His novel with the glow-in-dark cover, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, came out in October, though it actually started years ago as a short story on his website. Of course, the seeds for it likely started back even farther, during his years working at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.
I’ve inhaled almost everything Robin has written: Annabel Scheme, a novella; “Fish,” a thoughtful essay in app form; and, of course the new novel. I grew even more intrigued when I learned Annabel Scheme was initially a Kickstarter project (you’ll hear more about that in the interview).
Robin is frightfully creative and incredibly open-minded. He also happens to tell really good stories. Below is our conversation, conducted over email, about stories, technology, and giving up the iPhone,
The Millions: You call yourself a “media inventor” and it’s quickly obvious you have a deep appreciation for history. What’s your belief about what the past has to teach us? Have you always been so fond of books?
Robin Sloan: Yes, I’ve always loved books. I was a kid who spent a lot of time in the library, scouring the stacks for the next installment of whatever fantasy series I was tearing through. But I’ve always loved technology, too: when I wasn’t at the library, I was planted in front of my family’s Mac Plus, writing or programming or slowly surfing the nascent Internet. I’m not convinced that one of those worlds is the past and the other is the future. I think both are vital components of our very capacious future-present, and both have been for a long time. In any case, I’ve always immersed myself in both, side by side. I think a lot of people have.
TM: What’s the order of your writing adventures: “Fish,” the Penumbra story, Annabel Scheme, the new novel? And what’s the single most important thing you’ve learned in that journey?
RS: It goes like this: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” the short story, Annabel Scheme the Kickstarter project, Scheme on Kindle (and free on my website, “Fish” the app, Penumbra the novel. Along the way, going from blog posts to short stories to novellas to novels, I’ve learned how to suppress the feeling that I’ve come to recognize as “the paranoia of the screen” — the creeping sense that your reader is about to lose interest, close the tab, and never return.
TM: You found a community of readers in a rather untraditional manner. How did that happen? (I’m thinking particularly about Annabel Scheme and your Kickstarter project to make a print version of the novella).
RS: I’ve been working in public for years now, sharing inchoate ideas and notes on process along with finished work, and when you do that, you tend to pick up people who stick with you. I’d argue, though, that the manner is not particularly “untraditional” these days. In fact, I think it’s becoming the go-to model for people building new careers and communities.
Twitter is a big part of it; there’s something about the way people find and follow each other over there that seems to support this kind of slow, organic, durable growth over time.
And maybe that’s the key: it has been slow. I started my first blog (Snarkmarket, written with Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody) back in 2003, so, if between then and now, I’ve found just one new person every day…well, that adds up to a lot of people!
TM: Tell me more about your decision to release Annabel Scheme under a Creative Commons license. That’s a big deal for a writer — or any creative. Why did you want to do that?
RS: Oh, that’s easy: because about the coolest thing I can imagine is other people taking my stories and making them their own. In other words: fan fiction. And not just fiction, but creation of every kind: drawings, costumes, games…everything. Now, a Creative Commons license is not strictly necessary; people create things based on copyrighted media all the time. But a CC license can be like a welcome mat — a neon sign that says “open for remix.”
In the case of Annabel Scheme, I was so serious about it that I allocated a few thousand dollars from the Kickstarter project into a “remix fund” to support some of the early projects. For example, a 3D artist named Emily Cooper rendered these postcards from the alternate-reality San Franciscos from the story and got paid to do it. Pretty cool.
TM: Penumbra started with a short story hosted on your website. How did it then evolve?
RS: It was clear, pretty much immediately after posting it, that “Penumbra” was resonating in a special way. It found its audience quickly. That’s a virtue of working on the web, I think: you have access to so much data about how a piece of writing is doing; how it’s being shared; how its audience is changing over time. The data is not the whole story, of course — there are plenty of crappy, cynical blog posts with millions of views — but it does help when you’re a writer just starting out, trying to figure out how to allocate a finite number of keystrokes.
TM: When you’re building tension in a novel — as you did in Penumbra — the stakes get higher in terms of making it worth it for the reader. I was getting nervous but I felt like, in the end, you nailed it. Were you worried about that at all?
RS: Midway through the writing of Penumbra, when the stakes and the resolution were still up in the air, I decided there would be no fistfights; no guns; no deaths. It’s easy to raise the stakes by putting characters in mortal danger, right? And for some stories, it’s absolutely appropriate. But my own life hasn’t featured many gun battles or assassinations, and it has seemed reasonably dramatic to me — so I figured there must be some other way.
Now, judging from the reviews, more than a few people wanted more action. Maybe a darker edge. I’m okay with that; writing would be boring if everybody reacted exactly the same way. Personally, I like the fact that the story’s urgency comes from quieter quarters, with no sniper rifles required.
TM: There are very few people writing, as you ultimately have, about the relationship between humans and technology, even though it’s something so familiar to us. Why do you think people fear it so much?
RS: I think a lot of the fear is based on a misapprehension: that the history of humans (or books, or food, or…) is separate from the history of technology. It’s not. It’s one history, one story — and when you realize that, it tends to defuse the whole debate. So you ignore the “camps” entirely, and turn your attention instead to the figures wandering between them, or better yet, away from them — the pilgrims just cresting the far-off ridgeline.
I don’t mean to sound techno-utopian — I’m decidedly not — but the simple fact is that everything we cherish today was, at some point, a strange and challenging invention. Printed books are no exception. So I think it’s really important that people who have strong beliefs about books, about attention, about life itself, ought to be out there inventing things, and embedding those beliefs in their inventions.
TM: How much research did you have to do on the inner workings of Google and data visualization and complex book scanners? Are these familiar terrains to you? Somehow you made those topics far less intimidating.
RS: I didn’t have to do much special research, because I’ve been fascinated by places like Google and disciplines like data visualization for years. This book was an opportunity to bundle up those fascinations, all those years of scribbled notes, and turn it all into something I could share.
And I’m glad you found it interesting and approachable! That’s one of the best things a book can do, right? Provide a window into an otherwise strange, or even hostile-seeming, world.
TM: You chose not to include Acknowledgements in the book — and there’s a bit of a debate about that in the literary world. What was your reasoning? I’ll say that having the last echo of your book be your last lines (vs. a list of names) mattered more than I expected. Was that your intention?
RS: I’m glad it worked that way for you! Yes, it was definitely my intention. I have nothing against acknowledgments — certainly, there are many people to acknowledge for Penumbra’s creation (and I do that on the book’s web page — but in this particular case, I wanted readers to reach those last lines, and then simply close the book. I guess you could say I was trying to design a moment.
TM: Your book launch for Mr. Penumbra was an all-day event. Tell me how that came about and why you chose to interview the folks you did. You were promoting the new book, yes, but you had a bigger goal, too. Looking back, how do you think it went?
RS: When you write a book with “24-Hour” in the title, I think you’re obligated to do at least one 24-hour event, right? My collaborators at FSG and I all thought so. And there was just something over-the-top and appealing about the idea of a 24-hour livestream; like a strange modern telethon.
So my editor Sean McDonald and I brainstormed a dream team of writers, thinkers, and provocateurs from across a wide range of disciplines, then extended invitations. Almost everyone said yes, I think in part because they were intrigued by the format. Like: “This is just crazy enough to make me want to come over and see what the hell you’re doing.”
There were really two bigger goal behind the 24-hour livestream: First, I wanted to put these people in front of my audience — to celebrate them, and frankly to thank them for the influence many of them had (knowingly or not) on Penumbra. Second, I wanted produce an event that people from all across the world could enjoy. In general, I’m quite frustrated with the limited scale of most book events, so this was a chance to do something that was anchored and site-specific (thanks to the beautiful Center for Fiction in Manhattan) but also open and scalable (streamed online, for all to see).
TM: What are some of your favorite books?
RS: I’ve reread David Markson’s The Last Novel more than any other book. As a kid, I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and I find that they hold up with age (both theirs and mine). This summer I’ve been rereading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s like the unadulterated The Little Prince — the real-life source material from which that story was distilled. Finally, I’m enjoying Aaron Diaz’s strange and beautiful Dark Science, which is still unfolding right now, page by page.
TM: I heard you have an old Nokia phone, which I love. Did you give up an iPhone? And you’re surviving okay?
RS: Ha, yes! I’m not just surviving, but thriving. For me, the iPhone had become a toxic compulsion. It had completed its invasion and occupation of my interstitial time — all those minutes riding the train, waiting in line, that used to be such fertile territory for daydreaming and storymaking. So I canceled my AT&T plan and switched to a bare-bones Nokia on a pay-as-you-go plan.
And sure enough: in the months since the liberation of my interstitial time, I’ve been daydreaming more, jotting down scraps of stories again.
Full disclosure, though: my iPhone does still work at home, on Wi-Fi. I couldn’t ditch the device entirely; I need to be able to try out apps like The Silent History.
TM: What would you say to other writers following in your footsteps — whether that’s experimenting with an online audience or working on making something that lasts?
RS: Two things.
The first: learn a bit of programming. Spend some time with Codecademy or Khan Academy’s programming course. The goal isn’t to become a programmer. Rather, it’s to understand what’s possible, and to experience what it feels like to make things happen with code. In the same way that the (then very new) feeling of the industrial city influenced so much great writing a hundred years ago, I think the (still very new) feeling of the programmable internet should be influencing more writing today.
The second things is going to sound like it contradicts the first, but it doesn’t really: focus on the text. I’ve enjoyed designing web pages and building iPhone apps, but I’m not convinced that any of it will be accessible for very long. That’s just the nature of the internet right now — we’re still in shakedown mode, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Plain text, though, already made it through the shakedown. Invest in text — learn to design sentences and build stories — and it’s a sure bet, no matter what the future holds.