Blindsight is a really strange story. How would you describe it when people would ask what you were writing about?
I teach a writing class, and I tell my students that at some point in the writing process, they should be able to synopsize any project in a sentence or two. Sure, you’ll lose the texture and the nuance and all that, I say, but summarizing means you’ve got your material under control. With Blindsight, it was hard to follow my own advice. The story took so many twists and turns, and resisted clear resolution at so many points — it wasn’t till the end that I really understood what it was all about.
Still, when people put guns to my head, I’d say this was the tale of a Hollywood producer who, in the ’80s and early ’90s was making a name for himself with not entirely deep films — C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the CHUD and Look Who’s Talking for instance. One night he and his wife were driving to dinner when a hit-and-run van screamed through a stop sign and broadsided their car at 75 miles per hour. Lewis’s wife was killed instantly, and he was thought to be dead, too. Instead he fell into a deep coma and spent the next decade-and-a-half recovering, something of a Rip Van Winkle in a remove from the world.
No, that’s what I thought it was going to be when we first talked, in 2010. But that day Lewis told me something I found sort of crazy: He wanted to make movies again.
To my mind he’d become a Hollywood story himself — though it wasn’t at all clear Hollywood would be interested. For his part, Lewis wasn’t naive, and he certainly still understood the realities of the industry. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history,” he told me. “Step out for more than a dozen years and, well, I don’t even know what you are.”
But he was undeterred. Nor was he interested in making just any movies — certainly not C.H.U.D. 2 or Look Who’s Talking. He wanted to create films that understand life on a whole different level, wildly strange new pictures like nobody has ever seen.
Well, sure. He lost his wife, had more than a passing brush with mortality. I’d probably have a different artistic sensibility, too.
But that’s the thing. The explanation for his new vision was actually medical. He has a different brain. The accident caused a third of his right hemisphere to be destroyed. Simon Lewis has entirely different hardware than he once did.
So did he go on to make those new movies?
That’s where things got complicated. I thought I was writing one type of story and it turned out to be another, over the months I spent with Lewis. I don’t want to give it away, but partway through the piece, it appeared that another Simon Lewis was out there, in a manner of speaking. Then things got really interesting.
What’s blindsight, by the way?
Blindsight is a fictional-sounding but totally real condition in which a person is simultaneously blind and not blind. Severe damage to the primary visual cortex leaves the patient either fully or partially blind — but, weirdly, able to see through the blindness nevertheless. In Simon’s case, the blind area was on his left side; his mother took him to the doctor after he walked into a tree. Indeed, the doctor confirmed the destruction of his visual field — but also discovered that Simon was seeing even when he thought he wasn’t. Hold up some colored paper in his blind area and he’ll tell you he has no idea you’re doing so. Ask him to name the color and he’ll get it right.
To Lewis, it would feel like he’s guessing. What researchers know about blindsight is that a little-known alternate pathway from the retina to the extrastriate cortex is being utilized in these cases: a detour. One of the most interesting aspects, of course, is the patient not being conscious of the visual information coming in. As Lewis’s doctor told him, the visual world bypasses his conscious mind and goes directly to his subconscious. What that means for a filmmaker could be fascinating, I think.
What’s it like interviewing someone with a different kind of brain than the rest of us have?
There’s a tendency these days to be fascinated by people with damaged or abnormally functioning brains, to imbue their thinking with beauty and metaphor. I haven’t decided how I feel about that — a different brain *is* fascinating, and indeed can seem to shine a light on something larger than itself.
But when it comes to actually hanging out with someone with, say, a third of his right hemisphere destroyed, you can’t lose sight of what that means on a day-to-day basis. Lewis is an astonishingly decent, almost angelic, human being. He says he’s the happiest person in the world. But life certainly hasn’t been easy for him, or his family.
How did you learn about Lewis in the first place?
In 2009 I wrote an article for the New York Times about legally blind visual artists. Some of those artists had sustained traumatic brain injuries, and it turns out there’s something of a traumatic brain injury community. After the article ran, one woman I’d interviewed suggested I get in touch with this British fellow she knew, who’d been in a mind-bendingly horrific accident, and whose life had taken some remarkable turns afterwards. I promised I’d look him up, but didn’t really jump on it immediately. The first time I called Lewis, I figured it’d be a ten-minute introductory phone call. Instead we talked until my battery died.
Why write this for the Atavist instead of a traditional book publisher, or a magazine?
If Lewis’s life had gone differently, I would have. The first half of Blindsight follows a dramatic but fairly formulaic arc, and looks like it could indeed be the kind of story you’d see in a general interest magazine, or a book about overcoming odds. But when things started getting complicated — which is to say lifelike — I realized it would require a publisher that was open to complex narratives, and long ones. I also just really wanted to work with the folks at the Atavist. If all publications had editors and designers and fact-checkers like that, I dunno, I can’t even picture that world.
Are eBooks going to replace regular books?
Actually what’s going to happen is humanity will lock itself in a basement and curl up in a weepy ball, because it’s so tired of reading about the future of books. It is also tired of looking up discreet vs discrete. Shouldn’t there be a mnemonic device for remembering which is which?
While I have you here, have you ever invented a harness thing that you strap onto your face, and which lets you eat a sandwich hands-free, while walking down the sidewalk?
Do you think Perry and Cain and Gingrich are an unconscious conspiracy to make Romney look downright plausible by comparison?
You’re sort of abusing this self-interview thing.
Sorry. After working as a writer for a dozen years, I’ve noticed that asking other people about their lives becomes a habit. Carries over to parties and dinners and walks with friends and stuff. Lately I’ve been feeling like it’s only fair I should cough up more of my own information. So far that mostly pertains to politics and eating devices, but I’ll work on it. People who write about other people for a living — it’d be good, I suspect, if the lens flipped sometimes. It’s a strange thing, attempting to write sensitively about a fellow human’s life. You have to be candid and entertaining and responsible and, in a way, loving all at the same time. My sense is that Lewis has been pretty happy about Blindsight. But I know it’s never easy having your three-dimensions squished into two. I’m always grateful for the people who agree to let it happen.