Processing: How Calvin Kasulke Wrote Several People Are Typing
The author on revision, humor, and taking the big conceptual swing
Since this is a craft newsletter, I spend a lot of time talking about writing processes. Every author has their own process—and often a different process for every book—and I always find it illuminating to hear about them. (Here are some entries on Zadie Smith, César Aira, and myself.) But as interesting as process and craft questions are to writers, it’s something that often gets ignored in book coverage. I think the most common complaint I hear privately from other authors is “No one asks me about craft!” So I’ve decided to be the change and reach out to authors whose books I loved with questions about processes and craft.
I’m very excited this first entry in this series I’m calling “Processing” is Calvin Kasulke, whose hilarious debut novel Several People Are Typing was published this August. This workplace comedy is rollicking ride that hits that sweet spot between being experimental and very readable. The entire novel is written in the form of Slack chats and involves a character who accidentally uploads their consciousness into Slack. There’s also a dog food PR crises, strange howls from the beyond, and plenty of workplace antics and commentary on this surreal stage of late-stage capitalism. You should check it out!
One of the first things that stands out about Several People Are Typing is that it is written entirely in the format of Slack. Did early drafts have other narrative modes or did you always know it would be written in this format? What difficulties did you face writing a novel in this strict form?
Years ago I saw a tweet—which has either been deleted or I've so badly misremembered the wording that I can no longer find it—that jokingly presented the idea of a novel written entirely in Slack. My first reaction was "That would fucking suck," and my immediate next thought was "But what if it didn't?" All of which is to say, it was always going to be in Slack.
I had a blast writing the book in this format. We're talking full-on mumbling and occasionally bark-laughing to myself while writing, jotting down lines to use later so I don't forget them while I write the current scene, the whole deal. Really had myself a one-man slumber party.
Part of that fun comes from my having a decent amount of experience in writing scripts and plays—particularly audio fiction—so I'd already gotten some reps in re: telling a story primarily through dialogue. Obviously I'm not the first person to suggest that formal constraints can actually be generative rather than limiting. Mostly I wanted to try and use Slack to the fullest extent that I could within the context of the story; I felt it was important not to leave unexplored any obvious (to me) storytelling potential that was latent in the form, though I'm sure there's plenty of meat left on that bone.
What was the process of actually drafting the novel in Slack format? Did you type in Word, copy and paste from Slack, or use any other software?
I outline everything longhand first, so I was working off of a pretty detailed beat sheet written out on a legal pad. The draft itself I wrote in Google Docs; I briefly considered writing it in a scriptwriting program like Final Draft, but ultimately decided I didn't want the formal or structural limitations imposed by that kind of software. Needed to be able to get weird with it.
Sometimes I'd pull up Slack and test something out so I could record how the program rendered a particular action, like announcing a user leaving a channel, and in the early going I definitely had a few conversations with Slackbot to see how it responded to typed-out pleas of "help" and "please help," etc.
One very specific element I wondered about was your rendering of emoji. Obviously, all of us use emojis these days. It's part of our common language. But it can be tricky to render in fiction. Do you simply insert them 👀🙏🤤? Do you use ASCII text instead like D: or :P or :( ? You chose to use their Slack codes such as :ok-hand: or :eyes:. What made you decide to render them that way? (It works great! I’m just curious.)
I will resist the urge to pretend I have a more sophisticated rationale here; truthfully, I just like how it reads on the page! The rhythm provided by the colon buffers is unique in the rendering of emoji, as you point out, and it's true to how Slack actually works—those codes also appear when you hover your mouse over any emoji in Slack, so users confront them a fair amount. More than you might using the emojis on your cell phone's SMS emoji keyboard, for example.
The plan was always, always to render them as words, for plot purposes as much as aesthetic ones.
I really love novels that commit so boldly to their conceit in the way yours does. It reminded me of books like Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra (entirely in the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test) or A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem (entirely reviews of fictional books). Or in the short story form, Carmen Maria Machado’s “Especially Heinous” (a long story in 272 TV capsule summaries). Can you talk about your interest on playing with form and what books influenced you?
"Especially Heinous" is so killer. I love a gimmick—I appreciate your generosity in going with the term "conceit" here, though I think the difference is mostly one of connotation. A highbrow stunt is classified as a conceit, a lowbrow one is a gimmick, but the impulse is the same.
Taxonomizing aside, I'm generally a huge fan of a big conceptual swing, even when it doesn't totally land. Sometime when I was in elementary school the Goosebumps series started releasing choose-your-own adventure books, which absolutely knocked me back on my nine-year-old ass. Turns out books didn't have rules! You could put whatever you wanted in them! Everything didn't have to be Hatchet or whatever!! Anarchy, baby!!!
In terms of books for actual adults, Joey Comeau's Overqualified, which is a novel entirely in cover letters, was foundational for me. To explain why I like it is to spoil it, but it's stuck with me for years and years now. If On A Winter's Night A Traveler is another (potentially obvious) favorite, but it's hard to keep this answer solely in the realm of printed books when human opus-factory Jon Bois's 17776 is probably one of the most influential written works of the last 10 years, and it lives on the SB Nation website. There's a lot you can do on the internet, conceit-wise, that you can't pull off quite the same way on paper.
This novel is extremely funny. I laughed out loud many times. What’s your approach to humor in fiction?
Thank you, man, I'm glad you got some laughs out of it! I don't really have a grand unified theory of how to go about making something funny—every new project has a different physics engine and a different rhythm and also a different everything else. For the most part I try to focus on writing sufficiently realized characters energetically pursuing opposing goals. That usually takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting, comedy-wise.
What was your revision process like? Did any parts of the novel change significantly between first and final draft?
Oh yeah, it got way gayer after the first major revision.
It also took a fair amount of tweaking to resolve the Bjärk storyline in a way that felt satisfying. (Or at least satisfying to me and my truly wonderful editor Rob Bloom, who has impeccable instincts for this sort of thing.) That plotline had maybe three or four different resolutions before I landed on the final one, which now feels like the only possible conclusion.
Those were the only two really major changes, and they're also two of the elements that readers seem to respond to the most. It brings me no pleasure to report that revision wins again.
Lastly, Several People Are Typing is your debut. What was the publishing process like—the whole querying and submitting process—for a book this wild?
Write book, winter 2019
Query agents in spring 2019; 100% rejection rate
Apply to MFA programs with book in autumn 2019; 100% rejection rate
Revise novel & make it gayer, winter 2020
The novel coronavirus becomes a global pandemic, winter/spring 2020
Many office workers download Slack or similar chat platforms in order to work from home, spring 2020
Query agents with revised book, May 2020
Accept offer of representation from Kent Wolf, who has great hair, & revise novel, June 2020
Book sold to Rob Bloom at Doubleday, July 2020
Book optioned by Nick Kroll's production company Good At Business, October 2020
Book announced as Good Morning America's Book Club pick of the month, September 2021
I feel a little exposèd sharing the above timeline in such a stark way, but it would be disingenuous to not highlight that Slack abruptly becoming a lot more relevant to a lot more people made this somewhat experimental book suddenly seem much more appealing to agents and publishers in a span of 18 months, even though the book itself hadn't changed all that much in the interregnum.
And it makes sense! Publishing is a business, and agents and publishers want to sell books they think people will buy. That first round of agents and MFA programs had plenty of good reasons to pass on this weird little book. Global circumstances changed, and then this book about a guy trapped in his work Slack seemed like something more people might relate to. That changed the calculus for convincing other people to believe in Several People Are Typing as much as I had the whole time.
Context matters, and it's futile to try and predict what's going to be relevant between the time a book is written and when it's published. You just have to write the thing you're compelled to write, and you'll figure out how to get other people to read it once you've made it to the other side.
In personal news, I had a great time appearing on the Paraphrase podcast and wrote about some of my favorite SFF noirs over at Novel Suspects. My novel The Body Scout was included in a list of great Halloween reads picked by Hollywood horror screenwriters. As always, if you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing.