I adored “Dead Air,” both the story itself and the structure as a series of recordings. Tell us a little of what inspired the story.
I originally conceived of this story a few years ago, as a short audio drama. I was listening to a lot of podcasts then, and I think the idea was synthesized from days of listening to The Heart, Knifepoint Horror, and Limetown. Around that same time, my mom moved to an old farmhouse. To get there, you have to drive down a long, creepy dirt road, complete with an old graveyard. So I started from a particular scene on that dirt road: two characters in a car, and one of them unintentionally starting to drive dangerously fast. The story spun out from there, but I had trouble finding a good end. So I let it sit for a couple years, until I had a deadline for a writing workshop last fall.
I had already been playing around with writing stories in weird formats—my previous Nightmare story (“Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You?”) is a story told as a personality quiz. I like bending the rules of those formats, but with “Dead Air,” I realized that some of the horror could come from breaking that fourth wall.
This truly is a character-driven story. Nita and Maddie are fully fleshed characters, each coming to the story with their own past, present, and future of a sort. How much thought do you give to your audience’s relationship to the characters? Are there any particular challenges to creating sympathetic characters, even when one of them knows more than the other?
There was a lot of thought, and even more trial and error. This story underwent a couple of major revisions before I balanced the found-footage feeling with the clarity that the audience needed to understand what happened. I found that more of a challenge than making Maddie or Nita sympathetic. They’re in love and scared, which is a state most of us are intimately familiar with.
Maddie fears a loss of identity, of being forgotten, stripped of her name and sense of self. What would you say Nita fears?
Ooh, good question. In the beginning, I’d say she fears being unoriginal and boring. At the end: that the world is bound by rules she can’t fathom.
You also write radio features. I personally enjoy audio fiction, so, for my second reading, I read this story aloud. The entire tenor of the story changed when read aloud, the words took on a different weight and substance. Do you find that writing for audio differs from writing for a literary or reading audience? Have you noticed any similarities?
There are definitely differences, but some of the essentials stay the same. Knowing how to pace a scene, write distinct character voices and interesting dialogue, portray action and emotion in interesting ways: these are translatable skills.
The audio features I’ve produced have all been nonfiction. That process felt closer to collaging than writing; I was piecing things together rather than creating them out of nothing. With fictional scripts, one of the main challenges is that there’s less interiority. “Show, don’t tell” takes on a whole new meaning when your audience can’t skim past an info-dump. There’s also a different rhythm in scriptwriting, with tighter transitions. The continuity scene-to-scene has to make sense intuitively, and work with the rhythm of the story you’re trying to tell.
In addition to fiction, you also write nonfiction. Do you find that one form of writing influences the other? Are you a stronger writer for challenging yourself with different forms and styles?
It’s hard to say, since I learned most of these genres at the same time. I wrote poetry, screenplays, stage plays, short stories, and essays all through high school, so it’s hard to tease apart what originated where. I’d like to think it’s made me a better writer? But I honestly don’t know how to write in only in one genre. The world is too big, and I’m too curious about it.
How do you recharge your writerly batteries? What does Nino Cipri do to unwind?
I have a bad habit of taking on extra projects, which grad school has only exacerbated, so unwinding time is precious and rare. When I do get it, I tend to spend it traveling. (I’m actually answering these questions halfway through a month of road-tripping across the American midwest and northeast.) When that’s not an option, I read a lot, watch bad horror movies, and think up ideas for new projects that I don’t have time to work on.
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