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Four questions for a hypertext pioneer

By DANIEL MCGOWAN  |  December 8, 2010

As both an author and illustrator, Shelley Jackson has looked beyond the limitations of singular genres or techniques to create a novel style of work. Perhaps best known for her 1995 creation, Patchwork Girl, Jackson is considered a pioneer of hypertext fiction, an interactive, nonlinear form replete with links. Jackson was at Brown University this week to read a piece from her latest project, which she calls newspaper collaging, and the Phoenix caught up with her for a Q+A.

YOU'VE FOLLOWED AN UNCONVENTIONAL PATH TO SUCCESS SINCE YOUR TIME AS A BROWN MFA STUDENT. Well, Brown encourages experimental work, so it's not like I was having to buck the system at Brown. [The school] is unusually welcoming in that way and it was at Brown that I encountered hypertext and kind of played around with it. Partly it's just temperamental, due to the fact that from an early age I always was really interested both in writing and in art and I resisted the idea that I would ever have to choose between them. I always insisted that I could do both and other things too. It seemed more interesting to go in all different directions and that's just always how I've worked.

PATCHWORK GIRL IS CONSIDERED A GROUNDBREAKING WORK OF ELECTRONIC LITERATURE, OR HYPERTEXT FICTION. IN MANY WAYS, YOU HELPED CREATE THE GENRE. WHAT WERE YOU HOPING TO ACCOMPLISH WHEN YOU STARTED THE PROJECT? In the beginning, I realized that it provided a way to explore things I was already interested in exploring in print in a way that was a lot more natural. I'm not a particularly linear thinker in any case and that's not what most interests me in writing. So in a way, my goal even in print was to find ways to slow down that propulsive drive toward an end . . . and set things in parallel — not just a line with a beginning, middle, and end. Hypertext provided a way to really literalize that because you could start at one window and go in multiple directions from there. To me, it felt like moving around in a physical space and it made it easy to see that I could incorporate visual art or sound or any number of other things in a way that is really hard to do with a printed book.

YOU ALSO CREATED THE SKIN PROJECT, WHICH TOLD AN ENTIRE STORY BASED ON TATTOOS ON THE BODIES OF VOLUNTEERS. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THAT IDEA? My ambition increasingly has been to push the boundaries of what writing is, what it can be, and resist defining it more narrowly. It seems to me that even a book is a more multifaceted object than we credit it with being. Every time we read, we're also engaging with this sculptural object; we're using our hands to move it, to manipulate it. It's a kind of performance; it only comes to life in our reading of it and in the particular experiences we bring to it and so each performance is unique. So it seems to me the text already leaks off the page in all directions and engages human bodies in interesting and complicated ways. A lot of my work is thinking about the body as it relates to text, so I thought I'd push that and make it more literal and the obvious way to do that seems to be this way we already publish on our skin.

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