Making ‘A Small Town Horror’


Thanks to Edward and Jon for sending us this great conversation. If you’ve not heard Small Town Horror yet, go and check it out. 

EDWARD CHAMPION: There are many qualities of Small Town Horror that greatly impress me, but I am particularly struck with the way that you defy the conventions of what I call the “missing tapes” genre (an audio drama that generally involves characters attempting to find the meaning behind a series of strange recordings) by making your main character, Ryan Jennings, very human and very believable. Unlike many “missing tapes” heroes, Ryan is a man in pain contending with a shadowy past. He is an alcoholic. And it is Ryan’s dimensional background, juxtaposed by the rural setting, that makes us want to listen. So, first of all, I’m wondering what came first. Ryan Jennings or the tapes? How aware were you of “missing tapes” audio dramas (TanisBlack TapesLimetown) when you were conjuring up this story? What did you base the fictitious town of Crayton, Minnesota on? How much did you flesh out the town before writing Ryan’s character? What kind of worldbuilding did you do to offset the potential trappings of plot?

JON GRILZ: Thank you, I actually really appreciate you saying that about Ryan. My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut and I’ve always been captivated by the idea of the flawed protagonist or anti-hero. In the end, it came down to a pretty simple question: how well would I handle these things happening to me? Simple. Poorly. And not having him as a journalist or someone who actually has some stack beyond lack of options creates a different sort of motivation that does rely on him being a good person.

As far as Ryan or the tapes, I would have to trace the that back to the very first idea I had for the podcast, which was more along the lines of an anthology series like the NoSleep Podcast. That original idea (that only lasted for three days or so) was to have different citizens of Crayton telling weird stories about life around town recorded via VHS or radio interview, whatever. The problem that I ran into was my own fear that I couldn’t tell a story (let alone a lot of stories) well enough that someone would just want to listen to one person talk for 20-30 minutes without any action. I was actually really nervous that people wouldn’t like the first episodes of Small Town Horror (entitled Tape 1 and Tape 2). Those tapes took a much bigger role in my next idea for the podcast, and things just kept progressing from there. So technically the tapes came first, but as they exist for the podcast, they were neck-and-neck.

I was very aware of LIMETOWN when I started to root things out. To me it is still one of the most important podcasts for the genre because when it hit, it really opened a lot of people’s eyes to audio drama. And there’s the fact that I’ve listened to the Napoleon episode about a dozen times and it gets me every time. I found (and fell in love with) BLACK TAPES soon after and was already working on the ideas for STH when TANIS started. For me it wasn’t so much the idea of following the same formula, which mirrors Serial so well and bridges real-world journalism with audio drama, but it was a way for me to get rid of exposition that I generally don’t enjoy in AD. The “okay, now I guess I should look over here” moments that you really can’t get around when you are doing straight audio drama. There are some podcasts and writers who can get away with it and really make the moments organic, but I really don’t think I’m that person. Instead I just liked the idea that I could use Ryan’s narration to take care of those times so I could cut out as much filler as possible and add moments of reflection.

Using Crayton was an easy call. It’s not something that put up front, mainly because I’m so bad at self-promotion, but Crayton/Crazytown already existed, not just in my mind but in my novels. I wrote the first Crazytown novel about five years ago and followed it up with three more in as many years. I wrote and self-published them with little downtime thinking that I wanted to build the world as quickly as possible and pay homage to the small towns that I had grown to know and love while working on my undergraduate degree in English Lit at the University of Minnesota – Duluth.

For me, I just really wanted to use Crayton because it was a way to create more content to the few people who actually read those books while my own novel writing attempts had stalled out. In fact, making Small Town Horror was sort of a last stab at things for me. It takes a lot out of a person to write a novel and with little return on it I just didn’t know what the future held for me. Who would have thought that someone without an agent, who wrote short mysteries about a town in Northern Minnesota, with no prior writing credits, awards or really notice at all wouldn’t suddenly light the literary world on fire?!

When I started writing STH I hadn’t written anything beyond the occasional post on reddit for about three months. In the end Crayton served a dual purpose in that just about anything can happen there. But I still hold true to the source material so anyone who has read the books or decides to read them will see familiar people and places. But the Ryan Jennings plot line is completely independent of the Crazytown novels.

CHAMPION: I’ve noticed that some of Small Town Horror‘s most recent episodes (particularly Episodes 4 and 5) have been less about the tapes and more about Ryan trying to forge human connection, even as others worry about him. It’s almost as if Ryan’s recordings to his listeners are dwarfing the mystery buried in the VHS tapes, even as this still remains important. Ryan doesn’t entirely impart what he’s going through to those who want to help him, but, rather interestingly, he seems to be somewhat oblivious that, if he is broadcasting his monologues, the people who care about him might be able to hear him. It’s this fascinatingly insular journey that not only dramatizes the many layers that those who live with trauma often drape over themselves, but that seems to allow you as creator and we as audience members to want to know more about Ryan. You mention how the tapes allowed you to find a way into exposition. But I’m quite curious when you hit that moment when you realized the apparent concreteness of all that is set down upon the tapes opened up the floodgates for this complexity and what you’ve been doing in future episodes to respond to this framework that you’ve set up. I mean, if anything can happen in Crayton, then anything could happen with Ryan!

GRILZ: When I first started writing the Crazytown series I was playing around with the idea of “why does the reader get to know all the answers?” I’m not saying it’s wrong, but there are times when I’ve watched TV shows or read mysteries and thought, “why do all the questions get answered?” or “wow, they were really lucky to have randomly stumbled across that huge piece of information they otherwise would have never found.” In real life you don’t get all the answers. I studied criminology in college and was on track to get into law enforcement and realized that as much as people try to apply sociology to crime, the answers aren’t always there. Even on a jury, in real life, the prosecution doesn’t need to establish motive. That’s just for the movies and novels. I know it isn’t satisfying for a reader or a viewer to be left in the dark and I have no idea if it will ever really play in novels, but it was an idea that I wanted to play with.

That bled into STH. Ryan doesn’t know everything. He isn’t an investigator. He doesn’t know where to look and he is immensely flawed. Answers aren’t likely to just show up for him, so I wanted to focus on that downtime for someone already struggling with demons. It just felt more realistic to me and it’s not something I had heard in other audio dramas. For better or worse, that’s the route I went with things before really diving into things for the listener as the season wraps up.

It’s true that anything can happen in Crazytown, but it’s still bound by reality, at least for me. The oddity of it all may not have readily apparent answers, but there are answers. I’ve allowed myself a lot of leeway for the future, but I’m trying to focus on not opening myself up too much and having too many loose ends that I need to scramble to make things connect. I have an outline for what will happen in season 2 and have just started getting and idea of season 3.

That is to say, as long as people still want more. So far the response has been really strong and the people supporting by downloading and funding the podcast through Patreon have been so cool. I actually have a lot of fun just talking with them through social media. It really pushes me to want to create the best product possible.

CHAMPION: I’ve been reading a lot about architecture lately, which inevitably leads me back to rereading Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, a tremendously useful book synthesizing much of Christopher Alexander’s ideas about “pattern language” and the way in which some buildings survive by adapting to the ever-evolving needs of community. It’s almost an offshoot of the Jane Jacobs idea: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.” To what extent is this the operating procedure for Small Town Horror? Because it seems to me that you’re drawing from the “old buildings” of VHS and the “pattern language”of a small Minnesota town. And here we are in a seemingly new medium of audio drama, which is clearly being informed by “old buildings” of various forms that came before. Aside from Patreon, artistically speaking, what steps are you taking to ensure that Small Town Horror is going to be around for the long haul? And how much has your criminology background played into developing Ryan?

GRILZ: I suppose that I think of Crazytown as the old more than I would think of the VHS tapes as the old. Honestly, the reason that they appear at all was as a vehicle to set up backstory, but still provide voice and context instead of “here is what happened to me.” They were a hold over from my original anthology idea and really existed in the first place because of the nostalgia I hold not only for the tapes themselves, but the sound of a tape being loaded into an old player. I thought that was a sound that was automatically recognizable and would translate best to the new medium of podcast.

As such, it really is the audio drama format that resides as the “new” in the equation. Audio drama is a completely different sort of narrative structure and you have to figure out a way to get across not only action, but setting, dialogue and thought processes in a completely different way from writing novels. It definitely has presented it’s own challenges when working on each episode. But with those challenges present a whole world of opportunities. I can’t even compare the reach that this podcast has had compared to my novels. There are single days when I know that the reach of the podcast has surpassed five years of novels. It’s a pretty amazing time to be in audio drama. I’m still very new at this all, but the community is so supportive of creators and there are several people and podcasts who have meant so much in this process. In no way could I ever consider this a one-man show.

Right now I am working on getting some sponsors in the form of advertising. I think the way this season is slated, it’s not likely that there will be any ads, but I think there will be for season 2. From the agencies I’ve talked with, advertisers are very understanding of the flow of shows and if there are ads, I know that I will be able to keep them at the start of the podcast so as not to interrupt the flow of the action. Some audio dramas can get away with an ad in the middle because of their format, but STH doesn’t really have breaks in the narrative and it would be really strange for Ryan to sudden step out from his voice over to give a word from the sponsors. The long term goal is to keep STH and Crazytown producing content for years to come and the more that I can stop worrying about the financial side and focus on the production itself, the more I will be able to dedicate to keep people wanting to hear more. I see a lot in Crazytown and I think it translates well across platforms, so I want to take it as far as I can possibly go with it.

Ryan’s character wasn’t developed so much out of criminology as much as psychology. For him I’ve focused more on the mentality of a survivor. Someone who has been through something horrible but doesn’t just pretend it’s okay. It really eats away at him. In Episode 4 I let Ryan talk the most about it, telling people that he is sick of the “you’ll be okay” mentality that society puts on survivors of all kinds. He is dealing with it in his own way, right or wrong, it’s his to overcome and live with.

CHAMPION: Yeah, it’s both strange and remarkable how audio drama seems to have more reception and community than anything I’ve ever seen in the fiction world. Do you have any theatre background? How did you go about finding and directing the actors? (I ask the latter because I was really impressed by the woman who plays “Sarah,” who really underplays her role as confidant/fellow emotional survivor very well.) How much of Ryan’s resistance to the Thomas Anthony Harris school of existence did you work out with your performers?

GRILZ: If playing Tiny Tim in our 4th grade production of A Christmas Carol counts, then yes, I do have some theatre background. I’ve never been much of a performer. Though I do attribute my desire to write to my high school acting teacher. It was a class I took as a part of my lazy senior year thinking we just sat around and talked, which we did, but I also tried writing a little play. The teacher, Mrs. Rowles, liked it and wanted me to write more plays. That really stuck with me. Up until then, I’d never had a teacher who wanted me to write anything, especially my English teachers who were all waaaay to focused on composition and comparison papers. A trend I also found as a freshman in college and detoured me away from an English major completely (and let to my aforementioned foray into criminology). It wasn’t until my advanced writing class junior year that I met another teacher who actually enjoyed my writing and propelled me forward from there.

As far as find actors, I have to give a lot of credit to the Audio Drama Production Podcast. Listening to that podcast and joining that Facebook group got me in contact with some great people and resources including actors like Pete Lutz, Austin Beach and Owen McCuen who have all helped lend voices to the podcast. As far as giving them direction, the only thing I ask is for them to do there best to just talk. STH isn’t supposed to be a performance, it’s supposed to be people talking. If lines seem too stiff to an actor, I’d rather they change them to their own speech patterns as long as the context remains. If they are tripping over lines, I’d rather they find what works for them than force anything.

The actress who does Sarah was the same way. She had never done voice acting, but was willing to lend her voice to the podcast. I told her to just talk to me. She is the only person I record with in person so I think that helped the dynamic of the interactions, but the rest was all hers. She really knocks it out of the park.

Ryan is definitely Not Okay. But he really isn’t interested in if other people are okay. He is on his own path and focused so much on himself that other people are almost alien to him when they actually want to interact. But it was more of the same with the actors, for the most part I just told them to read it how they thought it should be read. Generally I prefer two takes just to see what kinds of emotions come out from different reads, but not much more than that. I would love for everyone to record in one place, but this is just how it is when you have no ties to local (or any) theatre and are just happy that anyone wants to be a part of the podcast. That’s the same way I found my amazing sound editor (Daniel Burnett) and composer (Tom Parsons). They said they would hep and it just so happens that they are amazing talents that I couldn’t do without. Honestly, I might not have gone past the initial Tapes episodes if I had tried to do things on my own. They really helped propel this podcast and excite me as to how it could sound.

CHAMPION: Your approach to the material is quite fascinating. How do you achieve a level of intimacy if you’re recording with actors from afar? Do you do Skype sessions? How drastically is the material changed when the actors “talk” to you? And does this, in turn, influence your story and how the characters develop?

sthGRILZ: The only thing I ask from most potential voice actors is to do a table read via Skype so I can hear their delivery and answer any questions they might have. This has been very important for making sure actors know how to pronounce Bemidji. Google doesn’t say it right and I think things would fall pretty flat if a podcast about Minnesota had actors who didn’t know how to pronounce well-known Minnesota towns. I can only imagine how people would pronounce Wayzata. (Note: Why-zet-uh)

For the most part I don’t have to give many notes beyond trying to impart what I feel is the tone of the moment and how Ryan is going to respond to the lines since we don’t record our lines at the same time and I want it to at least sound like we are in the same room. I also use it to emphasize that I really just want the actors to do their best when it comes to saying their lines instead of reading them. I look at it the same way as with the “show don’t tell” aspect of writing. AD is really exploding lately and listeners are getting more discerning about what they want to listen to (free advise: never have one of your actors slurp a drink. EVER. You will hear about it.)

The material doesn’t really change, but that’s because I don’t plot the story out too much in advance. I have the general idea of where I want the show to go, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen in each episode until I sit down to write it, which is sometimes only a week before I record it. Or less. When we were first starting the season, that was the norm for a few episodes. I think the end of the season was the first time I actually had something written a month in advance and even then, I leave myself outs so that I can change things if I suddenly think it’s necessary.

The actors actually do shape the story though because I might have what I think to be a one-off character then I hear their take and think, “How can I get another performance out of them?” So you really can’t count any characters out of this story, or the impact that they may have down the line. And I love that about podcasting, it can continue to change and grow. It’s so much more flexible than writing novels and it actually involves me talking with other human beings.

CHAMPION: I’m suspicious about audio dramas that rely too much on narrators. (And the problem isn’t limited to audio. Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence often collapses under the ponderous weight of Joanne Woodward’s narration.) All too often, you have a situation where it becomes quickly apparent that the words are something more designed for the written form rather than the spoken form. Thankfully, Small Town Horror doesn’t make me conscious of the narrator element at all. And since you do have a background in writing fiction, I’m wondering what steps you took to avoid the dreaded “reading” curse. I’m also curious about the sonic texture you bring to Small Town Horror. Because there’s something both real and heightened from reality about Ryan, say, entering the cafe that seems carefully counterbalanced against Ryan’s introspection. What’s your working relationship with composer Tom Rory Parsons and sound designer Daniel Burnett? How did you folks hook up? I’m guessing these folks are located on faraway parts of the world. Is the actress who plays Sarah the ONLY person you’re working with in person?

GRILZ: That’s good to hear. Glad this interview didn’t suddenly take a sharp turn into, “okay, now here’s why you suck.” I started having high school flashbacks. And college. And most dates I ever went on…

As far as the narration, I spend a lot of time talking to myself so I think that when I’m writing a scene it turns into me asking myself (sometimes literally) if I would ever share certain information in the middle of a conversation or is it just exposition? I had a college writing teacher who said any story could be told in two pages if you knew how to do it. I tend to focus on the concise side of writing and if I come across anything that I think a reader or listener will tune out during, I just get rid of it. If it doesn’t move the plot or establish something about a character it tends to be a matter of the writer being self-indulgent.

I treat the narration as a way of Ryan looking back at what happened and talking himself through it so he’s treating it as a memory and as a moment to process what happened. The narration/voice over is sort of like his audio journal. That way I think I can put more emotion and thought behind the voice over and not have it sound like I’m reading. At least that’s the idea. As long as I write like I talk I think I can make the read sound more sincere. I decided to keep it in the present tense just to help with the feel of the moment to ideally keep the listener more invested in what is happening.

Working with Tom and Daniel is actually just a matter of good timing. When I started out I thought that I could do everything myself. I listened to the ADPP podcast, checked out the resources for sound effects, music, all that and thought I could pull it off. I couldn’t. So it came down to me posting on the Facebook group asking about sound editors and how people found them and started working with them. I think the next day Daniel posted on the page that he was looking for some experience for his certification/degree. Luckily, he liked the stuff I had already made and he’s been my magician behind the scenes ever since (if anyone heard the quality of the raw audio I send to him they wouldn’t believe what he is capable of). smt2

Working with Tom was more of the same. Dan and I had been working on getting the first couple of episodes (The Tapes) made and Dan was upfront that he wasn’t great with music. We could use the resources on Incomptech and ask for help in the community, but he recommended trying to find a composer. I think it was within the next few days that Tom posted about wanting to expand his resume by composing podcast music. I started chatting with him and we shared a love of the eerie (especially the X-Files). It never ceases to amaze me how quickly he can work and how well he’s come up with music that I think suit the moments. Not to mention the music cues he’s added on his own that I hadn’t even considered but ended up loving.

That’s sort of the amazing thing about podcasting, at least as it exists at the moment, you wouldn’t believe the sort of help/support you can get if you just ask.

We are truly an international team. I’m in Minnesota. Dan is in Melbourne, Australia. Tom is in the UK. The time zones can make it difficult at times to get things done, but fortunately for me both Dan and Tom are night owls and it works well with when I start work in the morning or the last couple hours before I leave the office. Though admittedly, it also comes down to them just being incredible supportive of what we are creating and being insanely good about staying in contact and sharing their opinion on things. Part of the daydream of where this podcast could go is being able to take a “business trip” to visit my team.

Tthe Sarah voice actress is the only one I’ve ever worked with, or even ever met, in person. Some I haven’t even seen via Skype. I would much prefer to do everything in person, I think it helps the dynamic of the moment which is another reason why I at least feel the need to do that preliminary table read if we aren’t going to be able to meet in person. But I don’t have very good equipment and I know Dan loves the audio quality we have received from some of the actors who have far superior set-ups than I have. I think we do a pretty good job of getting all the audio to sync up and I know it’s possible to make it sound like a polished product. I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but I know ars PARADOXICA has actors in different locations and their end product sounds flawless.

CHAMPION: Much of what you described about the audio drama community points quite rightly to what an energetic and inclusive group it is at present. Do you worry at all about the inevitable professionalization of this medium? Or does the considerable time and labor of producing audio drama offer enough of a safeguard to sustain the current clime of passionate artistic output? How long do you think this golden age will last?

GRILZ: I can’t say enough about the community. STH might be my creation, but has definitely utilized the community’s wealth of knowledge. I had no production or performance experience. I am still always learning about facets of production and exposure. MIscha Stanton from ars PARADOXICA, Alexander Danner from Greater Boston, David Cummings and Peter Lewis from NoSleepThe Audio Drama Production Podcast, Marc Sollinger from Archive 81 — and so many more that I regret not being able to name off the top of my head– have been so generous with questions about production and equipment. And being a part of the community has opened my eyes to so many podcasts that I have fallen in love with.

I’m not sure that the professionalization aspect will have any real impact in the near future. While people are really starting to notice how massive podcasting and Audio Drama has become, it has something that is severly lacking in mainstream productions these days, and you already named it: passion. While AD can be adaptations, it isn’t reliant on focus groups and number crunchers trying to figure out how to make the most money and inevitably relying on sequels and remakes. The people who are adapting works to AD are doing so because they love the medium and they put their heart and passion into the product. The people who are creating AD now are doing so because they started with no idea of what it could be. They just wanted to do it. They wanted to create something. That’s what this is all about: being creators. In that way, because of the access people have to being able to create AD and put it out there for anyone to hear, the professionalization aspect will never completely take over. There will always be someone who is thinking about how to change it all up and think outside of the box. Providing our podcasts for free makes the sky the limit. Everything would be different if people charged to download. It would also be the worst mistake anyone of us could make.

It’s hard to say how long the “Golden Age” will exist. I can’t argue that it definitely feels like this is the best time for AD. And when you see places like Audible, Google Play and now iHeartRadion (who just partnered with Libsyn) the world is only getting bigger for creators of AD. Sure there will be a tipping point to it all, but the increased access just means so many more opportunities. It would be one thing if podcasts were relying on advertisers in order to create anything, but almost every podcast starts without sponsorship. Do you know how hard it is to have a successful kickstarter campaign if you have no audience? People are creating for the love of it. Maybe the goal is to make money, but there isn’t enough saturation of sponsored ADs to worry about the bubble popping just yet.

As far as hard numbers about how long this will last? It’s dificult to say, but I think if there is anyone out there who wants to get into AD, do it now. The next year or two is going to be about it as far as getting in on the relative ground floor and riding the current wave of popularity. The big AD productions out there like NoSleepLimetownBlack TapesTanisBright Sessions, and Archive 81 only do good things for the rest of the podcasts. People listen to them, love them and want more. The time is now to get in on the action. Start writing, buy a mic, grab some friends (or if you are like me, talk to yourself) and go for it. This is the time. You already know if you are reading this interview, AD is a great place to be right now. Don’t wait.