An Interview with Steve Tomasula

An Interview with Steve Tomasula

Kiki Benzon

Steve Tomasula discusses the development and context of his work (and TOC in particular), including relations to print and electronic literature, in this interview with Kiki Benzon.

Kiki Benzon: Some contextualizing questions about TOC. What motivated you to move from the codex print narrative to a multimedia format? What were you trying to achieve there that you thought couldn’t be done in a conventional book?

Steve Tomasula: It dates back to my earlier work. I was working on The Book of Portraiture and VAS was supposed to have been the last chapter of that book. To me it’s all one novel about the history of representation, so to speak. It starts off with writing in sand, the first surface, and ends up with writing on skin, the last surface. Writing VAS was a way to finish that novel, and it just kind of got out of hand.

KB: VAS does seem quite different, though, from The Book of Portraiture, in terms of its central narrative about a man puzzling through a bioethical decision.

ST: In both books, I was trying to write in modes that would evoke the writing technologies. Each chapter in TBOP approaches this task in a different way, through a different perspective. The second chapter, for example, is Velázquez, the Renaissance painter, done as painter’s sketchbook. The main thing that interested me here is this idea of image and text being filtered completely through subjectivity, the hand-made. Then the next chapter goes into Freudian psychologies of the nineteenth century, so the camera’s there now. There are the issues of mechanical reproduction in terms of storytelling. So the book works through that history. That’s why I did the contemporary chapter radically different from painter’s sketchbook.

KB: So then, in keeping with this program of the content reflecting—or in some sense embodying—the technology of the age, TOC was produced on a multimedia platform. A sensible advancement for more digitally inclined readers, but for those who would take their literary narratives on the conventional page, how has TOC been received?

ST: Yes, it has been both criticized and championed. The electronic crowd has really responded. But it’s like that with print books even: as I’m sure you know, there’s a whole contingent of people who think that if you put a picture in a print novel it’s not a serious work.

KB: Right—the picture is used because something is lacking in the text. Or it’s there simply because it can be there—

ST: —it’s just gimmicks and games. Of course it is, but a flashback in a novel is a gimmick too. But coming back to format, to me it is a continuum in a certain sense. Even though they came out in reverse chronological order, TOC still does have its own history in print media this idea of materials of book as part of story. Since TOC is about time, time itself is one of the materials that is worked with—things like how fast the clock hands move affects how you experience the story.

KB: I found that especially in its first few screens, TOC unfolds at a kind of “readerly” pace, but then as the narrative progresses, one becomes aware of periods of acceleration and deceleration. One becomes very conscious of time. At the beginning of TOC, for instance, the time it takes to process the visual and textual information on the screen, and to figure out where to “go” is like the reading gait one assumes when entering the unique world of any print novel. The difference, I guess, with a work like TOC, is that the pace and its fluctuations seem to be governed by the technology itself—you’re ushered through the experience in a way that you’re not with a print text. In this sense, it’s like a gaming experience.

ST: People mention games a lot, but I think in TOC the interactivity is even lower. These are slippery terms. A book is interactive; I think interaction in games is meant in a physical, immersive way. Basketball. When readers are interacting with a book, the action is happening in your head. That’s where I think it is in TOC.

KB: The way that the story unfolds, then, or the sequence in which information is released—would you say that this is similar to the unlocking and ascension or progress that happens in a game?

ST: This again is where it’s different from gaming. It does borrow some of the visual rhetoric, but to me it has more affinity with a book in that regard. In a lot of games, you do something and it unlocks powers or another level; it gives you a sword. TOC’s like that but then nothing like that. Maybe a cartoon way to describe it: you read a chapter and it unlocks a video that is a transition between chapters. The animation gets you from chapter to chapter and not from level to level as it might in a game.

KB: How do these transitional videos work?

ST: The first time you hit one of these, you don’t have control over it; the transitional animation plays. But once you’ve unlocked something, an icon appears there and you can replay, fast-forward, or skip it.

KB: Is TOC structurally dynamic in the sense that what you do on one screen will affect the appearance or behavior of things on other screens? In other words, will the narrative adapt down the line based on your reading decisions, or is the flexibility in the story’s route?

ST: You can get different readings depending on your route. There is a loose structure, in that progressing through the narrative takes you further back in time; you start at the island and then progress backward. If somebody was to just thread the needle just right, they could go through one part and not see other parts—once you trigger the exit video it will close. But whatever you’ve unlocked is your reading.

KB: In that sense the architecture of TOC seems to resemble the early hypertext narratives, in which your path is determined by your choices, but there are a finite set of possibilities in terms of what you might encounter and, in the case of TOC, some built-in structures like this backward movement of time.

ST: It’s true that you can read the pieces in a lot of different orders. But in some ways I was working against hypertext fiction in TOC. I do love a lot of those works—Shelley Jackson, Michael Joyce’s stuff, Victory Garden. Hypertext implies there is no beginning or end, and in this sense the form of Victory Garden and what was being said there worked together nicely. The thing that made hypertext a double-edged sword, I think, is that writers mostly used the same authoring tools.

KB: Storyspace.

ST: It’s like websites where everyone’s using the same tools, and there are only so many visual elements you can employ. “Why do you have a moose there?” I really wanted TOC to look like a more original art piece and not something too dictated by the capabilities of one kind of software.

KB: Obviously there are more options now and the possibility for more combinations to create a distinct look. What programs did you use for TOC?

ST: There were probably 15-20 software programs used in the making. It was all off-the-shelf software, but Christian Jara wrote a lot of code.

KB: Could you imagine writing a work that was continually changing, online perhaps, always in flux depending on inputs and adjustments by a curator or the community? 

ST: That was something we thought about early on. But I didn’t really see a reason for that in this story.

KB: Do you see digital works like TOC becoming a mainstream kind of novel?

ST: Kindle has gone to color, the iPad incorporates video. I think the technology will go that way whether people want it or not. My own speculation is that these things will come into existence but they’re going to be something like movies in that the mainstream will be interested in genre stuff, like mystery. There’s a phone number there and you call it—

KB: —like alternate reality games.

ST: —popular video clips, that kind of thing. So I think there will be more and more people making works like this, but my hope is that it will be more like Indie film.

KB: So not necessarily Dan Brown.

ST: But the amount of money it takes to make something like this is really staggering. Look at the credits at the end of a video game: they go on forever. Millions of dollars, hundreds of people.

KB: It might be gratifying in a way, if we had that type of reading culture that demanded huge projects, on the scale of video games.

ST: Who was it that said we need more books and fewer readers? To me, this is the kind of idea that saved poetry in the context of mass media. As soon as a book comes out everyone asks, “where’s the movie?” Nobody asks that of poetry; everyone knows there’s no money in poetry. That has allowed it to be more fragmented, idiosyncratic; it can’t be as easily capitalized upon or developed into these other marketplaces.

KB: Talking of credits that go on forever, you worked with a number of artists and programmers on TOC, as well as your other work.

ST: I’ve worked with many designers over the years, but always, they only come to the work after it has been completely written and storyboarded out—the preliminary design stage, which is my conception of my work. It’s much like a set designer who only sees a script after the film or play goes into production. This was true for VAS, TOC, The Book of Portraiture, IN & OZ as well as my shorter works.

KB: So the collaborations occur in stages and have specific boundaries. How did it work, for example, with Stephen Farrell, Robert Sedlack, or any of the designers who were involved in making the final versions of your novels?

ST: We collaborate on the design of the books, but not the concept or the writing.

KB: Does this cause confusion in terms of attribution? I know I’ve been perplexed when trying to figure out how to cite your work. 

ST: I can appreciate the difficulty of writing about my work, especially when two modes, such as words and music, or text and image, are being discussed together. And I certainly don’t want to diminish the importance that these other artists have brought. However, I do think that the works and their contributors need to be correctly attributed. That is, the composers and musicians that created the music for the VAS CD should be attributed as such, and not as “co-author” even if the music is, obviously, important to the work.

KB: What would be the correct way, then, to reference a passage from, say, VAS?

ST: I realize the syntactic difficulty of writing about both the text and visual aspects of this book. My suggestion is when writing about the narrative, creation, or writing, I should be the only one referenced: i.e., “Tomasula sets his novel in ‘Flatland.’ If the graphic component is being discussed along with the content, then we should be attributed together but not in a way that implies co-authorship.

KB: So not like, “VAS: An Opera In Flatland, by Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell”—but maybe use “with” instead of “and”?

ST: That would be the right way to do it.

KB: Who are contemporary writers you see as promising?

ST: There are books that I think are fabulous. William Gass’ Willie Masters’Lonesome Wife is kind of a father of TOC. Love in a dead language, by Siegel. I love People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. The visual element is there, but it’s different from what I do. 

KB: You obviously embrace new media in your literary work, but can it be taken too far? At experimental writing exhibitions, or online, for example, there’s a lot of work produced on relatively new platforms or media devices: novels written on Twitter, poems on Facebook, etc. I myself am guilty of authoring a locative narrative for iPhone. One begins to wonder whether the wrong thing is being experimented with here. Perhaps not the “wrong” thing—but it may not be the literary thing. The mother of invention becomes not necessity but ability.

ST: I think that’s what makes it a really exciting time to be an author. There are all these tools and surfaces. Plus the idea that nobody really knows what literature is anymore.

KB: English Departments will be teaching computer science soon. But can digital technology and the potential for new modes of expression be distracting for the author?

ST: No, for me it’s always the time. When what you’re trying to say drives it, you get more finite possibilities.

KB: I’m thinking of VAS and the way that the converging formats for expressing information become increasingly dense as the novel goes on, to the point where information ceases to clarify, and actually becomes counterproductive to Square’s decision-making process.

ST: It’s informed by Foucault’s idea that discursive objects come into being and you don’t even know where they come from. Maybe this would be a good way to think of it: my colleague Jill Gold made a film about how napalm was made where she reshot a German film by Harun Farocki. She got permission from him, she tried to duplicate it, and let her own film bleed through. It has interviews with people and none of them knew what they were doing—like there was this person who makes the chemical who thought he was making fertilizer. I was trying to go for that kind of mood. Even if you had the information, it’s not knowledge. There’s that one passage people always ask about—chromosome 12, which goes on for a page. It’s just a small part of that chromosome. I wanted to include this partly as a way to show how complex these things are. I also wanted to use a chromosome that shows the difference between humans and chimps—an in-joke that I think I ended up cutting from the book. Well, I downloaded the chromosome and it filled up my hard drive. I had no idea.

KB: Sounds like a kind of method writing—you can’t use the information you need to show that information is unusable…. What have you been working on these days?

ST: I’ve been hanging out in labs with people who work on insects, with the intent of learning more about the topic of the book I’m working on. The topic is fleas.