Guest post by author Scott Bonasso
My latest book, The Tree of Knowledge, is technically a science fiction story. However, in writing TOK, my goal was to create a science fiction story that wasn’t ‘science fiction-y’. And not just in the sense that there wouldn’t be the typical whiz-bang spaceships or aliens or sentient computers. Every author who writes sci-fi strives for plausibility, but I wanted to go further. I wanted to create a manuscript that readers might actually believe was real.
I’m not the only storyteller currently seeking methods in which to blur the line between fantasy and reality in their work. One need only look at the wave of ‘found-footage’ films that have been produced since The Blair Witch Project turned the indie film industry on its ear fifteen years ago. There is a particular kind of thrill that comes with watching a movie that you either think is real, or are willing to suspend your disbelief for in this particular way. The approach to making the movie is different than that of a traditional film narrative. The filmmaker crafts the movie in such a way to honor the fiction-as-nonfiction contract with their audience. It’s sort of a role-playing exercise: the traditional third wall between storyteller and audience is intentionally taken down and both parties agree to treat the narrative as nonfiction.
The literary equivalent of a found-footage film would be a book written in epistolary format: a narrative that is presented as a collection of letters, notes, etc. Max Brooks created a brilliant twist on the epistolary format with his 2006 book, World War Z, which was actually presented as a series of transcribed interviews with various witnesses to the zombie apocalypse that the book documents. The brilliance of this book is found in both the micro and the macro – micro: the reader is treated to an eclectic variety of vignettes and smaller scenes, told by an eclectic variety of characters; macro: taken as a whole, these vignettes create an epic and fascinatingly realistic vision of the zombie apocalypse.
Mark Danielewski took the literary ‘found-footage’ style to a whole new level with his groundbreaking 2000 book, House of Leaves. Danielewski employs the traditional epistolary style in that the book does contain letters, and one of the two main narratives is written in a diary format. But the genius twist of this book is the presence of an editor. The idea is that this nameless ‘editor’ found the manuscript containing the two narratives and edited it, adding commentary and extensive footnotes. (The made-up footnotes are presented as nonfiction, using real-life public figures and national publications.) The presence of the editor adds an additional narrative layer which, like the found-footage movies, breaches the third wall.
Another technique I wanted to use in TOK was a story-telling device that Shane Carruth employed in his 2004 homemade sci-fi movie, Primer. Primer is about two scientists working out of their garage who accidentally discover a way to travel back in time. The science in this movie is presented realistically; it pulls no punches for the scientifically illiterate. The engineers working in the garage engage in techno-speak that is not watered down or explained. These scenes come off as documentary-like, as though the viewer is peeking in on actual scientific experimentation, so that when the time-traveling method is stumbled upon, it has a heightened air of authenticity. The science in the movie starts out so dry and unadulterated that when it’s finally stretched, the believability factor remains.
The Tree of Knowledge is not a straightforward novel. I combined story-telling elements from books and movies that used experimental formats designed to blur the lines between fantasy and reality: epistolary letters, ‘found-footage’ diary entries and blog postings, interview transcriptions. There is a fictional editor who frequently comments in the manuscript, sometimes to cite articles or quotes. For purposes of verisimilitude, the science in the book is presented in a very non-layman-friendly manner, so the editor’s notes also serve to explain the scientific principles and theories in play. To further blur the lines of fact and fiction, I wove real people, places, articles, and science throughout the story. I had a reader tell me he started Googling elements of the book to see what was and wasn’t real; he felt obligated to approach the book like a detective seeking the truth.
It was a fun writing exercise to inhabit so many different characters’ heads in so many different formats, as well as to approach the storytelling from multiple levels: from the characters in the story to the character who recounts the story to the editor who presents the story to the public. In the end, I hope all the pieces add up to an intriguing overall narrative and that the reader comes away from the book feeling like they at least experienced something new.
The tagline/hashtag for The Tree of Knowledge is #Isthisreal? This is for fun – part of the found-footage role-playing game between author and reader. However, if I did my job right, perhaps some reader out there in the world will stumble across my book and believe the answer to the question is yes.
Scott Bonasso is a music teacher and musical conductor at an independent college preparatory school in Houston, TX. He is a husband, father, musician, coach, outdoorsman, movie buff, and voracious reader. He also loves to write fiction whenever he gets a chance. He is the author of Juarez, Snow Stories, and The Tree of Knowledge, which was released in July 2014.
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