Star Wars and Yayoi Kusama have something in common

On creating an immersive experience

A Coronavirus Note

Like so many people around the world, I’ve been social isolating at home in the wake of the rapid escalation of the coronavirus pandemic. I wrote this newsletter before everything got super serious in Massachusetts, where I live, and I thought about revising or canning it, but I’ve decided to send it out as is, as a distraction from the distractions.

I’m thinking of all of you who’ve had your lives upended by this—students who’ve had school canceled, parents who are suddenly home-schooling, teachers reimagining their entire class structures, and of course those who still have to go to work, from health care providers to grocery store clerks.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been working from home forever, so I should know how to do this, but even I have found my daily schedule challenged by this global crisis. However, my deadlines haven’t changed, so I’m continuing to work on my WIP, wrap up final corrections on my next novel, and think about whether I can do anything from my home to support those in need.

In this issue of Lo & Behold I write about visiting some real-world places, and I think about how those places are constructed worlds. In a way, this is a natural continuation of my last issue on world-building in contemporary fiction. But I realized, when re-reading this newsletter today, that even though the places I write about are real, the state of the world now makes them seem unreal. It’s a little shocking to think that once I left my house and went to these places without even thinking about microscopic viruses!

This is one of the central challenges of writing fiction: negotiating the line between “real” and “not real.” It can make your head spin to consider that you’re writing fiction—all of it is imagined—but you must create a sense of the real in the reader’s mind. You must reach across space and time and use only black-and-white words on paper or a screen to persuade the reader to believe you.

This introductory note is getting as long as the post itself so I’ll stop here and let you read it for yourself. I hope you’re staying safe—at a distance. ❤️

A galaxy far, far away

Last month, I got to fly the Millennium Falcon.

[Photo: Me in the Millennium Falcon! Aka Smugglers Run. Photo by Amy Lovell.]

This took some planning! First, my wife and I had to take a trip to Batuu, the distant planet in the Star Wars universe that you can access via a trip to Disney World. Then we had to wait in line for a really long time at Black Spire Outpost, the raucous settlement on Batuu where the Millennium Falcon is parked. Finally, we had to negotiate with the spaceport (?) employees to convince them we should be allowed to fly the ship instead of the very young and dare-I-say unlicensed children we were boarding with. Sure, I may have crashed the ship a couple of times, but it was my first time piloting a spaceship! 

The Millennium Falcon ride (officially it’s called Smugglers Run) was an incredibly immersive experience from start to finish. Having the sensation that I was actually in control (at least partly, because my wife was my copilot) of the ship put me directly into the story in a way I’ve never experienced in a theme park ride before.

This is exactly what Disney was going for, obviously. Their other major Star Wars ride, Rise of the Resistance, is a 20-minute experience in which you’re captured by the First Order, get taken aboard a spacecraft by storm troopers, view the extremely amazing starry blackness of space, and escape on a pod that drops out of the spacecraft and swoops down to land on a Resistance planet.

While I was on the ride, I was aware that things were happening all around me—even behind me—so I couldn’t see everything at once. That 360-degree experience is key to the immersive quality of the ride. It makes the ride a lot more like real life, which continues in every direction at all times, even though we can only see straight ahead.

Experiencing infinity

Disney’s Star Wars rides aren’t the only way you can have this kind of immersive experience, though. A couple of weeks ago I visited Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art to see the Yayoi Kusama installation Love Is Calling.

[Photo: Inside Love Is Calling. Photo by me.]

Kusama is a Japanese woman who has been making art since the 1940s, much of it expressing her obsession with polka dots. In the 1960s, she began to create installations that she calls infinity rooms. They’re mirrored rooms filled with lights or lighted features that the viewer walks inside to experience.

Love Is Calling required a timed ticket that had to be purchased in advance, almost like a theme park ride. When it was my time to experience the installation, I entered the room with four other people and a museum attendant, who closed the door behind us. We were allowed two minutes to experience the space.

When I stepped inside, I immediately wanted to smile—the space is so whimsical and joyous! Love Is Calling is the largest of Kusama’s infinity rooms, at approximately 14 x 28 x 20 feet. Inside, the walls and ceiling are mirrored, and the floor was a smooth black that reminded me of polished granite. Polka-dotted tentacles, lit from within, erupt from the floor and ceiling, and they change color from pink to green to purple to white. A voice recording of Kusama reciting a love poem in Japanese plays on a loop.

The most amazing part of this experience is that the viewer is not merely a viewer. They become part of the art installation.

Inside Love Is Calling, I saw myself and the other viewers reflected in the mirrored walls along with those fanciful glowing tentacles. We walked between them, taking photos and exclaiming. The room did feel infinite in some ways, but it also felt oddly comforting and safe. In contrast, the Star Wars rides felt thrilling and fast-paced. Inside Love Is Calling, I wanted to look and marvel. Inside the Millennium Falcon, I wanted to act.

On the surface, the Star Wars rides and Love Is Calling could not be more different, but they both deliberately immerse the visitor in an emotional experience in which you become more than a viewer or a tourist. You become part of the story being told.

Entering the story

I’ve been thinking about immersion lately because I’m at the beginning of revising a novel, and I want the reader to become immersed in it. Ideally, books transport the reader into a fictional world that exists in three dimensions all around them. The best books make readers feel as if they’re part of the story told. In my favorite books, I feel more than sympathetic to the main character; I feel as if I were the main character.  

How do you create that sense of immersion in a story? To some degree, the reader has to be willing to be immersed—you can’t force someone to connect with a book if it’s not right for them—but the author can do some things to persuade them to relax into the story. 

There are all sorts of tropes or signals that can ease a reader into a fictional world. For example, at the beginning of a gothic novel, the main character (and by extension, the reader) may be introduced in a motorcar or carriage as they drive up a long, tree-lined drive toward a mysterious, remote manor house. As the car rounds the corner, the world of the book emerges: that great house with its blank, eye-like windows, the mouth of the door opening.

The Smugglers Run ride starts long before you buckle yourself into the pilot’s seat of the Millennium Falcon. It starts when you enter the Star Wars section of the theme park and see the imagineered landscape, with its rusty droids and Mos Eisley-esque marketplace. The line for the ride is also part of the experience; there are ships under repair to look at, spaceport announcements, and costumed Disney cast members to set the tone.

With Love Is Calling, the Institute for Contemporary Art plays an important role by putting you in a contemplative, art-appreciating frame of mind when you enter the minimalist, modern building. Before you’re allowed to view the installation, you have to leave your belongings in a cubby outside. You’re only allowed to take a camera or phone inside with you. Finally, you step through a door into Kusama’s carefully constructed world—just like the reader who walks through the front door of that gothic manor.

The beginning of every novel is a doorway into a fictional world. The writer’s job is to determine how best to ease the reader in, and that begins with the way the door itself looks and sounds. Is it a wooden door, or a sliding train door, or a portal on a spaceship? Do the hinges (if it has hinges) open smoothly or should they squeak? What’s the first thing the reader sees when the door opens?

The right answers to these questions will persuade the reader to walk through the door, and allow the writer to lead them into the next room, and then the next, until they’re completely immersed in that fictional world.

My Writing Diary

This past week I’ve been reviewing page proofs for Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Page proofs are the first time you see a manuscript turned into book form, which is always a thrilling moment in the production process. This is probably the last time I will personally read the book through completely, although it will be proofread several more times before it’s printed. By this time I’ve read it countless times, so in order to see it with fresh eyes, I read the entire thing out loud. This is how I catch unnecessary words, overly complex sentences, and other errors. I have to confess that I’m so tired of the book now! But I was relieved that when I reached the last page, I still loved it.

Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.

Lo & Behold is Malinda Lo's newsletter about writing, culture, and history. If you enjoyed this issue, please consider subscribing: