Karen Russell Interviews Chris Adrian About Digital Books And Story Design

Pulitzer Prize nominee Karen Russell's most recent book, Sleep Donation, was published by a newly launched digital publisher. The medium allowed the author to publish her story as a novella, rather than extending it into a novel or condensing into a short story. "I don't think there are too many homes for these hybrid-length stories," she told The Huffington Post. But writing it as an ebook provided a unique solution.

A new book from the same publisher, Atavist Books, similarly uses the ebook format to its advantage. Fading graphics and animated text embellish Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz's The New World, the fictional story of a medical company that discovers a way to preserve a person's consciousness. Like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the details of a troublesome relationship anchor the fantastical elements of the story.

Co-author Chris Adrian, one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 honorees, is known for experimenting with technologically enhanced storytelling -- a previous novel of his began as an app. Below, Russell and Adrian discuss their experiences with writing books that are arguably best packaged in an electronic format.

Karen: Can you tell me a little about how the story evolved into its final form? I was amazed at how physical the turns in The New World’s storylines felt. I’ve never had a reading experience like this one -- the prose and the design work together to rocket the reader into a truly altered state. The New World felt so beautifully orchestrated; form and content become inseparable. Chris, how the Jayzos did you do this?

Chris: We [Eli Horowitz and I] had meant from the beginning to try to make the digital “tricks” really matter to the story, but it turned out that we had to figure out what those would be as we went along, so we ended up engineering out the digital and analog parts at the same time. That is, we could only separate the affecting digital enhancements from the gimcracks and wang-doodles when we saw, in practice, that some enhancements could not be made to matter to the story. Not so oddly, I think being able to consider the novel as a user interface made it a little easier for us to imagine the reader’s experience navigating the story, and made it easier for me to engage more judiciously than I usually do in conceptual gimcrackery and wang-doodledom.

Karen: And yet for all its innovative features, I found the experience of reading the book on the atavist app to be totally easy, and straightforward, even for a Luddite such as myself who doesn’t understand the iPhone. The pages seemed to turn themselves. Cycle 2 began, and I gasped -- I’d thought I’d reached the end -- and then dove forward, gleefully opening my eyes as Jane in her bed. Somehow I never got lost, even as Jim and Jane’s tales orbit one another in time and space. Chris, how did you hold the separate story strands in your mind -- did you draft them separately, together? Is your drafting process non-linear?

Chris: My drafting process is usually non-linear, but with this project the horse usually exploded every time the cart got in front of it. After a few of these horse explosions, I started showing Eli very short sections and only moving forward once we both agreed that the story still made narrative and thematic sense up to that point. The second and third cycles started to map themselves out as potential spaces within the first cycle once we really got going, and were much easier (and less contentious) to work on and finish.

Also, there was a big double pyramid narrative treasure map outline!

Karen: Chris, you can make anything happen in your fiction -- I’ve seen you described as “genre-bending,” and that’s absolutely accurate, but you are also the kind of freaky mad scientist who can bring anything to life, and make time run backwards. And here, you’ve given us the most outrageously beautiful, innovative take on the classic theme of infidelity that I can imagine: a dead husband runs away, to the future. The metaphysical scaffolding collapses, and Jim’s widow, Jane, is left in the rubble, feeling that the man she loved is a stranger. How did this idea come to you? And what did this sci-fi framing let you explore, about love between two mortals, that you might not otherwise discovered in, say, a realist story about a love affair set in New Jersey?

Chris: Well, it all started with frozen heads, and some very late-night insomniac googling of questions like But what if I don’t want to die? As I went window-shopping for a cryonics outfit it started to feel like something like that daydream I have where my space-alien parents finally show up and take me away to be their adult child and have adventures -- the Duplo version of the same engagement with my reflex escapism that (for me) drives writing stories. Like writing, this kind of daydream feels like cheating on my partner, since it’s one more way to be someplace in time and space besides with him in the scary, complicated, interpersonal present. But writing feels like a sort of double-reverse cheat -- a way to escape and engage at the same time by representing everything I want to escape from and engage with. My cryogenic future was just a single-cheat, a way out of accepting and feeling the great happiness-in-sorrow of loving another mortal human being, by having an affair with an imaginary extra-life.

I think the sci-fi frame made this all easier to represent, since the fantastic situation could be made, quite viscerally, to feel like the occasion for these thoughts and feelings. In the New Jersey realist version, one would be compelled to drive one’s character to Connecticut in a borrowed Volvo and make them introspect.

Karen: I guess this is a related question, but I was so moved by Jim’s unwillingness to give up his memories of Jane, even when it’s been revealed to him that he must do exactly this in order to “enjoy” eternal life. Even after he’s shucked his mortal coil, the pain of those memories, and his longing for his wife, Jane, continue to be something that Jim values, and chooses to endure. You and Eli engineered such a unique threshold from which to consider the link between memory, identity, love and marriage. Jim finds himself struggling to cut the mnemonic umbilicus to his life on Earth, with Jane, which raises the powerful question: What in the universe would you be, without your unique freight of memories?

Chris: Happy! But probably not for long. Every now and then I do a sort of Oliver Sacks on "Gilligan's Island" thought experiment where I imagine a monkey knocks me in the head with a coconut in just the right way to make me lose all my memories, and it's never very long into the daydream before I start to miss all the people I've pretended to forget. One reason I think being in love is probably better than a monkey coconut-whack is that it is a preserving kind of erasure that changes your relationship with your past without destroying your past. Jim and Jane have committed to the idea that they are only really alive in relationship with each other, and after he dies they each further commit to the idea that the relationship is immortal, even if the two of them are not. So I suppose Jim's answer to that question would be that he would be either still in love with someone he couldn't remember, and therefore miserable in his new life.

Karen: Did the satellite planet of The New World give you a space for a new kind of reflection on these questions? Did you emerge from its composition with a new attitude towards your own death, or memories, or relationship? (Sorry, Chris! Frances gave me this opportunity to be nosy, and I’m going for it).

Chris: As always, the characters in my written story are braver and bolder and more sincere than me. The story asserts that our immortality is in the present, and that a style of living that puts love (and the beloved) first before all other things is the only way to store up treasures in (non-existent) Heaven. This is a representation of something I feel very strongly, but have a hard time remembering in every day life, let alone putting into practice. One of the nice things about being a writer is that you can conjure up people who know things you don't -- the author may only be faking wisdom but somehow the characters end up actually being wise, and subsequently they can be for the author (as for any reader) guides to life. So this fictional relationship that Eli and I made allows me to ask, when I suspect I am being somehow untrue to my own beloved and the love I feel for him, WWJ&JD?

Karen: Unlike a print book, which you can hold in your hands, and which doesn’t shrink and expand on you (generally speaking, unless you’re Alice in Wonderland), The New World shocked me in the best way imaginable -- just when I thought it was over, having reached the last page of Cycle 1, another Cycle appeared. I apologize for the spoiler -- I hope readers can forgive me, I promise it will still be shocking when you get there. But I have to ask, because I loved that surprise so much: you hide Cycle 2 from us, and once it appears, anything seems possible -- we readers are kept deliberately in the dark as to how many secret passageways or pocket galaxies this digital book might contain enfolded within it. When you were dreaming up the book design, was this something you intended to echo Jim’s own surprise, at discovering that he is still alive, even after his death?

Chris: Yes! Or at least there was some idea of a conceptual correspondence between the boundaries of the life and the boundaries of the story. The surprise seemed like an opportunity to make the reader experience the boundary in a much more visceral way than turning the page and seeing PART 2. And the digital format let us try to make the different cycles feel like they are all occupying the same space, just slightly out of phase with each other, rather than laid end to end in a series. It was nice to think the reader might have some sense of turning back (instead of turning forward) to reexamine these lives and memories, just as Jim and Jane are being challenged to do the same thing within the story.

Karen: This story made me cry several times; it also made me hoot with laughter in public places, I mean the uncontrollable laughter that makes you resemble a madwoman. Chris, I have long admired your ability to find what’s truly hilarious in the most sorrowful parts of human existence, and to be true, in your writing, to what I heard George Saunders once call “the deep funny strangeness of being alive.” Is this something you’re consciously thinking about as you write, the funny:sad ratio?

Chris: Not consciously in composition, but I think things look or sound wrong in revision to me when the gloom is unbroken. And I think tragedy unleavened by some kind of humor is contrary to my experience of terrible sorrow. My family used to get out our funny bones and beat the shit out of each other at precisely the worst times of our lives, as a way to both comfort and attack ourselves and each other. And though we were extreme in this behavior, I don’t think we were unique.