Alibi V.26 No.8 • Feb 23-March 1, 2017 

Culture Shock

How Do You Take Your Fiction?

Serial Box delivers novels that fit into people's lives

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold
Serial Box

There was a stutter-stop on the phone line at several points during my conversation with local author Ian Tregillis. “Oh, ow! Sorry!” he said when he returned. “That's my cat, she's ferocious.” At another point the cat, Annie, walked into the fireplace, provoking another comical lapse in our conversation. Steadfastly, however, Tregillis returned every time barely missing a beat; if his train of thought was interrupted, it was hard to tell—he picked up every sentence right where he had left off. Perhaps it is this ability to track many thoughts and move, undeterred, forward, that has contributed to Tregillis' ability to create fully-imagined, fantastical worlds in his multiple book series (The Milkweed Triptych, Alchemy Wars). Maybe it, along with his toolbox of other literary talents, has contributed to success in his new gig, too, as a writer for Serial Box's The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, an episodic tale set in Prague during the Cold War where another mysterious struggle plays out beneath the surface tension. In the world created in the story, underlying the national politics we've learned in history books, a shadow world exists where hostilities are boiling over between two ancient secret societies—and the magic that passes between these two cults will influence the outcome of the war for the whole world.

If you're intrigued—that's the idea. Serial Box's design hinges on the hope that you will be. The company is a platform for serialized fiction, meaning that if you want to read (or listen to, for that matter) The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, you'd subscribe to the service and on a weekly basis for the duration of the season, you’d receive one “episode” per week. Taking many cues from television, each novel, so to speak, is arranged into seasons, and each installment is designed to provide a 40-minute reading experience, effectively creating fiction that fits into people's lives. As such, Tregillis shares core writing responsibilities with three others, each tasked with writing three installments of the 13-show season run, with a guest writer filling in on one episode. This makes the turnaround on each novel quicker, and it makes the writing experience one of collaboration. Serial box takes its cues from serial novels of old (think Charles Dickens), broadcast podcasting and television to create something that feels modern and wholly new.

“The analogy that I use for myself when I'm thinking about how to craft my episodes is [that of my experience with] my favorite TV shows that aired in the ‘90s, like 'The X-Files,' for instance,” Tregillis explained. “That was back in the day when you didn't have a DVR, there was no such thing as Netflix, so you actually had to wait for an episode to come along. Part of my enjoyment of that show came from the anticipation, the waiting.” Similarly, that space provides Serial Box readers (or listeners, as every episode is available in audio form, too) not just the opportunity to fill in the gaps and anticipate what will happen as the story progresses with each cliffhanger, but it creates an opportunity for discussion. Novels are dense, and as such, unpacking and processing them with friends can be difficult because of the sheer volume of material to tackle. Serial Box allows for discussion that comes in chapters, making the conversation a segmented, ongoing one. “I certainly wouldn't claim that we're doing something as culturally impactful as 'The X-Files,'” Tregillis mused, reflecting on how hooked on the show he was during its initial run. “But … best case scenario, that's akin to the kind of experience we'd give people.”

The platform's measured way of delivering fiction means that more people—busy people, people who are intimidated by the heft of a physical book, people who favor audio input as opposed to text—can experience the joy of reading in a way that works for them

The platform's measured way of delivering fiction means that more people—busy people, people who are intimidated by the heft of a physical book, people who favor audio input as opposed to text—can experience the joy of reading in a way that works for them. I asked Tregillis if he thinks that Serial Box has the potential to revive the act of reading for a broader population as Annie interjected herself into the conversation once more, eliciting a yelp. “I hope so,” he answered emphatically after a beat. “Giving people another avenue for finding their enjoyment of reading, another venue for finding a story they enjoy can only be good. In the end, I think it's all for the better.”

While Serial Box makes the experience of reading more accessible for those who can pony up a little cash, for Tregillis there's personal benefit to the format, too. Sitting in the writer's room of Serial Box headquarters and hashing out the story with a group of like-minded creators is a diversion from the solo task of writing his own novels. “When I'm writing my own novels, it's very solitary and it takes a long time. [Writing] is something I do on the side, I have a full-time job, so for me, writing a book of my own is about a year of evenings and weekends. … I come home from work and I kiss my wife, I pet the cat, and I go into my office and I shut the door, and I can't come out until I've done my work for the day. It's very lonely,” he said. The collaborative nature of Serial Box means that writing, for Tregillis, can now be a social act, too. The added benefit, he mentions, is that each of the writers brings their own unique talents to the story, illuminating aspects of character and scene that he might not connect with immediately. On top of all that, when they finish a season, as opposed to when Tregillis finishes his own novel, there's the satisfaction of celebration. As he put it, “there's a lot more high-fiving at the end.”

The second season of The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is in progress now. You can binge season one and dive into the story as it is unfolding at serialbox.com.