An Interview with Writer Sarah Shachat

An Interview with Writer Sarah Shachat

Sarah is an incredibly talented writer with one of the most impressive vocabularies ever (seriously, spend five minutes with her and you’ll learn an amazing new word). She has helped us with some of our projects, writes extensively online, and is a member of the brilliant team behind Wolf 359 – a very impressive and entertaining audio-drama podcast. I am thrilled to share some insights with you today from one of my oldest and most talented friends. Enjoy!

1. Please introduce yourself, where you’re from, and what you do currently.
Hi, all! My name is Sarah Shachat. I’m a New Orleans native currently living up in New York City, and I write for fun and profit. Most notably, I’m a writer and producer for the science fiction audio drama Wolf 359.

2. So this blog post is a bit different in that it focuses a little less on video production/filmmaking and more on writing for audio-only dramas. What drove you to the podcast world (more specifically, audio dramas)? 
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Wolf 359 Recording Session

I very much was driven there, as opposed to driving myself. I explored Welcome To Nightvale and Serial as they respectively entered the zeitgeist, and I’ve been a big fan since college of the Mercury Theater on air stuff, War of the Worlds and Dracula and so on. But the wonderful thing about podcasts is a lot of their drive is word-of-mouth, so it was really on the recommendation of friends in the last couple years that I started getting into the podcasts I follow closely.

What’s wonderful about them is that they have such low bar for entry, comparatively. All you need is a mic, a computer, and a guide to figure out how to set up a feed. There were a couple of times in the last few years that I’ve worked with friends on podcast projects that never really quite got going – we’d record a few episodes and have fun arguing about different movies – but it never quite clicked. And yet, all we out were maybe $70 and a few hours of our lives, enjoyably spent.

Then another good friend of mine from college, Gabriel Urbina, sent me this pilot script he’d written for a radio drama set on a space station. It was an interesting script, very funny, and with the potential to be even funnier. After asking him if I could do a pass on it, I pretty much got hooked. Audio dramas, specifically, are a wonderful writing challenge. You have to rely on suggestion in order to tell the story. Very different from the broader building blocks prose gives you, and way more slinky and fluid than the clarity of an image. The show needs the listener in order to make it come alive. So writing for radio isn’t about what you imagine’s going on in a room on a space station, say. It’s about what you allow to be imagined, what’s going on in someone else’s head – that’s the experience.

3. What are some of the challenges of writing an audio drama? What are some of the opportunities it provides? How does it differ from screen writing, novels, etc.? 

Ha, I was sort of winding there towards the end of that last question. But the challenge is that there are strong restrictions placed on what you can convey with sound alone. We (Gabriel, Zach Valenti, and I, who all write for the show) have conversations all the time about how things would be different if we were doing Wolf 359: The TV Show. There are certain actions you wouldn’t think of – one character passes a piece of paper to another character – that are almost impossible to write for radio. But a space mutant plant monster? That’s real easy. So there’s a give and take to it. You have the ability to be big and ambitious and bold on a nothing budget, but you have to go to increasingly difficult lengths to convey smaller moments or transitions, because everything has to come from a distinctive sound.

That’s a little bit why it’s so wonderful, too. You have a very basic toolkit – the actors’ voices, whatever sound effects you can license, music (and in our case we’re spoiled by Alan Rodi’s divine score), and, of course, silence. But by making things that simple and that restrictive, it actually opens up a lot of opportunities. We’ve done audio monologue vignettes, we’ve done an audio montage sequence, we’ve even done an audio montage flashback sequence. The constraints force you past a lazy or easy solution. It forces you to think about the most intuitive, the most effective way to convey information to the audience. And of course, there’s a lot of opportunity for shock and surprise because you can constantly redefine space in a way you can’t if you have visuals. You thought three men were having a private conversation in a normal looking room? Nope, the walls are completely covered in platypus fur. And nope, the lamplight is actually coming from a green diamond. And nope, the men all have three eyes. You have the ability to force the audience to re-evaluate their image of a scene, and that forces them to dive deeper into it. There’s a wonderful intimacy with radio, and good radio dramas get to play with that.

In terms of how it compares to other forms of writing, it’s most like screenwriting. What you as a writer put on page is a blueprint, at best the Google Maps, to the story. It’s actually on the actors and the editor to produce the “text” the listener will interact with. So you do all the same sorts of things you try to do with a screenplay: write scene descriptions that’ll be helpful for the actors/director, locate them physically and emotionally, write good dialogue, create a structure that makes what happens in a given episode both surprising and inevitable, based on who the characters are and what they’re up against. You know, maddeningly difficult stuff.

4. So what’s it like “behind the curtain”? How much of the process involves producers, directors, actors, etc.? Where does the buck stop? How do you decide where to make cuts, story changes, and all the other elements that come with working with a team? 
It’s a very collaborative process, I find, and a very fluid one. But the buck always stops with our benevolent overlord/showrunner. Gabriel is our head writer, directs, and, though we don’t have a credit for it, does the crucial work of editing everything together. So he has the absolute last word, and even if an episode is credited to another writer, the show is very much entirely his vision. That said, there’s a lot of give and take with the writing process. I was editing scripts long before I started writing them, and some of my favorite lines, beats, and character moments which I contributed are in Gabriel’s eps (or Zach’s, or Emma Sherr-Ziarko’s, our second actor to bravely tackle writing an episode). We tend to float ideas and ‘break’ a series of episodes of the show down together in meetings/online conversations/byzantine google docs – right now we’re finishing up structuring the back half of our third season – and then we divvy up the episodes between us. A single writer will outline an episode, get feedback where needed, and then write out a first draft. From there, Gabriel and I tend to trade draft revisions back and forth until we feel it’s ready to be table-read.
Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

The actors don’t ad-lib a lot – though some great suggestions, especially Zach’s, have made it in – but they do contribute in a huge way through the table-reads/rehearsal process. It’s where we can finally hear our words said aloud by people who do that really well, and that clarifies a lot of the issues a script might have/help us cut things down/realize what we were idiots for missing. Gabriel and I will usually do one or two (or six) more passes of a script after that, before it’s “locked” and becomes a recording script. The actors will perform it, and – barring any last-minute adjustments or cuts by Editor!Gabriel – that’s what becomes the episode. So there’s a structure to the creation of the show and a schedule,  but it’s all a very open process. We’ve had actors give us story ideas or had long, involved conversations about their characters, and that’s been invaluable. Usually story changes will come out of that kind of collaboration. We realize we’re missing something or that an episode as it stands isn’t what it needs to be. Usually one of us is just unsatisfied for reasons we can’t quite articulate, and then in conversation we work out what needs to shift.

5. Podcasting has clearly seen a rapid rise in popularity since shows like NPR’s Serial hit the airwaves. In a time where trans-media content is increasingly becoming the norm, do you see any potential opportunities for podcasts working with or within other mediums to expand further? What are some of the ways it could be utilized along side other forms of content? What ways have you seen this done?
What a fascinating question. There’s a history, even as nascent as the ‘podcast,’ is, for commentaries on other media, for sure. The Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul Insider Podcasts, which editor Kelley Dixon runs, are outstanding. The Lindelof/Cuse Lost and Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica podcasts are both, I think, pretty foundational. The Moth and Comedy Bang! Bang! exist out in the real world, of course.  But you’re beginning to see some real crossover. Lore, which is absolutely phenomenally produced, is moving to TV. You’ve got groups like Nightvale Presents and Audible who want to curate audio content, acting as sort of like an HBO/Netflix for podcasts. Audio dramas are on the rise as well.
There are old (“old”) stalwarts like The Black Tapes, there’s Lauren Shippen’s painfully clever The Bright Sessions, and nothing understands/upends the NPR vibe quite like Limetown. So I think we’re probably going to see podcasts not only acting as companion pieces to other media, but jumping into other media. There again, the conversation about how radio storytelling is different from other kinds of storytelling becomes important. Podcasts have the opportunity not only to be in conversation about other media, but tell kinds of stories and offer windows of insight that visual media/prose may not have the capacity to do. In a media landscape where everybody increasingly has to do ancillary content, actually making it valuable and engaging through podcasting/radio is appealing.
6. If you had to give one piece of advice to new and aspiring writers, what would it be? 
The idea of “Just Do It” was always super overwhelming for me. What if I were to look into the howling white abyss of a blank word document and find that I don’t (yet) have anything to say? What is “it” and how, exactly, do I “do it.” Instructions, plz. Alas, as I found when I went out into the hard, cruel world of creative life, them’s kind of the breaks. If you want to do creative work, you have to just do creative work, in addition to whatever you’re doing to feed/clothe/shelter yourself. And if you don’t (yet) know what the work is or have a story idea of your own, then the best advice I can give is find people who are going to push you to be creative in any capacity. Find friends whose opinions you trust who will offer feedback your shitty, half-baked pitch idea. Find NaNoWriMo buddies. Find counterparts who value your taste and your thoughts enough to send you their first drafts.
Creativity is a muscle as much as it is anything else. So find ways to get in the habit of writing so that you’re accountable, and you learn, and improve. If it’s only to yourself, great. I loathe your willpower. If not, find a way to do work that’s accountable to someone else. You’ll not only start bridging the gap between the writing you see/admire out in the world and what you can do, but start being more comfortable with the “doing.” It’ll put you on the road to whatever the “it” is, for you.
7. What are you working on now?Wolf 359

Season 3.5 of Wolf 359 is most of it, honestly. I occasionally review films for a lovely, silly site called Movieboozer.com, and am working on couple other non-fiction-y projects that should start coming out towards the end of the summer. Also, having a job, paying rent, and learning how to cook things that aren’t curry: those are huge parts of what I’m working on now.

8. Anything else you’d like to add? 

Wolf359.fm. It’s cool. Do it.
Check out Wolf 359 and follow Sarah at @shach_attack!
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