Richard House on the Digital Development of The Kills

Richard House

Posted filed under Experience.
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It’s a little tricky trying to recall just how ‘The Kills‘ developed. The books were pitched as a series of inter-related novels, and in the first discussion with publisher Paul Baggaley and editor Kris Doyle, it became obvious that Picador, if they took on the project, would want to do more than publish the novel as a straight forward publication. It’s my good fortune that these two people were enthusiastic about the project, and very open to offer and consider ideas. At that point there was no specific plan to have multimedia elements or digital publication: it was a project of four books.

The progression from text to image is natural for me. I trained as an artist, and worked with a group called Haha in the 1990s where we developed public art projects, which differed from piece to piece (a lipstick slathered blimp in France, a series of camera obscuras in Italy, an HIV/AIDS resource in Chicago). The process of creating work with a team, so that the work changes through its development is something I value, highly. One of the questions I ask is about form: what is the most suitable way to represent these ideas? What would be the optimum way to encounter and experience the work? So there’s plenty of fluidity, and I like to keep the possibilities open throughout the entire working process.

The idea to publish digitally first came from the publisher. A highly sympathetic idea about how to stage a work, which needs to be read in sections. Releasing a work (The Kills is four novels in one), one book a month for four months, handsomely referred back to serialisation – which suits projects that are large and dense.

In developing the third book, a self-standing crime novel, I had produced a series of treated photographs, where I reconstructed the faces of the principal figures in the novel from images found online. These composite faces were deliberately darkened and blurred, and I had the idea that they should be presented before each chapter or section in which that character featured. The problem is, I didn’t want them to last. I liked the idea that you would turn a page and these faces would dissolve as you looked at them. In writing this book I was also interested in genre. What, exactly, makes a crime novel a crime novel – not just a body, a murder, a crime – but what, structurally, is it about the form that makes it what it is? I’d worked on an earlier novel, where the story was, pretty much, only a premise, and hoped that the reader would continue the story beyond what was written. Potentially each reader would have a different notion about what might and should happen (I’m not sure that worked). In printed-form books are somewhat absolute. There is the possibility that you can read chapters and sections in different order, if you wish (as with Cortazar’s ‘Blow Up’), but the very physicality of the book means that there’s an authority to the way it is presented to you, as a reader, and to be honest, flicking back and forward through a book, while a minimal effort, is still, an effort.

The digital elements aren’t just the ‘extras’ – and this is where my thinking is developing – I liked the idea that text can be reorganised, presented in shifting hierarchies, orders, to change emphasis. For the moment, digital texts are a stream, a continuous chain of words without heft. Location, for most of us depends on the weight of the book in your hands, and memory is acute enough for us to remember the placement of sections and events physically within the book. Think about Sebald’s images and how they work as anchors. These anchors are important; they let you know where you are. There are expectations in reading, given how much of the book you have physically on your left side and on your right side. The less you have on the right, the closer you are to some kind of resolve. With a digital book I have only a slider to indicate that shift forward, or a counter to tell me (worryingly) how many hours and minutes I have remaining. I’m thinking that images can be anchors to help with navigation, as well as providing content. Alongside this there’s another crucial relation, which is also increased by having the book physically in your hands, and this has to do with how time passes within the narrative you are reading, alongside how time synchronously passes in your life, as you read. It isn’t that this doesn’t happen with ebooks, but there’s less of an awareness (because of habit: we don’t only use our devices to read but for business and play, which can make for a certain kind of attention). There’s also less of an examined history and analysis about the processes and functions of reading digital work. With a physical book a great deal is taken for granted. With digital texts we are still, happily, figuring it out. As a writer, that slight indeterminacy is intriguing.

With ‘The Kills’ we decided very early that none of the films, extra texts, or audio, would effect change in the main narrative. They might inflect, but they wouldn’t deliver significant plotted elements, which would transform the text. This, mostly, was to recognise that not everyone who might read the book could be supposed to have an expensive digital device. I also wanted the short films to be free standing, if possible. We also bumped into technical limitations very early on. Some things just weren’t possible. The technology keeps changing, adapting. It isn’t stable – and this is a very significant difference between physical and digital texts. It’s possible that a digital text can be fugitive, impermanent – which contradicts our expectation as writers that when you publish you enter into permanent record. Each ‘extra’ was to be a taste, a sense of a place or a person, a piece of history, and as far as could be managed, self-standing. We didn’t want them to look like illustrations. Optimally, they appear at the ends of chapters, so that you can pause, if you want, and not feel that the main narrative or flow is being interrupted (that’s a nice feature of having different media side by side).

I’m a big fan of performance, 8mm film, and early video – particularly works that were developed in transitory periods when artists were finding their way around ‘new’ media. William Wegman and early video; Sadie Benning with Fischer Price toy cameras; Stan Brakhage playing with basic film elements; the comedian Ernie Kovacs amazing live transmissions; et al. They all met these new technologies with a kind of innocence and curiosity, which keeps the work honest and direct. I’ve tried to keep to that sensibility with a deliberately lo-fi approach – it’s no different to me than writing, where you build a narrative through simple accumulation. At the moment we are in a transitory period, the challenges for publishers are acute, no doubt, but the opportunities for writers are open. You don’t need a huge amount of know-how to enter this arena, and while the debate often sticks on certain subjects (self-publishing; the demise of printing), we are developing a discipline that is, by its nature, unfixed.

Artist, writer, film-maker and teacher.