I recently interviewed author and podcaster J.C. Hutchins about his current project, the transmedia book Personal Effects: Dark Art, and asked a little about his other projects. At the end of the interview Hutch gave us permission to feature the first episode of Personal Effects: Dark Art’s free audio prequel novella: Personal Effects: Sword of Blood.
Personal Effects: Dark Art is a traditional novel, but in addition to that story, there is a pouch on the inside cover and inside that pouch are tangible artifacts, very authentic looking credit cards, drivers licenses, legal documents, and a lot more all crammed into this packet… And combining the clues that come in the text of the print novel with the clues found within these tangible artifacts, a curious reader can be propelled into a narrative that takes place far beyond the pages of the book.
Hi there, my name is Mur Lafferty and I’m here for Tor.com doing an author interview. I’m talking to author J.C. Hutchins about his book that came out a few months ago, Personal Effects: Dark Art. How are you, J.C.?
Mur, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here chatting with you and the listeners at Tor.com. Thanks for having me.
What fascinates me about this book is it’s more than a novel. I covered it when it came out in June, talking about the whole transmedia experience, but for anyone who may have missed that blog post, can you tell us a little bit about Personal Effects: Dark Art?
Certainly. Well, Personal Effects: Dark Art is a traditional novel, but in addition to that story, there is a pouch on the inside cover and inside that pouch are tangible artifacts, very authentic looking credit cards, drivers licenses, legal documents, and a lot more all crammed into this packet. When you extract it and look through it you’ll notice that these things are designed to absolutely be as realistic as possible. And the story itself actually refers to these tangible personal effects that come with the book. They are the items of an alleged serial killer: a mental hospital patient who the hero of the story, an art therapist, is working with. And combining the clues that come in the text of the print novel with the clues found within these tangible artifacts, a curious reader can be propelled into a narrative that takes place far beyond the pages of the book. This second narrative, this meta transmedia narrative, takes place in phone calls, visits to websites, even hacking a character’s email account. And through that process not only are readers’ experiences and impressions of the Personal Effects storyline enhanced, but they’re exposed to plot twists, characters, and information that the heroes in our story will never discover.
You were on the novel side; what kind of work actually goes into creating an ARG [alternate reality game]?
The co-author and creator of the Personal Effects universe is a guy named Jordan Weisman. He’s an icon in the gaming community, in the early 2000s [he] connected with Microsoft and Steven Spielberg on this very innovative way to promote Steven Spielberg’s new film at the time called AI, and would leverage a new breed of storytelling called “transmedia storytelling” or the alternate reality games or ARG as you mentioned. And an alternate reality game is simply a narrative that unfolds mostly online but sometimes can unfold via instant messages or even direct snail mail or real life events—locales that you could visit—and leverages communities of people who are not only experiencing this fiction but must solve puzzles and clues to unlock the next step of the fiction and in doing so they kind of take an active role in the story. They are kind of a protagonist by proxy; they are the ones furthering the narrative. Jordan wanted to bring the experience to the novel process. He began talking to St. Martin’s Press and St. Martin’s Press came to me and we began working together. Jordan Weisman and I sat down and I reviewed the notes he provided for the Personal Effects universe. But the basic premise was we will crate a kind of voyeuristic experience, an experience where we’re not only riding shotgun with the hero of the story, but, again, empowering the readers to become active participants in unlocking elements of the narrative that the hero may never do. And from the very beginning we know that while the world may perceive the transmedia storytelling angle as a gimmick, it would not be a gimmick for us creatively because we were incorporating these transmedia storytelling opportunities into the plot as we went; they were mission-critical elements. So when it came to plotting out the novel we would identify elements of the story, some would be background information, some would be laying the foundations for the rest of the Personal Effects series—kind of like mythology we could build—and then we would brainstorm on organic ways using these tangible personal effects or websites or phone numbers, we would figure out ways to kind of organically bridge the novel experience to these transmedia beyond the book plot elements. I began to write the book and Jordan Weisman and his team at Smith and Tinker began to build these transmedia bridges between the print book, the tangible artifacts that came with the book, and these punch lines that I mentioned. It was a lot of fun to watch it unfold; this is a very complex way to tell stories and it is not for someone who likes to fly solo. Thankfully, I love to collaborate and the ARG format of storybuilding must be highly collaborative because you’re typically working not just with a skeleton or a narrative that you must execute but you need graphic designers to execute the images, you need manufacturers and paper providers to provide the tangible product and ingredients to make those tangible items. You need website developers, you need content creators of other kinds, you need to hire photographers and models to photograph the fiction characters; what they would look like for ID cards and portraits on websites, so there’s lots of moving parts and it requires lots of organization and really cool creative vision.
Like you said, it’s got a lot of moving parts, is this something you would ever consider doing on your own, on a project—we’ll cover this in a minute but this is not your first project—you were first and foremost a very DIY author and so I’ve been wondering if this is something you would tackle yourself in the future.
Interesting question, and I appreciate it. What’s kind of funny is that the very first novel that I wrote—a novel called 7th Son: Descent—I began writing that back in 2002, years before I ever heard of alternate reality gaming and Jordan Weisman. I was kind of, in a very far away sort of way, doing transmedia storytelling myself in that, in the manuscript for that 7th Son novel I was referring to specific website addresses that I knew I would later purchase and post the content that was being described in the book on those websites. In hindsight this is all kindergarten transmedia stuff but at the time I was pretty excited about it.
Well you should be, it’s still more than most people do even now.
But yeah, I think I would [write my own ARG]. I am currently working on some projects that will indeed do some of this kindergarten, if you will, or very low impact, low maintenance transmedia stuff in some prequel fiction for the 7th Son novel that will be released later this year. I’m kinda doing that experimentally to kinda see what will happen with that, but because of the complexity of this stuff and the expense that comes with that, I certainly don’t have the resources to do that just yet. That is not going to prevent me, however, from pitching publishers on transmedia novel ideas as they come to me. For me, I believe it has to be a really good fit, you can’t simply make this a gimmick, a selling point for the book. I think that the universe that is created for a transmedia novel has to organically support these transmedia hooks, I think that needs to be hard-wired into the concept and organically supported from the get-go.
So one thing I’ve been curious about: Do the game elements involved with the transmedia storytelling give the book an expiration date? Is somebody going to be able to pick this up in five years and have the same experience that they did today?
The answer is absolutely. I can’t make the most excellent promise because I am not personally overseeing the maintenance of the websites and the maintenance of the, for instance, the voicemail lines that readers call and that sort of thing, although that is Jordan Weisman’s—their company’s sort of domain—but the cool thing about transmedia storytelling, particularly when it goes online, is that it’s often either free or so sinfully cheap to maintain once the stuff is built that you can in essence keep this stuff up in perpetuity. And that is the creative goal of Personal Effects: Dark Art is that you could present this book to your friend two years from now and in a way this alternate reality game experience is an “ant in amber” in that that experience will be identical—or the opportunities for those transmedia moments are identical—for them two years later as they were for you when you purchased the book. This is very different than alternate reality games beyond Personal Effects: Dark Art; alternate reality games are in a way live events they unfold within a finite amount of time so if you’re not involved in that alternate reality game as it is unfolding, then you’re out of luck. That was something that we actively pursued; we wanted to make sure that was not going to be the case with Personal Effects: Dark Art.
So this isn’t just the future of storytelling, it could also be the future of ARGs?
Yeah, it could very well be. I think that they’re clearly related, they’re clearly siblings, and I think that we’re kind of just scraping the surface, much like alternate reality gaming is just now scraping the surface of the Web. There have been some incredible alternate reality games that have been produce and released, some with million dollar budgets, some of them home brewed by enthusiasts. These “ant in amber” ARGS are designed to appeal to someone who doesn’t know what an alternate reality game is. Traditional alternate reality games require the hive mind or group think, they require dozens—if not hundreds—of people participating to solve extremely complex and innovative riddles or puzzles—all kind of crazy stuff, and because reading a novel is such a solitary experience, we needed to have an alternate reality game experience for personal effects that was equally solitary, where you could do these things on your own.
Well you did add a little bit of your own extra media experience to this: tell me a little bit about Sword of Blood.
Thank you for asking about that, I’m so proud of Sword of Blood. I’m known on the Internet and in fiction circles for giving away my content for free, typically in audio podcast form, and that is what attracted or exposed St. Martin’s Press and Jordan Weisman to my work. When we finished Personal Effects: Dark Art the novel, I asked Jordan Weisman’s company, “Hey, we should release an audio book of the text of the novel,” and they were reluctant. Presenting simply the text of the book in audio form was contrary to the highly integrated experience that comes with holding the items that come with Personal Effects: Dark Art. And so I said, “All right, I completely agree, I completely understand, but as being known for my podcast fiction, I think my audience will expect something from me. How ’bout I write a prequel?” And they said sure. I wrote a prequel novella. So Personal Effects: Sword of Blood is a traditional audio book experience in that you are hearing about this breakthrough case that our art therapist hero makes, but the cool thing is it also has a transmedia experience; a purely digital transmedia experience. In the novel itself, the antagonist is a quilter. And so there are hidden messages stitched into her quilts and if you assemble certain parts of the quilts, they form a larger message. And Smith and Tinker actually found people who quilt to construct real quilt patches of these things that I described in the novel, which I photographed and kind of assembled into a PDF that was then serialized along with the rest of the story so that at the end of the story you would be able to examine and see the photographs of the quilt patches that were mentioned in the book. And I think it worked really well. And thankfully Personal Effects: Sword of Blood was very well received by my fans.
You mentioned earlier that your first project was 7th Son: Descent. I heard a little bit about something happening with that this fall, can you tell me about that?
In the early ’00s, I wrote a sprawling trilogy of technothrillers about human cloning, the recording of human memories, a villain bent on global domination and chaos called 7th Son. I pitched the property to agents and they didn’t bite, and so I decided to record and release them as free serialized podcasts—“podiobooks” they’re called—and I released it and it was wildly successful. The person who was most surprised and continues to be most surprised is me. The success of the 7th Son trilogy, again, attracted the interest of St. Martin’s Press for Personal Effects: Dark Art, and once we had begun talking about that, I pitched the publisher on 7th Son: Descent. They picked it up and I’m very proud to say that this kind of crazy, scatterbrained straegy of releasing your content for free online with the hopes of perhaps attracting a publisher actually worked for me, and 7th Son: Descent will be in book stores in late Oct, early Nov. I will be releasing a new version of the print edition of the manuscript in podcast novel form, I’m writing several prequel short stories to be released before the audio content of the novel is released. I’ll be releasing the serialized text of the novel.
So will we be seeing any of this extra awesome content on Tor.com?
I dare say you might!
Well I can’t way to see what you come out with. Thank you so much for the interview, Hutch!
Was an absolute pleasure! Thank you, and folks listening and reading, thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Let’s go ahead and play the first episode of Sword of Blood after this.
Oh that’s awesome, I hope you guys enjoy it. This was a trip to write and a lot of fun to narrate particularly because I get to be an old woman in this episode!
[Continue with the audio interview for the first episode of J.C. Hutchins’ prequel to Personal Effects: Dark Art, titled Personal Effects: Sword of Blood.]