Particular Worldbuilding in Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist

Allegra Goodman is a bestselling, award-nominated novelist whose 2017 novel The Chalk Artist is set in and around a fictional game studio called Arcadia.

It’s common to see literary nonfiction about technology companies, like the 2009 book that was adapted into the movie The Social Network. But I couldn’t remember another literary novel I’d read that approached technology with this level of care and imagination.

In Goodman’s novel, a scrappy college dropout with virtuosic drawing talent finds his way into the employ of a mysterious, family-owned game studio like Blizzard. He works as an artist on their locked-down upcoming project, which takes a Warcraft-like world and casts it in immersive 3D augmented reality. At the same time, we follow high-school-age twins as one of them grows more and more attached to the world of the game over his relationships and schoolwork.

That sounds, maybe, like a Very Special Episode about how Bobby needs to turn off the computer. (Bobby is the name of everyone in an after-school special.) But Goodman’s story is about how the families and friendships work within the community that includes these folks, including that many of them live on the same street. Our hero gets a job at Arcadia because he’s dating the daughter of one of its enigmatic founders, who are brothers, sometimes frenemies, and definitely not role models.

The parts of the book about Arcadia and its products and community are rich and developed. I could picture the next-generation-plus gaming device she described and how it would entrance this teenage character. He goes to a chaotic convention and meets his heroes, who turn out to have feet of clay, as they’re wont to do. I wanted to find out as much as I could about Goodman’s thinking and research for the book and what her real life is like in terms of games. She was kind enough to answer questions by email.

Arcadia is such a fully realized part of your book. Did you look at any game studios in particular when you were researching and writing?

I did not have a particular studio in mind, but I did speak at length with several people who work in the gaming industry. I spoke to a project manager, a concept artist, a sound engineer, and a programmer and talked to them about their experiences. I also talked to someone who studies computer vision.

The programmer told me something that I took as something as a challenge. He said, “Anything you can imagine will be on the market by the time your book comes out.” I thought—oh really! I decided I wanted my graphics, colors, and game-worlds to be more beautiful, more frightening, and more enticing than even the most sophisticated games on the market today. I wanted to create in words what computers cannot yet render. Beyond that, I wanted the reader to see what Aidan sees, hear what he hears, and imagine deeply—as he is imagining.

I loved how you described Aidan’s futuristic, immersive game and linked it with Collin’s love of chalk and dust. Do you view technology as something that amplifies interest in art, hinders it, both, neither?

That’s a great question. I think that technology itself is neutral. It can amplify or detract from our interest, imagination, attention to art—and to the world. It’s people—both in industry and in the marketplace as customers, who are the deciding factor here. The games and platforms we develop and use can become windows to the world and to each other—or mirrors and echo chambers.

Your books all have a quality of peeking behind the scenes and exploring niche settings. What do you like about telling these kinds of stories?

I am interested in families and communities. Ultimately, my novels are about people, and a niche setting or a workplace provides me with a venue to explore relationships.

Games like EverWhen owe so much to J.R.R. Tolkien or even the Matter of Britain and other world mythologies. But smaller games can tell stories that are similar to your novel, even, where everyday people fall in love and make life-changing decisions. Do you play any games yourself? If so, what kind?

I must confess that I do not play games. I’ve tried once or twice and I always go the wrong way or get lost in the forest. I have no desire to win things, get somewhere, or earn points. I’m also not much of a puzzle or problem solver. However, as an artist I love to create puzzles and problems for other people.

Ha, I make puzzles at my day job! And I don’t love to complete them, either. People assume literary scholars or avid readers love games like Scrabble or doing crossword puzzles. Are there more traditional board or card games you and your family enjoy?

My family enjoys Evolution, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and other strategy games—and I don’t play any of them! Two of my sons love Scrabble. I used to play a little, but when they memorized all the 3 letter words in the Scrabble dictionary I bowed out!

What favorite book or story would you be curious to see adapted as a game?

Forgive me if these have been adapted already, but I think The Chronicles of Narnia would make a beautiful game.

Recent games make me think this is not just possible but plausible. Do your kids play games? I’d love to get “lost in the forest” if the forest were Narnia!

My kids were not serious gamers, but my older sons played StarCraft for a year or two as teenagers.

And finally, what storytelling or other lessons do you wish game makers could take from literature?

I’m not sure one genre can teach another. What makes a novel good might make a game weak—and vice versa.

And finally: Are you working on a project now?

Yes! I have just finished a draft of a new book, quite different from The Chalk Artist. Like a game creator, I enjoy creating and exploring new worlds as I start new projects.

You can find more information on Allegra’s books, including The Chalk Artist, on her website.

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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
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