A Conversation Between Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett
I’d never met Kevin Moffett when I agreed to write a novel with him. When our mutual friend Eli Horowitz asked us to help him out with a mysterious and wildly ambitious project concerning a generation of children without language, a story we’d tell digitally, written and designed for mobile devices, incorporating stories that could only be accessed when the reader was standing specific geographic locations, a narrative experience quite unlike anything else out there—I said yes without hesitation. And then I said “Yes” again, because I was in a Mexican restaurant and I wanted to make sure that my answer was clearly heard over the sizzling beef. I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, isn’t this kind of a weird arrangement, jumping into this complicated endeavor that could take years to finish with someone you don’t know?’ I didn’t think, "Hey, you haven’t written a novel yet, let alone a high-concept serialized novel with reader-generated content—maybe start with a chapbook?” I’m not sure I was really thinking at all, but I’m glad I said yes and yes again, because Kevin and I quickly developed a close rapport, and our collaboration on The Silent History has made all subsequent solo endeavors feel cold and isolated in comparison.
Kevin and I got together recently to talk about our experience working on The Silent History, which we recently adapted into a print edition, out now from FSG.
I. A BIG BORING NOVEL
MATTHEW DERBY: How did you approach The Silent History, as a short-story writer taking a leap into this weird format and this weird collaboration?
KEVIN MOFFETT: I really needed a new way of working. I was tired of my own voice, tired of producing stories that resembled other stories I’d written, tired of feeling like I had to write a big boring novel. If you walk to your desk in the morning, coffee mug in hand, feeling dread, hoping for an earthquake to distract you from the drudgery of whatever you’re working on… well, that’s no good.
MDD: Yeah, that’s absolutely how I was feeling at the time. I felt tremendous pressure, internally, to crank out a novel. And I was in a place where I didn’t trust my instincts at all. I was trying to write a book I thought other people might enjoy—damn, it’s hard to admit that I actually believed that I could reverse-engineer a novel out of what I thought other people might like, but that’s where I was. So The Silent History forced me to question everything about my approach. I couldn’t rely on any of my old tricks. I had to write something new every day for almost two years—not only something new but something that worked. A piece that had its own arc and logic, but that also fit squarely into a series of longer arcs. Working on The Silent History allowed me to look really closely at the guts of a book, where I think previously I’d preferred to glance away.
Do you remember where you were when Eli approached you about the project? Like people do with JFK or the Challenger disaster?
KM: I do. By the way, I was watching the Challenger in the sky when it exploded. My middle school was about seventy miles from Cape Canaveral, so we always went outside to watch the launches.
MDD: Wait, you mean you actually saw the Challenger explode in the sky?
KM: I had no idea what had happened, to be honest. Some teacher kept repeating, “It’s just the booster rocket breaking off,” and that seemed reasonable, even when we could see that awful smoke plume.
MDD: I was home from school for some reason, watching it on TV. I remember seeing that cloudburst with the little tendrils of vapor shooting out from the core. I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, but I realize it was the first time that I really saw a human system fail. I remember all of the publicity around Christa McAuliffe being the first teacher in space, and the assumption was that the rest of us would inevitably follow her—like, our senior class trip would be a ride in the shuttle. And then suddenly it was all gone, and you can hear it in the announcer’s voice. You can hear the hope getting suctioned out of his throat in those first few moments after the explosion.
II. TRYING AGAIN
MDD: Wait, okay, so do you remember when Eli asked you to become involved in the project?
KM: I remember it viscerally. We were eating lunch at a place in LA. Eli oddly went for the salad-bar option and came to the table with this anarchic medley of mushrooms, chickpeas, and shredded cabbage that distracted me until he finished eating it, so I remember very little of the conversation. But the memory remains visceral because Eli paid for my lunch. This is how I knew he meant business.
MDD: I’m realizing that this is the first time we’ve talked about the start of the project, because we didn’t even know each other at that point. And I’m super jealous that you got to meet with Eli in person and watch him eat chickpeas. I also heard about the project while eating, but I was alone, eating a burrito in a Mexican restaurant, talking to him through my earbud microphone, which is nothing like an Air Bud microphone, which would have made this story much more interesting.
I remember that he said he’d approached you, and I recognized your name from when we’d had stories in the same issue of the Columbia Journal, but we’d never met, and I wasn’t sure at all how the collaboration was going to work. It wasn’t until you and I hung out at AWP a few months later and talked about our childhood obsession with nuclear war that I really understood how it was going to work.
KM: We went for a walk through the National Zoo, saw some gibbons. And past the Hilton where Hinckley shot Reagan.
MDD: Do you think that growing up in fear of nuclear annihilation prepared you at all for writing The Silent History? Could we have written this book if we’d come of age during the Clinton years?
KM: Writing the earlier installments for The Silent History, when some of the silents are entering school, I thought a lot about my elementary school years, which almost perfectly lined up with Reagan’s presidency. My dad was sick for years, a reality I had all sorts of trouble fathoming, so I ended up projecting most of my fear and worry onto President Reagan and this idea that he could either singlehandedly destroy or protect us all. That face, I can hardly look at it still.
MDD: The fear was everywhere—it shaped everything. I remember that my friends and I would always say, “See you tomorrow—if there is a tomorrow,” before we went home for dinner every night. We were joking, kind of. But looking back, that was absolutely bonkers! I’d be so deeply depressed if that was how my kids viewed the world.
KM: My son’s not afraid of nuclear war, but he hasn’t been sleeping well ever since one his friends told him a story about a man with knives for nails who kills kids in their sleep. I told him that was a movie starring Robert Englund, but my son would rather believe the friend who told him it was on the news.
MDD: We should’ve maybe written Nightmare on Elm Street fan-fiction instead of The Silent History. The app could’ve shown you where Freddy was hiding out at any given time.
KM: Or maybe the real Robert Englund. A “Where’s Robert Englund?” app. And he would always be drunk in your neighbor’s living room. Another thing I was terrified of as a child was Moonies. I overheard my mother talking about them to a neighbor, who was saying they were going to steal the children of the neighborhood. I built my own mythology around that—they came at night (by the moon, see), they wore robes, they stole children. I’m now convinced that the neighbor was joking and I missed the humor.
MDD: I somehow missed the Moonies in my childhood—otherwise I’d almost certainly have come to the same conclusions. Maybe my parents were trying to protect me from their influence, or maybe the Moonies just couldn’t penetrate the wild frontier of Western New York, but I had no idea they existed until I read Mao II, and so I assumed that they were a DeLillo invention. They might as well have been, you know? It’s as if they formed in anticipation of being written into a DeLillo novel.
KM: Forming a cult with the intent of being written into a DeLillo novel seems as good a reason as any.
MDD: I wish I’d thought of that when I was younger. I’ll never be DeLillo, but maybe I could be a member of a cult that makes it into one of his books.
KM: Did you ever see the movie version of Helter Skelter?
MDD: No. I remember seeing it at my local video store but I was too terrified of it to watch.
KM: I watched it on TV when I was ten years old and I thought it was a documentary—that the actors were the real people. For a while I thought most everything on TV was nonfiction. Except cartoons, because it would be insane to think Thundarr the Barbarian was, like, a documentary of the near future, right?
MDD: That show pretty much defined my aesthetic. If you look closely at any story in Super Flat Times, it’s essentially a lightly reworked episode of Thundarr the Barbarian. I’m pretty sure I even wrote about the moon splitting in half.
III. THE SPACE JAM WEBSITE
KM: I know you had more experience with the digital part of the Silent History project. Had you ever conceived of something like this?
MDD: I worked with Robert Coover at Brown in the 1990s, so I dabbled in hypertext, but the technological limits at the time were pretty severe. If you wanted to have an experience with digital literature you had to sit in front of a massive CRT monitor, and your only input device was a mouse and a keyboard. Some people were able to do incredible things within these constraints—I’m thinking of experiences like Zork, the LucasArts games, and Myst.
Since we’re already talking about nuclear terror, I should mention that my wife and I collaborated on a little ‘chapbook-sized’ hypertext in the 90s about nuclear anxiety called Kokura—Kokura was the backup target city for the first atomic bomb and the primary target of the second, but it was saved on both occasions because of weather patterns. The book is somehow still online, courtesy of Eastgate Systems: http://www.eastgate.com/Kokura/Welcome.html
I think only the Space Jam website is older than this.
So I guess I was always predisposed to the exploration of electronic literature, but I felt pretty limited in the 90s by the available tech and my own naive coding skills.
KM: Did this project push you anywhere unexpected?
MDD: It definitely pushed me in terms of character. I worked really hard to give each character a distinctive voice, which was something I’d never truly done before. Coming out of the Brown MFA program, I had this attitude like, “There is no such thing as character.” I’m still a little skeptical about the whole idea, but I wanted to sail into the wind of my assumptions.
KM: I came with less natural skepticism, but with The Silent History, we fairly quickly picked a handful of characters, and then we had to see their arcs all the way through the book. I was naturally drawn to a character like Patti Kern, who exalts the silents, thinks they’ve come here to teach all us word-bound talkers. In a story she’d come onstage, say her strange fey lines, and then exit forevermore. But in the book, she demanded a depth and breadth that took a lot more work, a lot more off-page rendering. It allowed me to actually confront some of my limitations as a writer.
MDD: Do you feel like you have unfinished business with any of these characters? Would you ever want to revisit them or fold some aspect of their personality into a future story?
KM: Definitely. These characters stepped into our sprawling world, pushed the storyline along a little bit, and then gracefully exited—but their voices linger. There are a few I’d definitely like to revisit somehow—fake twitter accounts, maybe some cosplay down the road.
Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times. He lives in Massachusetts.
Kevin Moffett is the author of Permanent Visitors and Further Interpretation of Real Life Events. He lives in Claremont, California.