There are strains of William S. Burroughs — his bleakness and his paranoia — in your work. Do you consider him a major reference point?

Oh, God. He's a total hero of mine. I think he's one of the most important writers, not just of the 20th Century, but, like, ever. Serge is a kind of William Burroughs figure, and not just that he's a junkie. With his radio sessions, it's like what he's making is a cutup. He's taking all these bits of information from media at large — newspaper reports, lines of poetry, sports results — and just merging them together. I was thinking very, very directly of Burroughs and Brion Gysin. And it's not just an aesthetic exercise. There's a political and even metaphysical side to it. Burroughs thought we were living within some program, some master script that needs to be cut up and subverted. It's a basic Calvinist, puritan thing. And that's what the writer's task is. That whole impulse and vision was a huge guiding light for me when I was writing C.

Your underground art collective, the International Necronautical Society (INS) — what is it?

Author Tom McCarthy or his body double
Erinn Hartman
Author Tom McCarthy or his body double

The press often describes it as a semifictitious network. And I guess that's kind of right as long as we don't see fiction as the opposite of the real. [The organization does] things in various countries. Some of them might take the form of quite conventional art exhibitions or publications. Others are more surreptitious. For example, we broke into the BBC webpage a few years ago. We have an agent on the inside who inserted INS propaganda into the source code of the site. That wasn't exactly an art project. But I guess the most ambitious set of INS projects has been radio transmissions. In the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, we had a propaganda unit cut up loads of newspapers and mixed it with lines from Ovid or Shakespeare or stock market prices and rearranged it all into sequences that were read out over the radio, broadcast around London, and collaboratively through radio stations around the world. The project was named "Calling All Agents," straight out of Burroughs. The idea was to create a viral network of transmission. And actually, C came out of this work. I had the idea for C while I was setting all this up.

You sent a body double to the 2008 INS Declaration of Inauthenticity at the Tate Modern. How do we know the man at last Friday's Books & Books reading was the real Tom McCarthy?

You can't.

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