In 2001 I read an article in the Guardian newspaper that told the story of a body landing in a supermarket car park in southwest London. Two investigative journalists tracked down the identity of the dead man; he was a young Pakistani who had bought – actually paid money to someone – into the myth that it is possible to climb into the hold of an airplane by stowing away in its landing gear. In fact, this supermarket car park, as well as the car park of the home improvement store next door, had had a series of bodies land in it over the previous decade; it lies directly beneath one of the flight paths into Heathrow, the point at which planes lower their landing gear.
Since reading that article, I’ve been compelled to find out more about these stowaways. In 2007 I embarked on a public discussion, via a blog, of the story and the ideas and themes that arose from it. Along with my collaborator Chris Joseph and about 100 participants, we began to collect a series of digital assets created by people interested in the project – stories, animations, videos, ideas, images. In 2009, we moved on to create five multimedia story fragments which began to tell the story of Yacub, our fictional airplane stowaway who survives his fall, and Harriet, our fictional Londoner on whose car Yacub lands. This iteration of the project. ‘Flight Paths: A Networked Novel’, resides online; over the past four years it has attracted many readers and scholars and, in the gratifying manner that is characteristic of digital media, has continued to grow in terms of spread and reach. In 2012 we added a sixth episode.
Alongside developing the story of the airplane stowaway, I’ve also been working on a novel that tells the story of Yacub and Harriet, both before and after their ‘collision’ in the supermarket car park. Once I finished a working draft of Landing Gear my agents and I embarked on sending it out to publishers. I wrote a document to accompany the novel, describing ‘Flight Paths’, and listing potential further digital iterations of both the novel and its digital antecedent. I thought because Landing Gear has a pre-existing digital footprint, as well as an international audience, publishers might be interested in this aspect of the project. Luckily for me, in Canada (publishing remains highly territorial for all but the biggest selling authors), Landing Gear was bought by Doubleday, which is part of Penguin Random House, and they responded with enthusiasm to the idea of building digital experimentation into publishing the novel.
Meghan MacDonald, Digital Project Manager at Penguin Random House, thought it would be interesting to build an API based on a 30-page extract of the novel. An API – application processing interface – is what enables two software programmes to talk to each other; we use them all the time these days. One example is the Google Maps API which allows you to create and save personalised Google Maps; another is the API that allows you to access your photos from Flickr via Facebook. With the development team, we embarked on indexing and metatagging the extract, using locations, timelines, events, and characters as our main points. This created a raw API which we are in the process of offering to developers to build on; we took the API to a hackday in San Francisco in October, and a developer there, David Harris (@physicsdavid) created a tweetbot that offers and responds to interaction around the character Yacub’s dialogue. We plan to take the API to other hackdays in order to see what developers do with it; I’d be keen to see a public interface developed for it that will allow readers to interact directly with the text of the novel, writing their own responses and ideas into it, creating their own versions of this extract. But whether or not that will arise out of this development process remains to be seen.
Another project that is currently bubbling away is a collaboration with Simon Fraser University’s Master of Publishing programme in Vancouver. We are looking at offering the digital assets that were created for ‘Flight Paths’ for remix and re-engineering during a week-long publishing hackfest offered to students and publishing industry professionals who want the opportunity to play with collaboration and new forms of digital writing and digital publishing. Again, I’m hoping that new versions of the story will emerge from this process.
‘Flight Paths’ emerged from a long process of collaboration, and the discussions around this project fed into the even longer process of writing the novel Landing Gear. The fact that this is now leading on to further collaborations with both my Canadian publisher and SFU is very exciting. For me this is a major step toward busting the book itself out of its silo, allowing the novel to become a responsive and iterative digital artefact. For me, one of the key features of this process is the fact that it is possible to expand the world of the novel through these projects while retaining the integrity of the novel itself; Landing Gear will be published in the traditional manner which, these days, means hardcover and ebook initially, with all the steps that publishing books well require: cover and page design, publicity, print distribution, as well as, most importantly to me, editorial. My editor at Doubleday, Nita Pronovost, has been involved in all our discussions around digital experimentation and her input has been invaluable; she brings a highly literary sensibility to bear on our discussions and has been able to give us a necessary steer from time to time as we veer into territory that might not be as productive or interesting for readers as it should be.
Take a look at Flight Paths here: http://www.flightpaths.net
Take a look at the API project for Landing Gear here: http://bookcontentapi.devcloud.acquia-sites.com/
The novel of Landing Gear will be available from April 2014.
Kate Pullinger is Editorial Director of The Writing Platform and Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University.
She writes for both print and digital platforms. In In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her award-winning digital writing projects include Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel.
You can find out more about Kate and her work over on her site.