Dan Sinker: Interview

Monday, June 11, 2012

Since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, we’ve all become the authors of our own narratives. Through our updates, photos, videos, comments, shifting relationship statuses, and “likes,” our children and grandchildren will have unprecedented access to our lives. Social media presents us with the ability to form a narrative that is a mashup between what we do and how we want others to perceive us.

Now imagine if we applied this to traditional storytelling—that we had the ability to know how many people were following our words as we wrote them, what their reactions were to our sentences, how many of them approved. Imagine that the most powerful aspect of our prose was the witnessing of its creation. That it drew its power from its relation to what was happening in the outside world at the moment and was published sentence by sentence. That the walls disappeared.

This is real-time literature, fueled by the platform of social media. This is a space where the creative process is laid bare while the author is shrouded. Though the seminal author of real-time literature prefers a hoodie.

Dan Sinker rose to fame during Chicago’s 2011 mayoral election by creating a fake Twitter account posing as then-candidate Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, known for his harshness as President Obama’s chief of staff, was seen by many as an outsider to Chicago but also the front runner for Mayor Daley’s successor. A then-anonymous Twitter user named @MayorEmanuel entered the fray with a character whose bio read “Your next motherfucking mayor.” And the rest is history.

Sinker’s Twitter feed, available in its entirety, was brash, obscene, and hilarious, and it struck true to its tens of thousands of followers. Scribner published the 1,950+ Tweets over six months in a book called The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel.

And on a warm night last September, a heady mix of Chicago journalists, professors, hipsters, techies, government staffers, and musicians piled into a century-old house that sits alongside the north branch of the Chicago River. The owners never named the bar, but the locals have called it the Hideout since it opened, a year after the end of Prohibition.

It was a fitting venue for Sinker’s book launch party. Special guests included Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and performers from Louder than a Bomb, but the most notable was the in-real-life Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who signed a copy of Sinker’s novel.

This was a story of politics and media, and it was unmistakably Chicago. 

Sinker, a former journalism professor at Columbia College, now heads up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. TriQuarterly Online conducted an interview with Sinker over Google Chat.


TriQuarterly Online: Have you been writing stories from an early age? What got you interested in telling them?

Dan Sinker: Well, I come to stories actually less from telling them myself and more from facilitating others to tell theirs. I ran a publishing company for thirteen years; our most visible product was a magazine called Punk Planet, and we also published a line of books, Punk Planet Books, among other things. I was the publisher and the editor, and I wrote a lot for it, but that was because it was a low-budget publication, and so it was all-hands-on-deck for everything, not because I thought of myself as a writer. In fact, I would correct people on that fact.

TQO: You must be a reader, then.

Sinker: I’m very much a reader. But I’m also someone who spent many, many, many hours helping people to tell their stories. And as a result, I understand story at a very granular level.

TQO: What do you value in stories?

Sinker: Well, I think that what I value in story is what most people do: the ability to both go somewhere Im not and learn about myself in the process. I think that is true with nonfiction storytelling (i.e., journalism) and fiction storytelling. The universality of story is what resonates, but the detail of difference is what pulls us in.

TQO: There’s been a lot of speculation on how your new book would be understood as a printed collection. What are the advantages of having your work in print?

Sinker: I think there are two unique advantages to having the book in print. The first is simply that the narrative holds together better collected like that. Even in the archives that are online, the narrative is harder to follow. It is interrupted by @ replies and their associated digressions. It is lengthy in some parts that really bog it down after the fact (live-Tweeting a Bears game, for instance). It is hard in a near-infinite scroll of 1,950+ Tweets to really see how things interlink, the nuances of how characters develop, and how the narrative works together. I think narrative—the overarching story and the way the characters grow—is a lot clearer in a book.

The other thing that I think the book is great for is context. The thing about a real-time story is that a lot of it unfolds in reaction to external events. At least this one did (and I think, in general, real-time should). In archives, or reading the feed afterward, those externalities are very hard to contextualize. Doing the book allowed for that context to be folded back in, and so the reactive elements of how the story plays out are able to come to the fore again. By the end, the book has actually documented two narratives: the fictional narrative of @MayorEmanuel and the nonfiction narrative of the mayoral race.

TQO: When you were Tweeting as @MayorEmanuel, what was your breakdown of research versus planning for the future versus reacting to current events? Did you reach a point where you thought these three elements really jelled?

Sinker: I think “research” implies a level of planning that didn’t exist. Most of the references to places and objects and pop culture throughout the book are things that I know well, and so they were able to be brought into the story without a lot of heavy lifting—which was crucial because so much of the story was improvised. Really, most of the story unfolded reactively to current events—things in the mayoral race, things in the news, or simple things like the weather. You established characters and then you saw how they reacted to these externalities. Planning for the future came in fits and starts, but mainly it was thinking of an image or an idea. Nothing was ever written down. But occasionally I’d have an idea, and I’d know that it was something I’d want to visit later in the story, flesh out, and make real. But again, that was pretty minimal, and on only one occasion—the setup for the “multiverse” at the end of the story—did it have real impact. Improvisation and reaction were the biggest drivers of the narrative.

TQO: Let’s talk about real-time lit.

Sinker: Sure.

TQO: Is it a new genre?

Sinker: Well, I think we need to see a few more examples to really define it as a genre. But it’s established as a possibility pretty clearly now. It established a road map, certainly. Hopefully others will follow.

TQO: Something about your work, which is often also ascribed to other works that establish road maps for new stylistic forms, is that it can be never be duplicated. Borges plays with this notion in his story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” where he has one of his characters rewrite Don Quixote word for word. He implies that the version is richer because time has elapsed and the context has changed.

Will a feed like @MayorEmanuel ever be duplicated, or even similarly famous? It seems like a tenet of real-time lit is that it happens in the moment. What with the timestamps and all.

Sinker: Right. Well, there are actually two separate things that could be picked apart: @MayorEmanuel as phenomenon, and then @MayorEmanuel as first draft of real-time literature. So as phenomenon: Yes, we will see this replicated a lot. We already have. And these other accounts will actually always be bigger and more “successful” in terms of follower count and other measures than @MayorEmanuel.

The best example of that right now is that directly in the wake of all of the press attention [last] spring around @MayorEmanuel, you had the Bronx Zoo cobra escape and the Twitter account that followed. That thing just exploded. It was, in part, because the media were ready to write about this stuff. And, added bonus, they could actually read the Tweets on the air and not break FCC rules.

TQO: Interesting. 

: We’re going to see this again and again and again, and @MayorEmanuel wasn‘t the first but part of a continuum. But to me that is actually less interesting than the other half of the question: that of real-time literature. You need to strip the phenomenon away and look at what was really successful in the real-time storytelling aspect with @MayorEmanuel, which was the acknowledgment that time was a part of the storytelling medium. There had been many prior attempts at serializing a story over Twitter, but what that really meant was doling out something previously written sentence by sentence (or even having to break up those sentences). What it meant was that ultimately you just end up with a story that’s hard to follow, so everyone’s just waiting for the final version.

What @MayorEmanuel did, and I wasn’t entirely conscious of it at the start, was to let time be a part of the story. If ten minutes elapses in the real world, it elapses in the story world as well. A great example is the story where @MayorEmanuel and his friends get caught in the sewers below City Hall. In the feed, each person got caught in two-hour increments, and it took that long for the story to unfold as a result. Being really conscious of the timestamp, of how that influences the story, was the crucial bit that was missing from previous attempts—an understanding that the fictional world and the real word are forever linked by that stamp. Each person’s experience of the story is going to be different, because all of them experience the elapsing of time in different ways.

TQO: And yet in many ways the same, at least if you were in Chicago. You can Tweet about the sky opening up and everyone in Chicago actually sees snow.

Sinker: Exactly. So that’s the even more complicated relationship: the incorporation of real-world events, of real-time experience, into the story. So timestamps are one thing. Weather events, sports scores, and so on bring a richness to the story and to the world you’re establishing, because it vibrates out externally and brings the reader in until the universes—the fictional world and the nonfictional one—combine.

TQO: Constructing the dual narrative between @MayorEmanuel and the actual mayor is fun, but the dual narrative between @MayorEmanuel and @dansinker can also be pretty hilarious. For instance, on November 23 you wrote an article for the Huffington Post advising mayoral candidates on their web presence. Just the day before you had Tweeted as @MayorEmanuel: “I just keep looking at this motherfucking list of candidates and thinking how it all ended up fucking circus clowns.”

Do you ever have identity issues?

Sinker: Haha. The thing that is funny to me now is how much @MayorEmanuel really does reflect me. But in the same way that it plays on a hyper-version of Rahm Emanuel’s public persona, it also amplifies a lot of me. The one that was really obvious to me as the feed progressed was how much of the story revolves around friendship and loyalty. And that was because I had this tiny group of friends that knew the secret, and I felt an incredible kinship and loyalty and love toward them, and it came out in the id of @MayorEmanuel.

TQO: So Axelrod is obviously an aggregate of a bunch of your friends.

Sinker: Haha, yes, definitely. With a lot of other influences mixed in as well. He was my favorite character to write by a mile.

TQO: Yeah, it really shows in the writing.

Last question: how will you explain all of this to your son?

Sinker: There‘s no “will” in that question. It is an active process. He’s six and very sharp.

TQO: Haha.

Sinker: And of course, when there are newspeople on the front lawn of your house, he’s going to know immediately that something’s up. Earlier on it was easier to keep it from him than it is now with a physical book. Before it was just “I wrote this really funny, kind of crazy story for adults on Twitter, and a lot of people want to talk to me about it.” His main reaction to all of that was “Why did you do that? Nobody reads Twitter.”


Image taken from Dan Sinker's Tumblr page