INTERVIEW: Alex Epstein, author of True Legends App

Alex Epstein

from the True Legends app

Electric Literature is ringing in the new year with an innovative (and free!) storytelling iPad app by acclaimed Israeli author Alex Epstein. True Legends is a beautiful, interactive adaptation of a short-short story about a blind piano tuner with design and illustrations by Tsach Weinberg and music by Ulrich Ziegler. We asked Alex Epstein about the creation of the app, folktales, and artistic collaboration.

Ben Samuel: Why release True Legends as a free app?

Alex Epstein: I know that many people still believe that digital age will have no effect on literature, on the way we tell stories and especially on the format of books. It’s nonsense. For me, exploring how literature might look in the next decades is one of the most important aspects in this app.

The question of free vs paid is one of the biggest challenges for artists today. I do believe that literature should be as free as possible — but I also believe that writers should be paid for their work. I don’t think that nowadays we have a good working model for settling this contradiction. In this particular case, however, its only one short story, one app, so it made a lot of sense to offer it for free.

BS: A lot of your stories have a fable-like quality to them, many feels like folktales. What about that perspective, that style, appeals to you?

AE: I live in very troubled part of the world. Sometimes, the legend / fable-like filter is just a way to write about the rivers of blood that my country and it’s neighbors are so keen to swim in each time, over and over again.

BS: True Legends is a multimedia production, with four artists working together. What was the collaboration process like? How involved were you in the art and music?

AE: The idea and the implementation came directly from [animator] Tsach Weinberg. He wrote to me that he used one of my short stories to make a draft for an IPad App, and that he is a bit afraid that I won’t like it. Within 5 seconds of looking at the app I called him to say that basically he is insane, because it’s one of the most beautiful things that someone ever did with my writing. Music came later–I am a big fan of Itamar Ziegler, and we got lucky that we could use his music. It was a bit tricky, since the story has a piano, and I think that Tsach did a great job of merging it with the text and the illustrations.

BS: Is working with a translator similar to working with an artist or programmer, someone who helps recreate vision in a new form?

AE: In a way yes, because — especially when the text is translated to a language I can understand, as English — I can have a feeling or a sense of whether something is working or not but without knowing how to correct it, to make it work. Actually, I would compare the translator to a God — but unlike some false gods, he does respond to your prayers…

BS: Have you worked with other artists before? Who would you love to work with, alive or dead?

AE: Since my short-short stories are very accessible online (in Hebrew) I am approached a lot by artist and art students. One of the most exiting projects was created by an Israeli jewelry designer, who made an exhibition of jewelry inspired by my stories. I never thought that something like this is even possible. David Polonsky’s illustrations in Recommended Reading were also wonderful. He was, by the way, one of the artists I always wanted to work with. If you can get Kate Bush to sing or read or even whisper one my stories, I think my mission on the planet will be done…

BS: You work in a variety of formats (print, digital, and Facebook are just a few). Do you have a format in mind when you’re working on a collection or story, and does that change how you write?

AE: At the first stages of writing I have only a silhouette of a format, a very vague feeling that the book can also exist outside of its expected form. It turns into real form only when I am close to finish, or even while editing. The handwritten book, for example, became a possibility while I was rearranging the order of the stories and suddenly realized that every copy of this book in a paper format can be unique. And it still took a lot of time to understand that what I really need to do in order to accomplish this is to forget everything I know about books in the last few centuries…

BS: Tell me more about this handwritten book.

AE:In the beginning of September 2014 my new collection of short short stories was published in Israel. 100 very short fictions, First Hand from an Author, it’s title. I am a big advocate of the digital format — my previous book was available only in digital form — for all the obvious reasons — books can be downloaded immediately, carried anywhere, cost less for the reader and turn higher profits for the writers. Almost all of the books today are digital, anyway — we write them on digital machines, they are being edited on screen, the cover is designed with software and so on. The transformation of all this to paper seems to me as a waste of energy and artistic means. For me, especially as a very short story writer, the screen — of an iPad or a kindle or even a computer — represents my work better.

But this time I decided to raise the conflict of paper vs digital — for myself and also for my readers, and create something else. I decided to offer the option to buy the book in a paper format, written, from scratch, in my own handwriting. First Hand, from an Author. Really to write them, with no copy paper, no reproduction, no trick. BTW, my handwriting is not “beautiful” but it’s readable by all means.

Fully aware of how crazy it sounds at first, I must add that this return to the pre-print era was also allowing me to achieve something which deeply interests me as a artist — the creation of a book that can not be reproduced — every copy of this hand written book is of course different from the other. (And I even decided to change few stories from one copy to the other). I choose a notebook that looks like a hard cover book and opens flat, so it’s easy to write in. I made a post to decorate the cover by hand.

Eventually me and my publisher set a price for this experiment — the digital copy would be around 7 US dollars, which is reasonable in Israeli current market conditions. The paper handwritten copy — around 100 US dollars, which is, if you don’t take into consideration the amount of work that each copy requires, is outrageous. I made several experiments and realized that it takes — only because my short stories are so short — 8 to 10 hours to write a single copy. But since the price seemed high enough, and nobody, as far as I know, made anything like this in recent years (or centuries), and especially because, yes, it does sounds crazy, I expected to write not more than 5–10 books in a period of a year, which seemed like something I can cope with.

And so we went online. On the first day 10 copies of the handwritten book were sold. After 10 days — 30 copies. As much as I would like to reflect more on this experiment, I will have to stop writing this post now. I have to go now and handwrite my own book, over and over again.

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