Scott Hutchins

The Rumpus Interview with Scott Hutchins

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Scott Hutchins’s debut novel, A Working Theory of Love, tells the story of Neill Bassett, Jr., a recently-divorced thirtysomething living in San Francisco. Neill works at Amiante Systems, a Silicon Valley startup trying to develop a computer that can pass the Turing test, proving its intelligence by convincing a human conversational partner that it is also human. The catch: this particular computer uses as its starting point the diaries of Neill’s deceased father, an old-fashioned Southern gentleman from Arkansas whose relationship with his son was far from perfect. As he navigates the dual challenges of his father’s secret inner-life and cutthroat competition from other Turing contestants, Neill begins a relationship with Rachel, a young woman involved with a strange sexual self-help group called Pure Encounters. A Working Theory of Love is a vivid novel populated by vivid characters—including, in many ways, the Bay Area itself. It made me homesick for San Francisco—even though I read it in San Francisco, where I live.

Hutchins, who is a Truman Capote Fellow in Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program, and who has conducted a fair amount of Rumpus interviews himself, met with me to discuss the book.

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The Rumpus: This is your first novel. What was it like making the transition from shorter fiction to a full-length novel?

Scott Hutchins: Well, this book grew out of some short fiction. I had written a couple of short stories—they weren’t related—that ended up feeding into the book in kind of an odd way. I wrote the book in kind of an odd way. I was working a lot, working lots of different jobs and patching together a living, and every day, I would just write two pages. No particular order, just scenes I assumed I would need at some point or was interested in exploring. So I didn’t really write it like a short story—sometimes you see books that feel like they’re a series of short stories. I didn’t even write it as a novel. I don’t know what I wrote it as. A prose poem or something. I had to go back and put it all together. Novel structure is something I’m fascinated by and love, so it’s something I had to think a lot about and I’d like to get better at. I find the transition to be good, I just find it to be different. I think short stories are just doing different things. The middle of a novel is unlike anything I’ve ever done in a short story. It’s just a different thing.

Rumpus: How did you get interested in the Turing test and the larger theme of seeming versus being?

Hutchins: You know, I was looking at some answers that I had given to someone earlier, and I had some great answers that I’d totally forgotten about, so I don’t know how trustworthy writers are when asked those questions. But I think that artificial intelligence and the Turing test, to me, are kind of philosophical questions, almost like practical philosophy. I came to them via questions of philosophy like seeming and being and consciousness and what are we, who are we. That was sort of the interest. I found these things in that direction. I read the Turing essay. It’s called “Computing Machinery and Machine Learning” or something like that. It has a very unassuming name, but it’s a totally devilish little piece of work. Apparently in the 1950s, it was a real concern whether computers were intelligent and maybe they were going to take over the world.

Rumpus: It’s still a concern!

Hutchins: Well, now it’s a little more believable. In the 1950s, what did they have? They didn’t even really have real computers. They just had machines. But [Turing] has to go through and defeat eight common objections to say that machines really could be intelligent at some point. I found that sort of fascinating—and of course, we’re machines.

Rumpus: In your acknowledgments, you mention that you were a judge for a Turing test contest. What was that like, and how did it inform the book?

Hutchins: The Turing test is really kind of a theoretical thing, but this guy Hugh Loebner, who’s a real character, has been hosting an actual Turing test for over twenty years now. He started out with big-time co-sponsorship—Daniel Dennett, a famous philosopher, and others were very interested in it—and he has, over the years, managed to alienate everyone he works with. He’s not even involved in computers. He has a family business, which is a brass works. They make finials. That’s what he does, he has a brass works. He’s very pro-prostitution and -drugs, and he hates work, and he thinks that these intelligent computers could maybe make it so that we’d never have to work again. That’s kind of his goal. He’s kind of a madman!

So he hosts this test, and sometimes it does well and it’s a big thing, and sometimes, like the year I hosted it, it was actually in his apartment. I went to New York, and it was hosted in his apartment. Some people had flown in; the winner had flown in from London. But most people were from the New York area. I guess one of the competitors was from Chicago.

Rumpus: No one from Silicon Valley?

Hutchins: Nope. No one from Silicon Valley. Isn’t that interesting? There was no one there from California. There were two judges from California—I was one of them. It was even less impressive than the Turing test in the book. We set up the tables, and we typed, and the computers responded, and you knew in seconds that they were computers. But it was kind of fun. One of the judges to my right, who was also from California—he was a computer science professor—had a relationship with one of the human [contestants], and he just hated this guy. He looked over at me one time and said, “I think I’m talking to two computers.”

Rumpus: Did you ever use any of those little chatbots on AIM? When I was in middle school, maybe, they used to have Smarterchild—they’re probably still around—and you would get on AOL Instant Messenger and you could chat with them. And you could tell in seconds, absolutely.

Hutchins: [When you said AIM], I was thinking of AIML, which is Artificial Intelligence Markup Language. A guy named Rick Wallace created this markup language, and he created this character called ALICE. You could get on and chat with ALICE in all of her different forms. That’s what I’ve done chatting with, and you know instantly. They come back with the same answer or…

Rumpus: “Do you think blah blah blah?”

Hutchins: Yeah, I love that one, that’s my favorite. And that’s probably the most successful one of every one, that just rephrases it as a question. Like a therapist.

Rumpus: Like ELIZA?

Hutchins: Like ELIZA, which is from the ’60s. That’s how old that one is.

Rumpus: So do you have any sort of tech background?

Hutchins: No.

Rumpus: Did you pick up anything by being in Silicon Valley or on the Stanford campus?

Hutchins: Yeah, I think so. More cultural than actual skill, the kind of futurism that’s around Silicon Valley. Stanford has a fair amount of that, but I think around Stanford, the futurism is wild. I met a couple at a party a couple years ago who were going to the Singularity University.

Rumpus: There’s a Singularity University?

Hutchins: Absolutely. It’s held down at the old NASA base in the South Bay. Ray Kurzweil has this Singularity University. [This couple] had drunk the Kool-Aid. Maybe they’re going to do great things, I don’t know. But there’s just that kind of stuff going on. Google considers itself an artificial intelligence project, essentially, and I mean, they just made a car that can drive itself, so it’s not like they’re not doing anything. They’re doing amazing things. You know what the environment is like down there. It’s very tech, very futuristic—or futurist, I should say.

Rumpus: Yeah, it rang very true to me. And actually, my next question is about how the book is extremely rooted in place, in San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, Silicon Valley. It was so accurate it was insane! There’s a scene on the street where my grandmother lives, and [in another scene] I was like, “Yes, that is the bakery I bought bread from.” What made it so important to you to make it so accurate, even beyond street names or locations, down to the brand of bread?

Hutchins: That’s a good question. I’m not sure if I have an answer. I remember specifically reading some stories by Ellen Gilchrist when I was in college. I went to college in northwest Arkansas, and the stories took place in that town. She messed with the geography a little bit in order to make the story work, and it drove me crazy. Maybe there’s something about that that’s given me a desire to have things match up as closely as they can without affecting the world. But I also think one of the things that interested me about writing this book and writing about this area is just getting all those details, just capturing the everyday, trying to take almost a snapshot of this world as it is now. Because it’s changed a lot, and I think in twenty years, it’ll change. Maybe the bakery will still be there, I don’t know!

Rumpus: Are you originally from Arkansas?

Hutchins: Mm-hmm. Born and raised.

Rumpus: There was a little bit of that in the book, sort of.

Hutchins: Sure, yeah. There’s a little bit. The house that Neill goes back to is not exactly the house that I lived in, but it’s on the property that I lived on, and there’s a lot of stuff around there that is from my childhood.

Rumpus: Why set it here instead of Arkansas? Or, I know you went to Michigan for your MFA—what’s so captivating about this place as opposed to anyplace else where you have direct experience (or not)?

Hutchins: Well, like Neill, California is the scene of my adult life, and that’s fascinated me. Also, I think the United States is the most abstract country. It’s very much a country of ideas and conceptions, a lot of them not fully thought out. And in California, that’s sort of turned up to eleven. It’s definitely rich material and a place that I’m fascinated with, and like talking about and like thinking about. What does it mean to be an adult in the ways that we’re slightly stunted adults in California at this time? Again, this moment in time in California is very interesting to me.

Rumpus: What was it like trying to find a voice for a computer program, but one that was based on a person’s diaries?

Hutchins: That was one of the most challenging parts, and that’s one of the reasons I judged the Turing test, just to go and see it was it was like to interact with these computers. I did quite a bit of chatting online, which you can. There’s some great chatting things. I think ALICE may be taken down, but I think you can still chat with Jabberwocky, which is one of the chatbots. It’s kind of illuminating. And obviously, Siri is an extension of this stuff, and she’s also hilariously bad in many ways, but very accurate in others. Just seeing what it’s like to have that non-conversation. What is it like to talk to an interlocutor that has no sense of context, who doesn’t know what you’re saying, who’s just looking at words and kind of throwing words back at you. That was just research, and then my job was to make it slowly evolve. You can read it metafictionally in some ways, in that it’s a little bit like a writer creating a character. There’s something a little bit like that.

Rumpus: Yeah, the protagonist is sort of making revisions. They’re very explicit, perhaps more explicit than a writer’s.

Hutchins: Normally. You don’t usually see the strikeouts.

Rumpus: Did you write a big corpus of diary entries beforehand or add them in as you went?

Hutchins: I added them in as I went. Actually, originally, the talking computer was not his father. That got changed after a conversation with Adam Johnson. We had gone up to a room in Stanford, and we storyboarded both of our novels. He did The Orphan Master’s Son, which was incredibly, complexly, and terrifically storyboarded already. I was like, “Oh, well, that looks great.” And then I did mine, and he said, “So, the computer is obviously his father.” I said, “No…? Yes!”

Rumpus: There’s a lot of panic in the media about technology alienating people or isolating people, but it’s rather the opposite in this book, where the computer program is a very important interlocutor—very important conversation happens there—while the anti-technology group comes off as creepy and off-putting. Do you have any thoughts about the role of technology in communication and relationships?

Hutchins: I think it’s a good question, and I don’t come down really on either side. Even though the group that you’re referring to in the book is somewhat satirized, or maybe largely satirized, it’s not that I can’t see many of the points that they make. But I think that these are just tools that we use. You know, I read a book about life in America from 1780 to 1820, which is just like normal life—it’s totally fascinating. People were really worried about what the quality of the new horse and buggies and the new roads were doing to family life. They felt like they were tearing the family apart at its roots. So we’ve been worrying about this kind of stuff for centuries, and I’m just choosing not to worry. And I think there are advantages, too. You take a Hipstamatic picture and e-mail it to your brother in Houston. There’s something very immediate about that, and it’s nice that you can keep in touch in these different ways. Obviously, I haven’t written or received a letter on paper that’s thoughtful in a long time, and I miss those. I do think that’s something we’ve lost: the long, thoughtful letter. But otherwise, I’m not deeply concerned.

Internet dating, for instance, is such the norm now that we’re going to have to come up with a retronym for other types of dating. I don’t know what you would call it. “Bodily dating,” or “face-to-face.” I’m not deeply worried, but I do think there is a kind of distractible thing happening with technology that I’m not sure what to do about. There’s also a kind of fantasy life that happens on the Internet with search and this endless…you can get a kind of overly consumerist attitude toward even your love life. You can start looking through the thousands of possible matches on your dating site, which is pretty similar to looking through something at Costco or going to Amazon. There’s kind of a similar mechanism to all those that maybe we should be concerned about, I don’t know.

Rumpus: Including those percentage matches on OKCupid.

Hutchins: Yeah, you’re like, “Do I want somebody I’m 60% matched to? I don’t know.” I had a good friend who was dating on OKCupid last year, and her way of interacting with guys she was looking at was she couldn’t stand any grammatical errors. If somebody had a grammatical error, and Lord forbid they e-mailed her with an e-mail with a grammatical error, she would e-mail the nastiest e-mails back to them. It was really funny. It’s an extension of us, so I think that’s the thing. You can’t worry too much about the technology, because it’s always just an extension of us.

Rumpus: Although, it’s interesting: the artificial intelligence program in the book is from a diary that isn’t meant for anybody else to see, so it elides that curation of self, or the way that you present yourself on OKCupid. It would have been very different if it had been his father’s blog.

Hutchins: Right. That’s something which is very interesting, the curation of self and how we’re kind of thinking about ourselves as…”products” is maybe putting it a little strongly, but we think of ourselves as a presentation. And obviously, Neill, Sr. wouldn’t have imagined any of that, and if he was alive, he wouldn’t have done it, either.

Rumpus: Going back to the satirized group, Pure Encounters—what was your research like for that? Hopefully you didn’t join a sex cult…

Hutchins: I did not! I considered it, but I thought that was going a little far. I did some reading. I read a little bit about ALF and ELF, the Animal Liberation Front and the Environmental Liberation Front, and some of the dispatches they were sending out, especially in the late ’90s. Just kind of what that tone is and that absolute certainty that 99.9% of the culture is engaged in some grand evil. I found that to be interesting, to take premises that are pretty agreeable-on and just go all the way. There’s something, to me, very West Coast about that. I understand a lot of members of ELF and ALF are also from the East Coast, but they were headquartered in Portland for the most part. There’s something very West Coast about that kind of activism/extremism.

But the sex cult stuff. There’s a lot of very earnest talk about what goes on in the bedroom in San Francisco that I’ve always found…it’s so serious and righteous, that I’ve always found it kind of comical. Obviously, a lot of people come here to be free sexually, and that’s great, and that’s important, and that’s something that needs to be talked about, but it sometimes lends this kind of righteous air to the conversations that I find funny.

Rumpus: I absolutely know what you’re talking about—or a super blasé attitude toward it, like it just comes up in conversation: “Oh yeah, I walked the dog, I got my dildo…”

Hutchins: Right. “I picked up the ball gag.” You’re like, “Oh, the ball gag! Great!”

Rumpus: So what is next? What are you working on now?

Hutchins: Well, it’s sort of this window between finishing a book and it coming out. I’m trying to start a new novel, so that’s what I’m working on right now.

Rumpus: Any ideas what it’s going to be about, or are you super early-on?

Hutchins: I’m super early-on, so I’m not sure very much right now. But I’ve been reading a lot of Dickens, so I’ve got large-book mechanism on the brain. Who knows? Tobias Wolff—his last novel that came out was maybe 200 pages long, and I think he said it was originally 800 pages, but he cut it down. And you can imagine: that’s 600 pages written by Tobias Wolff. I would just publish them as the outtakes. So who knows? I might be aiming to write something big and come up with a novella. But I’m just starting something very new right now. I’ve been looking a little bit at short stories and writing some occasional pieces, but it’s kind of nice to be in this play area again with a project. It’s nerve-wracking, but also kind of nice after having been really consumed by a project.


Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →