Read Part One here.
Airship Ambassador: You had mentioned that you are often asked, “Is there a path where the reader doesn’t die (In What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower)?” What was your answer to that?
Margaret Killjoy: Oh, sure. It’s just, you know, the plot of the book is that you get sucked up into a revolution. And you don’t even speak French, gnomish, or goblin. So you’re going to die a lot. Sometimes people think that when I kill them off in that book, that I’m making a value judgment about their decisions. And usually I’m not. Usually it’s just like… look, you grabbed a lightrifle without any training and charged into a mess of gnomes. What did you expect?
But playing with death in an interactive novel is pretty interesting to me, anyway. I feel like I can say something as an author with that, something I can’t sum up as easily in a few sentences as I can by saying “try reading my book.”
AA: What are the various possible storylines which a reader can follow? What were the various messages you conveyed in them?
MK: Well, there are (if I remember correctly) about 15 major plot paths, each with forks and such within them. But the basic ideas are: you can help the goblins through guile, diplomacy, open war (trained or untrained), information-gathering, et cetera.
One message that’s contained in the whole of the book is to drop your expectations about who is and isn’t a monster. Readers come at it with the preconceived notion that the goblins are the antagonists and the gnomes are the heroes. The goblins aren’t exactly perfectly noble all the time—some of them are downright nasty—but the gnomes are the colonizing force that has enslaved the goblins. So there’s that kind of blatant anti-colonial theme right there.
And I explore the role of an outsider in anti-colonial struggle, using fantasy races as an analogy for real world cultures. I explore various peaceful and non-peaceful ideas of how to resist, and I explore themes of resisting with and without hope for victory.
But mostly, the protagonist is drunk and just kind of off on an adventure. The heavy themes are there but it’s meant to be a fun book.
AA: Wow, that’s a lot of different paths for people to take, which is rather how real life works, too. Every decisions we make alters our path somewhat and could change where we end up. How different was writing this type of story and format compared to a more straightforward linear story?
MK: I finished my first linear novel about a year ago now (A Country of Ghosts, also put out by Combustion Books) and boy, it’s a different monster all its own. With Clock Tower, I had to write out an outline in tree form, to keep my paths distinct. I played a lot with different ideas of how to do it, but the first time through I had written this awful convoluted mess and I had to delete pretty much 3/4 of my work and start again when I was almost done.
AA: Ouch, that hurts a bit to do all that work and then nearly have to start over. Just how complicated, and tangled, can, and did, storytelling get in this format?
MK: Yeah. So… paying attention to what you’ve introduced to the reader at what point get’s really complicated. Have you explained the gnomes? Does the reader know that goblins have black gums and cry blood? And I had to write all those details and descriptions differently every time, because I don’t want to bore the reader on their second or fifteenth read-through. So originally I wanted lots of cross-overs between paths, but in the end I decided I couldn’t do it. There are a few paths that split off and return though, which was a neat way to give characters information they could use in later choices.
AA: It does sound like a lot of work and planning, even before the first words of the story are really written. Would you do it again?
MK: Oh, absolutely. I look forward to it, in fact. Gotta get another linear novel out of the way first, but then I hope to return to the Adventures of Your Own Choosing.
AA: What other story lines were considered but which didn’t make it into the final book?
MK: Hrmm… not too many. My favorite ending has the character end up in Siberia, and there’s this whole other underground world you see briefly along the way. I wanted to explore that substantially more with other plots, but it didn’t end up happening… I had to resist the temptation to make one storyline substantially longer and more involved than the others. Because there’s not a “right” way to read the book.
AA: Ha! What I just heard was “sequel”! What kind of research went into creating the Clock Tower world?
MK: Oh, that’s the glory of fantasy. Very little. The character is an expatriate who doesn’t know anything about French culture. There are a couple things I think I caught for the first printing (and a few others I didn’t), about for example not calling the gendarmes “cops” and things like that, for historical accuracy. But I researched a bit about opium and absinthe and I remember one night needing to know the history of Fernet Stock, a Czech liquor I was pretty into for a while.
There are a few historical references here or there. Babbage is a side character, that’s an obvious one. But there’s also a character named Sergei that talks about the Russian revolutionist who mentored and named him. That’s a reference to Sergei Stepniak, a reasonably important Russian author who was a social democrat who once murdered the chief of the Tsar’s secret police in the streets with a dagger. (Social Democrats were made of different stuff back then, I think.)
AA: When I get my family and friends to read Clocktower, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
MK: Don’t try to singlehandedly save the world, especially while drunk? Or, less flippantly, try to understand why people make the decisions they make, and how different cultures reach the conclusions they reach for reasons. (Good reasons, bad reasons, either way.)
AA: Authors often talk about how elements of their own lives make their way into their stories. How did this, notably anarchist principles among other things, play into Clocktower as well as your other work?
MK: So there’s the anti-colonial struggle thing, of course, but I also like how an interactive book offers the protagonist more choice. I’m not claiming that linear books are authoritarian—after all the reader can put them down–but an interactive book is definitely doing some interesting things with autonomy.
I tried every now and then to give the story a real “sandbox” feel where you can do different things, including some random probably-not-ethical things. (Like instruct a lion to eat some children). And I tried to incorporate those things not as heavy-handed moral lessons, but hopefully something that made the reader think “why did I kill that random old guy who was tending the hot air balloon?”
We’ll stop here as the end of part 2 of 5 in chatting with Margaret Killjoy
Join us for part 3 where he talks about goals and his other creative works.