I met Stephen Van Dyck when we were both MFA students at CalArts. It was 2008; for me, the internet still felt sort of mysterious. For Stephen, it was well traveled terrain. In his new book, People I’ve Met from the Internet, Stephen gives readers a twelve-year window into what he found during his travels. The result is a queer, lyrical, list-shaped bildungsroman that aligns with the internet’s own coming of age.
The book is specifically trained to Stephen’s experience as a young gay man, navigating internet chat rooms, constructing alternate selves, entering into relationships both physical and cyber. Readers find, though, that bearing witness to Stephen’s maturation shows us something not just about ourselves, but about America, the internet, and community itself. The resultant text is more than a memoir or list—it is a cultural taxonomy with immense reflective power.
Early praise from Miranda July, Chris Kraus, and Dodie Bellamie confirms it: People I’ve Met from the Internet is poised to become canonical. It was my pleasure to sit down with Stephen and hear more about his relationship to the book.
The Rumpus: How did the project of People I’ve Met from the Internet begin? Was it intended, from the get-go, as a book? Or did it begin as a personal record before it moved to the public record (and questioned, in the process, the division of the two)?
Stephen Van Dyck: The project began as a personal record. I’m an obsessive list-keeper. With a lonely childhood and some big losses early on, I probably turned to listing and archiving to bring order to and make sense of my life. Over the years I’ve kept one-hundred-plus-page lists of worries, dreams, art project ideas—one professor who saw the art project ideas list said I should consider it a piece of its own. Later, the list of people I’d met from the internet looked like an abundance of rich material to shape and offer publicly. So, I decided to annotate it. I dug through my very prolific Xanga blog, dusted off boxes of printouts of emails and AIM chats, and adapted many short pieces I’d already written. At that point I was at CalArts as an Interschool student in writing and music, and thinking a lot about constraint writing and text scores and performance documentation. How might my life have been a performance all along? What if I stick to very specific rules as I write about each person, but then also break those rules?
Rumpus: I remember, early in my writing life, having it drilled into my head that writing about sex was nearly impossible and rarely good. According to my teachers, it was so hard to do that even famous authors were subjected to “bad sex writing” awards, and laughed at mercilessly by literati. Looking back, this seems indicative of a larger penchant for prudishness that plagues publishing.
But I’m curious: what were the discussions about sex and literature you were privy to early in your writing life? How did they influence or converse with this book—which I should say, is about so much more than sex, but also, has a lot of sex in it?
Van Dyck: I definitely heard something like that in an undergrad creative writing class at Occidental. “Don’t write about love, sex, and death because everything else is already about them.” I think it was meant to keep us away from clichés, but maybe the effect was the opposite? I think in this book sex is treated like anything else: it was there. Sex is a big part of living. There were fellow students who called it my “sex book” implying I’d written something naughty and thus maybe not very literary. When I took Matias Viegener’s Sex Writing class—of course CalArts would have that—the question was: can pornography be literature? We learned that good sex writing couldn’t be exclusively pornographic because it would inevitably be about something besides being turned on. For example, while some online porn stories can get interesting, a lot of them are pretty boring. On the other hand, boring done right can be really good.
I think the book pulls the reader in with the narrator because it’s so open, and the sex is part of that. The reader might get worried, turned on, grossed out, curious if they know someone in the list, or they might start imagining their own version. The reader, who is not outside of the world of this book, is now implicated.
Rumpus: The meetings chronicled here deepen with each tidbit of information we get about the narrator’s emotional life outside the people he meets from the internet. Theme emerges subtly and seamlessly, with a slight touch, so that by the end of the book, the narrator’s sexuality/internet/friend worlds, and his home/parental worlds, have merged. Which feels revelatory, true to life, and indicative of the binary breaking the book achieves on every page. So I wonder how, in the writing, you approached theme, and the braiding of theme into the narrative. Was it something that came later, in the editing process? Or was it conscious from the beginning?
Van Dyck: Themes came up unconsciously, and then later I worked to draw them out more, like my parents, or lesser ones like the desert landscape or female pop singers or cleanliness. I wasn’t consciously thinking about cleanliness and dirtiness, but there’s something about going from URL to IRL. This reality is so much dustier, smellier, and bitterer than it seems through a screen. I wrote way more than I needed. I had to make decisions about the lesser themes. But it went in circles: I then added more. Ultimately, maybe a third of the writing, and many juicy moments, was cut. Emily Geminder is a fantastic editor.
Rumpus: Somewhat related, can you talk a little about grief and its relationship to sex in this book. Is it, or was it, a link you were aware of when writing? Or, earlier?
Van Dyck: I carried a lot of grief with me unknowingly. Early feedback on drafts made me see how central these losses were to the story. Dealing with grief through years of hook-ups: that could sound like addiction. But I think the book wants to say that this isn’t necessarily a problem. The main character is interested in people, connection, and the beauty of details. That’s where he finds meaning and makes sense of himself. The reader is invited to do the same. There was a lot of romantic future fantasy energy in these sometimes one-time meetings. At least for me, it’s hard to separate horny feelings and romantic feelings and even love-for-all-humans-and-the-universe feelings. All these people in the book are seeking meaning through their computer, and more often than not, I think they find it.
Rumpus: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but how did you decide where the book ends?
Van Dyck: While the exact end-point of the list feels kind of random, many arcs in the book have run their course by the late aughts: I lose all my computer files. I go to grad school. I make performance videos, become an artist. My father dies. Things come to a head with friends. Around that general time, my life started moving in a different direction. And it’s the end of an internet era. The people I meet from online start to change: Craigslist couch buyers, job interviewers, other artists. Soon I get an Android. And Grindr. Are smartphones still the internet? If I continued the constraint to 2019, it’d be almost entirely work-related: employers, students, bookstores carrying my book. And now everyone’s on Tinder. Now everyone meets people from the internet. I guess not everyone knows this, but queers did it first by like fifteen years. I feel like I have to keep saying to people: I’ve been getting dick pics since before you were born. It mostly didn’t seem like we were technologically advanced pioneers. We were just relieved to have another way to find each other.
Rumpus: Will there be a sequel?
Van Dyck: I’m not sure if they’ll seem like sequels, but I have a few projects in the works from the next period of my life. One is centered around my student loan debt. I had a radio show on KChung where I called debt collectors, telemarketers, and customer service agents, and through an episodic narrative about my debts and defaulted loans, they and I talked about our personal lives. Another project is based on my time doing search engine optimization. I had to keep up fifty identities on an online forum about hair loss to make a website seem popular. And during that job, I went through the crisis of losing all my beloved computer files and had to confront my digital hoarding. I actually haven’t kept up the list of people I’ve met from the internet since 2009, but if I updated it, it’d include the rest of that OKCupid/Craigslist Personals era. I do have all those email exchanges saved on my computer.
Photograph of Stephen Van Dyck courtesy of Stephen Van Dyck. Book cover design by Sandra Rosales