voidspace in Conversation: Tom Abba – Ambient Literature


Welcome to the voidspace. Please feel free to pull up a beanbag – there’s tea in the pot if you’d like. Tell us a bit about  who you are and the kind of interactive work that you make. 

Tom Abba: 

I’m Tom Abba. I’m an academic, but I’m also an artist. And those two bits of merge quite happily, so I don’t teach as much as I like to. I run a research centre at UWE in Bristol and my real background is artist’s books. I started making artist books 20 odd years ago. I’ve worked with the form of the book and my kind of sideways slip into working in immersive media was a result of my doctorate and thinking really deeply about interactive and immersive work. And it was called interactive work then. It wasn’t really called immersive work. And that’s evolved into a series of works. 

I often say I make books that don’t behave like books. I’m interested in the object, but I’m interested in the experience as well, and how I can think about that and how an audience think about that, those things. 

 A work that slips between the two, how the two can talk to each other, what that does in the frame of the experience, and also how do you tell a story. I’ve worked on and made what I might call kind of more purely experiential works that are about the moment, that are about something that doesn’t have story at its heart. They always tell stories because you relate something back to your friends or your partner or whatever else, but they have story embedded in them. What’s the story mechanic, how does storytelling work in this medium, is the thing that’s really fascinated me. 

It almost sounds like you’re stripping down what makes storytelling and the elements of a story, and how you can put them into different spaces. 

I’m notorious in some circles for being very awkward and ornery about Choose Your Own Adventure. I’ve gone on the record – it’s not the form that bothers me, it’s the ubiquity, that it becomes the default. People go to that. If we talk about interactive work, the first conversations that we have with a commissioning editor, someone who’s going to give you money, are “oh, you mean like a Choose Your Own Adventure”? And so we’ll say: “Well, yes and no”, because I think there’s so much more to it than that. A lot of the time it is thinking about what are the other ways we can tell stories, what’s the responsibility of the author? And not that CYOA isn’t a form, it’s absolutely a form. And there’s some amazing work, but it’s trying to take a step to one side.  

I’m old enough to have remembered Choose Your Own Adventure when it first appeared, the joy was it was Dungeons and Dragons without the need for a game master so you could do it yourself. But also had a physical book that you flicked through and you thumbed and you stick your finger in it. 

You’d have five fingers in, wouldn’t you, to keep your place. Yeah. 

And I think one of the things it took me a long while to work this out, one of the things that really bothered me about the digital version of that, when it became kind of the form, is there is no way to do sticking your fingers in. There’s no way to the physical book that you know, if it’s a 200 page fighting fantasy book, then I know where my fingers have been, I know the pages I’ve been to and I know what’s left to do because I haven’t read that page. I think that’s really, really critical. And it’s the bit that at the heart of my disquiet about it being digital.  

I don’t think that – facticity is an academic term – that kind of physicalness has really been considered as to how we understand what we haven’t read, because it’s interesting. It makes [me think] did I not do it right? Because my experience is only 20 minutes long and I got through and I had an ending and am I forming an impression of this? Because actually I took all the wrong turns and I got it over really quickly. It’s that bit of it I think is really implicit in a physical Choose Your Own Adventure and not in the digital. 

I think there’s some really interesting stuff to unpack in there in the first thing that you said about the limitations of the Choose Your Own Adventure form. I’ve had conversations with other people about the tyranny of the branching narrative and how that can actually strip out a certain amount of spontaneity and a certain degree of connection. 

It can. But there are two examples I go to: One is Dave Morris’ Frankenstein. It tells Mary Shelley’s story – it’s not going to not tell Mary Shelley’s story and we can go into the fact there’s three different versions of Frankenstein that Mary Shelley wrote – but it’s an on the rails story. What the branching narrative does in that is it colours the text. The way you respond early on to Victor’s dilemmas or to the monster or to whatever else, if you respond and be an asshole, then you’re going to have a different kind, a different tone to the story at the end than you have if you are incredibly empathetic. I think that’s a really beautiful use of Choose Your Own Adventure, the branching narrative, because it absolutely branches out, but it still tells you a story. What it does is it makes your actions contingent. 

The other one is obviously Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch, which I wanted to hate.Even though I love Charlie Brooker, I really really wanted to hate it and I didn’t. He got the meta structure that it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure about a video game company and that nailed it, that suddenly there’s something in there that I forgive everything and I go with it because actually there is something in the overarching story that works within the detail. 

I think something that’s very interesting about the branching narrative as a form, or all of this as a form, is the potential that there is, as you say, to use those choices to colour the emotional tone of it and to cut to colour different responses to narrative in a way that you can’t in a conventional text. And I think it’s actually what I find really interesting about the independent scene, even though it is digital. I think some artists I’ve seen getting into the habit at the end of telling you how many endings there are, which one you found left to discover, which I think is a really nice way of doing it and actually it can pique your interest, I think, to go back and try again and give it another goal. 

When I’ve come to make a piece of work, I think the thing that has guided me is the relationship between form and content. And what does this form offer? The story I want to tell? Or if I find that that form doesn’t? Should I be writing this as a short story or as a novel? Somewhere there’s a Venn diagram as a thing that locks, and when you get it right, it’s right. 

I agree. See, what I want to see is people seeing interactive work as another form, another tool that can be used. At the moment, I don’t think I’m seeing that in the circles that I move in. And that’s why I started a magazine dedicated to it, because I want people to understand that it can be part of their arsenal in the same way as any other form. They can think: am I going to write a sonnet about this? Am I going to write a twine about it? There are lots of different actions in play. There were two other things I thought were very interesting. One, about the concept of the benefit of a physical Choose Your Own Adventure book to giving you a sense as to whether you’re doing it right. What is doing it right in this context? 

Again, this may be a very personal – going back to eight years old, 43 years ago. There’s something about authorship in all of that. I joked that, yeah, God bless Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone that we know, as people have been around long enough, we know who it was that wrote them. There are names there. It’s the Neil Gaiman tells the story of when he realised that people wrote comics, that it wasn’t just a thing that emerged out, that people actually crafted them. And I think there’s something about – there is a writer attached to this. There’s somebody whose heart and soul has gone into this thing that I want to get the equivalent that I get from reading a good story or sitting in the film, that I respect the work of the director. What I want is to judge it on its own merits, but also to feel that – “doing it right” is maybe is an oversimplification, but that I got what the author intended from it. 

That’s always been a struggle for me in that, when I was 14 or 15, when it became really clear that DnD is not about maps, it’s about storytelling. All those things are the vehicle to get you to a good story, and they’re a way of democratising the space, or we can a whole set of different ways, but it’s about storytelling. And so within that, that sense to which someone is trying to take me on a journey and tell me a story, I want to figure out what that is. There is a certain kind of skill to writing, there is a skill to playing a good Choose Your Own Adventure. 

There is being open to that, there is exploring, and there is occupying a character in a genuine way. And that’s a really hard thing to do. There’s a really long ranty lecture I used to give about video games and narrative and form and it had in it that there’s a reason- and this may not be true anymore – a reason a lot of video games drop you in as an amnesiac. The obvious one is Resident Evil. At that point, you wake up in a lab, and you don’t know what your character really should know in that circumstance. 

And this has always been, for me, a driver as a writer. How do I put you into those shoes? How do I place you with enough knowledge? I think it’s a really tricky thing to do, and I know it’s one of the reasons that throughout the body of work that I’ve produced, made certainly in the last ten years or so, we’ve always said, you are you. You’re not playing a character. You are you. And your mood is actually really important. Your frame of mind is important, what kind of day you’ve had, how your world responds around you. Because actually that’s my way of avoiding the amnesia problem. You don’t know the history of the character that you’d need to be. My way of dealing with that is say, no, you are Katy, you are Tom, you are Ben, you are whoever you are in this moment, and you are you, and you’re responding to this. And I might be telling you a story that kind of sits side by side, but still you are going to be you in wherever you are in the world. 

I remember really liking These Pages Fall Like Ash [written collaboratively by Tom Abba and Duncan Speakman with Emilie Grenier, Nick Harkaway and Neil Gaiman] – I got that during the pandemic. It was a real eye opener for me. It was quite popular in the circles that I was moving in at the time. And what I thought was really interesting about that work is that it uses the reader’s sense of place and the reader’s own place and the reader’s own history, and then almost interposes an imagined city and another structure, another society onto that. I’d really love to hear your thoughts on what that involved and your thinking as you’re creating that. 

Thank you. Well, there are two versions. There’s the pandemic version and the old version. It felt like the right piece to put out in a pandemic. We made the original ten years ago, as an experiment for which we were funded to do a prototype. We had three and a half months from start to finish to write and get the whole thing out. And so it was a sprint. It was a massive sprint. I called in two big favours to borrow Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway for a couple of days. And I was trying to figure out how do you story this space? We’d worked with story before, but we’ve done a lot of experiential work and These Pages Fall Like Ash was really informed by talking early on about areas of common ground, about magical realism, about the frame of that. 

Neil knows Bristol quite well, so we had Neil for a day. And a lot Nick’s day with us was very much about the kind of frame of the story. Well, how can you tell a story? And Nick is a novelist who’s worked in TV, which I think really helped. So he wasn’t coming this as a pure I am a writer and therefore thou shalt do what I say. We were trying to think, we know we’d like an object. We know we’d like it to be a thing that’s in your hand and the thing should be really weird and it should feel like it’s from another place. And so the original wooden book was obviously a manufactured thing in this reality, but it was designed to feel like it’s not a book that feels like a book. Then the digital layer was always going to be the other city.  

We were trying to think about how do you subvert reality? How do you make people question something beyond the obvious? What can you do? Because it’s you in a place and we’re asking you. And certainly there’s a lot in that first version that goes straight into the second edition. The big difference is, obviously, it works anywhere. The first version ran on Raspberry Pis that we physically put in buildings and have people walk around Bristol just to see if the whole thing worked. It’s a nightmare. There were amazing bits, but we’re not doing that again. 

What changed in the second edition was a lot about the flow of the story, because you’re doing it anywhere. We use the repeat journey quite a lot more. That wasn’t in the first edition, but quite a lot of that stayed through. But it was about how can you get someone to read between two platforms? What’s the relationship of the book to the digital?  

The third chapter especially: Her story is the first chunk, his story is second chunk. You get bits of her in it. And the third part is you are the conduit between the two of them. That sense to which you got a narrative on one side of the screen, a narrative on the other side of the screen. Effectively, you are stuck in between the two. I wanted each line of those stanzas to sit like that, but we couldn’t quite make it digitally. But that sense to which we reinforce your reading between two spaces and one is imaginal. The thing that I really wish we’d be able to do was to question whether your city is imaginal because the beat at the end is that one of them will fall. You can’t have two things in the same place; one has to go. And so you draw apart, and you’ve got the weird little coda with the child at the end. I think it was absolutely experimental: what will the reader bear, what will they allow you to do and what will actually make them pissed off with you? 

That’s interesting. And what did you think you learned from that experience? Because it sounds like it was quite experimental and you were trying to see what would work. What would you say were the most successful and the least successful elements of that? 

A sense of place that we got. I think we got the sense of place about the piece – I’m very conscious of talking about the first edition. The second edition there’s a whole layer of talking about the pandemic that was for someone who was living in Bristol, who was homeschooling, who was putting a piece of work out. There was a really interesting thing about fielding inquiries from the United States, right? Getting daily briefings from Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty and the whole kind of frame of everything. The world had closed in around us so much, sort of four or five months up until we released in August, that it was very easy to forget that actually the world is much bigger outside. We felt reasonably sure getting back to what the rules were, what we were allowed to do. So there was a real consideration about how this piece would work. But then getting inquiries from potential readers, certainly in the States, who didn’t have the same certainty, that’s interesting. What they were allowed to do.  

There are several moments in These Pages: if you put six things in there in the narrative that are common to that kind of space, one of them will happen to the reader. This is about going from experience design to narrative experience design.   

We were just testing ideas about how much story, how much kind of certainty can we have? And I think it might have made it to the final version, the bit where Oscar is walking and chalking on a wall, and we were testing this on phones and really just trying to figure out, can you read a phone? Can you walk? Can you parse those very dull mechanical bits? And we’re walking by Watershed in Bristol, and as we were walking, a seven year old comes along and chalks on the wall. 


And then you start thinking, what else haven’t we noticed? What else haven’t we put in around this? Because that’s never going to happen. So, a lot of things in there about water and about traffic and about the weather, a lot of them are open cues that are designed not to be certain resolutions, but  to hopefully make the reader look at the world around them. And if it’s written well enough that they feel that they know deep down they know that this has been written by somebody else and they’ve got no idea where they are. But the magic is when they feel this was written for them there. 

I think this is a thread that runs through a lot of the work that we see. It’s all about opening a space for connection. 

And I think what’s interesting is trying to get the balance between holding that space and then about having a narrative pulse that runs through it. That means that you’re still being told a story, being able to open that space for connection in the middle of that. It’s a fine balance. 

A really fine balance. And there are things that we can do now that we couldn’t do then as well. Ten years ago, when we wrote These Pages Fall Like Ash, it was written and it was cobbled together in whatever programming languages we could use. And it works and it’s great, and I really love it. But between These Pages and where I am now, I ran an academic research project called Ambient Literature. 

The third piece of work we commissioned in that project was Kate Pullinger’s Breathe. There are two layers of responsive text in Breathe. There’s a layer that’s very clear that really knows exactly where you are and it’s responding to the nearest train station, nearest park, the nearest road. It will put names of things in. And I think in 2017 it was still really clunky. And Kate did an amazing job making that bit flow that I really admire. I didn’t know she was doing it, because I read the script, there’s a layer of kind of background scene painting, if you like, that alters, depending on the time of day, on what the weather is doing. And it just subtly does it. And that’s something we couldn’t do. We couldn’t use APIs to that extent. 

I love that responsiveness. And again, I think the more responsiveness you can have in this kind of space, the more you can create that illusion and the more you can really insert the reader into the narrative. 

As somebody who was producing and also reading the haunted moments, the really punchy moments were when the ghost is talking, the ghost knows where you are, enabled by the fact that if it is raining outside, it’s raining in the story. If we’d been able to do that ten years ago, it may have kind of changed the project.  

I think you can only do what you’ve thought to do. And it is an Iterative process and that’s why these things are long term projects because you spark off other ideas sometimes until somebody’s had one idea. It builds a base for others to flow. Can you tell me a little bit more about the ambient literature project? 

One of the things that we get to do as academics is apply for public funding. For public funding, you’ve got to be answering a research question. I think what we did with ambient lit was, we’re not claiming to be the first – but we were asking questions around narrative, on what narrative does with technology, specifically with phones and with place and with environment. The last chapter of the book we wrote, which is about writing, that was my baby. That was about, how do you, as a writer, how do you approach this without nailing down and dictating: going, this is how you should write this stuff, and it gives someone the tools to answer, how do you make the kind of work I make? 

Could you sum up the key things that you learned from that project? 

Yeah. For me, there are ways to write in that space. There are ways to think about and of course there are, but there are ways to codify that writing and to think about how presence works and what the role of technology is. And there’s a phrase I started using that during the project. I’m not going to use much “a smartphone is not a neutral carrier of story”. And the counter to that is actually the purpose of a book is to disappear. We talk about immersion in a book, and that’s a whole different conversation around immersive. But the point of getting lost in a book is a thing being really immersive, watching TV or watching a film is the loss of time. The medium disappears and you’re within it. And actually, when you’re walking around, when you have a thing in your hand that’s a bit of plastic and metal, one you’re really aware of plastic and metal and also it never goes.  

So it actually becomes a bit of a barrier to what you might want to call immersive? 

Or you’ve got to think about it differently. One of the questions we kept asking and we had different answers. At the end of the book of the chapter that’s on writing, which is only 16,000 words, was a set of weird little diagrams that come out from a centre, and they’re all sliding scales, and it’s like, you don’t have to hit ten on each one. These are all the things that we can identify as being present in the work that we’ve made. It was never about you must but these are the things that are it might be helpful to think about your work having is presence one or a ten? Is randomness? I think it’s a different word. Is randomness one or ten? Is the object one or a ten? Can you make a piece where the phone disappeared? 

There are different ways to do that. That was a really key thing I think I learned from that was that sense to which these are not absolutes, but they’re ways of thinking about each aspect. And the other one is actually about architecture, right. Which is there in the book and it’s become more useful to me since then, in that there’s a real crossover between architectural space and the language of architectural space and the language of at least the kind of immersive spaces I make that makes sense. How we read figure and ground, how we walk through a space. A lot of them were always things that were kind of implicit in the kind of work that I did. But I got to the point where I was referring to them again. 

I think there’s something really interesting there about the connection between the physical space and between the spaces that we build in our heads when we experience that kind of work. I’ve came into this through discovering the immersive / interactive theatre world, which I know there is a key difference between the two, but they are both about how you use that physical space, but how you then build a bridge between that and the narrative space that you’re trying to occupy. And I personally, in my dabblings in interactive writing, I’m quite interested in how you can use digital space to recreate that sense of space and that sense of being able to work in three or even 4D within the 2D. 

I’m a collagist as an artist. There is something about collaging from other practises and saying, okay, I like that thing, that thing that is really interesting or walking into that space makes me feel this. Therefore, how do I or can I borrow that or can I work that differently? 

Yeah, I agree. Yeah. There’s a lot to be said for being a magpie, isn’t there, in these circumstances? And I think it’s really interesting, the potential that we have in this kind of work to bring in aspects of other media, other influences, and to think creatively about how we can bring in elements that you wouldn’t necessarily expect coming off the page or screen.  

The next thing I’d like to ask you about a bit is about From Bitter Ground, which is going to be your newest release. Could you tell us what were the questions that you were looking to answer when making that, and give us an introduction to what it’s about? 

It’s about a haunted house, is the simple version. But I think actually it’s about haunted houses. It’s about four days long. One of the things I wanted to do with Bitter Ground was to take you to one place and rewalk and rethink about one place over successive days, that we do a little bit in These Pages. But These Pages is still a walk – From Bitter Ground is about the location that you choose and about why that location becomes resonant over a period of days, and what happens in it. It becomes more haunted as time goes on. 

The storyable space becomes richer. I think one of the things that and again, this is referring back to These Pages, because it’s built with the same engine. What we knew worked with These Pages. So what can we do differently? I think one of the things that These Pages doesn’t do is do really rich, deep dive location work. What happens when you are standing in the same place for the fourth day in a row and what and looking at a building that isn’t there, but you’re imagining you’ve built this space, you’ve built this kind of environment and the space itself is doing things because it’s a story and things need to change? 

 Those are very mechanical things. I guess the other thing I wanted to do was to haunt, although there’s a layer to which this is about haunted houses. I wanted a piece that would haunt you and to think about how can I do hauntings within a text led / walking led immersive piece. Can I give someone bad dreams? 

A noble and aim to have as any, I’ve got to say. 

I think one of the things that we’re always trying to do is to make the familiar unfamiliar and the familiar more strange. There’s a phrase I use in the book, – sorry, academic phrase – an invisible hypertrophy. 

It’s a thickening. A thickening of space, that the space doesn’t change physically, but this is an ambient thing in that one of the things we said at the start of the project was that these works are invisible. And we wrote it in the original outline and it was there. And I think nobody ever questioned it. And very quickly, as you’re making these work, you realise they’re incredibly visible, because if you’ve got a pair of headphones on in a public space, you’re walking around, then you’re visible. If you’re carrying a phone in public space, you’re visible. And how do we make those things invisible? And it’s a different problem, but: what do they leave behind? Because if you’ve walked a route, your version of These Pages, and I don’t know where it was, I might expect that actually you could walk through those points again randomly in two years time. You’d remember the things that happened in These Pages, in them. 

That’s exactly the nature of haunting, isn’t it? I think it’s really interesting how the concept of physical space can feed into that and making that interaction with the environment work and work for everybody. It’s quite a challenge. 

It’s a richer question, but the ask is to find somewhere that could have been a house. I wrestled for a while with it being a house, and you’d be asked to find a house. And then the more I thought about it, if you can actually find a house you’re basically going to be stalking someone. 

The solution to this is it’s not a house, it’s a site that could have been a house. And so wherever you are, you’re not staring at someone’s front window. So part of that is take it away from things that impinge on people’s personal property and that was that solution. The other thing is, and this is something we’ve had to do quite a lot, is there will be a reminder somewhere that traffic is still real, cars can still kill you. Please be aware of the real world.  

The answer is, really and what you’re doing, obviously, is using the real world as a stage set and thinking about how that impacts and how that works. I know there are things that you said time, because the other thing that Bitter Ground does is bugger about with time. I think if it works, no, if the reader spots it, it’s playing with time quite, really deeply between day one and day two.

The other part of the mechanic is, although it’s written to be a prologue and then four days, there is no mandating your progression. You can leave a week between day one and day two. It’s just waiting for you. It’s there to do. And actually, then the problem we had is because I also want to do something that was for two readers in different places, is how do we pair the two and how do we link them and how do they causally link and how does that link become not mechanical, but narrative? 

One of the things I wanted to do, aside from telling a story about X or Y, was I was interested in can you make a piece of work that increases its audience organically within the narrative? One thing I was interested in is can I increase that audience within a piece without it being clumsy? So the paired thing comes from the fact a lot of people bought two copies of These Pages, which was a surprise and a delight, and going, oh, there’s a thing here. Can I make that part of the narrative? 

For This Bitter Ground it was, can I make how does a paired experience work? How does it work, narratively? Right. There is a rule in there. There’s a rule about the pairing. There’s a rule about how your pairing operates. And I’m going to get a bit mechanical. You get the prologue independently. And then sorry, I have props. You’re going to choose the black envelope or the white envelope. 

And you keep one, you send one away. You keep the white ones in the black box. You don’t know why, there’s no kind of hierarchy. And then you’re going to read and your user identities are paired. We don’t pair anything else. There’s no data shared, but we pair your progress. I wanted there to be a point in which if your partner stops, for whatever reason, after day one, can you carry on? 

And would that have an impact then on the effect of the narrative? 

Depending on yeah, the answer was it wasn’t a rewriting, because the central thing that happens, which will come when you get it always happened. It always was there. But there was a point at which we had to answer, “How do I uncouple you?” 

As a reader, how do I still allow you to read it, but not spoil, not break it? If your partner, for whatever reason, isn’t still going. 

But in a way that, although you might not want to reveal the very, very end, you might bring them back into the fold by going, come on, come on, do day two. Come on, do day three. I want to see what happens to you on day three, because your day one and their day one are a bit different. 

I think it’s really interesting to bring in mechanics into how you can make what would normally be a solo experience into something shared and something where yeah, something iterative where people can bounce off each other. I think that’s really fruitful.   

Coming on to my last question for the purposes of this interview, building on the slight truism that the readers of most literary magazines are also writers for literary magazines, it’s a horribly incestuous world, but I’d love to hear any advice you had for creators, potential creators, in this kind of space. 

I think I’m going to go against the grain a little bit, because the other thing is that the best writers are good readers. I don’t think you need to have experienced a lot of immersive work to write an immersive piece. 

I think you need to understand, okay, I think you’ll be naive to come in and go, I’m going to write an immersive piece of work, it’s going to be great, without ever having dipped your toe in that world. But I don’t think you need to have experienced everything. You want to make a piece. If you’re making a spy thriller, I think read spy thrillers. Don’t worry about other people doing that space before. This is what I’m saying  

And that’s also because a lot of the work that is there and this is less true now than it was ten years ago, is more like a fluxus event than it is a piece of work you can buy off the shelf. You had to be there. There’s always that bit that, [some immersive experiences] are temporary because of their nature. And I think that’s a limitation around the form. The situatedness of a thing means that it becomes a bit exclusive. My first thing is read is if you want to make a piece of work, read all the things you can that are set in that genre. Don’t try and see every bit of if you make a horror piece, don’t go see every horror immersive work. 

To figure out what you don’t like and what you like and what actually read a lot about how that genre works and. Get your sense of banging the roof up here, get your sense of what that does. 

I do think then, almost the obverse of that answer is that sense of understanding, the specificity of the medium. What does doing it this way afford you, that writing it as a novel or a screenplay doesn’t afford you? What can you do with that?  

One of the things I said a lot about the first version of These Pages, and it’s true in the second version as well, you’ve got is that as a writer, in a conventional form, for want of a better word, I have no idea where you are. I can hope you’re comfortable, I can hope that you’re sat down, but I don’t know that’s true. So, I can’t take any of those things for granted. But at least if it’s a piece of work that’s activated by being in a set location, I know where you are and I know what’s around you, or I know what I’ve asked you to put around you. And so those things. It’s the thing about These Pages that we learned as well about writing into space. What have we asked you to identify as a location? What can we reference? What are the other bits that we know about the location that we can be sure? How do we write into that space? Bitter Ground leans in different ways, different pieces of work lean, but they push into one bit and go, okay, what’s the thing we’re trying to do? 

There’s a piece of work called Yesterday You’re Still Dreaming that we put on very occasionally. We wrote as part of the Ambient Lit project. It’s about you having blacked out the day before, forgotten something. You’re given a book at the start, there’s a package and you’re asked to open it. It’s a book. You’re asked to open it when you feel the time is right, and one of the pages is partially blacked out. And it’s completely random. It’s utterly random. We just bought 200 books from Oxfam and spent a week blacking out a page in each one to make a text. 

I’ve had readers come to the end of and say, “I have no idea how you did that. But the sentence on there spoke to me. Spoke to my week or spoke to something that’s happened in the last year.” 

That’s wonderful. And you know what I think making something that can be universal but also speak to people on that uniquely personal level, that’s got to be the greatest marker of success for this kind of work. 

It’s a really huge grin and you go, “Wonderful. I don’t care how that worked. It worked.”

From Bitter Ground is out now. Find out more here:


From Bitter Ground, These Pages Fall Like Ash and other Ambient Literature works are available here: