I recently had the pleasure to interview my friend, writing buddy, and all-around awesome guy, Jackson Musker. Jackson is the author of science fiction audio drama, The Sea In The Sky. Today he spills the beans on writing an audio drama, researching space, the production process of an audio drama, and more!
(Fun fact: I got to read for Bee during an early table read. I had a blast but also butchered every single scientific term. Sorry Jackson! I’m so glad he brought in the professionals to bring life to these characters for the actual record!)
I’ve heard of audiobooks and podcasts, so where does an audio drama fit in?
Good question! There's some overlap here. "Audio Drama" is an umbrella term that basically means a story written for audio. So it includes fictional podcasts-- everything from the supernatural quirk-fest Welcome to Night Vale to the conspiracy thriller Homecoming to the musical love story 36 Questions-- as well as radio plays, of which Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds is probably the best example. An audio drama generally has a cast with multiple voices rather than a single narrator. It can be segmented/serialized in episodes, or contained in a single narrative more like a play or film. It usually has sound effects and a score. It could be adapted from a book (or any other source), or it could be an original story... like mine!
Think of an audiobook as a narrator reading HG Wells' original text of The War of the Worlds. By contrast, the audio drama would be the dramatized version with multiple voices, sounds of explosions and mayhem, eerie music, and more.
What is The Sea In The Sky?
The Sea in the Sky is my new audio drama (from Audible!) -- it's a space-and-sea adventure about a young, whip-smart marine biologist named Bee Guerrero, who's been sent on the mission of a lifetime: she dives deep into the ocean of Saturn's moon Enceladus, hoping to discover new life. With her pilot, Tyler Winfield, Bee reports her findings via audio "dispatches" back to Earth... 800 million miles away. These messages are alternately funny, gut-wrenching, deeply personal... think of them as humanity's ultimate messages in a bottle. And while she's looking for life at the bottom of an alien ocean, Bee also has to navigate a host of inner demons.
This is a fictional story set on a faraway moon, but there are lots of real-life sensations and truths woven in: love and loneliness, queerness and faith, anxiety and fear, old regrets and new hopes. I'm trying to be non-spoilery here, as you can probably tell!
What inspired this story?
A bunch of things! A few years ago I read a story about Enceladus, and I was blown away. To think, this moon I'd never heard of is one of the PRIME candidates in the solar system for alien life! (Other places like Mars and Titan and Europa get a lot of love, but Enceladus deserves much more of a spotlight! #TeamEnceladus!!) After all, the Cassini Satellite to Saturn already confirmed in 2015 that Enceladus has the three ingredients needed for life: a liquid ocean, compounds with organic potential, and seafloor hydrothermal vents that can provide heat/energy. So this little ice ball with a mysterious ocean inside it is SO ripe for further exploration -- in both real life and storyland! I liken it to a Christmas present. I wanted to tear off that wrapping paper and see what could be inside.
The story also sprang from some significant changes in my life. I came out as queer a few months before writing this -- in my early 30s -- and I wanted to explore my feelings around my sexuality (including regret... but also the newness of everything) by putting a queer protagonist in a very unfamiliar landscape. I've also experienced panic attacks and anxiety, both of which manifest themselves in Bee's mental state and journey. My Catholic background also worked its way into the story... I like thinking about how we all grapple the unknown -- sometimes we find our answers in science, sometimes in religion, sometimes in other people. I was excited by the idea of muddying the waters (sorry, ocean puns!!) around facts and beliefs... and encouraging listeners and characters to reconsider things they once held to be true.
A more structural thing -- I love writing letters and decided it'd be neat to build the story around these audio letters ("dispatches") from Enceladus to Earth and back again. I think a letter sometimes allows a person to be reflective, poetic, self-critical, etc in a way that a conversation doesn't. You're unspooling your thoughts to the universe, without an immediate reply. That's a whole different animal.
The last pieces of the puzzle... I'm a California kid and a fan of beaches and oceans and sea animals, so it was incredibly tantalizing to bring an 'waterworld' to life. I got wind of a marine biologist named Cindy Lee Van Dover, who is the only woman ever to pilot the legendary submersible Alvin (and she did this thirty years ago!). Her glass-ceiling breaking story became a kind of backbone for Bee's own adventure. From the beginning, I wanted to center this story of scientific exploration and survival around a woman: women are far too underrepresented in these narratives. I hope that Bee acts as inspiration for my tiny nieces and other girls and women looking to get into STEM fields.
What was your process for writing The Sea In The Sky?
Once I'd roughly outlined the story and gotten the greenlight from Audible, I launched into a couple months of research. (Confession: I'm an English major who inhales pop culture, so the sciences, while fascinating, are a little alien to me!) First I called/emailed 25+ scientists at CalTech, JPL, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and other places where researchers are studying Enceladus, the oceans, long term space travel, hydrothermal vent systems, and lots of other things that come into play in The Sea in the Sky. Then, using some of this new information and inspiration, I fleshed out the outline in a huge unwieldy Google doc. I also noted ideas for where/how to use sound to help deepen the intrigue and emotions.
Over about seven weeks in Oct-Nov 2018 (including NaNoWriMo!) I wrote the first draft, trying to eke out between 5-10 script pages each day. It was the biggest thing I'd ever written to that point -- some days were exhilarating and others were exhausting. In Winter 2019, I had about a dozen buddies and family members read the draft and give me comments, which were invaluable. And then in February I did a table read, with friends playing the four main characters. The idea was to hear the piece aloud and get a better sense of where it worked, where it dragged, what was confusing, etc. That produced a lively feedback discussion, too, and a whole new round of edits. Once I had it in a place I liked, I submitted the draft to Audible.
Audible's producer, script readers, and others chimed in on two successive rounds of notes in the spring/summer of 2019. The notes ranged from detailed line edits to big picture questions. I wrapped the final draft in September 2019, around a year after when I first started it.
Ok, so you wrote it! What happened between writing it and it now being available on Audible?
Many things! First the wonderful folks at Audible cast the story with fantastic NY area stage and screen actors. I was able to give some input there (and am thrilled with the jobs our actors did!). Next our producer/director Isabella Kulkarni, director Ben O'Brien, and I recorded the cast at Audible HQ in late 2019, with the help of fantastic engineers.
In the post-production window, alongside extensive dialogue editing, composer Jake Young and sound designer / composer Chester Gwazda crafted the breathtaking music and effects you hear. Seriously, you can thank Chester for every little filter and breath and bubble and echo that makes the drama so palpable. The story went through a few more edits for pacing, clarity, and everything else, with Isabella steering that ship. And then the production wrapped in the summer, to lots of champagne popping.
We released The Sea in the Sky in October 2020 -- it's Audible Original available as part of the new Audible Plus program. I'm thrilled with the early response!
Any advice for those interested in writing audio dramas?
Why yes! My biggest piece of advice is to focus on the sound. Everything comes back to that. Think of plot devices, emotional cues, sound effects, set pieces and everything else that SING in sound. Even before you begin your script, ask yourself if there's a reason why this should be an audio drama... as opposed to a novel or TV show or film or stage show. And then as you build your narrative, keep track of different ways that the drama can hinge on audio cues that an audience will understand. One small example from The Sea in the Sky: the sonar "pings" of a submersible help the listener sense that Bee is close to the bottom of the ocean and add an insistent tension to the action. (Even though you can't SEE anything, you hear that we're approaching a revelation!) And yes, music is super helpful at creating tone and atmosphere, but make sure you have an involving story without it. Music is icing.
Last things: Maybe obvious, but read your work aloud to yourself! I have to remind myself constantly that we all speak more slowly than we read. So there's a good chance that something that doesn't feel wordy on the page sounds like a mouthful when performed aloud. On that note -- invite your friends to help you with a table read! (Via zoom if needed!) It's hugely helpful.
If you can tell me, what are you working on now?
I'm revising a middle grade novel that I'm very excited about. I hope to be querying that in early 2021.
Otherwise I'm working as a publicist for a few wonderful authors (specifically, getting them onto podcasts and radio shows), and a booking producer for a few podcasts. One is the hugely winning culture show Back Issue. Check it out! My background is in producing podcasts and public radio shows, so these things are usually burbling in the background while I'm writing.
And I write poetry now and again, too! I think it helps me with my constant struggle to be more brief on the page. This interview is not a good example - ha!
Where’s the best place to follow you?
And of course, please let me know what you think about The Sea in the Sky! I love feedback.
JACKSON MUSKER has spent the bulk of his career writing, producing, and sound-scaping for public radio and podcasts. He produced the irreverent national culture and food (and cocktails!) show “The Dinner Party Download,” which meant booking top-flight talent (fave guests: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lupita Nyong'o, Steve Martin), writing zippy scripts, editing into the wee hours, and trying not to mispronounce all manner of fusion dishes. Before that, he cut his storytelling teeth with the much-loved show “Off-Ramp” on L.A.’s NPR affiliate KPCC. He studied English at Duke University and double-minored in History and North Carolina-style BBQ. When he's not scribbling down words or working with audio, he enjoys spraining his ankles playing basketball.