Making Five Fables

We met David Cumming from Waddell Media to ask him how he went about creating the Seamus Heaney poetry app Five Fables.

David Cumming is the business development director at Waddell Media. In May 2014, partnering with the app development studio Touch Press, they released Five Fables, an app for the iPad based on a translation by Seamus Heaney of the work of the medieval poet Robert Henryson. We reviewed the app here, but were intrigued to find out more and so spoke to David to find out how and why he went about this ambitious and very literary project.

WITH THE Waste Land, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, On The Road and now Five Fables ‘literary apps’ seem to be on the rise. What caused you to create Five Fables:

Our story was perhaps unusual because much of the material we included in the app already existed for a television programme we had made. If that hadn’t been the case we would have had a job justifying it, because they’re so expensive to make. Key to producing Five Fables was the fact that we managed to get some funding from a relatively obscure source, the Ulster Scots Broadcast Fund which is a curious pot of money in Northern Ireland which aims at promoting links between Scotland and Ulster—it came about as a part of the Northern Ireland peace process. They’re interested in the ties that bind Scotland and Ireland and so were attracted by the Heaney / Henryson link. The fact that Seamus, for example, mentions in his introduction that his translation was influenced by the sounds of his upbringing was important. In County Derry, where Seamus grew up, a lot of people are of Scots descent and there is a very thick Scottish version of Irish, particularly up in the North around Antrim and Derry. Seamus said that the intonation and the sound and the language he was used to hearing informed his translation.

THE APP is very faithful to the original Henryson text. Where did the enthusiasm for Henryson come from?

Initially the idea came from someone at the BBC who was involved in the Ulster Scots fund and who had just finished reading Heaney’s translation of Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables. We’re always looking for interesting new projects and he suggested I take a look at it. It sat on my desk for several months but when I got round to it I was fascinated. A friend of a friend knew Seamus so we arranged a meeting. Seamus was sceptical at first but when I told him we wanted to remain loyal to the text and get someone to read it and animate the results his enthusiasm grew—in part because he had been wanting Billy Connolly to read the fables for some years.

WAS SEAMUS Heaney someone who was interested in taking book technology forward?

I’d love to say yes. I did try to explain apps to him one time. I tried to show him The Waste Land. But he kind of glazed over. I think he was quite old school. But what he was interested in was getting Henryson to a new audience. And without going into too much detail which would have sent him to sleep I tried to explain to him that one of the key things about this app is the way that it enables the reader to switch between the Old Scots and his English translation.

SO IT was the opportunity to present the old language in a new way which excited him?

He was evangelical about that. He was very modest about what he himself had achieved and he wanted to use the technology available to bring people back to Henryson. I think there’s a lot to enjoy in Henryson and I think one of the things I’m most proud of in the app, the thing, too, that most people have picked up on, is the ability to switch between the two languages. That function opened my eyes to Medieval Scots. And Ian did a great job with the Old Scots reading too.

WHAT WERE your impressions of Seamus Heaney?

He was very modest. He was, as you’d expect, fiercely intelligent, but he wasn’t show-off intelligent. The first time I met him was in Dublin with Joel Simon the animator. Joel and I were intimidated and a bit terrified about what we were going to get but he was absolutely charming. He turned into the pub entertainer—he did silly voices, he told stories, he was the life and soul of the party really. We met in a place called Roly’s in Dublin round the corner from where he lived. It’s fair to say that he was well known there. We had a few glasses of wine but it was lunchtime so it wasn’t a big boozy thing. We were shocked and saddened when he died. I think since he had had his stroke in 2008 his health had been less than perfect. But throughout the making of the app he was great company. He loved being in the studio and hanging out with Billy Connolly and getting involved in whatever way he could. It was great seeing him even tampering with his text during the recording to make it suit Billy better.

IT SEEMS one of the big problems with making an app is how to reach your market. What was your approach?

Although there’s been a few very nice reviews of it including your own I still don’t think we’ve got this right. It’s interesting to see the detailed metrics from Apple about how it’s doing and you can draw simple conclusions from that. Two weeks ago we had a lovely review in an American website called Slate and we sold more copies in the two or three days after that than we had done in all the time before. No one has come across it and said “that’s a pile of pants” or even “that’s not for me”—people tend to get sucked in to it. But the challenge is in getting the message out. What we’ve been trying to do with limited success is to interest key movers and shakers and journalists so that through them others will take notice of it. I think also the academic side of things is key. Touch Press told me that The Waste Land always spikes in September to coincide with the beginning of the academic year when people buy their texts for their courses. So I think there’ll be a bit of action in the next month or two. Heaney’s big in the US and is widely taught there. Also many of the contributors to the app are in academia so those relationships are important.

HOW DO you feel about the Apple store and discoverability?

There are so many apps out there. I don’t think you can go to the app store and use the search engine to find what you’re looking for. It seems like the only way to discover apps is for people like yourself to write about them. I suppose to a certain extent it’s the same with books although Amazon’s search engine for books appears to be better categorised. It’s undoubtedly a challenge. I know Touch Press and Faber have struggled with this. I think the reality with apps is that you have to build awareness gradually. Hopefully Five Fables will be a sleeper. It will gradually creep up on people.

DID THIS make it difficult to justify the app as a commercial proposition to the Ulster Scots Fund?

Fortunately this was never really too much in point. They did it for the love. That was the beauty of it. I think on any commercial basis it wouldn’t have been made. It’s too niche and it’s very hard to get funding for high end projects like this because at the end of the day there’s only a limited audience. So we were lucky that the Ulster Scots Fund thought it was worthy of funding.

AND HOW was it working with Touch Press?

They’re a great organisation. You go in there and there’s all these bright young things hunched over computers checking for commas and semi colons. They’re all fiercely intelligent, swotty types. They’re passionate about what they do and I think that always comes across in the product. They’ve had to make some difficult decisions. They’ve gone down the iPad route to the exclusion of other devices such as Android, and that limits possibilities. But they’re fiercely pro Apple. You sometimes question if that’s the way forward but it’s an opinion they hold strongly.

I SUPPOSE it’s a good thing for as long as Apple are dominating the market for devices

I think there’s a feeling that the Android apps are much more pirateable—that it’s much more difficult to protect your IP. With all of these things there is a danger of obsolescence. Apps need to be constantly updated. I know for example that Apple’s IOS 8 upgrade is due out soon and we will need to update Five Fables for that. Actually we need to update it anyway because we’ve found a few typos in it.

WAS PARTNERING with Touch Press essential? Could you have attempted the app yourselves?

We could have tried it ourselves. But we were so impressed by The Waste Land App and immediately saw how well that template would work with the Old Scots and the modern English of Five Fables, and so we thought we would do best to try to use that and try to take it to another level. Also we knew that their reputation would help. They have an extensive mailing list and access to people who had already enjoyed The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Also Touch Press’ connection with Faber which they developed with The Waste Land was useful for the various permissions we needed. Faber have been great but they were also worried about the commercial prospects for the app.

I LOVED the academic interviews in the app which reminded me of University in a good way. Who was responsible for those?

The idea came from The Waste Land app but I organised the interviews. Some of those guys were recommended personally by Seamus and others were recommended by the guys who were recommended by Seamus. For example Sally Mapstone [Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford]. Everyone pointed me towards her as being the foremost Henryson expert. So I did interviews for the TV series with the app in mind, knowing that we would eventually be putting the app together. We were excited by the idea of giving someone a chance to talk on something they were passionate about for four to five minutes rather than for 30 seconds, edited. If you find someone who’s passionate about their subject there’s always enjoyment to be had in listening to them. The support of the academics throughout the process was really important. When we were going through the application for funding a couple of academics wrote letters endorsing the idea and saying that they would use the app for teaching. Others would have done too, but with the support of academics from Oxford and Yale it hardly seemed necessary. So their support has been really important to the process and it’s been great to see their enthusiasm for the results.

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