INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of VALLA VAKILI
It’s easy enough to get lost inside a story when you’re reading a book. All the little details, the ideas, the characters, the locations… each piece is just another catalyst for the incredible things your imagination can do. Combine these literary journeys with the power of the internet and you can magnify the infinite, and end up with something magical. Small Demons is a new platform spearheaded by CEO Valla Vakili that will allow you to dive deeper into every story you’ll ever read again. Vakili’s passion-filled venture marks a shift in the paradigm of reading; the Storyverse will never be the same.
First of all, I have to geek out a little. This is every academic’s dream, and when I saw it for the first time, my 13-year-old library-goer-self imploded. It’s also a huge endeavor. I want to know what that first conversation was like, the first acknowledgement of, “Hey, I think we can do this.” And furthermore, why did you do this?
The first conversation was years ago, actually, and it led to a dead end. As did the second, third, and fourth conversations! I had just finished Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo, the first in his Marseilles Trilogy. The lead character in the book, Fabio Montale, drinks a lot of single malt scotch and listens to a lot of jazz and blues music. I found myself on a journey not just through the pages of the book, but also through the stuff of Montale’s world — a bottle of Lagavulin; Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Lightnin’ Hopkins; and eventually a trip to Marseilles. When I came back from Marseilles, I’d open up the book, point to its details, and tell everyone around me, “There’s so much great stuff in here, as good or better than anything you find anywhere else. We should catalogue all this.” No one got it. It wasn’t until years later, when I stopped talking about it and worked on a quick visual design of what the website would look like, still using Total Chaos as an example, that it clicked.
As for why, well, it comes down to one thing, really. The details inside of stories, they’re awesome. And yet they’ve always been nearly inaccessible. I wanted to open up that world behind and beyond the page.
The BR!NK team immediately uses Small Demons to research the single malt scotch of Total Chaos
It seems to me that an ideal way to use Small Demons would be as a side-by-side study guide for students. What type of possible integration does Small Demons have in the world of education?
A very broad range of applications, I hope. Especially since so much of our earliest exposure to great books happens in those years. We’ve had early interest from teachers, mostly high school and university, ranging from wanting to use Small Demons to sync up a reading and a physical tour of Rome for a group of students, to high school teachers wanting to highlight the appeal of reading and classroom discussion through connecting it to familiar pop culture.
But let me answer this question in a slightly different way, by talking a bit about how we think about stories and the affinity between that thinking and the university, the school. For us, the book, the story, sits at the center of a web of cultural connections. You have the book, the author, the influences upon that author, the whole landscape — both historical and cultural — that’s tied to any given piece of art. Now, a lot of universities, a lot of high schools, think of art and literature this way, too. Coursework is organized thematically — so let’s say you read an author, then you watch the movies that influenced him or her, then you study the books written in response to or influenced by his or her work — there’s a logic to the way you encounter the text that brings in this whole sweep of culture.
And then we leave school, and we encounter books and stories completely differently. In place of context and culture we have reviews, word of mouth, ratings, and retail. What you can fit on a shelf, what you can star in a rating, and so forth. Little by little, the context of any given piece just disappears for anything but the most avid reader. For a simple example of this, you can run through the list of TV shows and movies based on books, and see what a low percentage of viewers actually can make that connection for anything but the blockbuster movies and books. Yes, everyone knows The Hunger Games is based on the book, but does the audience for Drive know it’s based on the book by James Sallis?
So, as you can imagine, we think differently here. Context matters. The cultural web of any given book, its antecedents and its followers, matters. That depth you experience in school when you learn about the book, the author, and their shared connections to other books, other authors, other forms of art, to history and place, all that matters. What you see on Small Demons now is the first step in taking that depth and making it fun, easy, accessible. Bringing back context.
And outside of education, what is the portrait of a Small Demons user? Does she come onto the site quickly, for one detail to the novel she’s reading, or is it a more committed experience?
We’re trying to make it easy both for the casual user who wants to find something quickly, and the user who wants to spend a lot of time tracing through the connections between stories, really. One interesting use case we’ve found among early adopters is rediscovery — returning to a book you’ve already read and experiencing it again via the site.
Which leads me to my next question — why is Small Demons better than just Googling something?
Ease of use, context, and connections. If you’re interested in a single detail, looking it up on Google or Wikipedia (which is where many Google results will take you) is fine, but limited. First, the context is very different. We have hard boundaries at Small Demons — the universe of the site starts and ends with stories — for a very particular reason. Any path you follow starting from any topic on the site will lead you ultimately to a story, a book. Context.
So while Google and Wikipedia may satisfy an immediate “tell me what this is” impulse, what we’re far more interested in is “show me the story where I saw this and everything else it relates to.” Along the way we also provide information about “what this is,” most usually drawn from Wikipedia and Freebase. But the connections are what’s unique to us.
And finally, ease of use. We have an approach to gathering, categorizing, and displaying information that makes it easy to scan a lot of details very quickly, and minimizes the number of searches you’d need to do, say, to find all the music in a book, or every gun mentioned in your favorite crime series, or every historical figure in the definitive work on any given period.
One way we do this, and this is a feature we just released, is through our version of the “See All” function common to sites and apps like iTunes (for example, See All Albums by an Artist). Let’s say you come to a book page on Small Demons for the Steve Jobs biography. On one page you can scan through all the people, places, and things in the book. But what if you want to narrow your focus to just the music and scan through all the songs and music mentioned in the book, in one page, without having to search for them individually? That’s “See All Music” in this book. And we do that for everything. Movies, people, places, food, books, fashion, etc. Whenever we do this at the level of a book it’s like an instant single page index to a topic from that book — like all the music mentioned in it. But you know we can do this at any level — for a book, for a series, for a genre, for every book we have on the site, you name it. And that’s something you can’t do on Google, or anywhere else.
“See All Music” for the Steve Jobs biography on Small Demons
Can you talk a bit about the technology that gathers the data for each book?
Sure. We started doing this manually. We asked readers to mark up several hundred books for us, looking at people, places, and things of importance, and to help rank the level of importance of topics per book. We used that first corpus of data to help craft our taxonomy, make some decisions around what sorts of terms mattered the most for us, and build a first prototype of the site. We then shifted our focus to an automated approach, and because we wanted to focus on books that are in high demand, contemporary works especially, we sought out relationships with publishers, partnering early on with Simon & Schuster.
Today, we use entity recognition tools to parse digital books (ePubs) for references to people, places, and things. We use Wikipedia and Freebase to help classify and flesh out those references, and where necessary we supplement Wikipedia and Freebase with outside data sources. On top of all this is a specific taxonomy or “world view” around the data that’s unique to us, and is where we put a lot of our focus once we’ve identified the terms.
My guess is that you’re an avid reader yourself. What’s the last book you read, and what’s a topic that you’ve found interesting lately?
I’m reading two books right now. One is the eighth book in a ten book series of Swedish crime fiction, by a pair of authors who invented the modern Swedish police procedural, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It’s called The Locked Room and the series is known officially as The Story of a Crime and unofficially as The Martin Beck Series. The other is a book by Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, that looks at how city inhabitants “read” a city. Very different books, but with a shared connection.
At Small Demons we talk about the data from books, the people, places, and things, as forming a “Storyverse” — the shared space of stories. One way this is made concrete is in looking at, say, all the references to Los Angeles across a book, a series, an author’s work, a genre, etc. When you start to do that you have a different understanding of Los Angeles, a different “image” of it.
I had this exact experience with Stockholm from The Story of a Crime, starting with Roseanna from the mid 60s and coming to The Locked Room of the early 70s. I have some family in Sweden and have visited Stockholm once, so I have somewhat of an image of it. But the description of it in these books is so detailed, and I’ve followed that description across a recurring set of characters over eight volumes, that I feel it around me even when I put down the book. And that’s a strange sensation, carrying a setting with you when you’re living thousands of miles away from and decades after it.
So I wanted to understand what The Story of a Crime was doing to me better; I wanted to think about the Storyverse more deeply; all this led me to picking up Lynch, who I haven’t touched since 1998 or so.
Small Demons seems to be focusing on the stories, and helping to tell them completely. Can you tell our readers a short story — whether a funny one about the process of the site’s creation, or something we don’t know yet about Small Demons?
How about the origin of the name, Small Demons? The inspiration for the name comes from the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, specifically a passage in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges writes, “The history of the universe… is the handwriting produced by a Minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.” I read that as, the history of the universe is all the stories ever told. Minor gods are the storytellers who rule the worlds of their stories. And the Demon is the force that drives the need for stories, the place where author and reader meet.
I took “Minor” and “Demon” and from there, Small Demons.
Apart from spreading the word about the site and joining, what can our readers do to get involved with Small Demons?
Joining, spreading the word, and sharing feedback on how we can improve are all really helpful and appreciated. Beyond that, we’re working on contribution tools and an API to allow, in the first case, users to add to and edit the site, and in the second case, developers to build experiences using data from the site. So if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in either of those use cases — contribution and tapping into the API — we’d also really love to hear from you.