5 Questions with author James Frey
It all started with a simple goal: create an “experience.” After all is said and done however Endgame, the much anticipated new YA series by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton, may be the most ambitious multimedia experiment ever attempted in publishing.
Based around the story of a global game between 12 ancient cultures that will decide the fate of humankind, Endgame holds an elaborate code—one that will direct readers towards a key hidden somewhere in the real world. That key will open a case containing $500,000 in gold.
To enhance the hunt, Google's Niantic Labs has made an alternate reality game based on the plot. Two more books are coming. Fox is developing a movie concurrently, and around it all is a scavenger hunt base on cryptic numbers, coordinates, and other details hidden in the book.
We caught up with the one half of the writing team, James Frey, an author best known for his 2003 smash hit A Million Little Pieces (and subsequent), to talk about the multifaceted new project.
What prompted you to branch out from writing for adults to YA?
Basically I branched into YA because I have a short attention span and I was kind of bored. I wanted to get away from the preciousness of the literary world and do more collaborative work, and also make stories for a different audience. I also really enjoy genre fiction in general and YA in particular, so I thought, “Why not?” I’m glad I’ve done it. It’s been a ton of fun and a real education and at times humbling. Endgame specifically has allowed me to do all kinds of things that I never would have the opportunity to do if I stuck with literary books—I mean, would I ever get to pitch Google the idea of making a mobile video game for Bright Shiny Morning or The Final Testament of the Holy Bible? No, I would not.
What were some of the challenges of writing for the genre?
A main challenge for Endgame has been getting everything to work together in the way I want it to. Not just the story but the puzzle, the legal aspects of the prize, the collaboration with Niantic and the Alternate Reality Game, coordination with Fox and Temple Hill, getting Caesars to sign up for displaying the gold at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the marketing, the promotion, the social media—all of it. As for the storytelling, my main challenge has been figuring out how to work with other writers. Working with Nils (my Endgame co-author) has been great, but there are still hiccups along the way. And I imagine there will be more as the Endgame world expands and gets bigger and bigger—but in the end these are all great problems to have.
Endgame has been described as an “armchair treasure hunt," where did the idea come from to make Endgame more than just a traditional book?
The original inspiration for Endgame came from a book my mom gave me when I was ten called Masquerade by Kit Williams. It was a really simple book, fifteen paintings that told the story of a hare carrying a treasure from the moon to the sun. But Masquerade was more than a beautiful book—it was also a treasure hunt. Williams had made an 18-karat gold, jewel-encrusted version of the hare in his story and he buried it somewhere in England. The book held clues, and if you could decipher those clues then you would find the hare.
This book lit me up at the time. I’d spend hours and hours pouring over the pages, looking for clues, convinced that I’d somehow find the treasure and use the money to buy every single Star Wars action figure and a carful of Atari cartridges. Of course I didn’t win. But it didn’t matter. The story was great and the challenge was great and the immersion was great and the experience was great.
What was your inspiration for the story—plot, backstory, all of that stuff?
As far as the plot and backstory, the basic inspiration is the Ancient Aliens theory of human evolution. Among other things, this theory tries to answer a pretty perplexing question about our genetic past, which is that our cognitive abilities took a quantum leap forward at the end of the last Ice Age. Humans that look like us have been around for a couple hundred thousand years, but humans that think like us have only been around for about 12,000 years. Geneticists who study the human genome have no definitive answer for how or why our DNA changed so suddenly at this time—it appears as though it was literally engineered—but it’s undeniable that it did. That’s a fact. I’m not making that up. It was also around this time that the first human societies were formed, more or less concurrently, all around the globe. They set up near gold deposits and mined the yellow metal for reasons no one understands. Gold is pretty, but it’s not functional. You can’t make a hammer or an ax out of it, and it’s only valuable because we say it is. It was also around this time that all of the earliest creation myths began to pop up, and no matter how disparate the cultures of earth were these stories are eerily similar. They basically say that omnipotent beings descended from the sky and gave us the spark of life, gave us our soul, gave us rules to live by. And then they left. But before they left they told us that one day they would return, and when they did it would be a day of reckoning. This story has been woven into just about every major religion. We're talking about nothing less than Judgment Day.
So for Endgame Nils and I asked: What if all this were in fact true? What if some higher form of intelligence actually did visit earth in the distant past, conducted a genetic experiment on the homo sapiens running around, taught us some pretty advanced tricks, asked us to mine gold for it for whatever reason, and then left?
Can readers experience Endgame through a single platform, (e.g. Books only)? Or do we need to both play the game and read the books to follow along?
The short answer is that Endgame can be enjoyed however you want. It’s cool if you just want to read the book, or just play the upcoming mobile game, or just join the community playing the ARG [alternate reality game], or just watch the movies, or just read the novellas, or just keep tabs on the gold being displayed at Caesars. You can do it all or some of it or just one aspect.