Silent History

The Rumpus Interview With Kevin Moffett

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The first time I almost heard of The Silent History from Eli Horowitz was three or so years ago.  The Kindle was getting lots of press at the time, and we started talking about ebooks, and their possibilities.  Or rather, I started worrying aloud about ebook devices — worrying about them for the same reasons so many other novelists were worrying about them at that time (e.g., “Pirates!”) — and Horowitz started talking about the possibilities of electronic books.  He said they didn’t have to be ugly, and he didn’t believe they would continue to be ugly.  He said they didn’t have to simulate a codex, either.  Not only didn’t they have to simulate a codex, he said, but they shouldn’t; they should do more and other, and they should do so newly, own their form, make real use of the devices on which they’d be read to open up heretofore unexplored narrative possibilities.  ”Like how?” I said, but I said it in the wrong voice.  I said it in the voice of a threatened, old-guard, however medium-young novelist.  This is not a voice that Horowitz likes.  It makes him cagey.  Or rather, it makes him more cagey.  So the conversation ended.

The second time I almost heard of The Silent History from Horowitz was a year or so ago.  He was seeking out some writers in Chicago who might be interested in providing field reports for a thing he was working on with Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby.  I asked him what that meant — field reports, and a thing.  He asked me if I really wanted him to explain.  He asked me that question as though I’d asked him my question in the voice of a threatened, old guard, medium-young novelist.  I hadn’t.  But whatever.  ”No,” I said.  ”Find someone else to explain to.”  He might have. I don’t know.  I gave him some writers’ names.

The last time I almost heard of The Silent History from Eli Horowitz was just a little while after the first time I’d heard the title, which is a title I like.  The title made me even more curious than before about the book, and I nearly called Horowitz to ask him about it, but I have my pride, so instead I called to tell him that I thought he should give me an advanced copy of the book, which he said he’d do if I agreed to interview Kevin Moffett for the Rumpus.  I happily agreed. I really thought we had a deal.

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The Rumpus: Here’s what I know about The Silent History: very little. Tell me about it.

Kevin Moffett: It’s sort of a novel, written in a form of an oral history, about a generation of children born with a new condition that makes them completely unable to use or comprehend words. The story is told by the people closest to the kids: parents, teachers, doctors, journalists, neighbors, some skeptical, others sympathetic, others with a warped idea of the children’s significance. We wanted to let the story be told by these compelling, outsize characters—people at the center of the phenomenon who were immediately recognizable but still red-blooded and capable of saying surprising things. Heroes and louts. We wanted it to be fun and weird and big.

Also, the whole thing was written specifically as an app, with daily serialization and a whole geographic element.

Rumpus: And this is a collaboration?

Moffett: Matt Derby and I wrote the testimonials, along with Eli Horowitz. Russell Quinn built the app.

Rumpus: I’m curious about the collaboration process.  How did you split up the duties with Horowitz and Derby?

Moffett: Eli worked as the dungeon master and keeper of the outline. He’s got both Matt and me interested in the project by giving us just enough of the particular peculiarities at the outset to convince us that we wanted to be a part of it. I think he’d originally envisioned the testimonials in such a way that they could’ve been written by a half-dozen or more writers. But I think Matt had the same response I did once we started working on it: a kind of knee-jerk protective instinct and unwillingness to let anybody else in on our good time.

Matt and I worked side by side on our own batches of testimonials. It was a collaboration in a very loose sense—but the three of us would convene often via Skype, shirtless, and powwow about the course of things. And I’d often read Matt’s testimonials and see some other angle on the material. I think our writing is different enough to make the collaboration something really fruitful, not just an exercise in mutual ghostwriting or something. I was a big fan of Matt’s before we started the project and I’m a bigger one now. I was consistently surprised and egged on to work harder by his contributions.

Rumpus: So what you’re saying, as I understand it, is that you’d rather refer to Derby and Horowitz as Matt and Eli?  Why?  Do you think I’m being disrespectful when I call them Derby and Horowitz—gym-teacher-like?  Or does “Derby and Horowitz” sound too reverent?  Like “Roth and Bellow” or “Lewis and Clark” or something?  Or does it have nothing to do with any of that, or even with me, in which case, why can’t you just show some maturity and get with the program, Moffett?

Moffett: I’m sorry, Levin. It’s probably just that I’m hyper-aware of my last name and it’s lack of Derby or Horowtiz-esque sonorousness. Moffett sounds like a type of couch cushion. I guess I’m hoping to start a wave of first-name usage.

Rumpus: How did you initially get involved with the project?

Moffett: Eli came to the two of us in early 2011 with this project that he had been working on for quite some time. He already had the fundamentals: a pretty advanced idea of the storyline, the cast of characters, and the timeline. Which was both liberating and challenging. At first I think both Matt and I were very much trying to mold our execution of the individual pieces to the original vision. Early on, I had a hard time with some of the characters, because their voices were so unlike anything I’d ever written. Patti, for instance, a woman who communes with birds and wind chimes and wind and whatnot. If Patti were to appear in one of my stories, she might’ve been given a few lines of strange dialogue and kindly exit the scene, but this is one of the central characters of The Silent History, one who reappears with regularity over the course of thirty years. This was something we had to contend with — making the characters big and fun and readable but still complex and constantly evolving.

Rumpus: What was the editing process like?

Moffett: Eli edited both Matt and me throughout, both substantive edits and micro-level things, and also provided constant Horowitzian streams of insight. Then we would edit each of the six volumes as a whole when we were finished with them, then again when we reached a stopping point. And we edited ourselves again recently, and each other recently. Now I’m honestly not even sure what I wrote. I recently sent Eli an email telling him how much I liked this new paragraph he inserted in one of my entries and he politely informed me that I had written it.

Rumpus: Were there outlines involved?

Moffett: Not only were there outlines, there was an actual special members-only wiki with secret codes and detailed and constantly updated versions of outlines. And quotes, and links to movies that one of us thought the others should watch and books we should read. We had to keep track of one hundred and twenty different pieces of writing. Eli made the original outline and we revised it over time. We used the outlines as a blueprint for the overall story we were envisioning but as it changed (and it changed quite a bit as we went) we revised, rethought, reworked, ignored.

Rumpus: What movies?

 Moffett: Mostly documentaries — Commune, Sound and Fury, something about Jonestown, an episode of Frontline discussing facilitated communication. Also classics like Lawnmower Man and They Live.

Rumpus: This sounds like a pretty full-time endeavor. Were you working on non-Silent History stuff as well? 

Moffett: I’m working on a novel too. But, yeah, it was pretty consuming for the past year-and-a-half.

Rumpus: At what point did Quinn come in?

Moffett: Russell’s work on the project got started in January, I believe.

Rumpus: Russell, huh

Moffett: Sorry, Levin.

Rumpus: Do you understand how the app got built?  

Moffett: With computers? I actually have no idea. I’m a total ignoramus about the technical aspects but I have to say that it’s awfully purty now. I’ve been tooling around with the newest version of it for the past few days.

Rumpus: Where’s my advance copy of the app?  Was Horowitz just fucking with me when he said that if I did this interview I’d get an advance copy of the app?

Moffett: He was completely fucking with you.

Rumpus: Were you writing to fit some kind of above-my-head-type electronic architecture?

Moffett: What first excited me about the project was the story, these strange children and everything around them. I wasn’t thinking app at all when I was writing — I was thinking what I usually think about when I write: what the next word should be, whether my character should be an emu farmer or a wallaby farmer, the searing pain in my right temple.

The one way the platform might’ve affected the form: the individual testimonials are probably a bit shorter (usually about 1,500 words) than they might’ve been otherwise and they’ll be serialized, once a day, Monday through Friday, five a week, twenty a month for six months. The serialization was something we were constantly aware of: we shaped the story around it, with immediate action and crisp scenes and  substantive plot developments.  It helped us avoid avoid aimless meandering.

Rumpus: Are there really such people as wallaby farmers?  If so, do people eat the farmed wallabies?  I saw one once at the Prospect Park Zoo, jumping around in a roped-off area, and his eyes were too centered in his face for me to think of him as meat.  Or her.  It might have been female.  Either way, I don’t think I could eat wallaby.  Could you?  Have you?  How about Horowitz and Derby?  Or Quinn for that matter?  Or Quint?  Do you know Quint?  I wonder if she could eat wallaby almost as much as I wonder if the rest of the aforementioned people could eat wallaby. 

Moffett: I could not eat wallaby, but only because I’m pretending to be a vegetarian. Were I not, I believe I probably still wouldn’t eat a wallaby. I saw one recently at the Los Angeles County Fair in a pen with a bunch of stuffed animals, I’m not sure why. I cannot speak for Horowitz, Derby, Quinn, or Quint. A wallaby and wallaby farmer do figure into at least one of the story’s arcs. And there is the most memorable mime jeremiad in the history of literature. I probably shouldn’t be more specific than that.

Rumpus: What do you say to people who earnestly — e.g. out of ignorance rather than dickheadedness — hear about The Silent History and assume it’s gimmicky?

Moffett: I tell them what I would tell my own children: buy the app, see it for yourself. If you don’t like it, buy it again just to be sure. And then if they don’t like it I tell them sorry. You know, we were all super-aware of the novelty factor going into it. We discussed its possibilities and limitations with a healthy bit of skepticism. Really quickly, though, it became clear to me, by how hard all of us were working on the story, on the text itself, that it wasn’t just “content,” some mound of words atop which to prop some technological gimmick. I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

Rumpus: How, if at all, do you make sense of it as literature?

Moffett: I can’t say. I’m really curious to hear from people who read the thing, how they experience the individual pieces, how they cohere. I’m still way too damn close to the thing to feel anything but a blurry satisfaction now that it’s almost over.

Rumpus: We haven’t talked about the field reports. How do these figure in?

Moffett: Along with the testimonials, which come out daily and can be read anywhere, we’ve already gotten a bunch of field reports from all over the place. These are site-specific and can only be read within the locations where they’re set. There are around two hundred of these already and we’re hoping for a lot more, contributed by readers once the app comes out. Somewhere on the app’s settings page there will be a link where readers can ask for information on this. Eli has starter materials for potential field reporters and he’ll edit and curate them. As more readers participate, the map will fill up more and more.

Rumpus: Did you find yourself, while writing the testimonials, hoping for specific types of expansions to be made by the later reporters?

Moffett: That’s a really good question. While we wrote the testimonials I didn’t really think about how the field reports might intersect and expand on the original storyline. But then I went into Los Angeles with an eye toward writing some of my own and I realized how tricky and specialized a form it is. You have these figurative constraints, but also the literal constraints of the place you’re setting it and where it’s being read. Not to mention the idea in the back of your mind that your field report might be the reason someone detoured six blocks, say, on their way to the chiropractor. I had a really hard time with it. But then I read some of the early reports, from England, from Australia and Mexico and all over the U.S., and they’ve been amazing. Using the architecture of the testimonials, and the specifics of the condition, and branching off and making these collateral storylines. And the better they are, the better ones they’ll beget, I think. The early reporters will be lighting the way for the others.


Adam Levin is the author of The Instructions and Hot Pink. He lives in Chicago. More from this author →