An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Q&A With Zarina Rosiello, the Protagonist & Heroine

Since Q&A doesn't follow the typical format of the rest of the retelling or behind-the-scenes, I thought I'd drop a note here to make it clear that the only things I wrote were the questions (in bold). Zarina's answers follow each one.
Black and white head shot photo of J.A. Hernandez. A blood red slash of color appears behind the image, as if smeared by a paintbrush.
J.A. Hernandez

Q. It's been a few years since you were cursed. How are you adjusting to your life of totally-not-being-a-werewolf-because-the-whole-thing-was-"fiction"? 

I’m not going to lie: It’s been a hard adjustment—even now, 68 full moons later (but who’s counting?). 

Q. Every person is a part of speech, such as a verb in the imperative mood. What part of speech are you, and what does that mean?

I’d say I am a verb in the subjunctive mood. Verbs are action-oriented, focused on getting results and seeing things through. If there’s something I want to pursue, I’ll ask “what circumstances need to align for this to happen?” and then make a plan to accomplish that. Verbs can also be a bit blunt, focused on achieving a goal (and sometimes that comes off the wrong way).

However, I am definitely not an indicative or imperative verb. I am often indecisive, focused on all the forking possibilities in front of me. The subjunctive is “a mood of verbs expressing what is imagined or wished or possible.” This is used for wishes, beliefs, hypotheticals, suggestions, and commands. I often live in that world of hypotheticals and possibilities, focused on “what if.”

We don’t have a subjunctive verb inflection in English, but you can convey the subjunctive mood through statements like “I suggest that he leave on time,” “I wish this curse were easier to break,” and “I’m answering these questions as if I were not a werewolf.”

Q. Way back when you were first approached by me with the vague idea of "I want to make you a weird birthday present. What is it? Well, uh—something, something, story...?"—what did you imagine it might be?

I assumed it would be some kind of written story, maybe a choose-your-own adventure, where you planned out multiple forking paths. And it would have some puzzles thrown in, since we both love puzzles. But I had no idea just how immersive this story would be and that I would not just be making choices on behalf of a fictional protagonist, but actually living my life as the protagonist. Your and Tae’s commitment to the realism of this story was (and is) impressive.

An example: When I received the first email from Amon Nagi, I deleted it because I thought some grad student was reaching out to me about my family name. (And probably trying to get my credit card info.) Twenty minutes later, it clicked—didn’t Jacob say he was going to start this story soon? And I realized this was the beginning. I hadn’t even questioned the reality of that first email. 

Q. What is the most important grammatical construct to ever exist? (And why?)

This is a tough question to answer! I think verbs in the imperative mood are pretty cool because they’re one of the few parts of speech that can stand alone as a complete sentence. Stop. Help. Run! The noun (you) is implied. From a pragmatic perspective, commands are important to move from talk into action.

I am not sure this counts as a “grammatical construction,” but speech acts are so interesting to me. A speech act is an utterance that is, in itself, an action. It doesn’t describe an action or request an action—it is the action. You perform the act by saying it. For example, “I nominate you for president,” “I challenge you to a duel,” or “you’re fired.”

Q. As a follow-on to the last question—what is the most horrific grammatical construct to ever exist? What strikes terror in you? What should be keeping us all up at night?

So, I love and appreciate prepositional phrases. The prepositional phrase (e.g., with a werewolf, under a full moon) is a useful grammatical construction. However, it is so easy to just pile preposition on top of preposition until your sentence is a word salad. 

For example: On the day that Delilah Horvat contacted me with regard to her dedek wanting to put a curse on me with a box with a wolf effigy inside of it, I, with great trepidation, knew that I needed to get into the box with the wolf and break it into pieces on the ground within a circle of salt before the full moon.

This is a huge pet peeve, and it can be a linguistic crutch. One of my co-workers uses the phrase “with regard to” in every other sentence (not exaggerating), and I have to read all of his emails multiple times to understand what he’s saying. 

Just stop. Use fewer words.

Q. Before you were thrown into the immersive story, did you have any expectations about it? If so, how did those compare to what actually happened?

I had so little conception of what you would do, honestly. And once the story began, with those emails from Amon, I assumed most of the story would take place digitally. I’d get emails, maybe a letter in the mail. But then I found a note on my apartment door, a box under my car, a voicemail message from a number I could actually call, a box literally buried underground for me to dig up, and an honest-to-god ritual (complete with a salt circle, sage, and an amulet) to break the curse on my family.

So many stories are confined to the page—or the screen, or the stage. We flip the pages of a book, or read stories online, or watch an engrossing film. Or we hear stories recounted to us from others, experiencing them secondhand. Even immersive theatre is still usually confined to a building, and you know that you’re not supposed to get up out of your seat and start interfering with the plot unless prompted. The only truly immersive stories are the ones we experience ourselves, in our real lives. We can look back at the events we’ve experienced and say “that would make a good anecdote” or “‘this phase of my life had a clear story arc” or “I’m opening a new chapter of my life.” But how often do we get to experience a real-life story that someone else creates for us?

Q. In the event of a nuclear apocalypse, are cockroaches or comma splices more likely to survive? (And why?)

Comma splices. Because any living being can be killed (I have gotten used to smashing Texas-sized cockroaches recently), but as long as some human beings exist, they will use comma splices. Also, in a post-apocalyptic world, it’s way more likely people will think, “We’re just trying to survive here. After everything that’s happened, are you really fixating on my grammar, that is so trivial.”

Which, honestly, is fair. I wouldn’t be pointing out anyone’s comma splices in that situation either (only in my head).

Q. Between when Absolution happened and when all this started getting published online, did you try to tell anyone about it? What did you tell them? How did it go?

I told my boyfriend and a couple of friends about Absolution, but it is really hard to fully encapsulate the story from beginning to end. I explained the premise of the story (I got clues that revealed my family had been cursed to turn into werewolves on our 25th birthdays) and described how you laid out the clues. Thanks to you, I had loot to show them as well (including the badass wolf effigy that Tae made, which I am still amazed broke perfectly).

Everyone thought the story was really cool, but I know that I didn’t do it justice. There are so many realistic details, interconnected clues, and cool surprises. I found it difficult to share the full story, in order, without saying “oh wait, first I need to explain this” or communicating my thought process piecing the clues together. It’s also not a type of story that people are familiar with. I’m definitely happy to be able to share your online account of Absolution.

Q. Werewolf says what?

What? This is a strange question…

Q. Do you have a favorite moment from the story? If so, what was it and why?

I have a lot of favorite moments: the moment I figured out that the curse was about werewolves (after scanning for every detail in those news articles you fabricated); the moment I realized you put a magnetic box underneath my car, even though you lived pretty far away at the time (I couldn’t wait and figured out that clue while at work); and of course, the final ritual to break the curse and avoid my fate, smashing the wolf effigy.

But I think my favorite moment was figuring out that there was an actual box buried in a nearby park. It took me a while to identify where it was hidden, and then I had to follow a series of clues to try to determine where in the park it was buried, and then we literally dug up a box hidden in the ground. I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, and finding that box in the ground was so satisfying.

You know those murder mystery kits you can buy, where they send you a bunch of photographs and letters and witness statements, and you need to use the clues to solve a murder? This was like that, except it felt real

Q. Werewolves vs. Vampires—who wins? (And why?)

Trick question. At some point, a vampire would bite one of the werewolves without killing them, and then we’d have vampire werewolves. Vampire werewolves win for sure.

Q. What's it like being the protagonist in a story?

I never really thought of myself as a character while playing out Absolution. I was just interacting as myself. Reading about Absolution online has allowed me to experience it from a different perspective. A story feels different from the outside. 

Being the protagonist in a story feels like your normal life but with a narrator who knows where the story is going. I got to experience the story in real time with no foreknowledge. But I knew at every step of the way that there was an answer. Every riddle had a solution. The emails from Amon would lead to something interesting. My interactions with Delilah wouldn’t be a dead end. It was like having a movie voiceover who interjects in between scenes (“little did I know back then…”), reminding the viewer that the story is going somewhere—don’t worry. 

Q. You were there as the story played out, and then years later, you read about it online. Did you discover anything new here that you didn't already know?

Yes! I loved getting to see your puzzle-writing process. I got to experience all the clues you crafted in their final forms, so it’s fascinating getting insight into their construction. You included a printout of the car riddle with handwritten edits—as well as some of the harder riddle options—in the scrapbook you made for me after Absolution concluded, but it’s different reading about your decision-making process now.

I also learned some cool tips like using coffee to make paper look aged!

Q. Some people reading (you know who you are) this may think that this entire thing was invented as a hoax to put on the internet, and there's no way it ever happened. What would you like to say to that person? I mean—to those people? 

This would be a pretty elaborate hoax! To create all the physical props, translate messages into Slovenian, get ahold of Slovenian coins, stage photos, go through the trouble of creating riddles and puzzles that were challenging but not impossible…even if this story never happened in real life, you’d have to create those elements for the online version. And why would you do all that and then not execute the story in real life?

(Unless it’s in service of some greater conspiracy…)

Q. Would you ever consider creating an immersive experience yourself? If you did make one, what kind of story would it be?

I would love to. I personally love retelling/reimaginings of fairy tales and myths. I think it would be cool to create an immersive experience where the protagonist slowly realizes that they are not only a protagonist in their own story, but the protagonist in a recognizable story. And once it clicks, do they go along with the narrative they know, or try to break free from it?

Q. Any final thoughts? This is obviously your one and only chance to just go wild and howl out anything you want!

Owwwww-oooooo! I mean, I’m really grateful we broke that curse before it was too late. Just living my best, werewolf-free life here.

"Woof. Sorry, what?"
Zarina Rosiello with her serious work face. A small swoop of green is on the left side of her photo.
Zarina Rosiello