William “Bill” Jefferson, author of the 2022 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work winner “Presence, the Play.” (Photo: press kit)

Script, a playwright native to the fictional island of Estillyen, suffered a coma after falling from a balcony on the opening night of his play “Presence.”

Script is the protagonist of William “Bill” Jefferson’s new novel “Presence, the Play,” which depicts his comatose state after the fall, and what he learns as he tries to save the island of Estillyen from Lucifer.

Last month, “Presence, the Play” won the 2022 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work at the Media Ecology Association’s (MEA) annual convention in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

In recent years, the Mary Shelley Award has been won by Ernest Cline, author of “Ready Player One” and Dave Eggers, author of “The Circle.” A full list of the award’s recipients since 2003 can be found here

The author and his inspiration

Jefferson is the owner of Storybook Barn, a nearby event venue with a fairytale-like charm primarily used for weddings. He’s also the author of several other books, including “Messages,” “The Point” and “Redemption.” 

Born in Springfield, Jefferson spent 30 years outside of Southwest Missouri, living in London and Moscow before moving back to the area in Rogersville 13 years ago. Jefferson said he’s worked for nonprofit organizations, primarily Bible societies.

While Jefferson said his faith plays a role in his work, he doesn’t necessarily write in the evangelical sphere, comparing himself to the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Presence, the Play” was not Jefferson’s first time writing about the fictional Isle of Estillyen, in the Storied Sea, as it’s a setting for many of his novels.

“[Estillyen] is a fascinating place,” Jefferson said. “I guess you could say I invented it, but I think more correctly I discovered it. It’s a long, long way away, no matter where you start, where your destination is way off. It’s sort of off Scotland somewhere in my mind. But you can get there because it’s mystically near.”

The fictional Isle of Estillyen, where Presence, the Play and other books by William Jefferson take place. (Photo: press kit)

A lot of inspiration for the Isle of Estillyen comes from what is now Storybook Barn. A former dairy farm, the barn and its accompanying “Writer’s Cottage” have been standing for 140 years. 

Despite its success as an event venue and the inspirational contributions it has made to his writing, Jefferson has plans to sell Storybook Barn. Between repairs and day-to-day operations, it takes a lot of time to maintain that he could otherwise spend writing books. 

“I started writing seriously 10 years ago,” Jefferson said. “Then I developed Storybook Barn and that’s taken so much work to restore and do and put that business in place that I had to take like two years away from it. That’s probably why we’re probably going to eventually sell Storybook Barn. I want to dedicate all of my time to writing nonstop. I’ll need seclusion to do that, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that here.”

Despite the recurring location across his anthology, his novels are not part of a series. Aside from introducing new characters, he introduces a theme readers may find familiar in their everyday lives. 

Co-awardee and the audio adaptation

An audio adaptation of the novel by director Sue Zizza (from New York-based Sue Media Productions) was also a recipient of the award. Zizza is a professor at New York University, where she teaches audio production. 

“Once again, director Sue Zizza has pulled together a top-notch batch of narrators to portray a variety of somewhat Tolkien-ish characters in a modern parable about staying present in a largely virtual world,” narrator Robert Fass, who portrayed two of the novel’s characters in the audio adaptation, said on Facebook. 

The rest of the cast members and more information about how to access “Presence, the Play” can be found on Jefferson’s website or Zizza’s production company’s website.

“Families looking for an exceptionally well-produced story for all ages will enjoy ‘Presence, the Play,’” Kaite Stover, the director of public services at the Kansas City Public Library, said in a review. “The message may feel familiar, but the outstanding editing, sound effects, and high-quality vocal talent elevates the plot. A good family-friendly audio to help generate conversation about how we impact (small and large) members of our community.”

About ‘Presence, the Play’ (no spoilers)

“Lucifer, the ultimate antagonist, appears on a stage of luminous ice to declare the modern age of media ecology has swept away the dated notion of presence,” a description of the story reads. “Thus, is presence ‘utterly passé,’ and do pixels gain prominence over presence?”

The book was published in May 2021, and happened to somewhat align with some of the messages relayed at this year’s convention, including using “technology as a connecting agent.”

“Presence, the Play” analogizes the dangers of social media and media algorithms. The reader follows Script as he navigates his way through a coma, and discovers how we have become so disconnected in an overconnected world. 

Jefferson spoke highly of the convention’s keynote speaker, Tiffany Shlain, who previously published the book “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.” 

“I love that whole subject of media ecology,” Jefferson said. “What are the social platforms doing in the world today; how are they shaping us, why are we tracked by algorithms and to monitor us as products. I think it’s an extremely important subject.”

The award, named after the author of the classic science fiction story “Frankenstein,” is given to various narrative forms that integrate media ecology attributes. 

MEA is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community.” 

The award certainly exposed the Springfield-born author to a larger, global community, yet Jefferson was still humble about the recognition.

“We just entered ‘Presence, the Play’ in for the fiction award and it came back ‘yes,’ and I went there; It was a long way down [to Rio de Janeiro], I got a piece of paper, and I brought it back, and it’s in one of my rooms around here all wrinkled, I need to iron it,” Jefferson said before recounting that the award was displayed behind glass. “No, I think my wife took it and got it framed.” 

While the subjects of his newest story aren’t necessarily part of a pattern among his other books, Jefferson said that he would like to continue writing fictional stories, and perhaps, one day, nonfiction, about the effects social media, virtual reality and the internet have on how we interact as humans. 

“I think the subject of presence is the one I want to continue on with,” Jefferson said. “Because I think it’s so utterly important in a Mark Zuckerberg-world.”

A positive review from Goodreads, where it received 4.21 stars out of 5, with 57 ratings, said: 

“I am not an avid reader of allegorical fiction, but I was immediately immersed in this story…

Reading this work truly led me to think more critically about the society I live in. Upon Script’s first trip into Hell, he hears Lucifer say these words: ‘Never before in the prolonged stretch of human existence did the Race bow down to algorithms, pixels, and dream-filled incarnate visions.’”

Those interested in learning more about Script’s comatose adventure and looking at our virtually immersed world through the fictional lens of William Jefferson can read the novel, or listen to the audiobook, which jointly won the Mary Shelley Award, on Audible

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is a general assignment reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen, with a focus on regional politics. McGee most recently worked at Carbon Trace Productions, a documentary film company, as a producer. He’s a Missouri State University graduate and former reporter at student-led newspaper The Standard. More by Jack McGee