E-book explores interactive fiction

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"South Side Trilogy: A Literary Picture Show" ($6.99) is a dark tale set in the rough fictional Chicago neighborhood Hardscrabble -- a place riddled with despair, violence and death. Its residents are drug and alcohol abusers and people for whom daily life is a struggle.

Author John Hospodka is a Chicago-based poet and writer who turned "Trilogy" into an ambitious literary experiment -- an e-book that blends poetry and prose, art, recorded monologues, music and video to tell his characters' stories.

"Trilogy" is available only in the Apple iTunes iBook store, because currently only Apple's mobile devices (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch) can play embedded video and audio in e-books.

'Purgatory Blues: Theme of Hardscrabble'

"South Side Trilogy," a new multimedia book for iPad by Chicago editor and poet John Hospodka, combines prose and poetry with video, audio and pictures. (6/12/2013)

The first portion of the trilogy was published as a traditional book in 2004. At the time, Mr. Hospodka didn't have the tools to add other media. "But the idea was there," he said.

When he completed the trilogy, he moved it to a website, where he could add links to other media, but he wasn't happy with the result. "The problem with doing it on the Web was it just became too cumbersome. It did not have that flow of being able to just turn a page. It was too much going to different links and clicking here and there. It never felt right."

As Mr. Hospodka researched enhanced e-book publishing, he found what he was looking for in the growing enhanced e-book publishing industry. While standard e-books are digital reproductions of the printed page, enhanced e-books incorporate other media, such as audio and video.

Initially, most enhanced e-books were previously published books that were introduced in a new edition, such as "The Hobbit," which features author J.R.R. Tolkien reading some selections.

"Nixonland," the story of America in the '60s and '70s, was published in 2008 and re-released in 2010 as an enhanced e-book, with 27 videos added, including TV news clips and an interview with author Rick Perlstein. "Nixonland" demonstrated how the enhanced e-book could be used as a tool to make history come alive on the page, especially for people who were too young or not born when these events took place.

There are now several digital publishing companies -- including Vook and Atavist -- that can combine written text and multimedia for writers, or offer easy to use tools for the do-it-yourself multimedia author. Mr. Hospodka worked with digital publishing company BookBaby.

Enhanced e-books have great potential in genres such as children's books, travel and how-to books. Nonfiction lends its itself to audio and video, because it's rooted in real-world happenings. But writers are testing the waters of interactive fiction. The 2012 novel "Chopsticks" ($6.99), published by Penguin, tells the story of a romance between a young musician and a painter, using music clips, videos and conversations conducted through text messages.

Mr. Hospodka sees the form as a way to break through into new territory for poetry and fiction, too, not using the added multimedia as a gimmick but as an organic part of the work.

The term "Literary Picture Show" used in the book title is his description for an entirely new genre of publishing. "A lot of literary purists believe that multimedia distracts from the literary experience. I think it does in most cases," Mr. Hospodka said. "What I am doing with the Literary Picture Show is developing a theory where artists, poets and writers can discover a way where multimedia will not distract from the literary experience but become a part of the text and part of the literary experience."

As a poet, he wants to use the concept to challenge the perception many people have of poetry as an ivory tower art form that not everyone can understand. "With this first work there's something more important than the work itself -- the widening of the readership of poetry and discussion of literature."

Mr. Hospodka comes from a theater background, and he enlisted the help of friends -- actors, musicians, artists and photographers -- to create portions of "South Side Trilogy." "The fun part of this project is that writing becomes a very collaborative experience. It's very similar to working in theater. It's one thing to be a writer at your desk in the basement and it's another involving other folks and having them interpret what you're writing. Characters I created became more fleshed out through their interpretations."

Combining all of these elements, especially the photos and videos and audio of characters talking, helped create a sense of Hardscrabble as a physical place for the reader. "It's crowded like a neighborhood is crowded, like you're in a city, with all these different voices going on."

Mr. Hospodka plans to experiment further with "The Literary Picture Show" format, both in new original works and in adaptations of already published ones. "There's tremendous possibility to bring old school into the new school and make it work."


Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865. First Published June 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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