Writing for the improbable bookshelf

Writing for the improbable bookshelf

I make stories for improbable bookshelves. I once came across this term in an Italo Calvino essay and I’ve held on to it ever since, as it so closely describes the way I work.

I recently wrote a new version of the Persephone myth, but it can’t be found in a bookshop or online. Persephone’s Footsteps is an altitude-responsive story and map that has to be carried on a journey through a city. As Persephone climbs higher – first to escape the Underworld and then to escape the polluted city streets – the listener must climb higher to reveal more of her story. At the moment, there is only one version of this work in existence. Is it scalable? Perhaps, but my real hope is that it’s my approach to writing that’s scalable – that writers might be inspired to explore new ways of writing, bringing enlivened approaches to literary forms.

When writing short stories for print I’ve always known how the story will be shared. After I’ve sent off the Word document to an editor, my shaping of the story ends. The book is produced by the publisher. I love books, but I’m also curious about the many other ways stories can live in the world. We are becoming more used to encountering digital fiction through screens, and smartphones, but there are other options.

I work with tiny low-cost computers like the Raspberry Pi, the open-source Arduino, and Arduino-based boards (like the Lilypad, which you can use with textiles and conductive thread and the Bare Conductive board, which you can use with electric paint to turn surfaces into touch sensors). To share a story, you can attach screens to these devices, but most of my work uses audio files. By attaching a sensor you can make a story that will respond to touch, light, temperature, movement, direction, wind direction… (the list goes on).

This does require work and a willingness to tinker. A lot of time is spent searching through open-source resources and forums. The brilliant part is that there is always someone else who has tried to make a thing that is a bit like the thing you’ve had an idea about making, and people share their processes and learning. If you stick with it, anything feels possible.

Working in this way, I’ve learned to jump back and forth between story and technology, so they each help shape the other. This is a space where I can learn about how different interactions with story might work and what that means for the way I write. Not every writer will want to engage with coding or soldering, but there are plenty of other ways to experiment with stories and technology, including the use of existing platforms like social media, podcasting tools or AR apps.

Few writers will have the opportunity to collaborate with technologists, and most will continue writing for book format because that is where the opportunities and rewards – cultural and, occasionally even, financial – lie. Writers need space and time to experiment, to fail and to discover. In The Literature Machine, Calvino wrote that "literature can perpetuate itself by a series of confirmations, limited readjustments," or that it can question the status quo.  If we want to reach towards the improbable bookshelf, we all need to value the process and not just the commercial end-product.

I’ve been thinking about the story of each story I make. My focus at the moment is on creating ecological wonder tales. I’m developing the content of each story and at the same time exploring technologies with which it could be shared. Taking inspiration from subject matter, I’ve made a story about flooding that’s illuminated at new and full moon when the tide is highest; a story about lichens, an organism sensitive to pollution, that changes with the air quality; and a story of tangled cities that will only grow longer if you read it outside.

In contemporary publishing, writers don’t often get to write the story of their story. Technologists, media companies and publishers usually determine how, what and even where we read. Some of their innovations are wonderful – like the story of a book that can carry a whole library. Other innovations, like the use of data to personalise stories and try to sell us more stuff, appeal to me a lot less.

Writers have a wealth of knowledge on the construction of story that could help shape the technologies we use to read. What if writers used their narrative skills to imagine not just new stories - but new possibilities for stories too?