2019 Hugo finalist Alasdair 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!
Graham: Pseduopod 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 literature?
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.
Graham: That’s 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.
Alsadair: 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 voice!
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 podcast?
Alasdair: The 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 fun too.
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 that.
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
Alasdair: 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.
Graham: I 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?
Alasdair: I 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 different experiences.
Graham Is it just the fact that it is long form? What about podcast make them more listenable?
Alasdair: 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 good story.
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!”
Graham: So why do you think it’s it is genre fiction that is exploded in the podcasting scene versus anything else”
Alasdair: I 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.
I think 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 wants that.
Graham: Do 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.
There’s a 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 thing.
Likewise 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
Alasdair: To 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 that.
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.
Alasdair: This 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?
Alasdair: 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.
There is 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.
Graham: I 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.
Alasdair: Oh 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.
Graham: to 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?
Aladair: 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”
Graham: One 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?
Alasdair: Oh 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”
Conversely one 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?
Alasdair: Basically 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.
Graham: In 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?
Alasdair: 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 work.
Graham: I think explanation makes an incredible amount of sense. Do you think that has fed into podcasting or your ideology surrounding stories for podcasts?
Alasdair: Oh 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!
Graham: You perpetually describe yourself as a professional pop culture enthusiast, I have to ask, how do you find the time?
Alasdair: I 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.
Graham: Is there anything the demands your full attention?
Alasdair: 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.
Graham: That 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 market?
Alasdair: 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.
Graham: 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.
Alasdair: Magic 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.
Graham: Well thank you so much for talking, its been an absolute pleasure!
Escape Artists website
The Magnus Archives
Bear Brook Podcast
The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray Podcast
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey