An Interview with JC Hutchins: Personal Effects
Editor’s note: this is a companion interview for the article we ran yesterday on Personal Effects: Dark Art, the new transmedia novel written by JC Hutchins and produced by Smith and Tinker. Mr. Hutchins was kind enough to answer a few questions posed by Michael Andersen, and the responses are below. Picture courtesy of CC Chapman on Flickr.
MA: You’ve developed a strong core following through your work with The Ministry of Propaganda over the years — how will we see them utilized through the Personal Effects ARG?
JH: Thanks for mentioning the Ministry of Propaganda! I love connecting with my audience using the MOP, and giving them street team-style missions to perform. They’re amazing, generous people who volunteer their time to help spread the word about my work.
When it comes to Personal Effects: Dark Art, I’m certain I’ll ask them to evangelize the book’s release, as well as some special — and at present, secret — promotional stuff we’re cooking up. As always, the hundreds of MOP “agents” will be on the front lines, firing people up for the project. I’m lucky to have so many cool people in my life.
MA: A lot of the clues will be found with the book and its contents: how much can we expect to see from Personal Effects before the novel’s print release this Summer? And what can you say about your experience working with Smith & Tinker (and St Martin’s Press)?
JH: There’s already some content connected to the Personal Effects universe out in the wild, and I think it’s awfully cool. While longtime ARG players are accustomed to some of the stuff we’ve already released — fiction that’s being updated in real-time, in sync to when Dark Art’s events take place — the Personal Effects experience is ultimately designed for newcomers. We were careful to craft a tale that adult readers would really enjoy, and motivate them to pursue the transmedia experience on their own, solo-style.
That’s not to say we won’t have a “base of operations” forum available for players, or that we don’t welcome dedicated fans of ARG storytelling — we will, and we absolutely do. But we all know that most ARGs require what I call “bunches of brains” … lots of players … to unlock puzzles and push the story forward. Dark Art is different in that we’re aiming to allure folks who’ve never heard the word “ARG” to participate in this awesome breed of storytelling.
Speaking personally, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how remarkable and unique transmedia storytelling is … and how high its barrier for entry can be. The Personal Effects series is built to resonate with the individual reader. We absolutely hope — and totally encourage — longtime ARGers to read, play and share their experiences with the community, but we wanted to make the Personal Effects narrative to be a welcoming one for newbies.
That said, we do have additional pre-release online fiction that we plan to unleash in 2009. I can’t say much about it now, but it will leverage my strengths as a storyteller and podcaster, and will feature online-based transmedia experiences. Everyone involved in Personal Effects wants to make sure we properly introduce newcomers to the ARG concept, and “educating” them with pre-release content seems like a good fit. This kind of pre-release fiction is also a “first” for promoting a novel, which is a plus.
Working with Smith & Tinker and St. Martin’s has been an absolute blast. These are folks who are blazing new trails, but are also absolutely committed to the strength of the narrative and its emotional impact. I learned early on that hollow transmedia “gimmicks” were a no-go with this bunch. Their goal has always been to tell a compelling tale that moves the reader, no matter how (or in what media) that reader is experiencing the story. I deeply appreciate that reader-centric sensibility.
A particular highlight was working with Jordan Weisman. We spent a lot of time planning and brainstorming long before a word was written, and our conversations pushed Dark Art’s story — and the Personal Effects series arc — into cool, unexpected places. It was a completely positive collaborative experience. The discussions were free-flowing and fun. No egos, no fussiness, just two tale-tellers sitting down and hammering out the best possible story.
I also had the good fortune to hang out with him last year during a Personal Effects-related get-together. He cooks a mean steak.
MA: What sort of goals do you have about the feelings and emotions the reader / player will be going through as they experience the Personal Effects series? And can you explain what you mean by “protagonist-by-proxy”?
“Protagonist by proxy” is my slightly inelegant way of describing the ARG experience to a newcomer. Longtime ARG players know that when you experience an ARG, you function as both passenger and driver of the narrative. With Personal Effects: Dark Art — which combines a book experience with a mini-ARG experience — readers will have opportunities to unearth information that our heros may never discover. You, as a reader — empowered with the same clues and items as our protagonist — can uncover secrets that truly affect the outcome of this already-written narrative. How is that possible? It’s one of the creative aces we have up our sleeves, and it’s a bona-fide breakthrough in storytelling, as far as I’m concerned.
Our goal in creating Dark Art’s story — both in the novel and beyond — was to thrill, intrigue and frighten the reader. The professional authors who’ve read this book (to provide review blurbs) use words like “page turner” and “scary as hell” to describe it. That’s very cool and flattering.
There’s gobs of ways we’ve brought that “thrill, intrigue, frighten” trifecta to the experience. We’ve got a spooky story; a young, optimistic hero; a relentlessly cruel villain with a secret. And we made certain that the tangible items that come with the novel appear authentic and evoke curiosity. When readers pursue those clues into the transmedia experiences, we want them to receive a sense of accomplishment for their efforts, and spiffy story-enhancing information.
MA: As a podcast novelist, soon to be “traditional” novelist, a columnist, and now cross-media author, you’ve worked with a lot of different media. What are your thoughts on working in the different media, and the different strengths and weaknesses they bring? Do you view yourself as media agnostic/neutral?
JH: If you’d asked me this question a few years ago, I would’ve given you a very snobby “print is the only answer” answer. But thanks to my experiences in the new media space, podcasting my fiction and getting more and more experimental with my storytelling, I’ve realized that good stories can — and probably should, and eventually will — hopscotch media to create the most effective narrative possible.
Each medium has its weaknesses: print doesn’t have the immediacy of video … video doesn’t have the mystique and intimacy of audio … audio’s soundscapes can’t beat the arresting impact of a photograph. They all excel in delivering compelling content and emotion, but in different ways. So why not combine them?
These days, I feel that the more flexible a creator is with his fiction — and more willing he is to experiment with its delivery in different media — the more successful that fiction can be. My recent podcast fiction project, 7th Son: OBSIDIAN, was a media mashup featuring audio short stories, fan-created Cloverfield-style audio and video tales, essays, skits, posters, the works. It defied expectations and broke the mold for the way serialized “podfiction” could be experienced. Based on its success — and the joy I had in creating it — I think I’ll continue to bring cross-media experiences to my stories whenever I can.
I’ll spare you and your readers my “merge media” theory about the future of publishing, the growing ubiquity of handheld internet devices, and the plummeting prices of video/audio/photo tools (and how these trends will empower content creators in ways we haven’t yet experienced) because I’d probably sound like a futurist windbag. But I do I think cross-media storytelling … and the ARG-like transmedia experiences seen in Personal Effects: Dark Art … is the future of storytelling, and I’m proud and thrilled to be a part of it.