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Deb Potter on gender neutral characters and the long lost art of interactive fiction.

Monday 9th October 2017

Meet the woman who's bringing back the long lost art of interactive fiction - one titanium spaceship, human zoo exhibit, and possessed computer game at a time. 

Deb Potter is the founder of publishing company and writers' collective The Fairytale Factory.

Photo: Aaron Hailwood

Wellingtonian Deb Potter is the founder of publishing company and writers' collective The Fairytale Factory. The company started in 2012 and now boasts 16 "You Say Which Way" titles by six authors, which are flying off the shelves the world over, from the US to India. Deb chats to Erin Kavanagh-Hall about her early eBooks, the power of choice, the importance of gender-neutral storytelling, and gifts from the fans.

How did you writing career start? How did you arrive at children's interactive fiction?
 I’ve always been writing. My mum wrote plays when I was younger - when you see someone else in your life doing something you know it can be done.
When my daughters were little, I did a children’s literature course through the Christchurch College of Education. I got inspired, and I ended up writing a bunch of children’s picture books - I did nothing with them, but it was a way to get that early shitty writing out of the way! Fast forward a few years: I remember watching my youngest playing with my Kindle. I noticed her time [for reading] was competing with other things, like gaming - she didn’t have the time to be immersed in reading like when we were kids. I noticed eBooks can help kids appreciate reading, because digital media is delivered in small chunks.
Then, I remembered the old “choose your own adventure” books from the 80s and 90s, and thought they would be so cool in eBook form! There was still a little bit of interactive fiction around, but the gaming industry had moved into that space, so it had kind of died away. So, it seemed eBooks could give them a revival. Although, the odd thing is that Fairytale Factory now sells way more paperbacks than eBooks.
So cool! What do you think the appeal of "you say which way" books is?
Interactive fiction allows kids some [independence]. It's a supercharged form of autonomy - they're choosing how the story maps out. Kids don't have the same freedom as when I was growing up - we'd roam around our suburb and in the hills, and go down to the farm and catch eels, but now it seems kids don't even get to cross the road by themselves! So, I think it’s important for kids to experience autonomy and decision-making. One of the most empowering things is to teach a child they have choices. Plus, kids love the idea of dying in a book, and choosing again!
Tell us about some of the books you've published?
Between The Stars is one of mine. You’re in a Steampunk spaceship, and you’re asleep, and while you’re asleep you’re learning. I was going with the idea of ‘how could I have a group of 10-12-year-old kids loose in a spaceship and be in control and take charge?’ But if they’re in [their own] bodies and learning all this information as they sleep, they get the license to be captain and engineer, and all those cool roles. You get the choice to wake up - but, if you wake up, you age. The more adventures you do, the less likely it is that you’ll make it to the planet you’re meant to be settling on. There are a whole lot of robots, there’s some pirate stuff, some asteroid stuff, some wormhole stuff. One of my favourite choices involves you mind-melding with a dolphin so you can explore an aquatic planet.
There's Dinosaur Canyon - because dinosaurs are cool - where you’re on a school trip to find fossils. There are various adventures you can go on, and one of them is, of course, time travel! And there's Dungeon of Doom: there’s a secret level on a computer game and you’re sucked into the game universe, and you’re inside all these characters and you’ve got their powers. Depending on your level of achievement, you can leave the and bring your friends back with you, or you can return by yourself. So, the kids get presented with some ethical dilemmas.
Right now, I’m writing one called Alien Zoo - you’re abducted by aliens, and put on a zoo planet as an exhibit.
How do you come up with all of this?!
I do a lot of Googling, and talking to people and their kids. A lot of ideas come from dilemmas or situations [children face]. For example, in Dragons Realm, the author wanted to play with bullying, and the very real fear that kids have of some kid being mean to them. There are these triplet bullies, called The Thompson Twins, which are after you - and you go through this portal into a place called Dragons Realm, but the bullies fall into the portal with you. But when you get your powers, you’ve got the opportunity to use the powers violently, or with sympathy. The power of interactive fiction is there's more than one solution.
You write your books to be gender neutral - why is that important to you?
It’s about being inclusive. When I first thought about writing interactive fiction, I looked at some of the older books - and what I was surprised to find was that illustrators had often put a picture of the back of a boy on the front cover. So, immediately that personifies the reader as being male. Plus, it’s often a white boy - so you’ve excluded a bunch of potential readers.  
Interactive fiction books are written in second person, which is fantastic for writing gender neutral stories. In most fiction, characters will be assigned a particular gender and ethnicity - but in interactive fiction, *you*, as you are, are the main character. Reading is a vicarious experience, but girls often have to imagine themselves as someone else to [relate to] a leading character. They step into the boys’ shoes, because they get the storyline that you can only be the captain, or the driver, or the most active character if you’re male. In interactive fiction, they can be all of that.
In what way can girls be marginalised in fiction?
I was reading some of the books from my childhood to the kids, and I thought, ‘oh, I actually don’t like this’. Some of the girls were actually quite second-rate characters.  Typically, you’ll see girls get relegated to being the brainy one - the Hermione role. It used to be that girls would be ‘the home keeper’. That was Anne’s role in The Famous Five; she’d keep the hearth going and make the tea. Then there was George, the other girl who was more adventurous, but it was very explicit she was “the tomboy”.
And the stereotypes we introduce to kids in books are not just limiting for girls, but also for boys. Boys are allowed to be emotional, to be scared, and to be concerned about other things than just racing in there and being brave. It would be nice to have books where boys are nurturing and caring, and can express emotions.
What sort of feedback have you had?
We’ve had some real 'a-ha' moments. For example, I got a call, at 6am, from a fireman, who had bought some of the books for his daughters. He said they were up all night, reading them aloud to each other. And he said he realised, hearing them, that “the girls were getting to have adventures too - my girls are having adventures, too.” He rang me up just to tell me that.
And I hear you've started getting fan presents?
Yes! In Between the Stars, the outside of the ship is decked out in titanium. So, someone selling titanium products sent me some titanium spoons! Just like in the story, when [titanium] gets heated at one end, the heat doesn't conduct through the metal. So, you can use the spoons for stirring things, and they won't get hot. He really liked that a children's author had mentioned that!

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Erin is a freelance journalist and editor, based in Masterton. She enjoys human interest stories and is obsessed with social issues - as well as cheese, cider and cute pets.
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