IN IRELAND, the sixteenth of June is Bloomsday. It’s a celebration of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses: “the greatest Irish novel ever written,” says Campo Santo’s Sean Vanaman, “a 700 page multilexiconic epic broken up into 18 episodes but all set one day – June 16th.” June 16 is also Sean’s birthday. Like Joyce, Sean was born in Ireland, and is a writer, and there the coincidences sort of peter out.
Over the summer, I interviewed Sean for this magazine’s ‘The Art of Fiction’ series: a series of interviews with writers about their craft which may not have a future beyond this issue. As our readers may know, Sean is the writer of Campo Santo’s Firewatch, who previous to co-founding Campo Santo wrote a number of Telltale Games titles, including the award-winning The Walking Dead.
Of course, I thought our readers should know more about Sean than that. And so one day in June, I visited Cork, the city where Sean was born. I walked around, like the hero of Ulysses did, exploring the environment and culture that shaped the young Vanaman, and might even influence his work to this day.
It was exactly like Ulysses, except Sean was born in Cork, not Dublin, where Ulysses takes place. And I didn’t go on June 16. I went on June 26, which is the birthday of Swedish chemist Georg Brandt, who discovered cobalt.
DUNCAN FYFEI want to ask you one of those very Paris Review questions about process: Where do you like to write?
SEAN VANAMANI generally like to write outside of the office and either with people around during the day or totally alone at night. I think the environment has less to do with it than my state of mind does. During the day being at a coffee shop or somewhere where there's a hum of human energy is good because I just sort of sit in the middle of it and leach off of the energy; which isn't a particularly romantic image, I guess. So, to answer your question: half the time I write I like to be in a position to covertly suck away on the discarded human energy that is a by-product of strangers’ day-to-day lives. The other half of the time I like to just sit in my room or my office late at night. In those moments I don't second guess myself so much – being tired just lowers my personal inhibitions and while the quality usually isn't as high I feel like I produce better raw material.
FYFEAt this stage in development, how much of your time is spent just on writing?
VANAMANNot enough. This is usually the case though – I get a critical amount of stuff in so we can see if the game is what we want it to be and then I usually hate everything for a while while I'm figuring out the tone. And a lot of that is actually figuring out the actors, what their wheelhouse is, where they play their best, and then when all of THAT clicks, I sorta go crazy and write and write and write.
FYFEDid you think, when you were a kid, that you wanted to work as a writer? Or that you wanted to work on video games?
VANAMANI didn't want to work on video games – I liked video games a LOT but I wasn't captivated by them the way I was by books and movies. The games I liked the most were StarCraft, Half-Life and multiplayer GoldenEye -- GoldenEye and StarCraft because I had to think about what was going on inside the mind of whoever I was playing and Half-Life because, well, it's fucking Half-Life. Walking around Black Mesa was – actually, there's nothing I can really say about it that hasn't been said better by other people, right? We all know what that felt like (if you responded to it) and I did. Looking at those things, plus the books I really loved, I guess I liked things that simultaneously made me hang out in the depths of my own mind while considering those of someone else. I never said "I'm going to be a writer," outright, with any sort of confidence or determination or purpose, but I knew whatever I did would probably be about some of the things writing is about – interiority and trying to understand the lives of people. For a long while in college I was in Poli-Sci and International Relations and was obsessed with The West Wing so thought that maybe I'd like, be a speech writer or something. Games just kinda happened and I stuck with it because the potential to do something new was exciting. I didn't feel that way about movies or any other media. Books were and are different; I don't have that prodigy MFA Foster Wallace type of drive about them where I can let myself believe I'd be capable of doing anything new or different as an author – writing a book, to me, with my limited tools, would be more like choosing to run a marathon; something you want to do and feel like you could but would want to know you could. That'd be enough.
FYFEHow personal is your work?
VANAMANIt's pretty personal in that it's always seeded with something that's going on in my life and then, because of whatever needs to happen in the plot, or simply because the characters are never exact replications of real people, things veer away from where they lived as personal moments in my head and become something different. Does that make sense? In The Walking Dead Season 1, Lee is struggling to understand his own history; how he could've let his really good life go so bad – he's trying to piece together his own history while living in a time where none of it really matters. I think about that a lot. When I'm exploring my own personal history I have these moments where I'm just dumbstruck because I've forgotten I did something, usually awful, and struggle to not build a narrative of awfulness out of those things. I think Lee forgives himself in the end of TWD S1 but that tragedy of that story, I think, is that he ever had to to begin with. So, like, conversely, I've learned to not get down on myself, to not build that narrative of awful things (and then feel like I need redeeming), which is a place Lee never got to in the story but it started with the same inner conflict. I guess I’m just trying to illustrate that personal work isn't 1:1 – but that seeds have to come from somewhere and if they're not from within then I really have no idea. Given that, Firewatch has to be personal – how much of me is in it I have no idea because it's a collaboration, we're all making it (the same as TWD S1). But when I think of what Henry goes through in his life before the story starts, it's an amalgam of hopes and fears I have, certainly. Who he is and how he deals with it is very different (and how he chooses to think about things in his life is up to the player quite a bit too). At the same time, I'll seed the "nouns" or actors of the story with things I care about. Henry's dog's name is a name my wife and I gave our future hypothetical dog. Clementine was a really personal name. Doug was straight-up a friend of ours and so was Omid (in that he also had to actually sign a release so I could use his likeness). Doing that just passively reminds me to treat these people like people even though they're cartoons in a game.
FYFEI wanted to ask about something you said in the last Quarterly Review: that you set Firewatch in Wyoming on the one hand so you could just work on a game set in Wyoming, but also because there was something about the place you grew up and the people there that you wanted to explore. What interests you about Wyoming, as a writer? Has being from Wyoming influenced your work before?
VANAMANI mean, most of my interest stems from that's where I grew up. I moved there as a foreigner – and I mean that kind of in the literal (I was born in Ireland) but also in the fact that if you're not a native Wyomingite (it's WYOMINGITE! isn't that sensational?!? one of my favorite t-shirts I own is from campaigning for Pres. Obama and it says Wyomingites for Obama. My dad, a Republican, was quick to point out that they probably only had to make one of them) anyway, if you're not native you're instantly held at a distance – you are a foreigner – and then one day, totally out of your control, ￼you just aren't anymore. That isn't that people are rude or whatever; I'm from northwestern Wyoming – Cody – which is a tourist hotbed because of Yellowstone, so people are incredibly kind to visitors, but I'll never shake the feeling of "you're not from here," that I experienced growing up. At one point, honestly I think it's when I moved away at 18, that that feeling went away and I go back and I feel like I'm considered from there. I think I want to explore that feeling of otherness but, honestly, as I'm still writing, I'm not sure there's a place for it in the game. It's getting in there and maybe something will click as I keep working but it's not there right now. So we'll see. I try not force stuff like that. But I think because Wyoming has so few people, and it's one of only of a few states that still has all of its native big predators, there's something still so wild feeling about it. I've been on pack trips up near Yellowstone (very close to where the game is set) and have seen BISON IN THE WILD. That's crazy! Wyoming is one of the places that it's difficult to remember exists in modern hyper-connected, cosmopolitan America. I love Yosemite here in California. I was instantly enchanted by the Yosemite Valley and am sure I'll return often throughout my life, but because of the way the US came to be, the wildness is gone. There are bears but they aren't Grizzlies. There are coyotes but not wolves. I dunno – this is probably more of my feelings than biological fact – but I just don't feel small anywhere else, like the land or something living on it can kill me. In Wyoming, away from town, out in the middle of nowhere I feel small and like I could die and that's a very intense feeling that I like very much. Being from Wyoming hasn't really influenced my work, specifically. Having lived in lots of places – Ireland, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, Los Angeles, Shanghai, San Francisco – I think the totality of that experience has influenced my ability to just sit with a character who isn't like me and think about what makes them operate, being from Wyoming has yet to really impact anything I've worked on in any recognizable way.
FYFEHow young were you when you left Ireland? Do you have any strong impressions of it like you do with Wyoming?
VANAMANI was really young when I left Ireland – just three years old. But because my mom is Irish and we've gone back so often, it feels as much like home to me as Wyoming (in that it's been a constant fixture in my life despite moving around and traveling). Most of those strong impressions are from the people; the way Irish people talk and tell stories; the way they interact with strangers, etc. I feel more comfortable in Ireland or with my buddies from there than just about anywhere else.
FYFEHave you ever observed a Bloomsday?
VANAMANYou mean the Christmas in June? I do observe Bloomsday in that every year, on my birthday, I cast a furtive glance to my copy of Ulysses, its spine showing about 1/8" of tiny creases towards the cover, the remaining two inches completely unblemished, and remind myself that another year has passed and I haven't read or even tried to read it. To observe Bloomsday, for me, is to celebrate my inadequacy. Another fact – my mother, a true Dubliner, and consequently a Joyce mega-fan, birthed me at 12:02am on June 16th. I believe, although it has never been shared, that I ought've been born a day earlier, but my mom, dead set on having a Bloomsbaby, held me in until it was certain that her first son would be cosmically tied to the date.
FYFEWhat is it about the way that Irish people tell stories?
VANAMANI think there are just some cultures that are natural storytellers and the Irish are one of them. Narratives seem like a methodology in pursuit of a worldview, in pursuit of education and most importantly, entertainment. Friends from Jewish cultures are similar, in that regard. Maybe it's because of the weather, maybe it's from spending a few thousand years on a cold, wet rock, but so much about Irish culture, in my experience, is sitting around in-doors talking and entertaining each other. I love it. The thing I love about an Irish storyteller (not that this is true for me) but it's that he or she knows where their moment is – they're building towards that punchline, to that whiz- bam AND THEN, and you're sitting there, as a listener, just waiting for it because you know it's coming. The most innocuous story is going to have something for you right at the very end because you can trust the person wouldn't be telling it if it didn't.
* * *
I experienced Irish storytelling for myself when I went to Cork on June 26. At the Cork Butter Museum, I learned about the modernisation of the Irish butter industry and that, way back in pagan days, “women were seen as being better able to engage with the magical forces whose cooperation was needed to ensure the successful transformation of cream into butter.”
The museum has a couple stories about these magical forces. Once, a man noticed that his cows had no milk. Thinking that someone else was milking these cows while he slept, he grabbed a rifle and hid outside one night. When he saw a hare coming towards him, he shot it, and in the morning it turned out that this was a woman who could change herself into a hare. She was stealing the milk.
Also, one time, two men were wandering around at three in the morning when they saw a house that they had never seen before in the day. They peered through the window, and there was a woman inside. She was making butter.
I guess those are pretty good stories. I decided to leave the museum after that, and at the exit I noticed a placard explaining something called Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Each year since 1954, this title is bestowed upon a young woman selected by the Minnesota Dairy Association to serve as goodwill ambassador for the Minnesota dairy industry.
The Princess Kay is crowned at the Minnesota State Fair in August. After her coronation she must enter a refrigerated glass chamber and sit for her likeness to be made into a 90-pound butter sculpture. Later, the head is removed and eaten by the community.
Sometimes the head is preserved for sentimental reasons. “It would be equivalent to tearing up a picture of your daughter,” Laura Olson told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. Olson has had three daughters crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way, and thus now has three life-size butter sculptures of her daughters’ heads stuffed in her freezer.
“Thanks for that,” I said to the guy behind the desk on my way out, and he nodded back, like, of course.