I have a secret that I wasn’t planning on sharing. It’s almost too embarrassing to put into type on a site such as this, but my dedication to the readership is too great for me not to – and so I entrust you with this meaty nugget of shame: when I first read Cathy’s Book, I didn’t look at the evidence packet AT ALL. Even worse? I didn’t even go onto the internet and hunt for websites OR dial the phone numbers. Faced with the chance to read a book while surfing the internet and playing with a metric crap-ton of awesome evidence – a dream of mine, really, as I can barely keep my head together long enough to complete anything linear in one shot – I managed to overcome my attention deficit, which usually compels me to do all three of the above mentioned activities while also watching TV, for 2 hours as I read (and finished) the text of Cathy’s Book.
So there you have it: I am a Bad ARGer. I failed in my mission to hunt, explore, and solve, instead drooling excitedly over only one part of a narrative specifically MADE for hunting, exploring and solving: the static text. Simply because it is That Good. On the second, third and fourth readings, the narrative only gets better with the internet presence and the evidence packet adding fine layers of buttercream frosting onto an already scrumptious, many-tiered cake of delicious prose. Cathy’s Book is an absolute treat to read: narratively and visually striking, the text melds magically with the tactile pleasure of picking up bits of newsprint and old photographs and the intellectual pleasure of seeking new information on the internet and dialing in to someone else’s voicemail, hearing their messages.
The excitement builds immediately upon opening the book. The evidence packet (delightfully see-thru) affixed to one cover beckons you to peel back the red sticker and bury yourself in its goodies. Everywhere across the inner cover, Cathy has doodled, drawn, and written messages in her strong, artistic hand, while the text itself sits gleaming, colorful, opposite the packet. Turning the pages of the book itself, you’re thrust into Cathy’s world: her overworked, tired mother opening the scenes with her concern; her plucky, geeky science-field friend, Emma, challenging Cathy to expend a bit more effort on school; the hurt and anxiety caused by the mysterious Victor, Cathy’s (now) ex-boyfriend. With a wry sense of humor, a touching level of concern for her friends and family, and a chaotic, almost dangerous sense of exploration and adventure, Cathy is awesome. You want to be her friend, hang out with her at the pier, and be the one she sketches into old age with her keen eye and talented pen.
The writing, as has come to be expected from the hand of Sean Stewart, is impeccable. Stewart crafts prose with the magic of Rumpelstiltskin spinning gold out of wheat. Every sentence is immaculately created; the meaning comes through cleanly, simply and with force. Nothing in the text is superfluous – each sentence and header of a chapter, act to entangle you in the texture, adding to the richness of the universe created. Some of the best work, in my opinion, is found away from the linear story of Cathy: tucked into the evidence packet and expanded in the online archives are handwritten notes that are unbelievably fantastic and touching; a note written about Cathy and found in the packet truly makes your heart ache with its exceptional tenderness. From witty banter to quick-fire Instant Messaging, around the corner to peaceful, introspective memories and moments, rallying to Indiana Jones-like adventure, Stewart delivers an incredible reading experience. This, amazingly, is then layered with the cross-media wizardry of Jordan Weisman, who crafted the physical evidence and spearheaded the internet presence created by 42 Entertainment (also finding Cathy Brigg, the talented illustrator who, by crafty, weird coincidence, is not only named Cathy, but whose father drew birds – a quirk shared by the father of our charming protagonist). Together, the elements of Cathy’s Book combine to form one of the most exciting reads of recent memory. It leaps off the page, asks you to follow Cathy down the rabbit hole into the piles of evidence and onto the internet, and takes you on a visual, intellectual, tactile, investigative, interactive magic carpet ride. It is, quite amazingly, a tangible Alternate Reality Game – one that adds both a “Playback” and a “Share” button to the experience.
The idea of creating an “ARG in a book” sprang, Athena-like, from Jordan Weisman’s forehead in 2002, following The Beast, and Sean Stewart ran with the idea, spinning the text of Cathy that winter. “[T]his is a toe-in-the-water for a broad audience that has never gotten to dial a phone and hear a character from a story before, and never had the pleasure of figuring out just a little more than even the protagonist understands,” Stewart explained, taking a moment from his day to answer a few questions. “[W]hat the book brings is a certain *permanence* to the ARG experience,” he continued, relating the book’s offerings to the struggles of explaining to newcomers to the genre what an ARG is when our favorite example of one has concluded. “The relative permanence of the book means that, for those of us interested in ARGs, we have a thing we can point to and say, ‘Start here!’ knowing that the barrier to entry is low (get a book from a bookstore or library) and that they can have a pretty good experience even if they come to it a year after launch.” Speaking from a perspective of someone who has attempted to explain ARGs to people, trying not to make them sound loony or stupid but engaging and exciting, the prospect of having a tangible object, such as the well-written and -designed Cathy’s Book, to hand to the inquisitors sounds too good to be true.
The publishing world, however, was not quite ready to make the leap forward from traditional, static books to what Stewart and Weisman proposed with Cathy. Despite the team’s completion of the book in 2003, the process of selling the book to a publishing house lasted an arduous two years. The problem wasn’t the premise or the promise of what the book would provide to its readers – it was the risk and the cost of providing that experience. “We got many many many versions of the ‘Whoa! We LOVE this! But, uh, it’s too risky. Still, good luck!’ speech,” said Stewart. Finally, Running Press decided to take the plunge, but only on a limited run that they didn’t expect to sell, admittedly a cloudy outlook for Stewart. “I have been publishing books for 15 years, and have a good idea what happens to novels that come out with those expectations.” From stage left, enter both Procter and Gamble and the Bologna Book Fair.
At the Bologna Book Fair, Running Press sold the rights to Cathy’s Book to five other countries, an impressive feat after the original struggle to get the book published, suggesting that maybe now, the publishing world had found their courage in sponsoring a unique, engaging book. Concurrently, P&G knocked on the door, as one of their VPs had gotten his hands on a mock-up of Cathy and was infatuated, eager to help get people to read the book, changing “the way the publishing industry as a whole treated the book, and for that we are grateful.” P&G’s interest, and the resultant change in the text to replace a Clinique reference to one for CoverGirl, has been the donkey for the both the media and consumer activists to ride on this summer, flagging Cathy as a mere advertisement unfit for human consumption. I asked Stewart whether the attention was unexpected or difficult to entertain: “It didn’t surprise me that there would be a bunch of different opinions about the P&G connection, particularly before the book came out. When people actually read the book, I suspect they will be surprised to see how few P&G references there are.” Within the actual text, there is one reference to a CoverGirl product, and a few more tossed into Cathy’s fashion drawings, which seemed to me to fit aptly within the context of the sketch and not batter you over the head with the placement. Interestingly, not only is Cathy’s mother’s Ford Mercury referenced more often than any P&G product, the total number of ANY brand references is decidedly lower than in the few pieces of “Chick Lit” I’ve picked up this year. (Nor does Cathy say anything about how to apply makeup, where best to go shopping, or what denim brands she simply MUST have in order to survive her very taxing life of deciding between two, extraordinarily attractive men – a decidedly refreshing departure.)
The original publishing run of Cathy’s Book has increased well beyond the original expectation, and Running Press has secured the rights to a sequel, which Stewart is currently working on in all of his spare time. Besides a wink or two to The Beast and cameos played by Stewart’s daughters, Cathy also contains a few hints to the continuation of the story, which interested parties may find as good fodder for speculation and discussion.
But perhaps you’re finding me overly considerate in my treatment of Cathy’s Book, P&G, and whatever scab you might find to pick at this point, and that’s okay. I’ll admit that I’m quick to get into bed and cuddle into the early hours of the morning with a good story. As Stewart astutely stated at the end of our interview, “at the end of the day, the audience is going to judge it by the same fundamental yardstick it always has: did it entertain me, delight me, move me–or did it suck? We’ve tried very hard not to suck.” He continued with a paragraph that gave me pause, a missed breath, and a moment to think about what it is that Cathy’s Book and every other person out there involved in the genre are trying to do:
We have a chance, here—and I specifically don’t mean “we” as in 42, but rather “we” as in all of us together, the ARG community—we have been privileged with an opportunity to help define the voice of this age of the world. To me, building on that chance is good. Putting out work with ARG elements and getting lots and lots of people to see it, experience it, and talk about it is good. Getting the suits in publishing and entertainment to sit up and take notice is good—and believe me, they are taking notice. Jordan just spent a week in New York talking to publishers and the presidents of publishing companies, and they are electric with excitement about this project.
And none of that will matter much if we suck.
So those of us who write and draw and compose and design better work like hell on that “entertaining and delighting and moving the audience” part.
Cathy’s Book delivers on the promise contained in that final sentence. It is an incredible book and an incredible addition to the publishing world, bringing in new readers while also giving us a chance to point and say “yes! That is what playing an ARG is like, and after experiencing the joy of reading and participating for that one brief moment, wouldn’t you, too, like to play?”
More questions and answers between Sean Stewart and ARGN can be found here, for the exceptionally curious.