The Rumpus Interview with Damien Ober

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When I first heard the concept for Damien Ober’s novel Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America—a series of vignettes about each signer of the Declaration of Independence at the moment of his death—I thought, Great concept, but how the hell is he going to pull that off? And that was before I learned that in Ober’s version of early America the main threat wasn’t the British, the Spanish, the French, or even the Native Americans—it was a deadly plague contracted through the Internet.

Yes, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is one of those experimental hybrids: part historical novel, part speculative mind-fuck. But after reading a few chapters I was hooked. Unlike many high concept novels, Dream America isn’t constantly winking at the reader. In fact, it doesn’t wink at all. Nor does it bury the reader in an avalanche of “bet you didn’t know this about our Founding Fathers” ephemera.

No, Dream America is a wildly imaginative, deftly plotted, gorgeously crafted novel with astute things to say about an America that might have been and an America we’re in danger of becoming. I would even go so far as to suggest it’s not a novel at all, but a linked collection of very short set pieces distributed over sixty years in an alternate cyberpunk America.

The brilliant thing about these pieces is that for the protagonists it comes down to the end again and again and again. What did the men who invented America think about the project five, fifteen, fifty years down the road? Sometimes they know the end is near, sometimes they don’t, but the reader always knows and the results are surprisingly moving.

I had the opportunity to discuss with Damien the origins of his groundbreaking novel, the difficulty of staying true to the facts, and the surprising things he discovered about the men that made America.

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The Rumpus: The idea of an Internet virus decimating the signers of the Declaration of Independence is the kind of counterfactual story I love. Did the idea for this book come all at once or was it something you had to develop?

Damien Ober: It was definitely a long development. But not a singular one, more like several ideas running in parallel. I would collect things I thought of while reading or brainstorming: stories, characters, historical and imagined events, but concepts, too. After a while a few picked up gravity and the project pulled together. For this novel, the first thing that came was the idea of setting the whole thing at the deathbeds of the Signers. I was also chomping at the bit to write about communications technology and the uploading of humanity. Giving it all this saddle punk twist was the icing that made the world come alive.

Rumpus: Saddle punk! What a great-sounding sub-genre to play around in.

Ober: There’s something cool about a guy riding into town on a horse, pulling out a cell phone and connecting to the cloud, then having to cook a rabbit over an open fire. I guess I wish the world was that way.

Rumpus: Have you always been drawn to this kind of high concept work? Are there any books that inspired you with their ambition or challenged your notion of what a novel could be?

Ober: V.A.L.I.S. by Philip K. Dick stands out in my mind as a novel, but also so much more. It’s kind of a self-therapy session in fiction form and has all those weird ties to the real goings on in PKD’s life. Harmony Korine’s A Crack Up at the Race Riots is another one that always makes me smile. It says “a novel” right there on the cover and it’s like these weird lists and cut out suicide letters.

I do like structural high concepts. From the creative side they are very liberating. I never had to waste much time wondering where I was going: OK, who’s the next Signer to die? But then you go back and start revising and it seems like such a terrible idea. Suddenly what was a creative engine feels very inflexible and confining.

Rumpus: Thomas Pynchon has some interesting things to say about eighteenth-century technology in Mason & Dixon.

Ober: I love how Mason & Dixon plays with science as power. The ability to predict an eclipse and divide land based on astronomical observation was really empowering to those possessed of the knowledge, or the resources to hire those in possession. Plus, a tree-felling contest between a werebeaver and a super-lumberjack, doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Rumpus: You read and review a lot of books about 18th century America. Is this an instance of making your research work for you or the other way around?

Ober: When I write something set in a defined period, I like to move into the world. I’ll pump books and podcasts and C-SPAN into my brain to create this kind of working fabric running in the background at all times. Inevitably a lot of the coolest stuff I come across doesn’t make it into the writing. A book review is a great place to let some of that loose. It’s a much more direct engagement with the historical figures and concepts, where in fiction you tend to keep things more subtle. You also get an outlet that’s on a much shorter loop than literature. In novel writing, you corral all these ideas in the barn and keep them cooped up until the work is complete. But it’s healthy to let the horses out to run a little.

Rumpus: Which of the signers had the most surprising life? Who was the guy you’d want to have your back in a tavern brawl?

Ober: By far the most surprising man was Thomas Jefferson. It might seem like the easy answer as he’s probably the best-known of the Signers, but the more you look into his life, the more strange, fascinating, and perplexing it becomes. Even if you know 99% of Jefferson’s life, that remaining 1% is still more surprising than the entirety of most.

In a brawl, I’d want Tom M’Kean. He’s one of those forgotten founders, but he shows up all over the place, usually kicking someone’s ass. Out of all of Jefferson’s cutthroat political operatives, he might have been the meanest. But when it was necessary, he cut ties and formed a third party, a pretty ballsy move given how powerful Jefferson was. M’Kean was 80 when the British invaded during the war of 1812. Without hesitation, he ran out to muster a militia to defend Philadelphia. It’s an image I can’t shake, a sinewy old man wagging his fist over a parapet, “Just like the old days, boys!”

Rumpus: Has your research changed or affirmed your feelings about the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

Ober: One of the things I love about American history is that when you look into any of our iconic elementary school moments, you find shades that range from high inspiring virtue to despicable evil. That the Signing is (arguably) the first national act makes it all the more useful as an example. Liberty was of course at stake, but so was big business, slavery and the slave trade, religion, enlightenment science, class, pre-destiny, rum, self-determinism and a whole lot more. My research changed my mind about many of the details, but that overall understanding was definitely affirmed.

Rumpus: Because of the novel’s structure, the narrative is always leaping forward into new territory. The deaths are spread out over 60 years with just a few pages for each particular moment in time. Was this as difficult as it seems?

Ober: It was extremely hard to track multiple storylines over long intervals. It involved a lot of spreadsheets and hyperlinked documents and bookshelves and bookshelves full of dog-eared books and dangling sticky notes, string, pins, action figures. The organizational tactics employed were far more elaborate than the finished product.

Rumpus: It’s revealed that “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America” is a social media platform that is so vast and consuming that it contains all of life, i.e. it is an alternate America. Do you think we are headed toward “The Dream”? I can think of many, many examples of writers who “live on the Internet” and gamers who prefer the game to IRL. Are we already there?

Ober: It’s true we are living more and more online, whether you’re considering social lives, or massive multiplayers or just nanas on solitaire. It might seem like we’re floating off the earth, but really we’re tying ourselves more to it. Every frame of our online self is on some hard drive somewhere. Your face is known. Every move we make creates a data trail so thick it can never be fully erased. How long before we can determine the exact location of every human on the planet? We can already do it for anyone who has location services on.

Rumpus: Underneath all the artifice and artistry, DBFDA is really a book of last words, the digital tombstones of the men who set the stage for the next two-and-a-half centuries. There’s something really beautiful about that. There’s a lot of talk about crossing over from one form of existence to the next. The dominant condition is transience. In many ways, the signers are very much still with us, even if their names are mostly forgotten. Did you feel pressure to make each final exit worthy of the man?

Ober: Throughout the writing, the deathbeds of Adams and Jefferson loomed always like this end boss I would eventually get to tangle with. That they died on the same day and second and third to last is the kind of set up any writer dreams of. If you’re lucky enough to get yourself into position to take a shot like that, you take it, step back and cross your fingers.


A veteran of the Navy, Jim Ruland is the author of the novel Forest of Fortune, the short story collection Big Lonesome, and co-author of Giving the Finger. He runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year. More from this author →