Kai Zen: The Future of Publishing?
It was during this spring’s A Qualcuno Piace Giallo crime-fiction festival in Brescia, Italy, that I had the opportunity to sit down over breakfast one morning with the four young Italian guys who make up the extraordinary “narrative ensemble” known as Kai Zen.
Jadel Andreetto, Bruno Fiorini, Guglielmo Pispisa, and Aldo Soliani have been writing together via the Internet since 2003, though they didn’t actually meet until the publishing party for their 2007 debut novel, La strategia dell’ariete (The Strategy of the Ram), an “epic novel of adventure and history.” It was principally about that work that these four were invited to speak in Brescia. However, they also filled their audiences in on the publication in book form of two other online “experimental” thriller-writing projects, La potenza di Eymerich (Bacchilega Editore, 2004) and Spauracchi (Bacchilega Editore, 2004). The latter work is described as “a horror western set in Alto Adige,” a quiet little region in the Italian Alps (aka South Tyrol or “Heidi Land”)–which gives you some idea of just how wacky Kai Zen are. But the plot of La strategia dell’ariete also reflects their idiosyncratic writing tastes. Here’s a translation of that novel’s cover notes:
What is a hit man of the Triads doing at the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1920?
Does the recovery of two ancient vases from the China Sea by tormented archaeologist, Professor Heinrich Hofstadter, have anything to do with it? And what is Hofstadter’s son, a Nazi freemason, doing in the rain forests of the Mato Grosso 20 years later?
Shelley Copeland of the CIA is racing across the Texas plains one night in 1957 with a mysterious container in her luggage, a million dollars waiting in a deposit box, and a murder on her mind.
Al-Hàrith is the name of the secret. Al-Hàrith is protected by centuries of silence. Al-Hàrith: the strategy of the Ram …
On the day I spoke with this group, Pispisa (the most prolific member–he’s published several novels under his own name, in addition to those he’s penned with Kai Zen) was not present. He was home in Sicily attending to his pregnant wife, Germana, who had to undergo some clinical tests–the “creepy details,” according to Pispisa, involved a lengthy syringe, various injections, and the extraction of a fair amount of amniotic fluid.
It’s hard to give a sense of what it’s like to meet Kai Zen. Let’s call it an enjoyable nightmare for an amateur interviewer like me, because they take the piss out of each other (and their questioner) all the time. Imagine Bedlam, and you’ll have a limited idea of the experience. I taped our whole exchange, and what follows is the English-translated version. I admit to having edited it for the sake of some degree of clarity.
Michael Gregorio: How did Kai Zen come together as a writing team?
Aldo Soliani: Quite by chance, really. Three of us took part in an Internet writing experiment. We didn’t know each other. We just sent in material to a Web site. It was a story with multiple characters, including a fictional Japanese “industrial rock” group called Kai Zen. …
Jadel Andreetto: Talking about industrial rock, do you know the Nine Inch Nails? Kai Zen are a bit like them–mixing, spreading, manipulating, sharing, and working within a Creative Commons license. Nine Inch Nails do it with sounds; we do it with words. …
Soliani: When we did eventually get together, we needed a name, and Kai Zen was as good as any other that we could come up with. It’s meaning in Japanese is “continuous improvement,” which seemed about right for us. [Hilarious laughter ensues–the members of Kai Zen laugh a great deal]. In Japan and lots of other places, they use Kai Zen philosophy as a company training method to persuade factory managers to work harder. We liked the idea. We found it ironically well-suited to what we were doing, so we just picked it up and used it.
MG: So, how did you guys physically meet?
Bruno Fiorini: Destiny played its part. The other three had taken part in this collective online writing experiment, and their chapters were selected as part of the final work, which resulted in a printed book, Ti chiamerò Russell [Bacchilega Editore, 2003]. The whole thing was organized by Wu Ming, the best-known Italian writing collective; they first published Q as “Luther Blisset” in 1999, and Manituana in 2007. When Ti chiamerò Russell was finally published, the three of them met up for the very first time at the launch party in Bologna in central Italy. … I had been invited to the party, I met the others, and we became friends. On that occasion, the four of us decided to launch a writing project together. We wanted to work on something historical. A novel … That is, I was really interested in the history angle. So, we decided to have a go, and see
what came of it.
MG: What did that Wu Ming writing project involve?
Andreetto: Just to finish off a story: Paolo Bernardi, an editor with the publisher Bacchilega Editore, and Wu Ming had this spy-thriller story idea. Giovanni Cattabrigha [aka Wu Ming 2–there are five members of that writing collective] had written Chapter One of a novel featuring a spy named Russell; it was a sort of international intrigue set in an unspecified foreign country. They invited anyone to submit the next chapter, selecting the “best” chapter each time, then adding on to that one, building the book up step by step. The first experiment was pretty rough, but we were keen. It was, more or less, a test run to see if the thing was possible, using the Internet as a means of creative collaboration. It ended happily enough by creating a masterpiece! [Lots of laughs.] Well, OK, it was an interesting document, and it produced … Ti chiamerò Russell. That’s how we started out …
Soliani: Every one of us has his own version of the story …
MG: Let’s talk about the first novel you wrote together as a group. La strategia dell’ariete was published by Mondadori in 2007. In Italy, this sort of collaborative authoring has been quite successful. It has led to Wu Ming, Kai Zen, and several other similar partnerships. However, the idea hasn’t really taken off in other countries, leading to publishing contracts and books on store shelves. How would you explain that fact?
Fiorini: Let me clarify by saying that Wu Ming don’t do much on the Net. Russell was a one-off thing. The fact is that they all live in the same city [Bologna], while we live in different towns from one end of Italy to the other. We have no choice. If we want to work together, we have to use the Net. I live in Bolzano, while Guglielmo lives down in Sicily. That’s a million miles away …
Andreetto: We are conditioned by our circumstances. Living in distant places, the Net was the ideal communications system for us. And at a creative level, we’ve been greatly inspired by Net-writing. We started out as Kai Zen in 2003, coinciding almost precisely with the explosion of the Internet in Italy–Web 2.0 has led to an immense expansion of the possibilities in a very short time …
The members of Kai Zen (left to right): Guglielmo Pispisa, Jadel Adreetto, Bruno Fiorini, and Aldo Soliani.
MG: Yes, but why do young Italians write together on the Net?
Soliani: My partner is from Northern Europe, so I think I can add to what Jadel was just saying. In my opinion, it all ties in with the Italian “character.” Italians are sociable; the question of friendship and belonging to a family type group is incredibly important for guys like us. In other countries, maybe, individualism is the big thing. Here, instead, it’s second nature to share what you’re doing with your pals–it makes what you’re doing even more interesting. I write something, and I think: Hey, I’ll show this to Jadel, Bruno, and Guglielmo and see what they think. Obviously, they write back. … This sense of fraternal belonging isn’t so strong in most other European countries. OK, on the one hand it is a great feeling, but maybe it’s a weakness too. But that’s the way Italians are. It may be a limitation in the sense that we can’t work alone; we need someone close, someone to trust, someone to lend you a hand and offer you their support.
MG: I want to talk about your “total novel” (il romanzo totale) project. I understand that every year you put one of these together, and anyone can take part via the Web. They get to write sections of the thriller with you. How did that come about, and how does it work?
Soliani: We started out by working on the Net, developing a story which already had a starting-point–the incipit, or opening chapter. So, after we met, we decided to specialize in this sort of experimentation. We liked the idea, and we started talking about what would be the best way to organize the work. In the first place, we set up a Web site dedicated solely to the “total novel” project.
MG: Does that mean that there is a different Web site developed for every new project/book?
Soliani: Ideally, yes. Every book of this type has its own characteristics and peculiarities; each story has a developing history of its own …
MG: So each new site details the step-by-step development of how the story unfolds?
Soliani: Right. For example, you can consult the version of the total novel as it was in, say, 2003, if that’s what you want to do. You just go to the online edition of La potenza di Eymerich [the story was published as a book by Bacchilega Editore in 2004], and you can check out how it was at any time during its creation [see here and here].
MG: Because it was always evolving and changing online?
Soliani: Right again. And it is always going to be there in that “historical” form. If you want to access it and see how things stood then, you can. And you can intervene if you want to. Now we are trying to launch an international edition. The idea is so vast, why limit it only to Italy?
MG: What would you do in that case? Write a first chapter in English? I mean to say, is your English up to it? Then again, I suppose the limitations and style of your English would affect the direction that the work takes, wouldn’t it? English is no longer a national language, but a lingua franca, an international shorthand for ideas, a means to an end, not the end in itself.
Fiorini: We all use English in our jobs and in our lives. It isn’t
really such a problem.
MG: Jobs? What do you do when you aren’t writing?
Fiorini: I’m a video technician.
Soliani: I work as an accountant for a British law firm with branches all over the world. Honest!
Andreetto: I am a journalist, and Guglielmo is a lawyer. I should also add that the next edition of our total novel will be in Spanish. It will be set in Argentina, and we’ll be working with the guys from [a Buenos Aires-based writing-collective called] FM la tribu. English is not the only lingua franca. I mean, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
MG: Let’s move on and talk about the second, unfinished Kai Zen book. What can you tell us about it?
Fiorini: We are working on [he lets out a whooping laugh] … eh, different hypotheses. Some of us are busy on Book 2, while others are already looking beyond it. To be honest, we’re in a bit of a mess at the moment, what with jobs, families, and so on, and we’ve got so many ideas and projects lining up for the future. Regarding Book 2, my colleagues [there’s such a sudden uproar over this highfalutin word, that a waitress in the hotel lobby drops a pot of coffee] … yep, my colleagues are working away on Book 2. They’re about halfway through it, and Book 3 is also off the ground. The historical research is piling up. Fresh ideas just keep coming!
MG: How does each new project start? Does one of you propose an idea, then see how the others react?
Andreetto: It’s a matter of intuition, the way it happened after we’d finished La strategia dell’ariete. The second book–the working title is Mi Buonos Aires querido–was conceived as a sequel, and the third (still untitled) follows on from there, though each book was meant to be quite distinct. You know, a totally different, wholly
We start by working on a general theme: blood in the first book, metal in the second. OK, the themes are different, but the idea is to handle them with the same driving impulse through Books 1 and 2, looking at the world from a certain point of view. Book 3 was a new development; it just fell into place. It’s theme is money. … We were invited to a literary festival in Benevento [Italy], and we were reading and talking about an article in the daily newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, which spoke about the origins of today’s multinational enterprises …
Andreetto: You know, the East India Company, the South Sea Bubble, that that sort of thing. We’d been talking about the economy–times being what they are–and the article had caught our attention. So we started to work on this theme, too. Who knows what will come of it? [Here he looks pointedly at Bruno Fiorini, the historian of this group, who champions Book 3.] Still, it is an incredibly interesting historical moment–AD 1600, exploration, automata, the start of the Enlightenment, Descartes, money being made all over the place–the whole world changing overnight–and then there’s a moment when money is no longer weighed or made in gold, and the whole thing explodes, and implodes, all the way up to the present global crisis. [Again, he looks at Bruno.] We’ll see. We will see …
MG: Publishing a book, and publishing online, are presumably totally different things. For the book you need the backing of a publisher; online, you are free to do whatever you want. Which do you prefer?
Andreetto: We enjoy trying to do both. We still live in a world where paper rules, of course.
MG: Though you publish your books under a Copyleft licensing scheme, don’t you?
Soliani: La strategia dell’ariete was published in Creative Commons or Copyleft, which means that the text can be used in whole or part by anyone at all. Even you, Michael! You can download the book from the Internet, and do what you like with it. But not for profit-making activities. You can chop it, change it, do whatever you want to do …
MG: Did publisher Mondadori like the idea of Copyleft?
Soliani: We insisted, and they accepted, though they didn’t seem to know what it was all about. They realized that it was part of the Kai Zen project, and that it is how we work. It’s our history, if you like. Maybe they understood that it was a frontier that they had to cross. Maybe they were looking towards the future, too. La strategia dell’ariete was, however, the first book that Mondadori had ever published with this particular kind of license.
MG: Have they continued with the trial?
Andreetto: With another pair of writers, I think, though I’m not certain. So far Mondadori have only published one short graphic novel written by Wu Ming 2 for an anthology entitled Alta criminalità.
Soliani: Most people don’t know what it is, or how it works.
MG: Me, for example! How does Copyleft work? What are the advantages for you, the authors?
Soliani: We don’t believe that the printed book will disappear and be replaced by PDF files, but as a way of sampling a book, of getting a first “taste” of a story–a bit like hearing a song on the radio–Copyleft is a new approach, and we think that it is positive. A lot of people do buy the book after playing around with it on the Net.
MG: We promote our new book [A Visible Darkness] by offering a sample chapter on our Web site. [This “old-fashioned” approach incites loud and riotous laughter from the Kai Zen guys.]
Fiorini: We work with readers and writers who are more–extreme, let’s say, more radical. For them, it’s hands-on, and start ripping! But we believe that the exposure and the Web interest more than cover the risks …
Andreetto: And it is a form of intellectual honesty, too. The printed edition of our book costs €16.50. Not everyone can go out and spend that much money. But if they read the book [online] and like what they read, they may just buy it anyway. In the second place, if you decide that you want to give it to someone as a gift, then you have to go out and buy it! Remember, readers, if you print it out from the Net, use recycled paper. If you don’t, then you’re a bastard!
Soliani: In many remote places, out in the mountains, for example, and in small towns and villages in the country, there are no bookshops, no libraries; but there is the Internet.
Fiorini: Our “shelf-life” is unlimited! Right now, the printed edition [of La strategia dell’ariete] is momentarily out-of-print. … People did buy it! But you can download it, if you want. You can read it, review it. Just yesterday, we were talking to classes of teenagers, school kids, and we advised them to read it online. Maybe in the future, when they start earning money … Who knows?
Andreetto: In this form the book has an unlimited print run.
Fiorini: Wow, worldwide and virtually free!
Andreetto: Then again, the reader can alter the online version. In our books, the story is central, not the writer. Anyone can take a bit out of our book–a character, a place, or an idea–and use it in the novel or story that he or she is writing. They can change it, write a new ending, do whatever they like with it. We really are the literary equivalent of the Nine Inch Nails. They publish their music free on the Net, and they still sell CDs–not only in MP3 format, but in “Garage Band” format, too, so other musicians can remix, reuse, add, take away, elaborate, or rewrite the original material. Then they publish the fans’ remixed versions of their music on the Nails’ Web site. Now, that means that there are literally thousands of versions of their songs going around. That’s what I call publicity! In our case, there’s a creative exchange between the writers and the readers; in their case, it’s between the listeners and the musicians. This is what using the Net in a meaningful way amounts to.
Fiorini: Jadel’s right. I mean, this is the great advantage of working and writing via the Net. It’s totally unrestricted, and that can be a strength. Can you imagine how many people have “lifted” a character or an idea from a story or a novel, and then they’ve been made to pay for it by some guy’s lawyer?
Andreetto: Look at you two. I mean, you stole Immanuel Kant [for the first Michael Gregorio novel, Critique of Criminal Reason, 2006].
MG: Oh yeah, right. Still, it’s a bit late for legal action now. Kant’s been dead for over 200 years.
Fiorini: Anyway, that’s what we do with the total novel and on the Web. We create a character, an idea, a story, and we offer it to anyone who is interested. You can add to his life, his back story, you can give him a new life, a new career, or make him move in a totally different setting. That’s our contribution, let’s say.