Interview with Marjorie Luesebrink,
by Josť Luis Orihuela

Marjorie Luesebrink

Marjorie- I'm glad you had a chance to pursue so much of Califia, and I hope that it was fertile ground for your studies! You ask some very interesting questions about narrative voice--and I will do the best to answer them as I understood the work while it was under construction. As you know, "voice" is probably the most difficult aspect of any novel structure (very close to the slippery issues of Point of View). It's not usually evident to the reader (and often not evident to novice writers) that the impulse for telling the story has to come from somewhere, and when that choice is made, almost everything about the "discovery" sequence of the plot is affected. However, there is another feature of our fiction reading that authors have to take into account: no matter how carefully a "narrator" is defined, there is *always* an "implied" author sitting behind that construct. If we go back to the origins of the form, we see that novels were originally construed as "true" stories.

In the beginning, it was considered an offense against the Church to "make up" a story (creation was the power of God, only). So, early novelists always made sure to build a narrative structure that purported to be "real". Even the most outlandish of "Romantic" novels were narrated by someone who claimed to have had the experience or heard it from a reliable source (even Montalvo!). And I am thinking here, also, of something like *Robinson Crusoe* where Jonathan Swift claims that he found the account, since he could not have been on the island. This necessity for "reality" gave rise to all sorts of narrative frames--from epistolary novels to the elaborate frame we see in Mary Shelley's *Frankenstein*, where the active "narrator" is actually the ship captain, writing to his sister in the United States.

The problem in an electronic novel, then, was very tricky. In print literature, the convention of a layered author/narrator is well understood, and there is a "willing suspension of disbelief" that is built into the reader's psyche when approching the print novel medium. Not so with electronic stories. The reader wants to ask--so why did this get put into electronic form? I have been very interested in the "Blair Witch Project" that has had such attention here for just this reason. Of course the whole Witch Project is a fiction, but the writers put up a website with a Mother (fake? real?) who seemed to be wanting to tell the story of her daughter who had disappeared and so forth. A very elegant solution to the problem of the "authentic" narrator. In the case of the Blair Witch, the "real" author/authors are totally invisible, for now (until they step forward to take their Oscar Award). Almost everyone I have asked, though, knows that there is a shaping consciousness behind the active "fictional" narrators. The impulse, for Blair Witch, to put the story up on the web is built into the nature of the events--(by the way, a change of media plays havoc with this, the movie is not so coherent for this reason, but few people seem to mind at that point as they have interiorized the original frame).

And so, with those thoughts in mind, let me address your questions:

Josť Luis- Would you consider that M.D. Coverley is also performing the role of a narrator?

Marjorie- If we consider M.D. Coverley as the "author persona" (leaving aside for a moment the issue of pen name), then M.D. Coverley is the shaping consciousness, but not a "narrator" per se. On this issue of shaping consciousness, I remember a talk I heard by Maxine Hong Kingston. She was speaking about the creation of the "shaping authorial consciousness" in *Tripmaster Monkey*. She said she started out with the idea that the "author persona" was omniscient and transparent. Then, in the course of writing the book (Tripmaster has a male "narrator", by the way), she found that it was impossible to have an author persona that was transparent. No matter what a writer does, the choices that she makes *always* indicate a view of the world, a personality, a set of values. She said that this "world view" of the author may be consonant with the narrator, or may sit in opposition to the narrator. In the case of Tripmaster, Kingston said that she found she had created an invisible, but shaping persona, that was a Chinese Goddess perspective.

In the instance of Califia, we have Augusta, Calvin, and Kaye as visible, active narrators. None of these characters actually represent the "world view" of the author persona. They do come closer to the ideas of the author persona at certain points, as they have learned to see a little deeper. But Augusta is constructed as a fairly shallow character, good to tell the events of the day, but not much on reflection (for much of the plot, she is looking for hard cash). Calvin is eager to organize the material they find, but he, too, does not reflect much. Kaye is into lots of cosmic and wide-ranging speculation, association, but she is not a character who is capable of making the connections that the "author-persona" would have had to make for the novel to exist in its present form. Therefore, even though M.D. Coverley is not on the scene, is not a narrator, is not even part of a meta-fiction, really, she is the "shaping consciousness" that always sits, invisibly or visibly, behind the creation of the world in which the story can exist.

I am not sure if I sent you the piece by Jaishree Odin on Califia, but I have included it at the end. The part I have exerpted leads to another, larger context of the "voice" issue. Augusta, Calvin, and Kaye, as you note in a later question, do perform a role of sorts--as useful as vehicles to tell other stories as to tell their own. All through, the authorial consciousness wants to interrogate the issue of who tells stories, who gets to tell stories. I am, as a witer, very interested in the value of suppressed voices, minority points of view.

Josť Luis- If it is not the case, who is *me* in *Follow me*?

Marjorie- Although we do not hear directly from Calvin until "South" (if reader is proceeding in default paths)--he is the one who is fictionally credited with the physical construction of the electronic artifact, so he is the one who would have made a button saying "Follow Me". This functionality of Calvin's is just barely evident in the message to the reader; however, throughout the book, Calvin is responsible for things like the "Kit Bag" and the navigational clues. Here I was hoping that the reader would be able to suspend the question of the origin of this voice, hovering between thinking it might be the author or waiting for the real narrator to distinguish himself. It isn't the best solution, I know, and in the next novel, I hope to find a better one! The issue that seemed even more important at that particular juncture was to establish *some* kind of personal contact with the reader--knowing that three narrators was a tricky thing to set up. You can see, here, one of the challenges of electronic narratives--if the writer is going to create three really active and interactive narrators in a brand new medium--how does the she both introduce them *and* the concept and keep the reader from being too overwhelmed. Whew, I remember sleepless nights over this one.

Josť Luis- Besides the three narrators performing alone their role, when they address together the reader, would you say that it could be understood as a fourth narrator?

Marjorie- Yes, I think you are onto something here. If we try to tease apart the narrative and authorial representations, we might have a layering that looks like this--and spans both time and space Writer: me at my computer in California (all the time--present, continuing). Author: M.D. Coverley writing Califia (1995-1998) Calvin, Kaye, Augusta speaking to the reader as a team (late in the process of discovering the secrets of Califia)--the collaborative voice. Augusta: relating events from 1997-1998 and backstory Calvin: organizing events from 1997-1998, docudramas of what was found out, backstory Kaye: does *not* relate events of 1997-98, but instead tells timeless stories, speculates on associative historical information, reads spirit messages, tells family and other mythology. (So she is reponsible for physical knowledge, arcane historical information, and what would be "make-believe" in many traditional views of history, as well.) Her own backstory takes us up to just the initiation of the contact between the three.

Josť Luis- There is a strong sense of structure in Califia, even linear if I may say. I found a linear structure of six sequences:

  1. Start sequence: welcome and objectives
  2. Navigation sequence: navigation tools and help system
  3. South sequence
  4. East sequence
  5. North sequence
  6. West sequence
Was it a deliberate choice in order to keep the sense of coherence and progession?

Marjorie- Many of the choices were made because of the technology itself. Computers store information according to the indexing of the file system, not according to the users' need to retrieve them. One reason for a linear superstructure was that I had to work with the files, and that was the easiest way to keep them straight. Next consideration was readers in a new medium. I have seen hypertexts that were quite a bit more open, or mysterious, in their sequencing, but Califia was so long and involved (even in the conception stage) that I worried the reader would be simply lost without a default path of some kind. So, the default is from South to West. The Surface, Real Time narrative/plot is chronologically represented in this sequence. (South has our characters meeting for the first time, for example, West has them getting the pearls, taking Violet's spirit to the beach). Nonetheless, I hoped to construct a narrative that would support readings in any direction. (I am not so sure how successful this would be on a first reading!). Also, I tried to distribute the historical material in a non-chronological manner throughout. In South, for example, we find out about the Tejon Letters, we don't find out the reason Christian and Samuel Walker are together, though, in that section, but rather it comes in another journey, in the Baja Trek, and, finally, we find out about the rest of the Tejon story in La Reina's spirit visit and in the Probability of Earthquake, North and West.

You might also note that b) Navigation sequence: navigation tools and help system actually has three parts, and the end of that section is the place the reader returns for the final screens, if he takes the default all through. It is, then, a circular structure in design.

Josť Luis- Would you say that the three narrators performs a role of navigation aid or helping system, more than the traditional role of narrator?

Marjorie- To some extent, yes. The three narrators are intended to provide different "points of view" on the events both present and past. To the extent that these characters lack "materiality" as characters, and seem to be tools of sorts, they are performing their roles as guides to the "real" story, which is the imaginative search we all make for a lost paradise. I thought a lot about how deep to make these characters. My conclusion, a difficult artistic decision and a compromise, too, was that in this medium, I was really in the position of writing the equivalent of a "plot heavy" novel combined with a "multi-narrator" novel. That is, the difficulty of navigation and the complexity of the point of view mitigated against any deep character development. Also, all character development is a consequence of action/reaction/resoultion. In an electronic hypertext where the reader has freedom to go anywhere, anytime, I could not figure out how to insure a character-development sequence, so I backgrounded that aspect of the story.


You can read a critical essay about Califia also by Josť Luis Orihuela, (in Spanish only), clicking here.


Text and interview: Josť Luis Orihuela
HTML: Susana Pajares Tosca
Images: Marjorie Luesebrink, Eastgate Systems
September 1999.

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