Eli Horowitz is a writer, designer, editor, and previous publisher of McSweeney’s. His digital novel, The Silent History, won the Webby Awards in 2012, and his most recent project, The Pickle Index, was showcased at this this year’s FoST summit in the Story Arcade. The novel, set in a society where all citizens must participate in a pickle-centric recipe exchange, exists in three simultaneous stand-alone editions: an app, an interactive hardcover set, and a paperback published by FSG.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Victoria Spencer: Could you start out by explaining The Pickle Index as if to someone who hadn’t heard of it before?
Eli Horowitz: Basically it’s a short, goofy novel that’s being published simultaneously in three different stand-alone formats: a crazy, elaborate hardcover with two books within a slipcase; a bizarre, immersive app; and a paperback. The idea is to use each of the different forms in their own way without trying to re-create one within the other, but rather trying to use the specific possibilities of each given form to tell the story in a different way. The other way to describe it is that it’s about this incompetent circus troupe that attempts to set their ringmaster free from a prison tower.
VS: What are the specific possibilities that are native to each format?
EH: It’s been an exploration throughout, and it’s not something that I can by any means plumb the full depths of. But in the hardcover, for example, there are two books for two different narrative threads. So even just the physical separation of the two books helps emphasize the separateness of the two sources in a way that’s a little more definitive than just clicking from one window to another. But then you can also manipulate the two different books to connect illustrations from one book to the other book. So it has a kind of physical puzzle quality that you could try to simulate in another form, but it wouldn’t have the same authenticity. Print also still has its own value and its own capabilities for innovation, not just as some sort of nostalgic thing. I think that people can often fall into the trap of thinking that the future of storytelling is the mere thing of one form replacing another—that it’s a steady march into utopia—but actually it’s more of a broadening kind of thing, so there are more and more possibilities opened up. So that was another reason why we did it this way.
VS: It’s interesting, because people typically think of books as something that you passively absorb, and more of a broadcast medium, so what’s revolutionary about your project is that it is interactive.
EH: And it also echoes the story in an important way. The story is about two groups: two sides of a story where all the characters have limited information, and you have to combine those two perspectives to really understand what’s going on. So the act of joining the illustrations resonates with the way people within that world also have to exist.
VS: I actually wanted to ask you where the story idea came from, because it’s a crazy, wacky idea to have a dystopian society where pickle recipes have such a central importance.
EH: A lot of these new media projects often sell into certain tropes. They tend to be very serious. They tend to involve shadowy conspiracies, leaving little clues all over, and be very media-saturated in the world of the story. I felt like if these new forms are going to have any real legs, they’ve got to be able to tell all kinds of stories, not just one particular Philip K. Dick spin-off story. So it was a very conscious decision to do a story that was goofy and very low-tech—this would mean no technology to speak of in that world. What’s there is pretty crummy and makeshift. It’s the kind of story I liked as a kid: a rag-tag band of misfits attempting a caper. So I was trying to add in those classic elements, and then of course along the way it just gets weird. I can’t really explain how that happened. I made an outline that felt to me very rational, but then it got all pickle-centric.
VS: You don’t know where the pickles came from?
EH: No. I consider myself more of an editor than a writer, fundamentally, and so I’m good at conceiving of the project and structuring it in advance, and I’m good at proofing it after the fact. That middle portion I’m still learning how to do. So I outlined this thing in a pretty detailed way, and then when I tried to write it, I was just filling out an outline—I was just checking off boxes. So the initial draft was very short and kind of flat, and it didn’t have any pickles in it. And then I realized I needed more life and more color and more detail, and it just happened bit by bit. I would grasp at straws and then—you know, pickles are very versatile. A lot of different things can be pickled. You can use brine or vinegar. So it stumbled out from there.
VS: It must have been an interesting process to conceptualize this story as both a book and an app. What was that like?
EH: It was very much a back and forth in the same way that The Silent History was. I had given a general shape to it in advance. I wanted it to be multi-perspective and unfold over a short number of days. But then I find there’s this constant back and forth between the shape and the story—the form and the content—which is something we’re able to do because it’s such a small team. It’s just me and this guy Russell Quinn, who built the app all by himself. . . . It wasn’t like this whole story was written and delivered to some development team who built the thing according to a set of specs. It was a very collaborative process. So it really changed a lot. I think at the beginning we had one idea of what we were accomplishing, and then bit by bit it became something quite different. But because it was a fluid process, we were allowed to discover it along the way.
VS: Did you learn anything from making The Silent History?
EH: Oh yeah. One of the things was that The Silent History did fall into some of the tropes I was talking about with these kinds of projects. Seeing the natural gravity of these kinds of stories made me want to do something different. The Silent History came out only digitally initially, and it was very important to me that there was only one ideal form for it. But that process also gave me a better appreciation for accessibility issues and reading style issues. The Silent History eventually did come out in print—as a paperback from FSG—about eighteen months later, I think. And I’m happy it did, but it also made me want to think about how the print version could be envisioned with as much care and specificity as the digital version, rather than one version being the main event and another being secondary or an afterthought.
VS: Tell me a little bit more about the process of making the Pickle Index app.
EH: It’s a crazy, crazy thing. The way we understand these two things now is, basically, in the world of the story there exists this mandatory recipe-sharing network. Every citizen has to write or forward a pickle recipe every day. So the book tells that story, and the app is that actual pickle-exchange network—we’re calling the print version the outside-in version, and the inside-out is the digital version. You can experience the story along with the characters in that world. . . . Hopefully the result is kind of robust and mystifying. I mean, I have no perspective on the project anymore, but I feel really confident that there’s not anything like it. So I guess that’s a good thing.
VS: I think you’re probably right! I know you’ve done a lot of work at McSweeney’s. How was the transition from working for a more traditional publishing company to doing these experimental digital projects?
EH: I see them coming from almost exactly the same place. At McSweeney’s, we had a real love of print and love of the object, but it wasn’t in a nostalgic way. We were constantly thinking about the form and how to make it really earn its existence, and to really think about not just the story we were telling but the shape of it and the object of it, and how those things could work together. . . . Hopefully we’re innovative in how we’re using the technology, but we’re not trying to be groundbreaking in the technology itself. I find sometimes when narrative projects do that, there’s a danger of getting distracted from what you’re trying to actually do, which is create an exciting storytelling experience.
VS: Was there a specific moment you can remember where you realized that what you were doing at McSweeney’s—valuing books as objects—could also be applied to different formats?
EH: It’s just how I was trained to think about everything, I guess. I’ll be fixing up an old house, and when I’m doing that it’s the same kind of thing—like what else could this room be? Or, I have this old wood—how can I combine this old wood with this problem in this room? It taught me to both make do with the resources I have but also really approach it with a sense of possibility. . . . There wasn’t a moment. That’s what makes these projects fun. Every one of them feels like you sort of have to reinvent the wheel.