Those Trojan Girls

“…the primary source for serious hypertext” – Robert Coover, The New York Times Book Review

Those Trojan Girls

a discussion with Stacey Mason and Mark Bernstein

Stacey Mason (SM): Those Trojan Girls debuted last summer at the ACM Hypertext Conference; it was one of six works we selected for our Creative Track. In Halifax, you talked a lot about “excitement” in relation to hypertext fiction. Can you explain what you mean by “excitement?” Why is it a focus for you?

Mark Bernstein (MB): One of the attacks that people level against hypertext fiction is that it’s dull, that it can’t tell stories.  Laura Miller and Michiko Kakutani each denounced hypertexts this way back in the ’90s. I think their real target was postmodernism: they were attacking the sort of writing fostered by MFA programs, and hypertext was just in the way. But the criticism stuck.  

SM: Surely though, with the popularity of Twine works, we’re seeing movement away from plotless hypertexts in the postmodern tradition. Many Twine works are explicitly rebelling against the sort of writing you mention.

MB: Lots of Twine stories – not all, but lots – work by varying what happens. You make choices, and those choices change the story. That can be very effective, but I wanted to explore the more familiar fictive world where what happens is more or less fixed. 

And I didn’t want to turn The Trojan Women into a game. It’s an important story, but it’s not a story that contains a game; if you contrive a better outcome, there’s really nothing to talk about. 

SM: Those Trojan Girls is a school story, a genre rooted in the sentimental Victorian novel. What drew you to the school story?

MB: The school story is plot-driven and suspenseful, but the engine of suspense isn’t wondering how things are going to turn out.  Tom Brown goes off the school at Rugby. We know he’s going to face challenges. That’s the story! We also know he’s going to graduate in the end, and be a better person. 

SM: You’ve written before that the 19th-century school story ends with graduation. The 20th-century school story ends with the dissolution of the school. In Those Trojan Girls you begin with a wrecked school: in my reading, the story opens with a student with a rifle on the roof of her dormitory.

MB: Exactly. Kids today start with the wreckage.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Harry Potter, Decline and Fall, Wonder Boys, Ender’s Game, The Tribe.  That’s a lot of wrecked schools. But now, everything is wrecked just as we’re getting started.

SM: Why are they Trojan girls?

MB: I wanted to argue that the excitement comes from the story, not from trying to win. So the story is one that we recognize as unwinnable. It’s The Trojan Women, a tragedy that Euripides attempted, twice. And then Seneca took a shot, too. It’s not a story you’d dial up on Janet Murray’s Holodeck for an afternoon’s sport. Troy is going to fall – it already has fallen. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. Certainly nothing that school kids can do.

SM: So where do you find excitement?

MB: It doesn’t matter that we know how things will end. It matters terribly how we get there, once we meet the kids and start to care about their individual predicaments. 

Euripides and Seneca give us a terrific cast. Take Cassandra. She used to be really popular. Three years ago she went totally goth, but for her classmates, goth is over. Nobody has time for that shit. Cassie stands (in torn jeans) athwart the road of history shouting “Stop!” and she is right – but there are good and necessary reasons she’s wrong, too.

Or take Helena, a lovely, provincial girl from a troubled family who recently discovered science, and then discovered sex. She’s having an affair with one of the masters. Mr. Paris has a terrible, irrational crush on her. She’s enjoying herself and learning a lot. She’s got a lot going on. She doesn’t want a revolution, she didn’t ask to get stuck in the middle of an insurgency. It’s not her fault, but those topless towers are going to burn.

SM: What was the biggest challenge in writing Those Trojan Girls?

MB: It’s a tragedy and a school story, which means terrible things happen to children, and some of the children do terrible things. That’s very difficult, right now.  It was difficult for Seneca, too: he has to get poor Polyxena off-stage because he can’t bear to show her sacrifice, but then has the messenger rush back to describe the scene in ghastly detail. 

It was hard, too, to deal with the kid’s sexuality. That’s become another taboo, but of course it completely falsifies the experience of school to write it out, or to make love unimportant the way Harry Potter did. Who sort-of likes whom right now is terribly important. It’s life and death, and it’s still life and death even when The Security is trying to kill us all.

SM: The setting of Those Trojan Girls is also interesting, particularly given post-modernism’s focus on non-space and non-setting. Your setting is contemporary, but it’s not Anatolia…

MB: I wanted a contemporary school caught in a terrible time – Vichy, perhaps, or Sarajevo. The best fit would probably be in post-colonial Africa, but I didn’t want the subtext of race to overwhelm the story. I didn’t think I had the skill for that. The American school story is always also about race, though we don’t always actually speak about it: Moby Dick, Two Years Before The Mast, Huckleberry Finn: an American education yarn always touches on race or conspicuously averts its eyes.  Just as the British school story is always also about sex. 

So we’ll call it “Troy.”

SM: Storyspace maps are also relevant here. We’ve been talking about narrative space, but maps add a spatial dimension as well—one that’s necessarily functional, but is also beautiful.   

MB: I think the maps are fairly modest, and I worry that they make the hypertextuality seem too simple. But it’s also good to let people see how things work, to see the machinery. Those Trojan Girls leans heavily on sculptural hypertext, which is new to Storyspace: sections where almost anything can follow nearly anything else.

There’s a long interrogation, for example, that’s almost entirely sculptural. Interrogation works beautifully that way: interrogators probe and back away, change the subject, circle back. They’re also exciting and full of conflict, and if you need to you can use that conflict to camouflage buckets of exposition.  In Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative I wrote about “painterly hypertext,” hypertext where you simply don’t know what the best sequence might be and so let the brushstrokes fall where they fall. I think there’s terrific opportunities in sculptural hypertext for storytelling.

SM: I want to go back to the question of excitement. You talked in Halifax about the craft problems of making a page-turner when you, as the author, don’t know what’s coming next.

MB: What matters to the potboiler is that we really want to know what’s next. If we satisfy that desire right away, that’s great. If we keep that desire in suspense for a while, that’s even better, provided we eventually get there. They key is that we want the reader to care what’s next.

SM: How do you do that?

MB: Lots of ways. At the outset, the audience really wants to know what’s going on here. Once we get close to some of the characters, they’re our friends: we want things to turn out well for them, we want the things they want. These Trojan kids want a lot of things very badly.

Conflict is a great springboard. The school story is full of conflict in any event, and our school is sitting in the midst of a revolution. Kenmire House wants to beat Jefferson. The jocks want to beat St. Pantalaimon’s, and half of the school basically detests the jocks. The left-wing instructors dislike the right-wing instructors. All the adults get wrapped up in student conflicts they only half understand, and they have professional rivalries and job worries. Then there are the maids, the cooks; they have plenty to resent. 

The school is a secret world; the 19th century school story was about the secret world of the rich folk to which a normal, sympathetic child gains access. Secret worlds are engines of narrative energy, and their secrecy gives you conflict on tap. 

Dialogue itself generates tension: you see the question, you want to hear the answer. I don’t think enough attention has been called to the hypertextual potential of dialogue. Interrogations, dinner parties, classrooms: you can have lots happening and it can happen in all sorts of sequences .

We have the whole arsenal of familiar moves, too. Show a gun in the first act, people will start looking for how it might be used in the third. Undressing works just as well. 

Once you’ve established a coherent picture, anomalies themselves become terrific drivers. Anomalies are dissonant chords; people want to push ahead and find out how they get resolved.  Like all the other techniques here, anomalies are dangerous: if you push them too hard, the audience might decide you’re absurd or simply sloppy and stop paying attention.

Plus, in this story I’ve got allusion to work with. These are names to conjure with: Troy, Helen, Cassandra, Ulysses. Echoes from the fields we know make readers want to find out what’s really going on – to figure out what you’re alluding to and what that means.  The new Hogarth Shakespeare novels do this really well, especially Howard Jacobsen’s Shylock Is My Name.

SM: Any regrets?

MB: Those Trojan Girls inherits a big cast from The Trojan Women and from the school story: we’ve got a bunch of central figures, we’ve got classmates, we’ve got the staff of the school – and after all, the teachers dominate the kids’ life – and we’ve got the world outside, both the domestic side of parents and siblings and the dramatic detail that the storms of revolution are washing over us. It took me too long to understand the craft problems such a big cast poses.

SM: You’ve been editing hypertexts for ages, and this is the first one you’ve written—what took so long?

MB: At first, I didn’t want to compete with Eastgate authors. The traditional solution would have been to take the work across the street, but there’s still not really another publishing house where something like Those Trojan Girls would fit. 

That may change, but the way. We’re seeing a bunch of really interesting new hypertexts, from the hyperdrama Sleep No More that’s having an extended run in New York and now in Shanghai, to Iain Pears’ Arcadia and Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes. The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home is a hyperfiction pretending to be a game, and Failbetter Games (Fallen London) is doing fascinating work. 

SM: What’s next for you? 

MB: I've got an idea for a hypertext thriller. Mysteries are a tough genre for hypertext because they have so many formal constraints; people imagine mysteries are about detection and solving puzzles, but they’re actually ritual restorations of order to the ruined world. The thriller, on the other hand, leaves us lots of freedom. 

It might not work, but it will be fun to try.