When I first heard about Annabel Smith’s project, The Ark, I was intrigued. Here was an excellent literary author (I’m a big fan of her novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) tackling not only speculative fiction, but a whole different format. The Ark is about the inhabitants of a sealed seed vault, in a near future where resources are rapidly dwindling. It was released as an interactive ebook, and is also available as a print book. The story is told through a series of technological documents. As the blurb says:
The Ark delves into the fears and concerns raised by the environmental predicament facing the world today, exploring human nature in desperate times. At its heart it asks: can our moral compass ever return to true north after a period in which every decision might be a matter of life and death and the only imperative is survival?
The book is thought-provoking, well-paced, suspenseful, and a satisfying read. If you enjoy dystopias like Brave New World, or books with confined settings (which are great for building tension between characters) then this one is for you. I asked Annabel a few questions about The Ark:
The story is told via the communications of a variety of characters. There is a certain amount of unreliability, for the reader, particularly at the beginning. Was it a difficult process to decide just how much information to give? Or did it happen as you developed the voice of the characters?
The sense of unreliability, and uncertainty about whose version of events to trust was very important to me. I wanted the reader to feel continually wrong-footed by the shifts in narrative voice and by the gaps created by the narrative form. I wanted them to be always wondering what was going on outside the margins of the documents; what was being left unreported? To that end, I was very careful about both when certain pieces of information were revealed, who they were revealed by, and in what type of communique.
The character of Ava has stayed with me, in particular. She’s a classic ‘Winston’-style sci-fi character, seeing what others do not. Can you tell us a bit about developing her?
Of all the characters in the novel, Ava is the character who I consider most like me. That is not to say she is autobiographical, only that she was perhaps the easiest to write because her similarities in age, gender, education level etc. made it relatively easy to get inside her head and get a sense of her worldview. I see Ava as a highly emotional character, surrounded by a group of scientists who tend to rational explanations for all things. She is the odd one out, trusting her heart where they use their heads. Her high emotional intelligence, and her sensitivity, makes her prone to anxiety and depression, which adds another layer to the complexity of her situation. Is she paranoid? Or is she actually switched onto things that others are slower to perceive?
Do you think a speculative story is well suited to the medium you’ve chosen? (More suited, perhaps, than straight realism?)
The epistolary novel is a very old narrative form. Contemporary iterations of it, in which letters are replaced by blog posts and emails seem to fit well with speculative fiction, but I think the form would work equally well with any story set in the present and exploring contemporary themes. At the same time, there has to be a compelling reason to tell a story through documents—the form has to feel intrinsic to the story, otherwise it runs the risk of coming across as a gimmick.
Once you decided to make The Ark an interactive ebook/app, how did the writing and editing process change?
Strangely, not much at all. It was really important to me that I write a book that could stand alone and be appreciated without the app. So, I finished working on the book before I started working on the app. having said that, I did of course have ideas for the app as I was writing the novel but the development of the app didn’t change the book in any significant ways. There was one occasion where I was tempted. It was when the architect who designed the bunker for the app showed me the 3D model of the space inside the Ark called the GARDEN (Growth Apparatus for the Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment). The space looked so incredible, I thought about going back and rewriting some of the scenes to take place in there.
Are their other forms of storytelling you’re interested in, or other ways of presenting a novel (even if published ‘traditionally’)?
I’m interested in all forms of storytelling. Though I love reading traditional realist novels—in fact, they still comprise the bulk of my reading—I’m not particularly excited by the prospect of writing another book like that. I like to experiment with form and structure. My fourth novel, Monkey See, which I’ve almost finished a first draft of, is an epic quest with a speculative fiction twist. And the novel I’ve just started tells the story of a woman working her way through a self-help book, and includes extracts from the self-help book.
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Her short fiction and non-fiction has been published in Southerly, Westerly, Kill Your Darlings, and the Wheeler Centre blog. She holds a PhD in Writing, is an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellow, and is a member of the editorial board of Margaret River Press. Her digital interactive novel/app The Ark has just been released. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.