The Shifting Boundaries of Story and Medium: Interview with Matthew Derby

By Sylke Jackson

This post appeared originally on the CILK119 blog. 

This weekend, Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space welcomes Matthew Derby for the River River biannual Lodestar Reading. His recent novel, The Silent History, co-authored with Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffatt, and Russell Quinn (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014), was originally conceived as the first major exploratory interactive novel designed for digital platforms.  In this interview, Sylke and Matt discuss reaching beyond the boundaries of print media to tell a rich story about children, language, and the questions addressed in the novel that made him delve into unconsciously held thoughts and feelings about his late sister.

The Guardian called The Silent History “A compelling story about difference, rights and power”; Wired called it “Entirely revolutionary.” Matt’s work has also appeared in The Anchor Book of American Short Stories, Dzanc’sBest of the Web 2009, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. He is also a designer for Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SJ: Is there any moment or experience in your childhood that you’d point to that opened the door to the kind of work that you are doing now?

MD: I grew up in a big Catholic family. I had six siblings, most of whom were significantly older than me. By the time I was six, all but two of them were already in college. They left a lot of stuff behind in the house when they went away – mostly books and records – and I pored over these materials like an archaeologist struggling to understand an ancient civilization.

The Beatles were the one thing all of my siblings seemed to have in common, so I spent most of my time listening to their records and reading the many books we had about them. I became fascinated with the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory, and spent many afternoons scaring myself silly looking for the clues about his death scattered throughout their recordings. One day, I read that, if you played the very end of “A Day in the Life” backwards, you could hear, instead of an orchestra reaching a spastic climax before hitting a single, unforgettable note, the sound of Paul’s car skidding and crashing in the moments before his death. I went straight to the record player and spun the record in reverse, and what I heard sounded astonishingly like a car crash.

This was a pivotal moment for me, not because I’d found incontrovertible proof that Paul was dead, but because I saw that technology can be used to reveal stories within stories, and that there are narratives embedded in places that don’t otherwise reveal themselves as story containers. The myth about Paul’s death sprung up spontaneously in the Beatles fan community, and soon became as firmly rooted in our world as the Beatles themselves. I feel like this is a terrain that we explored a little bit with The Silent History—using this mundane GPS functionality embedded in phones to uncover a set of secret narratives, a fictional map laid out over the “real world.”

SJ: Intriguing to look at how artists embed or layer stories within stories. Neat to think about how that Beatles record influenced your work.

Can you tell me more about the development of The Silent History project? How do phones help create narratives and a fictional map?

MD: The Silent History started as a way to figure out how to use the native functionality embedded in the iPhone to expand digital storytelling beyond the ‘e-book’, which is essentially an uglier, less tactile version of a wonderful, physical, print book. My friend/editor/collaborator Eli Horowitz wanted to create a narrative designed for the phone right from the start, and he asked me and Kevin Moffett (who would soon become another close friend and collaborator!) to help him realize the possibility.

One of the things an iPhone can do is tell exactly where you are at any given point in time. This is, at times, incredibly useful (“Where is that dang museum?”) and mostly just creepy, but what if that function could be used to tell stories? We already come up with little stories every time we walk down an unfamiliar street – what if we simply leaned into that idea and created a fictional map of the world that fit precisely over the real world? And our readers could access this parallel universe just by interacting with the book?

This was really exciting to me, personally, because it represented a way for people to use the phone to interact with the real world, instead of giving people additional reasons to retreat from the real world.

The way we facilitated this was to create a narrative “trunk” to The Silent History, which tracks twenty-four main characters across thirty years as they struggle with the emergence of a new condition rendering children unable to produce or understand language. This “trunk” unfolded linearly, in little bite-sized chunks every day for about six months.

Meanwhile, the “branches” of the story were set at specific geographic locations throughout the world, and readers would have to travel to these locations to read them. Furthermore, the app facilitated reader-created “branches” so that we could build on the story after it launched.

The results were really interesting. Our readers said that the book allowed them to see their world in a new way – every pile of junk on the street, every weird little basement window suddenly sparked with the potential for storytelling. There was one “branch” set around a pole sticking out of the beach on the Cape Cod National Seashore, and many fans drove out there specifically to take a selfie at “The Silent Pole.”

If only we’d thought to include adorable fighting pets as rewards for visiting these locations, we could have been as big as Pokemon Go!

SJ: So can people still “read” or experience The Silent History? Can you walk me through a bit of what I might experience if I started it now?

MD: Sure. It’s all still there. The only difference from when we launched in 2012 is that you can make your way through the story at your own pace—it’s no longer time-locked.

When you first open the app, you’ll go through a short orientation sequence, and then you’ll start at the beginning of the first “Volume,” which covers the years 2011 to 2020, as the condition is first discovered and diagnosed. You’ll read a series of testimonials from parents, doctors, cultists, and neighbors who are all affected by the silence in some significant way.

If you look at the map feature, you can see where other readers have created geo-locked vignettes or “Field Reports,” as we called them. These are much more varied in subject matter, and because they’re created by readers of the app, they have distinctive voices.

Of course, you could also read the print version of the book, which contains only the testimonials. Less fun in certain ways, but easier to read in the bathtub.

SJ: Is there any part of the narrative of The Silent History that is personally significant to you or linked to your life in some way?

MD: I was instantly hooked when Eli approached me back in 2011 with the idea of writing about a generation of children who grow up without language. I didn’t really stop to think about why, specifically, the idea appealed to me. But gradually, as we worked our way through the first draft, I came to realize that I was actually writing toward a deeper understanding of my late sister Margaret, who was what people called at the time ‘profound retardation’ – not only could she not understand or produce language, but she was blind and had severe physical disabilities, requiring 24/7 care that became more intensive over the course of her life, such that she was placed in a care facility when I was very young. So although she was a strong presence in our house, I didn’t get to really know her as a person. She passed away when I was in middle school, and our family carried her loss in a way we still haven’t really been able to articulate.

So working on The Silent History was a way to connect with Margaret and understand her through the eyes of the characters in the book who are trying to negotiate a life with people who resist, in their very existence, our methods as able-bodied people of understanding and relating. I deeply regret that I wasn’t able to know her in a deeper and more resonant way while she was alive, but writing the book allowed me to open a new channel of correspondence with the person she was and the ways she shaped the lives of the people around her.

SJ: When artists’ work unlocks the meaning of pivotal dilemmas in their lives it opens the way for the audience to share that sense of a deeper relationship to their own process. That’s powerful stuff!

So where do you go from here? What are you working on these days?

MD: I’m currently working with The Silent History folks on a serialized fiction podcast. We’re still in the early stages of sketching it out, so I don’t want to say too much, but working on what is essentially a radio play has forced me to change the way I think about scenes and characters and movement and… basically everything. It’s a pretty terrifying place to be, actually, but I suppose I’d rather be terrified than bored!