The Writer on the Train leaves the Station

Our funders have decided to run an experiment, which in their judgement will be worthwhile to observe. It is a strange feeling, but then this is what

 Publishing a book in the traditional way entails undergoing a process during which a detailed proposition is discussed and agreed upon. The proposition would probably include a summary, a chapter plan, an estimated total number of words and a fairly extensive sample of writing. In other words, the entire concept would have been road-tested by experienced professionals other than the writer him or herself, the parameters of the what, why, how and how long of the piece of writing in question interrogated and agreed upon….

 Embarking on this project I am very aware that none of these safety nets are in place. As yet I have no sense of the space I need to fill with words.  Our funders have decided to run an experiment, which in their judgement will be worthwhile to observe. It is a strange feeling, but then this is what I signed up for, right? To be thrown in at the deep end, forced to adapt, to watch my authorial-self writhing beneath the microscope on the laboratory bench; subjected to these stresses, how will it mutate?

 The book has been around for hundreds of years and authors have had plenty of time to get to know their way around the building. They knock down a wing there, add an extension here, turn all the lights off or decide to put all the services in plain view on the outside, like Richard Roger’s Centre Pompidou. Their book can be a cosy setting for a domestic drama, or a vast museum; a heart-stopping racing car or a stately ocean liner. When authors turn to writing for a particular digital platform, the first thing they have to realise is that it might be gone by tomorrow. The differences between the first mobile phone novel and an iPad app; between a PDF and a 'digital essay'; between even a first-generation Kindle and a Kindle Fire are already so vast, their evolution so rapid, that any writer attempting to pin him-or-herself to a particular digital architecture runs the risk of their work becoming instantly obsolete, dead in the water, forgotten.

 Anxiety at the beginning of a project is good. Discomfort is good. I keep reminding myself that this has always been my experience. Nobody said giving birth was easy. If that sounds pretentious, all the better: without pretensions we may as well stay home. If this kind of speculative funding is about anything it must be about taking back digital territory for genuine creativity.  

 Our first catch-up meeting at REACT is immensely helpful. I have, I realise, been tying myself in conceptual knots, imaginary constraints constructed from what I think our funders may expect, of possible commercial outcomes, etc etc. No, they say, we hired you; be yourself. Make good work. Worry about the outcome later.

 That’s alright then.

 On the train back from Bristol now. I look around me. My neighbour is talking continuously, softly, in Chinese into his mobile phone. I love the idea of getting between the ears of train travellers, of breaking into their interior worlds; of interrupting this shirt-sleeved businessman, poring over a spread sheet, or communicating with that elderly woman gazing out of the window. When you write a book you have no idea where it will be read. In bed, in the bath, on a beach, in a library…  With this project I am writing for a specific space and a particular audience, in transit, between worlds. I am hoping that the developers on the project, Agant, will be able to show me new ways offered by the technology to infiltrate this moving theatre, to populate it with ghosts. As we slow to a crawl between snowfields on the approach to Didcot and people shake their heads, I think about elastic pacing. Can the narrative change with the speed of the train? Can my writing deliver consolation to those stranded somewhere they never expected to find themselves? As we pick up speed once more and overtake a freight train running on the relief line, could the content, triggered by GPS data, respond?

 I am using a GPS locational app on my phone to plot the speed and direction of our route, in order to send it to Agant. Our average speed has been 70 miles an hour, our top speed 129 miles an hour: very slow compared with the bullet trains of Japan or the TGV in France, but still unimaginably fast 200 years ago.  Between the beginning of recorded history and the end of the eighteenth century, no one travelled faster than it was possible to do on the back of a galloping horse. Napoleon crossed the Alps at much the same speed as Hannibal.

The foreground of the landscape beyond the window of the carriage is blurred and smeared by our velocity, the distance unscrolling like a diorama; the big picture. Welcome to the modern world. You don’t need to be a train-spotter to love trains.

  

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