Interview first published in Role Magazine, November 2008
This world we inhabit has a knack of drawing us in, slowly at first until we are living and breathing the very virtual air that envelops us. Some of us become so intrinsically attached to this world that we may even find ourselves becoming one with our virtual self; taking on the good traits and maybe the odd bad one too. Many of us feel the need to take it a step further by writing and telling stories from within. Huckleberry Hax has done just that and in record time – a little over two months for a full novel. His story THE DAY IS FULL OF BIRDS is set in an alternate universe where the cold war never ended. As Huckleberry describes it “The plot is centred on Henry, a loner in both the real world and the online world he visits. As tensions between America and the Soviet Union escalate, Henry’s worlds start to merge, taking him back towards a moment in his history he has spent most of his life trying to forget”.
Huckleberry joins us to talk about his novel and give us his take on the metaverse.
Harriet Gausman: Tell us a little about what influenced your decision to become a part of this virtual world?
Huckleberry Hax: Actually I was in task-avoidance mode at the time! Whilst surfing various web pages (when I should have been getting on with something else) I came across a reference – and a link – to Second Life. Of course I’d heard about it elsewhere before, but only in passing. Also, I was messing around at the time with a script for a radio sitcom where one of the characters spends time in a ‘virtual world,’ and I had no idea what these places were actually like. I think there had been a news story too, then or thereabouts, about a gamer in Japan actually dying from spending 36 hours plus in an online game without moving, and I couldn’t see how such immersion was possible.
Harriet Gausman: Had you been a part of any other virtual worlds before SL?
Huckleberry Hax: No, not at all. A friend of mine who was staying with me once installed and demonstrated what I assume now was a version of World of Warcraft connected to a pirate server. It looked extremely dull to me at the time and I couldn’t see the point. That was about a year or so before I discovered SL, and I uninstalled it just as soon as he was gone!
Harriet Gausman: What do you think about the writing community here in SL? Which sims would you recommend for anyone wanting to get involved?
Huckleberry Hax: My involvement with the writing community began, I suppose, with a group I joined for National Novel Writing Month 2007. That was based in SLiterary, which is an astonishing place, although I found it a little difficult to make friends there (I have no idea why… it might just have been my newness to it all). Since then, the venues I’ve been to include the various stages at Cookie, The Blue Angel and, of course, Milk Wood. I’ve read stuff of mine at all three of those places, and actually I think reading your work aloud is key to feeling you’ve really become a part of these communities. The writing community has given me new impetus in SL; I feel I fit in there better than anywhere else I’ve visited so far. The people I’ve met are amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered, perhaps because they save their drama for their stories..smiles.
Harriet Gausman: You are currently reading from your new novel THE DAY IS FULL OF BIRDS at MILK WOOD and THE BLUE ANGEL; what has been the response from these readings? Has the readings precipitated any further work?
Huckleberry Hax: The response has been positive. I’ve yet to have a great deal of feedback from people who have actually downloaded and read the entire novel as a result of attending a reading, however (although a couple of people *have* done that). Mostly people tend to comment how much they like listening to my reading voice, which I find astonishing since I hate the sound of my voice so much! All of that is fine by me. I think readings should be regarded as events in their own right in terms of how enjoyable they are. I wrote recently to the Metaverse Messenger suggesting they come along and review one – just like they might review a live music event – but they didn’t take the time to even reply to my email. I think that’s a shame, and represents a shallow view of the quality of art and culture evolving within the metaverse.
Harriet Gausman: You wrote the novel for NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH, how long did it take you to complete?
Huckleberry Hax: Actually, no I didn’t. The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007 was ‘AFK,’ which took me exactly 30 days to write (and can also be downloaded – for free – from my website, in pretty much the state it was in on 30/11/2007). AFK is quite a provocative novel about relationships in SL – so it got people engaged – and, at 50,000 words, it’s not exactly a taxing read. Quite a few people downloaded and read it, and the feedback I got for it was just wonderful. It actually transformed the confidence I have in my writing completely and made me want to write more. ‘The Day is Full of Birds’ was originally an idea I had in February for my NaNoWriMo 2008 novel, but I decided I couldn’t wait until then to write it and set aside my evenings in April to write it in instead. In the event, I achieved my 50k words in that time, but spent May and about half of June polishing and writing an extra 12k words or so to finish it.
Harriet Gausman: Perhaps, you can tell us a little about NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH?
Huckleberry Hax: NaNoWriMo happens every November and is organised through the website at www.nanowrimo.org. It’s essentially a personal challenge – see if you can write a 50k novel in one month. It’s one of those things that sounds ridiculous when you first hear about it, but it works. The number of people participating has been growing steadily and last year over 100,000 people took part worldwide.
Harriet Gausman: What are the advantages and disadvantages of approaching a novel this way?
Huckleberry Hax: The basic premise of NaNoWriMo is that writers generally don’t write novels because they keep trying to edit what they’ve already written and the whole process ends up taking so long it just never happens (I should know, I finished my first ever novel in 1997 after spending three years on it, and couldn’t face going through all that again). Give writers a ridiculous target like 50k words in one month and they have to turn off the ‘inner editor’ and focus on quantity over quality. Of course, once you get going, the quality can start to improve because it changes the way you think whilst you’re writing (and even if you hate what you’ve written by the end of the month, there might still be stuff in there which you can use for something else). It doesn’t work for everyone, but it hit the spot for me; it was exactly what I needed.
Harriet Gausman: Tell us a little about the story and the background to the characters?
Huckleberry Hax: Whereas AFK takes place almost entirely in Second Life, The Day is Full of Birds is set partly in the metaverse and partly in the real world. As the book progresses, the two worlds start to merge for the main character, so that he starts to perceive things in the metaverse we wouldn’t normally see, such as expressions on the faces of avatars or hearing a tone of voice when communicating through text. Also, TDIFOB is set in an alternative word where the Cold War never ended, so it’s not Second Life, as such, but a world very similar to it. It’s much more science fiction than AFK. Another key difference between the two books is that AFK is essentially a story *about* being a metaverse resident, whereas TDIFOB is a story which uses the metaverse as a context for other themes to be explored, in particular unrequited love and regret. I want to continue to write in these two separate areas: I will be writing a novel called ‘Be Right Back’ for NaNoWriMo 2008 in the former style and am planning a book for next spring in the latter.
Harriet Gausman: What are the similarities and differences between the virtual world in your novel and the virtual world we inhabit?
Huckleberry Hax: I’ve tried to make the virtual worlds I describe in both of my novels as close as possible to Second Life, so that they are instantly recognizable to readers who are SL residents. In AFK, I use more SL-specific terminology, whereas in TDIFOB I go for more generic terms where I can. In both books I also explore slightly more dystopian versions of the metaverse. In TDIFOB both teleporting and flying are switched off in an effort to reduce communication as the world gets closer to nuclear war; so to get anywhere in the metaverse suddenly takes a lot of time. In AFK, the idea of an intentionally dystopian metaverse as an alternative to SL is discussed, where teleporting/flying doesn’t exist for most residents in the first place, and where avatars can get ill and die. Core to that idea is the belief that SL is just too utopian to hold most people’s interest for all that long, and that the only way to make metaverses truly mainstream would be to ‘carry over’ all the nasty bits from the real world.
Harriet Gausman: Was there a biographic element to the story?
Huckleberry Hax: TDIFOB combines personal recollections of my time at university with a memory of an unrequited love (I think we all have those) and thoughts/feelings I have about the death of my father in real life and the birth of my son. It’s a fiction, but there’s enough in there for me to draw on.
Harriet Gausman: What made you decide to write a novel set in a virtual world? Do you think we will see more of these stories emerging as more people join worlds such as these?
Huckleberry Hax: Virtual worlds and their inhabitants fascinate me. As I indicated earlier, I see the potential for two types of story using virtual worlds – those *about* virtual worlds and those which use them as a backdrop. I have no doubt whatsoever that we’ll see more fiction using them in time; it’s just a question of more people becoming more familiar with the potential for storytelling that they offer.
Harriet Gausman: In your novel the two worlds begin to merge as one, do you think that virtual worlds and their technology will become a more integral part of real life? The internet is constantly evolving and I can certainly see how internet shopping would benefit from being more ‘virtualised’.
Huckleberry Hax: I read a comment by one of the Lindens once which made a lot of sense to me. He compared looking at a product on a web page to looking at it in a 3D world such as Second Life. In both areas you can convey pretty much the same information about the product however in SL you would be able to see other people looking at it whilst you were. It’s a tiny difference, but one of massive importance; it emphasises that sense of ‘thereness’ you get from visiting SL locations by highlighting the importance to that of other people and their proximity. At the moment, SL is still far too clunky and unreliable to be considered a serious replacement to the web – properly interactive ‘web on a prim’, for example, simply *has* to be sorted out before we even start getting close to that. But it’s insights like this which help me to visualise what the future has in store – and, yes, I see the metaverse very much as being at the heart of that.
For more information and a chance to download the novel in its entirety visit Huckleberryhax.blogspot.com
Interested in attending a reading or poetry event? Then visit MILK WOOD. Just look under search or my profile picks.