Squirl App Maps Literary Hot Spots

Rachael Hanel
From the March/April 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has inspired countless works of literature and art, but now, thanks to two literary-minded entrepreneurs, the iconic novel has also inspired an app. “I was reading On the Road, sitting there with my laptop next to me, book at my side, looking up all the places Kerouac mentioned,” says Jef Van der Avoort, cofounder of the new literary search-and-discovery app Squirl. “I told my business partner, Serie Wolfe, and she said she had the same experience.”

The pair’s literary curiosity sparked the idea for Squirl, which allows users to find nearby literary locations wherever they are. The app pins locations on a map that correspond to scenes in books. There’s a pin for the University of Texas in Austin campus, which is featured in Elizabeth Crook’s novel Monday, Monday. There’s a pin for South Park in Billings, Montana, which appears in Carrie La Seur’s novel, The Home Place. And there’s a pin for the Brooklyn Bridge, which plays a part in Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. Each pin features a relevant passage from the book, as well as links to the author’s profile and a summary of the book that also includes links to booksellers.

Squirl works by first inviting authors to post locations from their books. “We developed the app because we think too many great books remain undiscovered,” Van der Avoort says, noting that the app is geared mostly toward independent and emerging authors who need help getting the word out about their books. “If you’re a smaller indie author, you can tell your friends, then friends of friends—but what’s the next step? It levels the playing field. Whether you have a marketing budget or not, it’s the same for everyone.” Writers then set up an author profile, on which readers can find out more about their work. Readers can search locations for a specific book, or they can search by locale to discover what literary places might exist in that area—and in doing so also find out about new books. Users can also search by author, from self-published writers to Arthur Conan Doyle, in order to find out where the characters in that author’s books have been and the places that have inspired their works.

Van der Avoort and his team began developing the app in late 2014. They launched the brand, complete with people dressed in squirrel costumes, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2015. The app, which is free for readers and authors, went live later that year; by the end of January it included more than five hundred authors and a thousand  locations worldwide. The project has so far been independently funded, but Van der Avoort is looking for external support to develop new features. In the future, he hopes readers will be able to create their own maps of favorite literary locations and that authors will be able to create virtual journeys for their characters that readers can follow.

For now, Van der Avoort sees Squirl as a tool to enhance the reading experience and connect readers with authors they might not otherwise discover. “My personal goal would be to one day see a book that was discovered through our app featured on the New York Times best-seller list,” Van der Avoort says. “That would be success.”

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).