Heights Author, Inventor, Musician Explores New Entertainment Model
by Caitlin McNamara, published online 06-25-2009
Epic Novel Will Have Video Game, Web Components
Mardi-Ellen Hill is one to keep an eye on — the first book by the lifelong New Yorker, author, inventor and award-winning musician is making the rounds with her agent, and the bidding stage has begun for this multimedia project.
The book, The Skeleton Score, is the first of a series that tells the story of the gifted and musical Barrington family dynasty, whose members derive power from the Earth in the form of a song that no one else can hear.
Twenty years in the making, the story is many things, but at its most basic, Hill says, it is about survival of the fittest.
The two-time winner of the National Endowment of the Arts was born to a musical family, and had musical inclinations as a young child. Her father was a singer, and she grew up listening to grand opera. Today she plays the piano and writes music, but says she always knew that music wasn’t her path.
“As a tiny little girl, I had these inventor notions,” says Hill. “I was going to be a translator at the UN. Music was basically the secondary notion in my life. The first part of my life was the legal and the science aspirations of invention, and to do something of major consequence against suffering.”
When Hill was 10 years old, her parents, who met as student at LIU’s Brooklyn campus, went through a messy divorce. Hill and her sister went “on to a new family,” as she puts it, creating “a very dramatic, kind of Dominick Dunne background.”
When she began to write, it was to tell the story of her life, and her path is reflected in the child character in her story. It was also to invent through writing.
“I wanted to create something that would have use for other people,” says Hill, who adds that inventing, especially for women, is often a dangerous and politically charged arena. “But I needed a framework to put that invention in,” and that is the book and game series she has created as a business vehicle, expanded with video game and online platforms. It first debuted almost 20 years ago as a stage production.
The story itself contains a “puzzle of clues” connecting the narrative to the franchise. In its larger scope, this is a story of a family that has built an empire through the ages, but faces collapse in the 21st century. Hill’s written work takes on epic proportions: in Skeleton Score, the protagonist is sent to D.C. by her firm, believing she is there to do music research, but she has actually been set up to reveal family trade secrets. She uncovers an imminent global threat to humanity and must find her own place in the family to save the world. She is held on suspicion of committing treasonous acts against the U.S., but doesn’t know the power she has because her memory has been impaired. That’s where the music comes in — serving as a “memory model” for the characters.
This is one that may need to be experienced to be fully understood, but Hill tries to keep it simple — and she wants her reader to feel a part of the family.
The family uses a fictional version of Hill’s invention, an interactive platform called MEND, or “Music Encoding Device,” to uncover their story, and Hill offers the same to her readers in an on line, interactive extension. This has been compared, in an previous profile of Hill, to “giving every reader or viewer their personal, fully-working transporter after seeing Star Trek.”
“I’m writing sheerly from this creator engineer mind I have, to form the architecture of this global ensemble, from this recipe of clues,” says Hill. “It’s actually very formulaic, once you get the path of it.”
The family matriarch of her franchise is based on Phyllis Curtin, the current head of voice department at Tanglewood, who Hill has known and considered an influence since she was 19. Today, Hill sings at the Heights’ Plymouth Church and composes music. Plymouth was one of the reasons she returned to Brooklyn four and a half years ago, she says. She was also drawn by the history of the area, and because both sets of her grandparents, who were important influences in her life, are from Brooklyn.
For more about Hill’s series, visit her online at www.mardiellen.com.