Releasing a book has inarguably become the YouTube community’s “camera upgrade” of 2016. Every creator seems to be working on their own literary project; and from science books to poetry to self-insert fiction, we’ve covered them all. But until now, all these releases have had one intrinsic connection: Nearly all of them have been inspired by the writer’s YouTube channel, online personality, or brand.
But what happens when you’re an author who also just happens to have a YouTube channel?
Chelsea “C.J.” Fisher, better known by her YouTube pseudonym Ophelia Dagger, released her debut novel When We Were Alive last week. The novel follows the individual stories of three central characters, separated by decades, as they each “explore the dark side of relationships, search for beauty in sadness and try to bear the burden of guilt from living in a world they are powerless to fix.” It’s expressive, it’s dryly humorous – and it’s far from anything that could be considered a “YouTuber book”.
We caught up with Chelsea and her documentary crew a day after When We Were Alive‘s release; and true to the carefree yet amused disposition we might expect from an Ophelia Dagger video, she was remarkably unfazed by the excitement of releasing a five-year project to the world.
“It’s been pretty much just been the same as every week before,” admits Chelsea, “Except now people Tweet me pictures of the book.”
When We Were Alive is very different to anything you’ve done before. What was the inspiration behind writing it?
My dad has depression, and a whole side of my family suffers from that; so I just wanted to delve into the sort of things that would make people feel less alone, if they read about it.
But at the same time, I was like “I’m gonna write something that’s a serious side of my personality, and not the YouTube side”, so it was never gonna be a wacky stupid book. The difficulty has been trying to explain that to an audience.
There’s a real tone-switch element in the writing; where you can go from a visual and poetic paragraph straight into a really witty punchline. How important for you is adding that kind of anti-joke delivery to everything you make?
I knew this story was going to be quite dark, so I tried to get in some little jokes where I could to alleviate that. I think that, even though I’m creating characters that obviously aren’t me, it’s still my sense of humour, and that will always find its way into whatever I make.
You’ve said that this novel would exist whether or not you had your channel. How have you kept those worlds separate, and avoided letting your involvement with YouTube take over?
The only reason they’re any way related was because my publishers were like “Dude, you have this platform, use it!” So I made a video for them, that explained the difference between who I am and what the book is.
Some of my reviews have said “I would never have read her book if I’d just seen her, but the book is completely different.” So it’s nice that people aren’t put off by that!
While publishers didn’t interfere as much, how much pressure do you think a talent network would have put on to make this novel more “YouTuber”-friendly?
I don’t know but I would have just been like “no”. I have no interest in doing a “YouTube book”; I’d rather have no book than a YouTube book.
Of course, there’s definitely a real stigma behind “YouTuber books” because of some of the more successful ones have been criticised as “unchallenging” or “unoriginal”. Do you think creators who are publishing genuine projects are having a harder time having their work recognised, because of their digital footprint?
Potentially; It says I have a YouTube channel on the back of the book, and I tried to push against that. If an adult sees it in a bookstore, they won’t want to buy a book from a YouTuber because of the stigma attached to it; which I think has pervaded old media as a whole. But my publishers were really keen on keeping it, so we used my channel size as a compromise.
I think there are already going to be negative reviews from people who just don’t like “YouTube me”; they’re gonna be like “ah, she has a book out, now’s my chance!”
When announcing your book, you talked about how achieving your dream doesn’t mean the world stops. And unlike the fast production and consumption of, say, a YouTube video, you’ll be riding the wave of When We Were Alive for a while. What do you think will come next for you?
I’m writing my second book at the moment, and I’m trying to put a lot more comedy into this one. It’s still dark, and still me, but I’m trying to make the characters a lot more funny in the way that they go about the dark things they do.
I’m about 30,000 words in and I already can’t deal with how long it’s going to take to write the whole thing and go through the publishing process. With YouTube I’m used to making something in an afternoon, and it’s up at 8pm and I’m like “what do people think?” So there’s that element to it, but at the same time it’s much more rewarding to get a positive review of my book than just a comment that says “great video!”
Do you still see YouTube as a long-term endeavour too?
I think it’d be wise to keep it running for when I release my next book; there’s always going to be people in my audience that are the market for both things; even if that’s quite negligible, it’s worth keeping a profile online.
When We Were Alive by C.J. Fisher was published by Legend Press, and is available almost anywhere that books are sold. You can watch her announcement of the novel below.