"The novel is gloriously open": Ali Smith on non-linear storytelling - Nosy Crow Skip to content
Posted by Tom, November 14, 2014

“The novel is gloriously open”: Ali Smith on non-linear storytelling

This week, Ali Smith was named the winner of the second Goldsmiths Prize, awarded for “boldly original” fiction, for her novel How to be Both.

It’s an extraordinary book (which the judges of the Goldsmiths prize have said “pushes the novel into thrilling new shapes”), and one that’s remarkable for its daring, unconventional form: it’s been published in two versions, both with the same cover but with the main halves switched.

And I was very struck, listening to Smith being interviewed on BBC Radio4’s Front Row programme a couple of evenings ago, how much the construction of this interesting, unconventional narrative sounded familiar to me – and in particular, to the way we make our interactive, non-linear fairytale apps.

Here’s what Smith said to Front Row about the inspiration behind the form in How to be Both:

“It’s inspired by the ‘fresco form’ – the idea that there’s this one thing you can see, flat on the wall … and if you take the surface off, and find the picture behind it, you realise you’ve been looking at two things all along.”

To me this sounded exactly like the way we construct our fairytales: not just with layers of artwork that reveal themselves as you explore more of each scene, but also, for the dialogue that can be triggered and the interactive elements that can be found as you delve deeper into the story.

And here’s what she said about the effect of splitting the novel into interchangeable pieces:

“There’s a relation and narrative to things which come first or come next – it’s a consequence narrative, really. It became a really good way to examine what consequence is in the novel and sequence works in the novel.”

Hearing Smith describe her book in this way was the point at which I really gave up cooking supper and devoted my full attention to what had, until that point, just been on in the background in my kitchen. I’ve talked about our Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk apps in very similar (albeit less eloquent) ways in the past: they are absolutely versions of the traditional stories which explore consequence and sequence. In our Little Red Riding Hood app, the path you take through the forest to grandma’s house determines the ending of the story, and the nature of your encounter with the Big Bad Wolf. And in Jack and the Beanstalk, you can explore the giant’s castle in a different order every time, and wake up the giant at different points in the story, with very different outcomes.

What I thought was really interesting – and quite heartening – about the way Smith expressed these ideas was partly that they were being discussed in relation to a piece of adult fiction (I am used to reading about non-linear storytelling in children’s fiction), but also, even more interestingly, that they were about a print project, rather than a piece of digital storytelling. I thought it was fascinating to see an author take the natural “constraints” of a format – a bound and printed book with a fixed, linear narrative – and find ways of embracing and transcending that format to create an entirely new kind of reading experience.

And on a final, inspiring note, here’s what Smith said about the future of the novel:

“The novel is gloriously open … we haven’t even began to look at what we can do with the form.”

You can listen to the full interview on Front Row here (starting at around 19.30 minutes in).

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