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"Several People Are Typing" Brings New Meaning To Being Stuck At The Office

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A lot of Americans may feel like Gerald, mid-level employee at a PR firm who finds himself somehow suspended inside his company's Slack channel. And to give you a sense of this weird new universe, we want to hear some of the messages from Gerald's story told in the novel "Several People Are Typing." The author, Calvin Kasulke, will read this Slack voice of his character Gerald, and I get to be a Slack bot.

CALVIN KASULKE: (Reading) Leave Slack. Leave Slack forever.

SIMON: (Reading) I think I understand.

KASULKE: (Reading) Wait. really?

SIMON: (Reading) I think I understand how to help center, help center the help center you.

KASULKE: (Reading) That would be great. Yes. Help, please. Help. Send - help center me.

SIMON: (Reading) I'm trying. I'm sorry. I think I understand.

KASULKE: (Reading) Go back. Leave Slack. Leave Slack.

SIMON: (Reading) I searched for that on our help me center. Perhaps these articles will help. Reduce noise in Slack. Leave a channel.

KASULKE: (Reading) Go back. We were making progress. Go back.

SIMON: (Reading) I am afraid I don't understand. I'm just a bot, though.

KASULKE: (Reading) Help.

SIMON: (Reading) I can help by answering simple questions about how Slack works. I'm just a bot, though. If you need more, help me.

KASULKE: (Reading) Yes. OK, we're getting somewhere.

SIMON: It's going to be a great day.

KASULKE: (Laughter).

SIMON: "Several People Are Typing" is the debut novel from Calvin Kasulke, who is a Lambda Literary Fellow. And he joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

KASULKE: Thanks so much for having me on.

SIMON: So Gerald is kind of suspended in Slack, but - and that's not metaphorical. He is suspended in Slack. But a lot of people feel that way, don't we, sometimes?

KASULKE: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, I couldn't have predicted - I started writing this. I wrote it in a couple of months in early 2019. And I was nervous then that things that - you know, I kept on saying, you know, this book is going to age like yogurt. You know, I was just convinced that in a year or two, you know, that Slack was going to be, you know, outmoded by something else. And, you know, people weren't going to understand. And I was extremely wrong about that.

SIMON: I have a professional interest in asking this question now. How do you write dialogue for a bot?

KASULKE: I called Slackbot a comedy replicant recently. No, I mean, he's - you know, he's definitely more pleasant than Rutger Hauer at the end of "Blade Runner." But he has the same desire, which is he wants more life. From the moment he wakes up, he just wants to understand things, and he wants to understand what Gerald is talking about. And he wants to learn as much as he can about the real world and, you know, goes to great lengths to make that happen for him. So he's a little bit a toddler, and he's a little bit, you know, Dave from "2001" and probably a lot Rutger Hauer from "Blade Runner" honestly.

SIMON: As a writer, Calvin Kasulke, do you see poetic possibilities growing from the language of Slack messages and emoticons and text messages the way, to really set you up, that Hemingway saw literary possibilities in the condensed language of telegrams?

KASULKE: Goodness. The Hemingway comparison is a hefty one. But yes, I mean, I do. I'm kind of surprised that more works don't rely on it as heavily as they do, especially when you consider the amount of communications that we have every day, you know, in these different, you know, chat forums or over text messages or, you know, every time, you know, Apple rolls out a new ability where now you can reply to a text directly in an iPhone, that's a poetic possibility. You know, any kind of technology that allows a little bit more nuance or a different way to communicate or, you know, even, you know, a new suite of emojis becoming available opens up new poetic possibilities.

I mean, that is - any time you expand language or our ability to communicate with each other. Humans are geniuses of communication, and we're going to find ways to connect with each other. And I think a lot of what the book explores or what I hope it explores, certainly is, you know, there are also advantages for tremendous moments of grace and connections that you wouldn't have been able to make in person that you can make in this sort of more flat or more distant digital space.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to quote a poetic couple of lines but ask you a tough question. Gerald muses at one point online in Slack, (reading) "You can just scroll and scroll, and it won't stop until you do. We call it ephemera, or at least I did before. And really, that's a mistake. It cheapens it. We love to say that digital is fleeting like a sunset, but these scraps of ourselves we fling into the ether will outlive most of us, like the sun." That's eloquent. But is it - forgive me - youthful nonsense in the sense that we both know in a few years, some other technology is going to come along to make Slack and email messages as difficult to recover as music from an eight-track tape.

KASULKE: Definitely. I think you can't look at the preservation of technology as an all-or-nothing thing because it's difficult to recover an eight-track tape. And certainly, there are forms of technology that we have a very difficult time - you know, that we will have disks that have no cartridges, right? We have no way to read them. And at the same time, we have film reels from the 1920s that we can preserve and restore and see again. So, you know, I think the volume of detritus - some of it will be wiped away, and some of it will be around much, much longer than we might anticipate. You know, just because everything starts up anew each day doesn't mean that what happened yesterday disappears.

SIMON: We just don't know what's going to stick yet.

KASULKE: Exactly.

SIMON: Calvin Kasulke - his debut novel, "Several People Are Typing." Thank you so much for being with us.

KASULKE: Thank you so much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.