- Grabbing a listener’s attention.
- Developing characters that suit a particular conflict will create better stories.
- How we stumble onto truths as we write our stories.
I started writing short stories when I was nineteen and haven’t stopped.
Welcome to the forty-fourth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I’m very excited to be chatting with writer and podcaster Paul Bae, best known for his amazing work on the THE BLACK TAPES and THE BIG LOOP podcasts. In recent news, THE BLACK TAPES will be adapted for television. Many of us will be looking forward to this.
Arthur: Tell me about your writing journey. How did you develop your prose and craft? What were your early influences and how did you move from writing into podcasting?
Paul: The first novelist I was ever into was Stephen King. I consumed Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Shining, and The Stand all in my first semester of my undergrad studies. I don’t remember reading any novels in high school so I consider myself a late bloomer. So when I stumbled onto King, I was simulataneously being exposed to the Romantic poets as an English major at McGill University. So I think those genres—English Romantic era poetry, gothic ideas, and popular twentieth century American horror—formed the way I’d filter art and stories for the rest of my life. Or, I was attracted to those things because of the way I already was. All I knew was that I enjoyed reading emotional prose, words that painted visually stunning or visceral imagery, and I wanted to write like that. I started writing short stories when I was nineteen and haven’t stopped. I turned to screenwriting in my mid to late twenties when I had a sense that it’d be hard to make a living writing short stories. But like a lot of writers, I began accumulating ideas much faster than I could form them into scripts. So I kept a whole bunch of those ideas in a “To Do” folder.
One day my friend Terry Miles—a film director and friend I’d worked with—was between projects and wanted to know if I’d be interested in teaming up to write out any of my ideas from my To Do folder. I gave him a list of my favorite 5 ideas. He picked one about a ghosthunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts: The Black Tape. (It was only “The Black Tape” back then—just one tape.) Man, we worked so quickly together. It was incredible. And we handed it to his manager at the time and…nothing happened. It just sat there collecting dust. So a few years later when Terry wanted to do a podcast together and we couldn’t come up with an idea for it, out of frustration I joked, “Too bad we can’t turn The Black Tape into a podcast.” I remember Terry’s eyes lighting up and him saying, “Why the hell not?” He had this vision of how it’d be in his head. I was clueless. I wasn’t sure it’d be possible because I’d only listened to Serial, 99% Invisible, This American Life. I’d never listened to fictional podcasts before that. So I listened to Welcome to Night Vale and thought, Ah, I think I get it. I still didn’t fully get it until Terry sent me a mixed version of our first episode and I finally saw the light.
I just want to tell stories that engage and move.
Arthur: What other podcasts, movies and books have inspired you? What about them specifically is inspiring to your work?
Paul: In terms of their effect on my work, the podcast that most inspired me most is Love and Radio. It’s a show that’s not afraid to just be itself, to defy genre and expectations. They recently released a fictional episode—something they don’t usually do. And it’s stunning. But I am mostly affected by the way the series usurps my capacity for empathy. I will draw these lines for where my empathy ends, where I refuse to let it extend. But Nick van der Kolk consistently forces me to reassess those expectations. So when I write episodes of The Big Loop, I have my challenge: to make you feel empathy. To stretch it to a place that you may not expect.
In terms of movies and books, the influences are too varied and numerous to list. I don’t even think I’m sure which ones have burrowed into my bones and inform the way I write stories. I should probably spend more time reflecting on it. I only know which ones are my favorites for very subjective reasons: Out of Africa (film); The Remains of The Day (novel); Ordinary People (novel and film); Of Human Bondage (novel).
I have my challenge: to make you feel empathy; to stretch it to a place that you may not expect.
Arthur: How have you build your audience? What kind of experience are you hoping to create for your listeners?
Paul: I feel that for a lot of these questions, my answer is going to be the same: through luck. I’ve been very lucky in so many areas. That includes how we built our audience for The Black Tapes. We made a show consciously knowing that people will want to tell their friends about it. We purposely made a water cooler show. And that’s what fortunately seems to have happened. When the guys from The Nerdist first shouted us out, they mentioned they heard everyone talking about us at a Halloween party in LA. Next thing you know, people are discovering us and tweeting about us. So I try my best to shout out works that I discover that thrill or move me because I benefited so much from people doing that for me.
As for listening experience, I just want to tell stories that engage and move. That’s it. If I can do more, great! I want to immerse you in something that makes you think, “Man, that made me feel so much better for having listened.” I never want to feel like I wasted someone’s time consuming my work.
I never want to feel like I wasted someone’s time consuming my work.
Arthur: Listener engagement is essential for podcasting. How do you not only write an engaging story, but how do you grab the listener’s attention within the first 30 seconds of a podcast episode? What do you do to keep their attention?
Paul: For The Big Loop, it comes down to the voice. So much of it is wrapped up in casting. I need the right actor speaking the right words for their character. That’s why I try not to write too much before casting because I find my stories more effective when I write for the specific actor’s voice. So as an example, at the beginning of The Big Loop episode “Wide Awake,” I painted a surreal visual image of a man walking in heaven, but I needed to find Nate Dufort’s voice and entrench those words as his. That’s the hook I try to set to keep the listener engaged. For the episode “The Studio,” I used a different hook: relatability. That also depended heavily on the casting. Tara Pratt nailed that because in real life she’s incredibly relatable and warm, the kind of person everyone loves at small gatherings around a table. You hear it in her voice so writing to that was easy to set the narrative hook. Unlike “Wide Awake,” I’m not trying to engage you right away. I’m trying to make you relate to her because the story unfolds so much slower in “The Studio.” It’s a different type of story. So basically, grabbing the listener’s attention in the first 30 seconds depends on the kind of story I’m trying to tell.
Grabbing the listener’s attention in the first 30 seconds depends on the kind of story I’m trying to tell.
Arthur: Do you have “beta listeners” for your podcasts? How do you receive feedback on the story and the production prior to releasing it to the world?
Paul: I have one beta listener: my wife. She’s also my beta reader. My audio engineer, Steve, also reads my scripts but I don’t consider him a beta reader because he likes everything I do. That’s from him being one of my best friends my whole life. My wife is more critical in a good way because she knows I want the truth from her, not a cheerleader. I’ve shelved whole scripts because she’s said in response, “It’s very good, but didn’t blow me away.” I’ll return to those scripts when I’m ready to pick them back up with renewed perspective.
I think of a character who would be fascinating to observe struggling with that conflict.
Arthur: Cal Newport wrote a book called SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU, where he talks about making our work – whatever it may be, writing, music or artwork – “remarkable,” as in it is able to be remarked or talked about. With millions of writers out there writing books and making podcasts, what are you doing with your writing and podcasting to set it apart (to be “remarkable”)?
Paul: That’s kind of what I was getting at in my previous response about my wife being my beta reader. We talk all the time about how much great stuff is out there in all mediums. In terms of competing for people’s time, I’m competing against all forms of media. I want people who listen to The Big Loop to not think, “That was a great podcast,” but, “That was a great story.” The medium almost doesn’t matter in this regard. It just has to blow you away. And if I’m able to do that, people will talk about it and share with friends.
If the character doesn’t suit the conflict, the story will be boring.
Arthur: An engaging story with a satisfying ending is hard to find and even harder to write. In THE BIG LOOP, a few of my favorite episodes are THE STUDIO and THE EYE OF THE LORD, in part because they have conflict and endings that resolve the conflict. How have you developed these conflicts and the resolutions to them? What is your process for crafting a story?
Paul: I usually begin conceptualizing each story with a conflict of situation or image. For The Studio, it was a conflict of situation as the narrator is both entranced by what she sees across the street and is guilty of fetishizing it, too. I think of a character who would be fascinating to observe struggling with that conflict. If the character doesn’t suit the conflict, the story will be boring since it’s a monologue.
For The Eye of The Lord, the conflict was in the image of this ubiquitous eye in the sky. Just the fact of its existence and presence causes conflict for everyone on the planet, but I let us focus in on the subjective, very personal effect on the daughter of Earth’s hero. Like with all my stories in The Big Loop, I tried to write in these character’s voices and then it works toward a resolution I have imagined. It doesn’t always take me there, but more often than not, it does. For this one, I wasn’t exactly sure how it was going to end emotionally because the narrator was figuring it out in the telling of her story. That’s the great part of writing this series—most of us stumble on to truths in the process of telling our stories. I want my characters to do that, too, to feel authentic.
That’s the great part of writing this series – most of us stumble onto truths in the process of telling our stories.
Arthur: What is your editing process like? How is editing for a podcast different than for books or movies?
Paul: The editing process is quick for The Big Loop. At most, I’ll do a few rewrites like I did for The Surrogate. I think I did about 4 or 5 rewrites for that one because I kept missing the tone while trying to wrap up the plot elements.
Arthur: Terry Brooks give a TED Talk about why he writes fantasy. He says he writes about fantasy because he is seeking the answer to a particular question. Why are you writing the types of stories you write? What are the questions you’re seeking answers to as part of your writing journey?
Paul: With The Big Loop, I’m chasing one big question: Does my existence matter? And every story pursues a possible answer to that question or facets of it (e.g. Why? To whom?). In YOU, the answer is quite different than that of The Fugue. Some episodes break away to peek at variations of that question, as in The Eye of The Lord that looks closer at the burden of living after loss (for both the father and daughter). In Surfacing, I’m asking you to weigh the value of love given its impermanence. Does it matter if you love someone for a year or a lifetime? How is it different? Does the intensity of it matter? My series allows me to dive into various aspects of this one big question that I’m always struggling to answer.
I’m chasing one big question: Does my existence matter?
Arthur: Christopher Ryan, in my interview with him, talks about our writing living forever. What does it mean for us as writers to leave behind a legacy? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind not just in your writing, but in your life?
Paul; I can honestly say I’ve never worried about leaving any legacy. I’m here, I’m going to live this experience to its fullest, then I’ll be gone. What’s the shelf life of anything we create any more? At best: a decade? A few decades? That’s barely a blip in the big picture. And I will never experience my legacy, so what does it matter to me? This probably explains why I’ve never had any desire to have children. It’s almost like I lack that gene that makes me want to leave something of me behind. What I think I’d like is my friends saying they really enjoyed being around me while I was here, that I made them feel good being around me. That’s it. Telling them stories is part of that, but I don’t put it on a pedestal. If I can also help leave things better off for future generations, that’s a bonus knowing I’ll be doing that. But I don’t see how that will happen with me as I undoubtedly use more resources and opportunites than I create. If I can figure out a way to switch the balance of this, I’ll be happier for it.
I often use Shakespeare as an example when asked this question. His works are read everywhere in the Western world and I studied him for years, but rarely have I ever thought about the man himself or the life he lived in any way that would have mattered to him if he were alive today. All that really matters to me is the life I live with the people I love. If I can have fun while living that life well with people I love, mission accomplished.
Wow, what a cool interview. Thank you, Paul. Can’t wait to hear more of your work in the future, especially the NBC adaption of THE BLACK TAPES. Be sure to check out his podcasts, The Big Loop and The Black Tapes; they are incredible.