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First-Time Novelists Make a Splash on the Web

Fun with physics: Readers can drop by the virtual dorm room of Marisha Pessl's protagonist or check out her MySpace page.
Fun with physics: Readers can drop by the virtual dorm room of Marisha Pessl's protagonist or check out her MySpace page.

After Marisha Pessl finished her first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, she got to work on a side project: Calamityphysics.com. The Web site is a companion piece to the book, designed as a window into the life — and dorm room — of the young protagonist, Blue van Meer.

Visitors can pick up objects, zoom in on pictures and newspaper clippings, visit Blue's MySpace page or unfold a map of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the story takes place. A distracting June bug buzzes around a bright blue desk lamp.

"What we really try and do is ... deliver the unexpected right up front, to just capture the immediate reaction of an audience and hopefully engage them enough that they're curious to continue poking further," says Mark Ferdman, the creative director of Freedom Interactive Design, the company that built the site.

Pessl adds that the Web site gave her a chance to add more to her story, after it was published.

"There are always things that you think in hindsight, 'Oh, I should've made this clearer.' And, 'Oh, perhaps I should've highlighted this clue,'" says Pressl. "So the Web site was really a way for me to fill in a few of those blanks that as the writer ... I missed that first time."

It's more and more common for a debut novel to have elaborate homes on the Web, complete with blogs, chatrooms, videos and games. Oftentimes the sites are richly illustrated, almost cinematic.

"I think that we're just scratching the surface in publishing," says Ferdman. "As writers get to understand that they can use this medium to basically further their art and their craft in terms of storytelling, then I think we'll see things that go a lot further than Marisha's site."

Avideh Bashirrad, deputy director of marketing at Random House, says that a book Web site has to be dynamic and attractive and should deliver information that isn't in the book.

"A letter from the author, for instance, directly to the readers, or even an invitation to e-mail the author directly, that kind of thing is really important to readers," says Bashirrad. "To be able to reach out to them makes readers feel really special and also builds loyalty."

Charles Bock is another writer who's breaking new ground on the Web. When Brock created the Web site for his novel, Beautiful Children, he asked several of his favorite musicians to write and record songs, based on his story.

Bock, who refers to himself as "The Bockstar," updates his site frequently, adding links to reviews, interviews and a viral video. In February, for three days, anyone could download all 432 pages of Beautiful Children for free, an offer 15,000 people took advantage of.

But Pessl acknowledges that the Web may not be for everyone.

"I hate to think of a day where a compelling book or a compelling authorial voice would be lost simply because that person doesn't have a Web site," she says. "But I think that, to use the Internet in a positive way, to turn people on to reading, is something that authors shouldn't really shy away from necessarily."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.