Someplace Unknown proves the potential of books in the digital age
// Samantha Thompson

“Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own,” said Mark Twain. In the time when Twain was writing, books were much more limited in their physical capacity than they are now. Books were bound, pages in order, and the reader would experience the story from front cover to back cover.

However, the advance of technology has led to the exploration of different mediums for books. E-books and e-book readers are constantly increasing in popularity, with even the most hardened bibliophile eventually dipping their toe in the waters of electronic reading. However, while e-book readers allow you to carry hundreds of stories with ease, authors are still limited in what they can do with their story.

The emerging trend of digital novels is more flexible. Authors are telling their story on the Internet, and in doing so are pushing the boundaries of what story-telling can be. The digital platform opens up many doors for authors that did not exist before.

It is for this reason that AJ Hanks chose to publish his first novel, Someplace Unknown on the web.

“I wanted to use whatever method could reach the most people in a way that’s easy and inexpensive for them. With a site, there are no national barriers and no specialized devices required,” he says. “If technology delivers something fun and new, as long as it relates to the story and furthers the reader’s connection to it, I can adapt the site.”

Hanks spent some time with a literary agency in New York City, but he felt that “traditional publishing could do more to embrace interactive technology, social media, and most obviously, the Internet.”

He found inspiration for Someplace Unknown in a vivid image: “The land bridge to an island created when Los Angeles siphoned water from Mono Lake.”

“When the lake’s water fell, coyotes could walk across to feast on endangered birds … So what’s horrifying to one, can be delicious for another – all happening because aggression is part of nature, and humanity was too distracted to think about the consequences … and yet there’s a happy ending,” says Hanks.

“Some concerned folks successfully fought to raise the water level. I guess you could say bullying happens everywhere in nature, and so does the more human concern of counteracting it by being vigilant and by doing the right thing.”

His novel is set up on two interconnected websites. The first hosts the novel itself. Readers click through the pages, which are accompanied with the occasional interactive image. Messages pop up whenever Hanks needs to communicate an instruction with the reader; for example, telling them to click on the “smudge of mud” in a picture. Initially, the novel costs $5 for readers to access – though the first few chapters are free, so that readers can decide if they want to purchase the novel.

“I was pretty careful to only include things that would bring the reader closer to the story and its themes,” he says on choosing which interactive features to use in telling his story. “Early on, I tried to use audio and video files, but it gave the reader way too much information … I also hoped the interactivity would bring the reader inside the younger narrator’s head a little further.”

Someplace Unknown weaves stories of multiple characters together, frequently switching viewpoints so that the reader begins to put the pieces of the story together as they proceed through the novel. It is a novel about “secrets, perception, faith, guilt, and suicide,” according to Hanks.

There are many other pieces of electronic literature that require the same level of interactivity from the reader. I, You, We by Dan Waber and Jason Pimble, for example, requires the reader to move around a floating atmosphere related to the title’s pronouns. RedRidingHood by Donna Leishman uses Flash to retell the classic childhood tale in modern day, combining comic-style illustrations and jazzy music. The reader has to click through the story, but in the style of a “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, the things the reader clicks on affect the story that they experience.

Hanks emphasized that the digital platform provided endless opportunities for the writer and the writer.

“That’s the nice thing,” he says. “The sites can evolve as technology and we evolve. The fact that we read books on touchscreens and yet the books aren’t interactive is a shame.”

Someplace Unknown is also unique because each chapter is a single page, which Hanks did intentionally in hopes that he could eliminate the distraction of turning pages. Each chapter is usually a self-contained scene, he says, so “it’s more natural for [the chapters] to exist on their own.”

It feels as though society has only recently moved into the “digital age”; however, electronic literature is not a new concept. Pieces such as Afternoon, a story, which was published in 1987, is recognized as the first hypertext fiction – where the reader clicks on links in the story to move from one aspect to another. The unique characteristic of electronic literature is that each piece has very little in common with any other piece of literature, except that they are composed in digital environments. The Electronic Literature Organization defines it as “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the standalone or networked computer.”

Electronic literature is not without its critics, however. Natural concerns come up about the longevity of the genre and archiving the work, as well as how effective the platform is in storytelling, when it leaves so much interpretation to the reader – more so than the average paper book.

Hanks has his own take on this: “A reader’s imagination will always beat anything you can create yourself,” he says.

Electronic literature will only be as successful as its creators make it. Hanks has worked to ensure his novel gets maximum publicity and interactivity, by offering the reader the opportunity to share his novel via Twitter or Facebook between sections of the story. He has received strong responses, particularly in foreign markets, universities outside of major cities, and religious institutions.

He has also set up a second site which the story leads up to, where readers can pay $10 to send him their deepest darkest secret. In return they will receive others’ anonymous secrets back, which is allowing strangers to connect in a vulnerable, yet powerful, way – and a huge part of Someplace Unknown is connection.

“I think [the title] nicely represents as all. People and their histories are infinitely complicated,” says Hanks. “Not only is it impossible to truly understand someone and why they do the things they do; it’s impossible to understand ourselves – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

The genre of electronic literature will be constantly evolving, but novels like Someplace Unknown demonstrate the full potential of what we can do with this digital world.

“I would never pretend that I can change the face of publishing with my sites,” says Hanks. “[The sites are] a lot of work that most writers would rather not do … but I think they offer something different.”

“In the end, publishing in any form should have the same goal: to tell stories to as many people as possible, in the best way possible.”

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief
//Graphics by Desiree Wallace

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com