The Hunt Is On: The TFT Interview with Eli Horowitz and Scott Teplin
The Clock Without a Face is the newest, and possibly most intricate and imaginative McSweeney’s book yet. An interdisciplinary, interactive who-dunnit mystery, Clock is a book that defies space and time, genre and form, obliterating traditional limitations of what a book might look like. Clock tells the tale of Detective Dodge and his assistant (and the story’s narrator), Gus Twintig. The two detectives have been hired by Mr. Bevel Turnkey, a millionaire who resides on the thirteenth floor of a sprawling apartment building and who has recently been robbed; the numbers on his prized and beloved Emerald Khroniker, a clock boasting twelve emerald studded numerals, have gone missing. Dodge and Twintig set out to interview the building’s residents, each of whom has also been robbed of a precious object. And so begins the challenge, and the treasure hunt—within the pages of the story itself and out in the realm of the real world, where the twelve numbers are hidden in remote locations across the United States. The colorful and intricately drawn diagrams of each apartment serve as blueprints with embedded clues, hypothetically leading the reader to the buried treasure. Along the way, we are introduced to a host of characters: Jigsky Sqonk of the seventh floor, a clown whose bubble shoe was burgled; Bert D’Grnp of the sixth floor, a mime missing his unicycle; and Gen. Klobberduck of the tenth floor, an avid hunter in hot pursuit of his stolen rifle, to name a few. It’s up to the reader to unearth the loot before Detective Dodge does.
Like the thirteen apartments in which the mystery takes place, Clock is made up of layers upon layers, mysteries stacked on top of each other. And like the Emerald Khoniker—the “clock without a face” after which the book is named—Clock seems to suspend all space and time, creating a unique universe that interfaces with our own.
The culmination of a collaboration between Eli Horowitz, managing editor of McSweeney’s; Mac Barnett, esteemed children’s author; and visual artist Scott Teplin, The Clock Without a Face maintains a delicate balance between chaos and meticulous order. It is a mystery within a mystery; an adventure within an adventure.
I recently caught up with Eli Horowitz and Scott Teplin to talk about process, literature, madness, buried treasure and donuts. This interview was conducted over the phone.
I: “WE THOUGHT, ‘WHAT WOULD THIS GUY’S BATHTUB LOOK LIKE?’”
THE FASTER TIMES: What I love about these apartments is that so many of them exist outside the realm of possibility. But also, having them serve as a guide to real-world locations, it presents a fantasy that is ultimately grounded in reality.
ELI HOROWITZ: The thrilling thing is the idea that you could have a treasure that was stolen in a book found in real life. It’s a mind-boggling concept to us. And a really important part of the whole hunt is that we really have no control over this thing. It’s not like we’re giving out a prize. These things are buried. I hope there’s no disaster, and I hope they’re still down there and that we didn’t bury them in a mining ground or a well or something. But anything could happen. We tried to keep it as organic as possible, but also plot-motivated. There’s a reason these treasures were stolen by people in the book, and there’s a reason there are clues in the book. The characters had a reason to leave clues in their apartments. We tried to really leave ourselves out of it. But we wanted to break down the world of fiction and the real world. But the apartments, we tried to keep them grounded in their functionality. We thought, “What would this guy’s bathtub look like?” The hunter has a bathtub, right where everyone else’s bathroom is. But he’s just got sea monsters swimming in his. That combination of strangeness and mundane functionality.
TFT: Did you decide on the locations of the hidden treasure ahead of time, or is that something that gradually grew out of the process?
ELI HOROWITZ: It evolved along the way due to various practicalities. Where would you bury something if you had to bury twelve things and have them be gettable but not too gettable? All these things were limitations, productive and inspiring limitations. Knowing these illustrations had to have these puzzle aspects, and that the text had to be entertaining. All these things that constrained our freedom also produced our creativity. Throughout the book we also kept using painfully drawn out clock metaphors too, because really it’s all these different pieces that have to work together in a certain way. When you’re writing a book and making stuff up it can be too loose, too undirected. But this, we had to make everything fit together.
TFT: All the apartments are so idiosyncratic in their contents and their order, and so often you find that apartments and living spaces are a reflection of their occupants. Where did the characters come from?
ELI HOROWITZ: Some of them happen to be a funny idea. But some of them, like the mime, we thought, “We need to have a black and white floor. And who would have a black and white floor? A mime.” We wanted each page to have a different feeling. But we also tried to play a lot with the whole public/private dichotomy. One of the neat things about the book, and one of the neat things about going into anyone’s house, is that tension between the public self and private self, what you see and what you don’t. Like with the mime’s talking room. We wanted to take advantage of that, and it worked really well with a mystery story too, which is all about what is hiding. Almost everyone has two levels to them, like any good character should. But sometimes the idea of the character might come out of what color we wanted to make the floor. Who would have a super-neat apartment? Who would have a super-disgusting apartment? When Scott came up with the paranoid guy, the whole labyrinth of horrors, for that we didn’t have to give Scott any note because it was completely up his alley. He already knew him so well. The artistic design might inform the character, and then the character would inflict itself on the art, and again, back and forth, back and forth. There’s no way to separate them.
TFT: Do you have any concerns about the hunt that this will inspire, and have you heard any stories of people who have set out for the treasure yet?
ELI HOROWITZ: Definitely the latter, we’ve gotten some amazing stories. Gus Twintig, the narrator, has a website and he’s published accounts that people have written of unsuccessful—well, they didn’t find an emerald, but they did have fun—accounts. Some of them are crazy! We got one the other day from this mom who left work early, packed up her husband and two kids and drove three hours each way to dig. She didn’t find anything, but she had a great time. Seeing people enjoy this book in the way we were dreaming of is super gratifying.
Concerns? Sure. It’s in the world now. Normally with a book, you publish it and you don’t know what kind of review it’ll get but a book is a book. Once it’s written it’s done. This, there’s a whole other life to it, and that’s exciting. We’re watching like everyone else. People have been doing some amazing reasoning already. This was definitely not intended to be a year-or-more kind of deal. But it’s really a race against Detective Dodge. If you wait a year, Dodge will get all the emeralds for himself. Dodge left to go get these numbers. He’s still out there. If an emerald from the book can be in real dirt, a character from the book can certainly dig it up in the real world. It goes as deep as you want it to go.
TFT: When all of these emeralds are found, how will that change the story once the possibility of treasure no longer exists in the real world?
ELI HOROWITZ: I don’t know! That’s an interesting question. We tried to make the book fully enjoyable and standalone without the hunt. In the book the hunt isn’t even mentioned until the last paragraph, and even then it’s only a suggestion. We want this to be a book people can enjoy in different ways. But now that it’s been marked by the hunt, I don’t know how people will react afterwards. We’ll still like the book!
II. “MORE AND MORE AND MORE.”
TFT: Walk me through how you conceived of this project. Where did you begin, and where did you go from there?
ELI HOROWITZ: Originally it was Mac [Burnett] and I, hanging out and talking about the book Masquerade, an English book from the late 70’s. It was a big, big, big sensation in England. If you ask anyone who was born between 1966 and 1972, they’ll tell you it’s pretty iconic. The point is, we were talking about some of our favorite books like Masquerade, another book called The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and a book called The Eleventh Hour[: A Curious Mystery] by Graeme Base. Masquerade had the buried treasure aspect, but also the strange characters in the building. We were talking about the books that we loved as kids, and it evolved from there.
TFT: You say, “as kids.” But this isn’t really a children’s book, is it?
ELI HOROWITZ: No, it really spiraled into madness! We wanted to make it appeal to readers in a variety of ways and on a variety of levels, and allow people to access it however they want to and that applies to age range. There are some things that are entirely there for an 8-year-old, and there are some things that are entirely there for a 38-year-old, which is the oldest age I can think of… Puzzle people, mystery people, treasure hunt people. We wanted it so you could pick the level on which you wanted to enjoy it. We weren’t thinking about age of our audience as much as having as many possible things that could be engaged with and enjoyed so everyone can have their own experiences with the book.
TFT: What were some of the challenges of collaborating on this book, and what would you say each of your roles were?
ELI HOROWITZ: It was a really great collaboration and it never would have happened without [the book]. Mac and I approached it in similar ways. We knew what kind of book we wanted to write before we knew the book we wanted to write. We knew it had to be this kind of structure and this kind of shape, and that kind of thing. We have that same kind of huge, analytical madness where it sort of seems like logic, although it’s ridiculous to think that this book is the logical outcome of anything.
We come from different backgrounds. Mac is a children’s book author, and I come from a book editing and design background, and Scott comes from a fine art background. Each of us was able to contribute our area of expertise, but also get pushed out of our area of expertise, and that was part of what made it fun. It was a back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. We talked it through and figured out as we went. We’d have one idea, but we’d always try to layer it and make it more insane. Each of us drove the other two crazy at one point or another, but it was all worthwhile. It was really that layering—more and more and more.
III: “COTTON CANDY IN THE KITCHEN AND HOT DOGS FOR DINNER EVERY NIGHT.”
TFT: How well did you get to know each other characters by designing each of their living environments? People’s apartments are a pretty accurate reflection of their personalities sometimes.
SCOTT TEPLIN: Actually the way this whole buildings series started was with me drawing a portrait of my girlfriend as her apartment from memory. She’s now my wife. We have that one on our wall, it’s the first one I ever did. I was trying to remember what her apartment looked like and it ended up being a portrait of her. So I guess I did get to know them really well. I have a scatological sense of humor, so I got to know their bathroom habits quite well. There are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle bathroom jokes in most of the drawings.
TFT: How much say did you have over the visuals? These rooms are full of clues and the rooms have to act as treasure maps in one way or another.
SCOTT TEPLIN: We listened to each other. We figured out what we wanted to depict on the page, literarily speaking and visually speaking, and we honed it down little by little.
TFT: If you could chose one of the rooms to live in, which would it be and why?
SCOTT TEPLIN: Jigsy’s apartment! [Note: Jigsy is a clown.] I’ve never taken a bath in a dunk tank before and I don’t particularly mind Port-o-Potties. But, I mean, cotton candy in the kitchen and hot dogs for dinner every night? What more could you ask for?
TFT: What were some of the challenges of working on this project? This book is so involved, and the fact that [the illustrations] are all treasure maps is really intricate.
SCOTT TEPLIN: I know—I had never done anything like this before. My work is normally really loosey-goosey and whatever comes out of my head goes into my hand and onto the paper, so I never even referenced materials much before this. And this book was so super specific. One of the reasons I draw instead of print make or paint is so that I can get it out right away, finish it, and make another drawing, and so on. I’m kind of OCD like that—it’s just how I work. This book totally forced me to study and be accurate and do tons of research, not only online, but knowing the text super-well and figuring out how certain layouts would have to be and have to work. I filled three solid sketchbooks just figuring out how this book would look.
TFT: What is it about drawing rooms?
SCOTT TEPLIN: I used to live in a railroad apartment in South Slope. I used to have two heroin addicts living in my building. One of them used to go out into the hallway and moan a lot, and they both used to throw their syringes out the window in our tiny little fenced-in backyard. And every once in a while the super would mow the needles so they would get mashed up. They were both in their forties and both lived with their mothers. I was kind of just imagining that the apartment next to mine was just its mirror image so I started diagramming, lying in my bed late at night, listening to music and drawing.
IV. “THERE ARE DEPTHS OF MADNESS THAT WOULD AMUSE NOBODY BUT US. BUT THEN ALSO, THERE ARE PICTURES OF DONUTS.”
TFT: Another cool thing about this book is the way it plays with time. It’s a short book, but you can spend a tremendous amount of time with it.
ELI HOROWITZ: Exactly. This book really elevates time. If someone wants to spend half an hour with this Agatha Christie-style mystery, that’s great. And if someone wants to spend half their life trying to find the treasure, that’s great too. It’s as deep as you want to go. There are depths of madness that would amuse nobody but us. But then also, there are pictures of donuts. That’s why it’s exciting, seeing people really going into it. Also, there are certain things that are just inside jokes amongst ourselves and seeing these things get pored over and interpreted as something entirely different? That is really fun. Especially coming from my background, editing novels. These are books that I love and I hope other people will love, and I work on them with an author for a year or two and then we put them out into the world and they are there. Maybe once in a while someone might say, “Wow, I loved this book.” But to have this engagement on such an immediate and tangible level is really, really fun.
TFT: Do you consider yourself an adventurer? If you came across this book and someone else had written it, would you go after the treasure?
ELI HOROWITZ: I would dream I would, but I’m kind of lazy. And a healthy realism about that is what drove this. I think it would capture my imagination; I’m not sure if I would go through with it. With so many of these puzzle books I would tend to look for awhile, and then think, “Eh, well.” But even looking for twelve objects in the book is something you can look at with your roommate in the evenings for a week, while other people might want to be super-obsessive and meticulous and go looking for buried treasure. I might fall somewhere in the middle, which is why it’s so exciting and strange to hear about these adventures. There are some theories that are remarkably good and accurate, there are others that are remarkably interesting and…off-base. But still impressive! There are also some real puzzle people who pick up on these clues, and then there are kids who are, like, out of their minds with the concept of it all.
TFT: How much research was necessary to provide adequate clues, and did you guys consult with outside parties at all, like puzzle makers and logisticians?
ELI HOROWITZ: There was a lot of research. But it was more about exploring and figuring out all the things that could be clues. Not so much like the Da Vinci Code, like go into the library of congress and cover the books with lemon juice. It was more about wide-ranging random research. We’d read something and realize, “Hey, this could be a clue.” But all the good clues are things that should be in that person’s apartment.
TFT: This book is amazing for a lot of reasons. It makes its own rules. Are you trying to comment on the state of books and their uses in their classic form, or the fate and current experience of the publishing industry?
ELI HOROWITZ: This book evolved the way it did because it was the best way for the book to be the most fun, and the most bizarre. We didn’t care about category or contention. Whenever people think along those lines amazing things can happen, because so much of the world is classified by category. Once you start thinking the way we were thinking, good things started to happen. First of all, it’s a pentagon. It’s been described as the world’s weirdest book, and that’s something to be proud of. But whatever level of madness this book has, there’s still plenty of great madness to be later explored. We tried to combine such a diverse mix of our influences together to really create something strange.
TFT: Did you bury the jewels yourself?
ELI HOROWITZ: I have dirty knees; I do own a shovel; and that’s all I can say on the topic.
Art courtesy of Scott Teplin.
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