An Interview with Matt Ruff
Author of Bad Monkeys
MF: Please describe BAD MONKEYS for our readers.
MATT: Bad Monkeys is about a woman named Jane Charlotte who is arrested for murder. During questioning, she tells the police that she’s a member of a secret organization that fights evil. Her division, “The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”—“Bad Monkeys” for short—is an assassination squad that goes around ridding the world of especially evil people.
The police are understandably skeptical about this, so they put Jane in a room with a psychiatrist. The novel is her telling the doctor the story of her career in Bad Monkeys—how she found out about the organization in the first place, how she was recruited, and how it all went wrong.
MF: As I read the book, Philip Dick’s Minority Report came to mind. Has Philip Dick influenced your work?
MATT: He was a big influence on this book—one of my earliest capsule descriptions of Bad Monkeys was that it was “my Philip K. Dick novel.” The basic scenario is very much the kind of thing Dick would have come up with, although the way I develop it is somewhat different. I don’t think Dick ever had a female protagonist, and Bad Monkeys is as much a character study of Jane as it is the story of her adventures.
MF: The book opens with a session between a psychiatrist and a patient. I thought I was about to read a psychological novel, but the novel morphed into something else. Did you have this planned before you started the novel? Or did the novel gain a life of its own?
MATT: I knew where I was going from the start. My idea with Bad Monkeys was that it would be constantly pulling the rug out from under readers, forcing them to continually reconsider everything they thought they knew about Jane. That’s a fun kind of story to tell, but to make it work, and to make it hold up to multiple readings, you really need to have a plan.
MF: The whole idea of the good guys using technology to exact “justice” made me feel a bit uncomfortable. What are your thoughts about technology being used to solve crimes? Are there limits?
MATT: Oh, sure. There will always be legal and moral limits on the use of technology. But there will also always be people who don’t abide by the rules. The organization Jane claims to work for operates outside the law and makes its own judgments about right and wrong, so the only limits that matter to them are the practical limits—what can the technology be used for. If you’re serious about keeping a secret—or getting away with murder—I think it’s the practical limits of technology you want to pay attention to.
MF: Surveillance is one of the many tools used by both the good guys and the bad guys. I would argue that Bad Monkeys is a post 9-11 novel. Any thoughts on that?
MATT: In terms of the overall feel I think that’s true. Plotwise, there’s very little in Bad Monkeys that would have been different if I’d written it a decade ago, but the tone of the novel is certainly colored by the events of 9/11. The World Trade Center attack, Al Qaeda, and the War on Terror are all mentioned in the story—they’re in the background rather than front and center, but they’re there.
MF: One of the tools used by both sides is RFID technology. Some consumer groups are extremely concerned that RFID technology will be misused in some of the ways you describe in Bad Monkeys. What are your feelings about RFID?
MATT: You’re talking about the little radio ID tags embedded in product packaging? My favorite story about those is that they’ve given rise to a new breed of market researcher, whose job is to drive through select neighborhoods on trash day scanning garbage cans for RFID signals. Since each tag has a unique number that can be matched to a sales record, this scanning allows them to create a consumption profile for each household, detailing where and when each item was purchased (including items bought “anonymously” with cash) and how long it took to use it up. This profile, in turn, can be used to figure out all kinds of interesting things, like how willing people are to alter their shopping patterns in response to advertised sales, or how much junk food they eat in an average week, or whether they suffer from chronic pain.
Now a lot of folks find this sort of “research” disturbing, and I don’t blame them. But I also think this is a good example of how it can make sense to focus on the practical limits of technology. Privacy laws only work against people who obey them, but if you get yourself a garbage can that blocks RFID signals, it’s good against everybody.
MF: The novel deals with fairly big issues—good vs. evil, justice, and retribution. Would you agree that Bad Monkeys is—in some ways—an allegorical novel?
MATT: I’d call it topical rather than allegorical. The organization isn’t meant to represent any real-world agency, and when they talk about “fighting evil in all its forms” that’s not code, it’s literally what they mean. But a lot of the issues that come up in the course of the story—like intrusive surveillance and the paranoia it engenders—resonate very strongly with current events.
MF: How would you address the statement that The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons is, in essence, a vigilante group?
MATT: I think it’s a reasonable description. The heads of the organization might quibble with it, on the grounds that vigilantes are traditionally defined as people who take the law into their own hands, and the organization technically doesn’t do that. That is to say, they don’t see themselves as agents of the law—they aren’t fighting crime, they’re fighting evil. But when you talk about the “irredeemable persons” the Bad Monkeys division goes after, that distinction pretty much collapses. Everyone Jane is sent to kill is both evil and a criminal.
MF: Could you tell us a little about THE MIRAGE?
MATT: The Mirage is my next novel. It’s an alternate-history story that I originally came up with as a TV series pitch. When the people I pitched it to turned it down, not because it was a bad idea but because they thought it was too controversial, I decided to reimagine it as a book. I’m not ready to talk about the plot details, though.
MF: Humour me for this one: BAD MONKEYS would make a great film. Who would play Jane?
MATT: You’re going to have to humor me in turn, because my answer involves time travel. There’s this old Tim Curry movie, Times Square, about a pair of teenage girls living on the streets of New York during the punk rock era. The “bad girl” of the pair was played by an actress named Robin Johnson, and it’s her character that I’m most likely to think of when I imagine what Jane was like as a teenager. So we need to take the casting director back to 1980 to pick up Robin Johnson, and then, extrapolating to what her character would look like in her late thirties, we need to make a second stop in, say, 1996 to pick up Joan Jett. At that point, having bent time and space and altered history beyond repair, we’d return to Hollywood to discover that the producers had already signed the Olsen twins for the role.
Read our review of BAD MONKEYS at MostlyFiction.com