'A Kind of Artistic Séance': The New Phase of Literary Collaborations

Outside of (unfairly maligned) genre work, literature has historically been seen as a solitary calling rather than a collaborative one. That seems to be changing, and we're all the better for it.

July 21, 2015

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House...

Literature favors auteurs—the solitary artist, working on his or her craft, returning from the other side with something potentially transcendental. But that isn’t an entirely accurate picture of the process: while not as overtly collaborative a medium as film or television, chances are good that a book that has drawn the eye of a reader has been filtered through the sensibilities of, at the very least, editors and designers along the way (and even writers who go the self-publishing route may well be working with some more informal assortment of advisors). Buy an album from a beloved musician, and the liner notes will likely reveal who produced and engineered it, what other musicians contributed, who was responsible for the guest verse that you can’t get out of your head. On the literary side of things, the data available is less standardized; if you’re looking for the names of editors who might have worked on a particular book, there’s no resource guaranteed to help you find them. Literary audiences, by and large, have grown accustomed to—and may even enjoy the idea of—their artists working in solitude.

What to make of those writers who collaborate, then? You find the phenomenon more frequently in work that falls within the confines of what has traditionally been thought of (and often written off) as genre—the Strugatsky brothers, for instance, who wrote a number of singularly strange science fiction novels over the course of several decades in the Soviet Union. James S.A. Corey, credited for the science fiction series The Expanse, is in fact two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. And Holly Black, author of a number of acclaimed YA fantasy novels, recently collaborated on the first book in a middle-grade series, Magisterium, with Cassandra Clare. Some collaborations—in particular, between two highly regarded figures in the field—have stood out: Stephen King and Peter Straub’s epic 1984 horror novel The Talisman found a solid middle ground between both authors’ sensibilities, and the two reteamed in 2001 for a sequel, Black House.11King and Straub have collaborated with other writers since, but those have largely been family affairs: Straub and his daughter Emma contributed the story “Lost Lake“ to the 2013 anthology XO Orpheus, while King and his son Joe Hill wrote the novella In the Tall Grass, which is now being adapted for film.

Looking for acclaimed collaborations in the literary fiction section of one’s bookstore, however, can be a more difficult task. There have been a few collaborations involving esteemed literary figures in the last few decades, but they’re largely footnotes in those authors’ bodies of work; David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello’s nonfiction work Signifying Rappers and Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz’s Kafka Americana both come to mind. (It’s also worth mentioning that the collaborative works of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares have never found an audience in translation as substantial as that which their individual works have received.) Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that as the old debates about whether a book can be both genre fiction and quality fiction seem to be winding down, a gradual openness to literary collaboration has begun to emerge. In the last year or so alone, a number of such books—some experimental, some steeped in kitchen-sink realism—have been released to considerably wider acclaim, becoming a larger part of the ongoing discussion rather than a footnote to it; the fruits of literary collaboration may finally be earning the discussion, debate, and deep reads historically reserved for those writers who toil in isolation.


“I think a lot of the people I work with are really good at some specific part of the process, and I try to fill in the other part,” Eli Horowitz told me over the phone when I asked about his collaborative work. The New World, a short novel recently released in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the most recent of four books he’s written with other writers. For the newest one, Horowitz teamed with Chris Adrian, author of a number of thematically bold, genre-defying novels such as The Children’s Hospital and The Great Night. Horowitz, having previously worked with Adrian during his time as managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s, described his role on The New World as “editor-plus.” “There were some little sections where I would do the writing myself, but that’s not what was needed in that collaboration, because [Chris] is an amazing sentence writer—he’s amazing at finding the heart of the story,” Horowitz said. “For this, I was able to do a lot in terms of structure and pacing and keeping the reader’s perspective in mind. All kinds of things that, when I was an editor, I did with him, but in a more active and obnoxious way.”

The New World began its life as a digital project through the now-defunct Atavist Books. The publisher had approached him about doing something that would “use their platform in interesting ways,” Horowitz recalled, after which he reached out to Adrian, who, earlier, had written a version of what became the book’s first chapter. The story that unfolds in the novel is of a couple separated by mortality and time: as the book opens, Jane Cotton, a doctor, discovers that her husband Jim has died, and that his head has been removed and cryogenically frozen.

The New World moves back and forth from psychedelic science fiction to a more quotidian examination of grief in the modern age. Horowitz spoke of it as being “almost a book that changes each time you read it,” and described much of its shape as having arisen from its digital roots. “[A] lot of it was working through things together, particularly about plotting and structural issues,” he recalled. “I think [the digital edition] had interesting effects even on the standard print version.” Those decisions, in turn, had an impact on the overall form of the novel. “The more internal bent of the later portions came from that structural decision,” Horowitz said. As the book proceeds, Jim is resurrected in the distant future, and subsequently embarks on an often-surreal quest through language and memory. “On a pretty deep level, the plot and character and emotional decisions of the story emerged from some of the structural questions that we were asking.” It’s a haunting yet elusive book—one where the reading experience mirrors the surreal quests undertaken by each of its main characters. Consider it an even larger level of collaboration, then: writers working in tandem, using advances in technology to push at the boundaries of their chosen form.


Late 2014 saw the release of a different kind of literary collaboration in J.M. Tyree and Michael McGriff’s collection Our Secret Life in the Movies. Drawing inspiration from films selected for the Criterion Collection, the book begins with a series of quotidian vignettes from adolescent working-class life—“[s]omething about the book also leads people to forget that it's fiction,” Tyree remarked—that nonetheless echo the films that inspired them in often-unpredictable ways. In an interview for The Paris Review, the authors recounted the origins of the project, which came from a time when they were roommates, and decided to immerse themselves in the Collection’s library of films. “For each movie that fascinated us, we’d both write one story. A double take on the film,” McGriff noted.

"We never concerned ourselves with publishing the book. We knew we were writing an unmarketable work of DOA fiction. The process was purely about creation and expression."

While the book’s structure generally features two short stories inspired by a given film, one following the other, no author names are listed. “The stories are not co-authored,” McGriff said, “but they’re certainly so influenced by each other within each pair that the stories are permeable—two-way valves of both creation and revision.” And, he recounted, his childhood and Tyree’s had dovetailed in ways neither had anticipated, adding an additional charge and thematic resonance to the book that emerged. “Our lives, as it turned out, had so much overlap that we felt no need to designate an authorship for the individual pieces. The more we wrote, the more the book became about capturing the hilarity and devastation of growing up poor in Reagan’s America.”

As befits a book whose stories are inspired by cinema, the pair turned to another film for inspiration. “[The] driving engine for this book,” McGriff said, “was William Greaves’s documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, which employs split screens, unreliable narration, and just about every imaginable stripe of metafictional slipperiness.” The influence of Greaves’s film was tremendous: “Wherever possible, we wanted style, narrative, and structure to lean toward a Greavesian mode of artmaking. Greaves was the god we turned to, and in many ways his spirit informed editing and revision more than anything else.” Consider it another aspect of layering: writers in collaboration, with Greaves occupying a state somewhere between that of material influence and unknowing third collaborator.

The collaborators didn’t change much about one another’s stories as they worked on the book. “There was a melding of styles and the development of a consistent voice that was somewhere between mine and Mike's,” Tyree recalled. “I had to give up a lot of my writerly tics and flourishes, and I found out that I didn't miss them very much.” For this collection, McGriff said, “I absorbed J.M.’s faith in brevity and concision. The gravity of his writing definitely pulled me into its orbit in the best possible way. J.M. is a prose stylist, and I was ever so happy to steal his tricks.”

As for how this book fits in with his overall body of work, McGriff was philosophical. “I look at Our Secret Life in the Movies as more or less a translation of the other books I’ve written or am currently writing,” he said. “It turns out that J.M. is a similar kind of writer—a writer who’s trying to invent a language to represent who he is and where he’s from.” The effects of working on a relatively uncommercial endeavor helped hone his craft: “[W]e never concerned ourselves with publishing the book. We knew we were writing an unmarketable work of DOA fiction,” McGriff said. “The process was purely about creation and expression. I’ve definitely taken this spirit of creation and expression into my novel writing.”


Among the nominees announced in May for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Awards was Office at Night, a novella22It’s nominated in the Novelette category for the Shirley Jackson Awards, but in conversation, Bernheimer referred to it as a novella, so... originally commissioned by Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center and published as an ebook by Coffee House Books. As the title suggests, the inspiration for the work is Edward Hopper’s 1940 painting of the same name, and the authors brought together to work on it, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt, have plenty of experience deconstructing existing narratives. Many of Bernheimer’s stories play with the narrative tropes of fairy tales, while Hunt’s novel The Exquisite includes nods to Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The approach taken by Bernheimer and Hunt in their story is an experimental and unpredictable one, lending equal weight to every scene’s participants, both alive and inanimate.

The “call and response” style in which the novella is told is one that Bernheimer had used before. She recalled “working from the formal conventions of old fairy tales,” and noted that the device had “shown up in dialogue between characters or, as in my novel The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, a song that the main character sings to herself.” Office at Night was Bernheimer’s first time working with a collaborator. Hunt, however, had previously worked with Brian Evenson on a short story, and his short story “Polyp” was the result of asking for a word prompt.

Hunt also cited a third participant in helping to bring together Office at Night, editor Chris Fischbach. “He had the overview and gave us a good hard edit that we then responded to, largely by agreeing with his comments I think,” Hunt said. “We did not edit each other’s sections, though—we wrote, to a large extent, in response to sections we sent each other, rather than working together on the same sections.” For Bernheimer’s part, the act of sending work back and forth created its own rewards. “The process had the anticipation of a performance—an improvisation we’d be asked to do on the spot to continue the story,” she said.

“Working with Laird Hunt challenged me to question choices in my fiction I wasn’t fully aware I was making, whether out of laziness or habit—choices about men and women, the light in a room, American history, and so forth,” Bernheimer said. Hunt, meanwhile, said that his experience on Office at Night was a useful point of stylistic reference for an ongoing series of semi-autobiographical stories. “[I]t is a space where some of the loose limbed rhythms Kate and I worked with could be accommodated,” said Hunt.

Bernheimer also seems confident that Office at Night will affect her future stories and novels. “I write from intuition and have no trouble introducing a series of cat drawings where there was previously no suggestion of cat drawings whatsoever in the world of a story … Laird pushed me wisely to explain in the fiction where the images came from, to give them some lineage, some legs in the overall story,” she said. “So working with him also strangely gave me permission to accept the weird images that come into my mind—I can be very hard on myself and my fiction’s violent, supernatural, abstract inclinations.”

Office at Night is a collaborative work where, even more than most, the collaborative aspects are fundamental to the work as a whole. For Bernheimer, the result was something that sits well beside the rest of her work, and showcases another aspect of collaboration. “Imitating old fairy tales is always a collaboration,” she said, “a kind of artistic séance, so working with Laird Hunt and Edward Hopper (and the characters in the painting) felt very natural to me.”


The New World isn’t Eli Horowitz’s only book to be released in 2015. This fall will bring with it The Pickle Index, a novel to be released in a variety of formats: a trade paperback via FSG Originals, a digital edition, and what Horowitz calls “a fancy high-concept hardcover” via Sudden Oak Books. He regards the changes in format as essential to the project as a whole: “It’s re-imagining the core story for each of these formats. It’s the same basic text, but exploring how the form and the story shape each other.”

The Pickle Index will also be a bit of a change of pace for Horowitz. “I wrote it myself, and that was a weird experience: it was my fifth book, and my first non-collaborative one,” he said, though the idea of “non-collaborative” only extends so far. “This project is very much collaborative, because the whole digital version is in collaboration with Russell Quinn, the programmer who I made The Silent History with. Even if it’s not two writers sitting down, it’s still very much a collaboration in a creative and practical sense.” In talking with him, Horowitz repeatedly makes the case for the importance of collaboration in everything, regardless of the names on title pages and spines. “It still was a group production, which was pretty fundamental to the experience.” For readers and writers both, it seems.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House, Midnight Breakfast, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, and Underwater New York. His collection Transitory will be released by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.