Transcript: An Interview with Lauren Shippen
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Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language, and I'm here today with Lauren Shippen. I'm a fan of her podcast, "The Bright Sessions," which tells the story of teens and young adults with special abilities like mind reading and time travel. She has a spinoff podcast with Luminary called "The A.M. Archives," another new podcast with Radiotopia called "Passenger List," And she is working on an audio project with Marvel and Stitcher. And not only that, she also has a novel out based on some of the characters in “The Bright Sessions." That book is called "The Infinite Noise," and she's in the middle of her book tour right now. So, Lauren, welcome to the Grammar Girl podcast, and thanks for taking the time during what I know must be an especially busy week.
Lauren: Thank you so much for having me, it's so good to talk to you.
Mignon: You bet. Did I miss anything in in my introduction? You have so much going on.
Lauren: No, it was, it was a it was nice and a little scary to hear all of those things listed. It's been a busy year. Yeah.
Mignon: So before we dig into talking about writing, a first book tour is such an exciting thing. What's been your favorite part so far?
Lauren: Oh, gosh. I think it's been meeting the people on the book tour, both meeting other authors that I've been in conversation with and then also some podcast fans. I got to meet one of my favorite fan artists who's been doing art for "The Bright Sessions" and the archives for years in person for the first time. So that was really, really thrilling to finally put it, to put a face to all the amazing art talent that he puts online.
Mignon: That is so neat, and it's such a neat thing. I see what fiction podcast fans do-- make art--and that must be thrilling.
Lauren: It really is. And one of the beautiful things about audio fiction is that you don't really establish what people look like. And so there are so many different interpretations of what the characters look like and it ends up being a broad range of of character depictions and the fan art, which I always love seeing how fans interpret what people look like.
Mignon: Yeah, so, okay. So I believe you started "The Bright Sessions" completely on your own, like by yourself, and then you started bringing on more writers as it got popular. Is that right?
Lauren: Yeah. So actually, I brought on a sound designer about halfway through season 2--episode 17 of the podcast--but didn't bring on any additional writers until we were wrapped on the main series and going into bonus episodes in our spinoff "The A.M. Archives." So for 56 episodes, I was the sole writer and creator of the show and did that in about two and a half years.
Lauren: So it was pretty, pretty intense. And then I realized that I did not necessarily want to carry the burden on my own anymore.
Mignon: Right. So what did it take for you to get started? I mean, what else were you doing when you got the idea? And then what did it take for you to start, you know, writing and podcasting?
Lauren: I was actually acting at the time. I was doing kind of the classic actor L.A. thing where I was working at a restaurant and, you know, taking odd jobs and just kind of getting frustrated with the audition process and the fact that I was in a career where I could control so little of my future because it's all dependent on, you know, these random factors as you're auditioning. You can do a great job, and then you're just a little bit too tall or a little bit too short or, you know, not the right hair color. And I also was getting frustrated with a lot of the scripts that I was reading that I was auditioning with, because, you know, as a 20-something woman who's just starting out, there is a lot of roles that are just the girl next door or the love interest for the male lead and not really complex, flawed, interesting female characters that I wanted to play. So I decided to try and write something for myself as just a creative exercise and to give myself something to act in. And I was listening to the podcast "Welcome to Nightvale" at the time, which is one of the biggest fiction podcasts and kind of the first one that really started this, this new wave of audio fiction in America. And that's one person, one voice, and two writers and beautiful music, and it's so incredibly compelling. And I remember listening to that and, you know, having this idea in my head of this, this character who I end up playing in the podcast, Sam Barnes, who time travels when she has panic attacks, because I've had panic attacks for my entire life and was going through a period where I was having them semi-frequently and just thinking, what if this, you know, didn't suck so much in this particular way? What if what if I had something cool happened when, you know, when I had a panic attack? What if I time traveled? And thinking about that character in the story that I would want to tell with her, I realized that doing a podcast might be something I could control every aspect of and something I could do more or less by myself. And the really early iteration of the podcast was just going to be Sam talking about her experiences. And then I realized that the reason welcome "Welcome to Nightvale" works with one voice is because you have Cecil Baldwin as one voice. You have Jeffrey Craner and Joseph Fink's incredible evocative writing and dispersions music.
Lauren: And it kind of is this lightning in a bottle combination. And that I had never written a script before, and I probably was not going to hit that lightning in a bottle combination by myself. And so I decided to put Sam in conversation with, with somebody. And I was thinking about who she could be talking to, who she could be telling her problems to. And then I thought that maybe it should be a therapist. And from there, I just sat down and wrote the first episode and then started to come up with more patients and think, think about who else this therapist would be giving therapy to. And that initial first season was just the therapist character and then her three patients and three sessions each. So total of nine episodes. And I wrote all of them. They were all about 10 to 15 pages and then reached out to some actors that I needed to see if they wanted to do it just for free. And I did all of the editing myself, all of the sound design. And it was, yeah, it was really just meant to be an experiment. And then we were having so much fun doing it that I just kept writing.
Mignon: That's fantastic. You must have great friends because all the acting is wonderful. I enjoy Sam, your part, but I enjoy all the other characters, too. They're really amazing.
Lauren: Yeah, I'm really, really fortunate to know so many incredibly talented actors. About 80 percent of the original cast was found in this one acting class that I was in in North Hollywood. And it was just a wealth of really talented people who were kind of in a similar position where they were auditioning a lot, not getting a lot of work. And were really, you know, eager to try something that they had never tried before. Every actor I've ever worked with has never been in a fiction podcast before. So it's been really fun to kind of discover that medium together.
Mignon: Are some of some of them still working with you on your new projects?
Lauren: Yeah, one of them, actually, the actor who plays Caleb in the podcast who "The Infinite Noise" is about, in part, is actually now one of the founding members and partners of a company I now have called Atypical Artists, that's all about making fiction podcasts. And so we've really intertwine their lives in a big way. And then "The A.M. Archives" had a lot of returning characters, and some of the actors as well have shown up in "Passenger List" and some of the other projects that I've worked on. So it's been nice to go back to that, that well and ask them to do more and more things.
Mignon: That's great. So as late as you said, the story takes place through largely through the therapy sessions that the characters are having with a psychologist known as Dr. Bright. That's why it's called "The Bright Sessions," and the characters abilities you've said are at least partly genetic. So I'm wondering, you know, one, did you consult with a psychologist about how to frame the sessions so they were realistic? And did you consult with a geneticist about how, you know, these abilities might arise or be passed on through families?
Lauren: Yeah, I, I'm lucky in that my older sister is a psychologist. Well, she's not anymore. She now works in humanitarian aid, but she has a degree in psychology. And so I sent her all the scripts and she consulted and told me, you know, when Dr. Bright wouldn't actually probably say that or when she was worried that I was misrepresenting something. And then there were times when she would say, "Oh, well, therapists would never do that." And I would say, "Yeah, I know. But, you know, if Dr. Bright kind of has some nefarious, you know, motivation sometimes and it's it's science fiction." So, you know, you kind of have to step outside of things. But the big thing that I wanted to do was never to make therapy seem like a a bad or evil or dangerous thing. I always wanted to be an advocate for therapy. And so just having my sister look over all the scripts and give her professional opinion as to what would be what would be communicated to the audience and what would sort of be helpful and safe for me to put into a podcast and for me to make Dr. Bright do and still be able to communicate that therapy is a good thing as long as you don't have a therapist like Dr. Bright who may be as has some different motivations.
Lauren: I haven't gotten the genetics this question before. That's a really interesting one. I did not consult a geneticist and honestly took a lot of the the way that atypical genes work from the way that wizarding genes work in Harry Potter. That was a big influence. Of like it can just happen, you know, it can just happen in a in a sort of non-atypical couple. But then also if you have two atypical parents you are more likely to be atypical, But you could still sort of be essentially a squib. You know that the non-wizards and in Harry Potter. So that was sort of the model for it. And actually, I went to a panel at DragonCon, a convention in Atlanta, many years ago, and I saw a geneticist speak about... I went to a couple of his panels...He did one panel about the Captain America super-soldier serum and what that would actually need to be in order to work and make a super soldier. And then I went to his panel on Harry Potter genetics and explaining exactly how that works and took a lot of notes. And so that was very helpful as well.
Mignon: Oh, that's super cool. So, OK, so I want to back up a little bit because I am curious what it was like going from, you know, writing something completely on your own like you did the the first season and then starting to work with other writers as either, I don't know what it was, as a collaborator or a boss. Like what was it like, and what were the good parts and bad parts of suddenly not working alone?
Lauren: Yeah. My first experience writing with other people in audio fiction was actually "Passenger List" because even though it just came out a couple of weeks ago, I first started working on that project in spring of 2018. And that's not a project that I created. It was created by John Dryden, who's an amazing Peabody Award winning BBC radio drama writer and was a listener of "The Bright Sessions" and reached out to me with this outline for this show and said, "Would you like to write a script?" And I said, Yes, of course, because I'm such a huge admirer of his work. And when he sent me the outline, I ended up having a lot of ideas about the the story as a whole and the characters. And when we got on Skype to talk about the scripts that I wanted to write, I just kind of threw all these ideas at him, and he ended up really liking them and bringing me on as a co-producer and co-director. And that was really interesting because it was John's vision and his sandbox that I was playing in. But the other two writers on the show were in L.A. and John was in London, and I live in L.A. So even though he was, he was the boss and everything was going through him, I was sort of acting as a as a co-writer, co-collaborator for the L.A. team and editing a bunch of scripts, coordinating with writers, and really learning from John about how to to be a boss and how to edit other people's scripts and give notes and go through that whole process.
So then after that show wrapped, when we started going to preproduction for "The A.M. Archives," I asked three friends of mine whose writing I've admired for a really long time to be in my writing staff essentially and got to be a show runner and run a writers room for the first time, which was really, really fun and kind of scary because it's a world that has been so personal to me for so long and that I've had full control of and have really immersed myself in for so many years that it was a little bit daunting to invite other people into that that space. But there were three writers that I really, really trusted and really admired, and I had a vague idea of what the season would look like. But we all got together, you know, with the blank white board and a bunch of coffee and and worked out the season and the character arcs and they brought new characters to the table and new ideas. And it ended up being a really wonderful process and really making the show so much better. And now one of my favorite things to do is to edit other people's scripts. I love helping a writer's scripts become more of themselves. I think that's the thing I've really learned in both giving and receiving notes and something that my book editor Allie Fisher has also taught me because she is such a wonderful editor who makes me just the better version of my writer self versus, you know, I think the inclination for a lot of writers is giving us so the writers is to give them the note about how they would write it, not give them note about how they think that writer should write it. And so that's something that I'm still really figuring out for myself and making sure that when I'm giving a note, I'm not trying to assert my own voice onto a writer script, which was something like "The A.M. Archives" is a little bit trickier because it's in "The Bright Sessions" universe, so it does somewhat have to be in my voice in the sense that has to be in the voice of the universe that I've established.
Lauren: So that was a really good training ground for me as a boss to balance those two things. After doing "Passenger List," where I was always trying to make sure it was, I was giving notes that aligned with John's vision, not my own, which was, you know, really wonderful to do. And and John has a strong vision for that show that he made it really easy. And then to balance that with needing all of "The A.M. Archives" scripts to still sound like they were coming from the same, the same universe. But you know that the best thing is just hiring people who are really, really good so you don't really have to give them that many notes in the first place.
Mignon: That's great. Well, we're going to take a quick break for our sponsors. But when we come back, I want to ask you more about that universe and how you built it and especially about translating a podcast to a book. So we'll be right back.
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Mignon: Okay. So you talked about building this universe, and I have a particular question about how you built it and knowing that you wrote the whole first season before you even started recording is kind of part of that. But your main characters, they all have special abilities. And those abilities, you know, they have limits. And so I was really wondering, did you decide on the limits of those abilities at the beginning before you started and then hold yourself to those limits or did you explore them and sort of let them grow as you went along with the writing?
Lauren: I think it was a little bit of both. I don't know that I thought about limits that specifically when I started writing. But definitely the idea of the show and the universe came from my own love and fascination for these types of stories. You know, I'm a huge fan of the Marvel movies and have big, you know, action superhero movies where the stakes are the fate of the universe and everything is cranked up to 11. And I also like sort of extrapolating those characters and those abilities and thinking about what it would actually be like to live in the real world and have those abilities. And having watched so many shows and read books and read comic books where there's somebody who can read minds or somebody who can time travel, teleport or, you know, control fire, sort of those classic superhero powers, I like thinking about the downsides to those. You know, the conflicts that that would create. What would it actually be like to read people's minds that if you couldn't turn it on and off. That would probably be really difficult, and it would be really hard to be around other people. And so I think it was really inherent in my vision for the show of wanting to focus on the interpersonal conflicts and the interior conflicts within each person that having an ability like that would present and that the things that the characters would have to confront if they had these abilities living in the real world.
So I think just wanting to keep a big super-powers story very, very grounded and very, very small just lent itself to limits, even if I wasn't necessarily thinking of it in those terms. And then it definitely, for a lot of the characters, grew as as I went. And I think that the limits ended up surprising me in some respects, you know. Damien, who's that character who can do something that's somewhat similar to mind control, but not really, figuring out his limits and figuring out, well, what if you could kind of control people, but you, but there were really hard limits on that. What would that be like? And Rose, who can who can walk into people's dreams? The limits of that are, well, what if it was really fun to be inside people's dreams? You didn't want to do anything else and you never were awake because you were spending all your time sleeping so you can be in people's dreams, kind of thinking about what the, what the other shoe dropping of every ability is created a lot of really interesting story and character possibilities.
Mignon: Yeah. And I think you did an especially good job of capturing the feelings of all the different characters and what that, you know, as teens and young adults, what they would be feeling going through, you know, coping with these these abilities that made their lives maybe more exciting, but also more difficult, more so than like a typical action superhero movie.
Lauren: Yeah, I really wanted to take take my time with what the characters were feeling and how they were responding to everyday problems and the mundane problems, especially for teens and younger people, when the mundane problems already feel so big because you know, you're not really regulating your emotions yet and everything seems really, really high stakes. And then to add in a supernatural ability on top of that and making those mundane problems even less mundane because you have a supernatural thing to deal with. To me was a really interesting other side of the coin, too, that the big superhero films that I love.
Mignon: Right. So I'm only about halfway through season two, but Caleb is one of my favorite characters. And you do you capture like the feelings of being a teenage boy so well and that the new book, "The Infinite Noise" is about Caleb and his partner. So what, How did you choose Caleb first for your for your book? And then especially, like, what was it like translating this story that you've done so much in audio onto the printed page? I mean, I imagine there were challenges, but I also think it let you do things you couldn't do in the other mediums, so I'd love to hear about that.
Lauren: Yeah. I actually started writing "The Infinite Noise" around the time that I was finishing up the first season of the podcast because I was getting more into Caleb's ability as he in these sessions he's starting to come to terms of what he can do. He's starting to open up a little bit more to Dr. Bright. And so he's starting to describe more of what his life is actually like, feeling everybody's emotions around him. And he's also spending more time talking about this other boy in his class, Adam, and I was realizing that I was having a hard time writing some of those early episodes in season 2 and towards the end of season 1, because I wasn't really inside of Caleb's head yet. I couldn't really figure out what is it like when he's walking down the hall, and he's feeling everybody's emotions. What does actually feel like? What does that look and smell and sound like to him? And also, you know, what's this other boy thinking about, about Caleb and the way that he's moving through the world? And so I started writing this little dual perspective story that actually ended up becoming chapters 5 and 6 of "The Infinite Noise." And it was just an exercise to get inside of Caleb's head and have him experience in real time the emotions that he was getting from other people, from a lot of other people, because, of course, when he's in therapy, there's only one other person whose feelings he's feeling and she's very, very good at at closing herself off to that.
Lauren: And so I wanted to sort of sit in the urgency of him being in school, which is something we were never going to do in the podcast. And then I also wanted to see Adam side of the story, especially once I realized that the two of them were going to fall in love and that Adam was going to become a much larger part of Caleb's life. I kind of wanted to understand what Adam was thinking about Caleb before they actually connect. And it really was just meant to be an exercise. And I shared it with the actors, as you know, some more information that they could take for their characters and then sort of put it aside for a year. And then when I was talking to my book agent, Matthew Elblonk, he was asking, you know, what I'd been thinking of in terms of "The Bright Sessions" novels. I said, "Well, actually, you know, I have some ideas for some adult novels, but I love YA romance, And I have this little bit of a story that I started a couple of years ago that, you know, I keep thinking about." And we'll go back and revisit some times when I need to get into Caleb's headspace. And that ended up becoming "The Infinite Noise." And it was it was really fun to track over a lot of the same events as the podcast. There were definitely some things that made it challenging because I think a lot of writers, especially when you're writing something serialized and ongoing and you're kind of putting out the railroad track in front of the moving train, there's always things you look back on that you think, oh, I wish I had rewritten that or I wish I had done that a little bit differently. And with the book, you have that opportunity, sort of. But I wanted to not stray too far from canon. And so I had to confront some things that I had done in the podcast that maybe I wasn't super happy with or some timeline things that didn't quite hold up after the fact that I had to sort of shoehorn in. There are a couple moments I painted myself into a corner on things like that. But for the most part it was just really fun to explore the stuff that happens outside of the therapy room. So, you know, all of the lunches the Caleb and Adam have. And the first time that, you know, Caleb realizes that he has feelings for Adam, the first time they kiss, and the Sadie Hawkins dance where Caleb gets into a fight. All of those things that Caleb talked about in therapy, but that we don't feel or see the urgency of because we're not in the moment with him. It was really fun to explore those and get to actually put those down on paper and get both of their sides of the story on them.
Mignon: Yeah. So people always want to know how a writer gets an agent and a book deal. So how did that all come about for you?
Yeah, it was all the podcast. So Matthew, my agent reached out to me, and a couple of different folks had reached out to me who listened to the podcast and were curious if I thought about adapting it to another medium or to books specifically. And, you know, I talked to some folks, and I sort of mentioned that I loved YA and there wasn't really the interest and we didn't really connect. And then I got on the phone with Matthew and it was just like instant connection. He instantly got what the what the show was about, and what I was trying to do with the show, and that it was really about emotions, because I think, you know, a lot of people will hear supernatural abilities and they kind of want to make it either gritty and dark, or they want to make it that big blowup superhero thing. And that's not what "The Bright Sessions" is. And that's not the show that I wanted to make or the books that I wanted to write. And so I was really, really fortunate that Matthew listened to the podcast and really deeply understood what the core of it was and then reached out to me.
Lauren: And then from there, you know, like I said, I gave him these pages of this thing that I had written a few years prior. And he had notes on it and he had some ideas. And I wrote more of it. And then we talked about what other characters I would want to explore or if this could be a series. And I said, "Well, you know, there's stuff that I want to do with Caleb and Adam strictly in podcast form, so I don't know that it would necessarily be like a sequel or trilogy of just Caleb and Adam. But I would kind of like to explore these other characters, and so I wrote a rough summary, an outline for a book about Damian, who's one of the main antagonists, a prequel about him and how he becomes who he becomes, and then Rose that dream-walking character and put it all together into a proposal and sent it out. And, you know, Matthew's an amazing agent and did so much of the sort of shopping around and discussing and then told me that that Tor Teen was interested, and being a huge Tor fan. It was it was a very, very easy choice to make.
Mignon: Awesome. So it was all about the podcast, and the podcasting world has gotten so big. I mean, you started this years ago, and I really only heard about it, you know, started listening maybe, you know, four or six months ago. So did it, when it came out, was it in an instant hit or did it take time to do it grow over time? How did it how did it go at the beginning?
Lauren: Oh, yeah. It was not an instant hit at all. It's really funny, when you're you know, when you're a first time podcaster. And I know you've been in podcasting for so long, I'm sure you've experienced this because podcasting has grown so much over the years. But when you first hit publishing your first show, it's so anticlimactic. Nothing happens because, you know, it's not like inviting people to a play opening or something where there's a specific time and place that people have to be. So even, you know, telling my family and friends about it and not knowing exactly how long it was going to take to get into iTunes, and not really understanding, you know, where to go to tell people about a podcast. I think in the first week we had about 20 listens, and I'm pretty sure it was the cast and then our closest friends. But I spent a lot of time. I spent, you know, several hours a week for about three to four months on subreddits and Tumblr, and Twitter, just talking to other audio drama fans and talking about podcasts and then asking them to listen to mine and just immersing myself into the community and into the fandom of the existing audio dramas that were out there. And it started to pick up a little bit of traction by the end of our first season. You know, we had we had a couple hundred listeners, and then by the time we started our second season, people had binge listened to the first one, and were excited about that the next season. And then again, you know, it was kind of people were trickling in. We were building slowly. And then a couple of things happened that really helped boost boost the show. Jeffrey Cranor, one of the writers of Night Vale, somehow found it, I have no idea how, and tweeted about it. And that brought in a ton of people. And then Steve Wilson, who is over at Apple podcasts, also somehow found it. I have no idea how he finds these shows because he's so good at finding unheard of shows and lifting them up and reached out and said, "Hey, we'd love to to feature you on on, you know, the iTunes homepage." And so that was the...our second season finale got featured in the big banner on the front page, and we started to get a lot more attention after that. And and with the sort of podcast community as a whole finding out about us, and then it was just snowballed from there. So it was really, yeah, I was a it was very, very slowly. And then all at once I would say audience-wise.
Lauren: That's great. I mean, I think it's really encouraging for people to know that it doesn't always happen right away and stick with it. And if you feel like you're creating good work, and you can keep going, then you should keep going.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. And I think something that people, I mean, there's so many there's what, half a million podcasts out there, and there are more and more audio dramas every day. And, you know, you really do have to put in the work to to get people to hear about it. I think that people have published and they, you know, just expect it to sort of rise on the Apple charts or whatever podcasting chart people are on. And, you know, I mean, I did a lot of guerilla marketing. I spent a lot of time talking to people online and just sort of being part of the community and it seems, it doesn't seem like work. It's one of those things where you sort of put in the hours for the hope of catching on or, you know, putting in six hours for maybe two listeners. But it does exponentially grow because then if you get those core, you know, 1,000 listeners who are really, really passionate audio drama, they're going to tell all of their friends about it, and they're gonna tell anybody who will listen about it because they're really passionate. So putting in the work to find those people, I think is absolutely worth it.
Mignon: Yeah. Okay. So you have so much going on. What is coming out next? What's the next new thing for you? And what project are you sort of most excited about right now?
Lauren: So the next show to come out is Marvels, which is the project that I did with Marvel and Stitcher. That's based on the comic book from the mid-90s of the same name by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. And it's, it was just wild to get to do a story with Marvel and get to write, you know, some like the Fantastic Four and some really, really iconic Marvel characters. I'm not entirely sure what I can say about who's in it. So, I'll keep quiet on that. But that will come out on Stitcher Premium sometime later this year and then more widely next year, early next year. So that's the next thing that's coming out. And then "Passenger List" will be wrapping up in the next month. And I'm really, really excited about those because it was fun to work in other people's sandboxes and get to play in universes that were not my own. It was daunting and scary and challenging, but I'm really excited about what they turned into. And the project that I'm most excited about right now, it is...I can't say exactly what it is yet or who it's with...but I'm working on a kind of spooky podcast with another person that I really admire and love working with, and that'll be coming out sometime next year. So I'm I'm really, really excited about that.
Mignon: Cool. Okay. I know you always have things coming out, but you're working on things because it takes so long for things to launch.
Lauren: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Podcasting is a faster turnaround than most things, but it still takes a while.
Mignon: Yeah. Okay. So when so when this podcast, the Grammar Girl podcast comes out, you should still be able to catch Lauren live at the Texas Teen Book Festival and the Austin Film Festival. And you can, of course, and you should, pick up her new book, "The Infinite Noise." That's Lauren Shippen and "The Infinite Noise." Thanks again for being here, Lauren.
Lauren: Thanks so much for having me, Mignon.