When I met Joel Golombeck, of Rocket Chair Media, last year at a literary happy hour, I was intrigued to hear about his apps for the Ipad. Not only are they grounded in literature, but they are also grounded in the art of storytelling. I was wary at first, and here comes a confession – I’m sort of anti e-book – but honestly, this was different. This was a unique “reading” experience. I was instantly hooked. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to interview him for LunaLuna. Download Rocket Chair Media’s apps on Itunes, right away. You’ll fall in love with not only the stories and poems, but the gorgeous illustrations.
First, you need to understand how his apps are a sort of physical storytelling.
WATCH: a video featuring The Metamorphosis App by Rocket Chair Media.
1. Joel, tell me about what inspired your first Rocket Chair Media app?
I’ve always been interested in multimedia storytelling, in thinking about the relationship between imagery, iconography and text, and how they can build synergy. I love the idea of putting different communication media – visual, textual and other – at different levels of resolution, in a dynamic where they all tell unique parts of a whole story. So when the iPad came out, it seemed like the perfect platform for multimedia storytelling: a handheld, full-color touch screen with a pretty powerful computer behind it. But more than just a platform, I began thinking of the iPad’s touch screen as a medium itself. The iPad doesn’t have pages, so what does navigating on a touch screen (swiping, pinching, zooming, rotating) mean for reading and storytelling? If you add my answer to an exciting collaboration with my favorite book in the public domain and you get Rocket Chair Media’s foundation, The Metamorphosis for iPad.
2. On your site, you say you are “nostalgic about reading’s past.” I love this. I’m nostalgic for reading’s past. I’m a huge annotator and am not THAT big of the E-Book, personally, but I love your apps. I like the way your app physically engages the reader in a different kind of reading experience. Can you discuss the app’s connection to nostalgia?
I love paper. I love turning pages and the way they smell and feel and all of that. Given a choice between a book and an ebook, I’ll always take the former – unless there is a specific reason not to. But I grew up with books. The nostalgia I’m talking about is less about paper and more about ‘reading.’ We are a fast, and visual culture now. Perhaps that’s cliché, but it’s also true: my 5-year-old-and-younger nieces and nephews do not know life without a computer or a touch screens in their hands. That is not a reality that is changing anytime soon – not for them or for us. I want to know how the best parts of ‘reading,’ the catharsis, the imagination and the active brain-state it requires, can be preserved – or even enhanced – with technology. I believe it can be. And that is why I am excited about reading’s future. But I keep nostalgia and respect for reading’s past as the bedrock.
3. I love that idea of “bedrock.” So, clearly, you believe that technology has positively changed storytelling, and, I think your apps have really shown that. You work in design and you’re an artist. Did you ever think this is where your life would take you – that you’d be illustrating stories, and making them come to life on cell phones and tablets?
I’m not sure that I thought these apps would ever happen necessarily, but I guess I was always working toward making them real in some way with reading, writing, illustrating and experimenting. Currently, these literature and poetry apps are not the only art I make or design work I do. The reason they stand out for me is that they merge so many aspects of my interests, passions, hobbies, and education – and then turned into a business! It sounds almost weird to call it that because I think of Rocket Chair Media as my passion project. That I can call it a job is a privilege and a bonus. I feel a sense of gratification in making things and telling stories. Mostly, I just hope Rocket Chair Media keeps growing because that will mean people are still finding time and ways to care about literature, art and poetry – and that I get to make some of it for them.
4. Oh, I think people will always care, but I love that you are doing your own share of that. I mean, to help that “caring” continue to happen. Now, take me through the process in making one of your apps?
It all starts with the story. I find a story, old or new, that I enjoy, relate to and learn something from. I read it a whole lot of times, hopefully learning and experiencing something new with every reading. That last part is usually my test for confirming that what I’m reading is something I want to work with. I study, research and take notes. (If I’m collaborating with a living author, a lot of the same things happen, but more organically and conversationally.) Once I feel comfortable with my understanding, I make what I call a text map, which is essentially a screenplay outlining where there will be text breaks, direction changes, font-size changes, where and how illustrations interact with text, and what the overall look, feel and navigation will be. And indeed, I do think of the job I do with this story as analogous to a screenwriter or film director
In terms of production, the text map sets the stage for all of the making and testing. To produce these apps I’m constantly moving back and forth between digital and analog, paper, pencil drawing, physical cutting and pasting, digital cutting and pasting, erasing, inking, painting, then scanning, viewing on computer a screen, then on an iPad and then back through most of the process again and again until the artwork matches my vision for it. Once the final image is made it gets processed for and input into our custom software. That bundle gets shipped to iTunes. They approve it, and it’s officially available as an app.
5. So, your first app The Metamorphosis was a finalist for a publishing innovation award at the Digital Book World conference. Congratulations. What was that like for you?
It was validating and humbling. Fun, too!
6. What’s next for Rocket Chair?
There are definitely more apps on the horizon. We were very excited about the success of our first collaboration with a contemporary author, The Garden, by Ishion Hutchinson. A big focus right now is to do more of that – alternating between producing contemporary and classic work. (So if you are reading this and have an awesome story idea, new or existing, get in touch with us! We’re listening.) We are also setting our sites beyond the apps. The apps are one solution to 21st century reading – a solution that we have plans to grow and improve, for sure – but Rocket Chair is called a media company for a reason. We want it to be a place where all kinds of multimedia storytelling and experimenting are happening.
To sum it up: we want to learn new ways to read, one story at a time.
Joel Golombeck is the recent founder of Rocket Chair Media, a digital publishing company fusing art and interaction with literature and poetry — synergizing love for reading’s tradition with the new frontier of multimedia platforms. He served as designer and illustrator of the company’s first app, The Metamorphosis for iPad.
Leah Umansky’s first collection of poems, Domestic Uncertainties is out from BlazeVOX Books. Her second book,Don Dreams and I Dream, is inspired by Mad Men and out by Kattywompus Press in 2014. She is also the host & curator of the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC. She has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus, and a live twit for The Best American Poetry Blog. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as: POETRY, Barrow Street, Similar Peaks, and The Brooklyn Rail. Read more at her blog and @Lady_Bronte.