When she realised her latest novel had the potential to make use of interactive digital media, Annabel Smith seized the chance.

When she realised her latest novel had the potential to make use of interactive digital media, Annabel Smith seized the chance to include this new dimension. Now, after years of development, the result is a collaboration that expands the boundaries of traditional fiction. 

Set thirty years from now, in the wake of a post-peak oil crisis in which society as we  know it collapses, my third novel, The Ark, is the tale of 26 men, women and children who retreat into a bunker inside Mount Kosciusko, alongside five billion plant seeds which hold the key to the future of life on earth.

The Ark explores the darker side of human nature after an environmental catastrophe, the story revealed through a collection of digital documents including web pages, blog posts, emails, text messages and conversation transcripts.

I began the novel in 2010, and right from the start the form seemed to lend itself to the use of interactive digital media. I was particularly inspired by a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk I had seen in which software developer Mike Matas demonstrated the first full-length interactive book for the iPad: Al Gore’s Our Choice, which had some amazing, innovative features.

In early 2012, I decided to throw my hat into the ring by applying for a Creative Australia Fellowship from the Australia Council. I was one of only five recipients of the award for early career artists, which was both surprising and elating, and also a little scary because it meant I was now committed to adding an interactive digital dimension to the book.

Some early conversations with friends who are more technically savvy than me made my own lack of digital knowledge alarmingly clear. I remember panicking when my brother asked me about my ideas for the design of the graphic interface – I didn’t even know what a ‘graphic interface’ was! This lack of knowledge has been one of the biggest challenges I have faced in getting this project off the ground. The learning curve has been so steep it’s almost vertical, and there has been a great deal of trial and error, making my progress painfully slow (two years and counting!) and sometimes frustrating.

Local programmer Chris McCormick got me up to speed on some of the basics – such as the difference between iOS and Android platforms. Chris also guided me on which of my ideas for the app were within my (modest) budget, and which I might have to let go of.

One of the features that was most important to me was for readers to be able to see the bunker in which the action of the novel takes place. To assist with my writing process I had drawn a crude mud map of the layout but I was quite certain no one would have been interested in looking at that! With the support of an architect friend, Dr Beth George, I worked with a cohort of 120 architecture students from Curtin University who created designs for the bunker based on reading extracts from the novel. I cherry-picked the elements of those designs that best meshed with my own vision of the space, and then Beth, my husband Anthony (who is also an architect), and another architect friend, James Thompson, helped me draw those elements together into a cohesive design.

From there, one of Beth’s former honours students, the amazingly talented Aaron Cunningham, created a 3D model of the bunker. I was blown away by Aaron’s design, which was so far beyond what I had imagined, but fitted my vision perfectly. Aaron then worked with another honours graduate, Rebecca Lewis, to take some of the key spaces in which the novel’s action unfolds, and render those spaces in Photoshop, so that they look not like architectural drawings, but like real spaces. They are beautiful, and richly detailed. I’m absolutely thrilled with the way they look and can’t wait to see readers’ responses.

As well as ‘touring’ the bunker, readers will be able to interact with the novel, through the app, by creating futuristic avatars and commenting on blog posts, in addition to writing their own newspaper articles which will continue to ‘build the world’ of the novel. If they want to get really creative they’ll even be able to record and upload audio enactments of key scenes in the novel. They will also have access to behind-the-scenes information similar to what you might find in the bonus features section of a DVD – for example, information about the writing process, my sources of inspiration, deleted scenes, and so on. It is all about giving readers new ways to connect with and experience fiction.

Paul Reid from Next Learning is assisting me with the programming side of things, creating a web-based app which is designed to adapt to mobile devices such as phones and tablets, as well as computer screens. Paul is brilliant at translating complex concepts into simple language, and I am so grateful to have him to ‘hold my hand’ through the process.

In the current publishing market, finding a publisher willing to take a risk on a book that cannot be neatly pigeonholed is not easy, and, as an interactive speculative fiction, The Ark isn’t a good fit with either of my previous publishers. I waited three years to find a publisher for my second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. It was an agonising process in which the repeated rejections damaged my faith in my own work.

I was not prepared to wait three years to find a publisher for The Ark and thus made a decision to self-publish. I am confident that the book will appeal to readers of experimental fiction, literary speculative fiction such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and digital literature such as The Silent History.

I did a great deal of research into self-publishing, and every book and article I read emphasised the importance of making your self-published work as professional as a book that has been through a traditional publishing process. Thus, I sought feedback from ‘beta-readers’, taking the novel through many drafts, and had graphic designers James Redicliffe, Jacky Chum and Nastaran Ghadiri design the templates for the various formats within the e-book, such as the blog posts and emails. I also worked with editor Susan Midalia to polish the manuscript to a publishable standard, and had a gorgeous cover designed by local artist Ariane Palassis.

I have been enormously stimulated by the process of working collaboratively on The Ark, and being part of a team in which the whole is so much more than it might have been with only my concepts, in which I have so many brains to bounce ideas off, in which others are also invested deeply in the outcome.

Though the media creates the impression paper books are in their death throes, in reality, digital fiction is still in its infancy. I am excited by the possibilities inherent in digital technology, and am thrilled to be able to explore these through The Ark. 

The Ark, published in late July 2014. 

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