DIY Series – Red Phone Box

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As part of Memories of the Future we are running a series of Q&As with independent creative folk doing interesting & unusual projects. Today we’re joined by Salome Jones of Ghostwoods Books & Flourish Editing to discuss the magical story cycle Red Phone Box – a collaborative digital project that has now been crowd-funded into print.

What is ‘Red Phone Box’?

Red Phone Box, apart from being a little kiosk designed in nineteenth century Britain for people to make phone calls from, is a book. We’re calling it a collective novel. It really is kind of an interesting thing, a novel built out of stories. You can think of it as two things: its original pieces, and the book we made out of them. It’s almost like we took a bunch of puzzle pieces, devised the picture we wanted to make out of them, and then with selective trimming and tiny bits of emphasis, put them together into a frame to make a picture you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Or the short answer is, it’s a book.

How did it evolve into a story-cycle & how did you pick writers to be a part of it?

I think it first evolved into a story cycle in my head. I originally wrote a story and asked people to write stories that would connect to it. I think I was envisioning something like what Red Phone Box turned out to be, but the logistics of making that work organically are quite a challenge. If you’ve ever played a writing game, like Exquisite Corpse, you’ll realize what it’s like trying to make sense of stories written sequentially, where each writer only sees the story in the sequence before hers/his. You get some hilarious twists and turns, but what you don’t get is a logical, linear sequence of events. I just wished it into existence, really. And then Tim Dedopulos and I worked our butts off to make it happen. I also dragged some of the other writers into the work pit with us. It was fun. We mud wrestled.

I didn’t really choose the other writers. They came out of the webwork, so to speak. Some of them I knew slightly. A couple I knew reasonably well. All of them I got to know better because of the book. Now I’d like to take them all away to live with me on a desert island. There’s an unfortunate lack of resources for that project right now. (Wealthy investors, please contact me to discuss it.)

Red Phone Box feels in tune with writers utilising digital mediums to tell stories. Many of your contributors are multi-media artists, also working with e.g. games & graphic novels. How do you feel this has informed the project?

That’s a really good question. I’m a fan of comics and I tried to capture some of the feel of a comic by including illustrations in the book. I think it was helpful to me that some of the writers were used to working with images in their other projects. Grim Desborough was extremely helpful in suggesting ideas for illustrations to give Kara Frame, the artist on the project.

But I think it may have been influenced in ways that I’m not really aware of. It’s the product of all our brains, and several of the brains that helped create it do most of their work in comics or RPGs, so I think it couldn’t avoid the influence. But I can’t pin down its exact nature.

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The project evolved from a blog to now being released as a paperback. Did this feel like a natural transition, being able to test the market for the project?

Well, it evolved in the idea form. Some of the stories, in an earlier iteration, were on my website. But they’ve never been released together in any published form. And now all of them have been altered, better edited and some have undergone significant rewrites. There are about twice the number of original stories, now chapters. The biggest thing to change is the shape of the whole project. It’s moved much further down the line to the shape of a novel.

I don’t think anything we’ve done has tested the market for this book. I have no idea what’s going to happen with it once it’s released. I know I’d like people to read it. I think it will interest people who like well-written fantasy, who aren’t afraid of reading different forms. I think of it as Neverwhere and American Gods, put into a food processor, and then the chopped up bits cobbled together so that all the sentences work, all the chapters work, and the book as a whole holds up as a tale of magical London, but bears only a slight resemblance to the original pieces. It feels a bit magical to me that it even exists.

You’re an advocate of mixing highbrow literary styles with entertaining genre-writing, is this a unique selling point of Red Phone Box?

It’s a selling point, for sure. I don’t think it’s unique. There are actually a lot of literary fantasy books in the world. Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Molly Gloss, Ursula LeGuin. I don’t know if we’ve reached that level, but this book is a bit high brow and a bit low brow. I feel proud of it. It’s one of those rare, weird, cool books that I’m always looking for and am almost never able to find.

You used crowd-funding to bring the project into print. What was that like? Do you think it’s easier to crowd-fund collaborative projects like this?

Crowd funding is hard. We were planning the Kickstarter for a year before we launched it. I couldn’t really have done it without help from everyone, all the writers, Kara Frame, Warren Ellis, Ben Templesmith. And also a friend who helped me set up the Kickstarter page. And, of course, everyone who backed us. I don’t know whether the collaboration makes it easier to pitch, but I’m sure having thirty people promoting the project like it was their own (which it was) helped us get funded. In an all or nothing proposition, you need that.

How did Warren Ellis get involved with the project?

Haha! It sounds ridiculous when I say it, but… I asked him. We’ve been friends for a long time. I met him when I was in graduate school in the US. It was a literary program and I was a genre writer. I needed all the support I could get. The RPB project was the first writing I’d done that I thought he might like, so I took a risk. ‘Would risk again. A++++’

The project seems a little like a mysterious love-song to London. How do you feel it evokes the identity of the city?

That’s a lovely description. I hope it lives up to that. I think what it evokes, or maybe even invokes, is the London of our collective imagination. It’s written by people from ten countries, some of whom have never been in London. London is one of the world’s great cities. It has a life outside the real. That’s the London in the book, the London beneath, behind, the physical London.

Is this magic realism or urban fantasy, or both? And does it even matter?

There’s an argument to be made that true magic realism is a post-colonial literature, a literature born of oppression. I’m reluctant to lay claim to that title, even though this book shares a lot with magic realism. I think it qualifies as urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy. I like the term speculative fiction because it takes into account the highbrow aspects.

Does it matter? I guess, it helps people discover it. But it’s also misleading. Some people who wouldn’t read fantasy might actually love this. If you could take thirty heads and attach them to your body and walk around switching your viewpoint between them, looking at the world through a sequence of different people’s eyes, accessing all their imaginations and memories, but on a journey grounded in one place, in one direction, you might get an organic experience like reading this book.

Ghostwoods is a self-styled ‘fair-trade publisher’. Briefly, what does this mean?

Ghostwoods Books shares profits equally with writers. Which is not what traditional publishers do. I’m a fairly recent addition to the Ghostwoods editing staff, but I love the idea of fair trade as a writer. I’ve only recently come to understand the risk that a publisher takes when putting out a book. So this fair trade thing is a bit brave.

When will it be available and where will people be able to buy it?

We’ve delayed the public release until November, which is what has to happen to make it work with traditional marketing timetables. It will be available ‘everywhere’, and by that I mean, in any bookstore that wants to stock it. It will be available through major distributors so bookstores and libraries can buy it, as well as in online retail outlets. We’ll also be selling it directly from Ghostwoods Books’ website; gwdbooks.com. We have a limited edition hardcover in the works that will be sold exclusively through gwdbooks.com.

A small quantity of preview copies of Red Phone Box will be available for sale at Memories of the Future pop-up shop and latterly through our website if there’s any left!

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