Stories to Bend Your Mind: What Meow Wolf Writers Are Reading

As we all practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis, it's a perfect opportunity to catch up on that list of books we've been meaning to read. Here's a reading list to help you get into a Meow Wolf state of mind.

A week into social distancing/isolation, I’ve got stories coming out of my ears and eyes. I’m working through my to-watch Netflix, Hulu, and Prime lists, cranking through audiobooks (maybe I’ll finally finish Sapiens), and I just started reading The Peripheral, as well as continuing The Memory Police and There There and watching Will Wright’s Masterclass on game design (which has also inspired me to revisit Sim City 2000).

As Senior Narrative Director for Meow Wolf, thinking about story mechanics, characters, and methods of development is a key part of my job. But sometimes I get so focused on how we’re telling stories and reaching audiences that I forget to keep feeding my brain with new stories outside of Meow Wolf’s story universe.

I wanted to share some of the stories that have been most influential to me and our team of writers.

When I interviewed with Vince Kadlubek and two of the writers who worked on Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return for their new director of narrative position, they asked me what stories have had the biggest impact on my work. My number one: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

House of Leaves came out in 2000 at the same time that the author’s sister, Poe, released her album Haunted. I was already obsessed with Poe, so I got House of Leaves as soon as it came out, in the spring of my senior year of high school. They’re not exactly companion pieces, but they exist in the same universe. They both scared me in the way that work about an unknown, unexplainable darkness gets in your bones and your dreams. I used to listen to Haunted while reading House of Leaves on the floor of my high school bedroom, curled up between the mattress and the heating vent. It’s a labyrinthine book told in layers of narrators and storylines, the words architected on the page to reflect the characters’ discovery that a family’s house is bigger on the inside, by miles, than it looks on the out.

When I visited the House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe-—about nine months before I would take a job for the company and move from Seattle—I thought immediately of House of Leaves. What is it about the mystery of a house that is so compelling? Houses are often thought, in dream interpretation, to represent the many aspects of our psyche. They can symbolize childhood, and coming of age, and death of one particular phase of life. As I crawled through the fireplace in the Selig’s abandoned home and into a fantastical other world, I felt like I was entering into a story that I had dreamt, imagined, lived in some previous life.

The plot of House of Eternal Return and House of Leaves are quite different. But both prove that a story can exist on many planes of reality, be interpreted by many characters, be experienced from vastly different angles. The fact that the writers of HOER also loved House of Leaves told me that we’d have a shared touchpoint to build the story universe of future exhibitions.

The writers at Meow Wolf come from vastly different backgrounds. We have a journalist/DJ, a poet, two playwrights, a Internet-based creator, a narrative fabricator and painter, a metal guitarist and film aficionado, a game designer, and screenwriters. But we do share a common goal of creating story experiences that 1. Can be experienced non-linearly, over time and space 2. Are discoverable and give participants a feeling of reward for digging deeper 3. Are big, complex, ambitious, and not neatly wrapped up 4. Give the participants a role and opportunities for co-creation 5. Represent diverse voices, perspectives, and modes of communication.

Given all that, we’ve pulled together a list of the books that have been the most impactful on our narrative team. (I'll do follow up articles on our most inspirational films, TV shows, video games, and theater/immersive experiences). These are stories that are informing our narrative development for Las Vegas (opening this year), Denver (opening in 2021), Washington D.C. , and beyond.

Add these to your quarantine list!

What Feeds The Meow Wolf Story Universe: Books We Love

  1. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez / One of the most celebrated and important novels in the magical realism genre.
  2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho / A quest story about seeking one’s destiny and following the signs of the universe.
  3. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll / A young girl falls--literally-- down the rabbit hole and into another world.
  4. Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton / Crichton’s break-out techno-thriller.
  5. As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem / A love triangle between two scientists and a black hole.
  6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle / A young adult novel about a journey through space and time, highlighting battles between good and evil/light and dark.
  7. Be Here Now by Ram Dass / A psychedelic, spiritual trip into meditative mind expansion.
  8. Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James / An epic saga of an adventure story that weaves African history and mythology into a wholly unique new world.
  9. Black Panther by Ta Nehisi Coates / Ta Nehisi Coates takes on the mantle of Black Panther for 12 issues of a new era of the Marvel story world.
  10. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz / The novel, which incorporates elements of magical realism, inventively weaves together different time periods, narrators, references to sci-fi and fantasy touchstones, and footnotes.
  11. Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinell / A visceral, hallucinatory collection of poems
  12. The City and the City by China Meiville / About two cities that exist on top of one another, separated by psychic border crossings.
  13. Contact by Carl Sagan / A science fiction best-seller about a technology advanced alien race making contact with humans.
  14. Coraline by Neil Gaiman / A dark fantasy children’s novella.
  15. Dune by Frank Herbert / One of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time about a future where factions vie for a mind-expanding drug called Melange or “the spice.”
  16. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison / A sci-fi/fantasy award-winning novel about catastrophic climate change heralded for its incredible worldbuilding.
  17. Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem / A sci-fi western about coming of age and sexual awakening.
  18. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami / A noir journey between parallel universes that combine in a wild exploration of subconscious and identity.
  19. Harry Potter by JK Rowling / A series of seven fantasy novels following a young wizard’s journey to overthrow evil.
  20. His Dark Materials Series by Philip Pullman / A trilogy of fantasy novels set in parallel universes exploring ideas of religion and sin.
  21. House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski / A mystery about a family who moves into a house only to discover it is bigger on the inside than out. The story is told through layers of narrative framing, with an interactive experience of the words on the page.
  22. Incarnations of Immortality Series by Piers Anthony / An eight-book fantasy series where people hold supernatural offices (i.e. Death, Time, Fate).
  23. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino / An exploration of imagination as Marco Polo describing fictitious cities, which illuminates human experience.
  24. Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes / A young adult novel from the early ‘90s. Unemployed after high school in the highly robotic society of 2154, Lisse and seven friends resign themselves to a boring existence in their "Designated Area" until the government invites them to play The Game.
  25. John Constantine, Hellblazer / Contemporary horror comic book series following an occult detective.
  26. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor / This Afro-futurist sci-fi/magical-realism blend bubbles over with a diversity of styles, characters, and voices in a story about an alien encounter on earth.
  27. Little Girl Lost by Richard Mattheson / A short story and a Twilight Zone episode of the same name. A girl falls through a portal to the fourth dimension which intersects with her bedroom.
  28. Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson / An epic fantasy series following a 16-year-old thief.
  29. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende / The story is fantasy at its finest, and it places the reader at the center of the plot.
  30. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler / A dystopian parable about the effects of pollution, global warming, and racism.
  31. The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispecter / A mystical, groundbreaking work from 1960s Brazilian writer Lispecter is told entirely as a monologue from the main character.
  32. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge / A sci-fi novel about a future dominated by augmented reality.
  33. Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall / A genre-bending psychological thriller about an amnesiac and a conceptual shark.
  34. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson / A cyber-thriller weaving virtual reality with Sumerian mythology.
  35. Sphere by Michael Crichton / A sci-fi/psychological thriller.
  36. Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang / The basis for the movie Arrival, a story about an alien race whose language unfolds a new understanding of time.
  37. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein / A sci-fi novel about a human who comes to earth after being raised on Mars.
  38. The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson / Fold-out maps, photographs, drawings, and handwritten notes unlock a mystery of a woman with a growing map on her skin.
  39. Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami / Murakami is one of the most respected contemporary magical realists. This is one of his most famous novels.  

Joanna Garner is the Sr. Narrative Creative Director at Meow Wolf.

This piece was originally posted on LinkedIn. If you have comments or stories to share that have influenced your own creative work, please click on the above link and share away.