Riding SideSaddle* is not like most things you’ve read. On the surface it startles with its three-dimensionality—it’s not a spinebound book but a deck of cards, and you shuffle it before each reading. It’s a new, and wonderful, adventure each time, a story of outcasts, their caretaker, and the friendship and love they find with each other. It’s a story about the body and hybridity—based on the myth of Hermaphroditus—and it’s a story about magic and the slipperiness of categories.
Available in physical format from SpringGun Press, it’s also available for free online at OddBooks, a reading platform written specifically around the novel and its randomizability. It’s also open-source—free to use, adapt, remix, and incorporate into other pieces. I talked with Eric Suzanne, the polymath visionary behind this project, about innovations with literary form as well as some of the issues—body, gender, friendship, memory—at work in the novel.
Let’s talk about the first thing people will encounter with this project: its format. What first led you to thinking about writing a deck, this series of cards? You mention Charles Mee Jr. and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.in the acknowledgements—were there particular works (of theirs, or others) that you drew from?
Vonnegut and Mee both use a writing-collage process that I’ve leaned on heavily—writing in fragments and arranging them. You can see it in the structure of Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five, where Vonnegut even talks about alien Tralfamadorians who read stories instantaneously, getting the entire picture at once without a linear order. Mee’s open-source play Under Construction is also a great example, with scenes that can be performed in any combination and order.
But those are just two influences out of a million. I love cut-up and remix work, including hypertext fiction, so this didn’t feel radically new to me. Artists across media have been cutting and shuffling stories for years, to popular acclaim (see Memento). I learned cutup techniques from collaborators and mentors in the theatre—Michelle Milne, Brian Freeland, Julie Rada, Michelle Ellsworth, and so on. It’s not a new process. I’m just pulling back the curtain.
This project calls itself a novel, and indeed there are very strong narrative elements—strong emotional conflicts, strong characters, and even some strong plot elements (such as all the traveling, and disease and death). In many ways this feels like an homage (perhaps, even, a eulogy) to the novel, even as it antagonizes its traditionally linear form with its randomized sequencing. Can you talk a little bit about your position, in this project, toward the novel as a genre, what conventions you hope to upset, what conventions you hope to preserve?
I don’t think much about the conventions of the novel as a form. Calling this a novel was a practical decision—the quickest way to explain what you might do with my odd box of note cards. You already know how to read a novel, right? This might look different, but if you read my cards the same way, you’ll be fine.
I’m more interested in challenging the broad belief that genre/form categories are solid or important. I consider this the first lesson of art history: there is no platonic form. No novel, or poem, or play (or woman, or white person, if we branch out of the arts). These categories exist as cultural reference points for better and worse, but the fences are arbitrary and constantly shifting.
Your acknowledgments outline a deep community of collaborators—can you talk a little bit about collaboration and how it works in this project, how you organized the contributors, or what role/roles they have played.
Everything is a collaboration for me. I collaborated with Mee and Milne and William S Burroughs to develop the form, but none of them knew it. I surround myself with inspiring art and the artists who will put up with me—then I steal everything I can. I also work with friends and editors and publishers along the way, who I consider collaborators even if they contribute ideas and feedback and money instead of content. I could write every word, and it would still be a collaboration.
Of course, some people were more directly involved in the process. At least 16 of the final cards come directly from the poems of Jacob Liechty, with only minor changes. Jacob was my voice guide from the beginning, so it made sense to use his words—but he never wrote anything new for this piece. Neither did anyone else, as far as I know. Sondra, Aaron, Brandi, and others contributed cards in the same way. Sometimes I would ask them to send me poems, and then I’d pillage for material. Other times I knew exactly what I wanted.
Coming from the open-source software community, I like this solitary collaboration. We’re all sharing words, we just use them for different purposes—each in control of our own final product.
The novel is available for free at OddBooks. It is also classed as “open-source” and under a like Creative Commons license that allows for adaption and redistribution. Can you talk about OddBooks as well as what you would like to see people do with the novel?
I love the way open-source collaboration happens. Rather than two people in a room trying to agree on what comes next, a thousand people online copy your code and make the changes they want—letting you steal back your favorite bits. It sounds like chaos, but there are well-developed tools to keep it flowing smoothly, and open-source licenses that define the rules. I want to bring those tools to the art world.
So I cheated. In my spare time, I run a web-development company called OddBird with my brothers. We’re all active in the open-source community, creating and contributing to some very active projects, so we know the tools well. OddBooks is our open-source tool for artists. It’s a perfect fit because we built (and are still building) the original features around this novel.
What you see now is just the start of a larger vision. In the future, OddBooks will provide tools to help you copy and edit my project like any open-source software. Maybe you fix a typo and contribute back to my novel, or you add and remove cards to make your own story, or you throw out most of it and write an essay on Hermaphroditus. I have big plans for my own improvements—music, links, tags, video, etc.—but I have no plans for other people. That’s up to you! I have talked with a theatre company that wants to write their own piece based on a random sampling of cards. That’s much better than any idea I would have come up with.
This summer we can look for you performing Riding Sidesaddle* with your musical outfit, Teacup Gorilla, and you will also be releasing an EP. Can you talk about this novel as a performance piece? What struggles, what joys, and what surprises have come your way as you’ve set this to music?
I’m really a theatre artist at heart. All my training is in theatre, and I worked in theatre for years before I ever built a website or wrote a novel. But theatre is a trojan horse filled with dance and writing, music, architecture, lights, and any other media you want. No one calls theatre a hybrid form, but that’s what it is. Now I don’t have a stage or actors to work with, but I’m still making theatre the same way I’ve always made it—combining whatever I have on hand.
The first step is to develop a script. I did that on my computer, writing and stealing and editing words to make a story in fragments. Then I started performing it, and each performance is different. I can perform it on note cards in a box and highlight the fragmented nature by letting you shuffle the deck, but I have to add proper names more often than usual or you get lost. The cards are not a perfect representation of the script. They are just one form. I can also perform the story online and use that form to add multimedia interactions like links and animation, but you lose some physical experience and control.
I can also perform this story with the band. That offers some very different opportunities and obstacles, but nothing outside the realm of theatre experience. I lose some of the non-linear randomization, but the music lets me dive deeper into the mood and atmosphere of the story. In the end, I cut most of the words and let the music carry that weight—leaving only the most essential cards intact. The story gets a more solid structure, but the words are more fragmented than ever.
There’s not one base form with adaptations around it. Every form is an adaptation of the idea.
Part of why this project works so well, I think, is a deliberate effort at organizing these cards around different kinds of categories. Each card is hashtagged, for instance, with the characters involved and/or one of just a handful of categories. So the cards can be divided up into just a small number of types, if I may: character cards, narrator cards (#me), image/title cards, the myth cards of Hermaphroditus, the very infrequent untagged cards, and the epigraph cards quoting from “Margaret Clap’s Book of Last Words.” Can you talk about your thinking with this design and the choice of these categories?
Early on, one of my editors suggested I organize the cards into categories and cut any stack that was too small, or any card without a companion. It was really just an editing exercise. Everything hinged around the myth, so that was the obvious place to start—followed by the characters (including the first-person narrator) and images. There was a stack of strange aphorisms that I repurposed to flesh out the voice of Molly Clap, saving both the character and the aphorisms in a clever sleight-of-hand. Several other characters had to be cut or combined, and I kept working like that until the story felt cohesive. The untagged cards could really be claimed by the narrator, but I reserved that tag for direct mention of the character’s actions.
I only added the explicit tags to help myself work, but I left them on a draft to help my publishers see the underlying structure. They loved the device and thought it would help readers, so we ran with it. I think of it as exposed scaffolding, as well as an analog homage to hypertext fiction. In the digital version it won’t just be an homage—we’re working to link the tags so you can interact with them.
Following up on that, I’m particularly interested in your choice include the first-person perspective. This novel at once reads like it’s in the third and first person. Can you talk a bit about that?
I knew from the start that the form might be off-putting. Fragmentation could quickly become cold and impersonal, but I wanted it to feel like soft-focus scraps of fading memory rather than something carved up in a sterile writing lab. I wanted the fragments to feel gentle, and the writing to be as simple, welcoming, and personal as possible. All my memories are in first person, so that felt like the right way to go.
At the same time, I never like writing in a single voice. I intentionally borrow from diverse source material, and play with distinct sub-forms inside a piece—snippets of dialog, song lyrics, lists, jokes, myths, aphorisms, etc. I find the world more interesting if it’s filled with different voices, especially voices outside my own. This story is being relayed by the narrator, but it’s about an ensemble of different characters, and I want their voices and influences and styles to leak through.
Can you talk about the title cards and the design of the packaging, which is very important—these schematic drawings, which seem to press angular designs into the organics of the body, emotion, romance, and narrative. The packaging illustration is a perfect example, with the circuit diagram funneling into that exquisitely wrought head, which seems like it’s just birthing in the sun.
You got it, exactly! All I can really add is the process.
I first developed the style while working on the cover for James Belflower’s The Posture of Contour. We were exploring a process of abstraction—starting with an image, tracing in blind contour, transferring onto charcoal, adding diagrammatic red arrows in the negative space, and then cutting/splicing the layers back together. That seemed like a perfect parallel to the body-dissociation I was exploring in the novel. I wanted to give this story a sense of location and physicality, while still showing that process of abstraction. First it was just a cover design, then it expanded and became a part of the novel itself.
Each of these characters is extraordinarily coherent, discreet, something you achieve right at the outset (what/whenever that might be). Yet they are all bound together under Mother Clap’s tutelage, by their own friendship, and certainly by their marginalization as queers, sex workers, or more generally as social/sexual others. Can you talk about the dynamic between character and community? Is there a defined protagonist (Sam? Me?)? How does shuffling the sequence affect this dynamic? How does this work for a community of characters traditionally cast as other? Would this work, for, say, a book about suburban mothers?
The myth creates some tension around individuality when Hermaphroditus and Salmacis are joined into one body. That was the driving storyline for me, with Herman and Sam together as the protagonist(s). From there, I wanted to explore how our identities are tied to (or in conflict with) our bodies—but that question is immediately tied up in relationships. Identity is often fluid and contextual, taking on different roles in different groups. These characters may be outsiders somewhere, but together they have a very strong sense of belonging. Otherness isn’t all-consuming.
I think the shuffling helps to hold everything together. This is a group memory of shared time together, an intensely experienced history of belonging, where brief moments of relationship are more important than any over-arching narrative. I’m not sure if that’s unique for outcasts—everyone is looking for a place to belong.
Tell me about Madame Clap, aka Miss Mollie. The Madame and the salon—and the cohort of young people protected by her—has nearly become a subgenre (I think of things like John Cameron Mitchell’s film, “Shortbus,” or Lisa D’Amour’s play “Airline Highway,” which just finished running at the Steppenwolf here in Chicago). Can you talk about any influences (pieces, authors, or performers) that led you or helped you understand this subgenre?
I don’t know the subgenera well, and didn’t plan to use it at the start, but stumbled into it as I worked from my source material. “Shortbus” was certainly an influence (along with everything else by John Cameron Mitchell), but I haven’t seen “Airline Highway.” I’ll have to look it up.
You can’t write a queer memory without sex work, but the specific structure was driven by my research into 18th-century molly houses. Molly was British slang for an effeminate man, and was a third-gender identity before gay and trans* identities developed. The most famous molly house was operated by Mother (Margaret) Clap, until she was arrested for encouraging sodomy. Very little is known about her life, but I took what I could and fictionalized the rest. I combined her with the shop-owner in Vitruvius’ version of the Hermaphroditus myth—and I had my plot outline.
The characters here are all compelled by different wants, both sexual and not. Can you talk about desire and, especially, the relationships between love, sex, and friendship, especially as they organize the characters here and influence the things that they do? Likewise, can you talk about the dynamic between pleasure and pain? There is a strong sense of vacillating between the two.
That just sounds like life to me—people struggling with desire, which is at the core of both pleasure and pain. I’ve been told that the last card you read has a strong emotional effect on how you perceive the novel as either hopeful or depressing. Memories aren’t set in stone. We apply our current moods and experiences to past events, creating hybrid memories that grow and change.
Tell me about the body. Tell me about feeling trapped by a gender, or just trapped by a body. Jolene, for instance, seems to have cut off her arm because of xenomelia, the sense that one of one’s limbs does not belong. Herman is trans. Can you relate these ideas to larger ones, such as hybridity, which comes across clearly as one of the few moments of magic—in body-coupling—and in the Hermaphroditus myth. How are coupling and intimacy—both sexual and psychological—related?
Bodies also grow and change. Identities flux and shift. Somehow they are related, but not always in sync. I’m not sure what it’s like to feel trapped by a body exactly, but I do feel trapped by a culture that reads a different identity into my body than I do. It’s not the wrong body, it’s the wrong reading. Identity is communal.
I’m not sure that Herman is trans by any common definition. There’s some magic in the merger of Herman and Sam, and I’m not sure we have a name for it. Somewhere in the realm of trans*, or intersex, or genderqueer, or maybe pandrogynous like Genesis and Lady Jay Breyer P-Orridge. I tried to keep that confusion and fluidity available to all my characters. Jolene is clearly missing an arm, but xenomelia is only one theory, a myth told by Edward. It may be Jolene’s body, but that identity is assigned to her from the outside.
Whether we are talking about the characters, or the format of the book itself—identities are not essentially fixed, they come from the outside. They are imperfect shortcuts in language, attempting to make sense out of something inherently confusing and inexact.
We seem alternately in summer and in winter, swimming in ponds and sledding down hills. Can you talk about the seasons, montage, and disruption of time? Likewise, there are a handful of distinct events—can you talk about the cares you’ve taken in signaling important events in the novel and how they get referred to across cards, since any event could precede any other?
I can’t get Camus out of my head. The benign indifference of the universe. The weather is always there, and somehow it changes our experience of an event. Somehow it becomes important. Is weather sequential or cyclical? I was more interested in the latter. It keeps going. These events happened at a specific time and place, with weather related to a season, but that’s not enough to place it in sequence.
The event signaling was a difficult balance for me. I repeat plot details and character names more than I would like to, but otherwise the cohesion is lost. Early drafts had too little, later drafts had too much, and hopefully we found equilibrium in the end.
Finally, let’s talk about death. There are some things here we maybe shouldn’t mention for fear of spoilers, but I think it’s safe to say that Miss Molly, Margaret Clap, is on her death bed (see, again, “Airline Highway”). Can you talk about hospice, end-of-life issues, and how they figure emotionally with the struggles of the younger characters? Can you talk about the #lastwords, legacy, and wisdom?
My characters face death in various ways, but it always feels distant for the narrator. You can’t point at death and explain it, so you talk about the people instead—the ways they come and go.
Molly may be looking at her own mortality more than the young characters, but even she doesn’t know what she’s looking at apart from lost friendships. I’m not sure how close to death she actually is, but she clearly has it on her mind and enjoys a morbid humor. I see her Last Words as a way to explore that skeptical side-eye glance at death. It may be her attempt at a legacy, or her desire to get the last word, or planning ahead for things to say when her time comes. Either way, what matters is the people around you, and the holes they leave.