Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Email Interview with Mary-Kim Arnold

On June 27, 2018 Grigar initiated an email exchange with Arnold about the production of "Lust." What follows are the questions and responses that took place. Arnold kindly gave permission for us to make this information available to the public.

Grigar: There are 38 lexias noted in the Storyspace launch window but only 37 lexias are actually accessible. Did you do that on purpose in order to create a janespace? If not, what was on that lexia?

Arnold: This is likely to be a very unsatisfying answer, but I don't know or remember at this point. I remember 36 lexias and the "prologue," which I added at the end -- as a kind of menu / entry point. The janespace is a lovely notion, and it is quite possible I did that, being influenced by Michael Joyce and Stuart Moulthrop as I was, but I cannot say with certainty.

Grigar: How did you plan the structure of the work? In other words, did you develop the lexias and links on paper and then realize them in production? Some other method?

Arnold: As I recall, I was aware that many of the hypertexts we looked at -- most notably, Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse, and Afternoon -- were large and sprawling, and I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, these very short, fragmented pieces -- and I sort of set myself the challenge of what's the smallest possible hypertext I could make. I think the 36 lexia limit came from laying out the Storyspace boxes on the screen -- to form a tight grid -- and then I wrote the text fragments on paper. I was very much thinking about repetition and wordplay, as is apparent. I made the links in Storyspace -- guided by association and by wordplay (sonic textures).

Grigar: I can’t find any other e-lit by you. Was “Lust” your only one? Why, when “Lust” was so very successful critically?

Arnold: I was at a point in my writing where I was really just experimenting a lot -- finding a form. I was interested in frameworks that helped me to approach text and narrative in new ways. I didn't set out to create e-lit, specifically. Storyspace, as a tool, was just very useful to think about some of the formal and aesthetic questions I was working with -- the circling back of memory, the effect of repetition of sounds, words, and phrases, the sense of many things being true simultaneously, that we repeat patterns of behavior in an attempt to understand our own actions, how drama could be heightened by uncertainty, unexpected juxtapositions. I've always been drawn to texts that incorporate image, and works that exploit the visual experience of encountering text on a page.

While still an undergrad, I was working on another hypertext, Chez Max, a sort of love story, which took the form of a restaurant menu, and each item on the menu was a fragment of narrative. I don't think I ever really finished it to my satisfaction.

A few years later, as internet-based writing was emerging, I was in graduate school (the MFA program in fiction at Brown, which was then, as now, considered very experimental) and my friend and fellow student (now husband), Matthew Derby, and I wrote Kokura together, which Eastgate has generously continued to host all these years:

Although I tried to stay connected to how electronic literature was evolving, I always was drawn back to text on the page. In graduate school, work like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's DICTEE really pointed me in a direction I hadn't really thought possible before, as did the work of the OuLiPo, and so I sort of worked in that space for a while.

My recent book, Litany for the Long Moment, I think carries traces of all those early influences, and I suppose I think of myself as a kind of hybrid writer / artist, which makes sense given my own sense of cultural identity -- at the interstices of several formal universes, but not quite fully in any one.

Grigar: You were at Brown U when you produced “Lust.” Did you study with Coover? Other e-lit artists?

Arnold: I did! When I was an undergrad, I took an advanced fiction writing workshop with Coover, where -- and my memory could be faulty here -- he was working exclusively electronically. So, he introduced us all to the computer lab and to Storyspace. As I mentioned, I had written mostly poetry, and short fragmentary prose, so something about the little Storyspace boxes felt very exciting to me -- a kind of freedom that my text didn't have to fill a page, didn't have to propel a traditional narrative. That I could make links between things that were purely associative or sonic. Bob Arellano was a grad student then. I met and worked with Michael Joyce (I think he came and gave a class or two?), Carolyn Guyer. Alvin Lu was there at the time, as well. I met Kathryn Cramer, Shelley Jackson. Bob really was so encouraging and great to work with. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to work with him at a time when all this experimentation was going on, just before the internet became what it would be. 

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