Author Q&A: Simon Stephenson

Set My Heart To Five
(Fourth Estate, £14.99)

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His debut novel, Edinburgh-born screenwriter Simon Stephenson’s Set My Heart To Five is a funny and moving tale about a robot called Jared and his journey across America. Having worked as a doctor in a London hospital, Stephenson moved to LA following interest in his speculative script Frisco, a semi-autobiographical story about a depressed doctor who desperately needed a change. The script was at the top of the Blacklist – an industry-voted list of Hollywood’s favourite unproduced scripts – and this opened the door to a screenwriting career in the US. His first book, Let Not The Waves Of The Sea, was a memoir about the loss of his brother in the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Tell us a bit about Jared and why you chose to write about a robot dentist turned screenwriter.
So, Set My Heart To Five takes place in a 2054 where Elon Musk has incinerated the moon and humans have managed to lock themselves out of the internet by forgetting the names of their favourite teachers and first pets. On a more positive note, by 2054 we at least have androids. They are known as bots and have human bodies but biological computers for brains. As humans, we of course make our bots do the jobs we no longer want to. That includes all the most physically dangerous occupations – things like fire-fighting, bomb disposal and playing NFL football – but we also make our bots do more mundane jobs like dentistry. Bots are designed to be incapable of feelings, so their complete lack of empathy should make them ideal dentists. After all, a bot dentist cannot be distracted by human suffering, and will get the job done every time. The narrator of the book, Jared, is a bot dentist who undergoes a kind of emotional awakening. This is a big problem, because any bot showing any sign of emotion is summarily incinerated by the Bureau of Robotics. Jared’s feelings have been prompted – at least in part – by his watching of old movies, and so he comes up with a bold plan: he will write a screenplay that will change the world for him and his kind.

Why did you choose to write part of the book in the form of a screenplay?
Screenwriting is such an inherent part of Jared’s journey that it seemed impossible to tell this story without physically featuring it in some capacity. I wish I could claim that I invented this device, but Truman Capote does something similar in Conversational Portraits and there is even a chapter in the middle of Moby Dick that is written in the form of a play.

How much does Jared’s experiences in Hollywood – especially with the way his script is treated – reflect your own experiences of working there?
Like most working screenwriters in Los Angeles I have run the full gamut of experiences from bad to horrific, and everything in between. No, I’m kidding. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, even on some of the biggest projects I’ve worked on. Partly, you just have to understand that it is ultimately an industry, and if a studio is spending a ton of money to make a movie, of course they are going to want a say in how that money gets spent. Still, at a certain point in the novel, Jared is shown the algorithm for producing a movie. A box asks “Is everything with the movie going as well as it possibly can?” and the options “Yes” and “No” both lead to a single box that says “Try replacing the writer”. Obviously that’s a gross exaggeration, and the best producers I know are all true collaborators, but it’s also probably fair comment on the level of esteem the screenwriter – and actually the entire craft of screenwriting in general – is sometimes afforded in the filmmaking process. In the book, Jared is baffled by this, and it does always seem like the silliest form of self-sabotage to me, because while it is entirely possible to make a bad movie from a great script, I don’t think anybody in the history of cinema has ever made a great movie from a bad script.

Will robots ever be able to write screenplays and would the films be any good if they did?
It might just be wishful thinking – because I’d ideally like to be able to keep paying my rent – but I suspect AI-generated movies won’t be here anytime soon. As a viewer I want to experience the unique feeling of satisfaction of having seen a story well told, but I also want to be surprised by what I have seen. That is a tricky conundrum I spend my life wrestling with, and I don’t think there is an algorithm for that. At least,
I very much hope there isn’t.

If a bot is grown from DNA and can think and feel, is it human? And should “real” humans be afraid?
The moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham said this about animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” And I think that probably goes for bots too, because Jared certainly suffers in the book. He also would personally have been fascinated by Bentham, who is perhaps now most famous for requesting he be pickled after his death. Bentham’s request was granted, and his auto-icon is on permanent display in University College London, where it is now regularly kidnapped by generations of medical students. So I don’t know if we need to be afraid of bots, but we probably should be cautious around medical students.

Are there common themes in your work and does your writing process differ when you’re writing prose from when you’re writing scripts? 
A lot of the stories I find myself telling are ultimately about the search for human connection. Jared’s journey – despite him being an android – is very much about this, and so is a lot of my screenwriting. I am not sure what that says about me, except perhaps I should get out more. In terms of the writing process, that doesn’t really differ from one genre to another, with the primary constants being that it takes forever and requires endless coffee, snacks and doubt.

What’s your favourite era of movie making and what are some of your most beloved films?
I think everybody has a soft spot for the movies they saw during their most formative years. I am no exception, and the movies I will always come back to are things like Forrest Gump, Thelma and Louise, and The Shawshank Redemption: movies I saw on the big screen in Edinburgh when I was growing up. It is probably not a coincidence that many of these are the same movies that Jared first falls in love with.

Who was your favourite teacher and what was your first pet called?
I think I’d only feel comfortable sending this information to you in a password-protected document. That being so, if you can send me your date of birth and mother’s maiden name, I will use those as the passwords.

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