Smoking With...Jurgen Fauth
by Meg Pokrass and Dave Clapper
Jürgen Fauth is a writer and film critic from Wiesbaden, Germany. He graduated from USM's Center for Writers and now lives in New York City, where he reviews movies for About.com: World Film. He is an associate editor for fiction at Mississippi Review Online and co-founder of the literary community Fictionaut. Jurgen is married to Marcy Dermansky, author of Twins and Bad Marie. Jürgen's writings and work, including Fictionaut, which is still in the beta phase, can be found here: Jürgen Fauth, Mississippi Review, and World Film.
MP: Jürgen, it's a pleasure to meet you! I've been a fan of Fictionaut, your social web literary/arts endeavor (did i say this right?) and it's been such a cool way to read new writing, and see new work. How did the idea for Fictionaut come about?
JF: Hi Meg, thanks for having me.
I've been trying to figure out how to do new kind of web magazine for a long time. For the first decade of the web, we just imported our real-world models and put magazines online. We still ran them by having writers submit their work to overworked editors who would then make decisions on behalf of their readership. I've been on all sides of that model, and it can be frustrating for everybody involved. So, when all these nifty new social tools emerged, I thought, aha, maybe here's a way to do things a little differently. On the web, there's unlimited space, so why not let everybody publish? There's no technical reason not to. The difficult part is the filtering, but with comments, tags, favorites, contacts, and a recommendation system, maybe we can try letting readers and writers connect directly. Crowdsource the editing, if you will. It's an experiment, and so far, it appears to be working. Frankly, I've been amazed by the community and quality of the fiction the site's attracted.
MP: I find Fictionaut a rather calming alternative to the hectic social interaction of Facebook. It's like going into a sunroom and reading. Part of this, I imagine, has to do with its clean design and easy interface. Do you feel that people are as affected by the look and design of a virtual environment as they would be in a physical space—such as a hotel lobby? Certain sites, make me anxious, but Fictionaut opens me up to exploration.
JF: We've got my partner Carson Baker to thank for that. He's done all the programming and design on the site, and I think he's done a fantastic job. From the start, we always agreed that everything should focus on the writing. We took great pains to make sure the site would be as uncluttered as possible. We have a running gag about spending hours selecting just the exactly right ampersand. Hopefully, it invites people to poke around and read.
MP: I've noticed that comments on one another's writing tend toward the positive and encouraging side, which allows for a safe experience. How has this environment of support evolved?
JF: It's definitely friendlier than your average Internet chat room—at least so far. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure why that is. I've seen my share of blunt comments and flat-out rudeness in real-life workshops, but at this point, the vibe on Fictionaut is more like at a reading, where you might go up and congratulate the writers you like but generally keep quiet about the stuff you don't. But I've also heard from people who think it's a little too friendly. They'd like to see more criticism and rough-and-tumble. And I think there should be room for that, too.
MP: Fictionaut, unlike Zoetrope Virtual Studio, doesn't (at this point) function as a work shop site for works in progress. Will this change?
JF: Yes. Some people are already using it like that. I've seen people asking for criticism and suggestions in the author's note that goes along with the story, and then posting revisions later. But we're also planning to add a feature that will let writers form groups dedicated to specific purposes. So, if you wanted to start a workshop or a group with rules like, "post one story and leave suggestions on two others," you could do that. That's in the works.
MP: I've enjoyed your stories on Fictionaut. What are your personal creative endeavors?
JF: Thanks for asking, Meg! I just finished a draft of my novel Kino, about a German director in the 1920s whose movies are all believed to have been destroyed during World War II. But when the book opens, his granddaughter finds a print of his first film in her Brooklyn apartment. So, she digs around the past to find out what happened, and it's a combination of historical mystery, fictional artist biography, and immigrant family saga. I had a great time researching it and making up fake movies. Fritz Lang and Orson Welles have cameos.
MP: As a film reviewer, can you tell us how/if film influences your own writing?
JF:I love movies, and as you can see, the influence on my fiction often starts with the subject matter. But it goes deeper than that, from the themes in my work to the way I conceive character, setting, scenes and dialog, perhaps even down to my attitude towards the words themselves. And it goes the other way around, too: my film criticism is informed by what I know about writing fiction. With either medium, I'm always thinking about the limits, what the strengths and weaknesses are. It's endlessly fascinating to me.
DC: One of the things that drew me into the site was the public-facing blog, where writers were promoting works by other writers. All the links, though, go into the password-protected site, so the public that has been enticed to read has to join the site to be able to do so. Is this by design to increase membership, or will this change going forward?
JF: Thank you, Dave. A little bit of both. The blog was originally just meant for members, and because we're still in private beta, everything was behind a password. Then we thought, hey, perhaps this blog might be interesting to the rest of the world, so let's make it visible—and sure, it can't hurt if it gets people curious about Fictionaut. Eventually, we'll lift the password protection on the site, and all will be revealed!
DC: Fictionaut is labeled as being in Beta right now. Is there a projected launch date? What changes do you envision between now and then?
JF: My partner Carson and I are eager to show Fictionaut off to the world, but at the same time, we want to make sure that we're actually using the things we've learned so far. I feel that at this point we have a responsibility to the community to make Fictionaut work as well as it can, and there's a long wish list of improvements we want to make. We're currently looking into ways to get funding to speed things up.
DC: Meg mentions how clean and easy to navigate the site is. I agree, but wonder if there is some functionality still envisioned that isn't yet implemented?
JF: We do have a lot of ideas that aren't implemented yet. What you see now is a fairly bare bones version of the initial concept. I don't want to ruin all the surprises, but the groups I mentioned are a major feature we'd love to add before opening the site to the public. We'll also need privacy and abuse controls, RSS feeds, and better integration with other social sites. We have ideas for improvements on pretty much every page you see. We've had to temporarily disable the ability to upload photos along with stories, and that's something I'm eager to get back. So yes, there's lots of work to be done.
DC: Right now, the blog and the member section of the site seem so distinctly separate. Do you foresee integrating them more with one another?
JF: We've been looking at some adjustments to the front page layout that would make the blog a little more prominent, but apart from that, I like the way the two sections interact. You get the latest post on the dashboard and in your weekly newsletter, and the blog refers to stories and users on the main site. But if you've got ideas, I'd love to hear them!
DC: Have you had a specific vision in mind from day one as to how Fictionaut should eventually function, or has it been more of an organic process? How, if at all, has the vision changed since opening it up to members?
JF: One thing I've learned about social sites is that you can't quite know how people will use them, and that's part of the fun. Our approach has been to provide a hospitable place and make as few rules as absolutely necessary. Then you step back and observe and make adjustments. Some emergent behaviors are great, and others you might want to discourage, so you take that into account for the next iteration of the design. We're always adjusting our priorities of what to do next according to what we see happening on the site. Our overall idea of what we want Fictionaut to be hasn't changed much, but I like to think that the way it's been growing has been fairly organic.
DC: Obviously, I look at the site not just as a writer, but also as a publisher/designer/developer. I love what you've done so far, and would really be interested in hearing more about where you plan to go from here.
JF: Thanks, Dave. I'm thrilled with the amount of great fiction and talented writers that have shown up thus far. It's a little bit like hosting a party, so now it's all about making sure the music's right and we don't run out of booze. For Fictionaut to work on a larger scale, I think we'll have to keep refining it so that it stays an inviting place for writers to publish and a place where readers can come and easily find interesting fiction. We have plans for more delivery options. I've mentioned RSS syndication, but we're also looking to build an iPhone app and offer e-reader formats so people can get the stories on their Kindles and so forth. In a way we're just carefully following the technology and seeing where it leads. Seems to me like there's a lot of excellent writing out there these days, but finding it can be difficult if you're not tuned into the world of small lit mags. The hope is that Fictionaut can make short fiction and poetry more readily available, and at the same time offer a place for writers to have their work discovered by a larger audience. What I like best about the entire thing is that I don't see a downside for anybody. When more people read more stories by more writers they like, everybody wins. I think there's a lot of untapped potential, and I can't wait to see what Fictionaut will look like six months from now.