Richard House

Richard House is a writer, artist, film-maker and teacher. He is the author of two short dark novels, published by Ira Silverberg a number of years ago in the Serpent's Tail High Risk series (Bruiser and Uninvited). He is a member of the Chicago-based collaborative, Haha (whose work has appeared at the New Museum, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Venice Biennale). He now teaches at the University of Birmingham. He is the editor of Fatboy Review, a remarkable digital magazine.

Haha's lipstick-covered blimp
Richard House

Richard House on being longlisted for the Booker prize

I was in Iceland working on my next project, and on a bus – trying to get footage of some lava flow – when the message came through that The Kills was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. I couldn’t, and still can’t, quite take it in. I did shout (a bit too loudly), then laugh, and then get a little tearful. Making those first phone calls while trying not to make too much of a spectacle at the back of the bus was a priceless experience. It’s great news: amazing in fact.

The Kills has a double life, as a hefty single volume, but first as a digital project – not only because of the extras, but because of the design, the organisation, and the potential to reorganise the material.  It’s also the result of huge amount of support and dedication from a team at Picador, whom, while I was ricocheting about the back of a bus, were similarly celebrating in their office back in King’s Cross.

The longlist is impressive, and a good answer to how alive the novel is – in its many forms and varieties. Being part of that debate is a great joy.

Richard House on the how, why and what of the extra material in The Kills

The Kills is a ground-breaking publication and collaboration between author and publisher. The creator of the project, Richard House, has developed extra content that takes you beyond the boundaries of the book and into the characters’ lives outside its pages. We asked him a few questions about The Kills and why he wanted to work in this way.

Q: Did you make all of these extras yourself?

A: Yes, I shot all of the video material and edited it myself. Italy, the US, Morocco, Switzerland, France, Turkey, Germany, Cuba, and Vietnam. I had an idea about what the piece would be, and then I would try and shoot material which would work with that story. Some nice things happened along the way. For example, I’m really happy with the dolphins in ‘Eric in Cuba’. He’s talking about how he isn’t getting along with his stepfather, and while the text shows him to be unhappy, I wanted to suggest that he’s coming round a little bit. So the material shows dolphins, a fiesta, these exuberant moments which suggest that, despite what he’s saying, he’s actually having a pretty good time. The same with Nathalie; the material from Switzerland is sombre and exquisite, she’s talking about something very private and you’re looking at a cold and stark and beautiful lake. So the images aren’t literal, there are no actors, no characters, just something which suggests a mood.

Q: What are the extras?

A: These are pieces, mainly short films and audio, which accompany the four books which make up The Kills.

Q: Why extras?

A: The Kills is being published first in digital form, which opens up new possibilities. Many devices can show film and play audio, so it’s an interesting proposal to a writer to consider how a story, or how the characters in that story, might extend into this more or less new media.

Q: So this is about the plot?

A: No, not at all. There’s really interesting potential for that, perhaps when more people are reading on digital devices, or if the books were only being published digitally that idea would work. But the book is going to be published physically too, so I really didn’t want to break up the main story, and have some material available in some forms to some people, and not available to others.

There’s another reason: The Kills is complex. Plenty of stories are repeated across the four books, and I’m hoping the reader really enjoys this, but it was important that each book could stand alone as well as working as a series. I didn’t want to over-complicate the main story by having pieces of it told in one media, and pieces told in other . . . maybe next time? It’s important that the books themselves have integrity, are a complete thing, which means the extras had to be about the characters, or the characters’ world – for a writer, that’s an interesting prospect. First and foremost I’m interested in writing, in developing characters and narratives. In The Kills I’ve been able to work on these interests in different ways.


Q: And how does the technology work? Not everyone has a Kindle or an iPad.

A: True. There are different digital versions, depending on the kind of reading device you have. Also, just in case, the material is available online at The technology keeps changing, even as this work was developed, which means that you provide the best answer you can, on the understanding that probably, as you are doing it, technology will change. This was one of the reasons for making sure the books have their own integrity. You don’t have to see the extras to follow the story. It’s nice if you do, but you don’t have to.

Q: In which case, how do the extras work?

A: I’ll explain with an example from the first book. In Sutler there’s a small part where one character, Nathalie, is having a private conversation with another, Ford, and she becomes glum when she’s speaking about her family. As the story has its own propulsion, it would really slow things down to explain why at this point. There isn’t really any time and space to go into it. But with the extras, you open up that possibility without interrupting the story. It’s up to the reader. What I’ve particularly enjoyed about making the extras is thinking about these characters, Nathalie in this case, and making independent narratives which ‘fit’ with the main story, but tell something different. It sounds obvious, but because reading a book takes a long time, there are times when you step out of it, chew it over, maybe imagine that character in ways the writer hasn’t presented. The extras offer something like that possibility, these are moments where you’re still involved, but at a different level.

Q: So these are standalone pieces?

A: Yes, most of them are. We were really clear about them not being presented as illustrations, but, if anything, like footnotes. You could, possibly, watch these without reading the books, and learn a little about a character, get a sense of a life. So most of these short, independent pieces are concentrated moments. If you’ve read the books, then they give a little more depth to what you know, but without changing the main story. It’s also about style.

Q: In what way?

A: The books are driven by a central plot which links them together: there are thriller and crime story elements, meaning the narrative has a certain pace, and certain expectations. The films and audio are deliberately of a completely different style, being character-driven, and about the characters’ lives outside the scope of the novel, they are a different tone, you could even say genre.

Q: Do you have a favourite piece?

A: I was happy with the animations in The Massive; for me, it was a way of thinking differently about Sutler, and thinking about how involved he is in this project that everyone else understands to be crazy – he’s drawing these detailed maps and plans and sketches for impossible cities, and the more he does it the more committed he is to the idea. It was good to demonstrate that, and they’re also a lot of fun. When I made those pieces I felt a little like him.

Q: What about Eric’s pieces, the codes?

A: Yes, there are some pieces which both tell a separate story and help to explain a detail or an element in the narrative – although that’s not the main point. The three pieces about Eric largely talk about his relationship to his stepfather, but they also demonstrate the code he uses, which is important in the first book. I didn’t want to over-explain how the code works, but when I started making the films I became interested in what Eric might say, and in how those codes might work. So you see the alphabet change, then a short, pithy message.

Q: Any adventures while shooting the material?

A: No, most times I knew what I wanted before I arrived. I travelled to Naples specifically to get my own shots of Vesuvius with snow on top. I’m not keen on heights, so when I went to Istanbul I made myself climb up the city walls to shoot this stunning panorama. Trouble is, I was shaking so much that the material was useless. I had to go back the next morning, climb back up this nasty steep wall without a railing, and stand right at the edge to get the shot I wanted. Going through the Atlas Mountains was also a bit dodgy, but I got great footage. I really don’t like monkeys, and I shot a bunch of material on a beach in Vietnam, thinking, hmmm, this will be interesting. It wasn’t. The little beasts just chased tourists to steal sugary snacks and bite them.

Q: What about the audio? You used actors?

A: There is a collaborative aspect to this. The publisher frequently works with actors, and it became a possibility to try out a reading and see how it went. I’m really happy with this, it was surprising to me to hear the material develop in a new way. Exciting. The material is a little different from book to book: in the first there are videos with text, some audio; in the second there are animations; in the third you can decide how you read the stories . . . I wrote most of the books at these artist residencies in the US, at Yaddo and MacDowell, which are incredible places. While there, some of the other artists and writers graciously agreed to read material for me, so I’ve used that.

Q: So how did the publisher approach a project like this? It isn’t the usual kind of book project.

A: I’ve had the best time. The whole thing has been a real collaboration with the publisher. I’ve never had an experience like this before. We would have meetings, and I’d suggest something, and they would all go, OK, how could that work? Then there would be suggestions, both practical and creative, completely innovative, completely supportive. The look of the books has been carefully designed, so the material is incorporated without disrupting the story. Even digitally, it still looks like a book. I’m very pleased with that. Both the editor and the publisher were excited about the possibility of the work stretching off the page. I think they understood the scope of this before I did. They’ve taken an amazing risk, which is exactly what publishers need to be doing, I think. None of this would have happened without their curiosity and commitment. After the first meeting, when I pitched the books, it became clear that there was other potential, and it has developed from there. Step by step. The editor, Kris Doyle, obviously knows his stuff in terms of editing text, and has, through the process, developed a keen visual eye, so we’ve been able to talk about the project in both particular and broad terms . . . and some of the material didn’t work. I had adverts for HOSCO which just didn’t work. In some ways it’s a tricky project to explain to other people. It really is something you have to engage with and play with. It’s a tough one to explain in short bites.


Q: There’s definitely a certain style to the short films, a look. How did you arrive at this aesthetic?

A: Definitely. I’m a big fan of artists like Sophie Calle, Bruce Nauman, Félix González-Torres, a broad swath of artists who all worked with new technologies – film, video, print, photography, performance – all of these were an inspiration. DNA if you like. I love that work. I don’t think my extras really relate, but there is an aesthetic I respond to, which comes out of my admiration for these artists. I think this is important. I’m not so interested in these films being traditional films, I’m more interested in them being small but meaningful moments. Maybe even puzzling.

Q: But the look . . .?

A: I’ve worked in visual arts all my life, so it’s hugely rewarding to be able to work with text and image in this way. I wanted the material to look controlled but homemade. Everyone has those moments: you’re looking at hours of home video, and suddenly there’s a moment of incredible beauty, where something odd happens and everything seems to come together. In one piece for The Kill there’s a shot of the moon. It’s jiggling about a bit, all shot on a handheld camera, and then it suddenly blossoms into this detailed cratered planet, at others it looks like a headlight. So it’s not your usual kind of filmmaking, you know, where if you’re talking about a cake, then you see the cake, then you get to see someone eating the cake. There’s a little of that, but not much. There’s nothing here that anyone with a laptop or a store-bought camera wouldn’t be able to do themselves. I really like lo-fi work, all of those early digital pieces by William Wegman and Sadie Benning succeed because they are so simple.

Q: Did you know about the content of the films and audio before you made them?

A: Pretty much, they were developed in tandem. I wrote the books and developed the extras all at the same time. Which means this has been a remarkably intense eighteen months.

Q: Are there other digital elements which aren’t in the main book?

A: Yes, in the ebook of The Kill you have the choice to either read the book chronologically, day by day, or character by character. It’s the same material, but ordered in a different way. In the print edition you don’t have that option. Again, the novel itself is a complete story, but here, because of the digital technology, there’s a chance to rearrange how you read it. In one way it’s definitely a crime story, in another way it feels more characterful, slower paced. It’s interesting how that works, especially because it is exactly the same material.

Q: So you’re happy?

A: Absolutely. No question. It’s all new, which feels like a huge and satisfying risk. Plus, I’ve worked with an amazing team of people, and I’ve travelled, and read so much to help develop the project. It’s a little strange to be approaching the end of it. I think we have expectations of digital media: that it can support amazing interactive work which crosses disciplines. What I find exciting is this idea that, up to now, we think of writing and making films, and all other creative practices as separate . . . but there really is the possibility that these separate disciplines can become integrated. We aren’t there yet, perhaps. While I’m interested in this, very interested, I think, with The Kills we’ve been careful to present something which can be experienced in different ways. Once everything is out, you’ll finally see the scope of the entire series, and see more clearly how this all works. So you can read one book or four books in any order you like. You could read all four books one after another in one go and enjoy how they do and don’t fit together. You could read the books and follow these small footnotes, films and audio. You might not read the books at all and only watch the videos, as you like. I’m hoping it’s something which rewards a reader who revisits, and that however you approach it there’s a sense that this all locks together. That’s my hope.