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Robin Sloan's Low-Tech Triumph

The digital whiz kid on his new novel, "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," and how Twitter helped teach him to write.

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 6:03 AM EST

RS: My great revelation, even with a little bit of research about Manutius and that era of printing, was: It was the internet! With all the confusion and competition and crazy arguments that you'd expect. I mean, we've got all these people today arguing, "Oh man, iPhone app," "Naw dude, you gotta do it as a website!" You can dial it back 500 years and it's exactly the same spirit. They were talking about like how to make ink, or what the best alloys were to use for this new type they were making, but it's like the same guys, just transported in time. Same attitude, same personalities.

"I have never thought more about the English language than I have looking at that tweet composition box."

MJ: Your trajectory, from working at Twitter, seeing things fly by in 140 characters, to writing a novel—it's kind of like you're going backwards. Was the novel a rebellion, an escape from digital media saturation?

RS: It wasn't a rebellion. It wasn't an escape, because I still use those things and I'm still part of that world and I still really enjoy it. I have never thought more about the English language than I have looking at that tweet composition box, trying to put words in a different order and figure out a different way to phrase a sentence to make it fit. That thing is totally an engine for creative sentence construction and grammar and syntax. So I don't think that that kind of stuff is an enemy of language or an enemy of storytelling.

At the same time, there's no arguing that it's not ephemeral. Even if you are the world's biggest fan of Twitter and of the web in general, I don't think you can deny that the half-life of media you make there is super short. It's like this stream where you kind of throw things into the stream and people dip into the stream but the stream just keeps flowing and then like goes off a waterfall. So getting into fiction, and certainly writing a full-length novel, was definitely an attempt to make something that could be a little more durable.

MJ: Your book deals a lot with immortality. Do you think things being invented on the internet are in some way not going to withstand time as well as physical literary works?

RS: There's the challenge of: Is the language and the story strong enough to survive? Things made on the internet today don't even get to test themselves against that standard because they're still struggling at the level of compatibility and durability. So I would say right now there is no reason to believe that anything that anyone publishes on the internet will be around in five or ten years.

Now, things are changing really fast. I'm sure in the very early days of books, people were like, "I don't know, man, I use mine like this, to start the fire." Books have now matured to the point where they have this durability and they also have time to demonstrate their durability. I would say the internet has done neither. It's not going to happen on its own. I think it's really going to take people who have an interest in archiving and in continuity and durability to start to actually maybe redesign the way these things work.

MJ: I was wondering, how do you eliminate distractions so that you could focus on writing your book?

RS: I'm so proud of my new phone (pulls out black Nokia flip phone). I canceled my AT&T plan and I'm just using this little guy, and I love it! One of the things I did—I had to do it—is I have an app called Freedom. I love Freedom. I think the thing is, and this is one of the scariest things, those distractions—Twitter, email, whatever—they become habits not even just on the level of your mind, but of your muscles. It's either look at the phone, or, new tab, Twitter—wait, why did I just open a new tab and type in Twitter? I don't even understand what just happened. Your brain and body have been trained to be like, (in a high voice) "Hmm, I get mildly stimulated whenever I do this!" So I think it's important to design an environment for yourself where those things are just not options. Freedom helps, I don't believe in like, (deeper, macho voice), "Oh, I deleted my Facebook account and Twitter account and canceled my internet and I use a typewriter." Freedom, though. I should say on the back: "This book brought to you by Freedom."

"The Muppets would not fit in at Apple, but the Muppets could work at Google, and I count that as a very positive thing."

MJ: You write a lot about Google and Googlers. What has your interaction with Google been?

RS: I don't know that many Googlers, I know a few. But in some ways I use Google in the book as a bit of an archetype. It's not purely Google. It's Google as avatar of Silicon Valley. But the reason it's Google and not Facebook or Apple is that I actually think that even in an era that Facebook is enormous, with a billion users, and Apple is making a billion dollars a week, Google is the quintessential web company. It's both that crazy scale and the incredible technical competence required to operate at that scale, but also this real goofiness and sense of anarchy. I don't know, you just feel like even the Muppets could work at Google. The Muppets would not fit in at Apple, but the Muppets could work at Google, and I count that as a very positive thing.

MJ: I love how you mix together things Google is actually doing, like Street View, with the most ridiculous things, like "a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris."

RS: Every time I've heard that someone had to Google something in the book to see if it was real, I'm like, "Score!" I should have a little chalkboard to notch it up. Because that to me is success. Can we do that yet? Is that a thing?

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