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Author Interview: Chandler Groover
2015-10-22 · by Kerstin
Chandler Groover is a New York-based author of both novels and interactive fiction. His work includes the novels What Happened at Heath-Cliff Hall and Finnian’s Fiddle, as well as the games Hunting Unicorn and Toby’s Nose.
This interview took place by instant messenger on 7 October 2015.
Kerstin Hall: In addition to your interactive fiction, you also have two novels, What Happened at Heath-Cliff Hall and Finnian’s Fiddle. Is including references to other classic literature in your titles a particular goal of yours?
Chandler Groover: I am very interested in classic literature, and I read many more classics than contemporary novels, so I always have them in mind when I’m writing. What Happened at Heath-Cliff Hall draws pretty heavily on Wuthering Heights in terms of abusive relationships in a gothic setting, so that title is certainly a nod toward Ms. Brontë. Finnian’s Fiddle doesn’t really reference anything, although it does slightly echo Finnegans Wake. The echo is a coincidence.
Kerstin: I was wondering about that. I could never get into James Joyce.
Chandler: I actually love James Joyce, but Finnegans Wake is a monster! I have read Dubliners and Portrait and Ulysses, and I like them quite a lot.
Kerstin: Woah. Ulysses is a beast!
Chandler: Ha, yeah, it’s a big one, but I think its reputation isn’t really fair. Once you get into it, it’s very readable. I cannot say the same about Finnegans Wake . . . I tried . . . but it’s another language written using English words. It melts your brain a little.
Kerstin: I’m not going to inflict that on my brain. How did you first come to interactive fiction?
Chandler: One word: Porpentine. And two more words: howling dogs. A friend recommended that game to me last year, and it blew me away. So I plunged into the interactive fiction world and haven’t looked back!
Kerstin: You have done so much so quickly! All your IF works came out this year. That’s seven pieces, plus Tailypo for sub-Q. What is that mad productivity, and can I buy some?
Chandler: I have written a lot in a year, but to be honest, I feel like I haven’t written enough. I didn’t know this medium even existed, and as soon as I saw the potential, ideas just started exploding in my head. I can’t get them out fast enough. I think I am usually a pretty consistent writer—always have been with static fiction—and now all my efforts have just transferred into the games world.
Kerstin: It must have been quite a switch. IF opens up a lot of narrative flexibility.
Chandler: It does! It allows you to tell totally different kinds of stories. For example, with my game Toby’s Nose, I had always liked the idea of having a story about Sherlock Holmes’s dog, but it would have been absurd to write as a novel. In a game, you can do it. You suspend your disbelief more, and you also solve the mystery yourself, so it really forces you to engage with the material.
Kerstin: I wanted to ask about Toby’s Nose: how did you go about constructing a satisfying mystery there?
Chandler: I had to approach that game differently, because mysteries need to be technical. Everything must line up logically, and surprise the reader, but not surprise them in a sense where they think that the ending is unexpected. You give them an expected ending unexpectedly. It’s odd.
In any case, what this meant was I had to map the clues. I drew a diagram like I was making a blueprint for a machine, but all the parts were story elements. I had to make them link and place them correctly throughout the game world so that the player finds them at a satisfying pace. You can find them in any order. Every order needs to work.
Kerstin: I was imagining you might have a room filled with suspect pictures and red string, but I guess a diagram will suffice.
Chandler: Ha, no red string! But I did have all their names written down in a list. They looked very guilty on that list. All their crimes trailing away next to them in bullet points.
Kerstin: Where did the idea for Hunting Unicorn stem from?
Chandler: I’ve always loved fairy tales and folklore and mythology. Unicorns are strange. They are noble and ferocious, but they’re also a joke. I wanted to write a story about them that treated them with respect. I’ve read The Last Unicorn—I saw the movie many times as a child—and I’ve seen the tapestries at the Cloisters Museum, but apart from those, most unicorns I know about are punchlines.
Kerstin: I also saw The Last Unicorn. Surprisingly dark for a kid’s film. Speaking of which . . . Tailypo.
Chandler: Yes, that one is dark! Another story that I was familiar with as a kid. It’s a legend in Appalachia, and I grew up in Georgia, so I was exposed to many variations.
Kerstin: Interesting. Guess we shouldn’t go too far down that road, because spoilers, but do you want to make any spoiler-free remarks on the story?
Chandler: Well, I think it is safe to say that it’s in the same zone as campfire stories. It gets told and retold, and the details change, but the main horrible idea remains intact because it just sinks right into your bones. It deals with universal, primitive human fear. About boundaries. About bodies. It’s gruesome, but people always relate to it.
Kerstin: We fished Tailypo from the slush. You must have heard about sub-Q pretty soon after we opened. Exciting? Will you be back?
Chandler: Before you opened, actually! It was definitely exciting to discover that there would be a real magazine accepting interactive fiction. I hope to submit more work in the future, but we’ll have to see what clicks. I am working on a parser game right now that may meet sub-Q‘s criteria, but I know one thing sub-Q aims for is making interactive fiction more accessible to a general reading public, and parser games are always harder to make accessible.
Kerstin: Maybe I’ll see you in the slush again soon. What would you say to an author of traditional fiction who was considering trying out IF for the first time?
Chandler: I would say to try playing many games in many formats before trying to write one. It’s only been a year, but since I found the medium, I’ve played over two hundred. You have to know what the medium can do, what possibilities exist, what doors other authors have already opened. But I would absolutely encourage traditional authors to give it a try. Programs like Twine and Inform 7 make it easy to break into the coding once you know what you want to write.
Kerstin: What was the biggest challenge in creating Tailypo?
Chandler: The audio, no question!
Kerstin: But audio is such a lovely thing to have.
Chandler: While that is true, it’s also quite difficult to wrangle with! Someone with more experience at doing sound editing probably wouldn’t find it as hard as I do—but then, that person would already know that sound editing is nothing to laugh at. It can enhance a game when it’s done right, but if it’s done wrong then . . . well, you’d better get it right, let’s just say that!
Kerstin: I think you got it right. What are your goals for the future?
Chandler: I’d like to keep writing for as long as possible. I don’t think too far ahead when it comes to writing. I keep my attention on the stories I have on my plate right now. By the time I’m done with them, I always have more on my plate! It would be nice to support myself financially with my writing too. That is the dream goal.
Specifically, though, I have an idea about recasting a certain fairytale from the villain’s perspective. I’d like to finish that game by next spring.
Kerstin: Interesting. Can we get more gossip on that?
Chandler: I’d like to keep it mostly under wraps, but I think I can share the general premise, which is this: retelling fairytales from the villain’s perspective has been done before. Usually to make the villain sympathetic. And what this usually entails is radically changing the fairytale to make the villain’s actions more justified. I’m not interested in making the villain look justified, just showing the story from their vantage point. I think that if I do it right, that alone will already earn them some more sympathy without changing anything in the plot.
Kerstin: We’ll have to wait in suspense. Are you working on anything in the non-IF realm?
Chandler: I am. A historical novel about Moctezuma II. I am fascinated by Moctezuma. He’s always treated as a superstitious fool, but I think he was an intelligent person faced with an impossible situation. History has given him a bad rap.
Moctezuma II ruled the Mexica Empire during the Spanish invasion. Almost everything we know about him was written by Cortes and a soldier in Cortes’s company named Bernal Diaz. Diaz paints a more human picture of Moctezuma than Cortes does in his own writing, but even still, we generally think about Moctezuma as being a superstitious ruler who ignorantly believed the Spaniards were gods and rolled out the red carpet for their invasion. That’s because the Spaniards, the victors, wrote this history. But when you go back and actually pay attention to what happened, and how it happened, and you read the native Mexica sources, you quickly come to realize that they did not think the Spaniards were gods, they did not welcome their own conquest. They actually handled the situation diplomatically, but they were answered with slaughter.
Kerstin: What is rewarding about interactive fiction vs. conventional storytelling?
Chandler: You know, I may not be giving a good answer to this question, but I think interactive fiction and conventional storytelling have the same goal. The good stories make you think. The benefit with interactive fiction is that you’re not just doing ruminative thinking—you’re actively analyzing the story as you read, poking the text, adjusting it. So it’s like a hack to get into the reader’s brain more directly.
Kerstin: That’s a cool idea. What would you like to see more of in interactive fiction?
Chandler: Since I’m still relatively new to the medium, I’m still exploring it myself to see what’s out there, but one trend I’ve recognized is an emphasis on puzzle-solving over prose. Interactive fiction has all the same potential as traditional fiction. It can accommodate great writing, and there are games out there with great writing. But I’d like to see more parser games that focus on exploiting the medium to tell a sharp story. Lime Ergot is a great example, maybe the best I know. It’s a parser equivalent to a short story, but it has to be a game.
Kerstin: On that note, what’s your favourite IF right now?
Chandler: It feels a little anticlimactic to say this, but it might still be howling dogs. That game has an unfair advantage since it was my first. It was the one that rewired me. I’ve replayed it at least five times. I also really like Mentula Macanus and Invisible Parties. Counterfeit Monkey and Hadean Lands are probably the biggest heavyweights I’ve played, and those were both fantastic, too.
Kerstin: Well, it’s been lovely speaking to you. Is there anything you’d still like to chat about?
Chandler: If I had a final remark, I just want to say that I’m grateful that something like sub-Q now exists!
Kerstin: *basks in affirmation* Pleased to be of service.
Chandler: Interactive fiction is so great, and I want more people to know about it, and sub-Q is the first publication to take the risk and put these games out there in the same spotlight that traditional stories get in normal magazines.
Kerstin: And on that note, I do believe this interview is concluded. Thanks for all your time.
Chandler: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.