A dystopic vision: The Ark by Annabel Smith


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:

Annabel Smith

Annabel Smith

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 SoutherlyWesterlyKill 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.

The alpha brother: Annabel Smith on Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

Fremantle Press, November 2012
(buy paperback, ebook)

Whisky and Charlie are identical twins, but they couldn’t be more different. Whisky is in a coma after a serious accident, and Charlie has to face up to the kind of brother—and person—he’s become. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot moves between the brothers’ earlier lives and their difficult present. It’s a great read; warm, multi-layered, moving, and satisfying. I asked the author, Annabel Smith, a few questions about the novel…

I’d like to ask first about the brothers. Very slowly throughout the narrative you reveal that, while Whisky is certainly no angel, Charlie may have also been pretty hard on him. Could you tell us a bit about developing the relationship between the brothers?

In my first draft of WCF I believed I was writing a book about a decent guy and his wanky, unscrupled ‘evil’ twin. I got to around Chapter seven (Golf) and Whisky was getting pasted. Then, my friend and mentor, Richard Rossiter, guided me to introduce a crisis into the story, to add drama in the relationship, and thus, Whisky’s coma was born. After that it became challenging to hold onto my idea of Whisky because it feels wrong to tell nasty stories about someone who is in a coma! As my perspective on Whisky shifted, so too did my perspective on Charlie. Charlie’s realisation—that Whisky might not be all bad and that he himself might have played a part in the demise of their relationship—was really my own realisation about the truth of their relationship.

It’s great that you’ve maintained that process of realisation for the reader. So when you decided to make a coma the crisis, how did you go about it? It seems like you’ve done research not just into the coma state but into the ways that people deal it.

You’re right, I had to understand coma both in a medical sense and also in terms of its impact on family and friends. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Whisky would recover from the coma or not. So I needed to know for how long someone could plausibly remain in a coma; what kind of therapy they would receive and other health threats they might face while in a coma state. In case Whisky woke up, I researched recovery, rehabilitation and the physical and mental implications of long-term coma states. In the event that he would not recover, I explored right-to-life issues and the euthanasia process. The last thing I wanted was for readers to pick holes in the science. So I gathered statistics, diagrams of the brain, explanations of testing procedures and diagnostic tools etc. I don’t really have a science brain so it was pretty heavy-duty reading for me!

I used both medical and anecdotal sources and came across some amazing recovery stories and also many heartbreaking accounts without happy endings. There are lots of forums on the internet for the loved ones of comatose patients and they were an excellent source of material. People contribute advice about things they’ve learned along the way, tips on what helps them get through; some just need an outlet to share their stories with others who understand what they’re going through.

As well as information that had dramatic possibilities, I gathered details that would help to make the story feel real, especially to readers who might have some knowledge of coma, all of which were collated into a giant tome which I printed out and carried round with me for months on end. I was so happy to retire that wad of papers, I can tell you.

I’d like to ask about using the phonetic alphabet to build the structure of the book, and to introduce characters and themes. I think it works so well. Did you have that in place from the beginning? Were there ever any issues adhering to it?

The alphabet was in place right from the start. It was a great springboard for giving me ideas about episodes in the twins’ lives. But it also posed some challenges. Any of the chapters with names (Charlie, Juliet, Oscar) were simple—they became character names. But ‘Yankee’ kept me awake at night. For a long time I had no idea how I was going to work that in. Others posed problems in terms of chronology. X-ray, for instance, was an easy idea to work in, given that Whisky was hospitalised, but I really wanted that information to appear earlier in the novel. I had to do some tricky manoeuvring, like using flashbacks, to make some of the chapters work.

You said you received some valuable advice from Richard Rossiter while writing the book. At what point do you show your work to others? Is it something you’d encourage all writers to do?

I was part of a writing trio (with Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy) while writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, so I started showing drafts to them almost from the start. I found it really helpful to have feedback at an early stage, when I was still uncertain about the voice, the style and whether the story was appealing or compelling to readers. Once I got on a roll with it, I had more confidence and felt less in need of ongoing feedback. After finishing the first draft, I sought more feedback, and from a wider circle. I think it’s critical to have perceptive readers whose feedback you trust to look at your work. If you can find the right person/people, they can support you when you lose faith in yourself, brainstorm a way through issues in the text, and notice things you can no longer see because you’re too immersed in the work. I have no doubt that the feedback I received made my book stronger and more satisfying to read.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.