SXSW 2012 Q&A: Andrew Lewellen

Rachel Lovinger   March 6, 2012

South by Southwest 2012 - The Scatter/Gather Interviews

The Breakdown: Our one-time colleague Andrew Lewellen has moved on from Razorfish, but he’s still doing content strategy and he’s still pushing the boundaries of what it means to create literature in this new digital landscape. This year we spoke to him about his Next Stage panel “Tear It Up: How to Write a Digital Novel,” making him our first repeat Q&A subject!

S/G: Last year you organized a panel on transmedia, this year you’re speaking about how to write a digital novel. Clearly there’s a connection. Can you describe the progression for you?

Andrew: To be honest, last year I didn’t set out to organize a panel on transmedia.  The topic was Interactive Narratives, and I felt that was a large umbrella under which transmedia fell.  It wasn’t until I started working with the presenters on the panel—particularly Rob Pratten and Esther Lim—that I realized the influence of transmedia on the landscape of digital storytelling.  Because of Rob and Esther’s participation, the panel focused on transmedia.  There was actually some contention amongst the presenters: Rob and Esther saw themselves as transmedia practitioners. Josh Koppel, co-founder of ScrollMotion—a company that develops digital versions of books, magazines, greeting cards and annual reports for tablets and smart phones—saw himself as a publisher.

For that presentation, we created a new media version of the Three Little Pigs, with an iPad app, Facebook profiles, and audience participation via Twitter.  In the process of doing that work, I sketched out a prototype of an application for a digital novel—which I kept to myself because it was still just an idea.

One of the things I learned from the presentation was that my interest in digital storytelling is not specifically transmedia.  Transmedia, to me, has a large “gaming” element. I’m not a gamer. I’m a reader and a writer. What compels me about technology is how the tools—particularly tablets—can be used to fracture the confines placed on novels by the printed book and allow writers to create new forms of stories.  So after the presentation—like the day we presented—I decided I wanted to submit an idea for SXSW 2012 based on this prototype I’d developed.  So that’s what I did.

S/G: How hard is it to go from being a traditional novelist to being a digital novelist? What kinds of skills should people develop to make that transition?

Andrew: I think the most inherent challenge is surrendering authorial control. This is something we’re going to address in the presentation.  Traditionally, a writer interested in writing novels, screenplays, plays, and so forth is creating a story that will be consumed by a passive audience.  You have full authority over creating the story. With other forms of storytelling—particularly video games—the creator surrenders control to the user; the user creates their own experience via their interaction with the world of the game.  And they are able to do that because the creator developed a world with certain fixed elements and certain malleable ones.

Writing a digital novel requires you to give up traditional authorial control. Whereas with a printed novel, the reader will start at page 1 and end at page X—and you’ve created the story to move in that established physical format—even if the narrative does not—with a digital novel, you will allow the reader/user to explore the story in their own unique way. You might create multiple points of entry or allow readers to go down a rabbit hole by discovering something unique about the character.

At the same time, you still need to maintain a defined narrative structure, otherwise the story will make no sense, lose narrative drive, and people won’t read or experience it. So to create a successful interactive experience, you have to learn to balance when to control the story and when to allow people the freedom to explore it in the way they want.

S/G: Read any good interactive books lately?

Andrew: I’ve been inspired by the work of the people on the panel with me; that’s why I invited them to present.  Matt Kennedy is the President of 1|K Studios, and his company has done some unique work to adapt novels to the iPad, including Atlas Shrugged and On the Road.  The app they developed for Atlas Shrugged actually won Best Fiction App from the Publishing Innovation Awards.

I’m also really inspired by the application the other two panelists, Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro, are creating: Penumbra.  It’s an innovative blend of text and video, an example of people creating an entirely new and unique story experience by utilizing the features and functionality of the Tablet.

S/G: Which genres of literature best lend themselves to becoming interactive experiences and why?

Andrew: Rather than specific genres, I think there’s an opportunity to use different writing techniques to create a good interactive experience.  Point of view stands out to me as a key technique to utilize.  A novel written through multiple points of view—either first person or third person—can easily be adapted to a touch screen.  Think about a book that uses multiple points of view, like Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”  In printed form, you meet the characters in the story, you read their Point of View, as you read forward in the book.  What the tablet or eReader allows you to do is to present all of those points of view at once—say as primary navigation elements.  A reader can choose which person’s POV he wants to read at any time, and suddenly she can experience the story in a way that’s entirely different than reading a printed book.

Another key narrative element to utilize is plot.  “The Power and the Glory” also serves as a good example for this idea; the story unfolds through the characters’ interactions with a specific priest who is trying to avoid persecution by the government.  In a digital novel, the priest could be an object through which the story could be navigated.  This could be done by something as simple as hyperlinking text related to the priest, allowing people to navigate via that priest to another character’s point of view.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?

Andrew: Any person or presentation interested in exploring ways to adapt story content—particularly written content—to the new media landscape.  This is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing writers and storytellers; there’s a whole new frontier of storytelling, and people are figuring out how to create stories for it. I’m excited to experience all the ideas about the topic that will surely abound at SXSW.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2012 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Brian Warren
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
Xtranormal – by nan palmero
Texas waffle – by rachel lovinger

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One Response

  1. Chris Boese says:

    Of course, some of us have been working in the interactive literary fiction and non-fiction genre since the early 90s.

    How does Lewellen see his work as extending or breaking with the well-known novelistic pieces from Eastgate Systems (http://www.eastgate.com/) and Storyspace, particularly the most acclaimed work from there, Patchwork Girl? (disclaimer: Mark Bernstein is an acquaintance of mine and we’ve been on a panel together– as are Stuart Moulthrop and Michael Joyce)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastgate_Systems for a good history of what happened back in those days.

    (“Victory Garden” and “afternoon, a story” perhaps got more press, but Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl really did some interesting stuff with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story and the melding of form and content.)

    It’s always so strange to watch people reinvent the wheel… and struggle with the same issues we struggled with, back in the early 90s.

    One of the most seminal articles on the topic was Robert Coover’s landmark 1992 essay in the NYTimes Book Review, “The End of Books?”

    http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/27/specials/coover-end.html

    And then there is the debunking of it all too. A nice overview here: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/15/books/bookend-wwwclaptrapcom.html

    I spoke with Coover at a conference some years after that essay (I believe it was not long after this follow-up essay came out in 1998: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/27/specials/coover-hyperfiction.html) led me to graduate school, and he tended to react against the new “media-driven” hyperfiction productions (like Mark Amerika’s work) as being Philistines at the gate, because they were too “decorated” and not text-heavy enough.

    For all the intellectual heft Coover carries in the literary world, he didn’t seem very aware of the irony of the alarm he was sounding. His original “End of Books” essay had the same effect on the literary folks I knew at the time, and they thought HE was the Philistine at the gate, with all those folks with Landow at Brown and Hypertext Hotel.

    Nothing exists outside of its larger context. Even at SXSW.

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