"Do You Consider Yourself Anti-Capitalist?": On Making Political Art

My parents are renovating the house I grew up in, and their kitchen has been unusable for some time. As Edgar can attest, one of my primary means of showing affection is making food for people: for me, nothing shows care quite so much as sharing a home-made meal, so I brought them dinner (vegetarian chili, with a small container of browned beef alongside it, in case they didn’t want to have it vegetarian.)

While there, I spoke to my mother about the ongoing loneliness epidemic that has been on my mind lately: I’m an adjunct instructor, and I’ve recently gotten a crop of so-called “Generation Z” students. These young people are (according to experts,) the most isolated generation in recorded history, and who have the most precarious mental health situation of any living generation, succumbing in record numbers to anxiety and depression. I am I feel, not improperly, worried about them.

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Writers' Room and Recording Booth: The Headspace of Collaboration

(Edgar wrote an excellent piece on the cowriting process here.)

In many ways Perdition’s Teeth belongs to me — but I don’t consider any of those ways important, and everyone who took part in the process owns a vital piece of it. I would never have it any other way, and it is all of ours.

I’ve mentioned many times that it all started with a misheard lyric in the shower, but before it became a podcast, I ran it as a tabletop game. Edgar was one of my players, and regular guest star Erik Pitcock was another. From the very beginning, it was a collaborative story.

When we shifted over to making it into a podcast, Edgar became my cowriter, and we all agreed that they should be the director. I was playing the narrator, and I did not feel that I could write, act, and direct effectively. That’s more hats than I care to wear.

And all through the process, Alex was asking questions. Key, important questions, about what makes an audio drama an audio drama, about how it should function and come into the world, and while I was immovable on some things, being forced to answer the question of why things were being done the way they were was key.

From the beginning, Edgar and I were firm in the idea that everyone have a voice in the direction. We talked over each of the characters with each of our actors, we gave them our ideas, our outlines, and we took their feedback to make it work. This, I feel, is the lifeblood of collaboration.

When I was in graduate school — down in New Mexico, with the groundwork for this project being welded into my mind — I made a point to read widely, on a number of subjects. Two of the books I read that had a profound and lasting effect were from the 33 & 1/3 books on Slint’s Spiderland and Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones. Both of these books deal heavily with cowriting and collaboration, and both depict radically different ends of the spectrum.

Slint, famously, recorded the album Spiderland in two weekends. The first weekend was recording, the second was editing. Everything was a single take. To prepare for this, the members of that band devoted everything to preparing. They slept. They worked. They practiced. That was essentially it. They had long and involved discussions of the minutiae of each song. The book even noted that they spent hours debating the benefits and drawbacks of stroking upward on the guitar as opposed to downward.

Tom Waits, on the other hand, would get studio musicians to come in and would just begin describing what he wanted, playing what he had written thus far, improvising the rest, and allow the studio musicians and collaborators to slot themselves in as they wanted. It was a loose, improvisational style that lent itself to mutation and generated difference.

And so, between these two poles, you have almost the entire universe of collaboration.

My struggle, as a collaborator and, in a very real sense, as the creator, was trying to figure out how to work with other people productively. My struggle is that, while I dearly love Tom Waits, Spiderland is light years beyond Swordfishtrombones.

In the end, though, I couldn’t go with Slint’s approach. While Spiderland really is transcendantly good, the fact of the matter is that there’s only ever been one Spiderland. Slint broke up immediately after the record was released; one member committed himself. On the other hand, Swordfishtrombones was a trailhead, a new direction in an already-long career that has covered more territory than I can even dream of.

If Perdition’s Teeth serves the same role for us, I would be happy. I cannot abide it being unique: I want to follow it with other works.

On Americana

I've heard it often said that Americans don't understand what a long time is, but we have a strong grasp of what a long distance is, while Britons have a much better grasp of long histories and struggle to conceive of the distances that Americans regularly grapple with.

I don't think this is to say that America has a short history.  It just has a short history that modern Americans care about.  Cahokia was, after all, once the largest and most prosperous city in the world, overlooking the muddy breadth of the Mississippi mud.

(I wanted to acknowledge this in the show, by having the characters hear a snatch of a Navajo radio broadcast.  Unfortunately, as I don't know any Navajo speakers and don't know where to begin getting a translation, let alone have any idea where we would find anyone able to deliver these lines.  What could have been!)

But when we hear the word "Americana" what do we think about?  George Washington and the Cherry Tree; Ben Franklin and his patronizing smile; Abraham Lincoln and his stovepipe hat; settlers and the (whitewashed, sanitized) cowboys pushing west...but also Route 66 and roadside kitsch; strange lights in the desert and things from other worlds; roadside diners where the food is greasy and unsanitary but you eat it anyway, and the waitress is beautiful and friendly and the coffee she pours is for you and you alone.

Clearly, there is very much going on here, and not much of it hangs together.  I would argue, personally, that there are either three or five periods of Americana.  The five periods, I would say, are: Colonial-Antebellum; the Old West; the Gilded Age; the Hardboiled period (including everything from the 1920s-1940s;) and the Pax Americana, which includes everything from 1950 to the First of September, 1993.

The more useful model, since I'm not communicating this to a bunch of academics, I would say, goes as follows:  Fireside Americana; Radio Americana; and Television Americana.  The Fireside and the Television are the two biggest stretches for our storytelling, with the Radio as the transitional, hopeful-monster-intermediate between the two longer periods.

While there are probably scholars who have a lot to say on it, and who might strongly object to my classification, here's my take:

Fireside Americana is everything that goes from the Founders of the United States and Washington Irving all the way through Mark Twain (the Pre-Republican era is another matter, a largely forgotten field upon which strange events play out and we only really think about it in the context of it leading to the Revolutionary War.)  It's a hardwood, warmly-lit sort of aesthetic, smelling of smoke and tinged with road-dust and sea salt, a quarrelsome style for the country once known as the "alcoholic republic."

Television Americana is everything from the end of World War II to the opening of the internet.  It's Jack Kerouac and Buddy Holly through John Hughes.  It's chrome and plastic, smelling of petrochemical fumes and summer days in the city, with all of the attendant filth, it's roadside kitsch and pink plastic flamingos, it's long roadtrips taken for the hell of it and probably ends up on a beach somewhere.  It is, by and large, an aesthetic of individualism and consumption.

Radio sits between the two.  Faulkner looks backward but sits here firmly, and you also have Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler carving out their own niches.   Hardwood, but with electric lights strung up.  It's the Americana of the Private Eye, the Carny, and Okie; it's the Little Red Songbook and the Tommy Gun. It's travel by road through treacherous country to escape hardship, but done by car.  It's less summery, less sunny, more night-time.  It's an aesthetic of obscurity, with hard positions popping up and thrusting up like high-rises emerging from the mist.  It ended with World War II and the start of the Cold War (I would say a big part of this was the general rightward turn of American Culture, and possibly even the specific institution of the Taft-Hartley Act, but I digress.)

Perdition's Teeth is, in many ways, an attempt to marry contemporary trends in storytelling and weird fiction to the aesthetics of Radio Americana.  There's the general fact that it's an audio drama, but there's also the prominent appearance of the IWW, the Pinkertons, and a westward journey that nods a bit to The Grapes of Wrath.

It is, in short, an attempt to recapture those early days of Mass Media, and draw upon an aesthetic tradition that has been buried beneath the chrome-and-plastic veneer, but lies buried there, ready to have a layer of varnish applied and start singing "Bread and Roses" again.

How to Pick Up Hitchhikers: the Co-Writing Process

My memory is terrible. That's probably why the first distinct conversation I recall having with Cameron about what would become Perdition's Teeth was around the time he posted something on Facebook, canvassing his friends for interest in working on a podcast together. And while we'd played through a brief tabletop RPG campaign set in a similar world, that story had featured a huge plot derailment due to a character having a bunch of drugs on his person, so I wasn't really sure how it would go. And then when we got together with some of the friends from the initial Facebook thread, Perdition's Teeth wasn't something that was high on my list for potential projects -- but it's the one we all got behind, and in retrospect, I'm really glad that it's the one we went with.

It's not just that I'm in love with the characters, or that I got to learn a lot about things like labor organizing in the 1930s. In a lot of ways, I think this was an ideal project for a crash-course in co-writing and collaboration.

For context: Cameron and I have been writing next to each other, as it were, for a long time. We've been reading and critiquing each other's writing for over ten years. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses pretty well, at this point -- but we had never written anything collaboratively. And while both of us had been involved in theatrical productions in the past, we had never been behind the wheel. It was, in a lot of ways, a wild ride.

Cameron, as both the originator of the concept and the better plot-forger (by leagues), created the initial episode-by-episode breakdown of the action in a table format. Now, I can't plot my way out of a paper bag (I mean, I can, but it's really hard), but I am, I think, pretty good at writing characters. So once we had that episode-by-episode outline, Cameron passed the table off to me so that I could detail the characters' emotional arcs as the action progressed. When the table was complete, we met with Alex and the rest of the cast, and talked with them about the proposed course of the story. They had some thoughts; we had some thoughts; we changed things until we were all reasonably happy with how they would go. I mean, maybe not happy, given the ending and all, but satisfied.

From there, we began the real work.

Another thing I learned a lot about on this project: CeltX. I swore a lot.

Cameron and I decided early on that, even if one of us wrote the bulk of the episode, the other would have to sign off on it. We also decided, in the case of a few episodes, that one of us would be wholly responsible for producing the script because, in one way or another, given episodes played to our specific strengths.

Cameron wrote all the exciting stuff; I wrote all the stirring speeches.

It was when we started recording, however, that I moved deeper into another role. As the "character czar," I had written a lot of the character-heavy content, or at least edited it in some way. During the rehearsal and recording process, I used my authority (ha!) to act as a kind of director. It's different from what I thought of as directing, for sure: no movements, obviously, but a lot of heavy-duty voice work. In practice, this meant a lot of talking through the characters' emotional states as they spoke, and putting the characters' words into the context of their actions, as well as a lot of semi-incoherent statements like, "You wanna kinda build up to the comma here, right? And then drop it right down," accompanied by dramatic gestures. Unsurprisingly, the task grew easier with practice, but fortunately, I was working with a very talented and receptive group of people. Everyone involved had taken direction in the past, and fortunately, they were able to help me in turn when I had to pinch-hit on minor characters.

While my involvement in the genesis of the project was more as a sounding board, towards the end, in some ways, I was able to guide things on a pretty high level. Like a hitchhiker who, at first, seems like dead weight on the engine, I eventually got to move into a navigator role, riding shotgun on a project that has grown to be so much more than any of us, I think, initially thought it could. I'm really proud of my own involvement -- but the characters came to life in the voices of our friends, and the story couldn't have been told without any of the people involved on board.