FERGUS DOYLE INTERVIEWS DAMIEN LINCOLN OBER, AUTHOR OF DR BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S DREAM AMERICA (EQUUS PRESS, 2014)
FD: Where did the initial idea for Dr Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America come from?
DLO: I knew I would write something set in the United States’ Founding period, the time between the first stages of revolt and the end of the War of 1812. It took a couple years of reading to figure out exactly what that would be. The first concrete idea was to set it at the deathbed of every Signer of the Declaration. Once that was decided, I built the framework out from there.
I can’t really think of any novel I’ve read like it, apart from maybe Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series in terms of the speculations on technology. Would you say there were any novels/films which had an impact on how the novel was written?
I remember reading William Gibson as a kid and it felt like existing in a whole new world, a very tactile delivery of a future existence we couldn’t yet understand. Dennis Cooper’s books have moved me in a similar way, passages to dark worlds with odd rules. The film Primer has some of the best writing about technology. I love the way the science is delivered with confidence and consistent vocab without ever needing to explain how it actually works.
What made you chose the novel format over a screenplay?
It would have been impossible to tell this story in this way in a screenplay format. To have so many characters running around over so long a time period. For that you need a world you can move into for a while. In a novel, you’re not only the writer, but director and producer and all the actors and there’s no budget and really not much in the way of rules you need to worry about.
You’re obviously a keen historian. From a bit of my own research I’ve found that there are many parallels between the “real” history of America and the history you’ve created in Dr Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, such as The Death echoing a smallpox outbreak in the colonies. Were you attempting to follow the historical framework around the deaths of the signers as closely as possible, or did you only use what helped the narrative? And if it was following the framework, what the hell was the Vampire Millipus?
I wanted all the history to be as accurate as possible. Hopefully, readers will learn as much about the Revolution from this novel as they would from any biography or straight popular history. All of the fantasy, horror, techno and sci-fi elements are inspired by and point to true events, but not in an absolutely defined way. Ask 100 people what’s the great eminent danger to America, you’ll get lots of different millipi.
What drew you to the deaths of the signers?
The constraint of the formal conceit made it easier to tackle the huge scope of the narrative. I was free (or forced) to skip over long sections of time, then fill in the gaps through the different political perspectives of the Signers. This is pretty close to how most of us get our history, a biography here, a non-fiction bestseller there, magazine articles, features, documentaries, in other words, from varied sources with varied voices.
Did you find this narrative device constrictive – for instance, was there any signer who you couldn’t find anything interesting write on?
There are some Signers about whom almost nothing is known. But that actually made things easier. As I was trying to keep the history as accurate as possible, it was good to have a little flexibility here and there to make the plot work.
Although including many of the big name of the era, Franklin, Adams, etc., one character who is conspicuous by his absence is Washington. Was this merely due to narrative constraints?
I approached from the beginning with the idea of Washington never appearing, but hanging over the rest of the narrative. That’s probably how his presence felt in the politics of the day and certainly how it felt in the meetings leading up to the actual Signing itself. I think Washington was smart enough to keep himself from being personally known, because he likely knew the real person could never live up to the aura. It was this aura, not the man, that was more crucial to the success of the American experiment.
How much were you using the Independence era setting to explore or make satire of modern American politics?
Because American politics, and the economic issues which underlie it, are both very cyclical, parallels abound when exploring any period in our history. There certainly is something very similar about the personal treatment of President Obama and President Jefferson, both cast as almost supernatural boogie-men by their opposition. The “small government” reaction to much of Washington’s Federalism looks very much like the Tea Party or Occupy movements. And our press has moved back toward the party-sponsored partisan newspapers of the 19th century. All of that said, out and out satire was never my aim, but I was definitely making fun of human political reactions, which are oftentimes hilarious and bursting with irony, no satirist needed.
I had a look at your campaign in 2008 for the shadow senator in Washington and found your use of social media to present your point pretty impressive. Would you say the relative success of your campaign influenced the way that you saw social media as a political tool?
The campaign was more of a political sci-fi web-series than a real campaign. I ran it with co-writer/producer Bay Woods. We had several other writers crafting the speeches and contributing ideas and videos; we cast actors for all the parts and would change the story on the fly. There was no twitter, or no one was using it at least, and Facebook was in its infancy. I think it was 2008 that YouTube became bigger than the entire Internet had been in 2004. It was clear messaging was moving online, but it was unclear how. I remember Mike Gravel’s great political ads that had him throwing a rock into a pond and another which was 30 minutes of a campfire burning. He should have won.
I also discovered that you’ll be writing the script of the film version of Black Mirror. What drew you to the project and what plans do you have for the adaptation (if you’re allowed to say)?
The TV show definitely plays in some of the same areas as my writing: sci-fi, politics, dark humour, futurism, the dangers of technology. I also love how within the unreal setting, the show’s characters manage to be very real. It makes their struggles with technology easy to relate to. This is something I put a lot of effort into during the writing of DBFDA, making these men who’ve become gods back into men so we can feel the humanity in their on-page journeys. As far as plans for the script go, I hope I can make it as cool and thought provoking as the show. That’s certainly a tall order, but who wants to work short order?