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An Interview with Cory Efram Doctorow (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/07/09


Cory Doctorow is an Activist, Blogger, Journalist, and Science Fiction Writer. He discusses: geographic, cultural, and linguistic background; the influence on personal development of the background; pivotal moments in life; the ability to travel by bus and intellectual development; advice for gifted and talented youths; and an honorary doctorate from Open University.

Keywords: activist, Cory Efram Doctorow, journalist, science fiction, writer.

Interview with Cory Efram Doctorow: Blogger, Journalist, and Science Fiction Writer (Part One)[1],[2],[3]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview. *

*This interview was conducted in two parts with the first on April 12, 2016 and the second on July 1, 2016. *

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Duly noted, the biographical information on the website remain out of date because the information appears update on July 30, 2015 – about an eternity ago.[4] With this in mind, and before the in-depth aspects of the interview, let’s cover some of the background. Those with an interest in more detailed information can review the footnotes and references provided throughout and at the end of the interview. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your personal and familial background reside?

Cory Doctorow: Geography, culture, and language, well, my father’s parents are from Eastern Europe. My grandmother was born in Leningrad. My grandfather was born in a country that is now Poland, but was then Belarus, a territory rather, that is now Polish but was then Belarusian. My father was born while his parents were in a displaced persons camp in Azerbaijan and his first language was Yiddish. My mother’s family are first and second generation Ukrainian-Russian Romanians. Her first language was English, but her mother’s first language was French and was raised in Quebec. I was born in Canada. My first language is English. And I attended Yiddish school at a radical socialist Yiddish program run by the Workman’s Circle until I was 13.

I was raised in Canada. I moved to Central America – the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border – when I was in my early 20s and from there to California, and I ping-ponged back-and-forth between Northern California and Canada for some years, and then I re-settled in Northern California, and then in the United Kingdom, and then in Los Angeles, and then back in the United Kingdom, and then back in Los Angeles, and then back in the United Kingdom, and I am currently residing outside of Los Angeles in Burbank, and seeking permanent residence in of the United States.

2. Jacobsen: In terms of the influence on development, what was it with this background?

Doctorow: I guess there is some influence. It is hard to qualify or quantify. I have written fiction about some of my family’s experiences. My grandmother was a child soldier in the siege of Leningrad. It was something that I did not know much about until I visited Saint Petersburg with her in the mid-2000s and she started to open up. I wrote a novella called After the Siege that’s built on that. I guess I have always had a sense that rhetoric about illegal immigrants or migration more generally was about my family.

All of the things that people say illegal immigrants must and mustn’t do were about the circumstances of my grandparents’ migration. My grandfather and grandmother were Red Army deserters, and they destroyed their papers after leaving Azerbaijan in order to qualify as displaced people and not be ingested back into the Soviet population. Maintaining that ruse, they were able to board a DP boat from Hamburg to Halifax, and that was how they migrated to Canada. If they had been truthful in their immigration process, they would have almost certainly ended up in the former Soviet Union and likely faced reprisals for deserting from the army as well.

3. Jacobsen: What about influences and pivotal moments in major cross-sections of early life including kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school, and undergraduate studies (college/university)?

Doctorow: I went to fairly straightforward public schools. My mother is an early childhood education specialist, and she taught in my elementary school. When I was 9, we moved to a different neighbourhood, not far away, but far enough away that I could not walk to that old school anymore. At that point, I enrolled in a publicly funded alternative school called the ALP, the Alternative Learning Program. It was also too far away to walk. So, I started taking the bus on my own, which was significant in terms of my intellectual development later in life, and my ability to figure out the transit route, and jump on the bus, and go wherever it was that I wanted to go. It turned out to be extremely significant in my intellectual development. The alternative learning school, learning program rather, grouped kindergarten through grade 8 in one or two classes.

Older students were expected to teach the younger students. There was a lot of latitude to pursue the curriculum at our own pace. That was also significant in terms of my approach to learning. The school itself, when I was in grade 6, I think, or 7, and was re-homed in a much larger middle school that was much more conservative. A number of students there were military cadets. I had been active as an anti-war activist and an anti-nuclear proliferation activist that put me in conflict with the administration. I was beaten up and bullied by the students at the larger school. I was also penalized by the administration for my political beliefs. They basically did everything they could to interfere with our political organizing. We ran an activist group out of the school, and attempted protests and so on.

They would confiscate our materials, and they would allow, tacitly, those kids who were violent against us to get away with it. When I graduated from that program, my parents were keen on my attending a gifted school for grade 9. I found it terrible, focused on testing and rigid. much the opposite of the program that I had gone into and thrived in. So, after a couple months of that, I simply stopped going. Grade 9, I started taking the subway downtown and hanging out at the Metro reference library in Toronto, which is a giant reference library. At the time, they had a well-stocked microfiche and microfilm section with an archive going back to the 18th century, and I basically spent two or three weeks browsing through the paper archives, going through the subject index and then finding things that were interesting, and then reading random chapters out of books that were interesting and so on, until my parent figured out I was not going to school anymore. We had a knockdown, drag out fight. That culminated with my switching to a publicly funded alternative secondary school called AISP, Alternative Independent Study Program.

I went there for two years, and then enrolled in a school downtown called SEED school. SEED school was a much more radical, open, and alternative school, where attendance was not mandatory, courses weren’t mandatory. I took most of the school year off to organize opposition to the first Gulf war. I took most of another year off to move to Baja California, Mexico with a word processor and write. I took about 7 years altogether to graduate with a 4-year diploma, and then I went through 4 undergraduate university programs. None of which I stayed in for more than a semester.

The first was York University Interdisciplinary studies program. The second was University of Toronto’s Artificial Intelligence Program. The third was Michigan State University’s graduate writing program, which I was given early admission to, and then the fourth one was University of Waterloos independent studies program. After a semester or so at each of them, I concluded they were a bit rigid and not to my liking, and after the fourth one, after Waterloo, I figured I was not cut out for undergraduate education. The tipping point was that the undergraduate program with a thesis year. It is a year-long independent project. I proposed a multimedia hyper-textual project delivered on CD-ROM that would talk about social deviance and the internet, and while they thought the subject was interesting, they were a little dubious about it. But they were four square that anything that I did would have to show up on 8.5×11, 20-pound bond and ALA style book. And I got a job offer to program CD-ROMs from a contractor that worked with Voyager, which was one of the largest and the best multimedia publishers in the world.

I thought, “I can stay here and not do hypertext and pay you guys a lot of money, or I can take this job that pays more than I have ever mad e in my life and do exactly the work that you’re not going to let me do here.” When I thought about it in those terms, it was an easy decision to drop out and I never looked back.

4. Jacobsen: At the outset, you did mention that the ability to travel by bus was an important moment for you in terms of your intellectual development. Can you please expand on that?

Doctorow: Sure, as I went through these alternative schools, I had a large degree of freedom in terms of my time, and how I structured my work, and so, for example when I was 9 or 10, we did a school field trip to a library that was then called the Spaced Out Library, a science fiction reference collection, and now called the Merril Collection. It was founded by the writer and critic Judith Merril. She left the United States after the Chicago 1968 police riots, and moved to Canada in protest. She brought her personal library with her, which she donated to the Toronto library system, where she was the writer-in-residence. After going there once, and finding this heaven of books and reference material, and lots of other things, I started jumping on the subway whenever I had a spare moment and going down there. Merril herself, being the writer-in-residence, would meet with writers like me and critique our work. And from them, I discovered the science fiction book store, which I later went on to work at.

I would add that to my daily or weekly rounds, and go and raid their news book section, and their 25 cent rack, and began reading my way through the field. At the same time, my political activism and work in anti-nuclear proliferation movement, and the reproductive freedom movement, working as an escort at the Toronto abortion clinics to escort women through the lines of protestors. As I became more and more knowledgeable about the city, and all of its ways of getting around, I also found myself engaged with all of these different communities.

5. One of things that seems like a trend to me, and you can correct me if I am wrong, please. In the sense that, you have the rigid part of the educational system that you did go through. So, for instance, the earlier gifted program that you disliked, but when you had more freedom you did not note any general dislike of that, and, in fact, your general trajectory seems to indicate a trend towards more open-source information and in terms of educational style, too. That seems to be your preference, and that does seem to reflect a lot of gifted and talented students’ experiences in the traditional educational system. Any advice for gifted and talented youths that might read this interview in terms of what educational resources that they can get too?

Phew. I do not know., one of the things that going through the gifted and talented program, which was called gifted back then, taught me is that gifted is like this incredibly – it is a – problematic label. It privileges a certain learning style. I mean I did not thrive in a gifted program. I did terribly in a gifted program because the gifted program seems largely about structure, and same with the undergraduate programs, imposing structure on the grounds that if kids were left to their own devices, they would goof off. For me, although, I did my share of goofing off. If I was left sufficiently bored, and if I were given enough hints about where I would find exciting things that would help me leave that boredom, I was perfectly capable of taking control of my own educational experience, and because it was self-directed it was much more meaningful and stuck much more deeply than anything that would have been imposed on me.

It is like intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. The things that I came to because I found them fascinating or compelling. I ended up doing in much more depth, and ended up staying with me much longer, than the things that I was made to do, and the things that the grownups and educators did for me was laid out the buffet, but not tell me what I had to pick off of it and in what order, and that was super beneficial to me. I think that when we say gifted and talented we often mean pliable or bit-able, as opposed to intellectually curious or ferocious. Although, I think we have elements of all of those in us. The selling of a gifted and talented program often comes at the expense of being independent and intrinsically motivated in your learning style.

6. You earned an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University (UK). What does this mean to you?

It meant rather a lot. More than I even thought it would. My parents were upset at my decision to drop out of undergraduate programs and not finish them. A decade after I dropped out of Waterloo, after I had multiple New York Times bestsellers under my belt, they were still like, “Have you thought about going back and finishing that undergraduate degree? For me, I think that undergraduate degree signified an escape and also was of becoming who they were. My grandparents were not well-educated. My grandfather was functionally illiterate in five different languages. [Laughter]. My grandmother too. My parents were arguably the first people in their family to be literate. Being the eldest of their cohort, respectively, they were the first people to become literate, not the last by any stretch, but finished a doctorate in education. For them, formal structured credentializing education was a pathway to an intellectual freedom. For me, it was the opposite, and yet it was clear that my parents – no matter what I did – were less than delighted with my progress. There would always be something missing in my progress for so long as I did not have a formal academic credential. So, they were awfully excited when I got the degree. I had some vicarious excitement. Plus, I thoroughly enjoyed to riff them on why they did it the hard way and spent all that time and money on their degree, when all you needed to do was hang around until the someone gave you one. Of course, I have more respect for the Academy that that. [Laughing]


But it also meant that instrumentally gave me a lot of advantages. I have been a migrant on many occasions into many countries and have suffered from the lack of formal academic credentials. Immigration systems of most countries rely on credentialing as a heuristic of who is the person they want to resettle in their territories, and the lack of an academic credential meant that, for example, to get my 01 visa in the United States is an alien of extraordinary ability visa, which is typically only available to people with doctorate or post-doctorate credential. I needed to file paperwork that demonstrated the equivalent. My initial visa application was 600, and 900 pages in my second renewal and 1,200 pages in my recent one.

They were that long in order to convince the US immigration authorities that what I have done amounts to a graduate degree, so, that instrumental piece of it was nice, but then, finally, it was a connection to the Open University, which is an institution that I think very, highly of. Their commitment to a distance education, individualized curriculum for lifelong learning matches with my own learning style, and the way I think about pedagogy more generally. I was honored to gain this long-term affiliation with the university with what amounts to a lifelong affiliation with the university. It was exciting.


  1. Doctorow, C. (2016). Crap Hound. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Activist; Blogger; Journalist; Science Fiction Author.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 8, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2018:

[3] Photograph courtesy of Cory Efram Doctorow and Jonathan Worth Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

[4] About Cory Doctorow (2015) states:

                Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger — the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of many books, most recently IN REAL LIFE, a graphic novel; INFORMATION DOES NOT WANT TO BE FREE, a book about earning a living in the Internet age, and HOMELAND, the award-winning, best-selling sequel to the 2008 YA novel LITTLE BROTHER.

            One paragraph:

                Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger — the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of the YA graphic novel IN REAL LIFE, the nonfiction business book INFORMATION DOES NOT WANT TO BE FREE< and young adult novels like HOMELAND, PIRATE CINEMA and LITTLE BROTHER and novels for adults like RAPTURE OF THE NERDS and MAKERS. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.

            Full length:

                Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist. He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing (, and a contributor to The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, Wired, and many other newspapers, magazines and websites. He is a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, a non-profit civil liberties group that defends freedom in technology law, policy, standards and treaties. He holds an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University (UK), where he is a Visiting Professor; in 2007, he served as the Fulbright Chair at the Annenberg Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

                His novels have been translated into dozens of languages and are published by Tor Books, Titan Books (UK) and HarperCollins (UK) and simultaneously released on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses that encourage their re-use and sharing, a move that increases his sales by enlisting his readers to help promote his work. He has won the Locus and Sunburst Awards, and been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and British Science Fiction Awards.

                His two latest books are IN REAL LIFE, a young adult graphic novel created with Jen Wang (2014); and INFORMATION DOES NOT WANT TO BE FREE, a business book about creativity in the Internet age (2014).

                His latest young adult novel is HOMELAND, the bestselling sequel to 2008’s LITTLE BROTHER. His latest novel for adults is RAPTURE OF THE NERDS, written with Charles Stross and published in 2012. His New York Times Bestseller LITTLE BROTHER was published in 2008. His latest short story collection is WITH A LITTLE HELP, available in paperback, ebook, audiobook and limited edition hardcover. In 2011, Tachyon Books published a collection of his essays, called CONTEXT: FURTHER SELECTED ESSAYS ON PRODUCTIVITY, CREATIVITY, PARENTING, AND POLITICS IN THE 21ST CENTURY (with an introduction by Tim O’Reilly) and IDW published a collection of comic books inspired by his short fiction called CORY DOCTOROW’S FUTURISTIC TALES OF THE HERE AND NOW. THE GREAT BIG BEAUTIFUL TOMORROW, a PM Press Outspoken Authors chapbook, was also published in 2011.

                LITTLE BROTHER was nominated for the 2008 Hugo, Nebula, Sunburst and Locus Awards. It won the Ontario Library White Pine Award, the Prometheus Award as well as the Indienet Award for bestselling young adult novel in America’s top 1000 independent bookstores in 2008; it was the San Francisco Public Library’s One City/One Book choice for 2013. It has also been adapted for stage by Josh Costello.

                He co-founded the open source peer-to-peer software company OpenCola, and serves on the boards and advisory boards of the Participatory Culture Foundation, the Clarion Foundation, the Metabrainz Foundation and The Glenn Gould Foundation.

                On February 3, 2008, he became a father. The little girl is called Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow, and is a marvel that puts all the works of technology and artifice to shame.

Doctorow, C. (2015, July 30). About Cory Doctorow. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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