By Sean Aaron Bowers
Illustration by Allison Bruns
On September 24, Portland-based Housefire Books released one of its most ambitious titles to date. Selfies, which most resembles an e-book, contains a universe of online content and is the collective product of a group of writers and editors at Housefire. The eight talented writers it took to create this fresh literary experiment (Robert Duncan Gray, Riley Michael Parker, Megan Lint, Ian Dick Jones, Julian Smuggles, Adria Ivinitsky, Natalie Jones and Hazel Cummings) have developed an inter-text environment in hopes of navigating between internet and reality.
I sat down with 29-year-old editor-in-chief Riley Michael Parker to discuss the release of Selfies and to talk about Parker’s literary evolution since starting Housefire Books. We met where he was house-sitting, as he has been homeless for the past few months–months spent writing and editing a number of books, including Selfies.
Parker explained that Housefire began as a project from the publisher Metazen. While at Metazen, Parker discovered the benefit of soliciting submissions, as opposed to accepting open submissions. When overseeing open submissions, there is a tendency to get a plethora of people whose work doesn’t fit the criteria; or hopeful authors who have just started writing and think that everything they finish is good, just because it is hard to finish writing projects. Soliciting submissions gives an editor an opportunity to guide the tonality and the aesthetic of the journal or publication as he or she sees fit. That is the creative process of editing: trying to make all the pieces fit together into one cohesive grouping. He started Housefire as an offshoot project where he could solicit submissions from specific writers and publish them on the website. Parker seeks out writers who are not afraid to use poetic devices to express complex thoughts and emotions in a narrative and constructed story, who use new and novel ways to express emotion. He likes writers who are willing to be absurd or surreal and pay no attention to how the audience might interpret their work—people who are bold and adventurous enough to be misunderstood, and passionate and confident enough to write the way they want to–audience be damned.
Parker challenged his writers with prompts to boost creativity by putting them in unusual circumstances. For instance, Parker might give someone three titles to work with: “This street looks like the next, and the one before”; “The favorite son”; “American folklore.” Then, he provided rules: “Choose a title and write a single piece or three poems. Do not include young children, or the season. If you choose fiction, your focus character must be male. If you choose poetry, female. You have five days.” Parker would prompt them further: “Write a story about a man coming home from work on the day that he gets fired. Then rewrite the story. Then write it again. Each version should be drastically different from the other two. The man has a wife and two children. Each version should begin with him pulling out of the parking lot. After that, it’s up to you.”
This sort of prompting became the norm for Housefire. As the online content grew, Parker and the others at Housefire published a book of these prompts entitled Nouns of Assemblage in 2011.
Selfies is written in first-person present-tense narrative. Parker and two other writers wrote three foundational chapters. Parker posted those chapters in a group message to the other writers, with one additional word: “Go.”
The other writers had two hours to read the chapters. The first to respond in the thread by typing “Next” had six hours to write a following chapter. The process was repeated. If a writer didn’t post a chapter within six hours, the slot was given to the next person who responded. Once written, text could not be changed. If someone wrote about another writer’s character, that was that. Period.
The most compelling aspect of the format of the e-book is how the text becomes alive. As they wrote, authors acted out the roles of their characters, all the while taking “selfies”–self-portraits shot with mobile phones or similar. The characters have live OKCupid accounts, blogs, and profiles on other social media, all of which are hyperlinked in the e-book. Some of the fictitious characters form bands that release actual EPs in connection to the book. If a YouTube video is discussed, it is hyperlinked within the story. Here, fiction meets nonfiction, internet meets reality, and they all mesh into a one-of-a-kind experience for both reader and writer.
When starting Selfies, Parker intentions were to investigate what he calls “The balance of online life, where one has complete control of how they want to be seen. You can post pictures you want to post, un-tag yourself from things you don’t want to be seen in; you can delete things you think are stupid,” he explains. “You can build your persona–where in real life, you can’t do that, and just how lonely and sad these things make you. The theme that comes out in front of everything else is desperation, desperately wanting to connect. The most common thing that happens from chapter to chapter was people writing about texting people and waiting for a text back, wanting to hear from people and they don’t want to talk you… The internet is great because it gives you access to everything; you can do so much. Yet, outside of the internet, your resources are very limited. So it actually opens you up to a world that you can’t have. I feel like it’s making people more miserable at the same time that it’s making them happier.”
The prospect of publishing an e-book that illustrates the degradation of human communication due to the saturation of internet writing is a task for any writer. It is a task for any eight writers. Friend a character on Facebook, and just wait and see how that relationship unfolds.