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Author Interview: Hannah Powell-Smith
2015-11-12 · by Kerstin
tagged Blog / Interviews
Hannah Powell-Smith is the author of Aquarium and this week’s story, swept up. She lives in Norwich with her wife, Fay, and three-month-old son, Alistair. With Fay, she has produced three NPC mods for Baldur’s Gate 2: Nathaniel, the Luxley Family and Faren.
This interview was conducted by instant message in November 2015.
Kerstin Hall: So you have made NPC mods with your wife for Baldur’s Gate 2. Which was your favourite mod and why?
Hannah Powell-Smith: I like all three for different reasons, but it has to be Faren! He’s an easygoing, low-key sort of character in a game where most of the characters are larger than life, and I like that his personality is so laid-back. Plus, I like that the romantic content starts out very casual and then he starts to have more serious feelings about the protagonist. He’s also the last NPC mod we made—we’d learned a lot about coding, writing and characterisation since our first ones and we could put all that learning into it.
Kerstin: That’s lovely. How does that collaboration work out when it comes to storytelling?
Hannah: My wife, Fay, has been a part of my writing since we met. With modding, we were very much a team. She was less confident with learning coding, but she has a very good eye for the bigger picture and would write up dialogue in simplified code. I’d do portions of the writing, put hers into code, and do most of the scripting—telling dialogue when to fire and so on.
With non-collaborative work, she’s always the first person who reads my stuff, and she’s an invaluable sounding board, beta reader and playtester.
Kerstin: You will make single people jealous. So you took the lead in coding for the mods. Do you think that’s where your interest in interactive fiction began?
Hannah: [laughs] I first came across interactive fiction in choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks. I must have been about 8 or 9. My favourites were Fabled Lands—the setting felt so rich and detailed! But as far as writing it goes, yes—modding opened up the awareness that I could do all sorts of complicated things with code, and it built my confidence that I could teach myself. And then I realised I could use the skills I’d learned to make my own original work rather than adding to something that was already there. It was very exciting!
Kerstin: Oh cool. I guess it must have been a fairly intuitive leap to take your reading background to a digital platform. What is rewarding about interactive fiction vs conventional storytelling?
Hannah: I love the responsiveness of interactive fiction, and learning different things about the setting, characters and even plots just by taking different actions (I’ve been playing 80 Days recently and the replayability is glorious). You can do really cool things with unreliable narration and pacing, choosing how much freedom to give readers and what constraints are placed upon them. I’m reasonably fond of unreliable and biased narration in novels or short stories, but it takes on a whole new level when the reader is collaborating with the character!
Kerstin: No kidding. Are you working on anything exciting at the moment, either in IF or other forms? (Can we look out for something novel-like? With an unreliable narrator?)
Hannah: I’ve been noodling around with a sequel to my Twine story Aquarium, which is set 4 years later and involves going to see the romantic interest’s family at Thanksgiving. There’s a lot of tension and stress for the protagonist.
I’ve sketched out a dating sim in ChoiceScript based on the tabletop game Monsterhearts—various messed-up supernatural teenagers need help solving problems (or more likely making them worse.) Your stats are Insecurity, Shyness and Stress, and you have to keep each stat low to succeed at things.
And I’m also writing a long piece in Inklewriter about an aristocrat in a fantasy world who’s been imprisoned due to a conspiracy around a royal wedding and is trying to free themselves by testifying. So there’s tension there about what they’re saying and how they’re trying to present themselves.
I, uh, enjoy being mean to protagonists!
Kerstin: That Monsterhearts thing sounds so sweet!
Hannah: Thank you!
Kerstin: Well, all of it actually sounds awesome. Let’s talk Aquarium then, a sweet dating sim that is unfortunately too long for sub-Q. Which is your favourite child between it and swept up?
Hannah: Oh man! That’s a hard question.
Kerstin: (I, uh, enjoy being mean to interviewees.)
Hannah: I thought more about the style of swept up, with using the run-on sentences and fast pacing to reflect a sense of movement and the protagonist’s unstable state of mind.
Aquarium is much more complicated, and I like the little touches where you can use different items or information depending on what you do when. Plus I’m fond of how Sebastian is warmer or cooler to you (whereas your companion in swept up is All Intense All The Time), and you can get very different outcomes depending on actions.
Sorry for the cheat answer, but I’m really proud of both of them. They’re so different, it’s kind of hard to compare.
Kerstin: The run-on sentence thing is very cool.
Hannah: I wanted to show how generally weirded out the protagonist is.
Kerstin: Where did the idea emerge from?
Hannah: It was during my lunch break at work. I was reading a couple of Richard Siken poems about boys on the run, and I thought I’d like to write something about girls on the run making bad life choices, with the main character focused on a girl who’s intense and has this hold over her. Desert landscapes appeal to me, so I had to include that. I sketched out the scenes in a notebook and put it into Twine that evening.
Non-interactive short stories don’t come very naturally, so a pocket-sized interactive short story worked well to put the idea together!
Kerstin: May as well take the opportunity for a small tangent, though I’m not done with swept up. What would you say are your influences, literary or otherwise?
Hannah: Ah, cool! War of the Foxes is high up on my to-read list.
Bookwise, Jo Graham‘s historical fantasy inspires me a lot—her settings are really rich and detailed, combine fantasy and practicality, and epic adventure with domesticity. Sarah McCarry‘s Metamorphoses Trilogy is very concerned with monstrous girls and girls making bad decisions, which I think filtered into swept up, and is something I’m interested in generally.
Interactive fiction-wise, 80 Days has been influencing me a lot lately—mostly because I’ve been playing it so much! For the fantasy piece I mentioned earlier, I’m using first person and making the main character more defined, as it works so well in 80 Days. I’ll see how it goes!
I look at a lot of weird and over-the-top fashion and that often inspires me too—e.g. Guo Pei‘s work is utterly fantastic.
Generally my main influence is thinking about what I’d like to read and play and making that.
Kerstin: Seems fair. What was the biggest challenge in creating swept up?
Hannah: I did a lot of back and forth about how to describe what had happened before the story starts. At first I had more detail, but I found that slowed it down, and I wasn’t so keen on that. Hopefully it’s clear while leaving room for interpretation!
Kerstin: I think it succeeds in that. Changing track for a few practicals… What do you do during the day?
Hannah: I’m on maternity leave at the moment, so I spend most of my time looking after the baby. He’s three months old and hard work, but he’s often considerate about snoozing in a sling. When that happens and I’ve got the brainpower, I can do some writing, play games, read, socialise or do things around the house. When not on leave, I work in an office at the local college.
Kerstin: How is it, balancing writing with the care of a small human? And what is the small human’s name?
Kerstin: (By the way, sorry for taking up so much of your time.)
Hannah: (No worries, Fay is enjoying looking after him at the moment.)
Once the intensity of the first month passed, I ended up feeling able to do a lot more writing than I did when I was heavily pregnant (I couldn’t sit at a computer because of back pain). The main thing I try to do is seize the moment, because at any point Alistair could need attention—he’s got a knack for waking up just when you’ve settled down to do something. Tiredness is very much A Thing though—it’s hard to string words together when you haven’t had much sleep.
Kerstin: Much respect. Where do you live and where do you come from?
Hannah: I was born and had early childhood in London, then moved to a tiny village in the countryside till I moved to Norwich. I came here for university and stayed around.
Kerstin: Where you studied English?
Hannah: Yes. I did an English Literature degree and then later did teacher training for primary age children.
Kerstin: What are you reading at the moment? That’s the cliché question. Sort of “what is on your nightstand?”
Hannah: I’m rereading Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, the first in his Craft Sequence series. I love how packed full of interesting ideas and characters his books are, and his imagery is brilliant. His Choice of Games game The City’s Thirst came out the other week and I loved it, so I wanted to revisit the novels!
Kerstin: Nice. Those are definitely on my to-read list. Your work focuses fairly heavily on relationships. Do you see yourself as a character writer over a plot-focused writer? How do you balance?
Hannah: It’s a challenge! I often start out with characters and a situation and then go from there, which is great for doing dialogue and relationships, but if I don’t plan out the plot fairly concretely, I can end up losing steam. So I’ve learned the hard way to make sure I have a solid idea of what’s at the end, and to know what’s coming up immediately ahead too so I know where I’m headed.
Kerstin: What are your goals for the future?
Hannah: Before Tory got in touch about being featured on sub-Q, I hadn’t really thought of publicising my original interactive work much—it was more for myself and friends. So it’s been really exciting to find that strangers are interested in it, too. Rose Lemberg‘s “don’t self-reject” campaign is great, and I’d like to get more confident in publicising and submitting my work—after all, you don’t know if folks will be interested unless you try!
Kerstin: Absolutely. Feed us more! What would you say to an author of traditional fiction who was considering trying out IF for the first time?
Hannah: Don’t panic about code, take it slowly and try things one step at a time. A rough draft—including code that you know works—is great because then you can get creative with the writing side. Think about what constraints you want to include—you can’t cover every single thing or make a huge sandbox where everything is possible—and don’t be afraid of that. And enjoy yourself—there are so many interesting things you can do combining text and interactivity!
Kerstin: What embarrassing music do you listen to?
Hannah: For the Monsterhearts tabletop games, I made a deliberately overwrought playlist including a lot of metal I listened to as a teenager. It was supposed to be ironic, but then I ended up listening to it constantly. But guilty pleasures are great—music, TV or whatever else!
Kerstin: When you were six years old, what did you want most in the world? What do you want right now?
Hannah: I think I wanted to be a vet, or—failing that—a unicorn. Now, I’d love for Alistair to sleep more at night… Babies do seem to make things all about them!
Kerstin: Such demanding creatures. They are lucky to be cute.
Kerstin: Last one: What would you like to see more of in interactive fiction?
Hannah: I’m really fond of relationships, both romantic and non-romantic, that feel organic and grow over time. And choices that leave you uncertain—for instance, the princess spore sequence in With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine made me have to step away and think about what to do—and of course there was no right answer…
I love it as well when characters don’t do what you tell them, whether they’re the protagonist of a story, or a character they’re interacting with. A protagonist’s friend making a choice despite your best efforts can be a really powerful thing!
So yes, more of all that!
Kerstin: Speaking to you has been great. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Hannah: Not that I can think of right now, it’s been fun! Hope it’s useful.
Kerstin: Very much so. Thanks for your time.
Hannah: You’re welcome!