Chris Meade is quite the guru when it comes to Creative Writing and New Media. He has now run two major UK literature organisations, the Poetry Society and Booktrust; devised innovative creative reading and writing projects; developed ‘imagination services’ to schools and the community; and in 2007 set up if:book uk a charity exploring the future of the book in the digital age. We thought we’d interrupt his busy lifestyle to ask a few questions… You’ve recently started running Digital Publishing courses at the Unlibrary Cafe in North London. Who are these aimed at and why did you decide to run them?
We’ve had an amazing range of people including published authors and new writers all wanting to get an idea of the options open to them in terms of digital means to spread their words through blogs, apps, print on demand and all the rest. Our aim is to grow a community of talent with the spread of skills needed for making new kinds of transmedia literature, people we could ask in to collaborate with us on specific projects – and it’s beginning to happen.
If:book has been described as a ‘think and do tank’ – would you like to explain what that means exactly?
The definition comes from the Institute for the Future of the Book (www.futureofthebook.org) , our sister organisation in Brooklyn, set up by Bob Stein, a legend in digital publishing. At if:book uk (www.futureofthebook.org.uk) on the think side we undertake research, write and give talks, but also DO projects – like setting up the Unlibrary Cafe, an experiment in a new kind book place in a local community, or curating How Power Corrupts, a week of events and workshops inspired by the book by Dr Ricardo Blaug, looking at the future for academic writing and social reading, how this important text could be opened up to be the focus for a wider discussion.
You’ve been involved in a number of collaborative writing projects. Can you tell us more?
I was involved in Penguin’s wiki novel in 2007 when over 2,000 crowd-wrote something called ‘One Million Penguins’, a bold experiment but the end of result was gobbledygook. The first 24hr book was led by Kate Pullinger and run by if:book, Spread the Word and the Society of Young Publishers. It involved around 20 writers and the same number of editors over one weekend, with the book launched in Soho on the monday. We each began writing about gardeners on different plots on an allotment then brought our characters to meet each other using Google docs. It was a lot of fun, very intense and the resulting text left me feeling there’s huge creative potential in collaborative writing, something we’ve been developing in other ways since. We made a collaborative poem for National Poetry Day last year and now we’re bringing together small teams for different publishing projects through the Unlibrary Cafe. I reckon we’re feeling our way into some exciting creative territory – more interesting than the re-packaging of bestseller into ePub and app which seems to be what’s obsessing the commercial sector currently.
Quite a lot going on it seems. How do you organise your day?
Hmm.. I make lists and then forget to look at them, waste too much time on twitter and facebook, then have bursts of frantic activity.
I work from our kitchen at home or the Unlibrary Cafe which is a cycle ride away, or the Free Word Centre which I get to by scooter.
And between journeys I sit hunched over the laptop tiptapping. Actually I’ve just bought a manual typewriter – the Olympia Splendid 66, and am loving writing on that. The clatter is wonderful and it doesn’t distract me with tweets and emails.
What achievement are you most proud of?
The longlist includes passing my driving test first time, making two children, getting published by Penguin once, setting up the Poetry Cafe, raising funds for the amazing Bookstart scheme… I’m proud of if:book too, though it’s still in the midst of being achieved.
I met Margaret Atwood recently and told her about if:book. Her reaction was, “We must talk!” That made me glow.
Who do you most admire?
The poet William Blake has been a hero of mine for all sorts of reasons – radical, visionary multimedia artist of the 18th Century, self publishing and seeing angels in trees. It’s very fitting that the Unlibrary Cafe is run by a guy called Robin Stevenson who has dressed as an 18th century gent for the past 20 years.
I was in Melbourne last year and bought a little book there about the bookseller E.W.Cole who started out selling lemon scented water to prospectors in the gold rush and in 1865 launched what became a massive book emporium with a menagerie of animals within. A brilliant, barmy entrepreneur.
So, what projects are coming next? What else would you like to get involved in?
We’re researching the use of iPads and new media literature in schools working with the wonderful Winged Chariot childrens’ book apps. I recently took a team of emerging writers to the Alpha-Ville digital festival for the Young Poets Network we’ve been building with the Poetry Society. And I’m going back to Melbourne and Brisbane soon to work with if:book australia on a strategy for literature. And what I really want to do next year is make transliterature reading experiences at the Unlibrary Cafe.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work in publishing content using New Media?
I’m not sure if it’s good advice if you want a career with a publisher, but I’m trying to forget about the woes of the industry and concentrate entirely on how writers and readers can meet directly online without intermediaries. My hunch is that this is actually the best way to hit on the big new business idea. At least I hope so.