This week on The Digital Life we discuss Jon Follett’s new book, “Marvin and the Moths”, a science fiction novel for young readers that takes a humorous look at life for middle school in a zany world impacted by emerging technologies. While “Marvin and the Moths” is Jon’s first science fiction release, he has already authored a variety of other published works. Among them is “Designing for Emerging Technologies” for O’Reilly Media, published in 2014. Looking across a variety of emerging technologies and industries, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and synthetic biology, Jon outlined an audacious vision for how the technology of recent science fiction will manifest as the science fact of our near future. Jon used his background in emerging technology as fodder for this new work of fiction, and science plays an important role in “Marvin and the Moths” which was published by Scholastic in September.
Jon: Welcome to episode 177 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Hello, listeners.
Jon: For the podcast this week, we’re going to discuss my new sci-fi horror novel for kids which was published by Scholastic, and I wrote in conjunction with Matthew Holm. The name of this book is Marvin and the Moths, and it incorporates a number of emerging technologies into the science fiction portion of it. It’s also a bit of a comedic novel so there’s that element to it as well.
Dirk, you’ve seen me go though the process of creating this book over the past … I don’t know. It took 12 years to do. I’m sure one of your questions is why spend 12 years on a project, but what are other questions that you may have had during the book creation process?
Dirk: Well, first, I think it’s a remarkable achievement. Congratulations. I mean you’re now a science fiction author in addition to being an emerging tech author and in addition to your other accomplishments. You’re very diverse in your creative activities. A lot of people try their whole lives to be a published author and never get there, but you’ve managed to do that on top of all your other stuff. Congratulations for that. Also, what is it that draws you to these diverse creative projects?
Jon: Dirk, thanks so much for that comment. You’ve borne witness to my many creative endeavors whether they be design or research or writing. I think you have a good perspective on the diversity of projects I take on. I actually look at all of these creative projects as being one in the same in terms of … I mean granted, the outputs are very different. The emerging tech books that I did with O’Reilly is quite different from this book that I did with Matt for Scholastic. At its core, it’s about creating my reaction to circumstances in the world, and technology is really one of those inputs that influences me in major ways. You can see the technology as input into the emerging technologies book is an obvious thing: how we look at the future, where are we going, what is society going to be like, how do we design for this, how do we influence the future of humanity in a positive way. In the Scholastic book, it’s more about looking at it from a personal side and the confusion that comes along with and in this case the main character is in middle school and how he encounters the world and its changes, and the weird things that come out of technology.
I do view them, both of those projects and my other projects as well, as being my reaction to the world around me. From that perspective, it feels like very much the same kind of, at least initial foray, it’s the same thing and then the outputs of course are suitable for the mediums. The emerging technology book is suitable for the professional audience whereas the Scholastic book clearly is geared more for the kids.
Dirk: Why did you pick young adult? Why did you go for a … It really is more young adult as opposed to children. Why did you go for a children’s audience as opposed to an adult audience in your first science fiction foray?
Jon: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think part of it was the personal side of that project is that I always found it very helpful when I younger to get perspectives that were different from the mainstream. I’m not saying that this book is wildly rebellious or fundamentally different from all the different message that you might get across a variety of books, but it does focus on some really geeky kids. Right? These kids are scientifically minded. They’re interested in science. They’re interested in learning. They’re not accepted by their peers. They’re weirdos. Right?
Jon: From my perspective, part of the message of the book is that it’s okay to all of those things, it’s okay to be a little different, it’s okay to be weird, it’s okay to love science, it’s okay not to fit in at times when circumstances warrant it. I thought that that audience, at least the middle school audience, I was well aware of my own history there and just being this awkward preteen and awkward teenager. I think that really informed part of my passion for creating that story for that audience.
Dirk: You mentioned that you worked on this with someone Matthew Holm, but there’s more than just a random named person co-author attached to that for you. Tell us a little about your collaborator.
Jon: Sure. Matt’s been my best friend since middle school. That’s probably another reason why that was part of the setting for the novel. Matt’s had a very successful career as a writer and illustrator. He’s most well known for for his New York Times best seller, Sunny Side Up, that he wrote with his sister, Jenny. Then also, he’s well know for the Babymouse series of graphic novels. He’s done close to 30 graphic novels and then a variety of other works so somewhere between 30 and 40 books he’s done in the past decade. In fact, this year, I think he did seven books including Marvin and the Moths with me.
He’s highly prolific. We enjoy working together. We’ve been friends forever. I’m pretty lucky to have a long-term friendship like that. We enjoy creating together. We’ve been doing it for 30 years because as creative people, we enjoy projects. That’s how we entertained ourselves in middle school and high school. Even today, it’s highly entertaining to get on the phone with him and work through an edit for something we’re writing, because ultimately, the process is a lot of fun which makes it seem a lot less like work and more like we’re playing.
Dirk: That’s really cool. We talked a little earlier about the emerging tech, and one thing that you’ve brought to this partnership is not just your knowledge in emerging tech but your access bringing emerging tech to life, and you’re doing something really cool with the characters in the Marvin and Moths book. Talk a little about that.
Jon: Right. Yeah. Emerging technologies, of course, allow us to realize characters in a lot of different ways. When I was a kid, I loved having action figures of the different heroes from comic books or movies or what have you, and 3D printing technology really enables the creation of physical objects on demand now. We just didn’t have that when I was growing up. I could imagine myself printing out any number of character that I so enjoyed.
For Marvin and the Moths, we thought how cool would it be if you could make these characters part of your world and part of your life via 3D printing. We designed a set of 3D models which are all open source so the kids can download these and they can alter them as they see fit, add different props or clothes to the characters, whatever they want to do. Then they can print them out on a variety of 3D printers. We print tested them with a number of standard printers to make sure that even the lower-end printing types could generate a good replication of the model.
The first model we released is this cantankerous, angry, mutant moth named Abraham who’s one of the main characters in the book and a friend of Marvin’s. He’s sort of a reluctantly friendly moth. He’s mostly surly on the outside, but when you get into a relations with Abraham, he’ll begrudgingly help you out if you need it. He’s also obsessed with baseball. During the Red Sox run for their World Series titles, that was a period that we were writing this. We very much informed some of the characterizations in Abraham just happens to be this baseball obsessed mutant moth. You can print out Abraham, and you can print out his baseball bat. I won’t give away the entire story, but he does use the baseball bat for something other than baseball when backed into a corner.
He was the first model. Then we’ve got models of some of the other characters as well that we’ll be periodically releasing. The next one will probably be around Halloween or early November and one also in December. We’re going to space those out.
That was an example of using these emerging technologies, 3D printing in particular, to make the book world a little bit more real for the kids reading it. Of course like any good designer, I totally stole that idea from my friend/colleague Carla Diana who wrote a book called Leo the Maker Prince. In her book, the book was about 3D printing, 3D printing was an element in it. She was the first one I know of who made her characters available as models that kids could print. I saw her doing that and I said we have to do that for this Scholastic book.
Dirk: It’s really cool. It’s not something that I was familiar with that had been done for books like this. Obviously the technology isn’t cutting edge anymore, but I wasn’t aware that it was being used in a grander marketing program around a novel. For me it was very novel that you did this and very cool. When I was a child, I certainly would have enjoyed it.
Jon: Yeah. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the kids do with the model. We did a launch tour last week going around different New England states and telling the kids that they could get the moth model available for free which is at our website marvinandthemoths.com. I know for sure that some of the schools have 3D printing labs, maker spaces, what have you. I’m hopeful that in a couple of weeks, we’ll start to see pictures of the moths in different schools or wherever the kids are printing them out. We’ve gotten positive feedback so far, and I really can’t wait to see what creative things that the kids come up with.
Dirk: Yeah. For sure, me either. One other thing too is when you were talking about your relationship with Matt, you mentioned in the present tense the two of you working together. Obviously, you two have a novel published by Scholastic, this novel was done a long time ago. What do you have cooking in the hopper buddy?
Jon: Yeah. We’re at that phase where we’re waiting to see how Marvin and the Moths does. If people like it, then I’m hopeful that the publisher will be interested in more Marvin stories. Of course being the compulsive creatives that we are, we’ve already mapped out another three books or so in the series. I suppose it could be three books in total, but I think we have enough stuff for four if they were interested.
Should the novel not pick up traction right away or take a while to get there, we’re also in the midst of constructing a couple of other science fiction type stories which we’ve got the basic framework and world building happening. It remains to be seen. I think we’re interested in writing for both the middle grade kid lit audience that we’ve done now or adventuring upward into the young adult novels. Of course, that would encompass work like the Harry Potter books really. We’re more geared towards that audience.
I think the next science fiction book that we do will be for one of those two audiences. We’re in the midst of world building for them. Not quite there yet but certainly coming along.
Dirk: Excellent. Anything else you want to share with your listeners about your creative adventures here.
Jon: Yeah. Well, it was a 12-year odyssey to get this first science fiction novel published with Scholastic. Honestly even when we got the contract with Scholastic, it was still like 18 months before it came out. Apparently patience, tenacity and just never letting go of an idea are good things to have if you’re interested in writing fiction and having it published. Now that the time has passed, this is all current for me now. It feels like we’ve created something and put it out in the world. Up until just last week, it was still something we had dreamed about, thought about, imagined, but it wasn’t real. To go along that long odyssey and you know the emerging tech book took like 18 months so that was a long period as well, but it pales in comparison to the 12 years for this one. Hopefully the next one will not take 12 years.
Dirk: I’m sure that it won’t. Well congratulations again, Jon.
Jon: Thanks a lot.
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Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 177 of the The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.