Fiction for the digital age

By PHILIP EIL  |  August 1, 2012

One of their hopes for The Silent History, Derby says, is that a reader, say, staying at a Holiday Inn in Wichita, can have a unique literary option for evening entertainment. "Everything is closed," Derby says, "but I look at The Silent History and there are like three field reports within 20 minutes' [walk]." With a smartphone, he scrolls across a map of the country on the bottom of the screen, pointing out groups of reports in Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Washington, DC, and New York as he goes. Finally, he zooms in on Providence, where Winter's eight field reports create a cluster of red dots from the Franciscan Park, on the West Side, to the banks of the Seekonk River.

Max Winter first met Derby when they played in local bands that shared a drummer in the late 1990s. A former fiction and screenwriting lecturer at the University of Rhode Island, he is currently working on a debut novel tentatively titled Louder Than Good set in a town that he says, "bears more than a passing resemblance to the real Providence, but it's really the Providence of my sick, twisted mind." He was the perfect candidate for a Silent History field reporter.

Winter grew up in Providence and has long been an itinerant observer of the city. He has the stories to prove it: on one epic walk from Allens Avenue to the Pawtucket border, he had bottles thrown at him out of two separate cars. "I don't write autobiographical fiction, by any stretch," he says. "I cover up the tracks to varying degrees — but I'll often use as an entry point something that's intimately familiar to me." The character who leans out of his window at the Burnside mansion to yell at Brown students to quiet down? The landscaper who has a haunting encounter with a silent young girl near Prospect Terrace Park? There is nonfiction folded in there.

Mostly, however, he uses the project as a chance to conjure snapshots of places outside of the attention of even the locals. The results are hallucinatory, often-hilarious vignettes that, for fiction fans, are as tasty and addicting as a deep-fried snack. His narrators describe the murky traffic in and out of a small ramshackle building marked "Members Only" on Carpenter Street. They rant about a double-yellow line installed on River Road — one that the narrator surmises is less about preventing anonymous sex in parked cars than blocking the comings and goings of immigrants who show up to fish. Another narrator witnesses a chilling confrontation involving the fire pit at the Franciscan Park. That scene, Winter says, is the "most gothic and dramatic thing that I've probably ever written."

Horowitz, the former McSweeney's editor behind the project, is reluctant to share too many details when I speak with him over the phone. But he is thrilled to discuss one of the project's key innovations. The number of core testimonials — 60 by Derby, 60 by California-based writer Kevin Moffett — won't change, he explains. But the preliminary field reports sprinkled in locations as far flung as Australia and Antarctica are just a starting point. Once The Silent History is up and running, he says, readers will be able to submit their own reports for consideration.

"I think Max and Matt have gotten it off to a great start," he says. But he welcomes the idea that, if there is enough enthusiasm, a place like Rhode Island could wind up with more reports than New York City. "One thing that we're really excited about is that the story can evolve in really different ways and a city — some place like Providence — can be the best place in the world for experiencing this."

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