john wray’s novel on twitter . . .

media coverage of john wray’s twitter novel, plus his take on dogs

Beginning on Feb. 19, Wray also began a parallel narrative project that involves the trend-setting social networking site Twitter. 

On his Twitter page, you can follow the musings of “Citizen,” a fellow subway rider of Wray’s 16-year-old protagonist Will Heller (aka “Lowboy”), who has escaped from a New York City psychiatric hospital, stopped taking his meds and is pursuing his paranoid schizophrenic delusions as a fugitive in the subterranean world of the New York City subway system. The character of “Citizen” was edited out of the final draft of Lowboy, only to be reincarnated in the form of a sequence of 140-character-or-less text messages (or “tweets”) that constitute the user updates of Twitter and are available to readers who visit Wray’s profile page on the Twitter web site or subscribe to the updates via RSS feeds or mobile-phone applications.

“I chose a character with fairly straightforward fears and desires, with the intention that each individual tweet might read as a complete micronarrative,” Wray explained in a recent e-mail message to a reporter from Poets & Writers magazine. “That’s a hell of a lot harder than I anticipated, of course, and a lot of good material has to be cut away. But it’s probably a healthy exercise to be compelled to say things in as few words as possible.” 

Fans of the genre known as “flash fiction” — a narrative approach markedly different from Wray’s dense, multilayered narrative in The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), his debut novel set in late 1930s Austria during and after the Nazi Anschluss — will find the prose poem-like concision of Citizen’s text messages alternately amusing and disturbing.

Here for instance, is a message dated April 3: “Citizen’s dreams smelled like hair gel and cheese. Colgate toothpaste. Malt liquor. Occasionally, during celebrity walk-ons, like rosewater.”  And here is another, dated March 30: “Dream #3: Citizen working as a private chef for a high-ranking GOP paranoiac. Blades of all kinds prohibited. Chewing for hours & hours.”


And right now you’re doing a Twitter experiment. Are you writing a sort of cell phone/Twitter novel? I’d like for it to be a cell phone novel but I don’t know if anyone is actually getting it on their cell phones and there’s no way of knowing that. As much as I love the idea of a bunch of school girls downloading my novel, that doesn’t seem to be the dynamic that’s in place with Twitter in this country, unfortunately. I think maybe “novel” isn’t the right way to think about it when you’re writing it or when you’re reading it. The way that Twitter is set up, there are many obstacles to writing a novel as an ongoing narrative.

What are they? First of all it’s a pain in the ass to go back and look at your previous tweets. Secondly, they’re shown in reverse order. So I try to think of it more as a fictional newspaper column, where each tweet is a sort of a mini self-contained jelly bean that should be fairly fun to consume on its own. In my Twitter novel there’s this loosely defined character called Citizen, and I try to say his name in every tweet. I think each could be read on its own and each could be as fun to read as another. It’s like doing stretching exercises, and it doesn’t permit you to fall back on your stylistic tricks. It’s also a way of feeling less anachronistic, which is why a lot of fiction writers are into Twitter. It’s not too much of a stretch, but they’re not engaging in some weird nostalgic practice, which is silly because there’s no real difference, in my mind, between a chunk of text on a screen or in your leather bound journal. Doesn’t really matter.

Do you have a dog? No. I mean, I like dogs. Why do you ask?



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