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Writers on Writers: Robin Sloan and Ellen Ullman Hear Voices

Eavesdropping or novel research?

Ellen Ullman

Robin Sloan

Here's a game: Go walking in the financial district, just south of Market Street. Choose a building—not one of the glassy monoliths, but some older edifice with windows and Ellen Ullman framed in brick or stone. Next, choose one of those windows and allow yourself to wonder: What’s happening in there? Who might be toiling inside, and on what?

Ellen Ullman’s latest novel, By Blood, was born in one of those buildings—and not just in it, but of it. Years ago, the software engineer turned writer entered such a building and admired the marble in the lobby. By Blood’s unnamed narrator, a disgraced classics professor, does the same thing. (And I do, too, on a cold, clear day in March, when I tour the building with the author herself.) Ullman climbed to the mezzanine and inquired about the availability of a small office; her narrator does the same. Then, ensconced in her new work space, Ullman heard voices through the thin walls. In By Blood, the voices belong to a psychotherapist and her patient, and the novel’s narrator is riveted by what he hears. And so the story begins.

Following Ullman through the halls, I feel like I’m seeing a sort of literary coral reef, full of knobbly anchors where a writer’s imagination can latch on and hold fast. Most of the offices in this building are not large: “Too small for startups,” Ullman says approvingly. This is sole proprietor territory, a place that doesn’t turn over with every boom and bust. When tenants leave this building, she jokes, they leave in boxes.

Ullman grew up in Queens and still considers herself a New Yorker in exile, but after 41 years in San Francisco, she’s writing books that could only have come from here. Her memoir of life as a programmer, Close to the Machine, is an essential record of the Bay Area’s first tech boom. Her first novel, The Bug, builds a suspenseful story around the same topic. And now, there’s By Blood. If you look out the window of Ullman’s office—number 807, exactly the same as her narrator’s—and across the narrow street, you see visions lifted from the novel’s pages: a hotel’s neon sign, open windows, rumpled beds.

But windows work both ways. Today, if you play my game, if you go downtown and choose the right sidewalk, if you wait for the right moment and angle your head just so, you might look up and see Ullman at work. She is there, listening through the walls, watching the street below, writing it all down. 

Robin Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2012. He lives in Berkeley.

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Robin Sloan and Ellen Ullman Hear Voices

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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