Sally Naldrett’s sister

28 March 2011 in The Mistress of Nothing | Comments (2)

When I opened my email inbox this weekend, I found an email from a descendent of Sally Naldrett, the heroine of my novel, ‘The Mistress of Nothing’.  If you’ve read the novel, this will give you a shock - or indeed, a little shiver.  The mail was from a woman whose father traces his own family back to Ellen Naldrett, Sally’s sister.  He was born in Alexandria, though they are, I think, an English family, and returned to the UK sometime during the twentieth century. 

Ellen makes a few appearances in ‘The Mistress of Nothing’; she lives in Alexandria where she works as lady’s maid to Janet Ross, Lucie Duff Gordon’s daughter.  Ellen was one of the people who seems not to have spotted the fact that Sally was pregnant, though they saw each other just days before Sally gave birth on the Nile.  As well as that, at one point in my novel Ellen announces to Sally that she has plans to get married, though she has no idea who she’ll marry - not for her the lifelong role of spinster lady’s maid.  This announcement, this scene, was entirely fictional - I was looking for a way to demonstrate the extraordinary fact that lady’s maid were expected to not marry.  But it looks as though it turned out to be true, and that Ellen went on to have a family.  But the idea that both Naldrett girls might have stayed on in Egypt did not occur to me; perhaps Ellen was able to be more of a help to Sally after all.  Perhaps Ellen helped raise Sally’s child…

Truly extraordinary.  And it’s got me thinking… It would be great fun to research what happened to Ellen Naldrett.  And it would be so interesting to look into whether or not Omar really did go on to work for the Prince of Wales…

Where Are the Writers?

22 March 2011 in Future of Publishing | Comments (2)

Publishers are engaged in the digital conversation now in a way that even two years ago would have seemed unlikely.  It’s all happening, at last, and publishers are beginning to experiment with finding the right content as well as the right platforms for publishing in a manner that is native to digital technologies.  Ebooks are, at last, a given - a growing part of the market, yes, but at the end of the day, just another way to publish, no big deal (that’s skimming over all the masses of problems with eretail, royalties, DRM, etc, but that’s not what I’m talking about here).  What this means is that I can finally stop shouting the thing I’ve been shouting for what seems like forever - ‘STOP TALKING ABOUT EBOOKS, EBOOKS ARE NOT INTERESTING’ - and move on to shouting the other thing I always shout whenever given the opportunity:  CAN WE AT LAST TALK ABOUT CREATING DIGITAL WORKS THAT MAKE THE MOST OUT OF THE VAST POTENTIAL FOR NEW FORMS, NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT STORY, NEW WAYS OF CONNECTING WRITERS WITH READERS, THAT THE DIGITAL PLATFORMS ALLOW FOR?’

Today’s explosion of capital letters was prompted by the announcement from FutureBook and The Literary Platform that they are co-hosting an event, the FutureBook Innovation Workshop here in London in June.  This is an entirely good thing from two good people, indeed two organisations, who are dedicated to thinking about the future of the book in ways that highlight innovation and experimentation.  The description of the day sounds great:  publishers will get the chance to ‘showcase their recent apps, enhanced e-books and e-books, and share best-practice with fellow publishers. In addition, the conference will provide a platform for publishers to meet with developers, with a “speed-dating” session aimed at putting book professionals in touch with potential digital partners’.  Fantastic.  I want to be there.

Except for one thing - no writers included.  No mention of writers, no mention of writing, no mention of stories.  I can see why this makes sense - this is an industry event aimed at publishers and developers, co-sponsored by FutureBook, which is an off-shoot of The Bookseller, the publishing industry’s main source of news and comment.  This conversation - about the future of publishing, indeed, the future of the book - is one that writers have been largely absent from throughout the past decade.  But this omission is symptomatic to me of the weird division that exists in our bookish world between the makers of content and the sellers of content.  I say ‘weird’ because it never ceases to amaze me how ignorant most writers are about the industry they work so hard to survive in;  that said, if writers are ignorant about the industry, most of us are even more ignorant about digital technologies. 

What would writers do at such an event - pitch their incredibly cool ideas for digital projects at the cohort of publishers and developers present?  Hmm.  Now there’s an event I’d like to attend.  I’ve got this great multi-platform idea - book plus web apps, growing its own interactive reading community…

‘Inanimate Alice’ and Her Other Lives

16 March 2011 in Inanimate Alice | Comments (1)

I came across this yesterday and was amazed by it:  it’s a fcitional podcast in the style of a radio interview.  In it, Alice, the character we created for our online episodic multimedia digital novel (gasp)  ‘Inanimate Alice’, is interviewed by the host of a show called ‘The Daily Dose’ about a ‘giga pet’ she’s created, ‘the Brad Bud’. 

It’s just over three minutes long but I’m amazed by it on many levels, but mainly on the level of ‘wow’.  These students have taken the Alice stories far beyond what exists online, developed Alice’s character into young adulthood, created a business for Alice that includes a piece of tech kit that Alice has designed herself, the Brad bud.  Then they’ve gone one step further and created a talk show for Alice to appear in, with its own host, and they’ve recorded the talk show interview, and broadcast it, along with the transcript, online. 

There’s very little information on the podcast webpage itself, but I can see from the url that it comes out of ‘’ which is the University of Pittsburgh in the US.  A few tweets later, I’d figured out that these students are working with Jamie Skye Bianco, who is Professor of Digital Media at Pittsburgh (also known online as @spikenlilli).  Jamie teaches both ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’ to students on her ‘Narrative & Technology’ class; her students wrote a series of interesting blogposts about Alice and FP earlier this year. 

It’s been nearly two years since new episodes of Inanimate Alice, created by readers, first started appearing online, and these new episodes continue to proliferate.  The pedagogical community around the project continues to grow; if you are interested in it, a good place to start is the Facebook Inanimate Alice group page.  Recent developments include a Scottish teacher, Hilery Williams, who has written a series of wonderful blog posts about using ‘Inanimate Alice’ with dyslexic teenaged readers; the post linked to here is number four in a series on Alice.  As well as that, another Scottish teacher, Kenny Pieper, has been using Alice in his secondary school classroom and, again, blogging about it in a way that I’ve found both useful and inspiring.  Both groups of students are working on their own episodes of Alice. 

For writers who work in the genre of science fiction, this kind of reader-story interaction is fairly commonplace - ‘fanfic’, or fan fiction.  But for a writer like me, working in both the genre of literary fiction, and with new forms of digital fiction, having readers talk back to my story in this way is an extraordinary experience.  Every time I see a new episode, or a new blog post from people working with ‘Inanimate Alice’ I feel absolutely amazed.  To me it seems a very meaningful form of interactivity and I’m thrilled that these stories are being used by students and teachers around the world to find new ways of talking and thinking about storytelling in the 21st Century. 

I was interviewed recently for an article called ‘Are Midlist Authors An Endangered Species?’ that appeared in the Globe & Mail newspaper yesterday - somehow I’ve become one of the go-to-girls for journalists who want to talk about the future of the book and the future of stories.  My conversation with the journalist was, of course, vastly reduced in the context of the article, and I ended up being quoted in the final paragraph, given this as a not-very-bright-sounding last word:  “Writers will make a living in a lot of different ways, only some of which are writing,”  Uh-huh.  I was described in the article as a writer who “publishes both conventionally and online, where she posts fiction for free.”  While, strictly speaking, when it comes to ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’, this is true - these works are available online for free - to see the vast interactive community project that Alice in particular has become reduced to ‘fiction for free’ is infuriating.  This is not to fault the journalist;  my point here is that at the moment the argument about the future of publishing seems to be focussing on self-publishers vs real publishers, on ‘free’ versus ‘paid’ content.  To me this feels like I’m watching a couple of mice argue over a tiny piece of cheese while around the corner a big fat cat (representing the vast potential for multimedia, interactivity, mobile delivery, etc etc etc that digital platforms offer to writers) sits calmly licking her paw. 

This post is getting long and I need a cup of tea.  We live in interesting times.


9 March 2011 in | Comments (0)

We’ve had some sunshine here lately, though it remains cold.  It’s been a long winter.  But now the rhubarb is going strong.

Speaking of rhubarb, I spent February guest blogging over at OpenBook Toronto.  I enjoyed my stint, but blogging every other day seems to have worn me out on the blogging front.  March may be quiet.  Speaking of more rhubarb, I’ve been doing more interviews about the future of literature, most recently for the Observer newspaper here in the UK, and the Globe & Mail in Toronto.  I’ll put up the links once the pieces appear.