I was in the beginning stages of writing Raffie on the Run, a story about a New York City subway rat, when a video of a real New York City subway rat went viral.
The video showed a rat carrying a slice of pizza down subway station stairs. The slice was bigger than he was, but the rat wasn’t about to give up. He determinedly dragged it down stair after stair. The name Pizza Rat was coined, and suddenly he was everywhere: in news articles, on Twitter, even in Halloween costumes. Views of his video rose into the millions.
These short video clips that go viral are a newer art form, but they are just that: an art form. Like many New Yorkers, I couldn’t get the image of Pizza Rat out of my head. That’s the magic of a good viral video: in mere seconds—fifteen, in Pizza Rat’s case—it manages to capture the empathy and imagination of millions of people.
Most art forms spark your imagination, of course, but what’s unique about viral videos is that they tend to leave you with more questions than answers. Who was this rat? Where was his home? Was he taking this slice back to his family? A viral video is almost like one paragraph of a larger story. Where that story began and where it goes is left to the viewer to dream up.
As my imagination began to answer those questions about Pizza Rat, a character developed in my mind. When I went back to writing about Raffie, I was sure. He was Pizza Rat: a small rat who would risk life and paw for a perfectly aged slice of New York pizza.
In Raffie on the Run, an ill-timed pursuit of a slice of pizza results in Raffie’s little brother being captured. As I wrote about Raffie’s adventures in New York City trying to find his brother, I thought a lot about the viral video that helped inspire his story. I wondered: what exactly is it that elevates a short video clip into an art form that captures millions of hearts? While so many videos go unnoticed, what made Pizza Rat attract so much attention?
Lisa Respers France of CNN called Pizza Rat “a symbol of the ultimate New Yorker,” and I think that helps answer my question. We empathize with Pizza Rat because, in some ways, he’s just like any human New Yorker. But he’s not human, of course, and that’s what makes him unique—and sparks our imagination.
Once again, I was inspired. If a real-life viral video helped get fictional Raffie into this pickle, maybe a fictional viral video could help get him out of it. The contemporary art form of the viral video is infiltrating our lives on a daily basis. So why not have it infiltrate the traditional art form of a novel as well? Hence, Houdini Rat was born.
Houdini Rat is a viral video that sweeps through Raffie’s New York just like Pizza Rat swept through mine. Suddenly, the art form of the viral video became integral to my novel. It was full circle: a modern-day instance of art imitating life.
Jacqueline Resnick spent twelve years living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where every once in a while she was lucky enough to spot a subway rat at her local station. She now lives with her family in New Jersey with her husband and daughter, where she can usually be found writing, drinking chai lattes, or making just one more trip to the bookstore.
Her book, Raffie on the Run, was released today from Roaring Brook Press:
Raffie Lipton lives a rat’s dream life. In his family’s subway station home, he has all the food he can forage, and the perfect shoebox bed for telling his brother his adventure stories. But when one of those stories goes awry and his little brother is taken from their Brooklyn subway station, Raffie must set out on an adventure across the city to find him. Author Jacqueline Resnick crafts a tale of friendship and adventure, where a little rat with a big imagination must embark on his own real-life story and find his inner hero.