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The Interview with John McDaid about Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse

This interview of John McDaid, conducted by Dene Grigar, took place on Thursday, August 8, 2013 in the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver as part of the Pathfinders project. The interview is divided into nine parts and provides insights into the development of the work, its influences, legacy, and its relation to developments in digital storytelling. The commentary was written by Moulthrop.

McDaid Interview, Part 1, "Dissecting the Box"
Grigar begins by asking McDaid about three inventories: literal contents of the box, media encompassed by those contents, and the genres they all draw from or represent.

There are five 3.5-inch diskettes (in the original version). When was the change to CD format?  McDaid doesn't recall. [Mark Bernstein of Eastgate later writes to say, "at some point no later than 2003, we had replaced the floppies and cassettes with a CD."]

Discussing the booklet: a "colophon" and how-to, intended for readers wholly unfamiliar with the idea of hypertext.

How were the stacks assigned to their respective diskettes? "Not an artistic decision," but a matter of packaging. On the other hand, the decision to require all component stacks to be in the same folder (directory) was intentional. Stack scripts communicate with a central stack (Funhouse). This was a design choice.

What media are in the project? Letters, cassettes, e-mails, Tarot cards, journals, games and puzzles, a conference program, print fiction, photos, drawings, a screenplay. Also, McDaid points out, "poetry, embedded audio, including system audio." Also, HyperTalk scripts in some places are readable as texts.

The third inventory: genres and artforms. Generative text, hypertext fiction, lyrics, facsimiles of books -- the "novel" as container of all this multiplicity. McDaid: a "conscious aim" of the work was to have everything within it "modally appropriate" -- "using the tool the way the tool was designed to be used" -- "embedding the narrative diegetically within the actual artifact."

McDaid Interview, Part 2, "The Chocolate Box of Death"
DG: Characters of the work... there are two. McDaid: "There are ALLEGEDLY two main characters, Emily Keane and Arthur "Buddy" Newkirk. There are other, peripheral characters: Buddy's fellow Reptiles, Al Magnusson, "Geraldus Cambrensis," co-author of Buddy's screenplay, among others. But "two main speaking parts."

The black box, or "chocolate box full of death" (Mark Bernstein). Cover design was McDaid's concept and original graphic (stretched to fit the boxtop). McDaid has notebooks and "page masters" for everything in the Funhouse. Who's the image? It's John.  How the image was produced -- with ThunderScan, a module that snapped into an ImageWriter printer and allowed digitization of images by feeding them through the roller. McDaid notes that this technology generally required use of an initial reproduction of the source image, so that the process began with photocopying, and thus immediately gave up image quality. Once digitized, McDaid's images were further processed with the tools in HyperCard, which are essentially identical to MacPaint. The graphics are all one-bit, on/off bitmaps.  A highly stylized and distinctive visual aesthetic -- curiously similar to the "retro" effect Shelley Jackson chose for Patchwork Girl.

Why black and silver for the cover? Who knows, but the effect is edgy, "dangerous." Oakland Raiders colors(?).

The chocolate box really was sourced from a manufacturer of confectionery boxes -- which is ironic, since an inspiration for the Funhouse was a See's candy box full of mementos sent to McDaid by his dying aunt.

McDaid Interview, Part 3, "Deleted Scenes and Inspiration"
Anything left out of the Funhouse? Yes, two movie files too big for HyperCard and the diskette format. One of these was a music video for the "Time Machine" song. But aside from these specific omissions, McDaid regrets the loss of information in the reduction of photographs to the one-bit HyperCard format. He shot original photos on 35-millimeter film, printed them to 8.5x11, then had to photocopy and ThunderScan, losing vast amounts of detail and nuance. On the other hand, this low-resolution aesthetic made it possible to "get away with a crap ton of stuff," as in the sketchbook approximation of an interface in the HyperEarth stack.

DG: The box is like a coffin. There's death here, or disappearance. McDaid: or never having existed in the first place.

DG: Literary allusions -- Burroughs, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens ("Asides on the Oboe"). McDaid: the work has two main parents. Its poetic "father" is Thomas Pynchon, whose novel Gravity's Rainbow [1973] contains music-hall numbers, popular songs, equations, and passages in the language of art, film, theatre. Gravity's Rainbow showed that a novel didn't have to proceed in linear fashion.

The "mother" of the Funhouse is Ursula K. LeGuin "the most underrated living American writer." Her 1985 novel Always Coming Home is an anthropological study of the Kesh, a group of people living in Northern California in the far future. It contains a linear narrative, but mainly consists of artifacts and documents: anthropological reports, maps, and in the slip-cased version, cassettes of the poetry and music of the Kesh. Seeing this work was "revelatory," says McDaid -- it was an example of modally appropriate presentation that "maintains the fourth wall and doesn't break."

"And she [LeGuin] lives right here in Portland!" McDaid recounts his encounter with LeGuin at a science fiction convention ("total fanboy squee"), when he had his copy of Always Coming Home autographed and asked the writer if she had ever considered doing it as a hypertext. This was in the early 1990s, and LeGuin hadn't heard of hypertext.

McDaid Interview, Part 4, "Hypermedia Community"
DG: The term "hypermedia" was not in wide use in the late 1980s and early 90s . . .

McDaid: Through "an accident of geography" -- living in Rhode Island -- he was able to be part of a circle of innovators based at Brown University [the Computers in the Humanities User Group, CHUG], organized by Elli Mylonas, then of the Perseus Project and later director of the Scholarly Technologies Group at Brown. This group included George Landow, Robert Coover, Andries Van Dam, Greg Crane, and others. "I was able to hang out with these people who were talking about hypermedia."

Grigar remembers a moment in the early 1990s when all the academic hypermedia research could fit into a small volume. McDaid: "It was a simpler time."

Grigar asks about HyperEarth and its anticipation of Google Earth. McDaid: "An obvious idea . . . someone's gonna do this.  Maps are a killer app for interactivity."

"I'm a little happy that I called it 'Street View,' though."

John Barber, who was in the audience, asks about Tristram Shandy. McDaid: "not part of my reading at the time. I'm a genre writer.  All I ever wanted to be in my life was a science fiction writer. I would read [mainstream] literature if it had science fiction in it." Barber turns the question to classic SF (e.g., Canticle for Leibowitz) in which the reader has to figure out the nature of a world based on documentary evidence. McDaid agrees that this is a major strain in science fiction, referring to Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Making a world from traces is "the magician's 'force'," the manipulation that creates suspension of disbelief -- and allows us to see the world we inhabit as "a little weird."

McDaid Interview, Part 5, "Discussing Immersion"
Grigar asks about "immersion," noting the criticism of Janet Murray and others that hypertext fictions (like Joyce's afternoon) fail at the effect because they require non-trivial user engagement. Grigar points out that the Funhouse, with its multiple modalities and its emphasis on building an experience, seems to contradict Murray's line.

McDaid: Immersion is relative. As audiences become more comfortable with media, immersion becomes easier, e.g. the introduction of "jump cuts" in modern film, which we sometimes no longer even perceive.

But in the Funhouse "you are doing nothing else but what you are doing -- you are sitting at a computer looking at a vanished writer's hard drive. YOU ARE THERE."

DG: Should Murray have been looking at the Funhouse instead of afternoon? McDaid: "I'm sure she did the best she could with the tools and texts that were available."

On Burroughs and cutups -- a way of understanding hypermedia and the Web? McDaid: the Web isn't explicitly Dadaist, but it has some aspects of the cut-up.

McDaid: "Among my challenges in the Funhouse was to try to write a novel that no 20th-century writer could write. To do this I had to push the text beyond what it's possible to do." McDaid comments on the emergent qualities of the text, its ability to produce things not directly intended: to transcend itself.

McDaid Interview, Part 6, "Digital Mosaic Chips"
Barber asks about interactive fiction and the role-playing game tradition, noting that the reader's predicament at start of the Funhouse might as well be the start of a Dungeons and Dragons session (multiple entry points; which way do you go?)

McDaid recalls playing interactive fiction games -- Adventure on a PDP-11 before Zork! -- including A Mind Forever Voyaging and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. "What I saw there was the limits of a parser and the limits of choice-point fiction. The Funhouse is not parser driven but MOSAIC. Its pieces are not choice-points but chips in a tessellated environment."

Barber: So, hypermedia rather than hypertext?

McDaid: Infocom games were heavily word-based, so yes.

Grigar recalls resistance to including graphics in early multi-user environments (MOOs).

McDaid: It was an established tradition -- and graphics were "freaking difficult."

Grigar: "Is the Funhouse science fiction?"  [Barber: So different from Heinlein!]

McDaid: "It is absolutely SF... living in the Interzone; or in the world of Always Coming Home. Humanity confronting scientific and technical realities." In 1992, the year the Funhouse was initially scheduled to be published [it appeared in 1993], McDaid was admitted to the Clarion Writers' Workshop, one of the leading professional academies for science fiction writers. His acceptance was partly based on "Tree," Newkirk's story in the Funhouse. While at Clarion, he wrote a "recursive SF story" written by either Buddy or Emily, in which the protagonist is at Clarion writing a story the other one will never be able to read.

McDaid: The "central conceit" of the Funhouse is the Escher image of two hands, each drawing the other -- "Identity under uncertainty."

McDaid Interview, Part 7, "Limitations of Technology"
Grigar notes that in his traversal, McDaid still seems remarkably close to the work after 20 years . . . 

McDaid: Twenty years, yes: the ideas got started in 1986 and gathered steam as technology came along and matured.

DG: How do you feel about the work now?

McDaid: Might change some of the writing, but generally happy with the narrative premise and execution. "I would dearly love to improve some of the graphics . . . .  I can't tell you how many nights I spent drawing dots with a mouse . . . with those old, brick-like, Mac Plus mice." It's so easy now to create immersive, full-resolution images.

DG: There was a progression in technological graphic art  . . . from Xerox art to ASCII art to the first PC art in platforms like MacDraw and MacPaint. We should think about work from these periods within their context of production.

McDaid: Yes, that's the obligation of a curator. The old tools were clunky or non-intuitive. "As Spock says, 'I am trying to create the world's first duotronic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.'"

DG: Can you identify any other artists who may have been influenced by the Funhouse?

McDaid: "I honestly don't know." There was an informal "Eastgate School," including Stuart Moulthrop, Michael Joyce, Jane Yellowlees Douglas, Sarah Smith, Kathryn Cramer, and others; and all these people learned from each other; but the influences were mutual rather than uni-linear.

DG: Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse is the only artifactual, boxed product Eastgate has published. Have other works of this type been limited by commercial considerations, or by conceptual challenges?

McDaid: "I was at the tail end of getting away with it." Robert Coover observed at the time that work of this sort would in future be produced by teams, directed by a creative lead. McDaid compares his situation to that of a child before the "crisis of realism," a term from developmental psychology that describes the child's recognition that her or his artwork does not depict reality with sufficient accuracy or detail. The Funhouse was a creature of its time. Today, similar approaches to object-oriented storytelling and modally-appropriate presentation are more apt to be found in the game space. "You're playing in the same sandbox as Bioshock."

McDaid Interview, Part 8, "Potential Influence"
DG: What similarities do you see between the Funhouse and the products of Bob Stein's Voyager Company, particularly their line of multimedia works called "Expanded Books?"

McDaid: An evolutionary link, but "probably more Homo florensis [a side-branch not directly related to modern humans] than Lucy [our direct ancestor] . . . a short evolutionary limb off the tree." McDaid sees more of a "through-line" to the cultural mainstream in terms of Voyager's hypermedia work and experimental film and video, e.g., the work of Mike Nesmith or The Residents.  In the late 1980s, "many flowers were blooming, and then a big tree grew up."

DG: William Gibson's Agrippa is another boxed-set work . . . which brings us to  what came outside and after the Funhouse; for you in particular . . . 

McDaid: Funhouse was accepted for publiation while I was at Clarion [the science fiction writers' workshop]. I was trying to move what I had learned about complex narrative into "something I could sell." So my output since the Funhouse has been short fiction. Several of these stories -- "Jigoku no mokushiroku," "Keyboard Practice" -- use inset documents as if they were modally-appropriate objects building up traces of a fictional world.

McDaid doesn't absolutely rule out ever doing another complex, object-oriented fiction, but: "I've had my crisis of realism. I couldn't get away with low-res approaches."

DG: In just about every walk of life, we're learning that we need to work in teams . . . 

Barber: But is high resolution always necessary? Doesn't art or literature basically come down to story? Does the writer have to keep up with technology?

McDaid: "It depends . . . ."  As McLuhan observes, media take as their content other media, just as biological evolution subsumes other structures: so our brain still includes a medulla, taking care of breathing and digestion. In this sense, linear prose writing is still  viable. Short stories, fan fiction are alive and well. "Does every writer have to do complex multimedia? -- No.  It's probably a question of appetite, and: what kind of stories can you ONLY tell with this medium?"

Barber: "That's the key question."

McDaid: I've been interested in writers who push the boundaries of text . . . for example, Jorge Luis Borges, in "The Aleph" or "The Library of Babel" -- which I read as science ficiton, by the way -- I'm a genre writer."

McDaid asks, "What are the stories you can't tell in a print fiction?" Rob Swigart [another digital writer with whom McDaid worked in the 1980s] could turn Portal [Swigart's own HyperCard multimedia fiction, not to be confused with the later video games from Valve] into a novel, because fundamentally it's a mystery story." We know how this works; but when the answer to a text's basic questions are something like "maybe," linear form is more difficult to apply.

Barber: I see a connection between the Funhouse and [Tarantino's] Pulp Fiction, a film that explodes the standard conception of beginning, middle, and end in narrative.

McDaid agrees. "And then the completion happens [tapping forehead] in here, in your head." We're used to prescriptive meaning-making. "Do it the way Balzac did it!" as Tom Wolfe used to say. But there are other ways to tell stories.

McDaid Interview, Part 9, "Preserving the Ephemeral"
DG: About the reception of your work . . . do you know of readings that may be good, and likewise some that may be misguided or wrong? For instance, do you think some readings have put too much emphasis on technology and technique, and not enough on the message or meaning of the work? Beyond that, what constitutes a reading of a work as large and complex as the Funhouse?

McDaid: Anja Rau [a German writer on new media] has done a particularly good reading of the Funhouse. But whatever reading someone does is a close reading. One friend read nothing more than the messages in the e-mail system (HyperTerminal) and said, "I've got it." That was a satisfactory reading, says McDaid.

McDaid showed the Funhouse to his 13-year-old son Jack, who is "more of a fan of Minecraft than interactive fiction," and Jack's response was, "Wow, that's all black-and-white and stuff." Diving into the work, Jack found the Egypt stack, with its demand for password, and began trying to solve the puzzle, which led him to "The Egypt of Egypt," which he also approached as a mystery to be solved, after which he was done with the Funhouse. "That's a close reading," says McDaid.

"One of my favorite readings is actually a misreading," from a blog maintained by Jed Hartman, now the editor of a science fiction magazine, who somehow came across the Funhouse stacks outside the context of the fiction. He assumed they were the work of an actual Arthur Newkirk, who seemed to be interested in the same ideas and writers as Hartman, leading the blogger to think about reaching out -- until "I discovered that he wasn't real!" This was "an enormously satisfying and close reading," says McDaid.

DG: The question of preservation: Is failure of technological accessiblity the same as being out of print? She recounts her experience of trying to understand the Funhouse after one of the five disks in her copy became unreadable. Barriers to entry . . .

McDaid: Artists these days are tied to operating systems, software. Absent a standard such as HTML, XML or other things that can be "slurped up" into later systems, everything will eventually go away. There is a difference, McDaid says, between analog objects such as vinyl records, and digital records on CDs. With the analog object, we can physically recover sound information simply by running a needle attached to a megaphone along the grooves. In contrast, the CD, cut off from its technical dependencies, is "an essentially speechless object." McDaid mentions the discovery of early written records at the ancient city of Nineveh in the 1840s.  In the absence of context, "they're just tablets with squiggles. There's no way to turn that into meaning. It scares the crap out of me."

There follows a digression about the 1960s and talking dolphins.

DG: But even analog objects are fragile, vulnerable . . . especially if we don't undertand their "contextualization." Isn't this fragility part of the beauty of the work -- the beauty of ephemera?

McDaid: "One of the things driving the characters in this fiction is their awareness of ephemerality. Arthur and Emily are "curators," each building his or her own fragmentary collection of their mutual and private worlds. The Funhouse is "an embodiment of ephemerality."

McDaid says it occurred to him, briefly, to package the Funhouse on an actual hard disk drive, though that would have been hugely expensive at the time. [Compare Nick Montfort's interactive fiction Winchester's Nightmare (1999), whose "hardback" edition is a government-surplus 386 laptop.]

One of the things driving the Funhouse was a loss in McDaid's family, the death of his Aunt Rita, who before her passing sent him a See's candy box full of odd bits and pieces. Looking at the collection, McDaid felt impelled to make some sense of them. This was in many ways the genesis of the Funhouse.

Barber: The subject of death comes in, or of disappearance. Perhaps there are two kinds of death here: physical and "memory death," the latter being what happens when no one has a way to connect to an absent person. In our relation to the Funhouse, are we keeping Newkirk alive?

McDaid: Making sense of things is our obligation as humans. We leave things behind, and who knows what sense they make?

"As as science fiction writer I am fundamentally optimistic, not one of the folks who writers dystopias. Humans can make meaning in the world . . . but only under the constraint of mortality. And there, we have to leave it."

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