Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Author Interview with Emmett Rensin

Our interview today is with Emmett Rensin, co-author (along with Alexander Aciman) ofTwitterature


FQ: How did you come up with the idea of Twitterature? Were you trying to study for an exam and procrastinating or ?


Chicago is a very cold city. The double freshman rooms in The University of Chicago's Max Palevsky Dormitory are very small.


Alex and I were roommates during our freshman year, and in the dead of winter -- when a 20 degree day would have brought smiles, singing, and shorts -- we had run out of mediocre comedies on Netflix Instant Watch. I have no recollection of whether or not exams were happening just then, because the winter is hard on the memory and often times recollections from those dark days scatter like so many of the snowflakes falling do -- wait, nevermind. It was, by then, so cold that it couldn't snow. No water to evaporate.


At any rate, the first thing that occurred to us was the pun -- Twitterature. Being serious University of Chicago students, we had of course read Plato and to put it in terms that might please him, the pun is in relation to the form of comedy by the eponymy principle. That is, wherever there is a pun, comedy is there -- the two are the same. The Pun is the Platonic form of comedy, and so as soon as such a magnificent bit of punnery as "twitter" and "literature" graced our minds, the rest followed naturally. That, or we began reading serious literature at a very young age as part of a 19-year preparation for this book.


FQ: What was the first book you "twittered"? How did your friends react?


The first book we tweeted was 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus, mainly because Twitterature works best when there is a strong protagonist in a novel, especially if the narration is in the first person (since that's what we end up doing to all of them, even with a third-person multi-character-and-perspective romance novel like Anna Karenina). I don't believe our friends saw any of them until we'd done at least 20. How they might have reacted is a mystery to us. They may have thought it was funny, but others may have thought it was very childish, or gimmicky. (Since it seemed like a very hot idea and even though we would love to trust our friends, a mention is a mention to others is a mention to people you don't know, and we didn't want that. Also, it was very cold when we did this and so the idea of going out to show anyone who wasn't already in the building seemed daunting.)


By the time people did see it, the reaction was positive. It's a funny book, the children like to laugh -- what else could be expected? To be fair, most of our friends really didn't know what Twitter was at the time -- a year ago, there were less young people on the site and more older media types. A bit like a reverse Facebook, because I think parents caught onto Twitter before their kids.


FQ: Did you show any of your early works to any professors at school? Any English literature professors?


At the time, no. A few professors who have inquired have seen advanced copies of the finished book, but I can't say it occurred to us to show the book to our professors when it was being written. Also, 90 percent of the book was written during late June, meaning we were a few thousand miles away from anybody with UChiago tenure.


FQ: You cover a wide range of books. Did you have to re-read some of them to get the best points to include or do you have an amazing memory of all 80 plus books?


I'd like to say for public purposes that we both have encyclopedic memories that didn't need a bit of refreshing. And I do generally have the memory of an elephant, however, its an elephant occasionally beset by Alzheimer's. I'd say that in general we remembered the broad strokes of every one of the books, and the majority we remembered intimately (one tends to remember those better intimacies well, after all). From time to time we would leaf through a copy of a book when we were in need of one or two tweets that referenced specific lines, or when we needed an exact quotation. But for the most part, I think it was from memory. Honestly, I don't quite remember.


There is one exception. There are 83 books in Twitterature. Alex and I have read 82 of them. A confession: Neither of us has ever read Twilight. For that, we relied on bits of the film, summaries prepared by others, and a glance through a few chapters. We hope to fill out our familiarity with the cannon by reading Meyer some day, but as of yet we can't quite find the time...


FQ: Do the two of you work independently when tweeting a book, bounce ideas off each other, or sit down together with a good drink and get silly?


Some combination of all of those. Well, I don't think much serious work was done with a drink. Those usually came after we were done for the day, although occasionally a good line would be jotted down on a napkin sometime between 2 and 4am in a dinner somewhere in Los Angeles. I'd say 85 percent of the books were written by both of us, trading off lines or generating them together. Those are usually the best, since Alex and I have different senses of humor and a combination of the two usually brought out the best. There are of course a couple of books only one of us had read (example: Alex has never read The Old Man And The Sea. I have never read Tristam Shandy), and those we did independently but always with at least a line or two suggested by the other. It was a fairly four-handed process.


FQ: I like the combination of classic and modern - CSI team and Frankenstein?! - was there a lot of discussion about whether to incorporate modern lingo, etc. into the classics?


There was debate as to how much modern lingo we were to include. It seemed obvious that to get the right pitch of bathos (a term first used by Alexander Pope, another great satirist of literature) we needed to throw in contemporary reference. In a book that is centered around the idea of melding the classics with the modern day, it would be strange NOT to throw in contemporary vernacular. But balance was discussed - sometimes a draft of a book would have too much modern slang, and sometimes a book that was a bit dry needed a bit more of it to lighten up the mood. In the end I think we found the mix that worked.


FQ: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about Twitterature?


Only that it would bring us no greater joy than to see the children of the world filled with mirth. We have been accused of "ruining the classics" (as if Shakespeare is going off the shelves now) and pandering to the ADD-generation. Perhaps those things are true (I think not), but when it comes down to it, we have no lofty aspirations towards making literature the last nail in the coffin of a lost generation (everyone knows Goethe did that). We just want to make the children laugh.