Many of us have seen instances where authors take their fictional characters beyond the books that spawned them: interviews with a character, blog postings by them, Facebook pages, Q&A sessions with readers. Recently, however, I came across something that was new to me. Tim Jackson, author of Mangrove Underground, has created a newspaper blog for Blacktip Island, the location where his book is set. Tim describes the site like this:
South of Imagination and east of Flor de Caña lies Blacktip Island, the setting for Tim W. Jackson’s forthcoming second novel, Blacktip Island, and for his many short stories. The Blacktip Times is a weekly record of news and events in the island’s small community of dreamers, reprobates and ne’er-do-wells.
Seeing this as a rather unique spin-off of a book, I decided to interview Tim and find out the behind-the-scenes story.
IU: So, Tim, what’s the genesis of Blacktip Times? Where did you get the idea to do a newspaper for your fictional setting?
TJ: After years of saying, “I don’t have time to write a blog,” I grudgingly gave in to the necessity of blogging. It didn’t seem right doing a standard writer-on-writing sort of blog since I’m not a writing expert and there are already a ton of great writing blogs out there by people who really know their stuff.
What I did know about was the characters and the Caribbean setting from my short stories and related work-in-progress novel. Blacktip Island has nothing to do with my first novel, so my idea was to introduce readers to Blacktip Island’s people and places to build an audience for the novel before it was published. I was a journalist in a former life, so I thought it’d be fun to publish a humorous community newspaper that reflected the quirky realities of living on a small island. The Blacktip Times provides a quick read and (hopefully) a good laugh every Friday morning.
IU: Are the people we read about in Blacktip Times (Dusty Rhodes, Marina DeLow) the same characters that exist in your books and short stories?
TJ: Absolutely. The hope is readers will get to know the characters in the blog, then want to read more. The longer I write the blog, the larger the cast of characters grows. Some of them may not be important enough to warrant their own stories, but Blacktip Island’s definitely more populated than it was.
An unexpected side effect of using characters in the blog is I end up learning more about them. The island’s Nutcracker Dance-Along Christmas pageant went astray? Who would have something to say about that? Oh, Marina, of course! And she’d say it like this. There’s a David Mitchell line about an author being able to smuggle in an awful lot by what a character says and how he or she says it. The Blacktip Times has greatly improved my smuggling skills.
IU: I think I missed that on your resume. Hmm… Well, I’m wondering if you ever use the newspaper to catch readers up on a character’s status? I’m thinking of something along the lines of the epilogue of the movie American Graffiti. Ever print anything about “So-and-so was released from prison after serving five years for assaulting a police officer and has now opened up a Christian book store on the corner of Main and 7th”?
TJ: That hadn’t occurred to me – Blacktip Island’s still in its early stages. I’m stealing the idea for future use, though.
IU: Hey, steal away. That’s what we’re here for. How do your readers like the newspaper? Does it enhance their experience with your books?
TJ: When I started the Blacktip Times I wasn’t sure how many people would even see it. That made putting this squirrelly idea online a bit less scary. At first the audience was mostly friends and family. As they shared the posts with friends, though, the blog developed a distinct following. There’s been a cool crossover of existing readers discovering the blog, and of blog readers discovering my other writing. I’m getting more questions about when the novel will be out, too, so that’s encouraging.
IU: Definitely a good sign. Do you have a sense of how the newspaper ties into book sales? Do you find that it keeps readers connected until your next release?
TJ: The novel is in the revision stage, but the blog has generated a good bit of interest in my Blacktip Island short stories – previously published in literary journals and rereleased as short e-books. The short answer is sales are up, but at 99¢ a story, I’m nowhere near ready to retire. At this point, though, the exposure is far more valuable than the money.
IU: Absolutely. We’ve talked here a lot at IU about the importance of getting our names out there. Where do you get the ideas for your news stories? Anything related to real life, or just the imagination of a fevered mind?
TJ: I live on a small island in the Caribbean, where life often runs on different rules than it does in more populated, less isolated places. The inspiration for most of the stories comes from things that happen on the island (yes, the 150-ish residents really call going to the dump “shopping at Home Depot”), then gets fleshed out with imagery proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain for comedic effect. The trick is making sure I’m not writing about actual people. I don’t want to wind up tarred and feathered.
IU: No, that would not be a good thing. Hard to write that way. Do readers ever forget the fact that the news articles are fictional? Sometimes, especially with satire, it’s hard to tell fiction from the truth, which can spawn some surprising reactions.
TJ: Yes, and usually when I least expect it. That may be the most surprising thing about the Blacktip Times. I had no idea people would ever mistake any of these posts as real news stories. I’ve had readers protest the new underwater tollbooths for scuba divers, rant about the N.S.A. using damselfish-shaped surveillance drones, and ask for more information about a cultural festival where iguanas sing Gregorian chants.
IU: That is surprising… and not. Obviously the readers can’t see your tongue in your cheek as you’re writing. But from the writer’s point of view (those of us with way too many plates in the air already), how much work it is to create a newspaper for a fictional place? Do you keep a “story bible” for the site, keeping track of names, occupations, town ordinances, etc.?
TJ: It’s more work than I’d thought it would be, but probably not any more work than other authors do on blogs. It does take time and energy away from completing the current novel and getting on with the next one, but at the same time the two outlets seem to feed off each other. Doing the blog has added depth and texture to the island and many of the characters, and its over the top humor has made the Blacktip Island manuscript more humorous, too. Not as whacky as the blog – there’s no way I could keep that going for 300 pages – but it’s given extra dimensions (and edits and rewrites) to the novel.
As for a “story bible,” I realized early on I had to keep a list of all the characters (especially the minor ones), what they did, where they worked, etc. to minimize confusion.
IU: If other authors were interested in developing something like this concept, what advice would you give them?
TJ: Have fun with it, and don’t be surprised if it takes on a life of its own. Also, it can be hard to predict what readers are going to like. There are posts I think are great that get so-so responses, and there are other posts I wish were stronger that people absolutely love. That’s become part of the fun.
IU: I know the feeling. I’ve had similar results with some of my own posts. If you were to start this over today, would you do anything differently?
TJ: I wouldn’t go into it so grudgingly.
IU: Good to know. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m sure it’ll generate more than a few seeds of thought in some of our readers’ minds.
Readers, if this sounds like an intriguing idea to you, check out Tim’s Blacktip Times or visit his home page. I think you’ll find that a visit to Blacktip Island might be just the tropical respite you need in your busy day.