Hypertext Horizon: An Interview With Kathryn Cramer

Transcript of a live on-line interview over Sonicnet with Harry Goldstein

Harry Goldstein:
What is your vision of hypertext and how does your idea differ from say the Brown U. or Eastgate vision?
Kathryn Cramer:
I wear a couple of different hats in this and so I have a couple of different visions. First, I come out of commercial publishing and so in my capacity as a barbarian of commerce I insist that type design is more important for things designed to be read on screen, not less. I aim my hypertexts and those I edit at the reading audience (as opposed to the TV audience or the movie audience) and so on. That's the authoritarian Kathryn.
HG:
And the anarchist Kathryn?
KC:
The anarchist Kathryn (the one who writes the stuff)...

(yup) wants very heavily linked hypertext, not to liberate you, but to liberate me. The Brown vision is, I think, mostly innocent of the requirements of commercial publishing.

HG:
So who is the ideal hypertext reader...and who is your ideal reader?
KC:
I think of the hard cover reading audience as my target audience. Ideal readers are people you end up marrying or something. Instead I conceive of who I'm trying to get this to in quantity. As for distinctions though, between me and, say, the Eastgate School (as it were...I don't really believe in the death of print.
HG:
Does Eastgate believe in the Death of Print?
KC:
The company doesn't. But there is an axis of writers (actually the folks from the TINAC collective) who are published by E. who believe in it a lot more than I do.
HG:
What are the demographics of the Eastgate audience?
KC:
Highly educated, computer literate, w/ postmodern reading tastes. 30s-40s. That's my impression, anyway.
HG:
Why did you form Black Mark?
KC:
I sound hopelessly retro when I start talking about the sensuality of the tactile aspects of reading. I want to invent trade electronic publishing. That's the short answer. I was looking for a more efficient way to pay the bills (read a higher paying job) and I kept being told there were no jobs available, but that I could get lots of freelance work.
HG:
And will multimedia play a role in your venture?
KC:
Oh yes. I want to create titles that are as interactive as what I've been doing for Eastgate but w/ Macromedia Director production values. I should say, I am going to, not I want.
HG:
Something more along the lines of Jaime Levy's Ambulance than something like Victory Garden.
KC:
I like the look of Ambulance, but Jaime had much bigger plans for interactivity than she was able to bring off. Interactive like Victory Garden, but w/ attention to look like Ambulance.
HG:
What about format...CD ROM...
KC:
Pretty much has to be CD ROM.

I was looking for a way to stay on floppies, but I want good type design...and some of the aesthetic decisions I've made in the meantime put me over into CD-ROM.

HG:
What kind of aesthetic decisions?
KC:
What I'm most focused on is making individual authorship easier. My programmers would have my kneecaps.
HG:
Would that be a good thing for them?
KC:
I have some really good guys in New Jersey working on tools for me and they want to copyright the stuff before I shoot my mouth off.
HG:
Which brings me to the issue of hypermedia over the internet...
KC:
I've been incorporated for 2 months and for about $5000, I've gotten as...
HG:
any idea about how copyrights...
KC:
far as I should have gotten w/ $50,000.
KC:
Copyright will survive this mess.

A lot of the talk about copyright being dead is thrown around by people who just don't know the law. On the other hand, there are some situations, like publishing something

KC:
exclusively on the WWW, which the law was never designed to cover.
HG:
are you planning net distribution?
KC:
First I need products.
HG:
When do you plan your first release?
KC:
I want to stay out of the distribution business as much as possible. A year?
HG:
Will it be one of your own projects?
KC:
We're making the tools now, and we've got some really good author to work w/ but I don't know how long it will take. I'm working on something called *Subpoena Vacation*, but I don't see my own writing as my best commercial prospect.
HG:
Who then?
KC:
I have too much fun chopping stuff into little bits and reassembling it any way I feel like.
HG:
A la In Small and Large Pieces?
KC:
Well, I'm going to start w/ science fiction & fantasy authors & artists.
KC:
-Yes-
KC:
We have one particular guinea pig for our tools -- Neil Gaiman. Whether this will result in a product, for him or for us, remains an open question. Right now we're just playing w/ the possibilities of thesoftware.
HG:
What has he published?
KC:
Sandman comics.
HG:
Let's talk about In Small and Large...
KC:
Sure.
HG:
What do you think worked particularly well?
KC:
Are you waiting for me to give a thesis statement?

OOh.

HG:
Absolutely.
KC:
The pacing (if you follow the links) ends up working sort of like the scenes with the kid on the Big Wheel in The Shining. People have fairly fixed expectations that they know when something bad is going to happen in fiction. The link structure of In Small and Large Pieces plays wonderful havoc w/that. Also, I like the way it looks.
HG:
The Unified Parent was really fantastic. What was the genesis for It?
KC:
I knew there had to be something really awful there. As I recall, they replaced something much more pedestrian.
KC:
About 10 years ago, I decided that whenever something I'd seen on

wrote, it needed to be replaced by something completely over the top.

HG:
If you have an anxiety of influence who is it and why.
KC:
Anxiety ... well, this one I think is a lot like Tom Carson's Twisted Kicks. Of course, there is also Lewis Carroll all over this thing (literally). Perhaps MC Escher too. Robert Aickman. Do you know Aickman's stuff?
HG:
No, what's it like?
KC:
He's a British ghost story writer who died in 1981, or rather a writer of "strange stories." His stuff is like this: you can tell that something really disturbing is going on, but you can never quite tell what, but whatever it is, it's worse than anything you can imagine. He had a couple of short story collections: Cold Hand in Mine, and The Wine-Dark Sea. Great stuff.
HG:
Still in print?
KC:
But I'm definitely working w/in the idiom of dark fantasy.
HG:
Does Subpoena Vacation follow along the same lines?
KC:
CHIM may be available from the sf book club. WDS was published by Arbor House in the mid-80s.
KC:
Tea break first. Be right back in about 45 seconds.
HG:
Ok.
Flubber:
mr. harry?
Dave:
Dude?
KC:
hi hi
KC:
By the way, introduce yourselves.
Dave:
Flubber?
Flubber:
hi, I'm flubber.
HG:
Yes, I think they should.
Dave:
Dave of ol' SonicNet here.
HG:
David is SonicNet Control
HG:
Flubber is a bad dream.
Flubber:
flubber of Full Bleed.
KC:
If this were a moo we could get a good look at you, but we're stuck in text-land. Oh well...
Flubber:
what a sight you are missing.
Dave:
I'm afraid to know.
KC:
I'll bet.
KC:
Shall I continue?
HG:
Any questions for Kathryn?
Dave:
I have a question.
KC:
Sure
Dave:
Are you familiar with Mark Amerika's AltX project?
KC:
He's a friend of mine. I don't have easy access to the WWW, but I know what it is and he's shown it to me.
HG:
Care to elaborate?
KC:
He and I are somewhat on the same wavelength (whatever that is), although I'm coming out of science fiction into this terrain and he's coming out of Post-Modern lit. I met him at the PONGFEST at Brown last April. It's amazing how much stuff has changed since all of us impoverished electronic lunatics got together.
Dave:
How so?
KC:
Japanese businessmen are flying him into NYC later this month to tell them about publishing on the internet.
Dave:
Besides Amerika who else is currently distributing lit on the Net that you know of?
KC:
I've incorporated and am founding Black Mark. David Blair has got WAX up on the WWW. Depends on your definition of distribute and lit. I know there's a lot of cool stuff in the midst of the garbage available on the WWW, but I've been isolated from that by lack of equipment and a killer travel schedule. There are a number of on-line bookstores, most of
KC:
It certainly liberates me, but it allows me to subject the reader
HG:
But what about collaborative hypertexts?
KC:
Like stuff one writes passing PowerBooks hand to hand? Like the Hotel MOO?
HG:
Is that the one Coover worked on? Where the reader can add, comment, delete, become a "real" writer? [They are refer entire text of various. . . I want to adapt authors more than I do books.
HG:
Like who?
KC:
Samuel R. Delany has always been trying to write this sort of thing, and I'm teaching him the technology. Pat Cadigan wants to get into this. What the market wants in hard sci fi guys and cyberpunk, 'cause that's where the machines are right now.
HG:
Is Delany working on anything specific?
KC:
He has stuff he'd like to do. I have to find a way to get him his own Mac. Right now, all the work he does on it is on a friend's PowerBooks that travels. I'm being a little cagey here, because lots of people are flirting w/the idea but might be upset w/ me for saying that they were doing anything.
HG:
What's the first thing you tell a writer interested in getting into E-publishing?
KC:
Learn the software. Unless, of course, they send me a bunch of stuff on paper, in which case I say no. In this transitional phase I am in something of a quandary as to what to tell them to do, but this will pass. I have these "is it time yet" correspondences going w/ a lot of authors right now. Adapting books is what everyone else is going to try to do.
HG:
Storyspace? Macromedia? What authoring software are we talking about?
KC:
There are various things available off the shelf, and then there is custom software. Nothing is satisfactory enough. But you have to keep fighting the tools.
HG:
I think once you've seen a link intensive hypertext
KC:
Yes, there is a certain similarity to sex. When you know what's possible, you are reluctant to abandon those possibilities. Custom software fills in the gaps between commercially available things. Working solely w/ custom stuff would be hideously expensive.
KC:
Stretching my fingers.
HG:
cracking my knuckles
KC:
I don't know.
HG:
What software would you suggest someone interested in electronic writing should become familiar with?
KC:
Storyspace is a good place to start because it give you a taste for a high degree of interactivity. The people who have actually publish hypertext seem to have the following habits: about 1/2 wrote in Storyspace, about a 1/3 wrote in Hypercard, and then a few wrote their own authoring software. Everything is cumbersome in one way or another.
HG:
Are there any specific software innovations that you want to see?
KC:
I would like to see software companies get away from the idea that one's computer should behave as much like a TV as possible, and instead use some other artistic models for the authoring software for multimedia.
HG:
Those models being?
KC:
Literature is the one I'm focused on, but the arts are not just divided up into TV and books. There is a whole rich world out there. Computers are particularly good at surrealism, for example.
KC:
But also, In the creation of literature, I'm trying to find ways to let other artists play too. Visual artists, musicians... etc.
HG:
How do musicians figure into the mix?
KC:
I'm tying to find a way to make use of Geoff Hartwell, my boyfriend's son, who is a really good rock guitarist.
HG:
The only music I've heard on hypertext are Mike Watt's chinese water torture plinkings on Ambulance.
KC:
Well, part of the problem is that you want little bits, rather than whole songs. Jaime's constraint is that she was trying to make a continuous soundtrack come off a floppy. I've seen some experimental interactive film stuff that used music to maintain continuity during cuts between scenes, for example.
HG:
Do you think narrative can take a cue from music composition in hypertext?
KC:
Yes, (if I'm understanding you correctly) but I don't know enough music theory to give an articulate answer. One interesting different between interactive music and interactive fiction is that the interactive music people mean is that the computer accompanies the musician (interacts with the musician). Whereas in interactive fiction, the interactivity is with the reader, not the writer. Those delay pedal things ... those are an early form of interactive music.
HG:
A lot of writers are threatened by that.
KC:
Threatened by the reader making choices?
KC:
Well, a lot of writers are threatened by the idea of a reading audience.
HG:
They labor under a Victorian illusion of the primacy of the Intended reading reinforced by New Critical academics who still plague college campuses.
KC:
On the other hand, I'm pretty skeptical of the idea that hypertext liberates the reader.
HG:
How so?
KC:
It certainly liberates me, but it allows me to subject the reader
HG:
But what about collaborative hypertexts?
KC:
Like stuff one writes passing PowerBooks hand to hand? Like the Hotel MOO?
HG:
Is that the one Coover worked on? Where the reader can add, comment, delete, become a "real" writer? [They are referring to novelist Robert Coover who started teaching hypertext fiction workshops at Brown University a few years ago and has started a collaborative writing project called the Hypertext Hotel which can be accessed via telnet at duke.cs.brown.edu 8888 --Ed.]
KC:
Yes.
HG:
Like Hotel. Like Marble Springs.
KC:
We can write in books on paper, but we know the difference between the text and graffiti & marginalia.
KC:
The Hotel is more an R&D lab for collaborative writing than it is a
KC:
literary work. I think I'm it's most prolific contributor and also the one whose read more of it than anyone else. There were some really lovely moments of real collaboration, but for the most part people didn't want to collaborate. Marble Springs is designed as an invitation, but I am curious what percentage of its readers really do write more.
HG:
And the structure is already laid out. Of MS. Do you think that the internet can deliver on true collaboration?
KC:
Yes & no. Quality remains an important stratifying element. If editorial gate keepers are taken out of the loop, how do we find what we want to read? If one partner in the collaboration is wonderful and the rest are terrible, how do you find the good stuff?
HG:
Well, what if a bunch of decent writers got together.
KC:
I have some idea about that, but I'm not sure whether that is a really a satisfying notion of artistic collaboration. Good writers writing together works sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't. You're getting Kathryn the elitist here. I actually do a lot of hypertextual collaboration.
HG:
Is there anything you want to discuss?
KC:
Do you still want to hear about Subpoena Vacation?
KC:
It's about a woman who goes on vacation to Cape Cod by herself to duck a subpoena. I know what the story is, so unlike In Small and Large Pieces, I'm starting from a photo album and working toward text. It will probably be fully multi-media in it's final form.
HG:
Will it be as link complex as In Small and Large Pieces?
KC:
I was thinking about graphics and the user interface in electronic fiction, and trying to make the interface part of the narrative itself.
HG:
Intriguing, do go on.
KC:
I would hope that I can make it as heavily linked (need a better term) as In Small and Large Pieces. Well, I scanned in the pictures and then extracted the natural icons from them and then went back to Cape Cod & took more pictures, pictures of road signs & such. Then I combined & recombined them, trying to get them to tell me what was really going on here. I got to the limits of my equipment, but I'm getting better equipment now.
HG:
Sounds great...it will be out in 95?
KC:
Late 95, maybe later. but who knows. maybe sooner. I'm going to have to rescan everything when I get better things and then do the collage work from scratch, using the things I have now as sketches.
HG:
I loved what you did with the scanned images in In Small and Large Pieces, really added a macabre texture to the whole thing.
KC:
I'm definitely going to use both sounds & music. May even have Geoff write some music for it. My favorite of the current Subpoena Vacation images is of a giant lobster coming over the horizon on a beach and a shadowed figure in the foreground taking it's picture. But I think you already know my idiom. I have a sick & twisted sense of humor.
HG:
Do you have a background in visual arts?
KC:
Not really, except for quilting.
KC:
What you are looking at in Small & Large is not the influence of WS Burroughs, but my quilting technique.
HG:
Sew that flesh together.
KC:
I like to cut stuff up and then sew it back together in a more interesting way.
HG:
Kind of like Leather face in Texas Chainsaw Massacre
KC:
They are going to put out a limited edition In Small & Large Pieces sewing kit. Sounds innocuous unless you've read it.
HG:
That's great!
KC:
Eric @ Eastgate came up with the idea. I think it's really amusing.
KC:
I think I'm going to get it distributed in science fiction. It's sort of out and sort of isn't. It will be shipping to subscribers to the Eastgate Quarterly first, but Eastgate is all wrapped up in getting Storyspace for Windows ready, so everything else slides a bit.
HG:
Is the windows version radically different? or just Windowy?
KC:
It allows you to pry open the hood a bit more than I would like. In the Mac version I get to lock things down better. On Sarah Smith's 386 machine which I have on loan, the windows version is kind of slow. I'd say do the Mac version if possible, but if you need to know some things for your doctoral dissertation, also look at the windows version (actually, it's not that bad).
HG:
It's been really great picking your brain.
KC:
I'm pretty tired too.
KC:
I like this sort of thing.
HG:
It's like time just melts away. Thanks for the discussion...
KC:
Thanks for listening.
HG:
and you can really get into things--in a strangely abbreviated way
KC:
yes. Deena Larsen did an interview w/ me in the Hotel MOO. Strangestuff.
HG:
Talk to you soon! Good Night
KC:
night.


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