The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson, is a story from Periphery 47. It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.
Something I look for when reading through Periphery submissions isn’t just a good story. More than a sold structure, a well paced narrative, or engaging characters, what I look for is how authors use the structure of language to communicate. Because there is basically unlimited variance in how even a single sentence can be written, that level of detail can work incredibly hard for the story, if only the author pays attention. To me, much of the elegance of writing is that because how one goes about creating a story is so open, each decision has the ability to become meaningful. Decisions don’t all have to be painstakingly thought over, but authors can play tricks and layer meaning into even minute choices that are astonishing. The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson from Periphery 47, is exemplary of that attention to detail, and just how hard syntax can work to tell a story.
that you are narrating a character running a long distance. How could sentence structure show the passing
of time, and the scattered thoughts of the runner? Take a look at how Nelson narrates Patrick’s
Sixteen miles now, pound, pound. I’m fucking tired. I’m golden as shit. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind when you run; crazy thoughts. The runner’s high starts deep into the run; you say the strangest things. You laugh but it’s casual. When you run the senseless things rise to the surface and take some sort of form before dissipating like the sweat from your skin evaporating into the air.
The short sentences that begin the paragraph bounce around
from thought to thought. They jar the
reader with their quick change of subject, while also matching the pounding
footstep-rhythm established in the first sentence. The scattered thoughts both underscore how
tired Patrick is, but also hint at the distance he has run between
thoughts. How much time passed between
the start of mile sixteen, and Patrick imagining thoughts sweating from his
skin? If each sentence perfectly flowed
into the next, one could easily assume that they were one right after the other:
a continuous flow of thoughts. That is
not the case. The jarring distance
between thoughts easily translates to the distance Patrick has run.
breathless semicolons that connect thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise make a
great deal of sense next to each other. I
love the simple description of runner’s high as “I’m golden as shit”. It is nonsensical, and seemingly random, but perfectly
encapsulating the fatigued thoughts of mile sixteen. The comment feels like an inside joke Patrick
has with himself, that only really becomes funny when exhaustion has overcome
you. You don’t have to run sixteen miles
to understand the wild thoughts that beat through the fatigue of running. The clipping sentences, each with different
thoughts, show the reader how tired Patrick is beyond Nelson simply saying
syntax alone, Nelson underscores the point of both how far Patrick has run, as
well as how tired he is. Through choices
the author made, not about the narrative, nor the character, he was able to convey
meaning through the construction of language.
Another example that shows just how well Nelson makes his points through syntax is the second sentence in the story
My sister Donna had already awoken, and sat at the kitchen table, wearing her small eyeglasses and Cinderella pajamas, pretending to read the National Geographic and actually sipping at a cup of coffee.
Donna shouldn’t be drinking coffee. She knows this, and Patrick knows this. It is something she does with a little bit of
pride and little bit of shame. It isn’t
hard to picture her hiding the coffee mug behind the pages of the National
Geographic magazine. Nelson never says
any of this. What he does say, however, comes
from his construction of the sentence.
Just as Donna is hiding her habit from Patrick so too, is Nelson hiding
his description of it from the reader.
clause of the sentence, an independent clause, stand alone, almost like a cursory
glance from Patrick. The longer he looks,
the more he sees, starting with where Donna is sitting, what she is wearing,
what she is pretending to be doing, and finally what she is actually doing. Nelson hides what is actually happening, within
the sentence itself, and by doing so, tells the reader so much more about Donna
and Patrick as characters, and their relationship as siblings.
I was talking with a friend recently, when she off-handedly said that no one under twenty-five knows how to use a semi-colon, and that struck me as odd. Not simply because semi-colons are rarely useful in 280 character tweets, but because they are another tool for a writer to use. Not knowing how to use a semi-colon would be like an artist not using a specific color. (Though Semi-colons are admittedly the color terracotta of grammatical tools). It’s not that writer’s need to use them, but simply knowing about all of the choices that go into the writing process allows authors to make more meaningful decisions about language. And making meaningful decisions about language is the most specific definition I have ever heard about the term ‘Literature’
Applesauce by Ashley Flaws is a story from Periphery 55 and can be
found in the archives as well as the story of the week. This post will be talking about how the story
uses plot twists and foreshadowing. If
you have not read the story I would recommend that you do so before reading
this. You have been warned. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing,
narrative, art, and everything in between.
Applesauce is the kind of story that made an editor get up on a table and
shout about when it was first discussed before the Periphery staff. It is the kind of story that sucker punches
you in the gut on the fourth page; M. Night Shyamalan would weep hot tears that
this wasn’t his idea. Beneath the talk
of Barbies and triple scoops of ice cream lays something dark, and I love it
for that. What I want to talk about this
week is how Crisscross Applesauce uses foreshadowing and why its plot twist
To me, the
beauty of Crisscross Applesauce is how effortlessly it misdirects from
the plot twist. The quick succession of
names on the first page of the story, of the girl’s Barbies, of the principle and
school teacher, keeps a reader from focusing on the fact that you never get the
main character’s name. I didn’t realize the
name is never given until much later in the editing process of edition 55 than
I would like to admit. That is how perfectly
Crisscross Applesauce misdirects.
The most effective
way Crisscross Applesauce misdirects is by framing the story from the perspective
of a troubled child. Details about a “Cool
trick off the swing” to make her mother smile, or fantasizing about what it
must be like to be seventeen, not only attach the reader to the main character,
but stop them from picking up on what is really going on. They also drown out the other details that
could point the reader in the right direction like, “We have matching pigtails
braids and the same pink dress on” The
framing also makes readers think differently of details that would otherwise hint
at the twist. Details such as how the
twins have to “Talk really loud because Mom and Dad are yelling downstairs” makes
the reader worry about the girls and their home life, long after it becomes apparent
that her parents are yelling about her mental health. As a first-time reader, I was much more
concerned about the parent’s fight and how it affected the twins, than what the
fight was about. Flaws does a wonderful
job of showing how much the fighting disturbs ‘the twins’ and making me care
about that, rather than the hints put into the conversation.
first line of the story, the identity of the ‘twins’ is construed. “I talk too much, that’s what my sister, Cali
says” The first thing the reader knows
is not the name of the point-of-view character, but her sister. Also From that line, the only thing the
reader knows about the speaker, is what her sister thinks of her. Immediately, the identity of both of characters
is intertwined. On top of that, little hints
like how Flaws describes the girls playing with their dolls: “I saw him. He
looked nice,” Cali makes Susie say” have an entirely different meaning when the
main character makes Cali makes Susie say.
Early foreshadowing cements the twist in the story, making it seem more
real and earned.
of Cali crying and the speaker consoling her, become incredibly worrying, once
the twist is revealed. Most importantly,
they don’t simply reframe the story in a new context, but shows the interiority
of the main character. That second point,
of having a plot twist do something more than shock, is a key part of plot
twists that is often forgotten. A twist
should be shocking, but it also should do something more than that. Returning to our friend M. Night Shyamalan,
the reason why the twist in The Sixth Sense is so good, is because it not
only reframes the entire story, but the conversations between Cole and Malcolm show
how Cole is caring about spirits, and gives insight into how Malcolm is unable
to accept his own death The twist gives
great insight into both characters rather than simply shocking the viewer. Crisscross Applesauce does the same thing. Through Cali, the reader can understand how
the main character is disturbed about her parents yelling. The conversations between Cali and the main
character show the internal resilience of a child, and how it can go
wrong. The twist also sheds light on a
dysfunctional family, and how parents struggle to help their children.
at Crisscross Applesauce I wonder how many people figured out the twist before
it was revealed. I wonder if Flaws was
laughing the whole time while writing this piece because she would be playing her
reader like a fiddle. I went from
concerned to sympathetic to worried to horrified in the span of less than 1800
Tarantino said in a 2005 interview about his movies, “I want to play you as an
audience. I want to be the conductor and
you’re my orchestra. There are sounds
that I make you to make, and feelings I get you to feel, then I stop you from feeling
those feelings, then I stop you from feeling that, and make you feel something
else yet again. If a director call pull
that off, that is a real lucky audience member”
That is specifically what Flaws did in Crisscross Applesauce, and
I’m still not over it.
Stuart has written about genre fiction for Tor.com, Barnes &
Noble and others. He co-owns the Parsec award winning podcast
network, Escape Artists. And Alasdair has been a person hero of mine
since I started listening to Podcasts. I
talked with Alasdair last Friday about his Hugo nomination, podcasting, and the
movie Speed (Yes that one). During
our conversation a lot of books, and podcasts were mentioned. Links to several of them can be found after
the transcription. It is an absolute
delight to be able to share our conversation with the Periphery Blog. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I did!
and Podcastle were recently shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society’s best
Audio award, but was it ever difficult to be taken seriously as a podcast in
Alasdair: Yes! There is this connection between print and literature that hasn’t broken down yet, and some days we still aren’t taken seriously. I have had people come up to me and ask ‘why are you doing that’ when talking about podcasts. But it is getting better. You can see people like Aaron Mahnke with Lore achieving incredible success so quickly and it is hard to say podcasts don’t matter then.
actually really interesting because I have been following Aaron Mahnke’s book
publishing with Barnes and Noble and that has seen incredible success and I am
glad that it can be taken more seriously.
Absolutely. I would argue that there are kind of two faces of horror
(thought that sounds a little obtuse and also insulting because they are both
good looking guys) but I would argue that the two faces of pop culture horror
at the moment are Jordan Peele with every movie he does and the Twilight Zone,
and Aaron Mahnke. I had a little bit of a complex relationship with Lore
for a while because I absolutely love the show, but we talk a lot at Escape
Artists about what we call the “Sin of Consistency”. We are a 15 year
old company. We are literally the
initial gold rush town saloon that everyone drank in and then went off and got
rich. Sometimes that is a little hard to deal with. I put my hand on my heart, it can be a little
bit dispiriting. And seeing Aaron have
just a rocket strapped to his career, for about five minutes I was like,
“well…” The moment you see the amazing work he is doing, what a powerful
advocate Aaron is for audio fiction and podcasting, that tiny little moment of
“why isn’t that me” is replaced with, “I am standing next to that guy” The
lovely thing about the community is that it is still so small that if one of us
is lifted we are all lifted. Aaron does really good work, I have a lot of
time for him. Also I want his
voice! Good lord that man has a buttery
Graham: Me too! That actually leads me right to another question
I wanted to ask you that came from episode 656 of Pseudopod. It was called House Party Blues and
was narrated by Halloween Bloodfrost. And I was obsessed with jer
narration of it because it was so different from a lot of the narrators the
podcast usually has. So what do you look for in a good narrator?
Alasdair: That is
a really interesting question which I suspect every editor we have could answer
a little better. What I know everybody tends to go for is two things: We
have worked really hard, especially across the last couple of years, and a lot
of this has really been championed by Podcastle, on specificity.
For example if we have a Swedish story, our belief is that that story works
best with a Swedish voice. I know a couple of stories the last time I
checked, we bought and are actually still in the holding pattern because we
haven’t found a narrator to fit them yet. I am really proud of our staff
for doing that because that specificity is something you can’t buy. To draw from my own tiny, tiny rural
upbringing, hypothetically if I was to listen to a Manx horror story,
two things would happen. First I would probably recognize three people
from it, and one of the locations, Second that I would take it less seriously
if it didn’t come from somewhat with a Manx accent. I think it ties to
inclusivity. It is not especially easy
sometimes, but as audio producers the least we can do is make sure the voice of the
story matches the content of the story.
So that is one side of it. The other is there are some people who you listen to them talk and you say, “I want to hear you read things” One of my best friends is this amazing force of nature author called Chloe Yates. Chloe lives in Switzerland, but is incredibly Cockney, and has one of those voices with mirth baked into it. Chloe loves saying things, and Chloe loves to perform a little bit. I remember about 5-6 years ago Marguerite and I were at a 1 day convention and we were babies at this point going, “Oh look there are people with book stalls,” so we are sitting in the back of this reading and Chloe stands up and hits this combination of perfect diction and this incredible rhythm. Because she is a poet as well, she understands structure and vocabulary perfectly, and as one we looked at each other and went, “We need her”. She has narrated like 6 things for us since then, so I hate to use the term, “X factor,” but it is that combination of geographical specificity and we know it when we hear it.
Graham: Is there
a kind of story you guys look for that sounds better spoken aloud or in a
weird thing about that is its actually easiest to answer that question by
telling you what we don’t look for. The simple practicalities of what we
do, if you have a story with 8-9-10 speaking parts that are all quite chunky
speaking parts, we are going to struggle with that. That being said we do
them every now and then, I actually just recorded some lines for a show that I
think has just gone live on Escapepod which I think has at least half
the staff reading different people which is really cool. Big casts tend
to be a problem.
This is one drawn
from my own horrible, horrible writing circle days when people would say, “When
you have an entire page of italics as a flashback that will never transfer
across to audio,” and unfortunately they were kind of right. In terms of
what we look for, 1st person is always
what we look for but it is never a deal breaker. And this is at least as
much personal taste as what we look for if you give us an epistemological
story, one made of letters or correspondence, that is so easy, and so good, and
so fun. I did one for Pseudopod a couple of months ago, I forget the
stories name but it was a story told in the museum notes for pieces of
scrimshaw for a the pieces recovered from a whaling vessel. It was just
brilliant and so fun to do. Because you
are almost describing seven scenes like you are describing a silent movie so
that kind of stuff we are always up for.
Yeah smallish casts always work, dialogue heavy often works, and
anything which, because audio is so stripped down, you can get a little
eccentric with structure. Stuff which is a little experimental is always
Graham: On the Escape
Artists website under values it says, “The art of audio fiction is the
combination of text, sound, and voice” I have noticed every now and then
you guys will play with sound effects or music layered on top of
narration. Can you talk about you ideology behind that?
Alasdair: That is
entirely on a case by case basis. We have two groups of staff who are
unsung heroes: the first are the associate editors which is the professional
term for slush wranglers. The slush wranglers are the folks who are the
first point of contact between every publication and every author. They are vital. We are working really hard to get the patreon
to the level where we can pay them at the moment because their work is thankless,
heroic, and largely ignored. The second group of people who are
thankless, heroic, and largely ignored are my favorite group of mad scientists
who are the audio producers. I have
never met an audio producer in my life who I have not A) instantly liked and B)
instantly been weirdly impressed by.
They all have this look and this sound to them where its, “Yeah this is
good, but if you give me the real stuff” you know? And every now and
then, it comes up where editorial says, can do you something with this, and
without exception this happens where the audio producer goes, “Yeah I can do
that for you”
We don’t do it
all the time because it is labor intensive, and it kind of damages the
impact. If you find yourself playing with what a story sounds like so
that you can say you’ve played with what a story sounds like, it kind of takes
edge off, but where it calls for it is, it is so much fun to do and just
extraordinary powerful. Weirdly there is actually an example I can give
you from my other podcasting job which bears this out. I am actually voicing a character called
Peter Lucas on the UK horror podcast the Magnus Archives. You will
listen to the Magnus Archives and you will listen to fans, and they will
tell you Peter is currently a villain. I choose not to believe this, I
choose to believe he is the unsung hero of the show, but they do this really
cool thing when he enters the room. The schtick behind the Magnus
Archives is that they are the largest parapsychology research institute in
Europe and a new archivist has just started and the previous archivist had no
filing system so Jonathan just grabs a file at random and narrates it.
His feeling is that if he can just narrate it.
His feeling is if he can just get sound files of all of these eventually
he can get them in order. It is an
incredible show. I started off as a fan
and basically badgered them until they gave me something to do which is a surprisingly
common career model for me.
“Can do this?”
As a result of all of
this there this recurrent sound effect in the magnus Archives kind of
clunking as Johnathan turns it on and starts to read. Peter, every time
he appears screws up the tape, For reasons you find out very, very quickly as
he does appear so there is now this Pavlovian thing where when the tapes
suddenly start accelerating or distorting, people go, “Oh God!” and it
has become kind of his signature. So you
can do that kind of stuff with Audio. Which doesn’t have a visual element but
feels really visceral and real. I love
Graham: It was an
episode that aired sometime in July it was called The Waxworks and it
was very low-key but it was just the sound of dripping in the background of the
story. I was listening to it and I took
out my earbuds and I was like something is dripping in my house because I
didn’t know that it was in the podcast.
It took me so long to figure out because I have until then I hadn’t
heard anything like that in Pseudopod
if it makes you feel any better, my first job out of university was I ran a
comic and game store in York. We had a couple of local sculptors who
produced high end stuff and would sell it to the store. One of them was a bit of an electrical
engineer, so he was a bit fancy. So he used to rig stuff with motion sensors,
and sound chips and all that kind of stuff. So I open one morning, and I
make my way down to the store, went in and turned the alarm off. You know that thing you get sometimes in the
morning where you get 10-15 minutes of this is all autonomic functions, your brain
isn’t really there. Sometimes after the
kettle had boiled, and I had made my first cup of tea, I realized someone was
screaming. That was the day that I learned there is a physical sensation
that feels like a crash scene, where suddenly everything snaps into focus, and
you think, “I think something very bad is about to happen. And I did the thing that you of course never
do in a horror movie which is, “I’ll go look”
I walked around the store and it was not a big store, but every 20
seconds or so I heard screaming. Finally I walk down to the front window
where one of these statues had been put, and it had been knocked from ‘safe’ to
‘on’ as I’d come in, so as every car and every pedestrian that was driving
caused this horror movie statue to be screaming his head off as not quite the
Halloween theme played. That was a fun
morning, that was a really fun morning.
listen to a lot of podcasts and people always will comment about how the
experience of listening to something like listening to like a podcast or
a book being read to you is very different from the experience of actually
reading it. What do you think about that?
think it’s true. I actually struggle with audiobooks an awful lot.
I am a professionally voracious reader, and especially this year. I’m on two Book prize jury’s which means I’m
basically having to read every single genre fiction novel released in the UK,
US, and Europe in the last 18 months, so yeah my postman hates me. I’m
doing quite a lot of digital or physical reading at the moment, but audiobooks
I just can’t do it. It is so weird,
because it’s long form, because you know I’ll go to 2-3 hours into something and
then change what I’m doing in the day and then go “Oh where was I?” I
know there is technology that enables me to do that now and I keep meaning to
look into it but I totally got the whole audiobook, physical book podcast weird
interrelation and dichotomy at the same time as all of them being subtly
it just the fact that it is long form? What about podcast make them more
Honestly I think its duration. This is an interesting one because it
actually ties into our origins. We exist because, good Lord, 15 years
ago, Sarah Ely, was bored on her commute and started reading 45-minute long
stories into her MP3 player so she could listen to them. You hear it a lot
with the audio drama shows as well. By
the way the explosion of audio dramas in the last couple of years is that thing
everyone has been looking for. You know
how you kind of cast around at the back end of this particular decade of the
21st century and go, “Where is the good news? The fact that genre fiction
audio drama is as massive as it is, is the questing beast, is that universally
We went for
it because of the commute thing, they went for it partially because of that but
partially because a lot of the audio drama stuff inevitably maps onto the early
fictional blueprints of the cliffhanger cereals, which are “Here is half and
hour, oh no something is exploding, tune in tomorrow!” It is a natural fit for
that kind of thing. I know there are
podcasts that run much, much longer. The
No Sleep podcast, who are our good friends, put out incredible amounts
of content. I think of them as fruitcakes: here is a massive amount of
content: eat it a slice at a time. I’ve cheerfully hacked my way through
those one or two stories at a time or an hour at a time, but for some reason
for me an hour is my limit. After that I need to change it up, which is a
shame because there is stuff like them and stuff like Hardcore Histories. I’m always like, “This looks great, and I
have no time. Good Luck!”
why do you think it’s it is genre fiction that is exploded in the podcasting
scene versus anything else”
have two answers for that. The first is the reason genre fiction always
explodes and that’s because we love it. I had a very formative experience
a few years ago back when I lived in York. Somehow, because York is not a
big city at all, I came to the attention of the local BBC radio as a
nerd. This was around Doctor Who had restarted I think David
Tennant was the lead then, so they had me on to talk Doctor Who because
I was the local comic store guy and I was a nerd and I will always, always, always
remember the presenter going, “What is it about Doctor Who that appeals
to people?” and I said, “Well its really good science fiction and interesting
and engages with ideas” and he got up and went, “But It’s not science fiction,
its just good TV” I think about that
interview a lot because I think that is the cusp of why genre fiction is
mainstream now, because there is weird Rubicon that gets crossed because on one
side it is that weird thing that the kids in the metal t-shirts listen to or
read or whatever, but on the other hand “My dad watched that” because of so
many factors whether it’s the internet or the aging geek community, all of this
stuff smells right so it gets so much more accepted.
podcasting is the most perfect example of that where what you have found is people’s
hunger for escapist stories. There is
the point to be made as well I feel that the unending horror show of news that
has been the last few years means people are more willing to dive into a story
for 45 minutes. The rise of podcasting
has mapped to the rise of audio drama and has resurrected short fiction and we
have proof of that. A lot of short fiction
markets didn’t exist a few years ago when we and a couple of other shows started
and now they do. People want to fill
their day with something that brings them joy and hope, and genre fiction, all
of it (and I always get into a little bit of trouble when I says this) is fundamentally
hopeful. This is a chance to take back a
little bit of you day and turn it into something good, and I think everyone
you think that the fact that podcasting is so genre specific has hurt it in
being taken seriously?
Alasdair: That is a really interesting question, there is a project that I keep wanting to do, which is build the timeline of how many times podcasting has been reinvented. Obviously there is 2005 with the initial breakthrough, and then there is every 6 weeks for the last 4-5 years where ‘Serial invented podcasting’, ‘Mark Maron has a podcast’ ‘Conan O’Brian has invented podcasting’ and it’s a weird one because the first couple of times you legitimately get upset about it or at very least very frustrated, and now, well one of Marguerite and mine’s favorite movies is Pacific Rim and now we just look at each other and go “Reset the clock” and wait for the next on to come around. I think podcasting as a medium is curiously divided. There is a massive, massive audience for the genre fiction and there is a massive audience for the pop culture stuff, and current affairs and sports. There is this weird belief that those audiences don’t talk to one another. It’s weird, it’s ubiquity seems to confuse entertainment journalists. I’ve been and am an entertainment journalist I know how hard it is to fill pages, at the same time, these stories are always the same: We had this brilliant idea for a show, people stand around a microphone and talk. Good lord really! Yet people bring massive audiences to the table.
massive audience there and I think the first group or organization that
recognizes them or reaches out to them is gonna be really extraordinary. It is a real shame because that’s the exact opposite
way the industry as a business is going.
You see these big groups coming in, you see all the wall gardens coming
up. Luminary which I am fairly certain
had a textbook worst PR campaign possible to start, I mean Luminary walked
through plate glass windows. They said literally
everything wrong and the real shame about it is they have got some really good
shows on the roster. Lauren Shippen is
with them. Lauren did The Bright Sessions
and The AM Archive with them.
She has been really open about and has talked about how Luminary had the
money to make her business sustainable and able to plan for the future. You can’t argue with that. You can absolutely argue with their appalling
communication strategy. But if they are
giving money to creatives to secure their business, that is not a bad
Spotify, 3-4 months ago Spotify rolled up on podcasting a little late. We were all expecting horrible, horrible
stuff to happen and it hasn’t, and I think we are all a little confused. Spotify has done the thing we all expect,
they will absolutely have exclusive shows I have no doubt, but they seem to be
the one who is cognizant of, how can I put this, comics and novelists Warren Allice
talks about news letters a whole lot and using the metaphor of the republic of news
letters. Newsletters are these curios
beacons of culture sometimes united by common links how blogs have almost
become prairie radio stations, they just fire content out to whoever might get
it. I kinda feel a little bit like what
Spotify is doing is trying to own a lot of prairie radio stations which seems to
be a good way to get around the wall garden problem, but at the same time, a
good way of legitimizing the business.
It’s a really weird one because on the one hand there is still the every
6 weeks someone inventing podcasting but on the other hand there is real money
to the business, I’m told, as I look at the tracks, through binoculars, and
sigh. (If you transcribe this please
make sure people know I’m trying to be funny, I don’t want to come across as
sounding wingy!) This is a really fun
and interesting and complex and at times frustrating time to be in this field,
but I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Graham. I want to talk about the Pseudopod Tapes and
how they came to be because I have been obsessed with them since they came out
explain this, I need to admit that when time travel is invented I kind of need
to go back in time and kick my own ass. I
have been doing the show, for I think this is my 11th year, and it
is fair to say that I did not have a coherent archiving structure or any
archiving structure for a considerable amount of time. So building these things has been a little
bit of a struggle. Basically they came
about because Adele Wearing who runs Fox Spirit Books, and is one of my
oldest friends, basically does the thing that she always does which is, “You
have a few books in you don’t you sweetie?” and suddenly you are planning
something without quite being aware that it is being done. So we put the first one out and it did really
well, and then we put the second one out which my understand is that the second
is a little bit more of a slow burner but it is really useful to me in a couple
of ways. I am kind of using them to
chart my development as a host. The whole
thing that ‘writing is really easy you just open a cut on your hand and bleed
onto the page’ I kinda did that for a while.
It is strangely refreshing to go back to a couple of bad years and go “Wow!
I am not there anymore”
I can give
you a perfect example. Back when I lived
in York I used to get a lift into my day job with a friend of mine who was, and
is, an avid listen. She was about 6-7 months
behind and all kinds of stuff was happening in my life at the time. I changed jobs, I moved out of the house I had
been living in, my relationship was in the process of ending; one of those kind
of things where my life had burnt down but ultimately in a very good way. I got in the car one morning and she looked
at me and went, “Are you ok?” and I went “yes?” then I thought about it for a
moment and went, “Are you listening to April? Yeah April was not a good month” I would never talk about that kind of stuff
specifically, but an awful lot of it would bleed across. It has become my operating philosophy.
I’m glad you
are talking about this today, because without going into details, I didn’t have
an especially positive experience at the Hugo ceremony this year despite being
a finalist. I did not win, which was not
actually the negative experience, but I wasn’t let into the Hugo losers party,
because as I understand it there were three losers parties going on at once and
shockingly, when you don’t have invites at the door, you kind of have an inaccessibility
problem. Kinda messed me up because I
struggle with self confidence a whole lot especially in professional circles
and I’ve been grumpy about it for about two weeks. I do the a weekly newsletter which is pretty
much the Pseudopod Tapes, but longer and frequently with excited shouting about
Netflix and I wrote a version of the newsletter earlier in the week that was
really grumpy. It is the least me thing,
I am just really bad at being grouchy because I go from this to ‘I am very
unhappy’ very monotone. And I threw it
all out. I was very honest. I talk about in there ‘this is how it made me
feel’. I have kinda been put on the ropes
by this and this week the newsletter has been more about reminding me of the
good stuff recently just as much as it is about “I watched season 1 of Wu
Assassins and its really good!”
It is the
same basic philosophy as the endcaps: sometimes they are a coping mechanism for
me and sometimes, I’ve been told, they are a coping mechanism for other
people. Regardless I try to be,
unfiltered is one of those terrifying phrases because you know you can hear people
like Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay warming up in the background saying, “I’ll
give you unfiltered”. I just try and be
honest and that seems to be the thing people respond to with the endcaps. Which as we are doing these collections with
3 and 4 and 5 and they may actually be one volume because I am still on 2013 and
that is a little embarrassing. The thing
I try and do is just be honest, and being honest through the lens of a horror
story but also at the same time for me.
I actually have another example to that, but I am aware that that was a
really long answer so if you have another question we can circle back to
Graham: No I
think that it is very interesting that the same ideology guides The Full Lid
and The Pseudopod Tapes. I
read the last couple of full lids, and it struck me that this would be an
interesting time to speak with you because the all of it is very fresh.
industry is very strange, and it speaks to a point I made earlier about how we
still struggle to be taken seriously where there is an element of ‘well this is
how it has always been’ for a lot of problems, and its not something that I
really like or believe in. There is a
phrase I have find myself using a lot in the last year which is ‘facing
backwards on the rocket’ and I think genre fiction at its worst does that all
that time where instead of steering towards the future which is better for everybody
we look back and go, “oh no look but look at all these fantastic things in the past!”
The past has a lot of lessons to teach us, but it is not somewhere we can
live. I think genre fetishizes it to a
very dangerous degree.
To go back
to the a horror panel that I had, I specifically asked for the title to be
changed. The original title was “Horror:
where have we been and where are we going?” because I knew full well that looking
at the guest I had on, that they would insist on talking about Lovecraft and Machen
and name 15 other authors who are admittedly very good but also dead-for-a-century-white-guys. I also knew that it was a losing battle and
it was! I had a guest who talked for
about 60% of the total time of the panel and insisted on brining up Lovecraft,
and made a little bit of a passive aggressive swipe saying, “I don’t know who changed
the title but I don’t think we should have done that” and I was like okay jolly
good lets move on. We have limited time
and when we have limited time I don’t feel like going over previously covered
ground is something we should be doing.
And weirdly this all stems from the digital field. Genre at its worst, and I am aware that I
talk a lot about genre at it’s worst at the moment, (I swear I like what I do I
swear I enjoy doing this!) Genre at it’s worst likes to do the same thing over
and over again.
There is a
very, very good twitter thread by a guy called D D Channark talking about Gardner
Dozois Hugo win this year. Dozois passed
away last year, off the record I had been told from a couple of the finalists
that as far as they were concerned, they had no chance of winning this year
because Gardner had died, so of course we was going to get it. There is absolutely a logic to that, that
makes a vast amount of sense. When you
look at the past, you honor the people that built it. But during his life Dozois has 15 Hugos. Giving him a final one posthumously was
lovely for his family, I believe it was his son that accepted it and was visibly
moved and it was a really, really lovely speech. It is a curious one because D D articulates
this better than I do, but it is lovely that the family had that. The practice which leads to that becoming the
default is often very unhealthy.
I mean one
of the other finalists this year was E. Catherine Tobler for her work on Shimmer. Shimmer folded last year after 13
years, they have never been on a Hugo shortlist. To my knowledge they have never been on a
Hugo longlist. She had never been
nominated for her editorial work either.
You look at Shimmer’s editorial background, they are a murderous
row of talent. Incredible writers got
their start there, and this publication existed for 13 years in a vacuum. There was a concerted effort to get them a posthumous
Hugo, and they didn’t place in the top 3.
I really struggle with that because coming in digitally, as I have done,
I look at these incredible people who have a decade plus on the clock in various
capacities, and to see an audience and still sometimes go “yeah, but that guy
was publishing 30 years” and giving priority to that is hard to deal with.
Graham: I have
to ask you, all the podcast that I hear from people who aren’t writers or
historians are all podcasts about serial killers and they seem to dominate the
market. I know people who listen to 9-10
different podcasts about them. I don’t understand
that phenomena. Do you?
Kind of, I’ve kind of dipped my toe into the true crime thing. Again this is kind of an interesting time to
be talking about it because a true crime shows have gotten in trouble recently
for functional plagiarism. I have a
couple of friends who love it. There are
two shows that I have made a point of checking in with. One is Criminal. Notionally it is a true crime show, but also
it has a very different approach. Each episode
of Criminal is basically an essay focusing on a different thing. They have covered the Lindbergh baby, D B Sweeney,
they have always found very human and humane angles. There is an incredible episode on Criminal
on a beloved Texan lawyer in the 70s who was flamboyant and ebullient and
completely corrupt. They talked about
all the folks who knew him and painted this incredible portrait of this guy who
these people clearly loved and at the same time is really wanted to pop in in
the head with a rake. It was very, very vibrant
and I think they do brilliant work.
also a show called Bear Brook which drilled down on a particularly horrible
case and they take an approach that almost deserves to be the blueprint for
true crime moving forward. The case was
cold for about 15 years then more investigation began to happen and progress began
to be made. They actually followed it
through to the announcement of who had committed the crime, and they still post
semi regular updates about this because this case ended up being one of the
catalysts of major innovation in a couple of key areas of forensics. They manage to capture the story in very
human terms while at the same time this horrifying series of murders has
ultimately helped fortify society from this happening again. I think it is that element that a lot of
shows miss. Many shows go, “ooo hooray
people are dead wooo!” in an effort to sensationalize it or make light of it
and that is a coping mechanism but I like context and for that reason Criminal
and Bear Brooks have been my top picks.
have always thought that true crime podcasts sit in a weird place generically
because they feel like a very specified genre like science fiction or fantasy
but they seem much more approachable.
absolutely yes. How can I put this. It maps perfectly onto genre fiction and publishing,
crime is the acceptable genre and always brushes against horror and sometime up
against fantasy and even science fiction too, but if you can sell it as a crime
novel your advance will be three times larger so will your audience and you
will get to be at the table the front of the book shelf.
circle back the Pseudopod tapes for a second, the Periphery Blog was 100%
inspired by the pseudopod tapes and the endnotes where you talk about a piece
of fiction in a very positive light and then expand on it without simply loading
praise onto it without reason. That is
something I have struggled with is being that effortlessly charismatic. Is there an line you walk when you write
those or expand upon them?
Yeah, I can tell you about the time I had to cross it. A few years ago we had a story that made it
all the way to the schedule, and how I do this, I will go in at the top of the month
read all the stories take some notes and build the endcaps. I got to this thing and I hated it, I loathed
it. It was everything I hate about exploitational
violence against women, Fetishization of gore, all those things I try not to talk
about. It comes down to honesty. I sat on it for a day or so and then I
contacted everyone who was on editorial at the time and said, “I don’t think I
can talk about this” I really hate it.
This was the first time in the decade.
I mean we have had stories come across the desk where I have gone, “This
is fine, there isn’t much I can say about this, but I can find nice things to talk
about”. This one I viscerally
loathed. We went backwards and forwards
about whether it was something we wanted someone else to host or whether to basically
how much I wanted to put the boot in. On
the one hand, we had bought the story, the check had slid. On the other, so we have bought the story and
now we are going to beat the guy up on air?
I worked really
closely with a few of the editors on an endcap that covered everything and was
again fiercely honest, I think they only line was, “I hated this story and here
is why” and then it dug into the ways that it didn’t work. Then it turned into this meta thing where, here
are the ways these things happen and here is why these stories exist, and it
has worth because it shines light on this reality. It was some of the hardest work I have ever
done and I am so proud of it because it worked and it proved that my
methodology had validity to it.
I talk about
this a lot in my work as a pop culture critic and analyst I am always incredibly
happy when I find an edge. It’s weird
one of my oldest friends, my journalistic mentors will regularly pop up and go,
“This was terrible!” and I will regularly pop up and go “This was terrible!” in
a much perkier voice because I worry an awful lot that I am too
charitable. I worry an awful lot that
because I can find worth in almost anything its always coming from me and not
that: not the story itself. Every time I
come across a piece of art that I can say, “No this is legitimately terrible
and I hate it” It feels like I’m taking a compass bearing. Its like “Nope that’s an edge let me put my
back to that go in the other direction”.
Its always nice to see the system work especially because like I say I
still have those dark moments where I’m like “No, I’m non-discerning, and like
everything, is this bad? I can’t tell if
this is bad”
of the things that I struggle with is when I am talking about stories it will
just be heaping praise with being critical.
Have you ever felt like that during endcaps or in the Pseudopod Tapes?
absolutely. One of the things that I
have found in the last 3-4 years where a natural rhythm has presented itself to
me where if there is something in the story that I really like I will use it as
an entry point. If there are other
elements of the story I didn’t like as much I will either not talk about then,
or use their relative smaller success as a study point and I’ll bring it up
then. That is something that I have
applied to all my pop cultural writing. The
issue of The Full Lid that went out today that has the review of Wu
Assassins which I really enjoyed. Its
like Highlander basically with 3-4 of the best martial artist on the
planet instead of sword fighting. But there
are elements of it that didn’t quite work.
If I had had more time, I went long on this one because I am easing back
into it, I would have talked about those with more detail, and I may do that in
a secondary piece. But those elements
were either something I didn’t feel especially culturally qualified to talk about
or something I felt was a passing remark than anything else. I mean the show arguably could do a lot more
with the fact the lead is Chinese Malaysian, but I know so little about
elements of that culture I don’t want to be that white guy saying, “They are
doing Malaysian wrong”
of the shows strongest episodes deals with the first time the protagonist
kills, and he is genuinely traumatized by it.
Two episodes later, he is snapping necks without a second’s
thought. Being very charitable, I think
that is something they are kicking into the second season to explore but its
one of the very few bum notes and it stands out all the more because of that. Nothing is ever perfect, but if something is
good enough I will focus on the positive aspects unless the negative aspects
need to be talked about for educational purposed and that is why we have stuff
like the trigger warnings. We work very
hard to keep those as non-spoilery as possible and as specific as possible, because
we don’t want people stumbling into stories that are gonna screw them up.
Graham: I have
noticed that those trigger warning have been tinkered with recently. Can you talk about that?
we have two or three elements of them.
There is grandfathered in one which is actually on the website which is
a full paragraph of us going, “It’s a horror show… It’s a horror show!”
We did a whole bunch of jokey one a few years ago now, my favorite of which is,
“The scientist pounds the table and goes my god man this is for mature
listeners!” Which I always really liked.
Recently we have had a lot of very good, very respectful feedback from
people saying that doesn’t work: we need a to be a little more specific. Now the third line we have is me, basically. I have a couple of lines where if the story
crosses them, I will talk about it. If
there is child abuse, I will talk about it.
If there is rape, I will talk about it.
We are still tinkering with the ambiguity of the language. Sean and Alex’s point, and it is a very good
one, is we need to be able to warn listeners, while not screwing up the story for
people that are okay with it. The level
is vague is something that gets tweaked an awful lot. The through line through all of this, I am
really heartened to see many other shows doing this as well, is we want listens
to be entertained, and we also want our listens to be safe. We are not interested in ambushing people. We would much, much rather be in the
situation where someone is warned off a story that they could actually deal
with and skips it to go to a story they can deal with then tricking or pushing
them into something that is going to put them in a bad place.
an interview did with the Thematic podcast you had mentioned that dad taught
you to read stories aloud in order to iron out grammar and sand down a story. Why does that method work?
This is one of the cornerstones to my father’s 22 year English teaching career,
and the moment he figured this out every tutorial took was much, much, much, much,
easier. Its pretty simple: there is
always a cognizant disconnect between what you think you are writing and what
you are writing. I still see this, I
still have to, not quite say them out loud but reread tweets before I send them
out because often there will be a word I thought about typing and didn’t. What he found, and I have found the same
thing, is that when you read a story out loud, you hear the rhythm of the words
on the page. Often that is the rhythm
you want, but when it isn’t then you trip up and stop talking, you don’t even
have to mark the page you know the word that tripped you up and doesn’t
think explanation makes an incredible amount of sense. Do you think that has fed into podcasting or
your ideology surrounding stories for podcasts?
god yes. That has probably fed into
everything I write. I never actually
tried for this directly it just kind of happened. Everything I do, in particular the fiction I
write, has the tone of the sound of my voice.
I write, unless its academic, in a manner that is very much this. In fiction which I have started stepping across
to very cautiously for the first time in about a decade, that has been a little
bit of a challenge. I had a zero draft
of a novel where 6 different version of me solved a crime in space. I had to change a lot of people’s dialogue
and speech patterns because that is the way I think and write. That is also a big reason why I got into
podcasting: its fun! I like talking!
perpetually describe yourself as a professional pop culture enthusiast, I have
to ask, how do you find the time?
work from home and as a result there will be a screen on while I’m working. I always try for new stuff. There are things I will circle back to,
everyone has those, but I always trying to keep myself aware of the things that
are going on and some of the things that are developing. In the content age that we are in, that is actually
very easy, the issue is knowing where you hit first. Today is a perfect example: Carnival Row has
hit Amazon prime. A nice piece of synchronicity,
It was actually the original series pitch from Travis Beecham who wrote Pacific
Rim. This is a piece that he has
been trying to get to screen for years.
Likewise the Dark Crystal prequel show, which incidentally one of
my best friends wrote for, has hit Netflix today so there is a scheduling issue
there. I’ll get to one and then I’ll get
to the other. I mean a lot of the time
while I am writing something, sometimes a project will require music, sometimes
it will require visuals and I just have stuff on in the background.
My dad loves
this story: on more than one occasion when I lived with them, he would come
into my room and find me working on something on the computer, watching something
on tv, while something was on the radio.
I can do many different kinds of signals at once.
there anything the demands your full attention?
The comfort food a lot of the time. Off
the top of my head the two movies that if I see them I will watch them through to
the end The Hunt for Red October and Speed. Which is the perfect horrible action movie in
a wide variety of terrible ways.
is a perfect way of describing Speed! You have written an incredible amount about
how the podcasting market has fragmented and is perpetually changing and as we
have talked about being renewed. From
all that, what advise would you have for someone trying to get into that
Three things. The first thing would be
record zero episodes. That is a term for
my friend coined. Zero episodes are basically
proof of concepts. It is a show you
record and treat seriously like a serious one and then screw up on. Don’t plan how you are going to screw up, you
will screw up. Perfect example there was
show that I was going to be in at the beginning of the year. We recorded 2 zero episodes there were
technical issues we couldn’t get past because we were in four different cities
at once. I was the furthest away from everyone
else so it made a great deal of sense for everyone to go on without me, so
there are 2 zero episodes of this show which now my understanding is now the
show will come out later in the year with the other folks on it. That is fine, it happens alright. Zero episodes are a good start.
If you are
going for something we do, do not do the thing that we do which is literally “We
will just release four episodes a week forever until the heat death of the universe”. That’s bad unless you have 15 years of support
structure grandfathered in. There is
this incredible show called Nightlight by Tanya Thomson. The show works off seasons and they fund
seasons at a time and when they have money for a season they buy the stories
and make the episodes. Do that! Seasons are one of the best narratives
structures you can possible shoot for.
The third thing
is, if its an audio drama, and this is actually advice from John Rodgers the
guy who created Leverage which is one of my favorite TV shows, and also
wrote an early draft of The Core which is one of my favorite terrible movies,
and wrote some of Cat Woman but so did 19 other people so don’t hold
that against him! (Side note he still
gets paid for that. If you don’t follow
him on Twitter go do that he is ludicrously good value(@jonrog1)) He talks a lot about how he is in the mini
series business, that the TV industry has contracted so much that 5-6 years ago
if you got to a third season you’d probably get a firth, and if you got a fifth
there was a reasonable chance you’d get a seventh and once you hit a seventh
everyone’s contracts are up and you will probably get rolled up. Most shows these days last three years. He has a post-it note on the top of his board
that says “You are in the mini-series business.
Act accordingly”. I think there
is an incredible amount of wisdom to be brought to audio dramas from that. Treat it like a done in one, get off the
stage and have a plan if it takes off. There
is a company called “Zoom Doom Stories” who is a perfect example of that. They did an astonishing Cronenbergian horror series
called Spines that ran 3 seasons and then folded up. They have just recently done The Six disappearances
of Ella McCray which is the story of a woman who disappears in front of six
eyewitness, each of whom see something completely different happen to her. Its amazing!
It uses the structure of audio incredibly satisfyingly and also if they
never come back to it, is a completely satisfying story as it is. Zero episodes, don’t be afraid to fail, and
act like you are in the mini-series business.
Thank you for the advice! Before I left
you go I have to ask: you had mentioned you are reading and incredible amount of
things, more than usual which is probably not insignificant for you, but I want
a recommendation of a book you read recently that was incredible and blew your
mind for the rest of us.
for Liars by Sarah Gailey has just come out from Tor.com. Read anything from Sarah because it is all
great. Magic for Liars is a novel
that waits for you at the end of chapter three with a blackjack in it’s hand. Seriously!
The first three chapters you go, “Sarah’s just working through their
issues with Harry Potter” because it is a murder at a school for magicians
in California and one of the main characters is essentially Harry Potter, and
three chapters in it changes into the best modern noir I have ever read.
thank you so much for talking, its been an absolute pleasure!