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Collective Writing – Voices

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A conversation with Kai Zen

How was the idea of Kai Zen originally born, and how has it evolved throughout time?

Three of the four writers who actually write under the moniker Kai Zen were involved in 2003 in a collective writing project on the web, Ti chiamerò Russell, a so called Romanzo Totale. The idea to keep on with the project and to give birth to a brand new writing team came out soon after and a group of four people decided to start writing a novel together and, at the same time, to rethink, restart and develop the entire Romanzo Totale concept. A year later, after a tour to many cities to talk about collective writing experiences, open culture and creative commons, a new Romanzo Totale was about to begin. In those days the Italian Government Commission on Nuclear Waste tried to stock some waste in a cave down in Scanzano Jonico, nearby Potenza. We wanted to start from there and tell that infamous story. We met the sci-fi author Valerio Evangelisti and asked him if he could ‘lend’ us his main character Nicolas Eymerich, to build up the new project. So we started a novel set in the medieval age in Potenza and in a not-so-distant future in Scanzano Jonico. On the dedicated website we uploaded the first chapter of the story and some sort of wiki page with online news about Scanzano’s nuclear waste, Medieval Potenza, Eymerich, history and geography, a plot and a characters ‘bestiary’. Everything was open and modifiable, everyone could step in and change, adjust, carry on the whole thing. The project became a book: La Potenza di Eymerich: a virtual community using sci-fi to talk about a story of corruption, power abuse and environment pollution… Meanwhile we started working on our ‘solo’ novel, La Strategia dell’Ariete but we kept our lab open anyway, and through the web we gave hints about the working phases, the building of characters and so on. It took more than three years, it was a complex historical novel, and in 2007 Mondadori published it with a creative commons license. We built a website with the whole novel for free downloads, maps, historical notes and a rizomatic section in which everyone could write down collateral stories. While working on La Strategia dell’Ariete we also worked on a new Romanzo Totale. It was a gothic western set in South Tirol. It was 2005 and again a book came out: Spauracchi. In 2007 and 2008 we were involved in a international tour to launch La Strategia dell’Ariete. But at the end of 2008 we were already launching another new Romanzo Totale. The structure was already working well but we wanted to test it and push it to the limits: we tried to give much more importance to the metatext than to the story itself and we threw down the gauntlet to the community: let’s build a romance set during the Crimean War. Once again the community got a hidden prompt from us and told a story about war crimes, embedded journalism, news manipulation, even through a romance plot: La sottile linea rosa. Then in 2010 Delta Blues was about to land. We were asked by VerdeNero, a publisher of crime novels concerning ecological issues, to write a book. They asked for a noir set in Italy about renewable energy sources; we decided to do it our way: a novel about oil and neocolonialism set in Nigeria. It was a Conrad’s Heart of Darkness cover. We tried to open up our horizons even more widely; we decided to use another book as part of the work, an hyper collective kind of writing. We are presently working on another project, but in the summer of 2011 we were ‘hired’ by a Canadian foundation to manage a writing workshop in a Lecce’s skid row.[1] We were called to guide the participants through a shared process of re-imagination of a working class district. Starting with significant spatial elements we encouraged participants to incorporate their memories, technical skills, and emotions to collectively write a story. The stories that came out from the workshop turned into a theatrical piece that was represented in a forsaken Santa Rosa Square: we have learned that you can’t lighten a dark sky without a storm. Kai Zen was a lightning rod, but the collective writings community was thunder, lightning and pouring rain.

What is your working method? Pros and cons?

We do not have a specific working method, it depends on the project. We initially decide who will get involved and how in a certain project. Normally, being now so familiar and close to each other like a real family, each one of us just brings to a new work his very specific skills: the creative one suggests ideas and scenarios, the most talented deals with the pure writing form, the most practical one gives the right kick, etc. There are a lot of prost! It’s like having more heads to think about something, but cons are very risky: a project can easily vanish away if we are not able to stimulate one another, chase, check, update, put together, edit, etc. For us writing is actually more re-writing.

What is collective writing for you? In what ways does the methodology underpinning Kai Zen differ from other collective writing novels and collective writing methods?

Actually Kai Zen is more simply our four heads working together than an actual, programmed idea of collective writing. We do not believe much in etiquette. It’s a sort of team working on things we like, nothing more ‘serious’ than that, and that’s why we chose such a self ironical name: kaizen is also the company’s practice of self boasting to sell more, ‘we are the best, let’s sing the company song now!’, etc. Affinity and differences between us and the companion Wu Ming (e.g.) stands in the fact that we live in different cities and we could not meet any Saturday to work together, we are not all four professional writers and our method derives from, not leads, the initial phases of building the novel (take a look at question 4). Usually, as it happened for La strategia dell’Ariete, we work together on a plot and to do it we meet physically, we go into seclusion for a time period that could last from a weekend to a week in which we take notes and began to build the plot as a synopsis, then we decide who writes what and who does what. Everyone keeps a ‘free’ small part of the plot for himself. Once we are in charge of a part, a set, some characters, we begin to write down a first draft. Once we finish a chapter we send it by e-mail to the other three, one by one they annotate it and rewrite some part of it if necessary. When the chapter comes back, the one who wrote it can work on it following (not necessarily all) the ‘instructions’ of the others… We go on in this way until we have written down the whole story, then we meet physically to re-read the whole thing and face the phase of editing and cutting, and finally (with an order we have established before) we re-write it again and again, individually, to smooth the style and to check all the possible inconsistencies. Then we normally let it rest for a while and then work on it again, if needed.

La strategia dell’Ariete and Delta Blues differ from each other a lot in plot and settings. Is there a common thread between the two?

Different approaches and a wide range of inspirations are very typical of Kai Zen: we are four people, living in very different areas of Italy (Milan, Bologna and Sicily), with totally different lifestyles. The first part of every project we start is literally spent on brainstorming and finding the perfect balance among ideas and ways to pursue them. Once we find the right Kai Zen way, we no longer work as individuals but as Kai Zen members. In the detail, La strategia dell’Ariete and Delta Blues are very different but they are both great adventures with a lot of characters, a lot of different places and a lot of action. We prefer to show than to describe, we prefer to do than to talk. Anyway even if different, somehow, both novels are facing issue of evil and the human moral dilemma. Both of the stories deal with characters who find themselves on a crossroads and have to choose which path they will take; from that moment on they have to face their choice and soon they discover that, no matter which way you have chosen, that road will lead you to evil anyway: it’s human nature, the only thing you could do about it is to train yourself in the gentle art of skepticism. At the end of the day, common ground in La strategia dell’Ariete and Delta Blues can be found in characters: who they are, what they do, why and how they do it. They are liminal creatures, they aren’t on the ‘dark side of the force’, but they aren’t on the bright side either. They are, almost all, running on a sort of grey razor edge… We have to confess that we also had a lot of fun in hiding some Easter eggs in both novels, some of these eggs are references to the other novel and to the forthcoming new KZ novel.

Has your style and your way of conceiving and fulfilling the writing process changed from La strategia dell’ariete to Delta Blues?

Our personal and Kai Zen writing styles change daily (hopefully), and they change mostly because of the influence of the other members. The older we get, the better we work together and hopefully write better. It just works like with individual writers: experience makes you work better, if you are able to keep it fresh and interesting. We have four heads and not just one: we think we have a plus here. It’s a kind of holistic method: the sum of the single parts is more or different from the total. Kai Zen’s style is a fifth style, which is different from the four styles we have as single authors (we have also to notice that our single styles have improved from when we started as a collective). Every book demands a new approach and strategy, La strategia dell’ariete was a novel born and raised by our wish to write and by suggestion which came from the set, the atmospheres, the characters and the plot which was ‘terraforming’ the novel itself at the time we began to write it; Delta Blues was a sort of ‘novel on demand’. VerdeNero, the publisher, as we told you, called us and asked for it. Alberto Ibba, the editor in chief, had read La strategia dell’ariete and was interested in a ‘political sci-fi – ecothriller’ fiction set in Italy focused on renewable energy sources. We thought about it, because we were not particularly interested in telling stories set in Italy, or at least that has to do strictly with Italy. We could not find a key that helped us to give them what they wanted form us. However, at the time we were reading with interest articles and watching documentaried on the MEND movement and the Niger Delta, so we began to think about a novel set in Nigeria. MEND is the acronym for Niger’s delta emancipation movement, a revolutionary armed group mainly formed by soldiers of Ijaw ethnics operating in the delta area since 2005. Its main goal is fighting multinationals like Chevron, Total, ENI, etc. which took advantage of the resources of the huge fluvial Niger’s area – mostly oil and gas – with no conscience or attention to environment and local people. Starting from there we began to comb through the VerdeNero’s catalogue and we ran into Patrick Fogli’s Vite Spericolate. The question that was the basis of his novel was ‘what happens when the killer is not a person but a corporation?’ Later, during a Kai Zen meeting we pushed the question even further: ‘what happens when, at the end of crime novel, I find out that the murder is me?’ ENI in Nigeria is causing a small apocalypse:[2] but the Italian State owns a sizeable part of the company’s shares, so ENI is also me and you.

We have a lot of questions and no answers; it was the ideal starting point for a novel. The novel was about to ask us to make some choices in order to be written. From that point on we shared materials and ideas trying to write down a plot, but we still did not have a story in our hands. We came to the conclusion that what was happening in Nigeria with ENI was nothing more than a form of colonialism, although the term neocolonialism would be more suitable. It was a bit of time that we wanted to do a cover, and we realized that the story we wanted to write was already written much better than we ever could – it was, of course: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. And of course we were not the first ones to have the idea. Before us there were some huge works such as Apocalypse Now by F.F. Coppola and Aguirre the Wrath of God by Werner Herzog. So we decided to re-read Heart of Darkness and to take a look again at these two movies. Delta Blues was calling us; it was asking us to take a decision and a direction. Both were concerning the story itself and the way in which we had to organize our collective work. In Delta Blues we put together different narrative registers and pushed on the accelerator to give the book the rhythm of adventure, more than a noir or a crime novel (or sci-fi noir as the publisher asked us). The risk that we were running was to be didactic, to hold a moral lesson, and so we decided to give different points of view – the two biggest are those of Klein and Tamerlane, two characters who are on the ridge: not an easy choice. To write down a book with that structure, and that limited number of pages, we decided to try a new configuration of the Kai Zen team: four ‘brainstormers’, a ‘plotmaker’, two writers, an editor, a final reader and a kind of special guest ghost writer who was our light in the bush of ghosts: Joseph Conrad himself. It worked. Since then, we have been ready to change the configuration of the squad to the needs of the story we are about to build.

You also keep a very active blog, called Kaizenology (https://kaizenology.wordpress.com), and run several other online platforms. Is there any interchange between your activity on the internet and your literary work?

Originally the blog was to keep us visible in the periods between published books, but then we found out that writing a blog is such a specific thing, and we are interested in all kinds of writing, not just books. So we started to post different things: journey reportages, short stories, literary critics, some philosophical issues, news opinion and commentary, foreign out of rights fiction we like, fun and odd things such as the Truck Driver, Wrong Dad, Office Files columns, and are still very surprised at the interest that many people show in what we write. We also have to say that writing in the www era is a rip off: once we were very excited about new technologies and the possibilities they seemed to open. Now it seems to us that internet will make us less curious and more stupid. Some time ago in New York, we saw a group of kids who watched the Empire State Building framing it with the iPad. We need frames, reality is no longer enough, but by doing so we restrict our horizons more and more and the cerebral cortex begins to change. We really want to go offline, we are getting reactionary, for now we are thinning our blog and net activities and focusing on our new novel’s editing process.

What is the future of collective writing? Like that guy used to say: the future is always there, its the past that is changing

We think writing together fits well with living in our times because it is about sharing, influencing, learning and teaching, copying and pasting, becoming better individuals (and writers) through others. And the advantage of thinking with more than one head is for us very important. Individual writers do actually work in a team as well, although they do not declare it. It is probably one of the last taboos standing: writing is something collaborative, not (only) a gift of God to one single individual. We must consider even that a collective, or if you like a transmedia, novel encourages the reader to produce spin-offs that extend its plot, give new life to its characters, explore the novel’s boundaries, and ultimately trespass them to narrate around it. Transmedia, as Alessandro Macilenti from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ – who was working on Kai Zen’s Delta Blues and Nature Writing and Environmental Literature in Italy – noted: stories break free of the author to live a life of their own. The whole process could be loosely compared to evolutionary forces operating in narrative: stories that are successful, memorable and meaningful thrive, multiply – eventually they mutate, become other stories, adapt to different media; stories that are unsuccessful simply vanish and are forgotten. Those that survive create a literary (eco)system where each narration fills its own niche of meaning and readership, supporting each other and feeding off each other, uniquely relating to other stories and back to the real world. Literary writing and media could appeal to popular culture and create ‘transmedia’ mutations. Each of them would target the small niche of the public that is more receptive to them, just like seeds randomly scattered on the ground that only survive where and when conditions are favourable. Though seemingly wasteful and inefficient, this simple mechanism has allowed life to colonise even the most extreme environments on Earth. Similarly, by scattering all over the cultural panorama, this kind of work would create social and ecological literacy and awareness, and predispose the conditions for societal change. So it seems that the future of collective writing will be a successful struggle for life with all the chances to survive and get stronger and stronger. But we have to say that, for us, the media is the media and not the message: we use the web to build and to strengthen connections, we use it to create and to maintain a network of writers in order to share and develop collective stories as the romanzo totale, but, to misquote a Death in June’s LP, what ends when the stories shatter? What will remain when media becomes the message, what kind of story will survive when the web will be the story itself?

 


[1] http://www.musagetes.ca/programs/lecce/

[2] Amnesty International reports that ‘Nigeria has prohibited gas flaring since 1984, unless a ministerial consent has been issued. Although the government has announced various deadlines for the cessation of flaring, each deadline has passed and flaring continues’. In the paper ‘Negative Effects of Gas Flaring: The Nigerian Experience’, Anslem O. Ajugwo finds that ‘Nigeria flares 17.2 billion m3 of natural gas per year in conjunction with the exploration of crude oil in the Niger Delta […] equal to approximately one quarter of the current power consumption of the African continent’, causing ‘environmental, health, and social problems in local communities near oil producing fields’. The UNDP reports that Delta inhabitants ‘believe strongly that the environmental predicament contributes to social and economic de- privation’, and that the government is unable at best and unwilling at worst to limit the damage brought about by the activities of the petroleum industry. This discontent was left to brew for decades and culminated in the arrest and execution of the Ogoni Nine after they had presented the ‘Ogoni Bill of Rights’ demanding environmental and sociopolitical reform.

 

Kai Zen is an ensemble of writers which includes Jadel Andreetto, Bruno Fiorini, Guglielmo Pispisa, and Aldo Soliani. The Kai Zen have authored Ti chiamerò Russell (2003) and La potenza di Eymerich (2004) in cooperation with Valerio Evangelisti, Wu Ming and other writers. More recently, they have independently published popular titles such as La strategia dell’ariete (2007) and Delta blues (2010), which have been made available in various electronic formats on the group’s website through the Creative Commons license CC-by-nc-sa, which enables anyone to freely copy and modify the text for non-commercial purposes as long as attribution and the same license are preserved in the derived texts.


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This entry was posted on October 3, 2016 by in Voices.
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