Two years ago an exciting new online journal made its appearance on the literary scene. Uniquely, the voidspace focuses on interactive arts: the website itself is an invitation to dive in and explore through a series of alluring portals. I spoke to founding editor Katy Naylor about the voidspace, her sources of creative inspiration, her poetry, and her plans to set up a new press.
– Katy, you’ve described yourself as growing up in ‘a house full of books’. Tell us something about your creative development and the influences that inform your writing.
Katy: I actually spent the majority of my life not thinking of myself as a creative person at all. I wrote stories as a kid, as many people do, but as I grew up I became a reader, a viewer and a player: a consumer of art rather than a creator.
My mum was an English teacher, so literature was always part of my life. I was a real theatre kid, going to see Shakespeare with my mum regularly, and even making yearly pilgrimages to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare and other plays. I was also keenly interested in history (particularly mediaeval history – I even spent a few years practising early mediaeval crafts, combat styles and building methods, and learning how to sail a longship) and folk music (I spent some time as a Morris dancer!).
When I got older I discovered immersive theatre – Punchdrunk in particular – and the multi-layered and multi-sensory storytelling I encountered there blew me away.
I’ve also been interested in adventure and narrative games for a long time, as a player before I was a writer. As I kid, I loved text adventures on the computer and in choose your own adventure books, and I even taught myself some BASIC coding in order to try to write my own. A British kids’ TV show, called Knightmare, had a huge impact on me as well. It was essentially a Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons type game, but using a mixture of actors, props and early blue-screen technology, you could see one of the players seemingly physically present in this elaborate fantasy world (and seemingly falling off imaginary precipices, if they weren’t careful). It really captured my imagination.
As an adult, I discovered interactive theatre, which combines game mechanics with a theatrical narrative art, and found my own online DnD group. In its purest form tabletop gaming is a form of collaborative storytelling, but it releases players from the sense of obligation to “perform” and polish. As a result of that freedom, you often get incredible stories growing organically, that would never have happened had players consciously thought that what they were doing was writing. That’s the energy I try to bring to the voidspace – that sense of creative playfulness.
It was during lockdown that I discovered that I could actually write. I think having the time and space to think and experiment woke something in me. When we were only allowed out for a short time every day, I’d take long walks by the sea where I live (the sea is another abiding influence) and the ideas would come. Once I started to write, all the influences I’ve talked about: theatre and gaming, the past, music and folklore, the songs of the sea – all came back to me, and still form the backbone of my work.
– Two years ago you founded the voidspace, an online journal for “interactive arts”. The interactivity begins with the sleekly monochrome website, which conveys an aura of mystery and surprise reminiscent of a computer game. Each issue is entered through a portal, in turn revealing an array of further portals that lead to the individual contributors’ work. What are the origins of the name, and what are the drivers that led to the voidspace’s inception?
Katy: I never had any ambition to run a litmag. The voidspace came about incrementally. First of all, it came from the fact that there was nowhere publishing the kind of work I wanted to see. I was writing a lot of interactive fiction at the time, and I was frustrated that there was no readily apparent place to submit it. Some mags would publish IF, but only sporadically. I wanted to see a space dedicated to the form, and so I decided the only option was to create one. The other interactivities that the voidspace encourages grew organically from there.
And finally, the name! The void is a mystery. A blank space. A blank page. The dark of a computer screen, with a bright flashing cursor beckoning you to make the next move. The beat before. The place where, in that moment of suspension, anything is possible. The voidspace is also a cosy, dimly lit and lightly haunted attic. In the voidspace people can pull up a beanbag, have a cup of tea, find community, and prepare to step through the veil into an adventure.
– I love the buzz, and the inherent sense of choice in the voidspace. The zine was my introduction to Twine, which is used to great effect in, for example, Mark Ward’s “Faultlines”(issue 1). Subsequent issues include interviews, artwork and “pick a word”. What types of interactivities can we as readers expect when we click on a voidspace portal?
Katy: If you click on a portal for a main voidspace issue you will get something both straightforward and complex. Simple, in that you know you will be led to interactive writing, and complex in that you never quite know what form that interactivity will take. There are pieces more traditionally recognised as IF, branching narratives, that lead in all sorts of directions. There are pieces that may invite interaction in some other way: for example by performing a ritual, unravelling a visual puzzle or interpolating the reader’s experiences into the text. The types of interactivity are limited only by submitter’s imaginations. I’m always excited when I receive a submission, because I never know quite what I’m going to find.
Another type of interactivity that explorers of the voidspace will encounter is the pop ups. Again, these came about by accident: one of the first submissions I received was a creatively presented writing exercise, or toolbox, that was Christmas themed. I really wanted people to have the chance to interact with it, but issue 1 wasn’t due to drop until January. So I decided to make a separate issue dedicated to people’s responses, and it went so well that pop ups have become a regular feature of the mag. They’re a great way to encourage writers to make tools for other writers to interact with, and to get writers who may not be ready to make strictly interactive work themselves to join in. Art, makes art, makes art, and it’s flipping brilliant!
The other portal that the voidspace holds, the voidspace in conversation series, leads to a world of interactivities beyond the written word. This is a way to include interactive creators whose work doesn’t lend itself to litmag publication: including creators in interactive performance disciplines, VR/AR, live art and more. My sense is that creators in all these fields have the same core interest – using interactivity to expand the range of response and engagement available to their audiences – but at the moment they don’t always acknowledge each others’ existence! I think creators in all these fields have so much to learn from each other, and I’m really passionate about breaking down those silos. That’s where the expanded voidspace in conversation series comes from.
It’s also led to voidspace dispatches, a weekly digest of interviews, listings and play at home experiences from the wider interactive arts world. These might seem quite separate from the litmag side, but I do believe that the voidspace’s writers could find them to be as deep a well of inspiration as I have, and so I hope that everyone will approach it with an open mind and dip in!
– Turning to your own poetry, your collection Postcards from Ragnarok can be considered as an interaction between contemporary life and the harsh realms of Norse mythology. The poems are at once spare and layered, dark and luminous. Tell us about the inspiration for the book, and your creative process.
Katy: I was Viking mad in my 20s. I studied Old Norse literature, alongside other early mediaeval literatures, and the images and stories I came across in the Edda (compendia of Norse mythology written down in the 12th-13th century but probably coming from source material that is much, much older), have always stayed with me.
Old Norse mythology has, in my view always been treated unfairly, even when it’s been taken up by the likes of Marvel. It’s been seen as utterly alien and impossible to relate to, as a bit of a joke, or something akin to the first action movie or comic strip. It can be at least some of those things too, but for me Norse mythology (like all mythologies) speaks to me as a series of images and metaphors that people living in those times used to make sense of their world, and the feelings it evoked in them.
For example, the image of the Midgard Serpent, the snake that girdles the earth and keeps the sea in place – I imagine Viking seafarers looking towards the horizon and seeing a snake, finding a way of expressing the paradoxical balance between the seeming safety and solidity of that thin line of blue, and a sense of the lurking horror and danger that it held as they voyaged towards it. I think by trying to get inside the deeper emotional resonance of these myths we can remember that all poets, all people in fact, share an urge that goes beyond the age in which they lived: the urge to come to terms with the nature of their existence through stories. They were battling with the realities of love and death just as we are, using the materials available to them.
There’s a line from immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s most recent show, The Burnt City, that sums it up for me perfectly: “The past is not past. It is here and now, if you have eyes to see.”
These poems explore that sense of immediacy that we can find even in ancient texts, by presenting the reader with those stories, those images, and showing them that underlying relevance, by segueing into modern scenarios where we may experience those same feelings. I hope that these poems throw readers off balance, and provoke the shiver of awe that the original audiences may have felt when they heard these tales.
This bridge of understanding between past and present is a preoccupation that runs through much of my work. My latest chapbook, Stovetop Ghosts, a book of poetic meditations on parenthood through the lens of an ordinary day, I’ve presented it an illustrated book of hours, which was a book of private devotions popular in mediaeval times, structured around the offices of prayer. By blending the mediaeval and the modern, spiritual and secular, I hope to convey the strange intensity of those early years with small children.
My creative process is pretty scattergun. I try to write something small most days, even if it’s just a few lines around a single word prompt. Those exercises often take on a mind of their own, and become fully fledged poems or the beginnings of stories. Then at other times a loose concept will form in my mind and I’ll just have to keep picking at it until it comes to fruition. I do all my writing on my phone, in fits and starts on my commute or while making dinner. It suits my ADHD brain better than sitting down at a laptop or with a fresh notebook to write.
– I love the book-of-hours structure of Stovetop Ghosts, and how you interweave past, present and future in narratives of ostensibly mundane events: a dropped cup, making a batch of pancakes, chanting a nursery rhyme. There are also gestures towards mediaeval traditions in your subtle use of alliteration and the beautiful illustrations by Stuart Buck. Please share one poem from each collection with us, together with some contextual insight.
Katy: This first poem is taken from Stovetop Ghosts.
Nones 1 The time you take to walk down to the far end of the allotments, where the blackberries grow studying every stick and leaf singing a song about knees. The time you take to blow the dandelion clock, fuzzed haloes growing thinner with each puff. I wish I could hold this bright drop of now; that the afternoon didn't lie curled in the morning sun; the bright green clean spring leaves didn't whisper autumn. I think about those seeds drifting on the wind to who knows where. Green shoots and yellow flowers I'll never see. Stems for little hands to hold and begin again.
This poem is a perfect example of my process in action. I started writing this piece from the single word prompt, “dandelion”, after a walk to nursery with my preschooler. The poem went through many iterations after that, becoming a more complex meditation on time, mortality and generations.
And this next poem, from Postcards from Ragnarok, is an example of how I sought to communicate something about Norse mythology and modern life and let the two illuminate each other.
Midgard Week after weary week we walked surviving on Kendal mint cake and scraps of conversation waterproofs and shopping lists and late night wine and texts our armour until one day we realized that the horizon we thought we'd been travelling towards is in fact a serpent biting its own tail forever and much, much closer than we think
– Looking to the future, you have exciting plans to set up a press, with the aim of releasing “interactive work in hard copy”. It sounds intriguing – tell us more!
Katy: The brief for voidspace press started as “choose your own adventures for grown ups”, as I wanted to find a way to bring literary interactive books into the world. Many of us have fond memories of gamebooks from childhood, and I feel the form has huge as yet untapped literary potential.
We are going to bring some of this potential into the world with a varied roster of interactive books encompassing games, poetry and even an interactive graphic novel. Exciting times are ahead!
The press will be called – a little obviously – voidspace press – and we hope to release our first title in early 2024. I’ve got four titles lined up already, which I’m hoping we can release at regular intervals after that.
I’m hoping to bring interactivity into voidspace press launches in various ways – by having dedicated pop ups and participatory launch events. The aim is to make the launch process fun for everyone, as we bring these truly unique books into the world.
– Finally, do you have any other projects of your own that you’re currently working on?
Katy: As the voidspace grows it seems to take up more and more time, and it gets harder to make time for my own writing. Still, I’m keeping my hand in by responding to #vss365 prompts a couple of times a week, which I hope eventually to draw together into a collection, and I have a couple of longer term interactive fiction projects in the works. Watch this space!
– Many thanks, Katy, for taking the time to answer my questions, and best of luck with the new press. I’ll be looking out for further announcements!
Katy Naylor’s website: https://voidskrawl.uk/
Katy Naylor, Postcards from Ragnarok, published by Alien Buddha Press (2021). Available through Amazon.
Katy Naylor, Stovetop Ghosts, published by Femme Salvé (2023) https://femmesalvebooks.net/stovetop-ghosts/