When Jordan Stratford took to Kickstarter to rally funding for his forthcoming book, Wollstonecraft, he set a modest goal of $4,000 — enough to pay for the book’s production costs. It wasn’t long before he blasted past this goal, landing at a staggering $91,751 by the time the campaign was complete. The book’s concept, a fictional universe based around an 11-year-old version of Ada (Byron) Lovelace and her friend, a 14-year-old Mary Shelley, as they seek out adventures in a steampunked 1826 London, hit all the right notes with backers, especially parents looking for, as he describes it, a “pro-math, pro-science, pro-history and pro-literature adventure novel for and about girls.”
Stratford is obviously the right person to be penning this project, with a style redolent of the same sort of gleefully over-dramatic past favored by the likes of Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame and The Decemberists. The bio on his Kickstarter begins: “Jordan Stratford has been pronounced clinically dead, and was briefly mistakenly wanted by INTERPOL for international industrial espionage.” He is also a Gnostic priest with a significant repertoire of both fiction and non-fiction writing, as well as the father of a nine-year-old daughter for whom the books are intended as an inspiration “to grow up to be a mad scientist and to take over the world.”
Stratford sat down with us recently to discuss Wollstonecraft, Kickstarter, and the reactions he’s received so far.
We know that your own daughter inspired the world of Wollstonecraft. Can you tell us about how the idea came about?
I live on a small artist-colony island where the children are pretty free-range. Not a helicopter parent in sight. The children form sudden, intimate tribes and then go run around in the forest poking dead things with sticks. This immersion in nature and independence keeps alive their natural scientific curiosity. How does this work? How does this thing connect with another thing? Watching this innate scientific dynamic between my daughter and her friends is a great inspiration, and got me thinking about girls in science. Given that Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley made their contributions as teenagers, they make ideal role-models. They gave us everything from Star Wars to the iPad.
And of course as a boy I was an avid reader and admired the strong female characters in literature, from Anne of Green Gables to Bobbie in The Railway Children and George the tomboy from the Famous Five. I read Nancy Drew and Little Women. Growing up in a house full of sisters and running out of things to read, I’d grab anything.
I originally conceived of the project as an animated TV series, but I’m a screenwriter. I don’t have the same contacts in television as I do in film, so it sat as a treatment in a drawer for a years.
What have been some of the reactions you receive from women about the project?
“Shut up and take my money.” But generally, the women writing to me are looking at the media landscape and wanting alternatives for their daughters and I suspect retroactively for themselves. I hear a lot about how it’s the kind of series they wish they had read as girls.
Interestingly enough, the first wave of support came predominantly from dads of daughters. I think they just empathized with the kind of tools I want available for my own daughter. But as the project grew it was women-in-tech blogs and feminist blogs that really helped get the word out.
What has the writing process been like for you thus far?
Honestly, glacial. Working as a screenwriter you become very disciplined about setting personal deadlines and daily writing counts. Immediately after the campaign I had to have emergency surgery, which meant dealing with post op meds that made writing impossible. But even after that hurdle, writing Middle Grade is a very different discipline. It’s all about emotional movement of character and constant re-statement of theme. Each paragraph is much more careful than in YA or for other demographics. So my goals now are set by writing to story-beats rather than word count. Much slower process.
Why aren’t there more good books out there about girls?
I think there are a lot of great Middle Grade books about girls. Judy Moody, A Series of Unfortunate Events with a brilliant female lead, Eva Nine from the Wondla series. But certainly there are fewer choices in Middle Grade than there are in Early Readers or YA. Can’t speculate as to why.
What challenges did you face getting into the mindset of writing from a girl’s perspective?
Almost none. I’m immersed in the background chatter of tween girls. It’s ambient. I have my daughter and her friends do a voice read after I write a chapter, spotting vocab hurdles and making sure I’m not talking over them, or worse, down to them.
What does your daughter think about the books so far?
She’s my champion and cheerleader and critic. Her enthusiasm for the books keeps me from even thinking of slacking off.
What do you think made your Kickstarter campaign so wildly successful? Would you go that route again? How has it affected your process?
Yes, it’s replicable. I made a very honest, straightforward case for the kind of project I was passionate about, and invited others to join in and make it happen. So it was the pitch and the project first and foremost. I had great assets in the form of an illustration by Claire Robertson, which instantly conveyed the tone. I didn’t make the video too slick or too commercial, but kept it close to my own authentic response – I really love these characters and profoundly admire the contributions they made. But aside from that I had a very deliberate, very carefully orchestrated social strategy and media strategy. It was a full time job managing the campaign. And after that, because we were no longer talking about a single book but an entire world that my backers requested, I had to spend a lot of time in putting together a team that could manage the funding responsibly. That meant lawyers and incorporation and tax accountants and an agent and a complete business set up. When you have thousands of people to whom you’re accountable, and tens of thousands of dollars to account for, you have to make sure that all your ducks are in a row. Did that affect my process? It totally hijacked it. But now I’m on the other side of that, I’m just a writer again, and that’s a tremendous relief.
The campaign in a nutshell was this: Saturday morning I made the campaign and submitted it. It went live Monday night asking for $4,000, which we hit by Thursday morning. A week later, we’d doubled our goal, and by the end of that week we’d hit $20,000 because of exposure in boingboing, cnet, io9, geekmom. But when Kickstarter put the project in their newsletter under “Projects We Love” we made $20,000 that day and $10,000 the next. So it was the Kickstarter community that really wanted the world of Wollstonecraft to be bigger, with more books and teachers’ guides and short stories etc. The deal was that I couldn’t commit to publishers or illustrators or anybody else’s timeframe, but as long as the budget increased, I’d keep writing and making the world bigger. It was completely about the community, and I let them direct the project – it was my idea, but it’s their money, and I just kept asking how they wanted it allocated.
How does your non-fiction writing influence your fiction writing, and vice versa?
I think if you can write, you can write anything. If you can use words to evoke a response in the reader, that can be a love letter or a technical manual. But I’m known as a writer on spirituality and the history of ideas, like the evolution of alchemy into chemistry. So the history of science is very dear to me, particularly about how creative it is; leaps of intuition and imagination and the almost magical role of sheer blind luck in discovery.
You’ve got a fascinating set of titles: writer, producer, minister (or is it priest?). How did that particular combination come about?
Short attention span? I think it comes down to storytelling. And in my role as a priest it’s about witnessing the unfolding of personal stories. I come at all of this from a deeply Jungian bias, the idea that we are manifest stories, and understanding what happens next is intriguing, compelling and healing.
How does the Jordan Stratford of 2012 compare with what you imagined, at about age 10?
Honestly, spot on. I live in a house in the forest on a cliff with steps down to the beach, and I write stories all day. There are, however, fewer robots than in the 1976 version. Seriously. Where the hell are the robots? Roombas don’t count.
What’s next for you?
More of this, really. I’ve committed to an entire series, I’m wrapping the first draft of the first book, switching to a short set in the same world, then tightening the beats of book two, rewrite of book one, etc. I have a number of appearances as well, Rose City Comic Con, Comikaze in LA, Steamcon in Seattle, all shoehorned around a research trip to London. All going well there’ll be a screenplay in there. But my priorities are all about fulfilling my obligation to the community of backers and giving them the world they’ve so generously brought into being. That means keeping my head down and writing the series, and I’m not too concerned about anything after that.