Illustrator Lou Beach started practicing his writing on Facebook out of boredom in 2009.
"I was bored with what I was reading from other people's status updates, and I was bored with my own," he tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish.
Beach's fanciful and often surreal graphics have appeared in Wired, the New York Times and Harper's. He's done album covers for groups like Weather Report and Blink 182.
Now, thanks to his Facebook vignettes, Beach is also an author. His debut book, 420 Characters, comes out Tuesday. The title refers to a prior character limit for status updates.
"I'd always had dreams of being a writer, and this seemed like a great place to exercise — the limit made it not so daunting — the 420 limit," he says. "The funny thing is that shortly after the book came out, Facebook upped the limit to 5,000 characters, so I'm not as crazed about making them fit anymore."
Last Wednesday, Facebook lifted the limit again to more than 60,000.
Mindful of his character limit, Beach posted a new story every day.
"They come out of a dream state in the morning, just before I'd wake — they're like the tail end of a dream," he says, "and I fool around with them a bit, and I go to the computer, and I type them out, and I use the word count tool to see if I've fallen within the 420 confines."
Inspiration for the stories comes from people walking down the street, hearing bits of conversation or seeing something on TV.
"Because I'm a collage artist in my visual work, this is sort of the same way — the process of taking bits and pieces and putting them together until a narrative forms," he says.
Beach has worked on a serial story about two characters: Ronnie, "a ne'er-do-well," and Jerome, "a hapless office worker."
"But otherwise, you know, they're just sort of general thematic things that I keep going to, for some reason: the river, the ocean, mountains, the West," he says.
Beach says he's shocked by how well the project has done, considering it's his first go at writing.
"Actually, I'm so overwhelmed with the amount of attention that the book has gotten," he says. "You know, I feel like the short guy who's wandered into a pickup basketball game with guys who are 7 feet tall and got the ball somehow and made a basket. It's really miraculous."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Lou Beach is an illustrator. You may have seen his fanciful and often surreal graphics in Wired, the New York Times and Harpers. Maybe you've seen his album covers for groups like Weather Report...
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CORNISH: ...and Blink 182.
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CORNISH: Now, Lou Beach is also an author. His book, "420 Characters," comes out Tuesday. Here's one of his stories, read by actor Jeff Bridges:
JEFF BRIDGES: (Reading) You see, Ray - he was this tenor player; good tone, good hands. He never played with the big guys but still, he was good. And between sets, Ray would take out some Silly Putty - you know, that kid stuff. And he'd stretch it and pull it, and even make little animals and things. He said it kept his fingers limber. In his pockets, he'd carry three or four of those plastic eggs the stuff came in. That's how he come to have the nickname "The Hand."
CORNISH: And that's the whole story, 420 characters' worth. Author Lou Beach joins us from the studios of NPR West. Lou Beach, welcome to the program.
LOU BEACH: Glad to be here Audie. Thank you.
CORNISH: Now, the title of your book, "420 Characters," refers to the character limit for Facebook status updates. And you started posting these vignettes on your page in 2009. What compelled you to start doing this?
BEACH: Boredom. I was bored with what I was reading from other people's status updates, and I was bored with my own. You know, they just dealt with everyday situations, and I thought it would be an interesting place to teach myself how to write. I'd always had dreams of being a writer, and this seemed like a great place to exercise. The limit made it not so daunting, the 420 limit.
The funny thing is that shortly after the book came out, Facebook upped the limit to 5,000 characters.
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BEACH: So I'm not as crazed about making them fit anymore.
CORNISH: At the same time, though, you were posting these every day on Facebook - which to me, sounds daunting. How did you discipline yourself to do that?
BEACH: Well, I don't know if there's any discipline involved. They, you know, they come out of a dream state in the morning, just before I wake. They're like the tail end of a dream, and then I fool around with them a bit. And then I go to the computer, and I type them out and then use the word-count tool to see if I've fallen within the 420 confines.
IAN MCSHANE: (Reading) The raven sways in the wind at the very top of the pine - a lone, black pennant.
CORNISH: There are some famous voices we hear delivering the stories on your website - actors Jeff Bridges and Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin from The Blasters. How'd they get involved?
BEACH: Well, they're all old friends of mine, and they were kind enough to let me ride their coattails.
DAVE ALVIN: (Reading) I'm alone on deck, sharing a smoke with myself. There's no moon, but the stars are a city in the sky.
BEACH: You know, I'll see somebody walking down the street, and I'll notice something about him that's interesting. And then I'll go home and think about it and then hopefully, in the morning, something will evolve from that. Or I'll hear a snippet of conversation, or see something on TV. Because I'm a collage artist in my visual work, this is sort of the same way - the process of taking bits and pieces, and putting them together until a narrative forms.
CORNISH: Are any of the stories actually related?
BEACH: Maybe in a general thematic way. You know, the cowboy stories and the criminal stories. There are a couple that actually were pieces of - I tried to do a serial story. So every couple of days, I'd post a story about these two characters. And online - there's a character named Ronny, who's a ne'er-do-well, and I get a lot of responses to a Ronny story. Oh no, it's Ronny again; oh, that bad Ronny. And then there's Jerome, who's a hapless office worker. But otherwise, you know, they're just sort of general thematic things that I keep going to for some reason. You know, the river, the ocean, mountains, the West.
CORNISH: I don't know if you have the book with you, but is there...
BEACH: I do.
CORNISH: ...one in particular that you like?
BEACH: Oh, now you put me on the spot. Let me - OK, here's a poignant little one:
(Reading) She was beautiful, fragile and afraid - a peacock in a hail storm. We sat together on the couch, waiting for the car horn. It sounded at last, and I held her hand as we pushed through the snow in the driveway. I turned away after I buckled her into the backseat. Dawn wouldn't look at me, but reached back, touched her knee. I watched them drive off, then walked back to the house, careful not to step into her footprints.
CORNISH: I don't mean to put you on the spot. I think it's just miraculous that you're like, I'm going to give writing a shot - on Facebook - and they turn into like, poetry. I mean, if this is your first outing...
BEACH: I am as shocked as you are. I'm actually - I'm so overwhelmed with the amount of attention that the book has gotten. You know, I feel like the short guy who's wandered into a pickup basketball game with guys who are 7 feet tall, and got the ball somehow and made a basket. It's really miraculous.
CORNISH: Illustrator and author Lou Beach. His debut book of short stories, "420 Characters," comes out on Tuesday. He joined us from the studios of NPR West. Lou Beach, thank you so much.
BEACH: Oh, thank you, Audie. It was a pleasure.
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CORNISH: You can read some stories from "420 Characters" on our website, NPR.org.
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CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.