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In Defence of the iNovel

A book gets lonely without a companion website.

By Steve Zio 19 Sep 2006 |

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iNovel author Steve Zio can multitask.
  • Hot Springs, an iNovel
  • Steve Zio
  • McArthur & Company (2006) (2005)

Yeah, I know, I know. An "i"Novel...I couldn't avoid using that little lower-case "i," could I? I just had to include that stalker vowel now occupying the same territory once inhabited by its passé predecessor, the flash-in-the-pan "e." But I couldn't help it. I tried all kinds of other names: web-novel, web-enhanced novel, bonus-features novel. None of them worked. They weren't punchy enough or they were too flaccid or dated or didn't quite get the concept. And, please remember, when I originally came up with iNovel, "i" still had cachet.

Before you slag me for the currently ubiquitous "i" (which stands for interactive here), I've already taken my hits. When I appeared on the CBC afternoon show, Freestyle, hosts Kelly Ryan and Cameron Phillips introduced me and Hot Springs by describing t-shirts for babies decorated with the caption "iPoo."

Enough about orthography. Instead, let me tell you what I think an iNovel is. Simply put, it's a novel (the kind with pages and a cover that you can buy in a book shop) plus a thematically linked companion website You don't need to actually go to the website to enjoy the book, however. But if you want to, the different links are intended to add meaning, depth and colour to the story, characters and settings.

I often use two metaphors to describe the iNovel concept. First, it's like a DVD. The book is the movie and the website parallels the bonus features. Or, if you prefer, it's a box of cereal with the novel as breakfast food and the website the prize at the bottom.

Brett Popplewell of Canadian Press put it this way: "Imagine a paperback book that also exists like a blog, allowing you to interact with its characters and its creator." At the end of each of the 23 chapters, a teaser directs you to optional web links that include original songs, paintings, sketches, an interactive map, photos -- and even contributions from artistically inclined readers who, I hope, want to submit material on the hot springs theme.

The idea for the iNovel and the story came from different places. Let's start with the latter.

Hot Springs is the story of Jason, a young web developer frustrated by the role of technology in his life. Recanting his lifestyle, job and the urban experience, he returns to bucolic Hot Springs Island and the small hotel run by his eccentric father. Once there, Jason is confronted by past events that send him on a personal odyssey to hot springs in England and Japan. That's the premise. Here's the inspiration behind it.

The naked and the warm

I lived in Japan for almost 15 years. As anyone who's spent time there knows, Japan is riddled with hot springs. The hot water literally bursts from the volcanic ground in any number of astounding and often astonishingly picturesque spots. My wife's family lives in Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu. Within two hours' drive of the homestead, there must be a hundred natural hot springs. Kimiko's sisters not only know every one, but can recite their relative virtues and faults and find them effortlessly despite endless twists and turns on narrow winding roads of indescribable complexity.

So, every hometown return includes at least one voyage to a different and generally excellent hot springs locale. Once there, everyone strips off clothes and pretensions and it's back to nature, au naturel (by gender, mind you). The public-speaking strategy of combating nerves by imagining your audience naked could well have been invented here.

By and large, Japanese people aren't touchers. They are bowers and nodders and physical proximity is on the opposite side of the spectrum from, say, Brazilians, Spaniards or even Canadians. That is, until people hit the bath.

On the day that was to inspire my novel, we were near the town of Amakusa in a bathing resort set atop a hill overlooking the shining Pacific. This public facility, available to anyone with $10, is multi-tiered and done in the best Japanese architectural tradition whereby indoors and outdoors blend seamlessly. As I stood naked on granite flagging between one interior bath and a lower rotenburo (outdoor bath), I gazed outward to the shining and unencumbered expanse of water that linked Japan and Canada's distant west coast.

When I turned to look back inside, I saw the same scene repeated three or four times in different parts of the bathing area: Japanese children or grandchildren scrubbing the backs of their elders with thick, soapy towels. The kids were having a blast and the adults were loving every minute. The connection was palpable and the skinship inspiring. To this we all aspire, I thought.

This level of connection defined for me our humanity and communal existences. It was physical and primal and so different from the clothed and more formal society that is everyday Japan (and other countries). Revelation after revelation poured over me. Layers had literally been stripped off. Things were down to the bare essentials.

The word that kept ringing in my head was warmth. The natural warmth of the hot springs, of the sun and of the skin shared by naked families. No one was self-conscious, status symbols were shut away in lockers, and everyone seemed as happy as they were clean. The search for such moments propel lives, I decided. Then and there the major themes of Hot Springs bubbled to my surface.

Fair enough. I suspect most novels originate via similar epiphanies. But, in my case, why did I choose the medium of the iNovel? Why didn't I go for a regular book?

One novel, many views

There are a number of reasons. First, my professional background is in teaching and educational publishing. Textbooks these days boast numerous links to websites and are very progressive when it comes to marrying books and the Net. So, I thought: why not do the same for fiction? Also, I've always been fascinated by the Kurosawa masterpiece, Rashomon, a film that describes a single situation from the differing perspectives of four witnesses. By using a multimedia website, I thought I could add optional content to deepen my story or at least give it different colouring or aspects.

The next step on my iNovel journey was deciding what to include on the website. First, I sought variety. I wanted each chapter link to be a surprise and do something the book couldn't -- just reading more text online wasn't an option (though I confess that some chapter links do exactly that). I wanted to make use of other senses: sight and sound, in particular. So, I thought of music, of audio books, of paintings and sketches and other visuals. Since I'm also a musician and photographer and my wife a painter, the creation of an iNovel seemed a perfect vehicle to carry our other artistic interests forward, too.

Yet, when I'd assembled the songs, the paintings, the sketches, the narrations (some with music, some without -- readers get to choose), the links and maps, and sound clips of rivers and waterfalls, I still felt something missing. I wanted the site to be truly interactive. But was it? What did the reader really have to do besides clicking this or that? Despite the "iNovel" appellation, it wasn't really much more interactive than your DVD player. To take it to the next stage, I decided, I had to engage in some kind of dialogue with readers and surfers.

As a songwriter, my songs are very different if played solo or in a group. With a band, the songs find new owners and I'm inevitably surprised by the additions and elements discovered by my bandmates that take the songs in wonderful new directions. So, I figured, why not do the same with Hot Springs? Every chapter now has a place where interested and artistically inclined readers can submit comments or -- even better -- their own writings, paintings, photos, songs or whatever. Provided the submissions are good and that they're somehow related to hot springs or themes in the book, I'll post them on the Hot Springs website with due credit given (but no money, I'm afraid -- my website generates costs but no income).

In one sense, Hot Springs is traditional. It's a regular novel inspired by the usual sort of emotions and you can buy it at your corner bookshop. I designed it so that you don't need the bells and whistles of its website to enjoy the characters and the story and if you're not inclined that way, that's absolutely fine. But at the same time, it's more. Hot Springs is about options. It's about reader choice, inclination and even participation. In that sense, I intended Hot Springs to be broader in conception that most other books. If other people think so too, I can't ask for more than that.

Vancouver Island author Steve Zio appears at Vancouver's The Word on the Street Festival, which takes place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24. At 12:15 p.m. in the library's Alma Van Dusen room, he'll talk with Tyee Books editor Charles Campbell and others about Writing and the Web. At 2 p.m. in the Canada Writes Tent on Homer at Georgia, he'll talk about his book. He will also be singing, presenting and talking at the Robson Street Chapters from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1.  [Tyee]