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MAPPING the City /

James Attlee in conversation
with Thomas McMULLAN;

‘We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results’

                —Herman MELVILLE, Moby Dick

James ATTLEE is a writer and musician & author whose books include Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, Station to Station and Guernica: Painting the End of the World. In 2017, Attlee won the New Media Writing Prize for The Cartographer’s Confession; a piece of digital fiction set in London, based around a smartphone app that situates audio and text across specific places in the city.

Much of Attlee’s writing has a very strong sense of location. Isolarion, for example, is set on one particular Oxford street, while Station to Station is focused on the train line between London and Bristol. In The Cartographer’s Confession, this locative sense is given another layer thanks to the app’s ability to track its reader’s location using GPS. Told with audio, prose, maps and photographs, the story charts the experiences of Thomas Andersen, a fictional immigrant to post-WW2 London.

Thomas McMULLAN got in contact with ATTLEE to ask him about smartphones, cities, games and dead whales.

Was The Cartographer’s Confession written for a phone?

The project began as a commission from The Ambient Literature Research Project for a situated piece of writing in the form of a smartphone app; therefore I knew its destination would be that magical object we carry with us everywhere and use to access the world, connect with friends, record our lives and store our memories. Whatever I wrote would have to jostle for attention with Facebook and Spotify, selfies and texts. That was an interesting challenge—very different to producing something sealed in its own separate universe between covers. In addition, the app form gave me one specific ‘special power’ as a writer. Through a combination of the phone’s GPS capability and the coding of the app, I would know where my reader was at any one time, with all that implies.

But to return to your question, did I write it “for” a phone? That makes me ask myself who or what we usually write for. For our readers, of course. For ourselves. For money, when we’re lucky. Partly for the medium of the writing’s transmission, sure, which always comes with both possibilities and limitations. But elements of this story have been with me for years before the commission came along, waiting to find a home; for that reason it’s hard to answer one-hundred-percent in the affirmative. 

“Knowing” where your reader is seems like it could open a few possibilities for writing scenes pinned to specific places. What was your process for doing this? Did you stand on a specific street corner in Bermondsey and think to yourself: this is where I want my reader to be, this is what I want them to look at when I speak in their ear?

Arriving on that corner was a little more complicated than that. I had decided early on that I wanted to set my story in London but the challenge was to choose where in the vast metropolis to locate its events. I was looking for a device: some conjunction of mapping the city and chance. It came from a set of old photographs found among the possessions of a relative who had passed away, taken in the late 1940s and early 1950s: street scenes, the river, market traders, the inhabitants of a vanished low-rise city, scarred by bombing. Here were my characters—I could feel their stories, asking to be told—and in some cases here also were precise locations where the reader could stand and be in several time zones at once; looking at a photograph of the same place in the late 1940s, listening to an actor voicing a scene set in the 1960s that a character is recalling at the turn of the 21st century, all the time immersed in that same location in the present.

In selecting photographs I was of course thinking of the impact their settings would have when readers found themselves there in real life. (I like your use of the word ‘reader’ by the way; let’s stick with it, despite the fact ‘participant’ is usually preferred in the world of locative digital literature, denoting it as an active rather than passive role). However, some scenes that unfold in my story are unaccompanied by photographs; and some photographs were necessarily relocated to fictional settings, for practical reasons: the sheer scale of London has the potential to make following a story through the labyrinths of its streets and underground system an exhausting business. In these cases I was, as you suggest, choosing backdrops for fictional events through a rigorous process of pacing out the story, along with the app’s producer Emma Whittaker; testing whether GPS signals would fire in the shadow of buildings, asking myself how it felt to be in that space while listening to the voice of an actor or reading a short text. The photographs provided the starting point I was looking for: from there, other locations were arrived at through solitary exploration, testing, trial and error. It’s impossible to stand on a London street or square without being affected by the real-life happenings taking place around you—in this way London itself is a character in the book, and your phone, instead of something that distracts you from reality, becomes a device that draws your attention to it.

The way you describe real-life London impinging on the reader, and the space that’s given for this in the story, reminds me of site-specific theatre. I used to write stuff like this; pieces set in a back alley in Shoreditch, say, or across a vast estate in Scotland. I always found it hard to wrestle a balance between my imposition on the space with actors and dialogue, and the space itself existing – doing what it wanted to do, looking at my uninvited fiction with a raised eyebrow. Is this something you struggled with at all? I wonder if telling the story through audio makes this easier, making those actors invisible, internal.  

Perhaps it does. Listening to an actor in your headphones while present in the world is akin to a psychotic episode. You are ‘hearing voices’—voices that others around you cannot hear. Of course this condition is familiar to anyone used to moving through the city while engaged with podcasts or audiobooks: or with the ‘headphone space’ we inhabit listening to music out in the world, when an otherwise unremarkable location can be injected with intense sensations of joy or melancholy because of the soundtrack we assign to it, a soundtrack no one else can hear. Arguably the difference with a situated fiction like this is its specificity: the particular place you are sitting or standing features in the story you have invested in and you are therefore inside that fictional world.

Of course I have no control over what is happening in the streets on any given day. We have selected the locations inThe Cartographer’s Confession with the user in mind, but that chance element is still there and I like that. ‘Readers’ of the app may have to contend with road drills, sirens, panhandlers, amplified evangelists, you name it. No two people will have exactly the same experience. Roll the dice.

Place has always had a big part to play in your writing. Do you think our understanding of place has changed with the smartphone? Has your approach to place changed since you started carrying GPS in your pocket?

I think portable GPS has changed everything about our relationship to the physical world. Of course it is incredibly useful and I can’t imagine life without it; however, like most revolutionary technological developments, it has unexpected consequences. We’ve evolved over thousands of years to be able to navigate long and complicated journeys and suddenly those abilities are redundant, no longer necessary. If you have a co-pilot beside you guiding you all the way you don’t build mental maps in the same way—why bother?—or learn to trust your own sense of direction. As a character says in the app, when we are carrying a phone we are never lost, we just don’t know where we are.

London is closely associated with various iconic maps—Harry Beck’s tube map, for example, designed in 1933 and inspired by circuit diagrams, or the London A-Z atlas. I worked in a map shop myself, as the fictional screenwriter who introduces the app, Catriona Schilling, has done. Like her I was selling A-Z’s to taxi drivers and tourists as well as maps of distant locations around the world. The protagonist in the story, Thomas, comes to London as a child refugee and is immediately challenged by how huge and unknowable the city is; his response is to begin making maps of it, in his head and on paper; he eventually becomes a professional cartographer. At a certain point in his childhood his mother disappears—the city has swallowed her up. By mapping every street and alleyway perhaps he will discover where she is.

Going back to my question about whether The Cartographer’s Confession has been written for a phone, is this tension between an unmapped and mapped city; a knowable and unknowable city, crucial to the work? After all, you’re writing the story on a map, or at least a device that many of us associate with mapping and navigation... If we were trying to come up with a way to describe smartphone literature, would cartography be at its core?

I like that idea of writing on a map. The three-way connection between author, reader and place provided by the smartphone’s GPS capabilities is certainly key to this piece. The phone guides you to locations in the real world where each stage of the story will unfold. And there is a specially commissioned, illustrated map by Grace Attlee and James Brocklehurst of the narrow strip of London along the river in which the story takes place which builds up as each chapter is completed. 

But that is not to say literature written for the phone will necessarily utilise GPS in this way. The other two pieces commissioned for the Ambient Literature project are examples of other uses of its potential. Duncan Speakman’s It must Have Been Dark By Then features a different kind of map: one the user walks through but which can be transposed onto any urban setting. Kate Pullinger’s ‘Breathe’ is personalised to each reader’s location, heightening a sense of the uncanny by creating the impression characters within the story know where the reader lives. There are many other experiments to be had.

I was a relative novice to this medium when I began writing The Cartographer’s Confession. In terms of its multiple voices and different layers, its use of film and music as well as audio voiced by actors, it is a relatively complex piece and I would have simply had no idea how to make it work without Emma’s help as Producer and Experience Designer. I suspect most writers would find themselves in the same position.

I was talking to a game developer the other day. He said a unique thing about storytelling in video games is that players can be made to experience something a character does. A film can show something. A book can describe it. But a game can have the player actually go through a set of actions that a character goes through—or at least an approximation of those actions. I’m not sure I agree with this, for multiple reasons. Moby Dick, for example, actually has its reader go through the actions of trying to learn about whales, reading hundreds of pages about their biology, history, cultural significance; making them comprehensible. It makes the reader do all of that—urging them to see these animals as things to be understood, contained, controlled—before the final, sublime destruction of the Pequod undermines that comprehension completely…

I wondered what you thought about this, given The Cartographer’s Confession also has its participants doing something. Instead of learning about whales, they are mapping the city by walking around it. They’re carrying out tasks that approximate the actions of the character Catriona Schilling, the filmmaker who is researching the cartographer. Is that a kind of game?

Your developer friend says players ‘can be made to experience’ something a character in a game experiences by engaging actively in their story: they control the characters’ actions and in some sense the character represents the player in that digital story world. But what level of development has gone into the characters a gamer is experiencing? How wide is the range of emotions they open up for us? A game like Assassin’s Creed (to take one example) has a rich and complex backstory: my teenage son, who has played it a lot, say he feels when he is engaged with it he is ‘fighting for a just cause’; on the other hand he doesn’t identity in any meaningful way with the protagonist. I recently heard Adrian Smith, one of the team who created Lara Croft in the 1990s, give a talk. He explained that the primary focus when designing the first and subsequent versions of the game was not on character, but on creating a ‘core mechanic’ to propel the gamer through the different levels they would encounter. If you drip-feed them enough rewards, he explained, gamers will ‘try and die and try again’: good game design is all about ‘the retention mechanic’ that keeps them locked in.

It’s undeniable that much digital fiction is influenced by the tropes of video games: by their inbuilt reward systems, their dystopian settings and so on; also by genre fiction, that has been using similar strategies since the 19th century. I wasn’t particularly interested in any of that; however, as you say, I am asking readers to be active, to go out into the world and encounter the places in which elements of the story take place. To follow the narrative they must move through the world, put one foot in front of another. Within this framework the app is not overly prescriptive. Rather than passively standing in one spot I am hoping readers might wander about, enter that pub, that church building, get down close to the River Thames at low tide, interact with the local ecosystem before taking up their place in the narrative once again. 

Your developer friend contrasts the direct engagement of taking part in a game with reading a book, a medium he maintains can only describe such an experience. I would disagree. Writing should do more than ‘describe’ experience: at its best it unlocks other minds to us, helps us see the world through other eyes. I see no reason why this medium shouldn’t have that same expansive potential, while opening up other, completely new possibilities.

As you say, readers of The Cartographer’s Confession will be sifting through the materials amassed by filmmaker Catriona Schilling as she investigates the life of its protagonist; in this sense, readers are treading in her footsteps. Does this make it a game? As each element is accessed it will be added to the chronology page, in chronological order; if this satisfies the ‘collector’ instincts of the gamer all to the good, but it is not a deliberate echo of the treasure hunt motif in a game. Instead it is a way of allowing readers to refer back to pages or images they have already seen the way they would be able to by flicking back through the pages of a book. Once again, readers are not locked into the app sequence. An ‘armchair button’ on the chronology page allows those who can’t visit the London locations to access the story wherever they are, providing a perfectly valid if arguably less rich experience of the app.

I’m glad Moby Dick has made an appearance by the way. Do you remember a few years back when a whale swam up the Thames as far as Tate Britain? Perhaps it was on the run from Melville’s categorisations, or Queequeg’s harpoon—or both.

Didn’t it die there? I think the skeleton was given to the Natural History Museum...

That’s right. It’s very hard to rescue a whale. I was there, working in a building overlooking the Thames when it arrived offshore. Except I was in a meeting, I don’t know what about, it probably seemed important at the time. When I came out of the meeting room I found everyone else had been standing by the windows for the past half hour, watching the whale before it moved off again. It underlined for me how you can be in the right place at the right time, but if you’re looking the wrong way you miss it all.

One more thing I wanted to ask was about the music in The Cartographer’s Confession. You made it yourself, right? How did you approach that?

The original intention was to collaborate with another musician on the soundtrack, but our schedules didn’t coincide. I was approaching the deadline on my book Guernica: Painting the End of the World and it all got a bit hectic. Emma asked if I had any music I was working on myself we could use. I had just recorded some songs with The Night Sky, a musical project I have with bass player Ian Nixon and Swedish vocalist Josefin Meijer. Emma liked the music and suggested we used instrumental versions of the songs for the app; of course, once we took the vocal out I needed another instrument to carry the melodies.

The trumpet?

For me it’s the closest instrument to the human voice. Jay Auborn, who took care of sound design and music production on the app, suggested the trumpet and flugelhorn player Jonny Bruce. His contribution adds hugely to the ambiance of the piece. We also substituted electronic drums with a real kit, played by Temitope Edwards, to get a sound more in keeping with the period.

Each of the three chapter locations has its own musical theme and there is a fourth tune, which Jay has created an extended dub mix of, that you hear as you travel between locations; it includes the sound of the Thames lapping on the shore, sound effects and isolated musical phrases—Josefin’s vocal is gone, but her whistling remains—the effect is haunting and atmospheric. Jay also created the soundscapes, which are recorded binaurally to create an immersive, three-dimensional audio-scape that wraps around you as you listen to the story. Voices or a horse trotting in the street might sound as if they are behind you, birds call above your head; and all the time the real sounds of London bleed in, mixing with those of the fictional world, so you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends.

I like the idea of giving space for things to bleed into each other.

I’ve never appreciated the way writing, music, the visual arts are kept in their separate boxes. It was a joy working on a project where they all came together.

The Cartographer’s Confession is available for free on iTunes or Google Play

Thomas McMULLAN is a London-based writer and journalist. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, The Observer, The TLS, Frieze, Sight & Sound and New Statesman. He has been published by Lighthouse, 3:AM Magazine, The Stockholm Review and Cours de Poétique, and features in Best British Short Stories, 2016. He can be found at @thomas_mac.

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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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