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An Interview with Sunny Moraine

A few years back, I interviewed Sunny Moraine about their novel Line and Orbit. Sunny was kind enough to come back today to talk about their new serial fiction podcast, Gone. If you dig Gone (and why wouldn’t you?), consider supporting Sunny on Patreon so they can continue creating it. Now, to get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Sunny’s author bio…

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. They are also responsible for the Root Code and Casting the Bones trilogies and their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. In addition to time spent authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometime college instructor. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

GoneWelcome back! Gone just released its mid-season finale. Without giving too much away, can you give folks who may not be caught up yet a taste of what Gone is about? And for those who are in the know, any non-spoilery hints about what the future holds?

Gone starts with a relatively simple premise: you wake up one morning and everyone has vanished, leaving no trace or clue regarding what happened or where they went. My unnamed protagonist goes from there, initially trying to answer the most basic question of where everyone is, but things quickly get a lot weirder and far more troubling questions begin to assert themselves. Including the one I think most of us would be asking: “Is this even happening at all?”

Halfway through the season it’s turned into a story about mental illness and the terror of isolation and the fearful damage of deeply repressed anger. It’s also a twisted kind of love story (this is where I think the influence of Alice Isn’t Dead is most apparent) between two women, a romance which has been happy and healthy on the surface while resentment and lies seethe beneath. At heart it’s a story about things breaking down and falling apart: lives, relationships, one’s grip on reality and perhaps reality itself. It’s a very personal story and a lot of my own baggage is in it. Which is true of most of my work.

The future? I’m both excited by and nervous about the future. I can reveal that the second half of the season is going to be much darker – figuratively and literally – and some fairly awful things are going to happen, including one scene that I’m especially nervous about because of the subject matter, which hopefully I’ll pull off okay. I don’t think things are going to tie themselves up neatly in the end, but I almost never end stories that way anyway. Nevertheless, I’m aiming to make the ending a real conclusion that ideally at least somewhat satisfies. Although not all the questions will be answered, many will be.

I promise she won’t turn out to be in Purgatory. Or Heaven, or Hell, or any iteration of any afterlife. I won’t hurt anyone else the way Lost hurt me.

Something that I said in the intro to the midseason finale is that this is actually a much larger universe than it seems right now (about which I don’t know a huge amount and would like to find out). I’m not sure how much of that universe I’ll be able to explore in the next five or six (six maximum) episodes, but it is out there, and while I’m envisioning this season as a single self-contained narrative that can stand on its own, I’m also consciously developing it in a way that could be an establishing point for a second season. That’ll depend almost entirely on the reception the rest of the season gets; if the demand is there, I’ll try to make it happen. In any case, there’s the possibility.

You’re essentially a one-person production team, and you’ve written a bit about your process on your blog. One of the things that surprised me is how much room for improvisation you leave yourself. What is your actual, physical process like when you sit down to record? What do you have with you in terms of notes, cues to yourself, or points you know you need to hit in each episode? Have you ever gone back to re-record sections after something unexpected came up that pushed the plot in a different direction, or do you simply go forward from where the new twist in the story takes you?

Very little of what someone hears is directly scripted, yeah, although the Interludes are all written beforehand. For the main episodes I draw up an extremely rough sketch of an episode, with a few “talking points” for each scene, but otherwise I just sit down in front of my cheap little mic and improvise with one eye on my outline. I feel like it helps with the acting, and it makes it easier for me to get fluidly into this character’s head. I actually haven’t had to re-record much; I edit things, cut out longer pauses and lines that I don’t think work, but for the most part I get the lion’s share in a single take.

The overall plot for the rest of the season is fairly set, but I’ve left some flexibility for things to take the natural turns they want to (which is also how I write my other fiction). So for the most part, when something new pops up, I have room to let it run. I’ve also had to shift scenes around here and there in my outline when I realized they might have to happen sooner or later than I thought.

On a related note, what has been most surprising to you in terms of what you originally envisioned for the story, versus where it’s ended up so far? (If you can answer without giving too much away that is.)

The plot hasn’t really surprised me; it’s the details that have revealed themselves as I go. I had only a basic grasp of this character when I started recording the first episode; she’s taught me about herself as the story has unfolded. Though again, none of that has been exactly surprising, because the framework for her character was always there and I knew the outlines of who she was, but it’s been great to chip away at the marble and watch the details of the sculpture appear.

I think what’s been most surprising to me is actually just how well it’s held together so far. I’m obviously nervous about that suddenly not being the case, and it’s clearly not a perfect story because very few stories are, but in general, considering that I’ve never done this before (with the exception of my other podcast, Keep Singing, which is purely a fandom deal), the whole thing has been kind of a pleasant surprise.

In the same post where you discussed process, you talked a bit about drawing inspiration from classic audio dramas like The Shadow, as well as recent podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about the audio dramas is the foley work. How do you handle sound effects for Gone? Have you used any household items in unconventional ways to create the audio effects? Has any of your audio work caused undue alarm among neighbors, pets, or passersby those who may not be aware you’re recording an audio drama?

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s been an interesting experience, especially given that I have no budget or formal training in any of this, and my “recording studio” is a home office with tile floors and mostly bare walls. That obviously works okay for stuff that’s technically supposed to be recorded in someone’s echoey home office, and that’s one reason why I lean a lot on that setting, but for scenes set elsewhere, I have to get creative. So far the best solution I’ve come up with for that is recording with a literal quilt over my head and the mic to dampen the echo. I have to hold very still to minimize the rustling. It’s not perfect but I think it works better than I would have expected.

For sound effects, I make heavy use of a site called Freesound.org, which is an excellent archive of Creative Commons licensed sound effects. The quality is a somewhat mixed bag but so far I’ve found enough good stuff to do what I want to do. But using imported sound effects takes a fair amount of precise work – I often do a lot of editing and move smaller bits of them around – so I try to do in-“studio” foley when I can. When the protagonist is flipping through a book, I’m flipping through a book. When she runs into the hall, I’m running into the hall. I actually threw myself and a bunch of stuff on the floor for a scene in the second episode; the pain you hear there is real (I wanted it to be; I suffer for my art).

The most recent episode involved some screaming; I closed up the house, put the quilt over my head, and prayed no one would call the cops. It’s not the last time I’ll need to scream, either, so it could yet happen.

I have badly startled my cats on more than one occasion.

As mentioned, you’re a one-person production team. Do you think you might ever expand to include additional voices?

I’ve been thinking about that a good bit, especially as I look forward to the possibility of a second season. I’d like to, with another project if not with this one, but I think I would have to adjust my working style somewhat and write real lines, given how much of what I do is unscripted. That or find a truly gelling improv partner. I’m also not sure about how to handle the logistics of recording multiple voices, especially if I’m dealing with geographically distributed people, but hey, I could learn. I’ve taught myself how to do this much.

In addition to being a podcaster, you’re also a novelist, and a prolific author of short fiction. What else do you have coming up, or in progress that you’d like people to know about?

I have a story forthcoming in Uncanny Magazine – not sure exactly when – about two women who forge an intense and violent romantic relationship owing to their shared superpower: they can cause enormous destruction when they’re in pain. I’m very proud of it and very excited to share it with the world.

Besides that, I’m in the final stages of editing a novel called LINEAGE which will be released hopefully sometime in the first part of next year from Riptide Publishing. It’s a work of science fantasy set in the same universe as the ROOT CODE books, about a trans man who (along with the girl on whom he has a tremendous and tremendously awkward crush) crashlands on a strange planet and must try to survive caught between an isolated band of survivors and their nemesis, who is a gigantic sentient plant-mass.

Finally, I’m in the early development stages of another podcast with my sister, Emma Phipps. The working title is “Drinks and Thinks”, and the premise is that we drink a different specific brand of liquor per episode while we ramble on some topic of mutual interest. I have no idea how well this would/will work but it seems like it might be fun.

That all sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read and listen! Thank you so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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