Take Me To The River: A Journey Into Digital Fiction

by James Attlee

‘Modern writers are the moons of literature,’ Samuel Johnson wrote in the late 18th century; ‘they shine with reflected light . . . borrowed from the ancients’. Imagine his surprise if he returned, to find that the reflected light writers shine with today emanates from a screen rather than a classics library; while libraries themselves have lifted off and floated into cyberspace. One thing we cannot fault about Johnson: his appetite for current literary production. ‘We must read what the world reads at the moment’ he told listeners around a dining table in 1778 and it seems he did, voraciously. Perhaps in our era, when more people in any railway carriage will be perusing their phones than engrossed in a book, his words could be paraphrased: we must write where the world reads at the moment, or at least make an attempt to do so. I was grateful therefore to be commissioned, along with two others, novelist Kate Pullinger and digital artist Duncan Speakman, to investigate the potential of the relatively new form of the the smartphone app for Ambient Literature, a research project run by UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham. This essay is an attempt to document what happens when an author of books is given the chance to play in this unfamiliar medium, and to explore the different opportunities and challenges it offers, resulting eventually in the release of a piece of “located digital fiction”: The Cartographer’s Confession.

I knew early on that London was central to what I wanted to write: I had unfinished business with the city, a place I’d arrived in as a teenager and had lived or worked in for much of my life. But there is no room for a sprawling Zola-esque novel on a smartphone, even if I had the desire to write one. Instead, I imagined, my narrative would be fragmentary, each scene embedded like a shard of glass in the urban fabric, illuminating its surroundings and being illuminated by them in turn. I was used to wandering, being open to chance encounters and generating content by moving through space: three of my previous books, each of which could loosely be termed ‘travel writing’ – Isolarion, Nocturne and Station to Station – had employed such strategies. Initially at least I imagined working on the app in a similar way. The problem was one of selection: how to choose from the countless potential settings the city provides? I began by exploring an idea based on street names and spent hours poring over the indexes of atlases and travelling to remote corners of the metropolis, charmed as ever by its variety and the warmth of its inhabitants. After much expended shoe-leather this route of investigation turned out to be a blind alley; however, it established something in my mind: a connection between mapping and plotting, cartography and composition – a search for patterns not just in words but in the city itself.

My false start had other consequences; there was a fixed delivery date for the app and I had a pressing, concurrent book deadline that could not be extended as publication was linked to an important anniversary. I needed a new plan, fast. As writers in such situations often do I cast around for material that had engaged me previously but never found a place in a finished work. Three separate elements came to mind. The first of these was a small collection of photographs of London that had come into my possession on the death of a relative five years previously. Taken in the late 1940s and early 1950s they show street scenes, market traders, churches, the river – a city scarred by war, its inhabitants looking defiantly back into the camera, full of life. I had never done more than glance at these pictures before; now I examined them properly, only to find the photographer had helpfully pencilled their locations on the back of each print. One image in particular, which I only possessed as a contact print, haunted me. It showed a man in a greasy, double-breasted suit with a monkey on his arm. I scanned it and enlarged it as much as I could. There he was, staring back at me, exuding hardboiled charisma, surrounded by a crowd of figures each as characterful as the other. I want to tell your story, I thought. And that of those in other photographs: the small, scruffy boy, picking a tortoise out of a box on Club Row; the man leading a reluctant woman by the hand across Waterloo Place. By doing so perhaps I could give them a voice, release their ghosts back into the streets; the app, with its ability to incorporate visual material and pin it to particular locations, might just allow me to do so.

The second piece of the puzzle also bore traces of my DNA: a story about a Norwegian relative, who married a German man in Oslo before the Second World War. The couple travelled to Germany and had a child but became estranged when politics hardened; when she said she wanted to go home she was told she couldn’t take her baby with her, as it was the property of the Third Reich. She was forced to smuggle her child out of the country in her luggage. The sanctions taken after the war against Norwegian women who had fraternised with the enemy – especially those who had borne their children – is one that isn’t well known in the English-speaking world. I imagined such a woman arriving, together with her young son, in London in 1945 as refugees.

Another element was provided by a set of newspaper cuttings I had found in the back of an old book and stored away in a file. They related to an autumn in the 1930s, which was unseasonably cold. Migrant birds that had summered in countries in northern Europe were too weak to fly south again, triggering a compassionate human response that contrasted strongly with events to follow. In the heat of necessity generated by my converging deadlines, these three disparate ingredients suddenly came into alignment to form a narrative. The photographs provided my locations in the city, as well as a cast of characters; the family anecdote gave me the germ of a story; and the cuttings supplied a non-fiction strand that cast human events in a different perspective.

The key relationship for an author engaged in writing a book is with his or her editor. The closest equivalent on the Cartographer’s Confession would be the app’s Producer, Emma Whittaker. However, her creative role was far more extensive than any editor I have worked with, its true nature hinted at by her other job title, unknown in the analogue publishing industry – Experience Designer. The Cartographer’s Confession features actors’ performances, film, a specially commissioned soundtrack and illustrations, as well as 3D soundscapes, photographs and a hand-drawn map. At every stage Emma had to explain to me what the medium could or couldn’t do in response to the story I was beginning to deliver, while liaising with the developer charged with delivering the technology, managing the budget and securing the services of those required to create our multi-layered story-world.

There is one aspect of smartphone technology we all now take for granted – your phone knows where you are. By extension, so does the creator of a piece of located fiction for that instrument, enabled therefore to release elements of narrative in particular locations or at chosen times, choosing backdrops for their storyline in the real world. However, this puts a new onus on the writer. Rather than conjuring up such settings from the imagination, they must be tested thoroughly for suitability. Are they easily accessible by public transport? Do they offer a safe space in which a participant can listen to audio or read text on a screen without getting knocked down by traffic or robbed when they take their phone from their pocket? How onerous is it, travelling from one location to the next? To drill down further into the technology, will GPS trigger effectively in the location you have ring-fenced remotely as the spot where a particular event will unfold, or will a tall building or other blind-spot get in the way?

I paced out the landscape of The Cartographer’s Confession countless times, most often with Emma, but also alone, in good weather and bad, through spring and into summer. This process led to one major re-write, when we discovered ourselves exhausted after crossing the city too many times and shifted the protagonist’s childhood to another neighbourhood across the river. I accepted early on that I couldn’t hold on to what I wrote too tightly: anything might need to change or be cut entirely for reasons beyond my control and this had to be embraced as part of the process. But this extensive in-the-field testing also gave rise to new material. As I hung around on the streets I noticed things – inscriptions on statues, shop doorways, a slippery set of steps down into the Thames – that my characters might also have seen and these made their way into the text. The London that emerged – a narrow strip, always within walking distance of the water – is captured in the evocative, illustrated map by Grace Attlee and James Brocklehurst, that builds up as each chapter is completed.

One of the most exciting things about the project for me was that we had a budget for music. As it happened I was in the process of recording some songs with my group The Night Sky, featuring bass player Ian Nixon and singer Josefin Meijer, and we wondered if they might be suitable. Song lyrics proved a distraction from the narrative, so we decided to work with instrumental versions of the tunes. I therefore needed an instrument to carry the melody. I’ve always loved the trumpet – in my view it’s the closest instrument to the human voice. Jay Auborn is the Bristol-based producer responsible for the sound design, music and audio production on the app. He connected me with Jonny Bruce, whose trumpet and flugelhorn contribute immensely to the atmosphere of the piece; as do the soundscapes created by Jay himself, which he recorded binaurally – in other words, with microphones positioned to mimic the experience of hearing with human ears – in order to create a three-dimensional, immersive audio-world. I’m a happy man in a recording studio. It’s a collaborative process I’m familiar with, the opposite to the solitary practice of writing. By contrast, I’d never worked directly with actors before; it was a privilege to have performers of the calibre of Emily Woof and Saul Jaffe to introduce and voice the characters in the app. For the most part, hearing your words spoken by another is enough to prompt instant minor re-writes where necessary; if you require more help, a good actor has a way of tactfully letting you know when your sentences are over-complicated: for them it comes with the territory, a form of editing I particularly enjoyed.

As a participant in this medium, there is no denying the electric charge generated when setting and narrative combine and you feel located within the story itself: at such moments it feels as if the characters whose voices you are listening to might appear round a corner at any moment. With remarkable synchronicity, a bird cries overhead at the moment it is mentioned in the text; you look up, to discover it exists only in the 3D soundscape that surrounds you. Sitting on the top deck of a bus with an extended mix of the theme music still playing in your headphones, you scroll your phone for messages when you are interrupted by an alert that another piece of the story has arrived: writing is reaching you where you read and where you are. All of this potential has to be exciting to any author.

Perhaps the greatest challenge the app-based literary form faces lies precisely in its newness, the lack of an established audience and of a viable financial model that would enable it to prosper when cut adrift from funding streams. It is not a question of new forms replacing old: those who busied themselves predicting the death of the book a few years ago now look as prescient as the false prophets who foretold the death of cinema on the arrival of television. Technologies and markets will provide the answers to these issues over time, as they always do. For my part I am grateful for the opportunity this commission has offered to abandon my desk and reengage with the city, the boundaries of my narrative staked out in its crowded, haunted spaces, alongside its timeless river.

The Cartographer’s Confession by James Attlee is free to download from the App Store and Google Play.