Last spring, I met Cole Strkyer at a party where everyone had a tumblr but me. Just 27 years old, Stryker had recently sold a book about 4chan, the fascinating and controversial web community that spawned hacktivist collective Anonymous, now famous for targeting political groups, corporations, and individuals through denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and other internet trickery. Cole told me the publication date had been pushed up, and he would have only a few months to write it.
“Good luck, son,” I said. “Let me know when you’re done.” I’ll admit it, I doubted him. It was his first book. He’s young. Writing a book is hard. Who knew what the kid had in him?
Turns out about 300 pages. In just two months Cole produced a sharp, witty, and well-researched book: Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web. I mean, I don’t even have a tumblr and I liked it. But still, it plagued me. How did he get it done so fast? Cole agreed to talk to me via email about how to write a book in two months. (Hint: it’s not Adderall.)
The Rumpus: Why did you have only two months to write your book?
Cole Stryker: My publisher initially told me that I would have eight months to write Epic Win. But throughout the spring, Anonymous exploded into the press with a series of heavily publicized attacks and hacks. It became clear that riding the wave of that publicity would be essential for selling the book, which would otherwise have been a quiet release about an obscure topic. Lucky for me, the public awareness of 4chan and Anonymous has expanded this summer, far beyond my expectations and journalists are scrambling to talk to experts on the subject.
Anyway, Overlook wanted to be sure to get the book out by the end of summer so that Epic Win would serve as a definitive statement about this still very mysterious subculture. So, I signed the book deal in the end of April, started writing in May, and finished my first draft by the end of June. I then had less than a week to clean it up (along with the help of a wonderful editor and copyeditor, of course). I thought it was insane at the time, but in hindsight I think Overlook made the right call. The timing could not be more perfect.
Rumpus: I asked some of the fastest writers I know, and we all agreed writing a book in two months is fast. Can you talk about the breakdown of writing versus researching versus interviewing? What was the most time-consuming part of it?
Stryker: A few months before the book project began I moved from an expensive, tiny, windowless room in the Lower East Side to a massive place up in Harlem. When I tell people what I’m paying in rent they usually respond with a steely glare. The point is that I pay so little in rent that didn’t have to actually work at all during the two months of writing. I have two big windows that let in lots of sun, a comfy leather chair and a hi-fi setup. I’ve never been interested in that urban writerly cliche — going to coffee shops and sitting in the park with a laptop — because my writing environment at home is so ideal.
Still, it was crunch time from Day 1. I started the process by making a basic outline, then a list of about 75 people I wanted to interview, and sent out emails. While I waited for responses I started copy-pasting every interesting bit of information on 4chan and Anonymous that I could find into a huge Word document, that I then used as a checklist of all the stuff I wanted to cover. Then I put together another doc made up of questions that I didn’t think anyone had answered yet. These became the basis of my eventual interview questions.
From there I just started writing every chapter at once, because each new discovery in my research affected the content needs in three or four other chapters. There were moments when I felt crushed by the weight of this disorganized jumble of material that had almost no structure. Putting everything together into a cohesive narrative was the toughest part. My book is so broad, it felt like I was juggling three different books and trying to squeeze them into one story.
Rumpus: How many words a day did you write?
Stryker: I wrote about 1,500 words a day. I barely left the apartment.
Rumpus: I can’t imagine you transcribed 75 interviews. That would have taken forever.
Stryker: I’d say about half the interviews were through email, half by phone and half over Gchat or IRC. Transcribing audio was the most tedious aspect of writing the book, but when it came to interviewing some of the heavy hitters, they understandably preferred to chat rather than type out long responses to my questions. I liked the way that gchat interviews captured the spontaneity and light tone of a personal conversation while allowing the subjects to think about what they were writing. A happy medium between email and phone interviewing.
Rumpus: Did you take Adderall or anything like that? Did you sleep less?
Stryker: I didn’t sleep less. I’m useless when I’m tired, so I generally get at least nine hours every night. I’ve never tried Adderall; I don’t even really drink caffeine. If I ever indulge in a cappuccino I end up spending the entire night playing violent video games because it’s the only level my brain can operate on when I’m being kept awake artificially. Then of course I’m dead the next day, so I just try to avoid anything of the kind. I know, I’m a 90-year-old lady.
Rumpus: Have you always been a fast writer? You used to work in advertising, as have I, and I think it really trains you to be a fast writer because you have to turn pitches around so quickly.
Stryker: I suppose. I spent four years as a copywriter before I moved to New York and transitioned into journalism. And I’ve been blogging daily since 2002. So I guess that has given me an ability to crank out copy quickly. In addition to training for tight deadlines, advertising has also helped me learn how to communicate big ideas to an audience that might not be engaged at the outset. In copywriting, every word counts. Once you build that skill of writing a tight sentence, long form is cake.
Rumpus: Is there anything you wish you’d had more time to work on?
Stryker: Oh absolutely. I can’t even think about it. I would have liked to spend more time in the trenches with Anonymous. I interviewed a handful of them, but it would have taken months to ingratiate myself with the group to the point where I could have gotten some amazing behind the scenes stories. I’m hoping to do some follow-up work that may manifest in some magazine articles or potentially another book.
Rumpus: Did anyone from 4chan have any negative impact on the writing of this? I know you got banned from it when you posed some interview questions.
Stryker: Not substantively. I received nothing but vague, empty threats, which was expected.
Rumpus: I wonder if the time you took to write it somehow reflected or complemented the subject matter, which is to say if 4chan is constantly in motion, in order to cover it, you had to be as well.
Stryker: This is accurate. My story shifted rapidly as Anonymous became ever more politically minded. Lulzsec and other Anonymous splinter groups, which grabbed headlines throughout this summer, did not exist yet, so I was able to incorporate those into the narrative in the form of an epilogue that I wrote several months after I turned in the final draft of the book.
Rumpus: Do you think you’d ever try and write a book this fast again?
Stryker: Not if I can help it, but it’s quite possible that there will be an Epic Win 2: Electric Boogaloo. So, in the interest of timeliness…we’ll see.