The Chicago Tribune called him an "evil genius".
The Atlantic described his work as "elevating the Tweet and the f-word to the level of literature."
Rahm Emanuel called him "an asshole."
Whatever else he may be, Daniel Sinker has taken an unusual route to publication.
During this year's mayoral election in Chicago, an anonymous Twitter account spoofing candidate Rahm Emanuel, under the Twitter name @MayorEmanuel, became a cult comedy and literary phenomenon. It began as a foul-mouthed response to events involving the real-life Emanuel; however the narrative shifted suddenly during the campaign into a bizarre tale of hallucinations, parallel universes and a duck named Quaxelrod.
Wired described it as "the first truly great piece of literature to be produced using [Twitter]."
The man behind it was Sinker, a former punk zinester and a teacher at Columbia College in Chicago, who only revealed himself after his story - and the election - had ended. The entirety of the @MayorEmanuel tweets have been turned into a book, "The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel", out next week (Scribner, $12.)
His follow-up work? Tweeting for us.
On Tuesday, Sinker will be taking over our Twitter feed, @HuffPostBooks. And, as with @MayorEmanuel, he's relying on you to tweet back, and interact with the narrative.
Read on to learn about Twitter as a literary medium, how his tweets read when published as a book, and a sneak preview of the sci-fi story he'll be tweeting exclusively for The Huffington Post.
What makes Twitter an interesting medium on which to write?
I think there are a few things going on:
First is the constraints. With only 140 characters, you have to be very methodical about what you're going to say, and how you're going to say it. The amount of language distillation that needs to happen to have a thought really come through clearly is not insignificant.
Some of my favorite Tweets in the story are really the result of maximum levels of language efficiency, like this one, where Mayor Daley teaches @MayorEmanuel the steps in making celery salt: "Daley fucking plucks a stalk. "Care for these. Let flowers bloom. Dry them. Harvest the seeds. Grind them. Mix with salt." That was actually really hard to distill down to fit the space. You find yourself really adopting the language of poetry far more than the language of prose.
Second is time, because everything you write is time-stamped, and because everyone reading it is seeing it in a separate timestream, time needs to be a very conscious element in the storytelling. If ten minutes pass between tweets, then ten minutes should have passed in your story, because it did for the readers and it did for your character.
For instance, there's a scene where @MayorEmanuel, David Axelrod, and Carl the Intern are stuck in the sewers below City Hall. Their escape actually played out in real-time over the course of a number of hours. That real-time element was one of the bigger challenges in adapting the feed for the page, but I think between the annotations and some typographic finesse we were actually able to translate time onto the page effectively.
Finally is feedback. As you're writing, you are instantly getting feedback on what you're writing. Let's take, for example, a three-tweet arc that might play out over a half-hour. In those ten-minute breaks between tweets, you might hear back from dozens of people that are reading the exact second you're writing. And that inevitably ends up influencing the way the arc plays out. Quaxelrod, the mustachioed duck that @MayorEmanuel befriends during his darkest hour, was originally written as a one-or-two tweet joke. But the moment he was introduced, I got so much positive feedback from people, instantly, he ended up becoming a key player in the whole story. How much of the overall narrative of @MayorEmanuel's story did you have written before your tweets as him? How much did you plan ahead while doing it?
Almost none, to be honest. I never wrote anything down, never had a "bible" for continuity. When the feed started, it started as a lark, a thing that felt like it might be funny to try. I don't think people really sit down and plan out their larks (or - dear god - I hope they don't). Once it was clear that it had become more than a lark I'd become accustomed to the more improvisational process I'd arrived at.
As the story became more complex, and as the actual mayoral race matured, I would get some ideas in advance but they were mainly images. Probably the furthest-out image I had in my head was something like "@MayorEmanuel and Mayor Daley sit on the City Hall green roof together and talk about how shitty it is to be mayor." That ended up really becoming two very different elements in the story, separated by a few months. It was mostly very elaborate, written improve. How does it read as a book, rather than a live Twitter feed?
Well, I'm probably biased but I actually think it reads really well. That's because of two things: First, much of the story played out reactively - @MayorEmanuel reacting to externalities, like changes in the mayoral race or the weather or any number of other things.
When experiencing that in real-time it's easy to understand the externalities because they're probably already in your Twitter feed or they're a Google search away. But when you're reading it in a book, those externalities are either going to be confusing or you're going to go research them and so it's going to break you out of the reading experience. As a result, I folded in extensive annotations to the tweets that explain the extenal events, people, places, and things that built into the narrative. As a result, it's actually a really rich experience.
The other reason I think it works really well is that Twitter is a noisy place, and the original narrative needed to compete against everything else in anyone's feed. Now it's all there without the competition, allowing the narrative to feel much more coherent. Have you seen any other writers making interesting use of the medium?
To me, I'm most excited about how journalists have been using it (again, my biases may be showing here, as I work with journalists every day). It's been thrilling to watch their use of Twitter evolve over the last year or so from an RSS feed dump to real engagement, reporting, and real-time nonfiction storytelling. I think the way someone like Andy Carvin has transformed the medium and I just stand in awe. Do you have more Twitter writing planned, other than this one?
I have an extraordinarily crooked career path - it's hard to see how one thing leads to the next, but inevitably it does. I tend to not repeat myself, so there's nothing like this sitting clearly on the horizon. But you never know. Tell us about the story you'll be telling on our Twitter feed. Can readers interact with you during its telling?
Well, this is Huffington Post Books, so I wanted to write a short story about books, about their mythologies and about why we hold the stories inside them so dear. But I'm setting it far in the future, at the very end of days for the book. Like the @MayorEmanuel story, a lot of it will be improvised - I have a few images I like and some beats I want to be sure to hit - but absolutely interaction from the audience is going to be crucial, even if a time-shifted link from the far future that somehow intersects with present-day Twitter and allows communication to flow in real-time may seem like a difficult rig to build.
But then again, who thought a story about a guy from another dimension running for mayor of this one with a puppy and a duck with a mustache would work. Crazier things have happened, maybe, right?
To read Daniel Sinker's latest work, follow us on Twitter and wait for Tuesday...