For most of us, online personas offer reductive or escapist avatars of our mundane selves. But the best employ the rigid strictures of platforms—140-character ceilings, 1:1 aspect ratios, the remoteness of handheld screens—to convey mindfulness that isn’t cleanly expressed in speech. Darcie Wilder speaks with a precise, measured calm, such that during our interview I momentarily dismissed the fearless, almost unhinged candor of her online voice—the same online voice which has amassed a Twitter following roughly equivalent to the population of the city in which I was born. What if I seemed nervous, or my breath smelled, or I had something on my shirt? What if my dark hair and literary ambitions made me resemble a member of the cast of High Fidelity?
Wilder, 27, attracted an internet following for her initially anonymous Twitter dispatches (her handle, appropriately, is @333333333433333) that play upon meme touchstones and universal twenty-something anxieties, but also often veer into the acutely autobiographical. She has depicted in painstaking detail the inanities of dating and her experiences with grief. Friends, family members, and co-workers—or at least her relationships with them—are omnipresent. In a series last year concerning the death of a grandparent, she recounted the banal arrangements and lampooned the mores of contemporary mourning. Her narratives are hilarious but gritty in their self-effacement, with a critical eye and capacity for sincere despair.
Like anyone who grew up online, her voice and portrayals have evolved in tandem with her medium and audience. As Twitter has shifted from narrative documentary to instant commentary, her feed has become more subtly insular, reflecting the precariousness of expression in a professional landscape. A lifelong New Yorker, Wilder frequently uses her personal accounts as outlets for inside-baseball commentary on New York media and the city’s art and literary circles. In 2015 she started a Twitter account called “i work for vice,” an uproarious satire capturing the aggrandizing speech of the corporatized, Brooklynized auteurs at Shane Smith’s den of nefarious activities and cachet.
Wilder’s first novel Literally Show Me a Healthy Person (published this spring by NY Tyrant Books) is composed of short fragments, usually without punctuation. The first-person narrator relays painful events with a cold remove and shares Wilder’s obsession with pop culture ephemera. While mostly a book about death and grieving, traumatic passages are interspersed with quippy anecdotes and observations, the sort of frivolities which somehow vie with major life events for mental real estate. Places, episodes, and even household objects carry unshakable associations with dead relatives and adolescent heartbreak. The New York City of Wilder’s childhood is populated by conflicted, contradictory characters who can’t get out of their own ways, and the frank, visceral writing is laden with a brutal physicality manifested in blood, vomit, and IUDs.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon in late March, we discussed how social media has shaped her creativity, grieving in the digital era, the endurance of the literary Brat Pack, and producing art online.
How did you get started writing the novel? How did its publication take shape?
I started writing it in scraps in 2012, when I had just graduated from [SUNY] Purchase. I began assembling the scraps into a book in the summer of 2015 and it more or less took shape from there. I knew Gian [Giancarlo DiTrapano, editor of NY Tyrant Books] through friends and I took one of his classes at Catapult, and we became closer over the course of that class and he wanted to publish it. From there it was a lot of piecing together the scraps I’d written, and fleshing them out into a book.
It’s often a painful read. Was it a challenging writing experience?
Yeah, it’s kind of hard to look at. It was difficult to find the rhythm and the structure. Most of the time I was writing it, I was trying to figure out how it would work, because it’s not conventionally structured with lines and paragraphs. For a few months I attempted to break it into chapters, and it wasn’t really working. Then I decided I really wanted it to be one long thing, and that that was really important to the work.
At what point did you realize the performative potential of Twitter?
A few years in, maybe two or three years. I was still very scared of the internet and of being myself, being honest. Around 2012 I started being more open and writing things that I liked and less what I thought I was expected to do.
Was it a plunge to shed your anonymity as your social media amassed a following?
Yeah. My handle is a bunch of numbers, and that was because I wanted to keep a shield. I was trying to find a job and wanted it to be a space without my name. That’s not relevant anymore, but I don’t think I would have been able to do it without the anonymity at the beginning.
Now I approach it differently. There are things I tweeted before I probably wouldn’t tweet now. The times have changed, and my situation has as well. The ability to be free is somewhat compromised.
Do you find that Twitter has shaped the way you form and process ideas?
Definitely. I find, in general, I’m drawn to fragments. Specifically with Twitter, my early years were spent learning to condense thoughts into that medium. The downside is it can be a little bit reductive, and people are left to make assumptions about the meaning. That’s risky.
I find that interacting with people is very helpful. Having it as kind of a notepad and being able to write something in the moment is really valuable, along with the actual “social” aspect.
The concept of public, digital mourning is unique to folks who came of age with social media, whereas even people in our parents’ generation were expected to grieve in private. Do you think social media is a beneficial factor in the grieving process?
I think it depends. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, or what they’re doing right or wrong. Sometimes I’ve found it very helpful to be open with things. Other times you have to do the opposite. Boundaries are important. Everyone is different, and every medium and experience is different. Sometimes it’s been great. Sometimes it feels like there’s more power keeping something private.
What does the format of the novel offer you and your audience that social media doesn’t?
Well, they’re two completely different mediums. Both are performative, but Twitter is digested in a completely different way—as an artistic medium, it has a very distinct intent compared to a novel.
I intended for the novel to be a more solitary experience, to be read in larger chunks. On Twitter, your lines appear right next to someone else’s, and the timing creates a different effect. With Twitter the voice that’s used is connected to someone else—because people use it in a social way. There’s the implication that that tweet is from a specific person, and I think people are used to treating novels on their own terms.
Throughout the novel, Los Angeles looms as a glittering oasis for many of the characters. Why does L.A. demand such a presence in the consciousness of young, creative New Yorkers?
Oh, there’s been a huge exodus. I’m from here, I grew up here, and when I graduated college in 2012 I started noticing everyone was going over there. Now like half of my friends—if not more—live there. New York is a harder place to live. L.A.’s always been a glamorous place.
I recall you tweeting jokes in the past about Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a novel that, even now, many New York-based debuts are stacked against. I find it an interesting reference point, and I’ll admit I love that book despite how quickly its sensibilities have gone out of style. Reading your novel, I found some likenesses in the ways both narrators focus on superficial aspects of their careers and social lives to combat grief. Do you consider McInerney’s book an influence?
Totally—it’s actually one of my favorite books too. Every time it’s brought up, people are like, “Yeah, no.” But still! I read it while I was writing this, so I think it did inform it. I think it’s just a beautiful book, I was weeping at the end of it. There are some similarities. I wouldn’t have seen it as a direct influence, but the comparison makes sense.
The “Brat Pack” novelists seem to have been mostly dismissed by contemporary critics. How do you perceive those writers, having navigated many of the same waters in publishing and New York media?
There’s a lot to that. Specific to Bright Lights, Big City, I feel there’s actually a lot of heart in that book. It’s a different type of novel than, say, Less Than Zero. I think it’s an incredible portrait of—spoiler alert!—what it’s like to not have a mom, and to be in that place. I love that book so much, I view it separately from a lot of the stereotypes of that time and scene.
The excess, the drugs, the self-indulgence.
And Bright Lights, Big City has those, but there’s a pivot where it becomes overly emotional. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked it so much if I did not relate so much to the experience. I understand that that period of literature is problematic and not representative of everyone’s experience. But I like a lot of things that were written in that time. No one’s wrong for disliking it—those critiques are right!—but I found a lot to enjoy.
In your novel, characters who feel little semblance of control find solace in horoscopes.
Yeah, I fell deep into horoscopes. I’m not an astrologer, but you can take whatever you decide to see in them. There’s a language to them that you can see reflected in personalities. Everyone has a horoscope sign, but they read it and see something different. Part of it is looking at something and projecting what you want, or your fears, or what you secretly want. What other guide do you have?
I think there are two different ways of reading horoscopes. One is, like, predicting the future, and the other is more personality-based or affirmation-based. I always want the one that’s like, what’s gonna happen on Tuesday.
Animals and pets have a large presence in your book, and where they’re introduced as sources of comfort, they ultimately cause further grief. What did you hope to accomplish with the animal narratives?
That’s very funny. I grew up with a lot of pets, and I’ve heard of people getting their kids pets to teach them death. That’s so dark—parents realizing, “I’ve created this life, and now I have to teach my kid he’s going to die.” When a child has a pet, the pet shits, the kid has to take care of it. Pets get tumors. When I was in high school I had a pet rat that had a tumor and I had to tell my dad, “‘Yeah, Dad, our pet rat—and yes, there are millions in the city, but for some reason we have one in our house right now—but our pet rat is bleeding and needs a $200 operation, are we going to do this?” It’s a fairly ubiquitous experience that can become very dark very quickly. And I’ve been attacked by some pets too, so, yeah.
I think your point about pets being intended to prepare children for loss is fascinating, because we process the deaths of people and animals so differently. I see people posting ironic Instagrams of their dead dogs all the time, whereas they’d be expected to deal with actual trauma in private.
Yeah, that makes sense. And sometimes people’s pets die and they don’t care, like a fish, and you just flush it. But I know some people who’ve never gotten over a puppy dying.