Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:

sterling-north

Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

A Conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh

I stepped off the plane at LAX. As I waited for my suitcase to roll up from the airport’s deepest bowels, observing a faintly funereal mist smelling vaguely sulphuric and subsuming all emerging valises, a cadaverous man with thin eyes, a sinister frown, and frightening olive livery — one who later identified himself as “Ottessa Moshfegh’s senior aide-de-camp” but never divulged his first name — grabbed me by the throat and tackled me onto the floor. I wondered if he believed me to be a benevolent and objective reporter covering a Trump rally.

“Are you the interviewer?” he rasped.

He had a peppermint breath that was somewhere between Altoids and ForeverMints and I could hear the crack of his jaw biting upon a pesky capsule that had stubbornly refused to dissolve in his mouth. The aide-de-camp drooled fine rivulets of spittle onto the 2005 Coachella T-shirt that I was wearing, one that I hadn’t remembered purchasing because someone had suggested at the time that I ingest mildly illicit narcotics.

“Uh, yes?”

The aide-de-camp then demanded that I produce my credit history, my blood type, my social security card, and my genetic lineage dating back six generations. Then he rolled me over and shoved a retina scanner into my eye.

“I’m sure you understand,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh only talks with high-class people.”

“But I’ve done more than 550 interviews,” I replied.

High-class only.”

It was apparently easier for me to get a job with law enforcement than to go through with an interview that had been scheduled three months before.

I told the jostling gentleman that I had attended a state school because I didn’t have any money in my younger years. He snickered at me and then gave me a beef stick. Even though I hadn’t eaten anything on the plane and was feeling a bit peckish, I knew that this was a test and resisted biting into the tantalizing Slim Jim that might have fueled me for another fifteen minutes.

I had heard rumblings about Moshfegh’s eccentric vetting process for interviews, which she’d initiated ever since being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the previous week, Moshfegh had humiliated a Guardian reporter named Paul Laity, demanding that he conduct his conversation shirtless while being flogged by a a bell hooks volume. As part of the deal, Laity had been asked by Moshfegh’s entourage to name his next child “Ottessa” in deference to the World’s Greatest Living Author. I have been unable to corroborate this detail, though a shellshocked Laity did croak “Run while you still can” near the close of our tense ten minute telephone conversation.

There had been no such bargains tendered towards me, perhaps because the prospect of me reproducing seemed less likely than Laity passing out cigars sometime in the next few years outside a hospital room, but the publicist informed me that under no circumstances should I ever paint Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, in a negative light.

“Well, no novel is perfect,” I said.

“No,” said the publicist. “This one is.”

“Come on. Even the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter has a few dull spots. And I love Ulysses.”

“I don’t think you understand how lucky you are to be here.”

Lucky? I had only accepted the gig because some editor had at long last taken pity on me. I was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity.

“This way,” said the aide-de-camp.

He proceeded to blindfold me and affixed my head with leather foam earphones that played the most terrifying glitch-pop I have ever heard. I felt my body being buffeted into the inside of a car. I felt someone taking my hand and fingerprinting me. Nearly an hour passed. All the Skrillex that had decimated my brain had nearly wiped me out. Then the earphones were removed.

“Good news,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh has agreed to speak with you for fifteen minutes. She doesn’t mind being inconvenienced by the Booker or any press that will ensure her God-given talent is finally approved by the Literary Forces of the Universe. But only after you have written a note of loyalty to her undisputed genius in your own blood.”

Since I had a little spare blood kicking around in my veins, I figured no sweat. In hindsight, it may have been a tad foolish of me to agree to this after refusing the Slim Jim, which stared mockingly back in the stretch limo’s armrest, which was composed of rich Corinthian leather.

Finally, I was asked to recite passages from Eileen to prove my fidelity to Moshfegh.

“Cite the third sentence in the second paragraph on Page 26,” ordered the aide-de-camp.

“Uh…They were forbidden to do most things children ought to do – dance, sing, gesture, talk loud, listen to music, lie down unless they were given permission to?”

“Good. You’re remembering the right sentences. Does that resonate with you?”

“Can I plead the Fifth?”

“Mr. Champion, this is not a court of law.”

“Okay. Maybe we should call my therapist then?”

“No, Mr. Champion, that won’t be necessary. You have passed the test, despite your shaky pedigree, your deplorable education, your three-days stubble, and the undisputable fact that you are a very terrible person indeed.”

“Didn’t you read the character reference letters I submitted?”

But this question went unanswered as the spotless Tesla Model S arrived at the Moshfegh compound.

“Get out of the car, you journalistic cur!”

“Alright, already. Can I get my microphones at least?”

“No. If you can commit Miss Moshfegh’s prose to memory, you will remember every quote accurately and be sued if even a stray comma is discovered to be out of place.”

I was led into a sprawling two-floor home with a four bay garage just off the edge of Little Arabia, overwhelmed by the smell of overly groomed grape vines and a meticulously landscaped front garden with a large sign reading YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT IF YOU STEAL A BERRY. SEE CASTLE DOCTRINE.

Ms. Moshfegh, 35, was seated at a large refectory table in a spacious living room, cutting bits of sentences from old Dorothy Sayers paperbacks for her next project.

“I’ll tame you, you shoddy pulpy sentence! I deserve riches beyond the dreams of avarice! Instant success! No less!”

This was a typical creative act for Moshfegh, although it was a curious form of self-affirmation. But I have to hand it to her. Moshfegh had indeed pulled a fast one on a number of Booker Prize judges who were not, in fact, in the habit of familiarizing themselves with genre.

The aide-de-camp gently explained to me that the Moshfegh philosophy involved pretending that mysteries confronting troubling ideas about women had never been written, even as she ripped off entire sentences from novels that had, in fact, done just that decades before. And I am only reporting this tidbit here because it was one of the few details that had somehow not been earmarked by Moshfegh’s otherwise fastidious quote approval team.

“Miss Moshfegh?”

“Is my process making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but I wouldn’t mind an apple if you had one.”

“I’ve had eating issues since adolescence,” replied Miss Moshfegh. “There’s nothing in my work that I haven’t researched privately.”

“Even homicidal desire?”

“Man up and deal.”

I was feeling a bit faint, but it was hard to argue with someone who had been shortlisted for the Booker.

Moshfegh described herself to me as a person who has a long history as an unreported thief. If she isn’t absconding passages from Sayers novels, then she’s probably sneaking a package of pork loin roast underneath her overcoat.

“My family’s values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in,” said Moshfegh. “They never acquiesced to my genius, but I’m heartened to see a bald loser like you see the light.”

At this point, Moshfegh asked me to kneel on the floor and pray to her. I told her I was an atheist. She said she was a novelist-god. I asked for a mat. When the interview was over, I had terrible scrapes on my knees.

Moshfegh described the humiliation of once having to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a cab when she lived in New York.

“It was a living hell. Didn’t they see my raised arm? There was a brief period in my thirties when every cab stopped for me in less than ten minutes. My hell is my life. My hell is my work. Now you see why I have a stretch limo always on call.”

She tracks the beginning of her writing career to checking out random books from the library while a student at Brown University, scanning the frontispiece, and then replacing this with a Photoshopped copy of the page listing her as author.

“The books were all so mediocre. I was better than all these authors even before I had written my first short story. If I could do this for every book, I would.”

Moshfegh says that she sustains a deep connection to her character, who she claims lives in a basement located just underneath her refectory table. When I asked if I could meet Eileen, she demurred.

“When I first discovered that the character I had created lived in my basement, I sent an email to my agent reading ‘Holy shit.'”

“Isn’t that a bit ineloquent for a writer of your apparent literary talent?”

“How dare you speak that way to a hip young writer’s writer!”

“Terry Southern called Henry Green a writer’s writer’s writer. Beat that!”

The aide-de-camp then tied a rope around me and threw me into the stretch limo. I passed out due to hunger and my shortage of blood. I woke up in some shady alley somewhere in East Hollywood. But the aide-de-camp had been nice enough to leave me the Slim Jim at my side, which I wolfed down with the force of a deprived animal. It gave me the fifteen minutes of energy to run to the nearest convenient store and sob to a clerk who didn’t understand what had just happened to me. But I did make it back to New York. Yes, I had lost blood, been manhandled, and had my privacy invaded. But I had also been in the presence of the World’s Greatest Living Author. I smiled on the plane ride home, knowing that the aide-de-camp was at least dimly aware of the Geneva Conventions.

How to Spot Lines That Reveal Bad Storytelling, Part One

This is the first in a series of occasional posts in which I will identify dialogue that reveals bad storytelling. I’m writing this because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the many rookie mistakes that I continue to observe from storytellers who should know better, whereby the artifices of an otherwise convincing narrative are swiftly exposed because the writer hasn’t thought out character motivation or has missed out on opportunities to create a memorable work of art.

“That’s interesting!” Imagine that you just watched your best friend turn into a werewolf or that the spouse of your best friend revealed that he was in love with you. Would you say “That’s interesting!” or would you respond with something a bit less general and more heartfelt? A writer should never have to telegraph to the audience that an action is interesting. If an action is interesting to a character (and thus interesting to an audience), then a character will react to it in a way in which we know that it’s interesting. For example, here is an exchange from Preston Sturges’s wonderful film The Lady Eve:

Gerald: What I can’t understand is how he finished fifth!
Jean: There were only five horses in the race. What do you expect when you bet on a goat called After You?

If Jean had reacted to Gerald’s observation with “That’s interesting,” then we would have missed this great opportunity to see a con artist who observes all the specifics of a situation and who has no illusions about the way the world works. And when Jean falls in love with Hopsie, this transformation attracts our interest.

Even the person who questions another character doesn’t have to say “That’s interesting!” during the exchange. From The Big Lebowski:

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We see how The Big Lebowski is appalled, but genuinely interested, with the way in which The Dude can spend his unemployed life not doing much. The Dude, in turn, responds with his philosophy, which is parroted from George Bush’s 1990 speech on Kuwait. And the result is a deservedly famous, very funny, and referential exchange.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that “That’s so interesting! Tell me more!” has turned into an Internet meme, often introduced sarcastically into forum threads, that is largely identified with the late great Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka. Although that line did not appear in the movie, it nevertheless reveals how audiences are aware that saying “That’s interesting!” may represent the heights of condescension or artificiality.

So instead of having a character say “That’s interesting,” why not delve into her philosophy? Why would she feel that the situation is interesting? Moreover, when a character states her philosophy, it can be wonderfully revealing. In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, for example, the title character says that she “helps young girls out,” not that she performs illegal abortions. And it is this simple reframing that not only allows Vera to be tremendously fascinating and complex, but permits the audience to empathize with her persecution.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”: Very often, a writer will have a character intrude upon two other characters who are talking and deliver this very common line. It will never occur to the writer that there could be a more interesting dynamic if the interrupting character is either clueless about the intrusion or has willfully interrupted. Indeed, interruption is often better conveyed through subtext rather than an explicit pronouncement.

One of my favorite interruption moments comes from John Cassevetes’s extraordinary film Faces. There’s an incredible scene in which Richard (John Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper) are competing for the attentions of Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands), with the three all dancing around a living room. Jeannie increasingly drifts towards Richard. Freddie attempts to get Jeannie’s attention, but is rebuffed. He is very much a third wheel. And this fascinating scene unfolds with all of the characters singing “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” This creates an incredible tension which sets up some emotionally revealing moments that follow. If Freddie had explicitly remarked, “I hope I’m not interrupting you two dancing,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened.” Bad storytelling often involves characters calling attention to the fact that they are asking for story details within a story. But that’s usually not the way storytelling works when you hang out with people. In real life, people hear a modest detail, maybe about something wild that the storyteller did the previous night. And that detail may beget another detail. The person listening to the story may try to persuade the storyteller to spill the whole tale, especially if the other person has said something curious or unusual. If you’re going to tell a story within a story, then it needs to be motivated by human curiosity or the story needs to reveal the character, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws. “Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened” is what a programmer with Asperger syndrome is likely to say. “Come on, man! You’ve gotta spill!” or “Wait! You swam in the water with a knife in your mouth?” Isn’t that more like it? Dialogue must sustain the illusion that it is natural. And if the audience senses that storytelling is being shoehorned into a story to advance plot details that the writer didn’t have the chops to convey through action, then it will start to catch on that a script is, well, more of a programmed script (especially if the dialogue is solely Q&A, the telltale sign of bad storytelling) rather than something that should be revealing the human condition. Nobody wants to be mansplained when watching a TV show or listening to an audio drama.

Against Online Community

The word “community,” which comes from the Latin communitatem, suggests a place whereby many souls of differing opinions and temperaments come together for discourse and bonhomie. In its public form, usually in the form of churches or bars or groups united by common interests that assemble in halls, communities can indeed be pretty wonderful and welcoming, with members working to make sure that disputes are swiftly resolved, that disagreements are cleared up, and that people take the necessary time to get to know each other so that they can become better attuned with each other’s quirks and eccentricities. But in its online version, “community,” which is little more than a groupthink dive where people of identical mindsets largely agree with each other, is a marvelous lie in which the slightest disagreement is often enough to paint a person with a differing opinion as something akin to a toxic and irredeemable sex offender, if not a sinister monster who should be taken out with a sniper rifle at a cocktail party, saddling the outlier with an ineffable stigma that she cannot shake.

Perhaps the heightened sensitivity to words and sentiments expressed digitally, often with relentless speed, has much to do with their inaccurately assessed force. For if we are not careful with our app settings, the buzzing push notifications from our phones turn any expression, even an innocuous one, into an alarm rather than a relatively amicable exchange of opposing views. This atmospheric dilemma, in addition to killing off vital dialogues we need to have about very serious problems, causes the recipient of the message to, in turn, transmute the disagreement into a greatly magnified monster, a contretemps in which the shameful warm blanket of toxic gossip greatly outweighs the initial thoughtfulness of the exchange. The push notification becomes a trigger. Enter trigger warnings. The original expression, even if it is proffered benignly and with a level head, becomes a violation of the community’s “safe space,” willfully misperceived because the first responders, pressured by the rewards of quick quips that are liked and favorited in the heat of the moment, are often reacting from a place of emotion rather than thought.

The responses are frequently laced with umbrage. The umbrage is heightened. The responses to the responses become increasingly magnified. Enter outrage and public shaming. People are blocked or ostracized, depending upon whether the message has “offended” a community member of prominent standing. And a benign colloquy turns what might have been a civil debate into a vulgar cartoon, whereby the “offender”‘s motives and intentions are placed under a strange microscope.

In most cases, there is never any attempt to take up the “offense” directly with the “offender.” And even if there is, the “offender,” by way of having “offended,” is greeted with steadfast suspicion (“Is there anything I can Google about this son of a bitch?” thinks the easily agitated responder before firing off another fusillade), which causes some “offenders” to become offenders without the quote marks: bona-fide trolls who capitulate their intelligence for the sake of “winning” the argument. And the original intellectual kernels that might have forged a meaningful essay or persuaded some party to change her mind become bar brawls expressed in 140 character sentiments. Calm people may wish to intercede and tone down the dialogue through reason, but the sheer amount of time and energy is usually never worth it. Because those who are hopped up on the fumes of outrage are determined to duke it out and become increasingly incoherent, even if they are possessed of high intelligence and would not speak this way if the other party was standing before them in a face-to-face, real life setting. Alleged “community managers” on websites, who are subject to high stress and frequent burnout and far too much content to manage, have either become too jaded by all the nastiness to nip any problem quickly in the bud or simply do not give a fuck. And who can blame them?

All this is a roundabout way of saying that it is nigh impossible for me to have any faith in online exchanges anymore, much less “community.” While I have adopted a pragmatic stance that might be interpreted as cynicism, there is nevertheless an optimistic part of me that wonders whether online communities might be fixed or redeemed if they remember that real world communities don’t have nearly this degree or frequency of bad blood. For now, I stand firmly against online communities. I believe online communities to be baleful wastelands of hatred and negativity. And I’m going to frequent them a lot less. Because I’m learning far more and having far more fun talking with people in person and on the phone.

The next time you get upset at someone for a few words she expresses online, you may want to ask yourself why you’re spending so much of your precious time condemning someone you’ve never bothered to meet and escalating the melee rather than marveling at what you might learn from another soul. If you can endure your uncle’s drunken FOX News monologue during Thanksgiving, surely you can find the strength and the wherewithal to take a step back and reach out to the people you’ve decided are unforgivable curs because they didn’t like your favorite band or they said something you mildly disagreed with or they actually exposed their feelings with the hope that others might understand them.

How to Deal with Slimy Men Who Hit on You While You’re Trying to Listen to Music

These days, many men of boorish deportment, low intelligence, and diminutive stature seem to fancy themselves Masters of the Universe, believing, when they aren’t scouring porn sites for desperate fantasies or reading despicable articles written by Dan Bacon on how to be a top-notch bro, that every woman is a ripe conquest. They walk around, sometimes feeling the need to disrupt women who are trying to enjoy a peaceful moment listening to music through their headphones. It should seem patently obvious to anyone with a brain that these women really want to be left alone and have zero desire in some vulpine boor trying to elicit attention or a phone number.

Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t kick these men in the nuts.

Of course, not all men (hashtag!) are going to approach women like this or view the better gender with the vulgar eyes of a meat inspector.

However, if a man really wants attention and sincerely believes that his unoriginal and invasive lines are going to get him somewhere, there’s no reason why you can’t take off your headphones, give him a shit-eating grin that he will misread as interest, and inflict humiliation and violence as a form of self-defense. You’ll be surprised by how swiftly the arrogant man’s ego can get bruised!

The invasive man trying to get you to take off your headphones (which he will perceive as a crude kind of underwear for the ears) is very open to just about anything you say and will be dopey enough to believe that you have some interest in him. In such situations, it is often helpful to use the element of surprise to teach the boor a lesson.

How to Respond to a Slimy Man

1. Remember that the slimy man is confident enough to tell you everything and he will be stupid enough to divulge almost every personal detail about himself. Be sure to get his full name and autobiographical details so that you can add him to our National Sexist Registry.

2. He will probably ask you to talk for a minute. If he continues to pester you after you have said no, smile and then be sure to target his face with a bottle of Mace. (If you need to improve your aim, you can enroll in one of our mace spraying workshops for only $99.99!) Observe the man’s hubris dissolve instantly into a delightful display of pain and horror as the stinging spray works its magic, entering his eyes and crumbling his flimsy manhood faster than you can heat up a Hot Pocket in the microwave.

3. If you don’t feel comfortable with the violent approach, obtain the man’s phone number. Tell him to send you a naughty text to your phone to see if he’s got the goods. Then tell the man that, if he doesn’t go away, you will report him to the police for harassment with this hastily obtained evidence. Carry a series of blank affidavits that can be signed and notarized in which the slimy man vows never to harass a woman wearing headphones again.

4. Kick him in the nuts and run. This is a somewhat more riskier solution, but, if you are in good physical shape, you may able to elude the slimy man, who will have about thirty seconds to recover from the blow. This may give you enough time to run to the nearest public space and tell all and sundry that there is a maniac loose in the neighborhood.

Yes, you should be free to enjoy music through your headphones without being harangued. But unfortunately the early twenty-first century remains a barbaric time.

The key to stopping a slimy man is to be confident, prepared to beat him to a pulp, and utterly ruthless if he carries on with his unwelcome and sociopathic advances.

Dramatic Reading of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Emails

On July 14, 2016, as part of an in-depth feature on Natalie Portman, The New York Times published an email exchange between Portman and the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (inexplicably featuring many photos of Portman wearing scant clothing). Foer’s emails represented some of the strangest malaise ever expressed in a major American newspaper. In an effort to plunge into the tortured depths of Foer’s soul, I have recorded a dramatic reading of the emails, with the hope that this recording might help future generations make sense of the Foer predicament.

Play

Ghostbusters: The Compromise Candidate of Summer Blockbusters

When Sony announced that it would be remaking the rightly beloved 1984 Ghostbusters movie, with women wearing the proton packs and Bridesmaids‘s Paul Feig on board to direct, you didn’t have to look too hard at the galleon being craned up for a retrofit to see the unsavory barnacles of terrified white manboys clutching onto the hull for dear life. Fan entitlement, long rooted in a patriarchal sense of childhood nostalgia that the Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu shrewdly pinpointed as “‘pickup artist’ snake oil — started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys — filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want,” once again failed to do a little soul-searching and reflection on what its inflexible stance against the natural evolution of art truly means.

Just as some vocal fans protested the excellent film Mad Max: Fury Road for being “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their eyes,” the Ghostbusters absolutists knew that the studios wanted their dollars and that they could still get away with voicing their reactionary sentiments through the same cowardly anonymity that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as presidential candidate.

Much as a “silent majority” had propped up Trump under the illusion that a billionaire’s outspoken sexism and bigotry somehow represented an anti-establishment “candidate like we’ve never seen before,” these fans downvoted the new Ghostbusters trailer in droves when it was released online in April. One month later, a smug bespectacled mansplainer by the name of James Rolfe put a human face to this underlying sexism, posting a video (viewed by nearly two million), shot in what appeared to be a creepily appropriate basement, in which he vowed not to review the new remake:

You know what everybody’s been calling it? The female Ghostbusters. I hear that all the time. The female Ghostbusters. Does that mean we have to call the old one the male Ghostbusters? It doesn’t matter. But I can’t blame everybody for identifying that way. Because there’s no other way to identify the movies. There’s no other name for it.

Maybe you’d view movies this way if you’d spent a lifetime refusing to live with your shortcomings, carving the likenesses of Stallone and Schwarzenegger onto your own personal Mount Rushmore when not ordering vacuum devices or getting easily duped by Cialis scams. But the crazed notion that gender isn’t just the first way to identify a remake, but the only way to do so, speaks to a disturbing cultural epidemic that must be swiftly remedied by more movies and television starring women in smart and active roles, unsullied by the sexualized gaze of a pornographic oaf like James Rolfe.

It’s worth observing that Sony — a multinational corporation; not the National Organization of Women, lest we forget — had been in talks with the Russo Brothers well before Feig for an all-male remake, a fact also confirmed in a leaked email from Hannah Minghella. The Hollywood machine only cares about gender parity when it is profitable. It continues to promulgate superhero movie posters that are demeaning to women. It erects large outdoor ads flaunting violence against women. (Deadline Hollywood reported that the infamous X-Men Apocalypse ad featuring Mystique in a chokehold was approved by a top female executive at 20th Century Fox.) And when the studios do flirt with “feminist” blockbusters — such as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punchthe results are dismayingly objectifying.

Despite all this, I entered the press screening of the Ghostbusters remake with an open mind and the faint hope that there could be at least a few baby steps towards the game-changing blockbuster that America so desperately needs to redress these many wrongs.

carolmarcusI’m pleased to report that the new Ghostbusters movie does give us somewhat reasonable depictions of women as scrappy scientists, at least for a mainstream movie. The film is refreshingly devoid of Faustian feminist bargains such as Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear in Gravity or Dr. Carol Marcus flaunting her flesh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. We are introduced to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) practicing a lecture in an empty Colubmbia University classroom, having to contend with an embarrassing pro-ghost book (Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively) that she co-wrote years before with her friend and academic peer, Abby Yates (played with the expected enjoyable verve by Melissa McCarthy). Erin, who dresses in wonderfully dorky plaid suits that the dean cavils about, is up for tenure and is understandably queasy about anything that stands in the way of her reputation. Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, an MTA inspector with a necklace telegraphing her name who serves as a counterpart to Winston from the original film, and has far more scenes to establish her character than poor Ernie Hudson ever did. Screenwriters Katie Dippold and Feig deserve credit for making Patty more than a token African-American, active enough to ensconce herself with the founding trio and provide some New York know-how in a way that Winston, confined to “Do you believe in God?” car banter and doing what he was told, never quite received in the original.

katemckinnonThe sole disappointment among the new quartet is Kate McKinnon as weapons expert Jillian Holtzmann. McKinnon mugs artlessly throughout the film, almost as if she’s channeling William Shatner or Jim Carrey at their worst, too smitten with an impressionist’s toolbox of overly eccentric tics. While McKinnon’s performances have worked in five minute doses (especially in her very funny impressions of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live), this is not an approach that is especially suited for ensemble work on an IMAX screen. McKinnon quavers her bottom lip and enters each shot with a distracting “funny” walk that contributes nothing whatsoever to her character or the scene. The effect is that of an actor exceedingly ungenerous to her colleagues, one that not even the continuity person can track. (Jillian’s glasses disappear and reappear several times during any given scene.)

loripettytankgirlMcKinnon seems to be doing a caffeinated and charmless impression of Lori Petty from Tank Girl. She’s a terrible stage hog throughout the film, whether by her own choice or by Feig’s design. Even accounting for the script supervisor’s absenteeism, one gets the suspicion it’s more of the latter, perhaps shoehorned into this movie because of a studio note. How else can one explain an early moment in the film where McKinnon stands passive before a ghost and says, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas” while chomping potato chips? This line, which sounded more like bottom-of-the-barrel Madison Avenue than a honed sentence written by Parks and Recreation alumni, justifiably did not get much of a laugh, not even among the ringers who were planted in the middle rows at the screening I attended. And when your source text has indelible lines like “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” and “You….you’ve earned it,” it’s probably best to work interactive human behavior rather than commentary upon a snack.

haroldramistwinkieI’ve long maintained a loose theory that you can tell a lot about a comedy movie by the way it refers to food. Weird Al Yankovic’s gloriously underappreciated UHF celebrates its benign strangeness with a Twinkie wiener sandwich (and the original Ghostbusters, of course, features Harold Ramis holding up a Twinkie with some class). Zoolander revels in its splashy flash with an orange mocha frappuccino. Shaun of the Dead features a completely invented snack called Hog Lumps, suggesting the mad invention pulled from cultural reference.

The Ghostbusters remake features a tired repeat gag of Abby constantly complaining about the lunch delivery man not including enough wontons in her soup. And there’s really no better metaphor to pinpoint what’s so wrong about this movie. Because while I loved 75% of the ladies here (and grew to tolerate McKinnon’s annoyingly spastic presence as the film went on), there weren’t enough dependable wontons floating in this movie. Not the dialogue, which isn’t as sharp and snappy as it needs to be. Not the generic CGI look of the ghosts (including Slimer), which can’t top the organic librarian and taxi driver in the original film. Not the story of a bellhop who hopes to unleash a torrent of trapped spirits into New York (although this is better than Ghostbusters II‘s river of slime). And based on the exasperated sighs and silence I heard around me, I wasn’t the only one. It says something, I think, that the Ghostbusters end up fighting a giant version of their own logo at one point.

I really believe that there’s a very smart story buried somewhere within this somewhat pleasing, if not altogether funny, offering. For example, Dippold and Feig have replaced the original film’s EPA as meddlesome government entity with the Department of Homeland Security, which wants the nation to believe that the Ghostbusters are cranks. This is an interesting and timely premise to pursue in a reboot made in a surveillance and smartphone age. (Indeed, there’s even an appropriate selfie stick gag halfway through the film.) It’s moments like this where the Ghostbusters remake wins back your trust after a clunky moment. But there comes a point when the movie decides to throw its hands in the air, becoming yet another loud, boring, and predictable romp featuring the destruction of Manhattan. Again?

And there are cameos. Annoying, purposeless, time-sucking cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters cast. This not only adds needless bulk to the story, but it isn’t especially fair to the new cast trying to establish themselves, especially in a movie that is already on somewhat shaky ground. Bill Murray as a famous debunker is the only cameo that is fun (and it also buttresses the film’s half-hearted exploration into belief). But instead of confining Murray to a walk-on role, the filmmakers have Murray show up at Ghostbusters HQ (a Chinese restaurant instead of a firehouse), where one can’t help but be reminded of the original’s considerable strengths.

Feig and his collaborators have forgotten what made the first film become a classic. It was the funny human touches of Rick Moranis parroting William Atherton’s pointing as Louis was possessed by Vinz Clortho or Bill Murray wincing as he opened up the lid of Dana’s leftovers or Janine peering around a partition in the back (a shot repeated in the remake, but with tighter focus and less art and subtlety) as Venkman and Walter Peck squared off at the firehouse. There simply isn’t enough of this in the remake. Today’s filmmakers — even somewhat decent ones like Feig — seem to have turned their backs on why we identify with characters and why we go to the movies. And who the hell needs to pay a babysitter and bust out the credit card for a far too large tub of popcorn when there are far more interesting characters on television?

I want to be clear that I am not here to write a hit piece. This remake isn’t awful in the way that Ghostbusters II was, but it’s far from great in the way the original film was. This should have been a groundbreaking motion picture. It damn well needed to be to beat back the James Rolfes and the Gamergate trolls and any other boneheaded atavist with a keyboard and an Internet connection.

We sometimes have to vote for compromise candidates in two party political races. But when the summer gives us several dozen blockbusters to choose from, is the half-hearted Ghostbusters remake really the progressive-minded movie we should accept? Is an incremental step forward in mass culture enough to be happy with? Or should we demand more? I’ve thought about this for the past few days and I’ve increasingly come around to believing that audiences — and women in particular — deserve far better soup and a hell of a lot more wontons.

Fiction: “To Serve and Protect”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two years ago, in response to the senseless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the abusive hands of the police, I wrote what turned out to be a highly controversial short story called “To Serve and Protect.” It was my effort to portray the institutional trappings that perpetuate racism, police brutality, and our endemic gun culture. I submitted the story to several literary journals. All rejected it. While many of these outlets praised the story, the editors were greatly unnerved by the story’s hard truths. One editor informed me that she didn’t want to alienate her readers. And as my story made the rounds at a snail’s crawl, there were more murders, needless murders, of innocent and unarmed men by the police all around the nation. In the past week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also lost their lives, their final moments recorded in harrowing video that will numb and horrify anyone who is human. And that wasn’t all. Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during a Dallas protest against police brutality. Clearly, the problem that I was attempting to dramatize isn’t going away. Clearly, the literary world is a timid and gutless bunch when it comes to publishing fiction that provokes and reflects the realities of our time. What is especially shocking to me is that, while I have not changed my story in any way, every sentence still applies. I cannot stay silent about the headlines any longer. So I have decided to publish my story here, with the hope that it might help at least a few readers to make sense and find solutions to the terrible American nightmare. Silence is not an option when it comes to stopping racism and violence. It’s on us to confront the ugly realities — through peace, art, and action — that cause these pointless plagues to endure.

* * *

We left the nigger’s body rotting on the dark and filthy asphalt for four hours as we swatted away the flies swirling around the exit wounds in drunken loops. The insects hoped to plug their thin trunks into six fresh holes spilling out the nigger’s once young blood, which dried into the baking black cracks, absorbing the funhouse light of our whirling sirens. You chided us for hitching the yellow tape into your front yards, but we can’t fulfill our duties if we don’t stretch the perimeter of a crime scene into your personal space. We asked you to move back as you lashed out with rubber necks and flimsy accusations. We enforced curfew so you wouldn’t kill yourselves and you scolded us for not calling the paramedics fast enough. You aligned yourselves with the helicopter journalists after we threw those pesky gnats into vans and cells and any space we could call prison when they pressed past the limits of their credentials and tried churning their tyro familiarity with our precinct into a national story. You never saw the fear that clouded inside the whites of our eyes.

Not that we’d let you.

Modern policing demands the deafening squelch of our sound cannons when you won’t heed our crystal-clear commands through the speakers. We are the ones in control. Not you. We crank up our warnings because your ears choose to deafen.

The nigger wasn’t armed, or maybe he was. Maybe it was a gun we couldn’t find. Maybe it was the half-melted Hershey’s bar we found buried in his hoodie pocket or the burner phone lodged in the seat of his jeans. The evidence will show that we had to take the nigger down, that he was a credible threat, and all this will wash out your social media speculations. We are working with the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Highway Patrol, any old coot with a badge pushing his beak into our jurisdiction. We will never have our men found guilty. We have the President of the United States, the Governor, and the Mayor all on our side. We can produce videos, radio scanner chatter, logs, reports, just about anything needed for a slam-dunk case. We will respond to your sunshine requests, but you must understand that it will take time for our overworked and underpaid staff to sift through your poorly worded entreaties. And by the time you get the docs you so desperately crave, it will be too late. Our first priority is to keep the community safe.

We asked the nigger to cooperate, but he wouldn’t raise his hands in the air. Dig all you want into the back story of the two primary officers involved. Why do you think we gave you their names? We know when whiny lions need measly scraps to chew on. We can assure you that every member of our department hoped the nigger would adhere to our request and step peacefully into our protective arms. The tape will show that our voices did not quaver or waver once when we crooned through our bullhorns. We were calm and professional and the nigger told us to fuck off. He cited an institution abolished 150 years ago, but we’ve read our history and we know that we’re on the right side. The nigger told us that he was tired of being harassed and that he would never be questioned or taken in. And he started waving his arms and jumping up and down, which is something you should never do in front of boys in blue. It was a common tale we see all the time: a terrified man hiding behind bold talk and false bluster. So we shot him. Because we never look in the mirror. All told, it took about two seconds. Happens all the time. If you were walking in our lead brogans and you saw that the devil had something more than fight or flight to offer the universe, wouldn’t you make the same call? Are you up on this year’s statistics? Do you have any real idea how many niggers have reached into their pockets to shoot our guys? And don’t give us that old song and dance about banning firearms or limiting our supplies. We know the Constitution (including the Thirteenth Amendment) as well as the local criminal codes, but there’s only enough room to enforce one canon. We’re here because you couldn’t form a well-regulated militia to save your hides. You’re so busy shooting up your families and blowing up stores that you never notice the bullets hurled our way as we’re trying to help you. So we’re the ones who take the rap and the crap. Look at it from our perspective. If we let one nigger walk away, then all of you will. And, yes, contrary to your racial profiling conspiracies, we’d let a dumb cracker who won’t show us his ID expire in the street the same way. There are monkeys of every color on the rainbow and they all need to learn how to behave.

So now that the nigger is dead, what do you want us to do? Stop our operations? String up the guilty parties in front of the central precinct? You don’t want to work with us and we don’t want to work with you. We know you’ll always view us as grim grunts lusting over the next 1033 shipment from the Beltway. You think our cocks harden over the wet dream of rushing into a broken hood with fresh Hummers. Well, if we were so committed to shooting tear gas at you at all hours, why do you think we let you steal some of our toys? Sure, there’s some under-the-table income that smooths out our take home pay, but maybe we wanted to give you mouthy cunts a fighting chance. You were the ones who photographed us and shared your slanted stories on YouTube. You call us pigs and crackers (and Oreos and Uncle Toms if we share your shade).

All told, we’ve been pretty fucking forgiving. It isn’t our fault that we have quotas to meet and misdemeanors to invent. We’ve given you plenty of opportunities to wiggle out of a trivial ticket, but you still insist that you’re better, even as you slip up and give us lip. Do you want this to become Detroit? How long would you uppity fuckers last if we left the streets? If you think we’re putting down our guns and letting you animals take over our turf after we’ve managed to make a few blocks safe over fifteen patient years, then we’ve got a subprime mortgage for you to sign. By all means, shoot yourselves up with semiautomatics. If you’re going to shoot someone, why not kill all the bankers? Get the city council to pay one of our officers more than thirty-five thou a year and we wouldn’t have to take any…

…time before I punch out, as soon as I squared away the next shift with the sarge. Eight years of this shit and the gray was debuting at the top of my chops and my heavy body was coming home more sore with the shellacking each night. Chasing down suspects, perp walks executed with a more elaborate show, more time testing out the latest from Washington, having to fire back shots more and more as the crime rate soared and we were busting our asses to beat the CompStat numbers and our computers malfunctioned and the paperwork rose in tall rough impossible towers. Fiddling thumbs before the door, watching the sarge lurch left, right, left, right, as a burly suspect was two minutes away from confessing to a crime he never committed, the good cop burning the sin into his brain with a bullshit plea bargain from the Frank Castle playbook. Empty squares on the shift sheet staring back, the texts coming in from the wife, who was waiting, like me, to know when I had free time.

“Tomorrow,” said the sarge. “Collect your car at midnight.”

The kid’s shift. Rodriguez, that hotshot flyboy who’d only been here two years. He called in a favor. The way I once did before they tilted their ears to the new blood. That gave me eight hours to unwind, including sleep. I’d supported Gibson and Jiminez when they shot up that unarmed kid. Fingers were itching harder these days. No more apprentice period. Small wonder that the community we tried to defend didn’t trust us anymore.

I checked my gear into the locker. In desperate need of a shower, but I never hit the stalls with these guys. They’re still shaking off the sticky dregs of rapid-fire indignities doled out by the top brass when they can’t type out their reports on time or they don’t meet the daily quota. The same eyes that size up a crime scene have a way of searing into you. I can’t even count the times that something I’ve muttered in a stressful haze gets recalled by another grunt fond of chewing out my ass when the captain calls us in for a new sting.

Sure, I’ll meet the boys for basketball and barbeques and donuts. Never in bars. I know other cops get off on walking behind a 7-11 counter and grabbing the greasy pot that’s been rusting there for hours and hours. They fill up their Styrofoam cups of shady joe without paying a dime. That’s never been my way. These guys mark their territory because there’s nobody waiting at home. You learn who the lonely ones are because you forge tight bonds fast, especially if you want to survive. The endless stream of code and calm crackling through the radio leaves little time for jokes, unless, by some miracle, you’re ahead on the calls. But the never-ending pace doesn’t halt the young hungry fucks, the ones hungering for a detective badge, from nipping at your battered heels.

I’m a good cop compared to most of these animals. But even good cops lose their cool and take out their shit on a casual scumbag. You don’t rat out your peers, not if you want to live tomorrow. You look the other way and hope that the other guy softens over time.

I don’t take bribes, but I will take gifts. I stick within my salary. I take the old lady out for dinner at the seafood place once a year on her birthday, but we do have two kids and that sucks up expenses. It’s hard enough to come home and not beat the brats within an inch of their lives for something that has nothing to do with them. I don’t know what’s harder. Keeping expenses within your frugal budget or never blowing up. But it’s too late to change. By the time my youngest hits eighteen, I’ll be well past the age for a graceful career change.

I never would have had this life if I hadn’t walked into a donut shop one foggy morning. I helped nab one of those scam artists who target the dopey guys working the register. The fucker was a big man with long dreads grown from some reggae obsession lasting longer than an old fuck’s Reader’s Digest subscription. I watched the scammer lay into the register guy, claiming he never got change back from his twenty. He came in during the rush, scoping out the place to make sure it was understaffed. There are better ways to squeeze ten bucks out of a dummy, but his crime was so small time that nobody wanted to step in. Nobody wants to do anything anymore. But I saw the whole thing. The bastard had to be stopped. So I grabbed his arms and slammed his head onto the counter and told him that I was making a citizen’s arrest. The dopey guy behind the counter called the cops. The whole donut shop cheered me on, telling me that I was a hero, telling me that they wished they had my courage because the scammer was a big man with the kind of presence that suggests homicidal intent. It was the last time anyone told me that I did a good job, that I had a place in life. I told the detective everything: the crooked slant of the scammer’s upper teeth, the faint scar he had on his chin, the suspicious boom of his voice, the banged up Chevy Beretta with its dopey diagonal frame. He laughed, fired up two cigarettes, passed me one, and said I’d be a good cop. I called the recruitment line. The rest is my sad personal history.

We hate ourselves. We go to bed angry and wake up angrier the next morning. If we could blow our collective brains out, we would. We’re so wiped out at the end of the day. It’s an exhaustion most of you can only dream about.

Yes, we shot the nigger. We aren’t going to deny that. But we became the niggers of the workforce a long fucking time ago. There’s no escaping our destiny. We’ll go on killing niggers until the captain gives us the bright gold watch and sends our spent and battered husks to Florida. There’s no room for idealism in this job. If you want uplift, join a glee club.

The one thing that keeps us going is our responsibility to stub out crime, to do the best we can. But sooner or later, you come to understand that everyone is a criminal. And while you can check in your brain and keep your head down and wonder how the years rolled by so fast, we have to endure the riffraff and live with the burden of too much authority. But we’ll keep on going. We’ll keep on going because our mission is to serve and protect.

Audio Drama Sunday: ars PARADOXICA, A Conversation with Mischa Stanton

Ever since Samuel Madden responded to Swift in 1733 with the satirical Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, in which letters from a Jesuit-ruled future were magically received in 1728, time travel narratives have proven difficult for many artists to resist. And the audio drama ars PARADOXICA is a terrific one.

Created by Mischa Stanton and Daniel Manning, the program follows Dr. Sally Grissom (played by Kristen DiMercurio) as she records various tapes after inadvertently landing in the early days of the Cold War, forced to work as a wage slave for Uncle Sam and soon finding herself forging friendships and paths to further scientific discovery with other scientists. It is a brainy and sometimes quietly goofy narrative, with null fields, strange small towns, time travel murders, reverse engineered answered machines, and crazed trips to Las Vegas, all buttressed by fantastic vocal work, an expansive narrative, and mysterious numbers that punctuate the end of each episode.

Aside from its growing family of notable characters and surprise plots, one of the reasons why ars PARADOXICA works so well is its careful attention to sound. In the show’s most recent episode, “Anchor,” we hear two characters discussing how “quiet” the 1940s are. This is then followed by a scene in a hotel room that seems a little quieter than one might expect, almost as if the previous reference to silence served as an excuse to avoid hustle and bustle in the mixing. So the listener becomes accustomed to a certain tone, only for that tone to be jarred by events that go down during a road trip later in the episode.

To learn more about the show’s origins, I contacted Mischa Stanton, who was kind enough to answer my many questions over a few weeks. We talked time travel, Stanton’s work as producer on The Bright Sessions, eccentric scientists, and how characters and stories inevitably change no matter how much you plan a grand narrative.

You can listen to the show here and support the show on Patreon. ars PARADOXICA just aired its fourteenth episode, “Anchor.”

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EDWARD CHAMPION: I’d argue that there are two types of time travel narratives: the heady and complicated versions populated by Shane Carruth’s Primer and Donnie Darko and the fun-filled versions seen with Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and, most prominently, Back to the Future (which ars PARADOXICA has extensively name-checked). Then there are films like Looper and 12 Monkeys (or, for that matter, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife), which split the difference between the two varieties. ars PARADOXICA seems to be aiming for that happy compromise. And in asking the inevitable question about how you and head writer Daniel Manning came up with ars PARADOXICA, I’m wondering if you set out to find a middle ground between heady and entertaining (not that they can’t coexist!). How does audio drama lend itself more towards a viable execution of this theoretical Venn diagram? Had you told versions of this story before? I have seen photos of timelines scrawled out on paper that appear to have been devised by one “Mischa Stanton” (answering to the names of Aaron and Abe?). What did you do to plan for this?

timeywimeyMISCHA STANTON: Wow, I’m really glad we’re hitting the mid-point between relaxed and serious time travel! To be perfectly honest, we definitely set out to make the most dark, the most serious, and above all the most logically-sound time travel story we possibly could. Daniel and I were frustrated by the proliferation of time travel media that had flimsy rules that weren’t based in any sort of reality. The likes of The Butterfly Effect, that movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” and Doctor Who. (Oh man, if I never hear the phrase “timey-wimey” again, it’ll be way too soon.) We wanted a world with rules, and a story with strict adherence to those rules. That the show is any funny at all comes from Dan’s writing of Sally (Sally is basically female-Dan) and Kristen DiMercurio’s absolutely killer performance.

That said, the way we approach the show is by having the characters go through some seriously heavy and mind-bending business. So the only way to deal with that and still keep the story swimming is to recognize the utter absurdity of the scenario (in our case, the scenario being “a cold unfeeling universe”), laugh, and carry on. That carries over from how I view life, which is that it’s an absurd and cacophonous mess that is almost entirely out of any one person’s control. So you just gotta laugh!

The time travel concept in and of itself isn’t what drove us to audio. In fact, our very first crack at this “brand” of storytelling we’ve cultivated wasn’t even a time travel story at all. The show started as a numbers station (of which listeners can find an example at the end of each episode) that Daniel and I recorded in our dorm at Emerson College, and then snuck onto the radio in the dead of night while no one was listening. It was only after we did it once that we begin to consider, “Okay, why does this numbers station exist? Who is it from? Who is it to?” And from there, we expanded out to “a secret government time travel conspiracy.”

As for how much we have planned, without giving too much away, I’ll say this: We had the last episode outlined before the pilot. I think that’s probably the best way to write a time travel story: write the ending first. That way, all of your logical knots untangle into something concrete at the end. You also get a ton of opportunities to foreshadow plot threads and plant little seeds for later that we, as fans, love to pick apart and unravel.

CHAMPION: I had a feeling that you and Daniel knew each other, but I didn’t realize how far back the connection went! And it does have me wondering if anybody ever replied to your college radio cryptographic code. (Certainly, I felt compelled to tweet back minutes after listening to the first episode of ars PARADOXICA!) This leads me to wonder how you managed to land the magnificent Kristen DiMercurio and how you went about casting this. Did you rely largely on people you knew? Did you willfully establish a universe with constraints because the best creative work typically emerges out of creative limitations? The fact that you bleep out the year that Sally came from and that you regularly bombard Sally’s diary entries with interference suggests a keen commitment to creative obfuscation! I’m almost wondering how much you folks obsess over the minutest details. The Wooden Overcoats fellows told me that they even have “placeholder” jokes until they can get it right. If you are sitting on a massive pile of paperwork (and I suspect you are!), what freedom do you allow yourself to deviate or improvise — whether in the writing or the recording of ars PARADOXICA?

mischakirstenSTANTON: We’ve had a few die-hard fans figure out the codes— which is a lot of fun for us because that just means we get to come up with harder codes! Shoutout to Brian B and Phoebe S, the lead code-breakers out there.

aP is actually Kristen’s first voice acting gig! I knew her in college (not super well, but we often attended the same theatre program parties), and she posted on our college’s alumni Facebook group asking if anyone had any leads on classes for voice acting. We messaged her the same day: “Wanna read for a lead role in our show?” And now she’s absolutely blowing up the scene. She’s working with Two-Up Productions on their next thing. She’s playing Selina Kyle in an adaptation of Batman: Year One. She’s getting casting calls left and right for different audio dramas. We really found something special with Kristen, and the show wouldn’t be nearly as good without her.

A lot of the cast are just actor friends of mine. I knew Reyn Beeler, Dan Anderson, Katie Speed, and Lee Satterwhite from college (along with a lot of our “additional voices” cast), and Zach Ehrlich and Susanna Kavee and I go all the way back to high school. The one big find I made outside of my friend group was Robin Gabrielli, who plays Anthony Partridge. I met him through the director of a play I designed back in Boston. Man, is that guy just a treasure. And of course, now that I’m out of college and working in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, I have a much wider base to pull new actors from!

As far as constraints, one of my design heroes, Mark Rosewater, likes to reiterate “restrictions breed creativity.” The blank page can be intimidating. So giving yourself conditions to go by helps to realize your story a long way. That’s why we keep to such strict rules in aP. We think the “Only to the past, not before 1943” framework makes for a more interesting story. But within that, we try to keep an open mind about what is possible. It’s been especially interesting in Season 2, since we’ve opened the world up to a new writing staff. And now they come to me with questions of “Does this work?” or “Can I do this?” or “Will this break the rules?” And it’s great to have clear yes/no answers, to work with the writers to fit their grand ideas into this framework.

Once the scripts are written, the story is mostly locked-in. We do a lot of work with the writers to make sure everything (a) makes sense within the world, (b) sounds consistent with how we want to portray the characters, and (c) sets up the plot threads needed for future stories. However, when I get in the booth with an actor, often we’ll find something that doesn’t make sense or that sounds awkward to say. Or we’ll find a leftover line from a previous edit that doesn’t fit anymore and we change it up. We’re not married to the text of each individual line. I’ve also recorded whole scenes and then cut them in editing (usually I run this by the writer first). “No scene is worth a line and no show is worth a scene,” as Daniel likes to say!

CHAMPION: I presume that some of the newer actors, such as L. Jeffrey Moore and Alexander Cole in “Asset,” are people you haven’t known before. How did you go about finding actors once your creative universe started to expand? What difference is there in working with someone you’ve known for a long time and someone new? Have you had to make adjustments when, say, Kristen wasn’t available for an episode? One common suggestion I’ve heard among radio drama producers is “Don’t look at your actors” and I have to confess that, while this is eminently pragmatic and sensible, it does suggest a queasy parallel to certain big name Hollywood actors who secure guarantees that crew members should never give them eye contact when they are on set. Given that eye contact is pretty damn essential in talking with and working with people, even for something that is designed for the ear, what do you do to cultivate an atmosphere of intimacy? How have you become better at directing the actors? Have you ever had to bend the draconian rules that you and Daniel established at the beginning to serve the characters?

STANTON: As we’ve expanded our cast (and we have a huge cast) I’ve relied on people I know, or friends of people who are already involved. I met Jeff through Robin Gabrielli, Alex is a fellow audio producer. I was the audio engineer for a musical produced in LA written by Rebekah Allen, who plays Bridget in Episode 13. There was a similar case with Arjun Gupta, who will be in Episode 14. Collaborative art forms, especially audio drama, are all about building your networks outward until you find who you need. Fortunately, the audio drama community has been incredibly welcoming!

I have never heard about “no eye contact,” but I wouldn’t subscribe to that even if I had. A lot of our recording sessions are done by remote. Rather than send an actor off to record on their own, I almost always schedule a time to read with them over Skype. I find it creates a much more personal experience for the actor, which translates to their relationship with the audience in a tangible way.

When we started, I had absolutely no experience directing voice actors. I learned everything I know while creating this show. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is knowing what you want going in and not being afraid to ask for this plainly and without fear. You also shouldn’t be afraid to re-take a line until you’re satisfied!

bonsaiFortunately, we’ve only had to bend the script to accommodate an unavailable actor once. And even then, the actress had recorded material previously that we were able to use. As far as bending the story, I like to think of it as a bonsai tree: We can bend as we move forward. But once we make a bend, we have to stick to it. What comes before, even the bends, become the solid foundation for everything that comes after.

CHAMPION: So your story is as naturally expansive as matter contending with repulsive gravity! Since we’re finding a cosmological constant of sorts and since you’ve previously expressed how you put a hard foot down on “timey wimey,” I’m wondering what you’ve done in the name of research. Do you have any salivating physicists trapped in a closet who are willing to unpack entropy and effective field theory for a few scraps of food? Have you relied on any particular books or texts? I get a general Harvard-MIT vibe (a good one, not an obnoxious one!) from ars PARADOXICA and I’m curious what background you, Daniel, and your nimble gang of collaborators have in science? Do you ever find that the dramatization of science or theory gets in the way of exploring characters? Perhaps this was one reason you had the team go to Vegas?

STANTON: I can tell you straight off that we only barely have a background in science. As far as formal training goes, I studied psychology and psychoacoustics (the study of sound perception) in college, and I’m an audio and acoustical engineer by trade; and Daniel like…got an A- in 10th grade Chemistry. Beyond that, the only things we know about particle physics and entropy are what we’ve researched for the show, and most of that was just hours and hours combing Wikipedia articles and their sources (here’s a pro tip for anyone writing a college paper: don’t cite Wikipedia, cite Wikipedia’s sources). I’ve never considered myself a scientist. I’m more of an artist heavily influenced by scientific discoveries, information, and techniques.

The Vegas episode (03: Trinity, Acts I & II) was definitely a point where writing the story butted up against our lack of formal scientific training. In that episode, the characters have to present time travel as a viable tool for the US government muckety-mucks, and then spend weeks trying to devise a presentation. But we found while writing the episode that we couldn’t actually come up with a viable presentation to even write into the show! We had the same struggle as the characters in creating a formal time travel presentation that wasn’t just sleight-of-hand. So that’s what we had the characters do. In the end, they just do some sleight-of-hand. And it doesn’t work. They fail their presentation. The program shuts down. And they end up having to move to a tiny town in Colorado. So in that way, the science and our understanding of it (or lack thereof) really informed the direction of the entire show.

That said, we wrote Episode 03 in the very first batch of scripts, before we even had Kristen on the show, before it was out in the world. Working with the show out in the world for over a year now has given us a better grasp on what we can and can’t do. And I’m proud to say we’ve finally figured out how to design some really cool time travel experiments. Stay tuned for Episode 15, I’m really proud of it.

CHAMPION: You also produce The Bright Sessions and I’m terribly curious about (a) how this happened, (b) how working within another person’s vision differs from what you and the gang have established at ars PARADOXICA, and (c) what you did to make Lauren’s job easier? Was there anything she wasn’t doing that you implemented?

brightsessionsSTANTON: I found The Bright Sessions as a fan first! I was trying to find other shows like ours, and I kept seeing people mention The Bright Sessions, so back in March I listened to the first season on a plane ride. I was hooked. And then there was a mid-season announcement on her feed, where Lauren said that if she made enough Patreon money she’d be able to hire an audio producer who actually knew audio. And I said to myself, “I’m an audio producer!” So I emailed Lauren the next day offering to jump in with her. She’s got the acting and directing stuff down, but she wasn’t as well-versed in the audio production, the mixing, the creation of sound effects. So I’ve helped prop up what she doesn’t know, so that she has been able to tell bigger and more ambitious stories. Before I started, the show was still mostly two people in a room. But once I joined she was able to give her characters more things to do and more space to do them in. As I checked my email to respond to this question, Lauren just sent me confirmation that The Bright Sessions #24 (“Zero Hour,” her Season 2 finale) is ready for launch. And, of course, your readers will have already heard it by the time this interview comes out. So they’ll know that it’s our most ambitious episode yet.

I’ve been working in collaborative theatre environments for twelve years. So designing to someone else’s vision is actually pretty par for the course for me (that I have so much more creative control on aP than I usually do is probably why I push so hard with it). Lauren is an amazing boss. She has such a clear pictures of these characters in her head. It’s like they’re all real people she knows and hangs out with, but that I’ve never met. She always knows exactly what she wants, even if she doesn’t always have the best words to describe it. We’ve developed a lot of trust. So she gives me a lot of freedom to craft the soundscapes of the show. But that’s my job! Lauren asks for a mood, a general feel to the episode (or she suggests it in her writing) and it’s my job to take that mood and interpret it as a soundscape. That’s what a sound designer does: takes the tool of sound, and uses it to provoke emotional responses to tell a unified story. (Are you listening, Tony Awards?)

CHAMPION: I should probably disclose that I am terribly fond of fun dramatizations of science and scientists, whether they hit the more eccentric strains seen with John Noble’s Dr. Walter Bishop in Fringe, Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, or Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator or the more straight-laced eccentric seen with Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Seth Brundle in The Fly, Dr. Hubert J. Farnswoth in Futurama, or (more medical than physics) Dr. Dana Scully in The X-Files (which seems to be the closest model for Dr. Sally Grissom). What impresses me about ars PARADOXICA is how you’ve rooted Dr. Grissom in reality and that scientists as a whole don’t fall into the authoritative eccentric model that we’ve become so accustomed to. I’m very interested if any of this factored into the writing and devising of these episodes, even before you had Kristen. To what degree is your background in acoustics responsible for a similarly dogged commitment to the real? (The Truth‘s Jonathan Mitchell also has an extensive audio and music background, which I suspect is heavily responsible for that marvelous program’s commitment to grounding his stories in base reality.)

STANTON: I think stories have a tendency to boil down a knowledgeable character into a one-dimensional role— “the Scientist/the Smart One.” And with good reason. It’s a great exposition machine when you need the story to move along, especially in media where you’re on a strict time limit like TV. Cop shows do this a lot with the ME/Coroner character, just as a way to spit out pertinent medical information and move the plot forward. And then, often to give a bit of color to it, a producer will throw in a generalized “eccentricity,” as you call it, to make the character at least partly memorable. But with a show like ours, something that is all about the science and how it affects the people close to it, being smart or being a scientist is a given. So yeah, Esther is smart, but she’s also caring, calculating, judgmental, and ambitious. Yeah, Sally’s a scientist, but she’s also a movie lover, a stranger in a foreign land, and an amateur comedian (one of our tenants of writing Sally is “she thinks she’s hilarious”). When “scientist” is the norm, there’s no need to stick to the trope. So it gives us far more room to play in.

A lot of what our show explores is the morality of discovery. I’ve often said that science tells us what we can do. But it’s up to humanity to decide what we should do. Often you don’t know what you should do until you’ve already made a mistake. I think that’s part of what makes Sally such an interesting character to listen to. She invented this time machine entirely by accident and, before anyone could ask her what she thinks should be done with the technology, the tech is already in the hands of one of the most powerful governments on Earth in the middle of a war. So a lot of the show is Sally reconciling her love of unbounded discovery with the fear of moving ahead too fast, before she’s able to consider the consequences of her actions.

As far as my own acoustical background, I think that’s what allows me to imagine what a room sounds like, to determine which elements are vital to conveying action and which ones just get in the way. Wherever I go, I always take a moment to listen to a room and break apart the tone into pieces for later use. For example, in Episode 13, there’s a moment where two characters travel from drinking in a crowded bar in New York City to post-sex in an empty apartment. For me, setting up that scene meant: (1) muffled city noise behind the apartment walls, (2) heavy breathing, (3) rustling bedsheets, (4) grabbing a lighter and lighting a cigarette. These moments are all disconnected pieces when you listen to them individually. But when put together there’s really only one thing that could have happened in the intervening space. And that’s the trick to building convincing scenes in audio drama. It’s not just finding the right sound effects. It’s finding the exact combination of elements that can only mean what you want these to say.

And thank you so much for that comparison! Jonathan is an incredible artist, and The Truth was a huge inspiration to me. I had just picked it up as I was mixing our first episode. It really showed me what a podcast can do, and pushed me to make aP even better.

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CHAMPION: I completely detected the “she thinks she’s hilarious” vibe from Sally as she records her diary entries, which is a peculiar cousin to loneliness. It’s not unlike the relentless pop cultural references that fuel Eiffel’s monologues in Wolf 359. Eiffel believes he’s a standup comic to some degree, but he’s also deeply flustered in deep space. In my conversation with The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippens, we discussed how the natural intimacy of radio often lends itself to this therapeutic feeling, almost as if you’re eavesdropping upon a rather naked portrait of human emotions. With Sally, we often have her zest colliding with her frustration and ennui, almost as if she’s masking her true feelings as dutifully as you’re bleeping out the year she came from. How long can you sustain these emotional revelations by omission in a long-running serial? Was this one of the reasons you juxtaposed Sally’s life and explorations with the tension between Partridge and his wife? Also, the two-part episode “Consequence” almost tips the balance of the show altogether by showing another side of Partridge and the larger panorama of the research program. And it does have me wondering if much of this episode (and ars PARADOXICA as a whole) was designed to avoid what I call the Cuse-Lindeloff Enigmatic Storytelling Paradox, whereby a series dollops endless mysteries to rope the audience in, keeps bombarding the audience with more mysteries (perhaps as seductive as the earlier ones) while failing to resolve the previous mysteries, and only succeeds in infuriating the audience for not resolving story strands either fast or satisfyingly enough. The audience comes to resent the show and the mysteries, wondering why they bothered to tune in altogether, and turns their pitchforks on the creators for their storytelling gaffes. You alluded earlier to having a vision for the ending. While it’s impossible for any producer to anticipate the full extent of how an audience reacts, you do have a massive story. And I’m wondering the extent that you’ve addressed or anticipated this!

STANTON: We are definitely reaching a tipping point with Sally. She’s resilient, but… Okay I really don’t want to give anything away. But we’re not ignoring the compounded effects of the utter heaps of tragedies that our show has been heaping onto her. The next few episodes are really going to bring that to a head.

As for why she masks her feelings that way? That’s a byproduct of Sally being basically an amalgam of Daniel, Kristen, myself, and someone who actually knows science. I think that the three of us have a lot of zest, a lot of ideas we want to explore and a lot of things we want to say and do, as well as a lot of frustration with the world we’re living in. So we use pop culture, just like Sally does (or wishes she could) as a place that is comfortable to hide our true feelings about everything going on around us. And I think you can probably say that about a lot of people right now.

And that’s coming through in a bunch of audio dramas as well. A lot of shows, like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes and Small Town Horror, are all about living on the very edge of the unknown and getting your hands and your mind around it, trying to make some sense of the world. A lot of the things about the world that I believed to be true changed as I grew up in it. Now I think that a lot of us don’t know what to expect anymore. But we don’t want to hide from the world. So the only other option is to embrace the unknown. And pop culture references.

As for “Consequence,” Season 1 (and yes, the show from start to finish) was 100% a response to the kind of storytelling that use questions first and answers maybe. All of our questions have answers. Of course, we adapt that answer to what happens in the middle, but we are always moving toward the answer. I want our fans — or people who invest hours of their time and thought to us at the very least — to be satisfied that what we’ve built was always with purpose. I want our ending to seem unexpected yet inevitable.

CHAMPION: “Signal”‘s journey through airports allowed us to learn a few qualities about Sally — that she smokes, that she prefers jeans to sweatpants (which the part of me that bemoans sweatpants as the default American sartorial choice was pleased to learn!). And I am curious about the extent that you have worked out little personality quirks with the actors. Obviously, a story as intricate and imbricated as ars PARADOXICA is going to serve plot more than character. But how much character work do you do? Do you and Daniel struggle sometimes to find character moments? And how fixed are the answers to your questions? Have there been any radical shifts that you’ve made during the course of production? Has a read on a take ever drastically altered your story?

STANTON: I’m not sure if she smokes as a habit! Of course a lot of people did in the 40s so she may have picked it up, but she does know how bad it is for her. No, I think we wrote that in because it’s something you can’t do on planes now, and Sally is, above all, a rebel.

We’ve built the characters slowly over time. In the beginning we didn’t know much. But after casting, the actors’ readings of the scripts definitely changed how we portrayed them. Esther Roberts wouldn’t be half as interesting if it wasn’t for the amount of work Katie Speed has put into the show. Now she might be my favorite character. Chet Whickman was supposed to be a one-off soldier guy, but when Reyn [Beeler] came to record, he had put such thought and care into his performance that we knew we had to keep him on.

Our answers are usually fairly set things, but the path we take to get there is mutable. For instance, we thought we were going to stay in Polvo New Mexico for a lot longer (as an analogue to the Manhattan Project). But then we rewrote Episode 03 so that they failed in their presentation and the town got shut down, which informed a lot of how we wrote the rest of Season 1 — coming from that place of failure as opposed to being in the successful environment they had in Polvo.

CHAMPION: What’s the biggest blunder you made in the first season? What would you do differently? What’s the biggest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?

STANTON: I don’t really have a great answer to this. We never made one big blunder. It just felt like a rolling series of tiny blunders. Errors in pre-planning, in communication, that made us scramble to meet deadlines a couple of times. Errors in marketing, and in how we set up the technical back-end. Not knowing my software as well as I could. aP is the first audio drama we’ve made, we’re so new to the medium, I learned so much making that first season. And I think that’s the biggest piece of advice I can give: You’re not going to get everything right the first time, or even the second time. It’s really important to forgive your own mistakes as you’re learning.

I think Ira Glass really said it best:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.