Literary history, of a sort, will be made from August 17-25, 2010 as novelist W. John MacGregor leverages social networking platforms to post the events of his novel West of the Gospel to Twitter, Facebook, and a customized blog. The most intriguing aspect of MacGregor's innovative project is that the fictional events in question took place 100 years ago in the context of Idaho's "Big Burn."
The seven-day event is designed to coincide with Centennial commemorations of the catastrophic 1910 hurricane-force forest fire that flattened and burned millions of acres in Montana and Idaho. MacGregor's novel, named after the Gospel Mountain region south of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene district, is also being released on August 17.
But can a novel be tweeted? Twitter is a social media platform notorious for limiting posted messages to 140 characters. "It's certainly a different format, and not one I'm particularly used to," says novelist and armchair historian MacGregor--who himself managed to avoid the Internet altogether up until a few short months ago. "But the idea is that several characters from the book—the supposed outlaw hero, sheriff's deputies, key witnesses, and the story's villain, such as he is--will report their activities as the story plays out in 1910."
MacGregor is quick to point out that the novel itself is not being tweeted. The tweets will be real-time status reports covering the story from several unique points of view—many of which are not addressed by the first-person narratives of the novel. "The end result will not be a document you'll want to read, in the conventional sense," MacGregor advises. "For the Twitter and Facebook versions, the idea is that you'll feed the story to your mobile device, whatever it is, and follow developments as they play out over a week."
"Once readers get past the odd notion of Old West cowboys texting from horseback," adds publisher Greg Wright, "I think they'll find following these characters quite gripping." The approach guarantees to take suspension of disbelief to new levels as readers squint at cell phones and laptop screens for a peek into long-past events. But Wright suspects that many latecoming followers of the Fewkes Legacy story might even come to think that the fictional tale is actually playing out in 2010.
"It could be important to get the word out about this," cautions Wright. "If 911 centers start getting calls about a desperate killer making his way into Libby, Montana, we might have to pull the plug.
"Orson Welles would be proud of Mac for coming up with this," Wright adds in a reference to the notorious Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds which convinced East Coast citizenry that aliens had invaded Earth.
But conquering the Internet is not the only item on the ambitious MacGregor's agenda. He has also authorized his publisher to begin developing West of the Gospel for big-screen treatment in cooperation with Moonlit Pictures. "This is a story that has generated a lot of buzz in the publishing and movie industries," says MacGregor. "I've been pretty surprised, on one level. But on another I haven't at all. Don't we all love a good mystery?"
MacGregor is not at all worried about having the story overexposed, curiously. "140 characters doesn't allow for a lot exposition, or for fancy prose," he notes. "The Twitterization of the novel will be its own unique experience."
Wright cuts in at this point. "We hope, of course, that followers will want to know more. Still, in one sense we are indeed giving the novel away, as one skeptic has put it."
But MacGregor winks. "It's still a mystery. I won't be giving too much away."