Will Eaves is the author of five novels and two poetry collections. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker and The Yale Review and has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Encore Award, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Wellcome Book Prize and the James Tait Black Prize, and longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. His new novel, Murmur, was awarded the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Previously the Arts Editor of The Times
Literary Supplement, Eaves now teaches writing at the University of Warwick and lives in London where Stay Thirsty Magazine visited with him for these Five Questions.

STAY THIRSTY: In your latest novel, Murmur, you draw inspiration from the life of Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence. What motivated you to explore Turing’s history and then confront your protagonist with many of the same challenges?

WILL EAVES: I didn’t start writing with Turing in mind, which is a way of admitting that for this writer novels don’t have one genesis. They tend to accrete, like clouds of gas falling in on themselves. I was thinking about the inner life (a relationship had just ended) and taking some consolation in the way certain writers use appearance and behaviour to deepen character. Perhaps, in reading as in life, one gets more interested in people who are inaccessible, or whose surface activity acts as a kind of inscrutable protection for the unconscious which – if one thinks about it – can’t be brought to the surface if it is to remain unconscious.

The idea of articulating the unconscious is a logical paradox, isn’t it? Once I had that in mind, I began to think more deeply about hidden processes, and to read more widely about paradox and self-reference, which led me to meta-mathematics, Kurt Gödel and Erwin Schrödinger (a beautiful writer), true statements that can’t be proved, and finally Turing. I conceived the idea of a book about a Turing avatar trying to access the inaccessible (dreams and unconscious processes) to make sense of a terrible change in personal circumstances: see below. It also occurred to me that, in the future, a conscious machine would have to grapple with the nature of the unconscious. We tend to treat AI as a sort of stand-in for many fears about automation and mechanical capacity. We don’t think as carefully about the limits real consciousness would impose on that capacity.

STAY THIRSTY: Why does homosexuality play such an important role in your novel?

WILL EAVES: Turing was gay, and he was tortured for having sex with a man. He’d “done the state some service” in the Second World War and this is how he was rewarded. The decryption of the German naval Enigma code at Bletchley Park was a complex team effort building on earlier work by Polish mathematicians, but Turing was crucial in the early scaling-up stages. Those cryptanalysts at Bletchley enabled us to locate the German U-boats and keep the Atlantic shipping lanes open. Without those ships, Britain would have starved. Six years after the end of the war, Turing picked up a young man in Manchester in 1951, had a brief affair with him, got caught, convicted of Gross Indecency, and was sentenced to “organotherapy”: a punitive hormonal regimen of oestrogen injections that humiliated him physically and mentally. He was a fit, healthy, contented male homosexual. Two years later, he was dead.

Homosexuality was illegal until 1967 in Britain. Its expression until then depended on an uneasy commerce between official proscription (outlawed behaviour) and unofficial knowledge (covert assignations, euphemisms, unspoken awareness): codes, if you like. So, being homosexual is built into the Turing story at both the biographical and conceptual-logical levels. Sexuality is also, of course, what Turing would have called a variable. Different values attach to it according to circumstances. The most dangerous of those values tend to come from religious literalists whose conservatism is a projection into the neurotic age of ancient tribal taboos. They are terrified of sex and mortality, because both are facts beyond the reach of proof. Ask Othello, or indeed Jesus.

I’ve been asked if I’m angry about what happened to Turing. Personally, no – because I’m not surprised. Ordinary people can do the most appalling things to other people if they feel they’ve been given permission to do them. This is what we’re facing now. Does anger about what happened to Turing go along with a still-extant fear of homosexuality? Yes. Both are fears of the possible, the evident but inadmissible, the true. Could his tragedy happen again? Of course. Scratch the surface of liberal advances in human rights, and you’ll find out how vulnerable we are. Because the advances we’ve made are all predicated on socio-economic stability, which crumbles easily. Remember the men but lately thrown from tall buildings by ISIS – a fundamentalist insurgency shaped in a power vacuum for which we, in the West, bear a great deal of responsibility. Take away our own socio-economic stability, and you will find that the civilising tendencies of the post-war settlement – hard-won gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, international development policy – will disappear as mist in the morning sun.

Will Eaves

STAY THIRSTY: How do you use memory and consciousness to flesh out your story and your characters?

WILL EAVES: In the AI field, Turing is still best known for the Turing Test, a thought experiment which crops up in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, written in 1951 for the psychology journal Mind. The Turing Test pairs a powerful computer with a human being and runs a blind interrogation of both. You ask the computer and the person the same set of questions, and if you can’t tell from the responses which is the computer and which is the person, then you may, if you choose, assign to the computer human-level intelligence. The trouble is that you’re assigning intelligence to witnessed behaviour (behaviour that requires a conscious interpreter to make sense of it). Which means that you don’t necessarily know what’s going on inside the computer itself, and behaviour on its own, one realises, can’t tell you if there’s an inner life at work or if you’re just dealing with a well-designed zombie. And I think someone like Turing, succumbing to his treatment, must have thought: “there’s something missing from my world-picture”. Which would be the inner life. A further question then arises: “Where do I find room for it?”

The answer Murmur gives is a sequence of dreams and letters, framed by two extracts from a fictional journal. The dreams or hallucinations brought on by the drug are revisitings of key moments and relationships in Alec Pryor’s life. (Alec is an avatar of Turing and not the man himself because Turing was a genius. I didn’t want to be attributing to a genius thoughts and words he’s not around to repudiate.) Alec relives his Platonic relationship with a schoolfriend who died of TB, his wrangling with the formal limits of mathematics, Cambridge before the Second World War, and the experience of torture. At the same time, he speculates on the future of thinking machines and his own likely fate. There’s a correspondence in the book between Alec and the woman he met at Bletchley Park – a version of the real-life Joan Clarke – and together Alec and June try to break the code of his dreams. The letters are a sort of cri-de-coeur, but also a cry of victory for personal integrity. Meanwhile the dreams seem to move towards their own life and reality. They treat memory like a paradoxical jigsaw-puzzle in which the remembered image or incident changes as you try to put it back together. There’s a key sequence in the book which imagines this in personal terms: Pryor visits his mother, who has turned into the Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She’s a cartoon, but she goes off-script, because she has developed agency. She is not a locked-in memory. She is “an idea with ideas of her own”.

STAY THIRSTY: What role does love play in your writing?

WILL EAVES: Two thoughts. One is about general practice: I tend always to write to someone. Often, a friend I love very much. That sense of address helps me think of the book (or the poem) as something I need to write or to say. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t bother. The wider world doesn’t need any more books by me. I don’t have to write anything. Who cares?

The second thought (about this novel) is simply that Murmur is all about love, and about how even the briefest taste of it can send a life in one direction rather than another, or change that direction and transform the “rules” of behaviour. Love is an encounter with the fact of another person, who is someone else. Someone not obliged to confirm anything about you. That sense of being shut out from the beloved is, finally, the way back to them. June in the book is distressed by Alec’s pain not because she feels it herself, but because she can’t feel it. The situation is intimate because it’s remote. You may be able to tell that I take an unfashionable view of sympathy, which is that it’s a dangerous error: you can’t be in someone else’s shoes. (I’m touching on something called the problem of other minds.) But the fact you can’t get at what other people are feeling is the interesting part of human encounters. Because it’s the “not quite” that matters.

STAY THIRSTY: As a novelist, what key thoughts and feelings do you want your readers to be left with after they finish reading Murmur?

WILL EAVES: Paradoxically, an enlarged sense of sympathy. What it really is. Which is: distance, understanding that doesn’t demand corroborating experience, imagination, and trust.

(Will Eaves photo credit: John Cairns) 


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.