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Tech Q&A

Jeff Byles

Describe your latest project.
After spending several years knee-deep in demolition debris, "skull crackers," gelatin explosives, and other detritus of destruction, I've vowed to write my next book about... bunny rabbits. Very fluffy, very cute bunny rabbits. (Er, just kidding!) While I'd dearly love to tell you I'm spending the next year in Acapulco tending a flock of giant Angoras, I'm actually hunkered down working on a review of the architect Christopher Alexander's new book The Nature of Order, a massive four-volume, existential opus on the history of building. It took him twenty-seven years to write, and it's a maddeningly brilliant treatise with odd thoughts on things like "The Luminous Ground" and "Unity and Sadness in a Group of Buildings."

I've also been busy with a modest construction project of my own, that being the web site jeffbyles.com, which has just launched with excerpts from Rubble, author news updates, and the like. And then, in my capacity as de facto superintendent of our small apartment building (wonderful thing about working at home — always on hand for every disaster!) there are bow-legged masonry joints to be shored up and leaky plumbing fixtures to be tended. My next book should actually be titled Ode to a Sump Pump.

  1. Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "With brio, Byles ably and pungently excavates the shadowy crannies of this underappreciated art, summarized by one practitioner as 'a little dynamite, judiciously placed.'" Publishers Weekly

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Panic. Sheer panic. Like many people, I would do just about anything rather than write. Sump pumps are an endlessly fascinating realm compared to the treacherously, bafflingly, cruelly difficult task of writing. But, alas, writing is also the only thing that makes me feel alive in this world. So I tend to tiptoe up to the actual writing process after a very protracted period of research and reflection. Then it's pretty much panic that gets me to sit down and pound the keyboard. But seriously, I would say I'm most inspired by a perverse drive to fly toward the thing that I fear most. I think we all have to risk that part of the creative process. Even if we're flat-out scared silly — recurring nightmares, soaking sweats, you name it — we owe it to ourselves to do what we love.

Chess or video games?
In the fateful twist of my early video-game years, my family renounced the hedonistic Atari system in favor of something called the Odyssey 2. Built by Magnavox, the Odyssey was a brief, shining star on the video-game horizon since it was promoted as a noble "educational" alternative to Atari. It came with a full alphanumeric keypad that could be used for educational games (dreadfully tedious as they were), and even some rudimentary programming (yes, ever the geek, I indulged). But compared to the Atari 2600's cool-factor, the civilized Odyssey didn't stand a chance. In any case my attention was soon siphoned off to MTV, and there followed several lost years of music-video amnesia from which I am still recovering. (I'll probably never get that Cyndi Lauper tune out of my head.) So I'm afraid the answer to your question is: Scrabble.

What's your favorite Blog right now?
I'm a big fan of The Lost Blog, which is part of a brand-new online journal called Lost magazine. The blog ponders the provocative and compelling world of all things "lost" — lost people, places, and things. I have an occupational interest in lost buildings, of course, but the arena of the lost is so rich and varied, you'd be amazed.

The first issue of Lost magazine (due out December 1) is chockablock with inventive takes on the subject, including an essay on lost souls, a look at lost financial well-being, and even a piece on lost "sensitive parts," written by a former sex columnist! Just to give you a taste, the blog quotes from Apple Computer's one-year limited warranty, which is a veritable poetry of the lost: "Apple is not responsible for direct, special, incidental or consequential damages...including but not limited to loss of use; loss of revenue; loss of actual or anticipated profits (including loss of profits on contracts); loss of the use of money; loss of anticipated savings; loss of business; loss of opportunity; loss of goodwill; loss of reputation; loss of, damage to or corruption of data; or any indirect or consequential loss or damage howsoever caused...." You get the idea. It turns out loss has very metaphysical qualities.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
This may sound bizarre, but one of the first books that really bowled me over — not as a tyke, for sure, but more in the high-school years — was The Words by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It's an autobiography of Sartre's childhood, focusing on his discovery of the magical world of books in his grandfather's library. Reading Sartre made me realize that we could construct our selves out of words, and it gave me courage to plunge into my own writerly life and see what I could find there.

And, since we're on the subject of bunnies, I should also confess that Richard Adams's classic tale of the rabbit world, Watership Down, was an early inspiration. Many will recall that book's story of the adventures of a British bunny colony when their home is bulldozed by a real-estate developer. It's a wonderful and touching allegory on the themes of home, displacement, utopia, and freedom. So you see, bunnies and demolition — it all makes sense.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
Since I've been obsessed by the world of demolition, I consider the website ImplosionWorld.com an incredible "museum" of the whole wrecking business. You can chart the rise of explosive demolition as an art form from its earliest inception (kegs of gunpowder!) to the latest blasting innovations. There's a whole video clip library of melting, collapsing, and otherwise jaw-droppingly imploding buildings. The site is a great introductory portal into a branch of the building sciences that has really been misunderstood and, for all its flash-and-bang notoriety, strangely overlooked in the annals of industry.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
I'd just like to see us garner the political will to make a few humble steps toward a better stewardship of our environment. Things like better fuel economy, cleaner power, stronger wetlands protection, saner fisheries management. The technology in many of these areas has made leaps and bounds, but especially in America, we haven't put the ideological muscle behind it. In Rubble I look at the evolving technologies of "unbuilding," and my hope is that a greater awareness of how we destroy can help us think more holistically about what we value and what we disdain. Creative destruction is a wild and intoxicating part of our lives. But we also have a lot to lose.

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