Archive for September, 2010

My Interview with Neal Stephenson on the Mongoliad

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Neal Stephenson’s latest interactive serial novel project, The Mongoliad, launched last night at midnight. Readers subscribe to the project to receive access to the new material as it becomes available and can interact with fellow readers in the forums. They can also contribute to the book world’s ‘pedia, a wiki focused on events and characters within the story.

I had a chance to ask Neal some questions about the project:

MM: How has the format and the collaboration between yourself and the other authors of the Mongoliad affected the creative process you use for writing?

NS: The most obvious difference, of course, is that this one is collaborative, and so I have the opportunity to throw ideas around with other writers and enjoy the creative and frequently funny discussions that arise during those meetings. The whole medieval-knights-in-armor thing has, of course, been gone over pretty thoroughly by other writers dating at least as far back as Cervantes and Shakespeare, and so you might think we would be discouraged by the existing body of literature on that topic. On the contrary, though, we have been harvesting a lot of energy from our perception that we are able to produce a new twist on the theme.

As far as format is concerned, one of the big differences is that we are able to offload a certain amount of exposition and background material to ‘pedia entries and other material on the site. Normally when writing a novel that is set in an alternate world (fantasy, sf, or historical) a certain amount of energy is drained away worrying about how to incorporate that sort of explanatory content into the prose without bringing the story to a dead stop. In this project we can just keep telling the story and then supply the background in whatever way seems best; the reader can then delve into it as much or as little as it pleases them.

MM: Will the serial story of the Mongoliad end up as a book?

NS: Oh yes, we are all serious book lovers and so it won’t be a real finished project in our minds until we have seen it between the covers of a traditional printed book.

MM: Since the works of the Mongoliad aren’t permanently fixed in type, would you or other authors of the project ever consider reworking a chapter based on feedback from the community?

NS: You have hit on one of the great advantages of this format. The traditional drawback of serialized fiction is that there is no way to go back to chapter 1 and change something that might make chapter 35 much better. With this system we can simply update the chapter and push the new version out to the subscribers’ devices. We have already taken advantage of that to produce several successive rewrites of the chapter in which Haakon fights Zug in the arena.

MM: The Mongoliad is going to be a social experience. When people interact with the Mongoliad, do you expect they will be interacting as themselves with their real names, as themselves behind an alias or as a “role-play” character?

NS: At the moment it’s a discussion forum in which people log in under persistent identities that we assume match up, more or less, to their true identities. The possibility of role playing suggests a more gamelike milieu, and we are definitely thinking about games, but we don’t have anything up and running yet.

MM: At Dorkbot-SF, Jeremy mentioned that the book may evolve according to feedback from the community, or potentially adopt certain bits of well-written fan-faction to varying degrees. How will the project deal with copyright and attribution in the case where material may bubble up from the community?

NS: I’m going to leave that one to Jeremy but the general answer is that if we notice someone who has a knack for fan fiction we’ll probably strike a deal with them that will cover the intellectual property transaction in a way that is clean and mutually understood.

MM: The Mongoliad is experienced and produced differently than existing books today and gives us a hint of what the future of reading may be. What would your ideal world of publishing be 20 years from now- the writing process, the publishing model and the technology used by readers?

NS: We’re trying to build toward that ideal world with this project, and our vision of it changes a little every day as we learn new things. Any future in which people do a lot of reading and writers are able to support themselves by writing seems like a good future to me!

MM: A few days ago, the Oxford English Dictionary’s owner stated that it would likely no longer be printed again. What do you think will happen to the printed word over the next few decades?

NS: With devices such as the Kindle and the iPad doing so well, it seems that the printed word is adapting itself quite well to the electronic world, and so I am actually much more optimistic about this than I was a few years ago before such devices were invented. There is clearly a market for long-form, fully immersive experiences of a sort that only literature can provide, and the fact that such material can be generated by a single person working alone with virtually no equipment means that experimentation is easy and that a colossal range of different themes and experiences can always be made available to readers. The only cause for concern, in my mind, is that writers will go broke as the result of people violating their copyrights, but we hope that we can find a business model in PULP that will make it a no-brainer for readers to subscribe, and show their appreciation for their favorite writers by sending a little bit of coin their way.