Interview with Dave Morris, Creator of Frankenstein App.

Posted by Dale Townshend on April 29, 2012 in Interviews tagged with ,

This week saw the release of the long-awaited Frankenstein app, written by Dave Morris and published by inkle studios and Profile books.  The Frankenstein app is a reworking of Mary Shelley’s original novel in which, in the course of reading, the reader can engage with the characters by asking questions and offering advice. Such advice is not always taken, as the characters develop a relationship with the reader based on the choices made, and may or may not trust him or her. Ultimately the purpose is to allow the reader to navigate their own course through the text, exploring the various interpretations and possibilities inherent in Shelley’s work.  Dale Townshend of the Division of English Studies and Padmini Ray Murray from the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication, University of Stirling, interviewed author Dave Morris about his work.

PRM: Firstly, Dave, and in a question that might also be posed to Victor Frankenstein himself, how would you describe your creation? Is this a book, a game, an app?  What parameters are  you  using to define what you’ve  created here?

DM: I’d definitely call it a book, in that you engage with it as a literary experience, albeit an unconventional one. Book clubs have encouraged even casual readers to dig into a text, discussing a character’s motivations and what might have happened if he or she had done something different. Nowadays that’s not an uncommon way to look at a book, it’s just that you’re not usually presented with such an interrogative view while actually in the act of reading the story.

Evidently we are going to need some new terms. Although I assert that it’s a book, I can’t describe my Frankenstein as a novel per se. I do think it’s important to recognize that all of the text that is left behind in the wake of your choices does constitute a novel. Originally I wanted to add a feature to the app so that, having read through the interactive version, you could send the entire text thus created (or revealed, we might say) to a friend as a ebook – a non-interactive version, that is. It would be interesting to allow people to exchange different versions of the text in that way. In this instance we didn’t have the time and resources to implement such a feature, but I’m keen to do it in the next one.

DT: Like Mary Shelley’s prefatory reference to her own creation as her ‘hideous progeny’, you gesture in your Acknowledgments towards the ‘monstrosity’ that you have created, while adding, as an aside to potential critics and technophobes, that not all monsters are to be feared.    Clearly, you have extended Shelley’s conceit of the ‘monstrous text’ into your own work.  In what ways might this application be considered as monstrous?

DM: With anything new like this, you’ve got the open question of how people will approach reading it. There’s no pre-existing context for them to react to the work. I find this also when I show graphic novels to my literary friends – they are often confused by the grammar of the storytelling (cross-cutting between scenes, for example) even though they accept that same grammar in the more passive medium of cinema. But because they are unfamiliar with graphic novels, they don’t know how they are “supposed” to react. They become defensive. Both The Times and The Observer, in discussing my interactive Frankenstein, began by emphasizing that reading a traditional novel is already a personal, immersive experience; “there is no more wonderful technology than the human imagination,” said Erica Wagner in her column. And she’s right, of course, but the implication is either that this version of Frankenstein claims to be revolutionary and is not, or that it is revolutionary and is therefore a threat to “real” books. I think that’s wrong on both counts. Frankenstein is new – at least, I’m not aware of any other work where reader and character have a dialogue in this way. But it is not supposed to supplant the novel as a form; I don’t propose that we throw away our linear narratives and start telling all stories this way.

PRM: Was the idea conceived by Profile Books, and subsequently commissioned, or did Inkle and you, Dave, the writer, approach them?

DM: It was all my idea. It began as a pitch I made to several publishers in July last year for applying a new style of character-based “emotional interactivity” to a literary work in app format. Michael Bhaskar at Profile liked the idea, and I gave him a list of possible titles, including The Man Who Was Thursday, Moby Dick – and Frankenstein. It was really a lucky accident that he picked that one as his first preference, because as I got to working on it I began to appreciate how perfectly suited it was for what I wanted to do. Specifically, I had the idea of creating variables that would track the narrator’s personality – how compassionate or ruthless he is, how much he trusts you, and so on. The types of internal journey that system implies need a very active, engaged central figure. It would have been pretty hard to pull it off with Nelly Dean, for example.

Shortly after I began writing, Michael met up with Inkle, who had created a markup language to allow authors to write interactive stories that can then compile as an app. It’s just like writing text with HTML codes that then compiles as a web page. This was a big help because it means I can write all the interactivity directly into the manuscript, put it into an emulator, and see it working exactly as it would on an iPad.

It’s interesting, by the way, that some reviewers have been confused by who does what on a book app like this. I don’t know why, as it’s really no different from an author writing a book, a typesetter laying it out and adding illustrations, and a publisher releasing it and arranging publicity. The only part that’s gone is cutting down the tree. But to clarify: the authorial work, that is the concept, the model of interactivity and the writing itself – that’s all me.

PRM: How, would you say, does working with game developers change the publishing workflow—and is this a way of working that publishers are increasingly having to adapt to, given the rapid rate of change that digital has wrought?

DM: In the case of Frankenstein it wasn’t really any different from writing a traditional book. That’s because the markup language allowed me to build in all the interactivity myself, pretty much the way that journalists these days can file their online copy complete with hyperlinks and text formatting, so I didn’t need to have any back-and-forth with the developers. If anything, I was left to my own devices even more than I would have been in writing a traditional novel, as I wasn’t even working with an editor. My sole creative partner was Mary Shelley.

Having said that, this is a fairly unique case. If I’d been writing a book with a lot of game elements then it would have been more of a team process. When I’ve designed games you have the designer, assistant designers, coders, concept artists, sound engineers, 3D modellers, animators, producers, testers… That’s at the far end of a very broad spectrum from where enhanced books currently lie, but I’m sure we will see more hybrids, particularly in nonfiction. I have an idea for an interactive story world that is maybe halfway between a book and a game, and if I were to do that I’d want to be sitting in an office with the developers. Publishers who want to go that route will need to learn to move from a linear to an iterative process.

PRM: The decision to price at £2.99, which is arguably slightly expensive, given the nature of the app market—is this a way of marking the product out as ‘literary’, imposing an imprimatur of cultural value?

DM: We had several discussions about pricing, but I don’t think anyone claimed to know the right answer. I would have been equally happy with the book being £4.99 (to mark it as a prestige purchase) or free (to overcome the obscurity barrier) – and argued for both over the months. In the end, it’s the publisher’s decision, and in fact it’s possible they will want to put the price up in due course.

That question of digital pricing is interesting in exposing what we really value in a book. When I released my graphic novel Mirabilis on iPad, a friend who works in marketing asked me why it was cheaper than the print edition: “I can buy it straight away, and it looks better on an iPad than in print.” I had and have no good answer for him, except that people don’t seem to be willing to pay as much for digital books. Personally I’m with Michael S Hart, the Gutenberg founder, on this – all that matters is the text. Hardback, paperback, digital – they all have the same intrinsic value to me. So if somebody who was previously willing to buy a paperback for £8.99 now wants to pay only 99p for the same novel as an ebook, by that equation I have to say they’ve been valuing the paper itself rather highly!

DT: One of the most immediately striking features of your retelling is that you have chosen to set Shelley’s text not in the Ingolstadt of the original, but rather in post-Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s.  This, to my mind, casts a revealing light upon Victor Frankenstein’s own aspirations, particularly his commitment to an equally revolutionary ‘vanquishing of alchemical darkness’ and the challenge of bringing to the generation of life the tools of Enlightened science and rationality.  What motivated and informed your decisions to change the historical setting of the text?

DM: I didn’t originally set out with the intention of taking such liberties with Mary Shelley’s plot, but when I mapped out the timeline I saw that I’d got the monster being animated in late 1792, which is where the French Revolution was just starting to veer off into the kind of hysteria that would create the Terror. It was too much of a gift to pass up. Victor starts out full of hope and zeal, “bliss it was in that dawn”, and to him it’s a Year One for humanity. Then the souring of those political ideals forms a backdrop to his breakdown and the aftermath of his rejection of the monster.

Incidentally, my original intention, having relocated the action to Paris, was also to offer an entire alternate version of the story in which Elizabeth Lavenza comes to study at the university in secret, attending lectures dressed as a man, and in that version it would have been she who created the monster. The point in the narrative early on, where the narrator asks, “Surely you know me?” originally had two answers, “Victor” or “Elizabeth”, and by picking one the reader would decide which version of the story they were in. But that really was too ambitious. It would have taken me another six months and may not have ended up providing any valuable insights into the text after all that. So it was a darling I had to murder.

DT: What challenges did the frame-narrative of Shelley’s original present to you in the course of your reworking?

DM: Having Victor narrate his story to Robert Walton made sense in the original. It built up a sense of mystery – who is this giant that Frankenstein is pursuing to the literal ends of the earth? Well, modern audiences already know the answer to that, so I needed to get to the workshop of filthy creation much quicker, otherwise the ironic distance between the reader’s knowledge and Victor’s would destroy any emotional connection. I should add that Mary Shelley got there long before me; her original 1816 novella began, as does Nick Dear’s recent stage play, with the creature opening his dull, yellow eye.

While dispensing with the frame, I liked the immediacy of Victor’s narration in the original. He occasionally speaks, as it seems, directly to the reader, and that startles us until we recall that this is all being told to Walton. In my version, of course, the reader takes Walton’s place. And, if you really examine it, who is the reader in this story? A couple of times Victor addresses us directly in front of other people, and each time they say that he is talking to himself. So we must be Victor’s conscience, or alter ego – his Tyler Durden. Yet who really is Victor’s alter ego? The monster, who so often in Victor’s eyes embodies the desires that Victor himself is unable to acknowledge. That’s another reason why it makes sense to have the reader “play” the monster in the second part, I think.

In Shelley’s version, we actually have two nested frames: the monster’s account within Victor’s narrative, which itself is framed by Walton. Because the interactivity requires me to write “to the moment”, it would have been jarring to interrupt Victor’s narration with the monster’s story, so I had to move that into chronological order. Or, I should say, more or less chronological, as you have Victor creating the monster, and that first section ends with his breakdown the next morning. Then we follow the monster’s own story, and at the point of William’s death (in the spring of 1794) we cut back to Victor recovering from the breakdown – which is going back more than a year earlier, to the start of 1793. But, in this form, that flashback structure is easier to carry off than an inserted secondary narrative in the middle of the scene on the glacier.

Removing Walton has another effect: it makes Victor a somewhat unreliable narrator, as nobody else can testify to the monster’s existence. A recent novel (which I won’t name as I’d be perpetrating a spoiler) has already explored that. I’m less interested in whether the monster is a separate being or Victor’s Mr Hyde – the latter was never Shelley’s literal intention, I’m sure. The interesting thing is that they represent, or can represent in a given reading, the two sides of a divided self.

DT: I found the second section, in which the reader, through the use of the second-person, comes to occupy the place of the monster, particularly poignant.    Do you think that this built-in system of identification with the monster is already implicit in Shelley’s text, and something that only needed to be drawn out and rendered explicit?  The sympathy that this creates for the monster is startling: was this your intention?

DM: I think it’s one of the things that qualifies Frankenstein as a “great work” that Shelley doesn’t simply present the monster as the Other. We share Victor’s terrified demonization of him up until the moment he arrives on the glacier. Then we hear his account of the last two years and we realize that the real horror is not Victor’s, at having released “his own vampire” into the world, but the horror of being a rational man in a body so monstrous that he is doomed always to be alone.

I couldn’t use the same model of interactivity in that section, because that would to some extent relieve the sense of loneliness. The monster would have a companion: the reader. So all the time I was writing, I kept coming back to the idea of doing that section in second person. I was reluctant, though, because choose-your-own-adventure books were always written in second person, and I was concerned that form might mislead readers into thinking they were supposed to be playing a game, in the sense of solving problems, rather than exploring the inner journey, which was what interested Shelley and therefore informed my retelling. I actually put that second section to one side, and it was only after writing the meeting on the glacier that I broke my mental block and said, “Of course, it has to be second person!” Then I went back and wrote that very quickly. It was the easiest section to do because I felt that I really was adding something to the text – not only evoking sympathy for the monster, as Shelley does, but encouraging the reader towards the empathy of true identification.

It’s important of course that the monster then goes on to commit terrible crimes (though ambiguously so in many cases, depending on your choices) because this is not merely a story about good and evil – in the way that Dracula is, say. Shelley is concerned with creating a conflicted and very human portrait, a tragedy in which you keep on hoping for some kind of redemption even though you know it can never end that way.

DT: To my mind, one of the functions of your app will be to mediate between popular-cultural versions of Shelley’s narrative (films; graphic novels) and the formally, thematically and linguistically often challenging aspects of Shelley’s original fiction.  Not only does your app, through the various options built into it, encourage the act of rereading, but the inclusion of the 1818 version of Frankenstein as an Extra also calls for a rereading of Shelley’s text itself.  Could your creation be in any way considered as a point of entry (or initiation) into a greater literary experience, or is it more an end in itself?

 

DM: I was listening to Guys Can Read talking about Frankenstein, and Luke Navarro said, “I’m never going to read the original novel because I already know the story.” That seems to be a pretty common misconception. When Inkle put the book trailer together, they used Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, and somebody at Profile objected that the piece would be more appropriate for a tragedy than for a horror story. Inkle’s response, quite reasonably, was, “Have you read Dave’s version? It is a tragedy.”

Brian Aldiss pointed out forty years ago that this is not a work that is widely read. It’s probably the least read classic book that everybody can name. Everybody thinks it’s a big schlock horror thing, but then you read the book and discover that it’s not even really science fiction, by which I mean that, if H G Wells had written it, say, there would have been much more attention given to the idea of creating life. To Shelley that’s just a detail, a means for her to get to the heart of the matter.

Some will argue that Shelley’s themes are not dramatic enough for modern audiences – which was presumably Richard Brinsley Peake’s argument 190 years ago when he mounted his own stage production. Yet Nick Dear’s play last year did make a creditable attempt to stay true to the novel. Obviously it’s not possible in the space of a couple of hours to fully explore the rich complexity that the literary form allows. The version I saw (with Jonny Lee Miller as the monster) was more successful in the early and late stages, portraying the innocent childhood and the hard-earned wisdom, than when the monster enters his vengeful “adolescence” and murders Elizabeth. But Dear had to opt largely for one single interpretation because of the constraints of the medium in which he was working. The important thing is that he finally gave audiences a genuine adaptation of the novel – and it was successful.

But even the intrepid reader who ventures as far as opening Mary Shelley’s book will soon discover they have dauntingly dense thickets of language to traverse. It is not “modern” in the way that Austen or Dickens are. So I regard the main purpose of my version to be a stepping-stone for modern readers to approach the work. Whatever liberties I have taken are, I hope, true to Shelley’s intent and themes. In a sense, it’s more akin to a translation than a retelling.

DT: In a marked sensitivity to the terms of Shelley’s text, you strenuously avoid the visual spectacles of so many filmic versions of the tale so as to focus instead upon what the monster says, does and thinks.  What influenced your decision to curtail the sense of monstrous spectacle in your app, illustrating it not with graphic images of the monstrous but elegant pictures of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century anatomical tracts?

 

The great tragedy of Mary Shelley’s novel is that, not being read, it is widely misrepresented. I can settle down and enjoy the Universal and Hammer movies, but in no way are they true to the letter or the spirit of Mary Shelley’s work. They’ve hijacked its meaning in the popular imagination. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation even co-opted Shelley’s name above the title – quite spuriously, as it may have used more of the plot elements of the book but it still dressed them in the blood-spattered clothes of the horror genre. As I said, I don’t see the book in those terms and it was always my goal to write as Shelley’s collaborator rather than her adaptor.

That said, your question was really about the imagery, and Inkle get all the credit for the visual design. My only stipulation was that I didn’t want images that would illustrate specific scenes. We agreed to use images to create mood, and Inkle then went off and sourced a whole lot of marvellous pictures to that end, as well as creating the leather and wood background textures. When I’m reading the book, I’m not consciously aware of the pictures at all, and I think that’s a good thing. It means they’re trickling in at the subliminal level.

Only one illustration was created specifically for this book, the image of the solitary figure in the woods, and that was by Profile’s art director. I picked it for the cover for two reasons. First because it depicts isolation, and secondly because the figure could equally be Victor or the creature. An anatomical image such as the one by Gamelin would have encouraged us to see this as only the monster’s story. But, as I say, my input into the visual side was minimal. The guys at Inkle totally got what I was doing with the book and they picked a set of images that are a perfect fit with that.

DT: Would you consider working on another Gothic adaptation of this nature?  If so, which text would you choose?

DM: That’s very interesting – and tricky. Many Gothic narratives would lend themselves to this kind of treatment, but at the same time I’m wary of seeming to be on a mission to put a rocket under the classics. I was able to give myself permission to rework Frankenstein because, while I would call it a classic, and indeed a work of genius, it is problematic in being quite crudely executed in between those flashes of brilliance: the storm on the lake shore, the meeting on the glacier, and so on. There are gaping holes in the plot (how does Clerval’s body get to Ireland) and clearly Shelley is padding it up to novel length by means of travelogues and descriptive text that she doesn’t really try to connect to the dark inner journey that Victor is on. And by the way, I love the happy accident of contrast there – a lazy cruise up the Rhine with the shadow of the monster looming; it has the same delicious Gothic effect as the sunlit ruins in the videogame Ico. But Shelley lacked the writing craft to dovetail these elements – and I’m glad that she did, as it means I feel that I have been able to do something useful with my retelling.

But now say that I tried the same with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Dorian Gray. I’d love to tackle those, but I certainly don’t think I can improve on Stevenson or Wilde, and I need to believe I can bring something useful to the party if I’m going to work on them. Some of Dickens’s early work is a bit ramshackle (I’m thinking in particular of The Old Curiosity Shop) and the fact that Edwin Drood is unfinished gives me licence to do something with it. I certainly wouldn’t want to give the interactive treatment to a novel like Great Expectations, though. That would just be vandalism.

Dracula is the obvious choice. On the Frankenstein Facebook page they have a poll to decide the follow-up, and Dracula is way out in front. I first read it when I was ten years old, and as soon as I finished it I started writing a sequel – so maybe that’s a sign. On the other hand, maybe it’s too obvious a choice. Now that I’ve used this kind of emotional, character-driven interactivity in a book, I’m sure other authors will start using it and I bet a fair few of them will get to work on Dracula. I’m thinking I should push the envelope a bit, both in finding a more unusual choice of source material and in devising a kind of interactivity that will have the same impact as Frankenstein’s “voice on the shoulder” has done. Because, you know, what’s the point of an easy life?

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