1. Which of your characters is your favorite?
In my audio drama series HG World, one character is a survivor of a worldwide zombie catastrophe. He is considered a hero by the generations who inherited the world he saved. Now an old man with a fading, increasingly unreliable memory, he tells the story of how a small group discovered the cause of the zombie plague and - totally by accident - how to end it. In the middle of the action Ken Peters proves to be a bright but troubled everyman who grew up dirt poor and angry at the world. His life actually improves because, as he reflects, he was promoted from running squatters out of slums to driving cargo trucks full of corpses to a mass grave site twice a day. He could have become an evil bastard, particularly once the rich and privileged who abused him are reduced to his level of scrounging to survive, but he found purpose, even a noble cause in the apocalypse.
I loved writing the older Ken character and letting him weave the story in his own sardonic, reluctantly nostalgic way. He’s the old war hero who embellishes a little to keep listeners engaged not only in the story, but just in the tiny details of that post-zombie world that grew out of his heroism. He never exaggerates his own accomplishments and. In fact, the flashbacks show the reality of his situation and we realize that the horrors of that time were far worse than Old Ken is letting on. I listened to a lot of Harlan Ellison's lectures and speeches as a basis for Ken's voice and tried to inject a bit of wonder and excitement about that deadly world. Ken is also suffering from a degenerative brain disease which begins to influence his story the closer he comes to his personal end.
It helped that an amazing actor named James Baxter Patton gave the character a unique voice. I think Ken is charming, funny, angry, a little guilty, and a bit scared that it's all coming to an end for him and that realization helps him tell his story with passion and a growing urgency as he feels his own faculties melting away.
2. Tell me about your travels.
3. Coffee, tea, or milk?
4. What else can you do besides write?
5. Who are you reading right now?
6. Pop culture or academia?
I wonder if it is the conceit of getting older, but I find it hilarious that some of the pop culture icons of my youth are now getting lifetime achievement awards or a milestone anniversary event, like the 30th Anniversary of “The Breakfast Club” this year (and “Ghostbusters” last year). TBC was a fun movie but certainly not in the same league as “Out of Africa” or “The Color Purple” which came out the same year. I’m always surprised by what we embrace as culturally relevant and what disappears within a few months of being dubbed the next biggest, most-awesome thing ever.
I believe that if something sticks around long enough, pop culture can become part of our academic or literary consideration. This applies to most forms of popular entertainment. Once upon a time, you looked to an established generation of comedians like of Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar as “legends” while The Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce were young upstarts. Then they became the legends to a generation raised on The Blues Brothers, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, and Monty Python. We’re still a couple of cultural generations out when we add artists like Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, and Steven Wright. At one time, all of those acts were merely popular entertainers. What made them popular also translated to an enduring quality that exceeds the value of nostalgia.
In other words, much of today’s pop culture will influence tomorrow’s innovators and enter the history of its medium. While flashy mass-market books about the latest, faded boy band fill the remainder bins of your local galleria book store, that band may return in 20 years to fill stadiums and inspire thick hardcover retrospectives into their enduring musical legacy. We have to accept that the kids growing up on Justin Bieber will become the adults who may put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and speak of him in the same way my generation spoke of Elvis.
Sorry for that terrifying view of the future. Did I mention I write horror?
While enduring veneration does not necessarily equate to “academic” I submit that the “elder statesmen” of popular culture inevitably become the most studied because they have always challenged us, but they change the way other artists approach their work. That influence begs the complex question, “Why?”
I believe this is because there are artists who can make you feel something and they endure because you will associate those feelings to a time and place in your life that is uniquely yours. It’s the song on the radio when you first kissed your girlfriend or the country song that made you want to punch your car stereo because you just broke up with her. Then there are others who make you feel AND think. They take you beyond the moment and the self and create a bond between you and something greater. I remember seeing Robin Williams and George Carlin in concert and details of their acts, but I can’t remember who went with me or – of the top of my head – the year I saw them. Those are the artists who are immortalized by the thoughtful discussions and essays that outlive the artists and transcend their body of work.
Of course, you have enduring, conventional work that persists in popular culture without aspiring to be more than consumable, disposable experiences. Those Spice Girls reunions won’t make us wonder “why” (except perhaps “why” it happens at all) and we’ll go to a Jimmy Buffett concert for the full Parrothead experience one can’t get listening to his Greatest Hits at a TGI Friday’s, or watch another Adam Sandler movie because an afternoon of weed and Four-Loko puts us in the mood. And that’s all cool. Even enduring phenomena like the zombie sub-genre of horror become part of college sociology, culture, and literature courses. And where I’m working on my Masters of Fine Arts at Seton Hill University, Pop Culture is academic.
So, short answer: Both.
7. What is the toughest scene you ever wrote?
A few years ago a colleague of mine in podcasting noted that I killed off 99% of the population in HG World, I murder characters every episode and subject them to constant stress and suffering (one character gets shot with more frequency than an 80s action hero), but the one scene that listeners still cringe over is the violent assault of Doreen Garrison. It happens in the seventh episode of our first season (“It’s A World of Dread and Fear”). I invite you (with caution!) to listen because doing so will make more sense of the answer. There’s something about the fact that the scene plays out in the listener’s imagination that makes it more difficult to hear than I imagine it would be to watch. Listeners frequently point to this scene as the most frightening and disturbing few minutes of the series – and that’s in a show that once fed a bad guy to a playpen full of zombie toddlers among other things.
Doreen, by her own account, is an unremarkable woman who valued her family above everything else. She’s lost all but her youngest son, Aaron and struggles to stay useful by helping a group of elderly or sick refugees at a secluded church. She’s a wonderful character voiced by the remarkable Tracy Hall. Despite her personal loss, Doreen feels an obligation to help others, recognizing that she wouldn’t be alive without the humanity and charity demonstrated by others.
The scene in question is the culmination of a difficult relationship between Doreen and another survivor, Thomas, who has also lost almost everything he loved or was important to him. Thomas is a younger man who sees Doreen as a caregiver and a leader. I’d like to believe that at one time Thomas was a decent person. But this cruel, new world taught him that decency is a terminal illness. In his twisted brain, Doreen represents a fleeting chance at something resembling normal. She comforts the refugees with her smile and laughter. She inspires others to keep fighting through her own tireless example. She treats Thomas as a human being and that recognition triggers his obsession with her. What begins as an awkward crush gets more ominous as Thomas, who was brought to life by the talented writer/voice actor Eric Avedissian, includes Doreen in his view of a world where everyone stakes claim to resources and power. Doreen becomes something he needs to survive and like all things essential to survive, they must be taken by force.
Writing that final confrontation was difficult for several reasons. It would have been easier to paint Thomas as a pure monster with no redeeming qualities. In doing so, I may as well have had Doreen eaten by zombies because there would have been no emotional resonance. In the attack, Thomas loses the last pieces of his humanity. In Doreen’s response, she chooses to act in the only way that would allow her to live, continue to protect her son, and care for the people at the church. In this act, she retains her humanity. Her actions during and after the assault do not define Doreen but they establish her as someone willing to do whatever is necessary to protect herself and her family.
Making a dire choice for a character is hard because you want there to be a positive outcome. You want to put the dropped weapon just close enough that she can reach it before it’s too late. Doreen’s character provided me a convenient “out” – she was so good with people that I could hear her reasoning with Thomas. But that wasn’t how those characters would serve their own stories. I knew I couldn’t have a convenient conversation about what makes us human and grant Thomas a quick epiphany before dinner.
The scene was never just about one person. It was about how two people process tragedy and loss in different ways. This is a show about catastrophic loss, which is often depicted in the broadest way possible because you can’t really stop to think about the true emotional impact of such a thing on people. Coming up with clever ways to dispatch walking corpses can be fun. Thinking about the previous lives each of those corpses and what they lost isn’t.
Writing Doreen was easier than Thomas. Doreen has a clear moral compass and it's only when she begins to break down to compromise her values that her voice becomes inconsistent. After this scene, she is clearly in a darker place but continues to act with integrity. Thomas struggled hard to justify what, I imagine, was still a terrible thing. In his mind taking ownership of Doreen’s body in the hope of winning the rest of her came from the same exhilarating fear he might have experienced looting for the first time or stealing a car to escape town, maybe even killing someone for the first time to avoid being killed himself. Thomas comes to us with the common attitude of “if you don’t take it, someone else will”. I think Eric understood this goal as well because his read of Thomas’ threats and ultimatums are saturated by guilt but contain just a hint of a hope.
Another challenge I faced was respecting the subject matter and avoiding presenting the scene in either a gratuitous or hyper-violent way. Ironically having only the audio makes the scene harder to control in terms of the implied violence. Tracy Hall is a rape survivor, a fact that she mentioned in our initial discussion of the script. I thought she was courageous in agreeing to do the scene and I worked with Tracy and Eric to make sure the dialogue was carried out with precision and with the sound mixer to make sure the scene painted the right picture for the mind’s eye. Even so, we edited that scene a few times before we were confident it worked.
I’m proud of the result, but I’m not looking forward to revisiting it in the script I’m working on for the final season of HG World.
8. Where do you find your inspirations to write?
I go into the woods. There’s a spot about a mile north of my house along a disused Norfolk-Southern line that cuts between Blue Mountain and Peter’s Mountain. I go there when I’m not feeling particularly creative and I sit on a pile of rocks and listen to the wind in the trees and the stream flowing parallel to the tracks. Around the time the sun sink behind Peter’s Mountain Old Man Martz comes out of the tall grass from the shadows. He carries a letter he wants me to take to his wife. Of course the letter is written on the same ether or ectoplasm that constitutes a spirit, so I transcribe what I can to my notebook. In exchange for taking the letter to his wife, Old Man Martz gives me six or seven ideas that I could use for short stories. He speaks in a whisper, so I have to get very close to him to hear. The breath from the lips of a ghost freezes the hair on my neck and burns my skin a bit. It smells like the inside of an old clothes trunk. Or maybe a coffin. When he’s done, I have to get off the pile of rocks so he can sink back into his grave.
His wife enjoys the letters. I feel a little silly reading those notes between relative strangers and I sometimes pronounce the names of their family and friends incorrectly, but when Jenna Mae rises from her grave to sit on her headstone, she sets me straight. You don’t hear the laughter of the dead so much as you feel it. It’s like a sudden chill on a warm, summer day.
She never has a message back to Old Man Martz except that she misses him from the other side of eternity.
Fun fact: Never let a ghost kiss you, even in gratitude. You may as well embrace an Arctic storm.
Otherwise, I find my inspiration like all other writers: in a catalogue issued by Schenectady Idea Mechanics, Incorporated.
9. Food you could eat everyday.
10. Are you into sports or other physical activities?
11. What kind of music speaks to you?
12. Do you outline your stories or do they just take you along for the ride?
13. Celebrity crush.
14. Who are the biggest influences on your work?
I hate to admit that my earliest literary influences have been white men. Growing up, the voices that appealed to me sounded like what I wanted to sound like one day, so it makes sense that I would list Harlan Ellison, Hunter S. Thompson, Douglas Adams, and Somerset Maugham. I love Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson, but otherwise my strongest influences represent a shameful lack of diversity.
In terms of audio drama, my earliest influences were Carlton Morse and Arch Oboler, even if I didn’t know who they were at the time I first heard their work. Of course Orson Welles for his work with the Mercury Theater and on The Shadow radio show and Douglas Adams for the mental theme park he built with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In modern audio, Dirk Maggs and KC Wayland helped me define my own voice that I want and continue to guide me toward mastering it. I also have to consider the contribution of concept or progressive rock acts like Pink Floyd and Queensryche whose concept albums were experimental forms of audio theater. If I had ANY musical skill at all, an audio musical would be a project for my next ten years. I grew up listening to The Beatles and find their later work inspiring to this day.
My biggest personal influences are personal friends who thrive despite prejudice or adversity. It is not my place to call them out here by name, but they are the ones helping to create a more diverse and inclusive world for those living with discrimination. They inspire me with ideas of selflessness and heroism against constant, sometimes dangerous social and legal conflict. We live in a country that prides itself on setting the example for personal liberty and equality to the world, yet we have so far to go in embracing it in all Americans. The people who influence me are the ones who fight every day taking the rest of us forward toward that national ideal.
Because of them, I try very hard to create diverse, engaging characters as both heroes and villains.
15. Do you still watch cartoons?
Yes! Archer, Adventure Time, Venture Brothers, anything from DC Animation, and I’ll even watch The Simpsons if it’s on. Animation can be just as complex and meaningful as live action. I also enjoy revisiting the cartoons of my youth. Jabberjaw. Scooby Doo. Super Friends. Space Ghost. Laugh-A-Lympics. Star Trek’s animated series is a little trippy, but holds up pretty well. Of course I could watch Wile E. Coyote chase the Road Runner all day. I might excuse it by saying it’s an excuse to spend time with the kids, but I’ve learned never to pass up a chance to laugh along with my kids.
Jay Smith is the creator and executive producer for the Parsec Award-winning audio drama series HG World. Since 2009, Jay and his company of players and producers have been telling the story of survivors in the middle of a global zombie uprising. Now in its third season, this "satellite" production has featured dozens of actors across four continents making it a production truly on a global scale. Since its debut, episodes of HG World and its spin-off series, the Parsec finalist The Diary of Jill Woodbine and The Googies have been downloaded close to a million times.
Hidden Harbor Mysteries is a pulp era adventure with a stellar cast of voices produced by award-winning producer Bryan Lincoln. Check it out at www.hiddenharbormysteries.com.
Jay’s books include the gamer-geek satire Rise of the Monkey Lord, Blue Collar Gods, Seven ‘til Sunrise, The Diary of Jill Woodbine, HG World: The Audio Scripts, and Hidden Harbor Mysteries: Anatomy of A Modern Audio Drama Series.
Jay holds a BA in Creative Writing and is working on his Master of Fine Arts from Seton Hill University’s innovative Writing Popular Fiction program. He attends and speaks at various science fiction and literary conventions about podcasting, writing, audio drama, and zombies.