Naomi Augustine brings books into the 21st century with ‘Mixed Realities’
Naomi Augustine is a talented multimedia artist and founder of QXR Studios who is attempting to do the impossible: turn books into interactive media machines. Her latest novel is titled Mixed Realities, and it should go to the top of your 2022 must-read list. The book is composed of seven different novellas, each tackling sci-fi themes and each incorporated with illustrated QR codes that allow readers to tap into music & animation alongside the book’s text.
Mixed Realities is an ambitious project, but Augustine has the talent to pull it off. We spoke with her recently about her creative process, the book’s many heavy themes, and how she developed such a unique concept.
Tell us about the concept behind your new book Mixed Realities.
Mixed Realities is a collection of stories that poke at the squishy parts of our universe, human understanding, and our relationship with technology. I set the entire premise inside of a giant computer simulation that contains many versions of our world. Each chapter follows a different character in one of those worlds.
In one world, climate change threatens humanity. A 10-year-old refugee befriends an artificial intelligence, and they work together to solve the crisis. In a second world, 4 characters journey to Alpha Centauri to investigate a celestial anomaly. In another, an anti-social college student becomes suspicious of the existence of parallel worlds and figures out how to cross over. The characters from each story eventually meet, learn that they are in a simulation, and go on a quest to find out what’s outside of it.
I also wanted this book to feel like you were watching a TV series (like Black Mirror), complete with musical tracks that play via illustrated QR codes during key moments in the story.
What was the process of writing the book like for you?
Many stories were conceived while sitting in university lectures and then later on at tech conferences. I’m taking down notes about the talk but also scribbling down story ideas on the side margins. I think the quantum mechanics class in college really did a number on me. I began to see solid objects as fuzzy and full of empty space and saw probability numbers floating everywhere. These became ideas for several characters and stories.
After many years, I had accumulated a pile of writing – some screenplays, some essays, and pages and pages of unfinished stories. I thought about pitching the scripts but decided on writing a book instead. I started writing Mixed Realities in 2016, which started off as a full-length novel about characters hopping realities, getting separated, and having to find each other. About 2 years in, I read my draft and hated my writing. I got discouraged and stopped for another 2 years. Luckily, a lightning bolt of inspiration hit me in 2019 and I dove back in to rewrite the entire manuscript. That was a good lightning bolt because I was finally able to finish the book.
Can you describe a day in the life of a writer?
Due to having a day job in tech, the writing typically happened during nights and weekends. Throughout the day, I collected story notes in a Google doc, a physical notebook, and even emailed notes to myself. The ideas and inspiration happened constantly so I had to be prepared. Most days, I was eager to get out of work so I could squeeze in a few hours of writing before I was forced to go to bed. Eventually, I learned that writing on a Tuesday night was bad and opted to stay up all night on Fridays and Saturdays instead. There was also something fun about writing on long flights.
When I sat down to write, I would do one or more of these things in addition to typing words on a page: research, look for reference images, listen to music, or review my notes. I have folders full of reference images for concepts, places, and characters that aid in writing descriptions.
Aside from the included music, what music did you listen to while you were working on the book?
Lots and lots of classical music because it’s my favorite. Bach, Ravel, Debussy, to name a few. Luckily, I was able to include some of it into the book because they are on the public domain. I have a broad taste outside of classical, so my playlist contained several genres across time to see different scenes in my mind. The playlist contained music from: The Beatles, Beck, Philip Glass, Billie Eilish, Vangelis, Hans Zimmer, Squarepusher, Echo & the Bunnymen, Melodysheep, Purity Ring, Glenn Miller, and too many others.
How did you decide to use illustrated QR codes within the book?
It happened by accident. I think many writers listen to music when they write, and I found it hard to write without it. I have 2 stories with a musician in it, a clarinetist, and a bass guitarist. Naturally, I was listening to clarinet music (Mozart) and bass guitar music (Squarepusher) and thought it would be great if the reader could hear actual music in the scenes the musician performed. I enjoy scanning QR codes, so I decided to add it to my book. At first, I only included it in these 2 chapters but decided to apply it to the entire book itself to mimic the feeling of watching a film or TV series.
Was it difficult to find ways to incorporate the multimedia elements of the project?
I wouldn’t call it difficult but there were many steps involved to get the whole thing to work properly. The trickiest part was music licensing. When I finished the first draft of the book, I had placeholder QR codes for the tracks I wanted to use. It hadn’t occurred to me until later that many of the tracks were either going to be awfully expensive to license or impossible. This was annoying, of course, because I was attached to some of the songs. I had even written some scenes to exactly match the song itself. Luckily, my musician friend, Nick Edwards, offered to create a few tracks for the book. They magically fit several of the scenes and it was truly amazing. It took over half a year to find the remaining replacement tracks and acquire the licenses.
Once I secured the music, I built a webpage for each track, grabbed the URL to generate the QR code, then created 14 illustrations with the QR code in it using photoshop. I also curated and licensed looping video clips alongside the tracks. Lots of steps but I really like how it all turned out.
Do you think this mixture of tech and writing will become more common in the future?
I believe so. I’ve seen quite a few examples of storytelling that mix tech with writing now. A book with QR codes isn’t a new concept, I even have one on my shelf. It’s a non-fiction book and the QR code takes you to a data visualization application. Some of the new audiobooks feel like listening to an entire movie, with actors, sound effects, and music. There are transmedia/ARG type stories that cross between a book, website, locations outdoors, and physical props. Stories written by AI. I’ve also recently done a collaboration with author Kate Mosse to create an augmented reality demo of one of her short stories. Many people read on a Kindle device.
I do hope to see more of this mixing. I want physical books to stick around for a long time so I plan to continue innovating in this space.
Why did you write the book as 7 separate novellas?
Half the stories were originally written as screenplays, which sat on my hard drive for years collecting dust. I decided to transpose them into book format. Apparently, a 120-page screenplay translates to a 40–50-page story. 7 novellas are like 7 episodes in a TV series. I personally like the length of a novella. It’s long enough to get sucked into a world but short enough to read in a single sitting. If I ever get around to pitching the stories to film/TV then it’s also already in a great format.
What are some of the most important themes, for you, in each of the stories?
Concepts about Physics, Technology, and Philosophy – Many of my story inspirations happened (early 2000’s) during college while sitting in various science lectures. I was especially fascinated by quantum mechanics, cosmology, probability theory, artificial intelligence, higher dimensions, and often scribbled down story ideas on the side of my notebook in class. I thought – I wish there were a book or some kind of story-driven documentary where I could read/watch characters getting into all sorts of situations with these concepts in a hybrid educational manner. Studying physics changed my life. I never saw the world the same and am now spending my life wondering what reality really is. I wanted to share this feeling with my readers.
Optimistic Stories – Like many others, I’ve become exhausted of dystopian science fiction, especially in the depiction of artificial intelligence. I am not a fan of stories of AI taking over the world, or a piece of technology that collapses society, or aliens coming to destroy humanity. I chose to write some stories of humans and AI working together to solve a problem, a human befriending an alien, some AI as humorous silly beings, and technology (such as augmented reality, dream recorder, internet) being used to “enhance” our capabilities. Many of my stories have optimistic endings, some are bittersweet, others are just plain humorous. I want my readers to get teary eyed at times and laugh out loud while learning something new and interesting about science and technology.
Were there themes that you particularly wanted to avoid?
No Romance. There are many other types of relationships that are just as compelling, and I wanted to highlight those. I have a story about a friendship between a child and an AI, child and parent, siblings, general friendships, and a friendship between a human and an alien. These relationships were complex to write about, but the added challenge made the entire process very enjoyable!
Since I was going for more optimistic themes, I avoided dystopias and themes involving threatening aliens or AI.
Is there an underlying message that links all the stories?
Ask more questions about the nature of the universe and reality. What I wanted was to be able to share the way I saw the world with my readers. Maybe it will seem strange to some but relatable to others. I really enjoy questioning the universe, so I am inviting others to do the same. Through my concepts, I also hope to inspire young readers to study physics and go into STEM fields.
Did writing such a forward-focused book require any research?
Each chapter required a lot of research over time and most of it was done from the books on my shelf. I have an extension collection of non-fictions in math and physics, which I read for enjoyment and inspiration. More targeted research was done around topics such as information theory, computing processes, time scales of the universe, brain activity measuring technology (i.e.. fMRI, EEG), anti-aging research, the Omega Point theory, the many worlds theory, double slit experiment, solar sails, Boltzmann Brains, studies on consciousness and feedback loops, and the search for habitable exoplanets. The research was less about collecting facts but to gain a general understanding of where the limits of our knowledge were. It provided me with a baseline from where I could take the book’s concepts a little further on the speculation spectrum, because at the end of the day I was writing fiction.
Some creative research was also done. I studied graphic novels and films in order to understand visual storytelling, the use of color and shapes, pacing, tone, dialogue, soundtrack choices and timing. The graphic novel I studied most was The Watchmen and the films I examined were Interstellar, Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind, and Donnie Darko.
I’ve read many fiction books as well both for enjoyment and analysis. The ones that have the most highlighted markings in them are Jeff VandoMeer’s Annihilation, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.
What did creating the book teach you about writing?
Writing has been challenging for me because English is my second language. I could tell my writing had significantly improved from the time I started writing Mixed Realities. My word choices improved, and my vocabulary increased. I learned about the places where my writing was stronger, such as when I wrote about physics concepts versus writing about a character’s emotions. It helped me find my voice and the courage to double down on the explanation of the technical concepts, which brought me the most joy during the writing process.
If you were to do it all over again, would you change anything?
Be more relaxed. There was quite a bit of frustration built up from not being able to fully express my ideas on paper for 10 years. I put too much stake into finishing 1 book, as if everything I cared about was riding on it. Now that I have finished it, the panic is gone, and I can write the next book in a more zen way.
I would spend more time and money in the editing phase. I underestimated the amount of work it took to eliminate all errors. It’s an area I needed a lot of help in and that’s okay. Next time, that sneaky typo won’t make it out alive.
Now that I’ve gone through the process of music licensing, I will start this phase earlier next time. There was a period of a few months where the manuscript portion of the book was complete, but I was waiting for a license to clear. I had to delay my release by 4 months because of it.
Can you tell us anything about any of your ongoing projects?
I have early drafts of book 2 and early outlines for book 3. The idea for Book 2 happened in 2020 while in lockdown for Covid. I had lost my job and the world was a very uncertain and anxious place. I came up with a story world set in the near future where society is over-engineered, complicated, and events happen very quickly. Humans need to get computer implants in order to keep up with the speed of the world, but it’s psychologically straining. The protagonist is a therapist that meets with several patients, 1 patient per chapter, some human, some AI, some human-AI hybrids, and treats them. In the backdrop is a “possible” world ending event that is set to occur in 1 year that’s making the world even more anxious. I plan to do more with the QR code format, but possibly offer more such as augmented reality visual effects in addition to music.
How do you keep yourself motivated to stay so productive?
Coffee. But I really should sleep more! I have a lot of ideas piled up but not enough time. I read books in my favorite genre (science fiction and popular science books) to stay motivated as well as watch any and all mind-bendy films and shows. Having conversations with my industry colleagues about new technology also energizes me and gives me new fresh ideas and perspectives.
Do you have any advice for first time writers out there?
I don’t feel qualified to give advice since I’ve only published one book. Finding a topic, you can’t stop writing about is important because finishing a book takes perseverance and patience. If you find yourself unmotivated or distracted, the sheer love for your subject matter will help pull you back into your writing routine. Collect plenty of visual reference images and save them into folders. I used these often to get some momentum going when it came to describing the people, places, and things in my story world. And of course, create several playlists and try to listen to them on headphones during your writing process. You never know what kind of imagery, memories, shapes, colors, or emotions will appear.
If you had to pick a favorite book, what would it be?
Just one!? It has to be Flatland by Edwin Abbott. I read this when I was in my early teens, and it really expanded the way I looked at the world. That and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.