|A Novel Use for Instagram|
|By Jenn Salcido|
Last September, writer and photographer Rachel Hulin ’00 made a bold bet when she chose to begin releasing her latest project, the novel Hey Harry Hey Matilda, bit by bit on Instagram and at heyharryheymatilda.com . Although breaking down the barriers of traditional publishing is nothing new for the digital age, Hulin’s work was heralded by the Washington Post as "the world's first true Instagram novel."
“It’s a really interesting time to be interacting with readers outside of books,” says Hulin, who first started the project years ago while working as a blogger in New York City for the likes of Rolling Stone, Radar, and Nerve.com . “So many thirty-five-year-olds aren’t reading full books. You get a couple of chapters in, but you’re more likely to be reading New Yorker articles on your phone at night, or snippets of text on your Instagram. This project is well-suited for that, because you can still get this rich experience of other people’s lives.”
The lives in this case—told through a codependent epistolary tango—are rich indeed. The sometimes cutting, always clever, e-mail correspondence between the Goodman twins, Harry (a young professor in Connecticut) and Matilda (“a 30-something artist in New York, a Brooklyn person”) is very much, in selfie-era parlance, “unfiltered.
“It’s voyeuristic,” Hulin says. As a writer and photographer, she’s perhaps the proto-voyeur, her lens and her narrative choices the intermediary between her readers and the enmeshed siblings.
The images she posts are beguiling. Hulin, a photographer with editorial clients ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the New York Times, says that the text and images share connective tissue. “Generally, in my head, there’s some sort of relation, whether it’s obvious or not,” she says. The feed, which began with a simple map, has started to flower into beautiful, varied studies of cities, objects, and people. Hulin has even cast the characters, whose faces pop up now and again. As of this writing, the Instagram account has 7,400 followers.
But not everything is what it seems. Like the narratives we choose to present to the world over social media, there’s always something just out of frame, threatening to expose us or enlighten our viewers. “I’m going to tell you a secret,” one of Matilda’s e-mails opens. Each character is harboring a set of fairly significant secrets, it turns out, and throughout the novel Hulin gradually widens her lens to include them. In real life, she’s open to discussing the twists, particularly the intimate details, of the relationship between Harry and Matilda (yes, that sort of intimate).
At some point, the story will be available in book form. Hulin is not looking to replace the book as a medium; after all, in 2013 she published the book Flying Henry, featuring photographs of her son Henry in airborne travels. But for now, she’s enjoying opening doors, and a dialogue, beyond the bindings.