Storytelling in the 21st Century: An Interview with Hal Niedzviecki

Hal Niedzviecki is a prolific novelist and cultural critic, as well as the founder of Broken Pencil. He is in the process of releasing The Archaeologists, his first novel in a decade, in a serialized format online, where it can be read for free prior to publication. We met up for coffee one afternoon to discuss his new novel, as well as the theme of this year’s World Intellectual Property Day— Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined.

J: So, could you tell me about The Archaeologists?

H: It’s a book I’ve been writing for about six years or so. It focuses on the fictional edge city of Wissisauga, Ontario, and the discovery of what may be human bones in a suburban backyard. So there’s a series of characters that we meet who all have ambitions around this discovery, and they try to shape it to benefit themselves, or to fit it into how they’d like to see the world. It’s a bit of a thriller, and a bit of a mystery, where a lot of the chapters ends with an “oh I can’t believe they did that.”

J: Does it have any thematic links to your previous works?

H: All my books in one way or another are about how we define ourselves, and how we come to terms with the story that we are trying to tell. We try and make that story actually reflect itself in the real world, which often doesn’t care about what we think of ourselves. So in terms of the big picture, all of my books are about identity and alienation in the so-called postmodern milieu.

J: So why did you decided to pursue online serialization, prior to traditional publishing? How does this impact the way you create content— and the way your content will be viewed?

H: There isn’t just one thing that led to my decision. Of course, the content of the book comes first, and I thought the material lends well to the format. You see the world through six different characters, with each chapter focusing on a new perspective. So I think it’s fun to read it as a serial once a week, and gradually see the connection between these characters. It makes sense for this kind of book, where the whole point is to create separate, but cohesive stories that would pull people in.

Then of course, there are some experimental reasons. As novelists, we are in a losing battle with the internet. You battle constantly trying to protect your copyrights, and to make sure people don’t illegally download your books. You’re battling against behemoths like Amazon, which make life very hard for more offbeat work— or anything that isn’t a mainstream bestseller.You’ve got a million clickbait links every day. You got every kind of entertainment, fighting for attention. The full length book doesn’t really have a great place on the internet, despite various people trying.

Sometimes you just get tired of fighting, and you just wanna try to find some way to make the internet work for you. So this is a cultural experiment in many ways: can I pull people into a story in such a way that wouldn’t be possible without the connective tissue that is the internet?

At any rate, the worst thing that can happen is some people read it online, and decide not to buy the book. But even then I have reached more people than I could have otherwise reached.

J: So much of your work has a strong emphasis on the impact of technology on pop culture. What sparked your interest in this?

H: Well, if you go way back, when I first started broken Broken Pencil, I was mostly focused on fiction, and my interest was in celebrating “weird writing”. But then I started analyzing what sort of material people were putting into the underground culture. That’s what got me thinking about how the technology of mass media was affecting what people thought about themselves, and how they injected themselves into the world.

J: Your last non-fiction book, Trees On Mars, deals with what you describe as a wave of unfounded optimism that is sweeping our world— a prevailing belief that the future will be better, and that technological innovation will solve our problems. You talk about the dangers of this ideology, and the need to overcome it. Are you optimistic this will happen?

H: No, I’m not optimistic at all. I’m what you might call a pessimistic optimist, in the sense that I don’t believe we are going to make many meaningful changes in our society. We use technology to increase the speed of our consumption. I don’t think any of that is going to change.

But I think there is optimism to be found in telling the story of how we became who we became. Not because we’re going to change, but because the really redeeming part of humanity is our capacity to tell stories. If there is any redemption, it’ll perhaps in some future society, probably of sentient cockroaches (laughter).

J: So would it be fair to describe the book as a critique of the Enlightenment worldview?

H: Yes, but also the post-industrial idea of mass consumption. The idea that giving people the trappings of a comfortable life will lead to a kind of happiness. That really hasn’t happened.

In all my work, there’s a connection to the story of how people live. The story is what is important to me. So while Trees on Mars is vitriolic, it does introduce you to these endearing, if occasionally misguided characters. Real people who are trying to take the messages that come through our mass media, who are trying to make themselves whole with them.

That’s what the characters are trying to do in The Archaeologists. Throughout all my work, there’s this sort of great melancholy longing— it’s the longing for a sense of wholeness, a sort of community that the postmodern person has lost in clawing their way towards a perfect suburban life.

J: Well, this is all quite grim.

H: (Laughter) Am I scaring you John?

J: (Laughter) A little. But you did mention storytelling as a bright point in the human condition. So going back to our theme of “Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined”, would you say that technology has at least helped us tell better stories?

H: Hmm, I don’t think I would say that. I would say that culture and technology are… almost irrelevant to each other in many ways. Technology can be used to tell good stories or bad stories. They can be used to ramp up hatred, or to spread propaganda. For me, modern technology is a neutral entity in the sense that anything can go through it.

If we look at the history of the story, there was the oral tradition, mostly songs and poems. Then there was the handwritten tradition, in which laboriously copied texts were handed down. And then we move to the printing press in the 15th century, which was the first significant break. With the printing press, we shifted away from the local view of culture, the view that these stories are the lifeforce of society: what we tell each other to make sense of our society. We shifted to the view that stories are just part of entertainment, a commodity.

So if we look at what the culture is today, we see a culture that is being pushed out ever faster and in more frantic bursts. I don’t think we can say that this is a better story. We can certainly say that there is a lot more story… which is line with the consumptive imperative. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it requires a wholly different way of understanding culture.

J: So, I guess that bring us to the present. Intellectual property regulation has strengthened significantly over the last few years, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to enforce. What role do you think the law has in promoting creativity in the 21st century?

H: I don’t think I can fully answer the question. But as an artist, as a creator, I regularly receive updates that my book is now up on some torrent website (laughter).

But nowadays, people have this penchant that if you can’t protect your work, then no one would buy it. But at the same time, that is only true when you look at it in the context of a consumptive society. The people who feel close to me, who feel like we’re part of one community, are going to buy the book regardless of whether they can get it for free. And the people who see me as a commodity, and my works as another consumptive object, are going to steal it regardless.

So from the writer’s perspective, we need to do everything we can to create that sense of community. If we can’t do that, then we’re just another faceless person who’s trying to scramble up the ladder. One of my main goals behind the online serialization of The Archaeologists prior to publication is to build a sense of community. To offer up something for free, and after serialization, ask the readers to decide if they want to support a member of their community who has offered this to them.

So getting to the issue of the law, I think there is no real blueprint for this. We’re in uncharted territory. We need to recognize that there has to be a lot of flexibility in helping creators achieve their goals. So can lawyers also think this way? Can they help create a legal framework in which creators can operate as they’d like to operate? I think the whole legal system needs to be very careful in what they’re advocating for, because there is a very complicated relationship in all of this. It’s not just an issue of better laws in terms of protecting creators— it may be the case that the creators don’t want laws that prevent them from operating the way the way they want to operate, and creating what they want to create.

Hal Niedzviecki’s new novel, The Archaeologists, can be read here.


John C.H. Wu is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Osgoode hall Law School.

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