Accessing the Truth: An Interview with Josh Riedel

On April 27th at our Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating nine of our authors who have recently published their debut books. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

Today, we’re talking to Josh Riedel, author of One Story Issue #261, “Midnight Sessions,”  and the novel Please Report Your Bug Here (Henry Holt).

One moment he’s gazing upon his algorithmically matched soulmate, and the next, Ethan Block finds himself floating above an expanse of tall grass. Please Report Your Bug Here is Josh Riedel’s fresh, speculative thriller about a startup employee who discovers a teleportation glitch in his company’s dating app. Set in an alternate San Francisco eerily like our own—where mood-sensing paint and waterproofing lotion are the latest in cutting-edge technology—Riedel’s debut novel dips into the muddled and obsessed mind of a young millennial, who yearns to understand what happened to him at the risk of exposing Big Tech’s dark secrets. Riedel arms Ethan with a tender humanity as he embarks on a multiversal journey to debug the truth.

—Amy Y.Q. Lin

Amy Y.Q. Lin: Where were you when you found out Please Report Your Bug Here was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Josh Riedel: I was running up Mt. Tabor in Portland, Oregon! A 212 number flashed on my Apple Watch, and I suspected it was my agents calling. I ran back home and found out then. I might’ve set some personal speed records on the dash back to my house.

This was in late 2020, and Portland was very much in lockdown mode. My wife Erin and I bought a couple nice beers to celebrate, I think, and probably ordered Indian food.

AYQL: What was the seed for the novel?

JR: I started writing Please Report Your Bug Here when I was living in Tucson, Arizona. I felt so far from my previous life in San Francisco and wanted to capture what it was like to live there as a twenty-something tech worker in the early 2010s. The first few pages of the novel—in which Ethan bikes to his startup’s office in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood—is an almost exact recounting of my old commute. Things got weird (and other-worldly) from there.

AYQL: I loved the hyper-specificity of your book’s San Francisco and Bay Area setting; I recognized so much. It diverged from the magical campus of Cleo Corp from your story “Midnight Sessions.” How did writing “Midnight Sessions” and Please Report Your Bug Here around the same time influence each work? What did one teach you about the other?

JR: I love that you’re comparing these two works, because I feel there’s a lot of similarities between them, even if “Midnight Sessions” has, as you say, a more magical setting. Both stories are about corporate power and how that power affects workers and consumers. They’re both stories about people trying to connect with each other, too. A lot of my work asks, How can we truly know another person?

AYQL: Some say art is organic while technology is contrived. Others criticize art as inessential while technology solves real problems. Your protagonist, Ethan Block, says, “Technology and art are not opposed!” Of the two, only technology is highly monetized and consumer-facing. Certainly people approach creation differently in either field. I tend to believe that both come from the same sort of genius that predicts what the world needs: the priorities of the creator determine what they make. What are your feelings on this as a creator of both art and technology?

JR: Some of the most creative people I know—engineers, designers, entrepreneurs—work in tech, and working alongside those people is what I enjoyed so much about my time in that industry. In my experience, though, making art is a lot more intimate. You hope that your novel speaks to readers on a personal level, while you hope that your app is useful to millions of people (and also makes a lot of money).

AYQL: Ethan’s vision of the problem space he seeks to tackle and his understanding of other people are minimized by the secrets kept from him. When writing from the perspective of a person shut out from the truth, what were the challenges? What did you draw upon?

JR: The short answer is: my own experiences! As an employee at Instagram, for example, I only found out about the company’s acquisition about forty-five minutes before the rest of the world. My time working at Facebook taught me that it’s tough to always know in a large corporate setting why one thing happens and another doesn’t. There are all these competing priorities that sometimes feel impossible to fully uncover, and that kind of mystery is fascinating to me as a writer (but not so much as an employee!). That said, I was also interested in what Ethan himself was bringing into his work. It’s largely his own assumptions and expectations about his job (and other people) that keep him from accessing the truth.

AYQL: The Corporation is the novel’s big tech giant. About viewing the Corporation as a family, you write: “Families are the first place we learn to keep secrets.” Sometimes being “familial” becomes part of company culture. What do you think corporations and families have in common? Do you think it’s a good thing to compare the two?

JR: I really hate when companies talk about themselves as a family because I think it obscures the fact that everyone is there to get paid. That should always be top of mind when working under capitalism. As an employee, I don’t want an idea of family to be marketed and sold to me. That said—and I’m going to sound hypocritical here—the small group of 13 employees who were on the original Instagram team (before we were acquired) are like family to me. Spending so much time together in a formative stage of our lives (most of us were in our mid-to-late twenties) played a huge role in shaping who I am today.

AYQL: Do you believe there are other worlds out there? How did fiction as a medium allow you to access, condense, and then turn your ideas into a mirror of our own world on the page?

JR: Sure! I mean, even on a basic level, there’s a world you live in and a world I live in. Those worlds may overlap, but never completely.

In this novel, I wanted to capture the realism of what it was like to work in tech in the early 2010s—hence the IKEA desks, the constant flow of Red Bull, the long hours and high expectations—but I knew I needed to tweak that world slightly to more accurately capture the emotional experience of my relationship to work in my twenties.

AYQL: What were you thinking about, reading, watching, or listening to while you were integrating technology and magic in your writing?

JR: I wrote this over the course of four or five years, so: a lot! Two influential books were Joanne McNeil’s Lurking and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley. Also Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Though indirectly, the TV show The Leftovers kind of blew my mind in the years I was writing this book. I made a playlist for Largehearted Boy that captures what I was listening to (and a few songs my protagonist Ethan listens to as well).

AYQL: Your novel highlights how intertwined our lives have become with modern technology. Many of the concerns around sustainability, transparency, and user data that your characters grapple with are faced by readers today. Can you speak about your interest in this area and what you hope readers learn from your novel?

JR: This novel is more about how we connect with other people in our digital age than it is a warning or a lesson about tech—but I am glad that you bring up these themes, because I am personally interested in them. Compared to 2010, when the novel is set, there’s a lot more public knowledge out there about how big tech companies make money off their users (data collection, advertising), and I think that’s always important to keep in mind when we’re wowed by a new gadget or fawning over the latest “genius” founder. Tech is a net good for the world, probably, but we don’t always understand or account for what its consequences may be.

There’s some mention of sustainability in the novel, and a few scenes set at Yarbo—the fictional art-tech collective in Oakland populated by lots of out-of-the-box thinkers—that nod to the fact that we depend on the natural world for our inventions. Some of the Yarbons’ inventions make this rather obvious. So while the novel isn’t, I hope, too didactic on this front, I think it’s important to avoid getting caught up in the hype of innovation. It’s great that people want to buy big electric pickup trucks, for instance, but investing in public transit is important too (probably more important).

AYQL: You quoted the line from a Jack Gilbert poem, “Our lives happen between / the memorable.” In the world of your novel, memory can be fickle “as though the experience hadn’t been encoded properly,” like waking up from a dream and “all that remains is an impression—no content.” So your protagonist grounds himself in art and coffee. What are some ways you’ve grounded yourself when working on your novel before, during, and after the pandemic?

JR: I try to get outside a lot, away from screens. I’ve always loved running, and I took up trail running during the pandemic. I also meditate and read. Sometimes on hikes I try to use my very amateur tracking knowledge to identify animal tracks. Someone once taught me how to see when a coyote paused or looked back just based on their tracks. It’s a surprisingly calming activity.

AYQL: Do you think there’s such a thing as a good dating app?

JR: Yes, but it exists in an alternate dimension that we can’t access yet.

Seriously though, I think a lot of good has come from dating apps! I was interested in inventing my own (fictional) dating app because I’m fascinated by the idea that an app can “know” someone well enough to match them with others. How can you possibly capture what a person is like through an app? Not to mention understand what the chemistry between two people will be. It’s a really fun problem to think through as a writer or an inventor, probably more fun than actually using the apps.

AYQL: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

JR: I’m most looking forward to meeting everyone behind One Story! It’s always been a dream publication for me, and since publishing my story I now understand that it’s a dream organization too. One Story does so much for our literary community, and I can’t wait to meet everyone who makes that possible.

Amy Y.Q. Lin is a Chinese American writer. Her debut story can be found in Catapult. Her work was a semi-finalist for the 2022 Sewanee Review fiction contest and has been supported by Tin House and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. An MFA candidate in fiction at NYU, she serves as the books editor for Washington Square Review and reads for One Story. She lives in Seattle and New York.

Posted On:
March 16, 2023
One Story
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