Fellows Focus – Annabel Smith

8 November 2012 Fiona Mackrell

West Australian author, Annabel Smith may have just launched her second novel in traditional paper format but publishing her third novel, The Ark, will be a very different sort of literary project.

The Ark will see her shift away from the solitary life of the writer into a producer-like role collaborating with designers, performers, programmers and animators to transform her book into an interactive digital app.

The book was ‘born digital’ Smith explains, so it was counter-intuitive to try to publish it in a traditional printed form. But she didn’t want to publish just another e-book. Instead she wants to explore the literary potential of digital interactivity.

The Ark is a speculative fiction novel set 30 years into the future that follows the lives of a group of people bunkered inside a seed vault, inspired by the Doomsday Vault in Svalbard, Norway. A post peak-oil crisis has thrown the world into chaos and the group is waiting it out, communicating with the outside world only through digital channels. The story is told in an epistolary format utilizing digital correspondence such as emails, texts, blog posts with their accompanying comment threads and online chat transcripts.

Smith is hoping her readers will become involved themselves; contributing to and building upon the fictional world she has created. She hopes readers will add their own comments to blog posts in the narrative or even upload their own videos and music. Other interactive elements will include animations, game-like environments where readers can explore 3D renderings of the bunker, actors voicing conversational transcripts and web forums where readers can discuss aspects of the narrative.

With the assistance of an Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an Emerging Artist, which is providing her with $60,000 over two years, Smith is now assembling her collaborators and working out the best way to realize the project. It’s all new territory for her including the additional requirement of balancing her ambitions for the work with her budget.

‘I like to experiment; I like to do different things every time I write,’ Smith says.

The Ark is certainly a departure from her first two books. Her first novel, written for her PhD and published by UWA Publishing in 2005, A New Map of the Universe, was acclaimed for its poetic style and was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Literary Awards. Her second novel, recently launched by Freemantle Press, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, she says is less literary and fits more into the popular fiction genre.

Is the traditional paper novel on its way out? Smith doesn’t think so, But, she says, ‘Why not see how this technology can enhance a reading experience?… I think it’s fun to explore it and just see where it goes.’

It might turn out to be a fad, she says, and in ten years we’ll realize we preferred to simply imagine a character’s voice and to read books without all the bells and whistles. Or we may find a balance between the two. ‘I think what will probably transpire is some kinds of books lend themselves very much to the digital model and others … don’t.’

For Smith, the main thing is choosing the style of publishing that works for the book. She doesn’t want to get locked into writing one kind of book, or genre or even in the one publishing style.

For now though The Ark, is an exciting new challenge. ‘90% of what I do is lonely work at my desk and I’m very excited to do collaborative things, to let other people engage with the work and see how they interpret it and what they come up with.’