Interview with David Bingham
May 19, 2023
MM) Yellow Switch Palace is a lot of things. It is somewhat grandiose science fiction. It is K-Mart realism/alt lit. It’s a collegiate bildungsroman. A kind of hallucinatory love story. What first spurred the idea, and could you unpack your process of writing and editing it? I can infer you’ve been writing it for at least as long as 2019, when Gloria Vanderbilt, who is offhandedly mentioned, was still alive.
DB) I can answer this in a few ways:
Mechanically, I started writing it in 2015 and I kind of did it inch by inch. I went through maybe five drafts and would just give myself very simple instructions in revision: make this part better, make this tighter, this makes me cringe, there should be something else here. I imagine most people do it this way. Obsession with smaller, pedestrian choices add up then eventually you have a stew. Larger, more fanciful notes would occur to me that I would kind of sweep across the book like photoshop filters or something, forming a kind of poetic glue that held things together. Narratively, there is a kind of structure I think but it’s the result of a lot of intuitive maneuvers piled on top of eachother and smoothed out in revision to provide what I hope is a satisfying sense of movement. Sam Pink, who edited the book, helped a lot with that.
In terms of poetics, I think it’s a mix of two different things. I liked 80s realism, and I liked mayhem yarns. These are kind of different animals; in realism, disjointed impressions stack on one another and form a kind of harmonic resonance. In a more traditional adventure story, beats are arranged like chord changes in a way that produces a satisfying pattern. I said “I can do both of those at once. I will figure it out.” Anyways, I was stupid. I could have been on my third book by now. I’ve hurled my youth into a grave. : (
Looking backwards, it seems to me like I just wanted a sort of vessel for the schizophrenic suburban experience, where things seem bigger when you’re younger, the world feels like it’s ending every day even though your life hasn’t really started yet, and you see social structures with a certain burning clarity because you don’t have to work for a living and the notion of abstaining from hypocrisy while moving through life still seems viable. There’s a kind of simplicity and puritanism to that age. You know what I’m saying. You’ve been on tiktok.
MM) I found it significant that the setting of the book is Washington, DC, if only because few books I read are set in this place, let alone narratively employ its features and history. Are you from the DC area? How does its character and perhaps terrain and bureaucracy inform Yellow Switch Palace?
DB) I think it’s a “place” book for sure, with the caveat that the character’s understanding of the city proper is limited in the way that I think it is for a lot of people who grow up just outside a city. The city is a counterpoint to the spaced out, slightly calmer existence of the smaller cities outside, in Maryland and Virginia. Anyways, in the book the character interacts with the city in a way that I think is common, just kind of popping out of a metro tunnel, completely overstimulated all of a sudden, task-oriented, just there to see a show or meet a relative for dinner, also serving on a larger level as maybe a sounding board for the character’s paranoia.
The suburban part of it I think locals might find more true to form, and ironically this is the part that might also be recognized most vividly by people who’ve never been here. Over half the country lives in a suburb; go figure. To give a little background, there are some very influential land-developers around the place I grew up who were given wide latitude to just convert huge swaths of town into manicured mixed use areas over the last twenty years, and I think it’s resulted in some of the most pure distillations of the featureless, snazzy mixed-use almost-urban architectural form which has become so popular in this country. When I was a kid, most of what was around was strip malls. What these people did is basically leveled almost everything in pieces and really made white flight a kind of hydroponic experience compared to the brick weed we were smoking in the 90s. This is the part I was really interested in. A lot of the hallmarks of this style (fast casual dining, cosmopolitan vibes without any real power center, the destruction of localized space) I had an intuition readers would maybe pick out in their own experience. I’m not sure I have a definitive message with all this, but suffice it to say I believe deeply that land development is one of the most powerful forms of political expression we experience in our day to day lives.
The politics thing is also in there somewhere. That I’d have a harder time explaining. I’ll just say that in my mind the transience of the city and the transience of our politics have a kind of connection. For what it’s worth, I love this area. It’s a nice town. It’s small, the transit system works well, and each of the neighborhoods has its own character. There are of course a lot of sickos here and I think that’s reflected in the book, but in a lot of cases these are the suburban moms and dads I’ve been sitting in behind traffic. It’s personal to me and I hope that comes through in the book.
MM) Did any games, philosophy, theory etc. impact you while writing Yellow Switch Palace? What of the different phases of the game?
DB) I’m sure it’s informed by all of those things. That said my own ideas are not so organized, and the book is not a product of an ordered ideological worldview.
In terms of the mechanics of the game, at one point I will admit to having had an elaborate system mapped out. After a few drafts though I decided that wasn’t really what the book was about so I resolved to work towards something more elliptical. If anyone feels like doing some detective work though I’d be happy to field an email with a three paragraph long yes/no question. : )
MM) On that note, regarding elliptical movement and continuity, can you elaborate on the connective tissue throughout the arc? What have these characters gotten themselves into? The reader may feel slightly in over their heads, an exhilarating feeling while reading a novel.
DB) I would hope there’s some connective tissue there. I think setting is probably the thing tying a lot of the narrative together. There is a bit of zig-zagging between kind of dead-air, close-lipped “hanging around” material — the way you hear kids talking at swim meets to each other while they’re waiting to go up — and the driving action of the plot, the violence and conspiracy and all that, which tends to verge on more melodramatic or hopefully dramatic. In my mind part of the pleasure of the story is moving between these two; and I think the interplay between them works because this setting is a plausible container for both of them. As to a plot summary, when people find out I wrote a book I usually tell them I started writing about growing up in Washington and then I got bored and put in some gore and fantasy.
MM) Does text-messaging technology, particularly with the advent of AI, rattle you a bit?
DB) I think I had a definite kind of chicken-little moment in college, but for better or worse it’s definitely become settled. I don’t worry as much anymore I mean. If I had to guess I would think it’s making everyone generally unnhappier, having the ability to reach out or be reached at any time, but it’s a mixed bag. I think it will take a long time to sort out what the consequences, parameters, and even basic mechanics of exchanging messages instantaneously through telephones has done. There are still people writing graduate theses about the impact of the printing press.
One thing that makes it hard to sift is how quickly it all moves. That’s probably what is most disturbing. There is a really great book by Lisa Gitelman called Always Already New about this. The pace at which these mediums come in and out of fashion is just inherently destabilizing I think, and make it hard to know the rules of any given game.
AI I won’t even get into.
MM) What writers and artists have influenced you?
DB) I think where it counts Robert Stone, Ann Beattie, Sam Pink, Tao Lin, Bret Easton Ellis, John Cheever, Nick Antosca, and Lorrie Moore have been the writers that have mattered the most to me. Certainly forgetting a few.
MM) Are you working on something else now?
DB) I have a lot of stupid ideas I really want to take run at. For a while I was thinking about a geopolitical novel where Saddam Hussein finds a stargate (like from the show Stargate) in Iraq and the Ba’ath party gains an outsized level of influence in the world. I saw someone on twitter last year had the same idea though so I’m not sure how interesting that is to me now.
A few months ago I was bored in the office vividly imagining writing a neo-noir book about Captain Falcon from the F-Zero series. The guy from super smash? The “falcon punch” guy. There is something very attractive to me about giving pathological depth to characters in video games and television that are barely two-dimensional in the first place. I was reading a Raymond Chandler biography at the time and in my mind it was like this really long thing where you can barely understand what people are saying because there’s all these idioms people are using that haven’t been invented yet. Captain Falcon doesn’t talk much, he’s kind of like George Washington or something, very statuesque, so there would have to be some younger racer that he’s taken under his wing who’s kind of like the “point of entry,” explaining everything, but then he gets killed because he won’t throw a match and from that point on you can’t understand what’s going on. And in those Chandler books things are never actually what they’re about, so, you know, at first it’s about savage internecine conflicts between promoters and the union people who maintain the tracks in this crumbling sport that is maybe like forty years past its peak, but then you’re in the clone factories, there’s like people in the street sniffing some kind of drug that makes them levitate, diamonds, etc. Would you publish that?
I do have two non-stupid novels I’m working on, but those don’t seem like dingers like the Captain Falcon thing.