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Episode XXIX: "Art is contrived. But so is 'dinner.'"

Published 9/23/15
In this installment, I speak with Arjun Basu, writer and Twitter pro. Topics include writing on Twitter versus writing books, how he got started, how to not chase Faves and RT's, life without Twitter & more.

I’m here with Arjun Basu, a man you may have encountered as I did: Twitter. If anyone could be said to play inside the boundaries of a medium, it’s Arjun; he writes 140-character short stories, and has an enormous following (176k at the time of this interview). These stories usually (at least recently) feature an unnamed “she” and has an “in media res” feel. I’ll start off easy: by asking where you are and what you see.

I'm in a park. So there's green around me. Traffic. It feels like autumn. Two days ago it was summer. I guess that's how it goes. There are folk around me eating lunch, hanging out. It's a lovely day.

Do you always talk like you write on Twitter? Do you think that way? Terse sentences, etc.

It's funny. I've been doing the Twitter thing for so long that I wonder if it's altered my thinking somehow. Or if I always thought that way and Twitter was the right medium for me. It's a chicken-egg question, perhaps. And if you look at my first novel, quite a few reviews mentioned my Twitter connection and my "economy of words." Though, the novel I'm working on now, perhaps subconsciously, is a different kind of writing - long sentences, for example, and long scenes. 

Let's jump back to that point, when you started your Twitter account. When was that? What purpose did you have in mind?

I started in 2008. I think it was the fall. I'd heard about Twitter and just thought I'd check it out. My first few tweets were banal ("about to go to a meeting" or "should have had an extra gin and tonic on that flight"), the kind of boring stuff that made Twitter easy to dismiss. So no purpose. And then, one day, I wrote a short story. I had a scene in my head and I just wrote it down. And then the Twitter counter became a part of writing that story. Because I'd written it long so I had to cut it down to 140 characters. And I edited down to exactly 140. And I pushed send. I didn't think anything of it but did it again the next day. Again at 140 characters exactly. That's when it became interesting. And then I started using it as my notebook. And then I attracted some attention. And I'm still doing it. It's a sickness, really.

Well, anything that you're passionate about can become a sickness. When did you find that the account took off? Was it a few special Retweets, or was it more gradual?

That's a good question. I'm not entirely sure. I started following some people who might be interesting. And they started to RT me. So in that sense, it was kind of an influencer strategy. And because of that, probably, I started to attract media attention. And once that happened, Twitter put me on their recommended list - this is before they had verified accounts. And then Ev Williams started to RT me. So that bumped up my numbers quite a bit. And then I made some "best of" lists, not just in the US but in the UK. It just built little by little. Then I started hearing from teachers: they would use my work in their course, either about new media, or even literature in the digital age. And again, in many places. Then I was getting permissions for text books. It's just been a kind of gradual thing.

The great (and pretty surreal) thing about using Twitter in the way you did, is the direct, quantifiable feedback you get from each Tweet. Every one has a certain number of Retweets and Favorites. It's rare for a writer to have such immediate feedback, and the type that's so black and white. What have you learned from these numbers?

I've always said Twitter is like catnip. We know writing is an amazingly solitary activity and that feedback can take a long, long time. The instantaneous feedback of Twitter is quite remarkable. I'm not really talking about the numbers. Chasing RT's and Faves is not why I do what I do. But putting something out in the world and having someone ask you a question, or even comment negatively, about that little work immediately is quite the rush. I stopped looking at numbers on Twitter a long time ago. When the numbers on my account took off, I realized I had to ignore it otherwise I'd probably go mad. 

So when you write something, you don't even see when it has double, or triple your normal figures?

I honestly don't. But that depends on the platform I'm using. If I'm on Twitter itself, which is rare, it's in your face. If I'm using another app, like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, I don't. Like I said, I'm not on it for the numbers. As a writer I've always used Twitter the same way: it's where my ideas go. It's replaced my notebook in many ways. It probably IS my notebook now.

You mentioned your new manuscript. How similar will that be, content-wise, to your recent posts?

The interesting thing about the book I'm working on now is that the one of the main characters grew out of a reoccurring character that kept showing up in my Twisters. After a while I couldn't ignore him anymore so I started writing about him, and then about his family and his work and his friends. So the germ of the idea is from my work on Twitter. But otherwise the manuscript is not similar to my Twitter feed. Interestingly, I've been toying around with a screenplay and so far I'm calling it "The Twitter Movie" because the first outline was really just a bunch of scenes or stories from my Twitter feed and then I tied them together into a full fledged story. But that's taken a backseat to the novel right now.

This'll be a hard question, but in what ways do you think your work on Twitter has detracted from your writing?

I ask myself that quite a bit. On one hand, Twitter has opened up a whole new community for me. I'm sure there are people who have purchased my books because they found me on Twitter. On the other hand, being on Twitter takes time away from something. Time is a zero sum game, and the more media we have access to just means we consume something less. It must. So not just Twitter but ALL social media is a time suck, sure, but the real question is where is the time being sucked from? And I can't say for sure that Twitter is sucking my writing time. If anything, social media has sucked my television time. And I'm using television in the broadest definition of the word. 

Having said that, I have written more than 12,000 posts on Twitter (I just checked!) and while not all of them are Twisters, I think I can say I've probably written around 10,000 140 character stories. That's a lot of work. My manuscript, right now, is at 120,000 words. I'm between drafts. Has Twitter detracted from it? Would it be any different had I not been on Twitter? Maybe. But if I was watching more TV, or even reading more books, I think the same question would apply.

How about in less tangible ways (than the fact you have limited time)? Stylistically, do you think writing on Twitter has effected your writing in negative ways (in addition to helping you with your economy)?

I used to edit magazines and then media in general. My first job out of university was as an editor of children't books. So an economy of words has always been something I've thought about. If anything, Twitter has helped my writing. It really cuts out a lot of fat. My worry, initially, was that I was cutting so much fat that I was self-censoring. My first novel took a long time to write; I started writing it before my introduction to Twitter and finished writing it afterward. And I can't really say the way I wrote that book changed, or that I can sense a stylistic intrusion into its writing because of Twitter. So, finally, the answer to your question is no.

Haha—okay, straightforward then. Have you experimented with other social media platforms?

Not really. I think this might have something to do with your earlier question of "time." There's only so much one can do and only so much time to do it in. I'm all over social media, plus I have my own website, but my social media presence is mostly on Twitter. To be cheeky I started posting some passages from the work from my novel-in-progress on ello. I'm not sure if I'm doing it ironically - the work is the work. I have a Facebook page. People don't believe me when I say this but I'm actually not on social media all that much. It doesn't take that long to write a Twister. And if it does, I abandon it.

Can you imagine your life without your Twitter presence?

That's an interesting question. I mean, I can't imagine my life without, say, air, or my family, but certainly Twitter is a large part of me as well. It's not life affirming. It's a hypothetical though. Like "Can I imagine my life as a lawyer?" (no), or "Can I imagine my life without Chinese food?" (no), or "Can I imagine a world without cars?" (yes)...but my Twitter presence? Yes, I guess so. I would still write. But I'd also probably have watched Game of Thrones as well....

You obviously relish the tight constraints of Twitter. When you're working on the novel, do you ever feel the surreal abyss between the two platforms? Do you ever feel both are equally contrived? Or do you feel as though writing fiction wouldn't exist or have its heft without a clearly defined form?

I'm not sure the abyss is a) an abyss or b) surreal. They are simply platforms, each with its rules. Fiction is contrived but that's why it's fiction. The idea of telling a story is ancient, eternal really, and the novel is merely a form of storytelling. It's not even the biggest one, at least not today. I mean, art is contrived. But so is "dinner."

That's a quote I can end an interview on, Arjun. Anything last thought you'd like to share with your fans?

No. That's great. You covered a lot of ground.

Thanks for your time Arjun, and your words.