By Dennis Abrams
Christopher Herz has had what can only be considered to be an unorthodox writing career. Or, conversely, his career can serve a model for every aspiring 21th century author.
Consider this. Herz self-published and then sold on the streets of New York City his first novel, The Last Block in Harlem, using the streets as a form of social media until a remarkable chain of events brought his book to the attention of Amazon, which published it in July 2010. To promote his second novel Pharmacology (AmazonEncore December 2011), he launched a blog and Twitter account in the voice of his main character, Sarah Striker, and has asked readers from all over the world to tweet or email a picture taken on a Sunday to Sarah. The pictures are then used to create a narrative to go with them, weaving the pictures of people from countries all over the world to create a story connecting us all.
And his next project is even more ambitious: a plan to create a site for students that will provide a cooperative writing environment where everybody can be a part of their own world-wide story. I recently had an opportunity to speak to Christopher about his career, his new project, and his hopes for the future.
Your first book, The Last Block in Harlem, was self-published and self-promoted. Why did you decide to go that route?
I knew that if I was to go through the whole traditional publishing route it might not have been the best way because I couldn’t have learned everything I learned. I also knew that things were changing, and that if I did it myself from the beginning I could build an audience and see what people were thinking by taking my book right to the consumers.
I published it myself, I put it on Kindle, I went up to people (the goal was to sell ten copies a day), I would take pictures of people with the books and post them on my blog – I was making my dream come true. I knew that my story would get out and that someone would pass it on and it would go viral – the streets of NYC are like the internet in that way.
After about five months I sold it to a writer who had signed a book contract. She took a picture of me selling the book, sent it to a friend at Publishers Weekly, a story was written: Amazon found it and published my book a year later. And then people found about that, and started sending in pics with them and the book from around the world. It was amazing. It got me thinking how social media allows the reader and writer to connect like never before, and how that each reader is actually part of the story.
It’s interesting – the way things stand now, you can do whatever you want. There are no rules. With readers able to spread the word through social media outlets, it’s all being written. It’s the industrial revolution of publishing – it’s all wide open.
Can you tell me more about the Sarah Striker Sunday mash up and how it all got started?
Condensed version – What happened was I was trying to write Pharmacology, and its main character, Sarah Striker, started out in Salvation Army thrift shops, buying cheap books and then cutting and pasting them together to make a narrative. Now, if you’re writing something you have to make it real. So I thought, let me ask people from around the world via twitter to send in pictures of what they’re doing on a Sunday morning. All of a sudden, pictures were coming in – from Egypt during the revolution – all over the place. I started writing the story taking what was sent to me, and eventually created a blog and twitter and now Sarah has taken it over. But whether I’m doing it or “Sarah” is, the purpose is the same – to do these mashups and help show people what’s really going on. And what’s really going on is that the majority of people are trying to live and love and get some happiness.
I’m fascinated by the student writing project that started at Victoria, Australia’s Hawkesdale P12 school. Does it have a name yet? How does it work?
It doesn’t yet have a name – but it came about in a really interesting way. With my first book, after it got published, I started doing a book club. I wondered if I could do book clubs everywhere via Skype and it turned out I could — Dubai, UK, San Antonio – everywhere. And through talking to all these different people about literature I met this woman in Australia, Anne Mirtschin, who was looking for writers to come to her class. So I went to her and said I can Skype in. She has fifty kids in her class, a few of them were interested in learning more, so I said, let’s do a project once a week.
As an aside, I’d like to add that a lot of people think that this new technology is making people not want to read, but it’s not true. It’s just different, kids are writing and reading more, using the tools that exist now.
So I would talk to the students via Skype and give them a lesson — take your character to the grocery store, for example, or interview them. I created an Evernote page, and each student would then post all their work online. I’d look at it, they’d look at it, and the grand plan was to build a database of characters — a twitter page, a Facebook page — and make them real. And then once they were real and were up on the page, the lesson would be to pick their characters plus two other characters and create a story. The students were really into it, and when the school year ended, I thought it would be great if we could use this same program to connect students from all over the world to post on this global page. Take one character from India, one from Brazil, one from Wisconsin, and then create stories. The student is then either going to grow up learning to write, or, at the very least, come to understand another culture. It’s all about making connections. After all, with the advent of Kindle and other digital platforms, your audience is no longer just domestic – we’re all part of a global community. My goal is to get kids excited about this — all these social media tools makes for an amazing experience.
My grand plan is this: Have a global site where kids learn that literature can connect the world. I want to really build this program, this learning program, to promote literacy and teach students to write using each other’s characters. All these characters out there — they become real.
It’s the mash up, and it all started with Sarah Striker. You can still exist in an analog world using digital tools. That’s what I want to promote.
And finally, what do you see yourself doing in the next five years?
In five years, I want to continue to put books out there that make people think. I plan to have this program up and going so we have this global literary community among young people that allows them to exchange characters and write about whatever they want. I want to be able to go into schools, either in person or the site, and give to teachers the ability to do what I’m doing – getting kids excited about writing, learning, and reading.
Creating an exchange. All I want to do is create literature that changes the world.