The Bookshelf: Social Media, Intimacy, and Jessica Park's '180 Seconds'

May 12, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Manchester, N.H. author Jessica Park. In the age of social media, real intimacy can be hard to come by. We see superficial interaction all the time on Facebook and Twitter, but how often do people really take time to understand one another? Jessica Park’s new novel, 180 Seconds, a social media experiment brings together a shy young woman, Allison, and a social media star, Esben. Find Jessica Park's top five reading recommendations and the transcript of her conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello.

Jessica Park's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. "No one wrote rich, layered, psychologically-complex characters more beautifully and accurately than Pat Conroy. The movie version of this story is not at all my favorite (ahem), but the book blew my mind and has stayed with me for years. Stunning descriptions of life, land, pain, and heart, and intricately portrayed relationships perhaps make this my top-ever read. It’s the story of siblings, their highly dysfunctional parents, and the heartbreaking result of trauma that will hurt to read, but may very likely heal any parts of you that are broken. You will learn something about people, about relationships, about life, about tremendous storytelling. There is heart and a strong message of survival in all of Conway’s works, and you cannot walk away unchanged from a book of his."

2.   Black Iris by Leah Raeder (now writing as Elliot Wake). "I read exactly a page and a half of this book before I messaged Elliot to find out more about this incredibly evocative book. His writing is nothing I’ve ever seen before. I was immediately struck, and energized, and totally intrigued by his ability to mix super-gritty content with unbelievably fluid, descriptive, stunning prose. There are also chapters that time jump more sharply and perfectly than I’ve ever seen before. Sexy, sensual, shocking, moving, and stunningly beautiful, this college-age romance-meets-thriller book is so worth your time."

3.   The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane. "This is a great YA novel that combines the exact right balance of humor, heart, romance and coming-of-age brilliance. Rebekah has a knack for creating quirky, very unique and very loveable characters that stick with you, and that always draws me in. I love it when I finish a book and cannot stop thinking about the world in which I just drowned, the one I want to stay in. That’s beautiful stuff right there."

4.   On The Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves. "This is what Blue Lagoon should have been. Tracey gives us an unlikely couple with an adult woman and a younger guy who find themselves stranded on a deserted island. It’s all so sexy and fun! Island heat, survival strain, romantic perfection, and smart writing. There’s such a sweet, tender romance in this story, and it’s balanced with just the right amount of tension. Grab this one for a superbly well-written beach read and beyond. It’s so, so fun, and just a beautiful, fun, romantic time!"

5.   The Easy Way Out by Stephen McCauley. "Stephen is absolutely one of my all-time favorite writers. This book in particular shows his true genius. A travel agent as the hero, his boyfriend, and a bananas best friend. The dynamic between these three leads will win you over.  I can’t think of anyone who delivers more unusual, loveable characters who we fall in love with almost instantaneously. This is Lit Fiction at its absolute best. I’m always drawn in by characters who handle life and its universal pains in rather unconventional ways and this story is on point. The deep—and often dark—humor, combined with moments of great character progression have made this a book that I’ve come back to many times."

Tell us about the experiment that brings together Allison and Esben.

The experiment involves Esben, who has set up a table and two chairs facing each other. The idea is that he sits on one side and Allison sits on the other and they stare into each other’s eyes for 180 seconds. No talking, no moving. Nothing. The purpose is to see what kind of emotion you bring, how you communicate without speaking.

That’s a hard thing to do, to look at someone for 180 seconds straight.

It’s a long time. Some people have a hard time making eye contact for five seconds. Three minutes? A lot can happen in three minutes.

When you’re in a situation like that, you’re not just in your own head. You start to have a relationship and an experience with the person opposite from you. And you’re in it together.

Did you see this book as a book about intimacy and the nature of intimacy?

Yes, partly because Allison at the beginning of the story is so closed off and avoids intimacy. She—because of her background, growing up in foster care, not adopted until she was 16—had a lot of walls up. Not a lot of good experiences with humanity. And she’s not interested in engaging with other people, so this experiment, I think for anyone, would be a little uncomfortable. For Allison, it’s terrifying.

But it also is a turning point for her, because she gets a taste of what it means to have a positive connection with somebody. So there’s that piece.

There’s also—a lot of this book is really about finding the good in the world and the good in people, when it’s so easy to see the bad and see how people mistreat each other and are unkind. But people can also be incredibly generous with each other and incredibly loving!

I think social media is a perfect way to get at that idea, because we see how people make their comments from the safety of behind the screen, but you show there’s a lot of generosity, especially when Allison and Steffi are going through a tough time. Do you share that belief? That there’s a lot of good on social media as well as real life?

I do, though I feel like I’ve come to that more recently, because the bad stands out. Everyone has seen the kind of comments under someone’s post or an article. It is unbelievable how vicious people can be.

I will say that when I started writing and getting nice reviews early on, I was a little shocked at how nice people could be. I think I’d gotten so used to people not being friendly to each other that I really was very touched by how generous and kind strangers could be.

One of the things that inspired this book is [the fact that] so many viral videos and other viral posts are founded in good. Some are very click-baity such as, “Man finds paper bag on his front porch. You won’t believe what’s inside!” Sometimes it’s something dumb inside the bag, but sometimes it’s something good.

Do you think social media brings us closer or does it assist in pushing people farther apart?

I think it’s kind of an equal battle. I think we’re pretty balanced there. People certainly disagree on the internet and have huge squabbles and a lot of times those squabbles are with strangers, although you do often see Facebook posts from people saying, “I’m no longer friends with so-and-so! And I’m saying it here!” And then we get to see a public battle.

But I think there’s a balance. There are so many reasons for people to come together on the Internet. Take readers, for example. There are so many reader groups and people sharing their love of different authors, different books.

Authors get so much support from readers online, too. It’s really a wonderful experience, the way they come together. I get to see so much love and positivity online as well as the bad stuff.

I want to go back once more to Allison because she’s such a fascinating character. What was your inspiration for her?

This is always a hard question for me to answer about any of my characters and my answer really—it scares me to say this—is: I don’t know. And it frightens me because I wonder how I’m going to write another book. How did I come up with this? I don’t really know where it comes from. I think what often happens for me is I picture a major scene that I would like to happen in a book or some kind of major feeling and I focus on that first. I often listen to music that captures whatever feeling I want and then I work backwards.

The scene with the 180 seconds experiment was—I’m sure many people have seen this video, and I always forget the name of the performance artist. She sat at a table all day long and people would come and sit in front of her for a minute. It’s amazing that they captured this. They had her ex-lover (as they called them in the video). They’d been together for years and parted amicably and hadn’t seen each other. He comes and sits across from her and it is unbelievable to see their expressions and the emotion and we’re let into the history of their relationship. It was very, very touching.