FSG: Unlike most books, The Silent History started as an app. How was it conceived? And what were the goals of putting it out as an app?
Eli Horowitz: The general trends in e-books just seemed like a missed opportunity. We were losing lots of things that make print books special, but we weren’t getting anything in return—mostly gray shadows, plus the occasional gimmicky plot. I was curious what it would be like to imagine a novel that was designed specifically for these devices—what new storytelling possibilities would emerge.
Matthew Derby: By the time he brought me onto the project, Eli was pretty far along with the basic idea. My personal goal for the project was to create something in digital space that had the heft and breadth of a work of literature. In most cases, electronic literature suffers from a surplus of writing talent and a deficit of technical know-how, or too much technical proficiency and not enough rigorous storytelling. This was a rare opportunity to work with friends on a project that held the promise of satisfying along both of those axes.
Kevin Moffett: I was oblivious to many of the technical aspirations of the project early on. I knew about the site-specific element, the fact that there would be pieces of the narrative only accessible to those who visited the locations where they were set, but I didn’t know how this would shape the storyline itself. My main goal was to challenge my own assumptions about writing and publishing, and to shake myself out of the mini writing funk I was in. The collaboration and the release of the app did just that.
FSG: So, there are three authors on the spine—how did that work? Did you work together on everything or did different folks field different plot lines, characters?
Derby: Eli had a basic set of characters identified when he contacted Kevin and me to help him bring the story to life. He had us each pick a few of the characters and take a crack at rendering little vignettes that would help us understand who these people were. There was a father who’d abandoned his silent kid and a hyper-devoted “supermom” who was hell-bent on getting the best for her children. And I thought, “why not reverse the roles?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how a single father contends with a daughter who can’t speak? And how would a mother contend with surrendering her silent son?’ So I wrote the first testimonials for Theo and Nancy, and a lot of what’s in the final manuscript is actually from those initial sketches.
Meanwhile, Kevin sketched out a bunch of the other recurring characters, and very quickly we had our first volume pretty well carved out. From that point forward, Eli acted as the story runner, setting up the daily, weekly, and monthly arcs (because we were releasing the story serially over the course of six months, we talked about the story arc using calendar time), and Kevin and I would act as stewards for the characters, independently writing their entries through each volume, with the three of us coming together at the beginning and end of each volume for planning and review.
It was pretty intense. I’d work up a rough draft of a character’s testimonial in the morning, send it to Eli, and he’d have detailed feedback for me that night. I’d wake up the next morning, revise, and send it over to him, and he’d review and send feedback. Rinse, repeat. Almost every day for two years. It was like a sort of boot camp—grueling and exhilarating. I shed a lot of bad writing habits in those years.
Horowitz: I was so lucky to end up with these two. At first I was going to have dozens of collaborators, which proved to be dumb and impossible, so then I was going to have none, which would have resulted in a crummy book—and then Matt and Kevin emerged, which saved the day.
FSG: The book is presented in a series of testimonials—what kinds of options did this structure create, or limit?
Derby: The main advantage of the testimonial format was that it provided a handy framework for telling a story about people who can’t tell a story themselves—at least not in a manner we “talkers” would understand. It’s also a familiar form for historical narratives, which we very much wanted to emulate.
But it became increasingly difficult to create the sense that the testimonials are being spoken in real time as we moved along the timeline of the story. Once the plot started to heat up, we had to drop a lot of the nuanced language that we were able to use in the first volume. I think this was a necessary move—it just made things more challenging as time went on.
Moffett: To be honest, the testimonials allowed me to write more quickly. They’re about fifteen hundred words, just long enough to finish a pretty crummy one in a day of writing. On these first drafts, I did none of the agonizing over sentences that I usually do while writing stories. That came later, during revisions number one, two, three.
Horowitz: The testimonials’ original purpose was to make the multiple authors a strength, rather than an inconsistency we tried to paper over. But another important effect was that it forced what could have been an abstract, sprawling epic to stay firmly grounded in voice and character.
FSG: Was there research involved in making the silent epidemic feel real? Either in medical terms or in terms of the societal response?
Derby: We did quite a bit of research. I remember that the first few months of the project were almost exclusively about trying to determine what a silent child’s life would look like. What could a silent child do without language? Was thought even possible without language? We had to answer these questions before we could write the book we wanted to write. So we read a lot. The work of Oliver Sacks, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
Language, and Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct were all primary texts. Susan Schaller’s A Man Without Words—about a deaf man who doesn’t learn how to use sign language until adulthood—provided the clearest insight into how a community of people without language could survive and communicate.
Horowitz: I talked to pediatricians, neurologists, linguists. Initially the research focused on language and mind, but it became much more diverse than that: non-verbal communication, diversity and disability and community, brain plasticity, Northern California communes of the ’60s and ’70s, motels of the Midwest, etc.
FSG: Why did you choose this kind of epidemic?
Derby: I think it gets right to the heart of something essential about the human condition. Did we create language or did language create us? To what extent are we human without language? My sister Margaret, who passed away when I was in high school, was born with multiple severe disabilities. She never learned to walk or talk. I never had any access to her mind, except through her movement and her facial expressions—I couldn’t know her thoughts, and she couldn’t express them—at least, not in a way I could understand. But what were her thoughts? What did she dream? I’ll never know. But whenever she appears in my dreams, the thing that is most shocking about her presence is not that she can walk or put on her own clothes or drive a car, but that she talks to me. There is something about hearing her actual voice in my dreams that just wrecks me. And that primal desire for the sound of a human voice is, as far as I’m concerned, the catalyst for everything that happens in The Silent History.
FSG: Did you always have in mind that The Silent History might become a book?
Derby: I don’t remember us ever talking about a print version. I was invested in the project almost exclusively because it was a digital endeavor. That just seemed like a really exciting space to explore. But now, there’s this beautiful print book, a thing you can throw down the stairs and use as a coaster and maybe even read occasionally, and you never have to recharge its battery. So this is much, much more than I could’ve imagined.
Moffett: I always hoped it would be a book. I loved the process of conceiving the story for an app, but I’m excited to be able to possibly reach a new crop of readers with the printed version. Including my wife, who read the first volume of the book on my tiny iPod and decided to wait until the book came out to read the rest.
Horowitz: For me, it was important to entirely see the app as the main event, rather than an add-on or marketing ploy to accompany the “real” book—which is a common pitfall of these projects. So the print book never really occurred to me until much later—a very nice surprise.
FSG: Were there any surprises or interesting conversations about how much it needed to change (or not) to transform into a novel?
Derby: I think we were all very surprised by how extensively we’d paced the book for digital reading. We knew we wanted to create a novel-type experience that could be read on a single subway ride every morning, and I think we really nailed that pacing. But with print, where nothing is preventing a reader from tearing through a hundred pages or more in a single sitting, the structure we’d set up seemed less than ideal. So we removed some entries and cut/merged a few others to create a more satisfying arc for longer reading sessions.
Moffett: Though the pacing did need some tweaking from app to book, I think it was always a novel, a sustained and satisfying narrative. Though episodic and sprawling because of the testimonials, the general story arc is definitely novel-like. It’s just sleeker now, from about 160,000 words to about 120,000.
Horowitz: The process of adapting it was organic with the larger concerns of the project: understanding that different formats require different kinds of storytelling. So the bookification felt like a worthy challenge.
FSG: Would you do something like this again?
Derby: Absolutely. My plan is to publish all of my future work on a different platform. I’m writing my next novel in Unity. The novel after that will be composed entirely of living room furniture.
Moffett: Me, too. After I finish what I’m working on now, I’m going hunting for another project akin to Silent History. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having fun while writing.