Author makes science a platform for imagination

HUDSON—Among the 12 writers this year’s ArtsWalk Literary Arts Festival presented are two who work in genres new to the festival: David Black, a mystery writer, and Illya Szilak, MD, who creates digital novels. They were on the program at the Hudson Opera House, 327 Warren Street, Sunday, October 7.

Black is an award-winning journalist, novelist, screenwriter and producer. He has published 11 books and more than 150 articles in magazines including the Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and Rolling Stone. He has won three Edgar Allan Poe Special Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.

Szilak, 44, started her professional life as a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University. “After a few years, I realized that although I love science, I needed to interact with people,” she says. “Medicine was a perfect fit.” She decided to specialize in infectious diseases because that specialty provided “intellectual challenges,” and she chose to focus on HIV and AIDS.

After she worked for several years in New York City, she and her husband, Chris Vroom, moved to Red Hook when their two children reached school age. Szilak is now a physician with Hudson Medical Care, based at Columbia Memorial Hospital.

Szilak’s name mixes a Russian man’s name (“my mother liked it”) and a Hungarian surname. She began writing fiction in 2001, shortly after 9/11. “Reconstructing Mayakovsky,” her first digital novel, ( “is a creative, multifarious answer to the questions I asked myself after those events,” she says: “What is the role of tragedy in human life? If we could make ourselves perfectly safe, what price would we pay?” The novel is named for Vladimir Mayakovsky, the avant-garde Russian poet who killed himself in 1930 at the age of 36.

Szilak describes “Mayakovsky” as a hybrid media novel that imagines a virtual world in which tragedy and uncertainty have been eliminated through technology. The text, about 350 pages, is available in un-fragmented traditional novel form, unchanging and linear, on Unlike a conventional work of literature, however, this novel is meant to be accessed by the reader on the website, through what Szilak describes as “a multiplicity of mechanisms, including a concrete poetry version of the novel in 10 words, an audio soundscape, a manifesto, an archive with a real-time Google image search engine, videos and proposals for live performances.”

Szilak collaborated with Cyril Tsiboulski at Cloudred Studio on the interface for “Mayakovsky.” It “purposefully destabilizes the idea of a timeless, individually authored masterwork,” she says. Constructed using mostly open source code, the website uses links rather than embedded data. Errors may accumulate or readers may leave to view a youtube video and never return. “By juxtaposing overtly poetic language with machine-driven language–cut-and-paste repetitions, appropriated text and image and algorithmic translations, the text both undermines and pays tribute to the notion of artistic genius.”

“Mayakovsky” was selected for the second Electronic Literature Collection and was a jury pick for the 2010 Japan Media Arts Festival and the 2011 Filmwinter in Stuttgart, Germany. It is taught in creative writing programs as an example of new media writing.

At the Hudson Opera House on Sunday, Szilak will introduce “Queerskins,” her second novel. “My writing is profoundly affected by my experiences as a physician,” she says. “‘Queerskins,’ which is borne out of my experiences with the HIV community, reflects my interest in exploring the relationship between embodied, everyday life, which I know so well from my medical practice, and transcendent states: artistic creativity, love, religious communion, sexual ecstasy and virtual (online) existence.”

“Queerskins” tells the story of a young gay physician from a rural Catholic Missouri family who dies of AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic. The story begins with his mother reading his diaries, which have been shipped back with his body from Africa.

On the “Queerskins” website, the reader chooses from “an excess of information,” says Szilak, to create a complex portrait of the man who died. There are 94 diary entries, two hours of monologues from five different characters, hundreds of images from Flickr and original Flip videos. These are presented in a series of multimedia collages that users can access as time and interest permit.

“In this way,” says Szilak, “‘Queerskins’ design recapitulates the sedimentary process by which identity, especially online identity, is formed, and it reflects my hope that by destabilizing the conventional limits of identity, technology can be use to promote an expanded empathy for ‘real’ persons who are born, become ill and die.”

“Queerskins” will eventually be sold as an app as well as web content, says Szilak, with all money she receives going to AIDS organizations.

For the Hudson Opera House program, Szilak previewed the website, created again with Tsiboulski, read from the diaries and talked about the next phase of the project.

Szilak has tried to interest literary agents in her work but so far has had no takers. “A full-fledged multimedia novel that intersects with film, performance art, visual and new media art is still a radical idea relegated to academic, new media and experimental literary circles,” she says. “But literature is not immune from cultural, technological and social change, nor should it be, if it is to remain a vital art form.

“The novels of the 21st century will be shaped by the rapidity and globalization of communication, seismic changes in the archiving processing and distribution of information (Google, user-generated contents, aggregators, social networking) and the rise of the culture industry,” she says. “Writers who understand this and who want their work to speak to the times will create collaborative projects with audio, visual and text-based elements. In my opinion, this is nothing less than a new literary form.”


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