Piracy and Power: A Conversation with Steven Johnson
By Benedict CosgroveAugust 29, 2020
Steven Johnson’s latest book, Enemy of All Mankind, goes a long way toward correcting the record — or refocusing the lens — on piracy in the age of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and other world-class reprobates. But as Johnson is an author who has been almost perversely eclectic in his subject matter across 11 previous titles, it’s no surprise that piracy is not the end-all and be-all of Enemy. In fact, as personified by the “enemy” of the title — a notorious, mystifying Briton named Henry Every — piracy is just one thread among many (fame versus infamy, the birth of print culture, the emergence of multinational capitalism) that bind together the compact, propulsive narrative.
I spoke with Johnson — author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, The Ghost Map, How We Got to Now — about the difficulties and rewards of bringing an enigmatic historical figure like Every to life on the written page; how David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas inspired the way Enemy is constructed; and why, if a writer wants to explain how change happens in the world, recounting individual lives won't cut it.
Disclosure: I worked for several years with Johnson on FEED, the late, pioneering ezine that he and Stefanie Syman founded in 1995. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BENEDICT COSGROVE: Let’s talk first about Henry Every. I had never heard of him, but Enemy of All Mankind kicks off with an event that, in your telling, helped shape the modern world — the moment Every and other pirates attacked an Indian treasure ship, the Gunsway, in 1695, and the political and economic shocks that flowed from that encounter. How did you learn of Every? Did you come across the Gunsway incident in your research on other projects?
STEVEN JOHNSON: Actually, what you’re describing is closer to what happened with Ghost Map, where I’d known for years about the story of Dr. John Snow and his mapping of the London cholera outbreak in 1854, and finally realized, I could write a book about Snow, a kind of a page-turner. I’ve written three books — Ghost Map, Invention of Air, and now Enemy of All Mankind — that pursue a single story with tentacles going off in different directions. I like that format. It’s the most fun to write, and from the start I saw Enemy in that vein.
I knew nothing about Every. But years ago, I was reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its crazy, time-jumping structure, and started wondering if I could do a nonfiction book structured in a comparably ambitious way — a book that focused on a brief, pivotal moment in history and moved back and forth from there. By brief, I mean maybe five or 10 minutes. I would start with that moment and go back, potentially thousands of years, discussing what led to the event. The second half of the book would examine the consequences. But I didn’t know what the event would be. You know, that’s a hard Google query. [Laughs.]
That idea was in the back of my mind for three or four years, until I hit on the notion of a crime as the motivating event — some terrible thing has happened, people are chasing an outlaw, there’s a trial. I figured I could be more experimental with that.
Because readers recognize, and trust, the underlying structure of the crime story?
Yes, and that helped me narrow the search. I started researching famous crimes and came across the attack on the Gunsway, which some people view as one of the most lucrative heists in history. I dove into that story and realized it was perfect for what I wanted to do.
You mentioned that, unlike most of your books, Enemy focuses on a single story. It has a through-line. But it also examines themes that obviously hold a certain fascination for you, like the mechanisms we use to share or hoard information, or power. Do you consciously work these topics into your books? Or are they just there, looming, and organically insert themselves into the narrative?
I’ve written before on what I call the long zoom approach to storytelling. If you’re trying to explain how change happens in the world, or how an event shapes history, you can’t just describe it at the level of individual lives. You have to have a split-perspective, where you’re following one person’s trajectory, but also looking at things higher up in the chain: forms of social organization, for example, or of media. In the case of The Ghost Map, I had to move about on a much smaller scale, too, thinking about viruses and bacteria and how they’ve shaped the world.
So anytime I tell a story, it’s going to jump around from scale to scale, the way Enemy does. I think a lot of people like that about my books, but I also know that some readers are like, “Could you just tell me more about the pirates, and not go off on this digression about the history of cannons?”
You make an evocative assertion in the book that the final shape of any institution is not designed in advance by an engineer or architect, but is “carved away by challenges to its outer boundaries” — the way a shoreline is shaped by waves. The real work gets done at the edges. Is that a theme or dynamic that was singular to this book?
I think singular is a good way to think about it — the idea that you often don’t realize exactly what you’re doing until you’re in the middle of it. For example, when I was in college I was very much into structuralism, post-structuralism, all that stuff. Michel Foucault was a hero of mine, and books like Discipline and Punish were hugely formative forces in my intellectual life.
I grew less interested in structuralism over time and turned instead to things like science. But I guess Foucault never really left me, because as I was writing the trial scene near the end of Enemy, and was describing how London’s Old Bailey is designed to spatially display the power of the court, I was like, “Oh! This is a Foucault passage.” So much of Foucault is about how institutions build up power through things like surveillance and spectacular violence, and I realized, “This whole book is about how power expresses itself and how it’s challenged. I’m finally writing the Foucault book that I thought I was going to write when I was in school.”
I want to return to Henry Every for a moment. It’s not a spoiler to point out that he’s a protagonist about whom we know remarkably little. You mention in the book that at different times in his life Every was a mutineer, a sort of Age of Discovery working-class hero, the world’s most wanted man — and eventually, he became a ghost. But he’s something of a ghost throughout, isn’t he? For such a charismatic guy, he’s barely there.
It’s funny, I haven’t thought about this as a metaphor until now, but it’s a little bit like a black hole in the sense that while you can’t see it or observe it directly, you can see its effects. You define it, in part, by the effects it has on surrounding stars.
The effects of the Gunsway attack, those gravitational waves, were enormous. You connect them to things like the rise of the East India Company, which was obviously foundational to the British Empire itself, and the birth of the concept of the international outlaw.
Right. Every’s attack on the Gunsway sets energies in motion that we’re still grappling with today. But we barely know the man. I think about the one surviving letter we have that we’re sure he wrote. To have spent so much time thinking about this guy who lived more than 300 years ago, and to have just one hint of his voice — for an author, to only have this tiny bit of direct access to the protagonist is very weird.
One last thing, and this has to do with “the long zoom” mentioned earlier. In this book, and in a lot of your other books, the implication is that ancient history is not ancient, right? Faulkner’s line about the past —
It’s not even past.
It’s not even past. Is this one of your aims, to remind people, if they’ve somehow forgotten it, that the past is not dead?
That was definitely an animating force in Ghost Map — to show how listening to science enabled cities to solve a critical health problem that was restricting their ability to grow. In fact, the conclusion to Ghost Map includes a long riff about a future viral pandemic in New York, driving people out of the city, a thousand people dying every week, and so on. So that book ended with a sort of, “Hey, kids, there’s a moral to this story that applies to you.”
What was liberating about Enemy is that I didn’t feel an obligation to do that. Instead, it’s relevant to our own time because we see the modern world coming online in these events happening 300 years ago. In the end, it’s just an incredible story about an incredible period in history. And, reader, if you’re not down for that, perhaps turn to another book.
Benedict Cosgrove is a New York–based writer, editor, and author. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), and other outlets, online and off.
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