Nathan Penlington

writer / performer / obsessive



I'm a writer and performer who makes shows, books and other things about my various obsessions. Most recently I'm the author of 'The Boy in the Book', and co-creator of 'Choose Your Own Documentary'. Some of my other obsessions include books in awkward forms, Uri Geller, darts, conjuring, sideshow, and Richard Brautigan.

Please have a look around, if you have any questions just ask.



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Interactive Fiction #6: Parodies and pastiche

Following quickly on the back of any phenomenon are parodies and pastiche. As the Choose Your Own Adventure form became the style to emulate in the 80’s and 90’s (a future post will include some of the huge array of pop culture CYOA tie-ins), the form also became part of the cultural memory of a generation - as evident by the fact that most of the parodies date from the the early 2000’s onwards, written as that generation grew up. Of course there were also parodies published at the time, but those tend to focus on content, rather than the form, as subject.


'Choose Your Own Moral Code: A colouring book' - Heroes and criminal press. 2002. 

A small photocopied zine, each page offers an innocuous illustration of squirrels or rabbits in various configurations and you have to decide if they are good or evil. Hint: squirrels are definitely evil.


'Love is not constantly wondering if you are making the biggest mistake of your life' - anonymous, 2011.

The narrative, a fictionalized account of a real life relationship with an alcoholic, stylistically uses the form and graphic elements of Choose Your Own Adventure. Your choices though have no meaningful impact on the outcome of the narrative, only altering the order you read the text. Unusually, the pages instead of being numbered are dated. 


'A date with destiny adventure: Escape from Fire Island' - James H. English, 2003. Quirk Books.

One of two Choose Your Own Adventure pastiches published by Quirk Books at the start of the 21st century. In this one you are on every gay man’s dream holiday - a weekend on Fire Island - when radioactive waste washes up on the beach causing an army of zombie drag queens. Will you survive the false eyelashes of the undead?


'Shoreditch Twat - Adventure Gamesbooks' - Neil Boorman, 2000.
Created as a sponsored zine to promote the club 333 in London’s East End, and aimed squarely at the demographic of white male lad. “You are a single, mid-twenties male living in London…on a mission to find the party and achieve the near impossible by having a good time in Hoxton”. The result is as you’d guess it would be. 
'The regional accounts director of Firetop Mountain' - Alex Jenkins and Stephen Morrison, 2008. Bantam Press.

A Fighting Fantasy parody set in a boring nine to five temping job. Where the success of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy could partly be said to be the result of creating adventure for children who wanted escape, this book tries to recreate that for the same generation grown up. The problem with parody is that it can slip into being too knowing, or needs for the reader to know too much about a genre - this trips up on both of those. 


'Enemy of Chaos' - Leila Johnston, 2009. Snowbooks.
Another parody based on Fighting Fantasy and the concerns of being in your twenties and finding your feet in a new job. Some imaginative twists and turns makes this the best of the three in a very niche genre. 


'You are Maggie Thatcher - a dole playing game' - Hunt Emerson & Pat Mills, 1987. Titan Books.
This book forces you to live out every sane human’s worst nightmare - you physically become the loathed ex British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Crush the poor! Starve the sick! Stamp out the unions! Start another war! 


'Your party needs you - the election gamebook' - Simon Farrell & Jon Sutherland, 1987. Andre Deutsch.

Another Choose Your Own Adventure style oddity - join a political party based on your personal background character sheet, then find out how policies affect you and your family. Campaign, heckle and vote - and hopefully learn how the democratic process works as you do so.


Edward Packard celebration drinks menu, The Wooly, Woolworth Building, New York, June 2012.

A pastiche Choose Your Own Adventure drinks menu created for a very special event celebrating the life and work of Edward Packard. 


Choose Your Own Birthday Card, Andy Gout, June 2013.

I had to include this. It is a birthday card made for me by my friend and talented painter Andy Gout. ‘Choose from 2 possible endings’! - a very special pastiche. 

Do you know of any other Choose Your Own Adventure parodies or pastiche? There must be more than this small handful! If you do, please get in touch and let me know. 

Interactive Fiction #5: Edward Packard

The Choose Your Own Adventure format is an amazing idea that could be said to have been independently created by a few different authors, mainly as a literary curiosity at the fringes of experimental fiction. The real honour for creating the phenomenon belongs to Edward Packard. He came up with what would become the Choose Your Own Adventure series back in 1968 while telling bedtime stories to his children. He would make up stories involving various characters and at certain points ask his children, ‘What would you do next?’ Ten years later, after countless rejections from publishers, and almost giving in and shutting his manuscript in a drawer forever, Edward Packard sent Sugarcane Island to a small press who were interested in innovative children’s fiction and, to cut a short story shorter, history was made. The series, starting with The Cave of Time published in 1979, went on to sell over 250 million books in America alone, and was translated into thirty-six languages. 

Here are just a few of his books. 


'Sugarcane Island' - Edward Packard, 1979. W.H. Allen & Co.

This is the story that started it all. You set out on an expedition to study rare turtles but ending up shipwrecked on an isolated and deserted island. Beware of the time loop which results in you waking up to find an old man repeatedly looming over you. 


'Choose Your Own Adventure #1: The Cave of Time' - Edward Packard, 1979. Bantam Books.
The concept of a cave system that causes you to pass backwards and forwards through time is a perfect introduction to the idea of choosing your own adventure, it makes sense in both a conceptual and narrative way. 


'Choose Your Own Adventure #184: Mayday!' - Edward & Andrea Packard, 1998. Bantam Books.
The end of the adventure. One-hundred and eighty-four books later the most influential series of interactive fiction fittingly ends with a plane plunging out of the sky over Alsaka. Lovely to see father and daughter receiving duel credit for an adventure which started with a father/children collaboration. 


'Escape from Tenopia #1: Tenopia Island' - Edward Packard, 1986. Bantam Books.
The start of another overlapping series of books which allows Packard to explore alternative devices. In Escape from Tenopia you are equipped with a small computer which allows you to consult maps of your location, if you loose it during your adventure you have to guess where certain destinations lie. This series is also a break from the Choose Your Own Adventure tradition - there is only one end - escape - and you can’t die! 


'Space Hawks #1: Faster than light' - Edward Packard, 1991. Bantam Books.

Branching out into the genre that made huge successes of similar fictional space based teams in the 80’s and 90’s, unlike Choose Your Own Adventure, the Space Hawks books, in which the characters and narrative continue across the series, and designed to be read in order. 


'Earth Inspectors #1: America' - Edward Packard, 1988. McGraw-Hill.

You are an alien from the planet Turoc sent as a spy to planet earth - what is this place called America? Does anyone there know why there is an eye on the pyramid on the one-dollar bill? Another unusual series idea that only has one end and many decision loops. 

Although 84 Edward Packard is still writing - two of his most recent works are available through his website: a self help guide to making good decisions, and his first ever non-interactive novel for adults. He also blogs regularly - find out more:

've got more blog posts on my interactive fiction collection coming over the next few weeks. If you have read any books you think I would like, please get in touch, and I'll add them to my reading list. 

Previous Interactive Fiction posts:

#4 - Chance

#3 - Flaps and folds

#2 - back to front

#1 - Introduction

Interactive Fiction #4: Chance

The nemesis of choice, chance plays a crucial element in many works of interactive fiction. The demands of the branching narrative made famous by Choose Your Own Adventure are replaced by textual units that can be combined with any other within a given series - creating huge complexities in narrative structure and resulting in creative solutions to the physical demands of non-linear forms. Many of the works I’ve already featured use chance to some degree, but here are some examples where random rules.



'Composition No1' - Marc Saporta, 1963. Simon and Schuster.

Consisting of 150 unnumbered and unbound pages to be shuffled like a deck of cards before reading, “The order of the pages then assume will orient X’s fate”. 


'The Unfortunates' - B.S. Johnson, 1969. Panther Books.

Another infamous book in a box, ‘The Unfortunates’ consists of 27 sections - varying from 2 to 12 pages in length, first and last to be read as marked, the remaining 25 are to be shuffled and read in a random order. 


'Aleas' - Julia Spiers, Les Edition Volumiques, 2014.

Combinatorial illustrated polygons with pop-up elements, designed to be reconfigured to create new stories to be narrated by the user. 


'Fighting Fantasy #1: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain' - Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, 1982. Puffin Books. 

While this fits firmly in the Choose Your Own Adventure inspired camp the Fighting Fantasy series was the first to feature the rolling of dice as a mechanic to alter character traits and ultimate the reader’s progression through the story.  Unless, that is, like most readers, you cheat. 


'Heart Suit' - Robert Coover, 2005. McSweeney's #16.

Published as one element of the literary quarterly edited by Dave Eggers, often taking unusual forms (this issue also includes a very nicely bound comb). Coover’s ‘Heart Suit’ takes the form of the thirteen hearts of a deck of cards plus two extra jokers. Similar to B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates one of the extra cards forms the start of the story, the other the end, the heart cards are intended to be shuffled and then read random order. The story narrates the story made famous by the nursery rhyme that starts ‘The queen of hearts baked some tarts…’


'1728 Haiku Machine' - Nathan Penlington, 1999.

This is a demo of an idea I had at the end of the 90’s. Hand-drawn and printed on an electric typewriter, the three discs are double sided and can be combined with either side up. The haiku are then read down from each flat edge. Influenced by Queneau, it is a machine for creating work the writer hasn’t even read.



'Lost love in Constantinople: A tarot novel for divination' - Milorad Pavic. 1998. Peter Owen Publishers. Original in Serbian 1994.

Another interesting oddity of form by Pavic. You can either read the novel as it is presented, or choose one of three tarot layouts as indicated at the back of the book. Included is a full set of cards to be cut out by the reader, making the book a work of interactive fiction in all senses. 

Do you have any other unique books in which chance dictates form that you think deserve sharing or that I should know about? If so, please get in touch.

Interactive Fiction #3: Flaps and folds.

These four examples of interactive fiction from my collection use folds and flaps as a way for the reader to alter the text through a series of permutations. 
'And' - John Crombie, 1998, Kickshaws Press, Paris.
Edition of 270 copies, No 128.
Unusually bound on four sides the 24 pages are printed with one of four words taken from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: All, Now, Is, Always. Allowing the reader to form permutations. This kind of permutational poetry was a technique used exhaustively by Brion Gysin in the cut-ups and tape experiments he made with William Burroughs, here the process takes a physical form. 

'100,000,000,000,000 poems' - Raymond Queneau, 1961, trans Stanley Chapman. Published in Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, 1998.

A sequence of 10 14-line sonnets - each line can be replaced by the corresponding line number from any of the other sonnets and still make grammatical sense. The poem was originally published with a cut below each line allowing the reader to exchange each line. The combinatorics of the sequence form 100 billion different possible poems. 

'729 Curious Creatures' - Helen Oxenbury, 1980.

A good example of the kind of book that was the possible inspiration for the format of Queneau’s 100 billion poems – a children’s book using multiple flaps to creature absurd combinations of illustration and text.

'Origami Comic' - A J Poyiadgi, 2013.
Another unique form - I wasn’t sure whether to post it here, or in a future post about interactive comics. Once folded the reader moves the flaps to alter the image segments and with it the fate of the two protagonists. 
Do you have any other unique books with flaps and folds that you think deserve sharing or that I should know about? Please get in touch.

Interactive fiction #2: back to front

Through an on-going series of blog posts I’ve decided to share some of the interactive fiction I’ve been collecting for the last 15 years or so. 

This week - 5 books that take advantage of their innate double-sided construction to explore duel/dual narratives. The reader deciding the starting point, and often the path through the text. 


‘The inner side of the wind’ – Milorad Pavic, 1993. Knopf.

The story of two lovers told from two different viewpoints and from different points in time, the lover’s path converging physically and figuratively, ultimately joining at the centre.


‘The Canvas’ – Benjamin Stein, 2012. Open Letter.

Like Pavic’s book reading from each side gives you the narrative of two protagonists, as they recount their own version of the truth. With ‘The Canvas’ you have more freedom as a reader to read in the manner you want, alternating as many chapters as you wish. The conflicting stories lead to a showdown at the centre of the book.


'Only Revolutions' - Mark Z. Danielewski, 2006. Doubleday.

A complex love story and road trip, two teenagers stride through the geography and history of the USA. The publisher suggests reading 8 pages of one character, rotating the book and reading 8 pages of the other.


Typographic inventiveness is also a feature of Danielewski’swork, diminishing font size, dual columns, symbolically coloured words and letters. 


'Behind closed doors' - Alina Reyes, 1996. Orion Books.

A series of badly written erotic adventures in a Choose Your Own Adventure style, you decide not only which sexual fantasy to live out but depending on which side of the book you start from, but also which gender to follow.


'Nightclub Yes/Nightclub No' - Jeremy Dixon, 2013, Hazard Press.

A cleverly constructed magic-wallet, double-spined, one-poem book…


…you decide which side to open, and which version of the text you want to read.

Do you have any other double-sided books you think deserve sharing or that I should know about? Please get in touch.

Antenna Documentary Film Festival, Australia

Next international stop for Choose Your Own Documentary is Sydney, Australia, and the Antenna Documentary Festival. 

The festival is an exciting mix of local and international films and events, I’m very excited to be part of it, although I’m not made for either heat or large insects. I also can’t help but have this image in my head:

To find out if my worst and best Choose Your Own Adventure fears and fantasies come true…see the show. Tickets for the festival, and individual events are on sale now. 

Tickets are $30, $25 concs - for online booking or more information click here. 

Interactive Fiction #1

I’ve been asked to do a talk about interactive fiction, so I’ve spent the last few days going through the books that fill my flat, pulling out the interesting and odd. I hadn’t quite realised the extent of my collection. I’ve had a serious interest in experiential fiction for the past 15 years or so - books which take an usual form or graphically uses text in an original way. Choose Your Own Adventure books are part of that interest, but it also embraces the work of Raymond’s Roussel, Queneau and Federman, and the novels of Richard Grossman. I also have a large and growing collection of zines and independently published works - which often, because they are hand made or printed in limited numbers, are produced in unusual forms difficult to make on a larger scale. 

I’m particularly interested in the conjunction of text and form, where one is dependent on the other, rather than the arbitrarily contrived purely for the sake of novelty. For this talk I’m focusing on narrative work that demands the interaction of the reader/participant to form that narrative. There are hundreds of books that use the form made famous by Choose your Own Adventure, but still surprising in their variety and invention. And then those novels of unique form - the ones using tarot cards, crossword puzzles, dictionaries, rotating text, unbound pages in boxes. I’ve been photographing and documenting the best of these, and while doing so some interesting themes have formed themselves, sub-collections in the collection. So, I thought I’d post some of these over the coming weeks - as what is the point of collecting if you don’t get to share it in some way? And if you’ve found anything interactive I’d be very interested to hear about it. 


I’ve been honoured to have one of my poems selected for inclusion in a new anthology: ‘Marginalia - ten years of poems and texts from Penned in the Margins’. 

Penned in the Margins is an innovative publishing and performance producing company based in London’s East End, which, since its inception ten years ago by editor and poet Tom Chivers, has been pushing at the boundaries of experiential creation. Penned in the Margins in now part of the Arts Council of England national portfolio, which will allow its work to have greater range and reach. 

Marginalia looks back at some of the writers and poets that have helped shape the first decade of Penned in Margins' events and books, and includes work by some of the best innovative cross-over artists like Ross Sutherland and Hannah Silva, excerpts of prose by Luke Kennard and Alan Cunningham, and pieces by more established names such as Roddy Lumsden and Iain Sinclair. It is an excellent example of the diverse range of one of the UK's most daring independent publishers.

Click here to buy Marginalia direct from Penned in the Margins. 

Anonymous asked:

I have just finished reading your book "The Boy in the Book"! I was intrigued by the book from the beginning to the end. I have never read any "choose your own ending books" and I am ashamed to say I knew very little about you before reading this book! What I wanted to ask is whether you are still in touch with your school-boy "girl-friend" whom you finally asked out? What was it that you felt you fulfilled by asking her out when you were in a happy relationship already? Thanks!

I answered:

Thanks for your question Anonymous. Glad the book intrigued you, hopefully enough to also track down some of Edward Packard’s books too. If you haven’t read any before then you are in for a unique experience - even in our connected age with its permanently branching narratives of everyday life. 

The search for Terence raised some deep issues from my own childhood, one of those issues was to do with how come to terms with those moments in which you should have acted differently, taken another path, turned to a different page. I don’t want to give any spoilers away here for people who haven’t read the book yet, but the moment in question wasn’t about fulfilling any present day romantic desires - it was about testing the past, living for a moment of time travel into an alternative ‘what if’, in doing so realising I was wrong not to follow my heart as a boy, and finding bravery in knowing the other side of the story isn’t as you imagine it to be. It was that knowing that pushed me forward towards the resolution of my whole quest.

Hope that answers your question - feel free to email me if not - information is on the contact page. Good luck with your own adventures. 

Edinburgh Fringe 2014: 10th-25th August


Choose Your Own Documentary is back at the Edinburgh Fringe - once again at the fantastic Gilded Balloon. 

Last year we won The Scotsman Fringe First Award for new writing and innovation. This year we are hoping to give everyone who might have missed the show during the past year an opportunity to experience it. 

Tickets are on sale now. We’re only at the festival for two weeks, so get in quick. 

Online booking click here.

Or call the box office: 0131 622 6552

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