Digital Life
10:22 am
Thu January 16, 2014

Teju Cole Writes A Story A Tweet At A Time

Originally published on Thu January 16, 2014 1:09 pm

Teju Cole's novel Open City may have won him critical acclaim and many fans, but that doesn't mean he can stop thinking about how to connect with his readers. "I actually do have to work hard for whatever attention my work gets," Cole tells NPR's Michel Martin.

And he is using unconventional methods to get that attention.

After a recent, "much needed break from the hectic environment that Twitter sometimes can be," his 120,000-plus followers noticed some activity on his feed.

It was a retweet that started:

More than 30 retweets later, "Hafiz," a short story written by Cole, emerged. "I had written this story, and I was thinking to myself how I would publish it, and there are any number of places I could publish a short story," he points out. "But I think I have a natural inclination to try new things when it comes to storytelling."


Interview Highlights

On telling the story on Twitter without sending any tweets himself

As far as I was aware, nobody had actually used the retweet to create a narrative. And so I took advantage of the hospitality of my friends and followers online by asking them to tweet out certain things, which to people who are reading them on their feeds would just be sort of random sentences. But when I retweeted all of these things, in sequence, they all joined together to make a coherent story. It was just an idea, very much dependent on the generosity and kindness of the people I asked to participate, and I think it worked out quite interestingly.

On reaching out to audiences in new ways

I just think it has to do with not feeling as if the audience owes me anything, that I actually do have to work hard for whatever attention my work gets. Sometimes it would involve publishing something in The New Yorker, which has a subscription base and an established audience, and sometimes it involves using media or a forum that is not necessarily associated with, you know, very serious work. Maybe it's just a generational thing where I don't think that print media has to be the be-all and end-all. A lot of the people I want to be read by, a lot of the people I want to speak to, are not people who have subscriptions to The New Yorker or The New York Times, so it's important for me to speak to them in this way also.

On publishing the short story free

I mentioned the word generosity earlier. You know, I've thought about ideas of hospitality. Sometimes it's just really important to be in a place together and do something, and that brings its own rewards in a way, you know? Yes, there are many things I do that I get paid for, you know; I give talks, I'm a teacher, I publish. But if you think about your work only in terms of what is generating income for you, I think that work would probably die on the vine.

On using Twitter to tell stories

What interests me is polished language, language that one has worked on. The way that it can work inside this medium where a lot of the language that you're seeing is not carefully considered. And then you put these very clean, simple sentences out there, and people think, "Oh, that's having some kind of strange effect on me, but I'm not sure why."

But you as a writer know that it's because you have quite carefully thought about the placement of your commas, and about your word choice, and about using simple words, and about using slightly unusual grammar, or that sort of thing. Basically the same way that you would have an effect on your reader if you were writing an article for Harpers or The Atlantic or if you were publishing a novel.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Teju Cole is a writer, a photography, an art historian and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. So you might think he'd be most at home telling a story sitting in a sweater in a library cupping a warm tea and an unlit pipe, but you'd be wrong. In fact, his latest story comes from one of the newest ways to communicate. So here is how it started. Last week after a three- month hiatus, his 120,000-plus followers noticed some activity on his Twitter feed. It was a retweet that started...

TEJU COLE: ...To a subway I saw a man on the ground. He sat on the sidewalk under trees, with his feet out to the quiet street.

MARTIN: More than 30 retweets later, a short story written by Teju Cole emerged.

COLE: ...Four others were there - a young man busy with a phone, a young woman, a baby in a pram, a girl who was with the woman. There was a stillness in the scene as in an altarpiece. There's a helpless air in those who stood around him. The seated man was closer to 60 than to 50, dressed in an ordinary way - a button-down long sleeved shirt, trousers. His right hand was inside his shirt. He clutched at his heart and winced.

MARTIN: And Teju Cole joins us now to tell us more about his latest experiment. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

COLE: Thanks very much, Michel. It's nice to be talking to you.

MARTIN: So how did the ideas start? Do you remember?

COLE: Well, I think it was two different things. I think it was because this account had been dormant for a while. I was taking a much-needed break from the hectic environment that Twitter sometimes can be. I had been enjoying my break, but I had a notion that, you know, I wasn't done with Twitter for good. So the first thing was that there was this space that was open, I wanted to maybe get back in there. And then the second thing is that I had written this story and I was thinking to myself how I would publish it.

And there are any number of places I could publish a short story, but I think I have a natural inclination to try new things when it comes to storytelling. I try to think about where is the audience, what kind of reading do I want of this thing? And out of those two ideas, you know, I worked out something to tell the story on Twitter without actually sending any tweets myself.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, I was going to say - so you wrote the story and then you asked others to tweet it for you.

COLE: Yes.

MARTIN: Which is kind of spicy. Why did you decide to do it that way?

COLE: Because, you know, then it occurred to me that the retweet had not really been used much as a tool. I mean, people sometimes retweet something into their feed to inform other people of something. Or as a way to show that somebody had tweeted something idiotic, so there's the ironic retweet. But as far as I was aware, nobody had actually used a retweet to create a narrative. And so I took advantage of the hospitality of my friends and followers online by asking them to tweet out certain things, which to people who are reading them on their feeds, would just be sort of random sentences. But when I retweeted all of these things in sequence, they all joined together to make a coherent story. It was just an idea. It's very much dependent on the generosity and kindness of the people I asked to participate. And I think it worked out quite interestingly.

MARTIN: Was it a tricky decision, you know, who would be invited to participate? And I won't mention that I'm a little hurt that I was on your list, but...

COLE: It wasn't...

MARTIN: It's kind of like sending a list for a party, in a way. You know, you're like, who do you include? Who do you not include?

COLE: You know, it wasn't actually that tricky because I kept it simple. I mean, I got this idea while I was in India. I happened to be traveling between cities. I was in the back of a cab with my phone when I started this project. And the first person I asked, Runty Reader, happens to be a good friend of mine. So I wrote to her and I said, look, I'm going to start this thing, I want you to send out a tweet. So she sent out the tweet. And then the second person I asked was George Szirtes, who is an English poet who is also a friend of mine. And he said, well, this sounds kind of strange, but of course I'll do it. But once two two people had participated and I had sent out these retweets, people started saying, hey, what's going on here, this is peculiar.

And the rest of the participants actually, I largely selected on the basis of who was responding to what I was doing. So if one of my friends said, oh, what's going on there, this is interesting - I would send them a DM and say would you like to participate? So largely, it was people who showed interest that I ended up following. There was no grand strategy because this was not planned ahead of time. I needed it to be people who were online at that particular time because I was actually doing this one tweet at a time. It wasn't planned in advance at all.

MARTIN: But you didn't start the story with the intention of distributing it that way. Right?

COLE: No, I did not.

MARTIN: No. Well, you know, I think one of the reasons - first of all, the story had a lot of positive attention, but I think a lot of people are intrigued by it because I think this is a time when a lot of artists are experimenting with how to get their art to their audiences in new ways. I mean, now, Beyonce made a big splash with the way she delivered her latest album on YouTube kind of...

COLE: That's right.

MARTIN: ...In the middle of the night, you know. And it kind of made me think of that.

COLE: You know, when Beyonce and I are discussing how to disseminate our art, we always - Jay-Z, Beyonce and I...

MARTIN: Just get together.

COLE: ...Always talk about the importance of the element of surprise. Excuse me. Please go on.

MARTIN: I thought it fly. I means, I'm just saying. I was - but is that kind of on your mind in a way? Or is it just kind of a happy, eureka moment - you say, you know what would be fun?

COLE: Well, I mean, I just think it has to do with not feeling as if the audience owes me anything. That I actually do have to work hard for whatever attention my work gets. Sometimes it would involve publishing something in The New Yorker, which has a subscription base and an established audience.

And sometimes it involves using media or a forum that is not necessarily associated with, you know, very serious work. Maybe it's just like a generational thing where I don't think that print media has to be the be-all and end-all. A lot of the people I want to be read by, a lot of people I want to speak to are not people who have subscriptions to The New Yorker or to The New York Times. So it's important for me to speak to them in this way also.

MARTIN: Well, here's the tricky thing, though, you do need to get paid, don't you? Some kind of way for your work.

COLE: I do need to get paid, but, you know, I'm...

MARTIN: So this was a gift.

COLE: This was a gift, but, I mean, I mentioned the word generosity earlier. You know, I've thought about ideas of hospitality. Sometimes it's just really important to be in a place together and do something. And that brings its own rewards in a way, you know. Yes, there are many things I do that I get paid for, you know. I - you know, I give talks, I'm a teacher, you know, I publish. But if you think about your work only in terms of what is generating income for you, I think that work would probably die on the vine. What you actually have to do is think of your work in the terms of the intensity and excellent that you want to bring to it. And so this story, for example, was something I worked on for many days. The fact that it went out on Twitter did not mean that I could allow myself to be sloppy in terms of how I wrote it.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. Did you feel anything was lost or gained in having to meet the particular form of Twitter?

COLE: Well, actually not much was lost in terms of, you know, the literariness of the peace, in terms of the sentences. Simply because my own personal style as a writer does tend towards short declarative sentences. So, no, there was no great loss there. But what interests me is polished language, language that one has worked on. The way that it can work inside this medium where a lot of the language that you're seeing in this medium is not carefully considered, and then you sort of put these very clean, simple sentences out there and people think, oh, that's having some kind of strange effect on me but I'm not sure why. But you as the writer know that it's because you have quite carefully thought about the placement of your commas and about your word choice and about using simple words and about using slightly unusual grammar or that sort of thing - basically, the same way that you would have an effect on your reader if you were writing an article for, you know, Harper's or The Atlantic or if you were publishing a novel.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

COLE: Well, thank you very much. And it's fun to talk you about this.

MARTIN: So you're back on Twitter now?

COLE: Am I back on Twitter? I don't know. We'll see when inspiration strikes. I think I'm going to post a bunch of photographs next. I don't know.

MARTIN: Teju Cole is the author of "Open City." And a new work of fiction, "Every Day Is for the Thief," will be published by Random House on March 25. And he was kind enough to join us from our studio in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

COLE: Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you about this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.