Since Dan Sinker’s identity as the creator of the widely followed, prolifically profane satirical Twitter account @MayorEmanuel was revealed, a book deal seemed inevitable. The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel hits shelves Sept. 13 and not only complies and condenses the original Tweets, but also annotates it to explain the myriad references to Chicago politics and history. Before a free reading at the Museum Of Contemporary Art on the day of the book’s release, Sinker spoke to The A.V. Club about the process of writing @MayorEmanuel, uneducated electorates, and the versatility of his favorite curse word.
The A.V. Club: It seems fitting to start this off by asking you how many cups of coffee you’ve had today.
Dan Sinker: On average I’m a two-cup person, but occasionally will accidentally become a three-cup person, and then will have to wean back down to be a two-cup person. Although, now that I think of it, I think the last few weeks I’ve become a three-cup person.
DS: I just started a new job, and I no longer have a commute. So I am able to drink a lot more coffee, because I can make it myself. And then make it again.
AVC: In the Atlantic piece that outed you, the reporter writes, “When you try to turn [@MayorEmanuel’s] adventures into traditional short stories or poems, they lose the crucial element of time.” With this in mind, why did you decide to turn the feed into a book?
DS: The experience of reading the feed as it unfolded in real time is impossible to capture. But the story, and the beats of the story, and what’s kind of hilarious and fantastical about the story, is possible to be captured [in a book]. And I think the key element on that was not to simply dump the feed onto paper and call it a day, but to actually pretty extensively annotate the feed, because a lot of the story actually unfolds reactively. A lot of the story is him reacting to something that’s happened external from the feed—he’d only give information in the live tweet that he sent out. And so, when it was originally written, the idea was that if you were following it, you’d go do a Google search, or you’re going to a Twitter search, and then you’d know what he was talking about. But that’s not very easy with a book. So the annotations began to take a hold as a life of their own, as the context to that real-time, reactive thing, as well as being able to go into background detail about all of the many things that are mentioned throughout the feed.
AVC: The book functions as a primer on Chicago politics and Chicago culture. Why did you decide to go that direction?
DS: The idea of annotating the feed was pretty early on in the discussion about what this thing would be. But, as I began to write the annotations, I realized just how much it’s writing a second story, right? What it’s really writing is the story of the campaign in a non-fictionalized way, which was totally surprising to me. So then you start to have these three tracks: You have this fictionalized story, you have a shadow history of the campaign, and you also have this kind of mini-encyclopedia of Chicago. And that was really entertaining to write. Writing the annotations was quite interesting, because you’re operating from a source that was completely time-stamped. It was actually really easy to go back and find the reference material that he was talking about, including things like the date, because that’s on the time stamp in the Tweet. You could actually capture what was said, and why, then, he was saying what he was saying. It was just a lot of fun to write. On any given day, when you get to write a paragraph on Jim’s Original Polish Sausage, and Carol Marin, and the Jesse White Tumblers, then that’s a pretty good day in my book.
AVC: You write about Scott Waguespack being an early contender for mayor, but you don’t write that the reason for that was because he voted against the parking meter deal. Did explaining these long, complicated histories become challenging at any point?
DS: I think the real challenge was how much to give, and how much not to give, in terms of information. The annotations are definitely secondary to the larger story, so if someone is going to make a brief appearance, and then be gone, you don’t want to weigh the actual narrative too much to get to the minutia. So that’s what was challenging. But overall, it was really enjoyable. I clearly have an obsession with local politics, so it’s fun to be able to walk down that path and be able to indulge in it.
AVC: Speaking of obsession, if you compare the original PDF of all the Tweets to the book, some of the real-life exchanges, like with Jake Tapper, were left in, while others, like with Michele Bachmann, were removed. I’m curious as to why that was.
DS: So the @replies—the only @replies that are in the book are stand-alone. @replies that are responding to someone else are not in the book, and the reason for that is simple. One, a lot of the replies were completely secondary to the narrative. In working on the book, there was definitely an eye toward making sure the narrative held together. The other reason is that, frankly, Twitter has great copyright policy. We sort of copyrighted their authors. In order to reproduce their tweets in a book form, we’d need to go get permission from every single person with an @reply to MayorEmanuel that we wanted to reproduce. Frankly, it was more work than it was worth to me.
AVC: That’s amazing. I didn’t know that.
DS: Their copyright policy is amazing. The authors retain authorship of every single tweet.
AVC: It makes sense, because having to get permission from a presidential candidate would be more trouble than it was worth.
DS: Exactly. And with a tweet like that, that was them being indignant as to the actual nature of the account, and the account writing back being like, “Uh, you’ve got the wrong dude.” That doesn’t work really well within the context of a narrative. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the reaction of Columbia College when you were outed?
DS: I think they were cautiously bemused. I think that’s maybe how I would put it. It took them a while before they embraced it, which I understand. It took a while to figure which way the wind was blowing on it, and that makes sense to me. So yeah, cautiously bemused.
AVC: But it ultimately didn’t play a role in your leaving the school?
DS: No, no, no. Not at all.
AVC: Were you disappointed that none of your students had an inkling that you were behind the feed?
DS: Not at all. If they had known, that would’ve been weird, right? [Laughs.] I mean, no one knew. There were five people that knew, and one of those people, I’m married to. It was a very closely held secret. And it was certainly not something that I wanted to influence the classroom anyway. That separation was a good thing.
AVC: When you have to keep something that’s that secret about a project you’re working on, does your life become sort of an extended exercise in dramatic irony?
DS: [Laughs.] What do you mean?
AVC: I would assume that people would talk about @MayorEmanuel to you without knowing that you were @MayorEmanuel.
DS: Yeah. That definitely was true. I got very good at doing the little giggle, and saying things that would change the subject quickly. The interesting thing was that a lot of people who made shortlists of suspects—some of them I might have been on, but most of them I was not. Other folks that I know would definitely be on a lot of them, because I saw or heard that they kept being approached. I was happy to let them be foils. But never once was I like, “Hey, look at this person!” [Laughs.] It’d be like [nervous laughter] “So, man, the weather’s crazy…” [Laughs.] I got good at changing the subject.
AVC: Were there any aspects of Chicago politics that you wanted to explain, but couldn’t because of the constraints of the book?
DS: I think there’s a lot about how the city capital and the mayor interrelate, or don’t interrelate, that’s really fascinating. Anyone who’s studied Chicago politics could come up with a list of totally crazy things that would be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it’s not a book about Chicago politics. It’s a book of this fantasy story that just needs to give the reader enough insight into what’s going on over here, and then let them move on. My hope would be that some people would be kind of curious, and that they’d look into the stories of our wonderful political system. [Laughs.]
AVC: So your identity was revealed in February, and the book is being released in September. You’ve described the writing process as being a lot of fun, but can you describe what it was like with such a quick turnaround?
DS: There was not a lot of sleep for a really long time. But I think in some ways, the speed that it had to get written was really good, because it reflected the speed with which it was written originally. It kind of needed to be fast, otherwise it wasn’t going to happen.
AVC: What do you hope readers get out of this book?
DS: I think the interesting thing about the account is that it really began as a joke about the absurdity of this election. But as it progressed, it really did become a love letter to the city of Chicago. Specifically, around the myth, or the mythos of Chicago, and what I think are very true traits of Chicago and of the people there. By the end of it, the two resounding traits of @MayorEmanuel are how he blurts out how much he loves his friends, and then he will give these impassioned speeches about Chicago, and how it needs to regain its former glory. I think those things are completely true. Those are things that I truly believe. I just was able to say them in a certain way. I think it’s a beautiful place, and an amazing place. I think it has so much potential to be the most awesome place in the world, but it needs to kind of remember itself.
AVC: There’s a lot of that on Twitter, about companies like Threadless and Groupon—about how Chicago used to make things and build things, and now we’re just making novelty T-shirts.
DS: On one level, I think it’s true. On another level, I think that what Threadless and Groupon have done is amazing. And on a third level, I have friends who work there. [Laughs.] You have the added incentive of insulting where your friends work on top of that. [Laughs.] And so you’ve got all points being hit there—the absurdity that the economy of Illinois is based on, or the hopes of the economy are being based on, half-priced spa days. But at the same time, I take great pride, and have gotten in many heated arguments, often with beer involved, about how Groupon could only have emerged out of Chicago. Because I think that in a company like Groupon, and in a company like Threadless, you actually see a lot of what makes Chicago work, in effect.
AVC: How so?
DS: Because these are companies that aren’t founded on California principles. California principles, which I will define as, “Hey man, we’ll make something really cool, and we’ll eventually make money from it.” Instead, [they’re based on] very Chicago roots, which is, “Let’s sell something people can buy, and let’s do it really well.” There’s actually a business plan in effect. Whether it proves to be a correct business plan or not is one thing, but it’s much less touchy-feely-and-eventually-we’ll-find-our-way than what you see out in California.
AVC: Basically, what you’re talking about is digital elbow grease.
DS: Exactly. What I’m talking about is that Chicago is the city that works. It always has been. That’s Terkel 101.
AVC: There were criticisms that the account wasn’t biting satire, but those seemed kind of baseless, considering you wrote things like, on election night, “If you have a bunch of money, and a bunch of dumb fucks running against you, dreams do come true.” That’s definitely a satirical take on post-Citizens United politics.
DS: Right. I mean, I think the thing is that people who feel it wasn’t satirical didn’t know what it was satirizing. I maintained for a while that the account wasn’t set up to make fun of Rahm Emanuel. Typically, Twitter accounts that are set up just to make fun of someone aren’t very funny. It was set up to make fun with Rahm Emanuel. It was set up to satirize the absurdity of that being our first real mayoral election in 21 years, and from the moment this one person enters the race, it’s no longer a race. That’s worthy of satire. Not because of the person, but because of the thing itself. It’s satirizing the absurdity of this election. It’s satirizing the absurdity of elections, and how we run them now, with the amount of money that we have. I think people who didn’t think it was satire really just wanted me to make fun of Rahm. And while he certainly gets poked a lot in it, [solely making fun of him] wasn’t my intention.
AVC: So the feed wasn’t so much “making fun with Rahm” as it was making fun of the context in which Rahm emerged as a mayoral candidate?
DS: Right. And amping that up to 800,000. That’s the thing of the account. He’s really the straight man in the account, and he’s just generally annoyed with all the things that are happening around him. And more and more patently absurd things happen around him.
AVC: Although, apparently, Pillow Del Valle had some very strong arguments…
DS: [Laughs.] Pillow Del Valle was one of my favorite unsung jokes. That was him having this mock debate, but all of his normal crew is gone, so he’s having a debate with a duck, a dog, and a pillow in a hotel room. [Laughs.] And each one of those entities had to make a real case for the thing they cared most about. But Pillow Del Valle had a really good point about the hotel tax, and the hands-y maid that came in. [Laughs.]
AVC: In the Chicago Tribune, one of your students said he would’ve voted for Emanuel because of the Twitter feed. How does that make you feel?
DS: It made me think that we should be teaching a little bit more civics. [Laughs.] If anyone voted for a candidate because of a fake Twitter account, then we have a real problem, more than just a fake Twitter account. We have a problem with an uninformed electorate and an unimpassioned electorate. And that’s not my problem to fix. One person is not fixing that problem.
AVC: But you’re an educator. You can certainly help, to an extent.
DS: And you know what? I educate the fuck out of people. [Uproarious laughter.] Seriously. That’s a silly question. Yeah, I’m an educator, and when I’m an educator, I’m really good at that. But if somebody makes a poor decision based on a wrong influence, then that is what it is. I just hope it happens less.
AVC: What was it like being on The Colbert Report?
DS: It was awesome. I did a lot of media in that first week, and they were just amazing. They were extremely welcoming, and did this incredible, you-didn’t-realize-they-were-doing-it job of keeping you calm. Which is good, because I’m one to err on the side of abject panic. They were really great. It was over before I knew what hit me. It was just incredible. And then I got to go back to the hotel and watch myself on TV, which was crazy. And then I got to go to Facebook and get a million direct messages from people who liked my beard.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
AVC: That sounds pretty surreal.
DS: It was. There was nothing about that week that wasn’t surreal. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel like you took away anything from that week, other than, “Holy shit, our media is nuts”?
DS: [Laughs.] That was one I didn’t need reinforcement on, but it was definitely reinforced. Beyond that, it was just overwhelming in the literal sense of the word. Not just because of the surreality of having TV people on my front lawn, but just the unbelievable outpouring of support, and admiration, and love for this crazy little world I had built. That was unreal. It was thousands of tweets in minutes, and an e-mail inbox that filled up immediately. I got an e-mail from the mom of a friend from grade school. That kind of thing was so overwhelming and so incredibly awesome. It made the things that were difficult about that week far less difficult.
AVC: What was difficult?
DS: Just being hurled into a media frenzy. I had taught in a journalism school for three years, and before that, I ran my own punk-rock magazine for 13 years. My experience with journalism is very, very different than what I was born into that day. That was strange and overwhelming and odd. That stuff was hard. And being up constantly and not seeing my family was difficult, because I like my family a lot. That stuff was hard. It was far outweighed by the incredibleness of it all.
AVC: What’s the Knight-Mozilla news partnership you’re now heading up?
DS: It’s a partnership between the Knight foundation and the Mozilla foundation, to do work and advocacy and outreach and building on a news-technology slate. It is awesome. I’ve being doing this job for three weeks, and every day is like, “Oh my God, I’m doing this job.” Because when I was teaching, I was most excited about—and when I was writing @MayorEmanuel, I was most excited about—what I’m excited about is how technology transforms storytelling. And now I get to be a centerpoint in that discussion. It’s phenomenal.
AVC: What’s your favorite curse word?
DS: [Laughs]. Huh. I don’t know if I’ve ever really ranked them. I’m not sure. I am probably most fond of the various permutations of the word “fuck,” because it’s so disparate. It can be so many different things in a way that “shit” can’t. Which is unfortunate, because “shit” is all right. But I think that… what are those multi-tools called? Leathermans? It’s like the Leatherman of cursing. You can do anything with it.
AVC: The one I most liked in the book, that I think you coined, is “twatwaffle.”
DS: [Laughs.] Early on in the feed, I was much more interested in odd and bizarre combinations of profanities and non-profane words. As the story progressed, that became far less a thing I was concerned with. The profanity becomes very utilitarian by the end. Creatively, it filled its end, I guess.