Eavesdropping on Jack Womack and William Gibson 12/24/98

If you've read the work of both, it shouldn't surprise you that Jack Womack and William Gibson have been pals for years. They've got more than a few interests in common, and their conversations can be every bit as fascinating as their novels. We join one such conversation here, in progress, as our writer friends ponder the joys of collecting. . . . Womack: Lately you've gotten pretty heavy into fine vintage wristwatches. Thanks to you I can distinguish a festooned bezel from the common lot of bezels (ah, the demands of a specialist vocabulary) and Lord knows what else if I put my mind to it. Why are old wristwatches good? Gibson: They're durable, so lots have survived, and very design-heavy. The basic mechanism hasn't really changed for centuries. So the difference between one and the next is mostly information. In some way each one constitutes a miniature universe. And they're industrial, in a way that we don't really do industrial today. We still make mechanical watches, but the making of them is what our friend John Clute calls a Tamagotchi Gesture. Womack: Yes, for once I know what Clutie means. . . . Even as I write I'm admiring a most excellent Christmas present, i.e. a 23-jewel 1956 Bulova self -winding beauty with black sunburst dial and the aforementioned festooning. What do you think are the attractions of collecting? Gibson: I don't like to collect things, or rather to think of myself as a collector. With the watches, I buy them, keep them a while, admire them, trade them for others. Womack: I've always found it much easier to get books than to get rid of them . . . I must have weeded close to five hundred volumes of commonplace stuff this past summer and they're still as thick as coat hangers. Gibson: We have a library of sorts here but compared to you, or Clute, I'm a bibliophobe. Womack: Compared to Clute I'm a bibliophobe. How do you think the ephemera of our day compares, or will compare to collectors later on, to that of our fathers'? I personally think it lacks considerable. The decline in quality of manufactured artifacts is incremental and invisible. There were cheap cotton workshirts in the 1940s stitched so well that you'd have to go to Turnbull & Asser today to get the equivalent workmanship. Womack: Yeah, I've got an old Chase & Sanborn coffee can and the metal's more solid than any car fender these days. Gibson: Someone coming here from 1947 would find the texture of things weirdly attenuated, I think; sleazy; it would be a strange effect, hard to pin down. Womack: I kind of tried to catch that in Terraplane when they wind up waiting in the 1939 doctor's waiting room, but didn't quite get that across as well as I wanted . . . the physical nature of knick-knacks, for instance, have just changed so much. Trinkets tend not to be made out of lead any longer, that kind of thing. We both think Joseph Cornell one of the greats, and both like to look in the windows of junk stores to cast an eye over the things within. What do you think is the attraction of dusty survivors? Gibson: Time travel. Womack: You kindly donated to the Womack Collection a tableau to its Humorous Taxidermy subsection, Riki-Tiki-Tavi and King Death. (I still need to pick up replacement fangs). They go well with the department's most illustrious resident, the Remarkable Learned Dog Roman (c. 1886, judging from the empty insect cases). You've gotten fairly familiar with the Collection over the years, and you always come across something worthy of comment. . . . Gibson: I think what strikes me most, particularly since the Reorganization, is the depth of so many sub-subsections; that you have several books, for instance, on Charles Schmid, the teenage Tucson serial killer, who figured peripherally in my Arizona schooldays. (He was reputed to wear lifts, made from crushed beer cans, in his Thom McCann fruitboots, I recall.) Womack: He did, yes. . . . First-time visitors to the Womack Collection nearly always spot something they never dreamed existed. Sometimes it really disturbs people to know that such books on such subjects exist, but that's part of the joy of collecting. I've pretty much cleaned out New York, though; the real fertile ground is out there on the coast, and in small towns in the upper Midwest. How have your impressions of New York changed over the years? I remember you telling me about your first visit, back in the late sixties and how the experience left something to be desired. Gibson: It seems to have lost a certain entropic edge. It's being kept up. I have the feel this sort of comes and goes, here. Womack: Everything's getting so darned nice . . . I'm going to feel like I live in Ohio if this keeps up, in fact. The Sprawl subsumes all, I fear, even the great port of New Amsterdam. Until we went to ReaderCon earlier this year I'd never realized you really hadn't seen that particular part of the Sprawl up -close. Gibson: I don't think I'd much been in New England before. I think I've been out here long enough, now, I'm a West Coast person. Something spooky about a place where the Thai food is actually bad. Is that the Puritan thing, do you think? Womack: Definitely; pleasure taken from food is a sign of a low and vexatious nature. Only someone of Puritan heritage, or a Brit, would have come up with Grape-Nut pudding, you know; and believe me, compared to Moxie and Sultana Roll that's like truffled risotto. Hard to beat the clams though, if you like the savory bivalve. Gibson: Indeed. Womack: The older I get the more I realize being cool isn't all it used to be cracked up to be -- part of this, I think, is that with contemporary mass commodification (got to be careful not to sound too Cluteian, or worse, here) it's just about impossible to actually be cool without selling something; and more importantly, I think, the older I get the more I realize the dangers of wearing a public mask long enough that it becomes the face itself. What's your take on this? Gibson: I think being cool is about having the right information. The downside is that being cool seems to require we have the right amount of information, and I always have too much to qualify. Womack: It pleased me greatly last Christmas to send you a copy of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which is just the most wonderful thing. The memory of that music is genetically impressed in both of us. Grayson and Whitter are my favorites from that period, among the country singers of the gone world; of all the songs and or artists on that compilation, which made the deepest impression on you? Gibson: Dock Boggs, I think. My mother used to take me over to Galax, Virginia, for the annual Old Fiddlers Convention, and I probably could've heard Dock Boggs if I'd wanted to. Womack: I think Dock might have been back in the mines around that time but you'd have probably heard people nearly as good, and all of them gone now. Along these lines, you know Agrippa is one of my favorite works of yours. When I look at old photos, whether family or otherwise, I find that if I focus mostly intently upon the scene I find myself almost able to enter the scene, at least until I bump into the unavoidable wall the past erects. When you look at old photos, what do you look for and what do you see? Gibson: My method in Agrippa was to attempt to catalog the contents, physically, of each photo. It's a strange exercise: pick any photo and attempt to list everything you can see in it. Most pictures aren't worth quite a thousand words, but require a surprising amount of description. Recently I was looking at a snapshot of my grandmother and concentrating on decor details: she actually lived in the reality of which Martha Stewart traffics in simulacra; amazing. Womack: What was your most memorable Christmas, for better or worse? As per the latter, I remember 1968, a fairly dreadful year for everyone -- I came down with the flu right before, and my mother accused me of getting sick deliberately, in order to ruin Christmas; and practically tossed my presents at me as I sat beneath the tree. Just the kind of experience to inspire warm memories to share with a good therapist for years afterward. Gibson: I remember one, age ten or so, when I got up, opened a new chemistry set, and tried to shove a glass tube into the hole in a black rubber stopper. It snapped off, and I drove the broken end clean through my left index finger, taking out a neat core-sample of tissue. My mother was furious. I had to be bundled off to our kindly, unflappable old GP, who was eventually revealed to be unflappable by virtue of a serious morphine habit. Lovely man. The best? Not sure. Last year was nice. Womack: Last year was especially good for me; I was still alive. Well, on that cheerful note I'd better say it's about time for us to hit the holiday trail. Let's take advantage of this major market exposure to let our readers know what we're looking for for Christmas. I could use a copy of either Mysteries of the Great War, by H.T. Wilkins (1935), or Those Sexy Saucer People (a Greenleaf paperback classic, 1967). William? Don't be shy. Gibson: Well, I'm not much for contemporary watches, but Bell & Ross have a new one called the Vintage 123 that's a sort of homage to the workaday military watches of the 1940s. Bell & Ross design for optimum readability, and locating the date in the sub second dial is a fine touch. Also has a little porthole on the caseback so you can check the escapement. Womack: Where did I put that horology glossary? Anyway -- So as a five-hour videotape of the late, lamented Channel 11 Yule Log blazes away on the nearby TV, the faint tap-tap-tapping on glass from the other room ringing as Roman attempts to signal his request for a tall lime rickey, here in NY; and as the pine-scented winds blow, the whales whistle, and first-time skiiers come tumbling through the evergreens like fallen ornaments, high on Mt. Stanley in Vancouver, we send a hearty and heartfelt ho-ho-ho from both of us, to all of you. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Gibson: God help us everyone (and I hope Santa brings new fangs for King Death). Copyright 1999 by Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.