Ronald DeStefano is a novelist and writer who has a new way to enjoy books. For him, it isn’t just about the way the words read; Ron provides a backdrop, specially composed music, and an interactive element to the way the words scroll.
Ronald’s vision is more than just a tightly-written futuristic drama; it’s an experience. Midnight in a Perfect World also happens to be available free today at the Apple site, so download it and let the Book Bird know what you think in the comments below.
This isn’t the Book Bird’s usual style of interviewing; usually we try to give you an article of an interview, instead of the transcript itself. But getting to know Ronald DeStefano is an … ahem … wordy experience, and well worth the read.
So, Ron, Midnight in a Perfect World, where’d you get the idea from?
I honestly don’t remember when the idea of an afterlife existing beneath the surface of the moon came to me (which is strange because that’s one of those bizarre ideas that I feel I should remember having), but I toyed with science fiction for a couple of years, mostly rewrote this idea I had of a man who travelled between parallel universes, trying to recreate a relationship that had fallen apart. After a few failed attempts at writing that, I realized I wasn’t in love with the parallel universes concept, but I liked the idea of somebody being fixated on their past.
I also thought about how people portray themselves differently online, how interactions and information posted on the internet are archived and therefore permanent, and also how different a person I was, mentally and emotionally, at 16 than at 25 (my age when I wrote the first draft).
So that’s why I created Evelyn as a girl who is stuck, for lack of a better word, at the age of 16, while Manny has been allowed to grow older (he’s 25 at the beginning of the story). The two of them are forever connected because of an irrational decision they made when they were teenagers that, because they live in a futuristic world where everything is digital, will never go away. It was an interesting concept to write to.
And how come you’re so good at so many things? I mean, I’m musical, artistic, and a writer. I can paint a picture, make my mum cry at a concert, and sometimes I put the words in the right order and someone pays me money for that. But all three, all at once, all because …. Just because you can?
I don’t consider myself much of a visual artist. Drawing, either by hand or in Photoshop, is not my strong suit. But I’ve written music since I was 13 years old and I’ve written fiction since I was 17 so I felt comfortable in those two areas.
Programs like Inkscape make it so easy to create visual art, I felt I could do it on my own. And the reason I made the app was because ebooks don’t take advantage of the technology in the way they should. I mean, smartphones have the computing power of low-end laptops and I didn’t think the publishing industry was doing much with it. So I did.
Can your app be ‘applied’ to any book, or is it really a book, not an app; like ebook friends with benefits?
For the app, I used a software program, called Unity 3d, which is primarily used for making video games. I initially wanted to make a mobile game. I had just finished playing Bioshock Infinite and I was in love with how large a role narrative played in the experience. There was a real sense of authorship to the game. I wanted to do something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale.
So I downloaded Unity, started playing around in the environment and realized that I had none of the skills needed to make a video game. I didn’t know how program, how to animate, things like that, but what I could do was write.
At the time, I had Midnight in a Perfect World in the hands of a few agents who seemed like they were interested in representing it. So I started composing a short story in the software, just to get an idea of the environment. But the story didn’t quite work out and when the agents eventually passed on the book, I decided that I would take the plunge and translate my entire novel into the Unity 3d engine. I hired a programmer once I had everything built on my end to make the app functional.
So, to answer the question, other writers wouldn’t be able to use my work and build off it, but they can certainly use Unity, or other programs like it, to build their own interactive works of fiction.
That was one of my hopes in making the app, to be honest. I hoped other writers would see the potential in rethinking the ebook format. Even if their ideas in no way resembled mine, I want other writers to be open to new ways of creating and distributing their work.
Do you have to design new everything every time you write a new book?
Yes. I’m sure there are certain things I can reuse. There are lighting effects and movement scripts that would be useful, but the idea of the app was that each chapter would have an environment, a song, and a presentation that corroborated with the content of that chapter. So, in that sense, if I was to do something similar in the future, I’d want to start over and build that application to reflect whatever story I publish.
What came first, the book or the music?
It was a book long before it was anything else. In fact, the music didn’t come into play until the very end of production. I seriously considered not including music because A) most people don’t like to listen to music while they read and B) writing and recording music takes up time and file-space.
In the end, I decided to include the music and I’m glad I did. I can’t speak for others, but I feel the experience is greatly enhanced by the soundtrack. I’m very proud of it. And if you’re one of those people who prefers silence when they read, I included a mute button just for you.
Why the animated words? (I love the idea of it)
It seemed the best way to go about it. I wanted there to be a sense of physicality. And since the app is a novel, that physicality has to exist with the words themselves. All the art and background images are ancillary to the novel’s text.
The animation also gives the book a more distinct sense of pace. Some words move faster as you swipe and down, making them seem urgent. Others move slower so that your eyes linger on them longer. But, in the end, the user is in control. Nothing moves unless the reader moves it.
Do you think the words-animation will help or hurt your readers?
The word animation definitely pulls a strong reaction from people. I’ve heard from some who love the idea and I’ve certainly heard from others who absolutely do not like it. One person told me it made them physically ill to see the words overlap one another. I more or less knew while I was making the app that the concept wouldn’t be for everyone. That’s okay with me.
The more experimental and personal you are with your work, the fewer people it will appeal to. That’s the beauty of being independent. I got to make exactly what I wanted.
The aim of any new product is usually to be sold; but serious writers know the extremes that book sales mean. It might be a couple of dollars of royalties a quarter if you’re lucky enough to sell any copies at all … then WHAM! You’re rolling in the bloody stuff, thanks to a lucky break, a chance meeting, the right book meeting the right publisher at the right time … it’s a love story. Whatever. So … (this is leading to something) …
Of course I want it to sell well, but that honestly wasn’t the intention. I was invigorated by being the first through the door, so to speak.
I was inspired to feel as if I had stumbled onto a completely original idea. So the plan was never to be financially successful, but to do something interesting. I mean, the story’s kind of strange and I’m sure there are a lot of people who will be turned off by the idea of a man who builds Heaven beneath the surface of the moon. It’s a bizarre concept. But I love the story.
I’ve read Midnight in a Perfect World at least a dozen times by this point and each time I finish it, I’m proud to have written it. It doesn’t make any compromises for saleability or appeal.
I don’t mean to sound like some faux rebel hipster, but I didn’t fall in love with writing because I thought it would make me rich and famous, I love it because of the books I read and how strange and cerebral and engaging they were. I still remember reading Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and being so excited by how funny and dirty and bizarre the whole premise was. It was such an exuberant feeling to be so enraptured by a book. It’s why I became a writer. I want to make readers feel that way.
How does your audience like your innovation? What feedback have you had, and, have you have the honest kind, or was it all from people who love you? Be honest, I wanna know.
I honestly haven’t had a whole lot of feedback. While I was making the thing, the only people who knew about it were friends and family who were all very enthusiastic and supportive, but you can never tell how honest they’re being.
The truth was that I loved it and that was enough of a reason to see it through to the end. And since it’s been out, I’ve had mixed reviews. I’ve posted some free copies on Reddit and it was a mixed bag of people who reacted just like I hoped they would, telling me how cool the environments were and how interesting the presentation was, and other people who found it distracting and jarring.
I think most people don’t know what to make of it. It’s in a strange gray area: Too bookish for the app crowd, too techy for the book lovers, but I think it’s going to find its audience. We’re in a transitional phase. I don’t think ebooks are going to replace physical books anytime soon, but I do think artistic presentations similar in concept to my app will eventually replace ebooks. I think it has to. The devices ebooks are read on are too powerful for them to remain the way they are.
How did you find the creative process? You’re a pretty tight writer as a rule, which tells me you put a lot of time into your writing. But you also composed and performed the music, as well as drew the designs, so that’s a hell of a lot of time.
It took about five months to design and implement the app. The book was already written and had been revised several times before I even came up with the idea of the app. In that sense, the hard part was over.
The music actually came along pretty quickly. I think it was about three weeks for me to write all the music, which is a short amount of time. But there are so many great resources for artists out there that are available for little or no cost, it’s honestly easier than ever before to realize your creative vision.
Between the music software, the image editing software, and Unity, all aspects were streamlined in a way that there was very little buffer time between when I had an idea and when I could see it represented in the application. The whole creative process was really amazing. It was freeing to be doing something new, something where there was no blue print to follow.
Did you find the creative process went on too long?
A little. But I think anyone who writes understands how it feels to sit with something for months, sometimes years, on end. Midnight in a Perfect World is the third novel that I’ve published, but it’s the seventh that I’ve written. I’ve got dozens of short stories saved on my computer. Three albums worth of music that I wrote with friends and old bands. I’m used to spending a lot of time on my creative projects.
10,000 hours. Just like Malcolm Gladwell said.
No idea. Lately, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of mobile development and all the opportunities and freedom available on the App Store and Google Play. As a writer, I’ve never much cared for collaboration because writing is a solitary activity, a book is the vision of one person.
In making the application, I was confronted by things I didn’t know how to do, and it was exciting to work with somebody who could do something that I never could. So, moving forward, I would love to get into video game development or creating apps that provide lasting entertainment value, collaborating with creative people along the way.
Smartphones and technology are tools and I feel that artists should grow with the available tools. We see painters and illustrators incorporating their work into the digital environment, scanning their work onto their computers, coloring and editing them in programs like Photoshop. Musicians can now compose entire albums on their laptops without ever touching an instrument or a microphone. Hell, I made the entire soundtrack for my app with only a USB keyboard and some music making software. Writers should be making similar progress. And I think they will. I think they already are, to some extent.
And, as fascinated and intrigued as I am by gadgets and technology and mobile app development—a writer writes. I just recently started work on another novel. It’s a cyberpunkish mystery. I want it to be short and simple, but I’m going to take my time with it, work on it while I work on other things.
This whole experience has taught me that no matter what happens in the future, whatever projects I become entangled with, I’m always going to have the urge to write.
Where are you going with the whole ‘app’ thing. Can you get it as far as people being able to animate and fuck about with their own favourite books; or, was this a wholly personal effort, for the joy and understanding that you did it, and you did it on your own?
My app was made possible because of all the programs that made their tools easy to use for somebody with very limited knowledge in the software department. It’d be great to be able to contribute to that culture by making it simple for writers to create more personal and engaging ebooks. I know Midnight in a Perfect World isn’t the answer to what’s next in fiction. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.
I’m anxious to see what other people can make.