Actor and author Jason Segel and novelist Kirsten Miller, who have collaborated on four books in Delacorte’s middle grade Nightmares! series (the latest of which, Everything You Need to Know About NIGHTMARES! and How to Defeat Them, pubbed in September), explore a very different realm of altered reality in their latest book project, Otherworld. Due from Delacorte on October 31 with a 125,000-copy first printing, this YA novel introduces awkward gamer Simon, a teen who gets the chance to be the first to test the newest set of virtual reality goggles before they hit the market. But when his friend Katherine disappears, it is no longer a game; she has been kidnapped by someone or something inside the virtual world, and it’s up to Simon to save her. To learn more about their new book, which will be followed by Other Earth in fall 2018, PW recently spoke by phone to the authors, who were in Los Angeles shooting a promotional video for Otherworld.
An addictive virtual reality game in which players can indulge their every desire—before realizing they’re the ones being played—is a frightening premise. What was its genesis?
Jason Segel: When I was a teenager, I was one of the lucky few who got to experience a game very much like Otherworld before it was shut down. When I heard rumblings it was being reimagined for virtual reality, I knew it was something Kirsten and I had to write about. At the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, I was invited to a demonstration of the newest Oculus Rift VR hardware and software, and in 10 short minutes I was transported to several different realms where I could have anything. One thing was clear to me: this technology changes everything, and if we can be anything we want [there], why would we ever want to leave?
Are you both fascinated with technology’s seemingly limitless potential and where it has taken us at this point?
JS: Yes! Every morning when I wake up I immediately go on to macrumors.com to see what’s new. I am very interested in technology and where it’s all headed, and am sort of obsessed with this idea that some technological developments are purportedly meant to bring us together socially, but do not seem to be doing that. I realized recently that the iPhone is only a decade old, and now it is an indelible part of my life and culture. I lived 27 years without my iPhone, and now I’m completely dependent on it: I have outsourced my memory, my sense of direction, and my communication with friends.
Kirsten Miller: It really is so fascinating to see how new technologies seem to be so much in control of our lives. At a recent ComicCon program, a panelist mentioned that the future has not turned out to be what everyone suspected—there are no jet packs or flying cars—and that in essence everyone that was sitting in the room was a cyborg! No one expected that little black rectangles would have such a profound impact on our lives.
JS: And I think a lot of the time, new developments that have positive intentions are very quickly misused, with unintended and unforeseen consequences. Facebook was started to communicate with friends on campus—and ends up disrupting our presidential election. I think virtual reality was also created with a lot of excitement—and has also had some amazingly unanticipated consequences.
How did these realizations help inspire Otherworld?
JS: After experiencing the Oculus Rift VR demonstration, it became clear to me that there was a story for Kirsten and me to tell here. So we set about building our own virtual reality in the form of this part mythic adventure, part sci-fi love story, and entirely cautionary tale. We were inspired by the fact that so many things that are making headlines in the technological world are challenging our notion of what is real—and making us wonder how we are going to define reality once all our senses are engaged in virtual reality, if it gets good enough. Will we know how to differentiate between what’s reality and what’s not? As technology develops, the two are getting very close—and the difference becomes almost indecipherable.
KM: I agree—reality and what’s not real are blending together at a rapid pace today. What is real is getting harder and harder to judge, especially given social media and what happened with our election. One of the biggest questions going forward is how do we draw the line between what’s real and not? This was fascinating to explore in Otherworld.
Kirsten, as the author of The Eternal Ones, All You Desire, and How to Lead a Life of Crime, you are obviously no newcomer to YA. But since this marks your young adult debut, Jason, did you find that writing for this audience was a different challenge—and was your collaborative process the same with Otherworld as it was with the Nightmares! novels?
JS: Actually, I’d say that writing for teens was a bit less challenging than writing for younger readers. It uses the same skill set, and you do the same digging for the story, but with YA you get to use all of your voice—and you can swear! Our collaborative process with Otherworld remained the same. The way it works is that I start with a rough idea of what the story should be. I’ve been very influenced by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which is a wonderful book on storytelling.
KM: With Otherworld, as before, we spent a lot of time upfront discussing plotting and characters—as well as the crazy stuff we both felt like throwing in. We worked together on plot sketches to get the details down. And we’re lucky, since we have complementary skills. Jason is particularly good at dialogue, and comes up with some really great details and extra touches.
JS: And Kirsten knows how to take a story and run with it—she really is a genius at executing ideas.
Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller. Delacorte, $18.99 Oct. 31 ISBN 978-1-101-93932-1