How long did it take to finish your book? How has it changed since you first began writing it?
I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. The idea started at a business meeting maybe ten years ago or more. We had a futurist in who talked about some trends that were developing. I took notes and began to formulate the entire world that is built into Immortal Life. Of course, I put my own mostly irreverent assumptions and conclusions into it. For instance, lots of people are blowing tons of hot air, in my humble opinion, about self-driving cars. My true attitude about that development may be found in the book, but I don’t think it’s any secret that I think totally autonomous vehicles – and the resulting loss of the right of individuals to drive their own cars – is a stupid idea. About three or four years ago, I began to look into all the areas of science that were developing, particularly the technology behind life extension and personality transfer. There is nothing in Immortal Life that is not being developed and experimented on right now by scientists in the employ of extremely rich organizations and people who don’t want to get old and die. The research part of the book took, perhaps, three years and continued up to the final drafts that were edited for publication. The thing itself took me 18 months to write – it started as Gene, the hero’s, first person story, but my editor gave me the very helpful suggestion to put the book into the third person with an omniscient narrator. Since I myself am omniscient, I found that note very helpful. Once I recast the voice in that way, the storytelling took off and flew.
Do you have any specific or strange writing rituals that get you into a groove?
When I am truly intent on getting something done, I go outside on the balcony of my apartment in Los Angeles and smoke a cigar while I am writing. I smoke a smallish cigar that takes quite a bit of time to burn. I can usually get an hour of solid writing in before it’s gone and then I’m over the procrastination hump well enough to continue with the pacifier. In the early stages of my project – or at the beginnings of new chapters – I also like to write in longhand with a “magic pen,” or one I consider in possession of the spirit of the project. I think the stuff closest to your brain, heart and spleen comes out through longhand writing. Not that computers don’t also put out good writing. But the rough drafts often work best when they flow directly from your hand to the pen and onto the paper.
Which books would you bring with you to a deserted island?
The complete Oxford English Dictionary, which is not only interesting – tracing the full history of every word in the language going back in some cases thousands of years — but helps you sleep. Moby Dick, for the same reason, and either War and Peace by Tolstoy or The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Big Books you can read over and over again. And let’s not forget a complete volume of John James Audubon’s illustrations of birds. They’re awesome. And when all the real birds on the planet are extinct, we’ll still have that book.
In your opinion, has there ever been a movie adaptation better than the original book?
Yes. The Godfather. The book by Mario Puzo is excellent, of course, but with all due respect for its wisdom, its magnificent story and its excellent writing, it’s not what you would call the best literature ever created by the mind of a man or woman. The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, is arguably the greatest movie ever made, an infinitely rewarding work of art that one can view again and again and still get insights out of it, particularly if you work in Business, even a legitimate one.
Which three authors would you invite to a dinner party and why?
I’m going to assume that it’s okay to invite some dead people and that they would show up in a condition suitable for discussion, not rotting away from their nether regions with clothes all dripping with slime. In that case, I would love to have a chat with Shakespeare, who must have been incredibly interesting to speak with and very brilliant on a variety of subjects, obviously, and also an actor, meaning he was probably charming, eager to be liked and willing to make an extra effort to be entertaining. I’d like to spend some time with Dostoyevsky, because by the end of the evening we’d end up playing a high-stakes poker game and, if his actual history is any indication, I would be able to take him to the cleaners as he got increasingly drunk and prone to losing his shirt. I’d also like to invite Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch 22 and Something Happened. I love his sense of humor, his understanding of large organizations like the Army and Corporations and how they work on people, and how people work on them.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Sure. Writing is like any other habit. If you do it three times a week, you have a habit. If you don’t, you have to depend on inspiration, which is 100% less reliable if you intend to make writing a serious profession. If you have a bit of a ritual around it, that helps too. There are people who get an idea and sit down and blurt it out now and then without the assistance of habitual behavior. But if you want to really be a writer – and not one of the millions who “could have written if I had the time” – you’ll establish certain rituals that, like exercise, become part of who you are. When I have a column, short story or book in process, I get up very early and begin writing when there is really nothing else to do. I stay away from my iPad and social media then. I just get up, get some coffee, sit down and write. After two hours it’s usually time to get the other part of my day started. I find that if I do this, get a chunk of writing done very first thing, I’m happy, later in the day, to edit what I’ve written and maybe even put down a bit more. I’m a quick writer (except when plotting out new chapters, when I do a bit more noodling and doodling), so if I really do put in two hours or so every day I end up with quite a bit of work after a month or two. I also feel much better about myself as a writer. Procrastination is a weird phenomenon, like drug addiction or gambling. It makes you feel so terrible about yourself you have to keep on doing it. Don’t ask me why. And the only thing that can break it is the establishment of a conflicting habit – like writing.
Another piece of advice is debatable and runs counter to much of the training you will receive if you take writing courses. I hate showing my stuff to anybody while I’m working on it. I despise idiotic criticism that makes me doubt myself and positive reactions are even less helpful. I find I only believe negative comments and am annoyed by praise at the wrong moments. Every time I show my work too early, or even talk about it with loved ones or friends, I end up being unable to continue writing it. Consequently, I don’t do well at workshops with the stuff I really care about. I don’t show my writing to anybody while it’s underway, not even my family or closest friends, not even if I think they would like it, and when it’s done the only person I show it to is my editor. My advice is this: Don’t talk about your project. Don’t show it to anybody while you’re writing it. It may help. But it may also kill your project dead and turn it back into a “good idea.”
Oh, and don’t censor or edit yourself while you’re writing. Most of the time, while you’re working, you may feel “Boy, this really stinks.” Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But that little voice will destroy your will to write every time. Tell it to shut up and keep writing.
What is your favorite thing you have ever received in the mail?
When I was eight I sent away two dollars for a treasure trove of stamps from around the world. They came in a huge box and there were a million of them from places that no longer exist – countries that have since disappeared from the globe, most of them. But that was fun. The worst thing is that I sent away for what the ad in the comic book said was a fully-functional backyard tent my friends and I could camp out in. What arrived was a gigantic tarp made of low grade plastic of some kind that smelled like an armpit. I threw it out.
What books would you recommend to people intrigued by the themes of Immortal Life?
If you liked Immortal Life, you might also enjoy…
1. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: One of the great predictive piece of speculative fiction ever written. A future where everybody is on a very mild psychotropic drug that makes them feel pleasant all the time. Zoloft, anyone?
2. 1984, by George Orwell: The original dystopian vision of a future dominated by Big Brother, where truth is lies, war is peace, and freedom is slavery. You can read this or open your morning newsfeed. This is probably more upbeat at this point.
3. Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, probably one of the most intelligent, witty and under-appreciated writers of the last several hundred years. Erewhon (Nowhere spelled backwards, pretty much) is a fictional Utopia that has problems of its own but is still a relatively pleasant place.
4. Utopia, by Thomas More. The original attempt to scope out a perfect society. It was first published in 1516 in Latin, but you should be able to find it in English.
5. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov. Probably the greatest Sci-Fi series ever written. A comprehensive and gripping vision of the future.
6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick. One of the primary sources for the original Blade Runner. Fantastic book, dark, violent and mysterious, beautifully imagined and written.
7. Lloyd, What Happened, by Stanley Bing. Okay, I wrote it, and I still think it’s one of the best evocations of organizational life ever done. People don’t really know what it’s like to work in business. This lets you in on a few of the well-guarded secrets and is a heck of a good story as well.
Image source: CBS New York
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