I’m privileged to be able to share something special with you today. This is an interview I did with Alastair Horne about his PhD research. Alastair is looking at the role of digital devices in fiction and how they’re affecting the relationships between author, text and reader. His topic really struck home for me because children’s literature has a relatively uneasy relationship with the digital device. It’s a relationship that I’m not sure should be as uneasy as it is but it is uneasy nevertheless. You only have to look at the fairly regular headlines that talk about children being addicted to screens to see the sort of dialogue that I’m referring too.
That’s what drove me to get in touch with Alastair, alongside a general intrigue for his research topic, and I’m immensely grateful to him both for saying yes and also giving me some incredibly thoughtful answers. I find all of the below fascinating and I hope you do too whether you’re a writer, reader or an author trying to figure out social media. You can find Alastair online here and on Twitter here. I urge you to do so!
Could you sum up your research in a few sentences?
My work explores how mobile phones and tablets are changing the relationship between author, text, and reader. There are three parts: in the first, I’m looking at ‘mobile fictions’, stories written specifically for smartphones and tablets, which make use of the opportunities such devices create for new kinds of storytelling. The second part explores how the social media platforms people use on mobile – particularly Twitter – allow authors and readers to interact in sustained and intense ways. And the final part is a creative project: a short mobile audio fiction that’s designed to be experienced during a ten-minute walk through Brompton Cemetery.
Your work touches on fiction that’s been written specifically for smartphones and tablets – ‘mobile fictions’. Do you have any particular favourites you’d recommend for somebody wishing to see what these are?
Probably my favourite of the last few years is 80 Days, published by Inkle. It’s a remarkable reworking of the Jules Verne story into an interactive fiction which allows the reader to choose their own route around an imaginary Victorian steampunk world. It’s only really using a few of the opportunities created by mobile devices – interactivity, audio and images, essentially – but it uses them so well, creating a wonderfully vivid world by expanding and updating Verne’s original to a phenomenal extent: there are 150 cities to visit, and the whole story includes 750,000 words of narrative, more than ten times that of the original novel.
Another publisher doing interesting things is Oolipo, who’ve just launched their first set of stories written specifically for smartphones: Kate Pullinger, who’s one of my PhD supervisors, has written a piece for them about a young woman who starts getting text messages from a friend of hers who died three years ago; you can download the first part for free now, and the rest will be available soon.
So far as apps for children are concerned, Nosy Crow are the obvious leaders in this field – you need only look at the number of prizes they’ve won to realise that – and their work is brilliant, but the most wonderful children’s book app I ever saw is one that’s sadly no longer available. Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle is a beautiful story about coping with grief, and the app version was, I think, even better, augmenting the story with lots of small but compelling interactions – at one point, readers could draw a picture using coloured crayons, and then a few screens later, that picture would quietly appear, framed on a wall in another scene. But it clearly didn’t make enough money, as it’s been withdrawn from the app store, and if you already own a copy, it’s a rather sad experience trying to read it now, as it’s horribly broken – screens run into each other as if someone’s torn a page in half and you can see half of one page and half the page below.
This is a real problem for anyone studying mobile fictions: some of the most interesting examples are no longer available because they didn’t make enough money for their publishers to justify the cost of updating them to work on new versions of mobile operating systems. Some have disappeared entirely: if you search for the app version of Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, for instance, all you’ll find are a few reviews and a promotional website with download links that no longer work – the app was withdrawn years ago. The forthcoming update to the Apple operating system is only going to make things worse, as it will break several apps that currently just about work, like Faber’s Malcolm Tucker app.
And, building on that, do you see any difference in approach between adult or children’s mobile fictions? Is there any difference?
I’m still in the early stages of my research, but the children’s mobile fictions I know best are mostly conventional linear narratives that add moments of joy to the story through small interactions: moving characters and objects around the screen, for instance. That seems quite different to the adult fictions I’m studying which, when they use interactivity, tend to make a more sustained use of it, in the form of narratives that take different paths depending on the reader’s choices.
There are other differences too. So far, for instance, it’s only really children’s mobile fictions I’ve seen making use of the iPad’s gyroscope, allowing things to happen when the screen is tilted in different directions: on the opening screen of The Heart and the Bottle, for instance, if you angle your iPad a little, you can discover someone hiding behind a tree. Adult fictions are generally more often interested in geolocation – where the device is, and what you can do with a story if the device you’re reading it on knows where you are – rather than how it’s angled.
The other part of your research moves towards interaction between authors and readers on social media. Do you have any ideas on how authors can best manage the pressures of this?
My thoughts on this are, to be honest, informed more by my own experience on Twitter, and by my time as Social Media and Communities Manager at Cambridge University Press, than by my research in this area, which is still at a very early stage. But to start with, I’d advise authors only to use social media if they have a genuine enthusiasm for doing so, and enough free time to spend on it: Twitter’s no place for a reluctant author who’s only there because he’s been told by his publisher to build a platform, and who checks in for a few minutes each day feeling slightly resentful.
I think the best examples of authors on Twitter – Ian Rankin, for instance – are just being themselves, giving readers glimpses into their lives and interests, with barely any attempt at promoting their books (though admittedly that’s a luxury you have as a routinely best-selling author). Rankin engages with people who ask about his books, thanking readers who’ve taken the time to post praise, and answering plenty of questions, albeit sometimes fairly briefly – he can often reply to twenty or more tweets from readers in a day.
If you’re finding Twitter stressful as an author, I think you need to find yourself a network of friends who’ll make you want to check in not to see if you’ve any messages to answer, but to see what your friends have been getting up to. Follow the people – particularly authors – you’d like to be friends with, and get chatting to them. Going back to the example of Ian Rankin, he spends a lot of his time on Twitter just chatting away to other crime novelists, and to people who share his tastes in music. I very much doubt that he sees Twitter as a chore.
I love the sound of your creative project! How did you choose your location for this? And has the location influenced the type of story you hope to tell?
It was all rather random. I’ve been interested in cemeteries for some time, after making an unexpected discovery several years ago in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery that gave me the seed of an idea for a novel that I’ve been determinedly not writing ever since. That led me to take an interest in London’s ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries, so when I attended a workshop last year on writing using the interactive fiction tool Twine, I decided to create a tour guide for Brompton Cemetery, finding a list online of the fifty most interesting people buried there. One of them turned out to be a ‘mysterious society woman’ by the name of Hannah Courtoy, whose tomb is genuinely believed by some to house a time machine, and that seemed an absolute gift for a story.
One of the aspects of mobile fictions that interests me most is the possibility of writing a story that is specific to the place where it’s experienced – a story that knows where you are while you’re reading it, thanks to your phone’s GPS, and adapts accordingly. So, that’s what I’m trying to do with my creative project. Listeners will take a walk through the cemetery, and find themselves overhearing the voices of some of its permanent residents, from Major Archibald Low, a man who – remarkably – invented drones during the first world war, and whom the Germans attempted to kill by means of a cigarette laced with strychnine, to Joseph Bonomi, the Egyptologist responsible for designing Hannah Courtoy’s time machine. They’ll not only learn about the lives of these fascinating people, but also be able to piece together another story for themselves, based on the individual tales that they’ve heard. So, the location is a fundamental influence on the story I’m telling: Brompton Cemetery is the setting not just for the story, but for the experience of listening to it too. (And if anyone would be interested in helping me test out any of the various iterations of this story, please get in touch on Twitter.)
And finally, what’s your favourite children’s book? (I know it’s an impossible question so I’m also happy to accept the last children’s book you read!)
I have vivid memories of reading many of the children’s classics – Treasure Island, Watership Down, and the Narnia stories – plus some that are probably less well respected these days: Willard Price’s Adventure series, and Enid Blyton’s tales of Fatty and the Five Find-Outers. (I was never that bothered about either the Famous Five or the Secret Seven, though.) And as a very small child I loved both the Mister Men, and the Reverend W. Awdry’s Railway Series, long before they became all about the insufferable Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also loved the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which has perhaps had the biggest influence over me long-term, since it was the starting point of my interest in fictions where the reader takes an active role in the story through making decisions, and therefore a key factor in this PhD!
More recently, I spent a few years a while back babysitting for a friend of mine, and that introduced me to a new generation of children’s picture books: that’s where I first discovered the wonderful Oliver Jeffers, with Lost and Found and The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, and also Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – I got so much pleasure from reading the Hairy Maclary books aloud, putting on different voices for the sentences about the different dogs, like Schnitzel Von Krumm, with the very low tum.