Jaine Blackman meets a literary trailblazer who has created a new way of reading

Simplifying the way his new epic novel can be read turned out to be quite a complicated affair for famous Oxford author Iain Pears.

“I now have sympathy, and understand why, the NHS database could go five times over budget and not work,” says Pears laughing, whose latest book – Arcadia – being published today in hardback, can also be read on a groundbreaking app. He has experienced software difficulties of his own, albeit on a smaller scale at his North Oxford home, but happily this time his tussle with technology has had a more successful outcome.

Feeling restricted by the bounds of conventional novel-writing, Pears, the best-selling author of An Instance Of The Fingerpost, which was translated into numerous languages, has come up with an app which offers a revolutionary way of reading.

“I think it’s the first time something like this has been done,” says Pears, 60, staring out at his beloved garden. “It’s the result of a thought experiment which went out of control.” The app allows a reader to follow a multi-stranded story – where each narrative is complete but can be mingled with all the others – as best suits them.

It wasn’t done as a gimmick, but a way of making this epic tale – the story of 15-year-old Rosie who goes in search of her missing cat and ends up in a different world – far more simple to read. Ten characters are followed and you can choose how to move through the story. The book is 180,000 words, while the app adds more than 60,000 extra. “You must make a reader’s life as simple as possible. You don’t want to make reading a misery,” says Pears, who is now an English art historian and journalist as well as an author, having started his professional life as a BBC reporter, and well aware that his books are structurally complex.

In An Instance of the Fingerpost, the Wadham and Wolfson College graduate told the same story four times from different points of view; The Dream of Scipio was three stories interleaved; while Stone’s Fall was three stories told backwards.

And yet in Arcadia, which spans thousands of years and three different worlds, even Pears is pushing the boundaries by attempting something so complicated and soon realised “the answer didn’t lie in an ordinary book”.

After a swift start, Pears says his attempt to make things simpler, got much more complicated very quickly. “I didn’t think it would be such a major project,” he admits. Instead of the couple of years he had envisioned, this new app has taken nearly five years.

Impractical to write, manage and market alone, Pears then teamed up with independent publisher Faber & Faber. Now they are waiting to see how the app will be received by the reading public. Reviews have been positive so far.

So would he do it again, if the book demanded (it’s not something that would suit every novel)?

“It wouldn’t be as much fun the second time around, there wouldn’t be the thrill of discovery... but it would be simpler,” he says.

Pears hasn’t decided what project he will be working on next, but as he’s determined not to get stuck in a groove writing about the same same things in the same way, it’s bound to be interesting.

Where and when
Wednesday, September 9
Iain Pears will talk about Arcadia at Blackwell’s Bookshop
01865 333623/blackwell.co.uk
£3, 7pm to 8pm 

Read a review of Arcadia here