The following is an interview with bestselling author Andy Stanton on the upcoming release of the novel, Benny the Blue Whale, through OneWorld. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Stanton about his creative process in experimenting with ChatGPT for the development of the book, what he hopes will most connect with readers about his experience, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of Benny the Blue Whale! For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you share with us about the genesis behind the project?
Andy Stanton: Thank you, it’s been a very strange year getting this book done, and I think I’m still recovering. Like everything about this project, I could answer your question at so many levels that I risk getting lost in endless wormholes, but let me try and see what happens.
Long answer: I care deeply about words. I spend my life thinking about words, turning them over in my mind or on the page, examining them for connections and correspondences, echoes and rhythms and hidden resonances. Occasionally, I’m able to marshal some words into substantial bodies of finished work, and over the years I’ve eked out a fairly successful career in writing.
Then, this thing called ChatGPT comes along from seemingly nowhere. This confounding, exhausting, infuriating, marvelous, mercurial, tireless, connection-making god-gizmo that spits words out like popcorn. This machine that operates on such a vast scale that it seems to know our species’ collective unconscious mind map. I’m a perfect, defenseless receptor for this strange new enzyme. And before I know it, I’ve fallen into a month-long metafictional dream-/nightmare-scape collaboration with this thing, engineering an absurdist novel-sized story about a blue whale called Benny that, just like real writing, seems to be sweeping me along with its own crazy momentum.
And somewhere along the line, I start to realize that all this is presenting me with a kind of exploded diagram of the process of any creative writing, and that this experience would make the perfect vehicle not just to examine how ChatGPT works but to show how an author makes the thousands of choices they make in any given story. So, I decide to add yet another layer of reality to the by now many layers of reality the story itself is juggling, by annotating and discussing the original Benny story and… OK, I did tell you this answer would get a bit wormhole-y, right?
Short answer: I typed ‘tell me a story about a blue whale with a tiny penis’ into ChatGPT and I kept pushing it and pushing it some more until I nearly lost my mind. And then I returned from the depths of near-insanity to try to write an explanation of what had just happened, and that drove me twice as mad again.
BD: Given your experimentation with ChatGPT for the development of this book, I would imagine that your creative process was largely different than your other work. How would you describe your creative path for this book, and was there anything that most surprised or challenged you throughout?
AS: The original Benny story was an online ‘conversation’ with ChatGPT, which means you can’t edit conventionally, as you would when you’re writing for real. Yes, ChatGPT does offer a couple of tools you can use to do a bit of re-thinking – but, essentially, you’re involved in an improvisational exercise, and you have to make most of your decisions on the fly. In some ways, this is fantastically liberating, as it means that you can just keep going forward, finding out what happened next, but it shapes the sorts of plot decisions you make and seems to lend itself to fast-moving, kinetic pacing.
ChatGPT’s output is rife with acres of repetition, redundancies, inconsistencies, and flat-out contradictions, and I find this simultaneously tiresome, illuminating, hilarious, and downright disturbing. As an author, I normally take exacting pains to shape and control my material to the best of my abilities. Working with ChatGPT meant I had to cede a lot of control to a hyperactive maniac. I wanted our story to be a true collaboration, so I met the bot head on, leaning into its oddities and psychedelic wtf?!-ness. As a result I found our story growing more and more meta and recursive as we drilled down into themes of fiction, reality, and authorship. I won’t give you too many spoilers, but at one point Benny starts writing his own novel with a brand new (fictional) AI… All very dumb, all very tongue in cheek, all – in truth – very me.
And then, when I came to annotate and discuss the story in my footnotes and comments, I was playing the game at another level again, a super-meta game of chase-the-connection, trying to explain why I’d made certain choices, why the story had gone this way instead of that way, how some ideas blossomed and bore fruit while others meandered and died. I look at this whole thing and I like the irony that I took the machine that ‘does all the work for you’ and somehow turned it into the hardest work of my life. Honestly, it was like playing 6D chess with myself. While straitjacketed and having to move the pieces with my teeth. And the pieces are in another room, and anyway the house is on fire.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that your experience with this book may connect with and impact readers?
AS: I hope that the Benny story itself, silly and skewwhiff as it is, is pretty entertaining in its own right. But beyond that, what I’m really aiming for is to take my readers on the same journey I went through. Showing how ‘just goofing around’ can lead to falling in love with an idea. Showing how falling in love with an idea can lead to the obsessive pursuit of that idea just to find out what happens. Trying to get under the hood of what it means to be an author and how and why authors make the choices they make, and how much authors care about the choices they make – as opposed to AIs like ChatGPT, which don’t have any actual intent or taste or notions of quality at all. I’ve reverse-engineered much of my understanding in life from works of fiction – books, TV, film, song lyrics, theatre, who knows what: that’s the personal database I draw on to make sense of the world, and that’s the well I go to when I’m trying to create something of my own. ChatGPT is a kind of mockery of what goes on inside each and every one of us: It has its own database, too, but ChatGPT’s database is vast. So, it’s so much better than any one of us! But it’s so, so much worse than any one of us! Oh, it can’t do what we do, at least not yet. But by working with it at length, by feeding our own questions into it, in whatever form (‘tell me a story about a blue whale with a tiny penis’) and pushing our inquiries far enough, we can echolocate some pretty interesting results that maybe tell us something about our own processes and preoccupations.
Maybe my ultimate aim is to show how hard we try with all this stuff. I didn’t know just how difficult any of this would be when I started out, because I wasn’t aiming for it to, you know … be anything in particular. I was just goofing around. But just goofing around is how all of my creative projects have started out. You don’t choose the idea, it chooses you. And then, at some point, it gets real and it gets hard, and you bust yourself to pieces trying to make it as good as you can. And I think if you didn’t hurt yourself trying to make it as good as possible, then you probably didn’t try hard enough. So, this is what I want to show you: It doesn’t matter what you start with, it can be the silliest thing imaginable. But just look at all the serious behind it!
BD: Are there any other upcoming projects that you would care to share with our readers?
AS: I’m working up a couple of movie ideas in collaboration with other writers (both of whom are human, I hasten to add). Early days, just kicking around plot lines, trying to break the story and all that… Aside from that, I’m still processing Benny. It taught me so much about how and why I write, and I know it will feed into whatever I do next, in some way, however indirect.
A writer friend recently gave me some advice, which is to do something totally different next. Benny is big and audacious and fractured and loud and mad. I’d like to do something really quiet and graceful next, if possible. I don’t know if I’m capable. But yeah. Something very small and pretty. Or maybe I just need a vacation… Though maybe not by the ocean.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Benny the Blue Whale and your other work?
AS: You can find out more at here which has some nice blurbs and review quotes and a couple of interesting artifacts for you to explore. If you want to see what my life looked like before ChatGPT, try mrgum.co.uk for a more child-friendly experience.