Thursday, June 26, 2008

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say, if you’re a Facebook junkie, a picture is worth a thousand friend requests. Or if you’re a writer trying to summarize your identity into a pretty little package called a website, a picture is worth a thousand dollars – or a book deal.

While lunching at L’Express on 20th and Park, Michael Hyde and I discussed the ways in which the Internet has changed one’s understanding of self-presentation. A pretty profound conversation to be having over goat cheese salads and fries (I think the waiter kept re-filling our water glasses to eavesdrop), but very relevant to Hyde – and anyone with a published book, a website, or a Facebook account.

In December 2005, Hyde published a book of short stories called What Are You Afraid Of?, a compilation of older and newer tales that all share the “darker themes” typical of his writing. The book was extremely well-received, winning the 2005 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.

“My stories are American gothic – not English gothic with castles, but stories with broken houses and dysfunctional families, as well as some supernatural stuff,” Hyde explains.

After the book came out, Hyde decided to set up a website with the help of his friend Margaret Penney. “I wanted it to represent the themes of the book visually and textually…it sort of shows what I’m all about,” he says. He also wanted the site to be long-lasting – perhaps speak to future books and projects he would be working on.

While creating the website, Hyde realized he would have to think about self-presentation: how did he want to package himself on his website? In a way, we are all self-made and self-serving brands, and websites or profiles are like personal advertisements. Should we appear intelligent and introspective? Cute and quirky? Sarcastic and cynical? How do we condense our multi-faceted selves onto screen-sized pages?

“I had to figure out a way to present myself as a single identity for people who don’t spend all day in my imagination,” Hyde explains. Well, that would pretty much be everyone.

Along with trying to snag a spot on the Internet between innuendo-ed eHarmony profiles, weirdly artistic Myspace pages, and formal resumes on Linkedin, Hyde had to consider how his book would fit in with the rest of contemporary literature.

“You have to think about how your work will be perceived…everyone fits in a certain way, but you have to have a realistic sense of what is marketable to the public,” he says.

Just as we critique our friends for their choice of Facebook profile pictures (as in, “Cindy’s hair looks so stupidly trendy, someone should tell her she’s not making a statement” or “Linda would flash a peace-sign in that photo – who does she think she is, Ashley Olsen?”), even books are not exempt from the shallow scrutiny of the public eye. We do, of course, judge them by their covers, which is especially interesting in the case of Hyde’s collection.

He says that he didn’t initially write the stories with horror in mind – they are more like paranormal psychological investigations. However, with dark silhouettes of tree limbs and purple text that looks like it’s dripping down the page (à la the Word font “Thriller”), What Are You Afraid Of?’s cover begs to differ.

“The press marketed it as a horror book…although I did have a problem with the font choice, it was sort of out of my hands at that point. I just don’t want to confuse or mislead readers into thinking the book is like ‘Carrie’ or ‘The Shining’ when it really isn’t.”

If perhaps Hyde’s book sends mixed messages of what it’s all about, I think that his website strikes the perfect balance of creativity, eeriness, and organization that evoke just what he is: a very talented, clearly professional writer who happens to write about a young girl obsessed with her dead classmate’s murder (buy the book to find out more!) and diseased tomatoes that make people sick (strikingly relevant in the wake of our salmonella scare).

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