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Interview: Sam McDonald

Questions from Gary Oswald

This Interview is with Sam McDonald, a reviewer of Audio Drama who can be found at his website and twitter.

Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us.

Thank you. It is truly a pleasure to be here.

How did you get into Alternate History and what appeals to you about that genre?

I suppose I’ve always been naturally curious about what it would be like if history was different. What if the American Revolution had failed? What if the Cold War never ended? But the first time I was properly introduced to alternate history was a chance encounter on Wikipedia. I’ve also been interested in space colonization and manned spaceflight. So, I was reading a Wikipedia article about deceptions of Mars in fiction. One section covered books set in worlds where Mars is a habitable world. This was how it was believed to be before the Mariner probes popped everyone’s bubble. However, these books were deliberately set on alternate versions of Mars. One that immediately caught my attention was A World of Difference by Harry Turtledove. So, I clicked on the link to that page, and before long I was reading the pages for Turtledove’s other books. And it didn’t take me too long to read the Wikipedia page for alternate history in general. And that was the spark that began my journey into alternate history.

You run the blog 'the Audiophile' which primarily reviews Audio Dramas. How did that come about and what draws you to audio as a format?

I got my start writing for The Alternate History Weekly Update. Matt Mitrovich, the founder of The Update, said that he wasn’t really into audio fiction. So, I figured that might be something that I would be good at reviewing. At the time, I had discovered the Escape Artists family of short story podcasts, and was also discovering other audio fiction podcasts such as The Drabblecast, Lightspeed Magazine, and StarShipSofa. I was discovering so many great stories, many of them alternate history, and I wanted as many people as possible to know about it. My guest column, The Audio File, always proved a heaven-hitter in terms of views. Everyone always asked if I had a blog of my own, and after a while, I decided to get that started. Naturally, I called my blog The Audiophile

It took a while before I figured out what I wanted The Audiophile to be. I reposted my old guest post, I interviewed people I found interesting, I made some flags (more on that in a bit), and did some audiobook and comics reviews. I’m still proud of my work from this time, but I was kind of spinning my wheels, and didn’t really have a sense of direction. That changed when I joined Reddit. My blog saw an upswing in traffic after I started sharing my reviews on Reddit. But what really cemented my rise was when I got to write a guest episode for Twilight Histories.

Twilight Histories is an alternate history audio fiction podcast told in second-person. You the listener get to explore strange, exotic, and more often than not, dangerous alternate worlds. Jordan Harbour, the series creator, was opening up the show to guest writers. I got to write a multipart guest episode titled True Aztec. It was set in a world where the An Lushan Rebellion never happened, and China remained a major world power. The Chinese eventually discovered the Americas, and became major trading partners with the Aztecs. Fast forward a few centuries, and suddenly we’ve got an dieselpunk Aztec Empire at war with an equally dieselpunk Japan. True Aztec has since been moved to the Twilight Histories Patreon. Jordan was trying to streamline the show, and needed the episodes to be consistent. I understand, and hey, I got to be part of one of my favorite podcasts. So, its all good to me.

Anyway, I wanted to share my creation, and that led me to the r/audiodrama subreddit. It is a very friendly and welcoming place. Listeners gush about their favorite shows, and give/ask for recommendations. Creators post their latest episodes, and everyone is really supportive of each other. I had been discovering audio drama myself. I tried Campfire Radio Theatre based on Jordan Harbour’s recommendation, and I discovered a great anthology show called The Truth by chance. Then one day, I was listening to an episode of Levar Burton Reads. It’s basically the Reading Rainbow, but for adults. Sometimes, during the commercial breaks, Levar will talk about a podcast he enjoyed. In one episode, he talked about an audio drama called 1865. It was a historical fiction show set in the aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. At the time, it was only available to Stitcher Premium members, but it was later released to everyone free of charge. I learned that when I saw Campfire Radio Theatre tweet about it. So, I gave 1865 a listen. It completely blew my mind. Shows like Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and PodCastle can be good, but they’re ultimately just audiobooks. 1865 was on a completely different level. It used a full cast, music, and sound-effects to tell a cinematic story about the struggle for America’s soul during Reconstruction. It was one hell of a ride, and I needed to know what else was out there.

I devoured audio drama after audio drama. I would frequently post long, and very detailed, lists of recommendations whenever anyone asked in the audio drama subreddit. I was good at tailoring my recommendations to the requester’s tastes and preferences. I knew I had to start reviewing audio dramas, but I kept putting it off. I guess, maybe I was nervous that I wouldn’t be any good. Then, I received a request from Ivan Mirko S. He asked if I would review his audio drama The Program Audio Series. I said yes, but I needed to take care of four audio drama reviews first. Naturally, 1865 was the first of these. My reviews became a big hit. Everyone appreciated my detailed and in-depth reviewing style. Pretty soon, I got so many requests for reviews I seriously considered starting a waiting list. The Audiophile’s view count grew and expanded like nothing before. And the next thing I knew, I was a respected critic within the audio drama community.

As for what draws me to audio, well, I’ve loved it from a young age. I got diagnosed with a learning disability during my school days. Testing showed that I responded better to listening and hearing things, and that I struggled with reading. So, it was only natural that I would gravitate towards audio fiction. I also like to be active and moving around while I listen. It is nice that I can listen while doing house work, or taking the dog for a walk.

The Podcast age means the audio format is having something of a golden era at the moment, are you positive about the format's future and what do you think makes a good audio drama?

Well, like all art, audio dramas are highly subjective. Some people want full casts, and lots of music and sound effects. Other people prefer shows that go lighter on the music and sound effects, and they might even prefer a single narrator. Both approaches, and various combinations thereof, have their strengths and weaknesses. It ultimately comes down to what kind of story you want to tell. I’ve listened to at least 200 audio fiction shows, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no magic formula that guarantees a successful audio drama. To be perfectly frank, sometimes it really comes down to luck, and other factors beyond your control. The most important thing about making an audio drama, in my opinion, is to remain true to yourself, and make a show you feel proud of. I’ve also learned that, as a listener, I often won’t know if I’ll like a show until I give it a try. I certainly love it when a show manages to surprise me, or wow me in an unexpected way.

As to the first point, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future. We see dozens of new audio dramas premiering every week, and there’s no signs of that stopping any time soon. True, some shows die after only a season or two. It is unfortunate, but sometimes life gets in the way, something happens behind the scenes, and a good show dies a bad show’s death. And yet I also see many stories of success. I see numerous independent audio dramas creating multiple seasons of quality content. Some of them could easily go toe-to-toe with productions from major production houses like QCODE and Realm. But there’s still room for improvement. One of the chief concerns of the indie community is making sure everyone gets paid. At the moment, the indie audio drama community doesn't have many stable sources of income. A lot of shows run on mostly volunteer work. I look at the indie community, and I see nothing but boundless talent and creativity. If this is what they can make on low funds, then wonders could they create if they had more money?

I’ve always loved the movie Ratatouille, but I’ve come to appreciate it even more since becoming a critic. In particular, I resonate with the speech the critic Anton Ego makes towards the end of the movie. To paraphrase Ego, the world is often a cruel and unkind place to new art and new artists. Especially those who are unconventional. Therefore, the role of the critic is to find promising new artists and shine a light on their work. The critic vouches for the art and the artist, and in doing so, helps to lift them up. It can certainly be fun to eviscerate a bad work of art, but I’d much rather share a good work of art. Especially so if that art, in this case audio dramas, doesn’t get nearly enough of the recognition and attention it deserves. Most of my reviews tend towards the positive, and that is no accident.

Now, supporting the new does not mean handing out five stars reviews like candy. I am always willing to review any show that is asked of me. However, if I find any elements lacking, I will certainly make note of that. Even many of the audio dramas I adore will sometimes have areas I feel could use improvement. And I will always give praise, when I feel it is due, to shows I otherwise don’t enjoy. And sometimes I won’t enjoy a show I was asked to review. I always try my best to let these shows down gently. I got plenty of rejection letters during my short story writing days, so I certainly know what it is like to be on the other side of the equations. I also try to differentiate between something that wasn’t my cup of tea, and something that was genuinely bad.

Obviously audio drama covers all genres including of course Alternate History, is there any AH audio you'd particularly like to recommend?

Well, to start, I’d like to once again mention Twilight Histories. It has some of the most creative alternate history and worldbuilding I have ever encountered. You want an adventure on a Carthaginian Mars colony? They got it. A world where Ancient Egypt never fell, and is dealing with an approaching ice age? They got that too. How about a Roman legion fighting French knights at Agincourt? Oh, you better believe they did that.

The Soyuz Files was one of the first alternate history audio dramas I discovered when I was really diving into the world of audio drama. It is set in a world where the Soviet Union landed a manned mission on the Moon in 1968. Naturally, this send shockwaves throughout the world. It is during these tumultuous times that investigative reporter Jack Schechter is determined to get to the bottom of the Moon Landing. He has been receiving postcards from two scientists, one Soviet and one American, named Nikolai and Jacob. They claim that the Soviet government is hiding something about the landings. 1865 was the first audio drama I reviewed, and you better believe The Soyuz Files was the second. The Soyuz Files even wrote a nice little blog post praising my review.

An audio drama I’ve recently been obsessed with is Out of Place. It follows an archivist named Andrew Moss. He’s been assigned by a mysterious organization to catalogue objects. The objects are all from alternate universes. He must determine how history went differently in these worlds by studying the object. This one managed to do something I would have said was impossible. It combined alternate history and horror, and it did so frighteningly well.

Age of Confusion is certainly a unique show. It is an alternate history fiction podcast, but it is told in the style of a non-fiction history podcast. It explores a world where President John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt on the faithful day in 1963. The podcast explores the changes to history that result from this. Not a conventional audio drama, but quite enjoyable.

Then there’s Prototype World of Tomorrow. It is a comedic detective series set in a world where Walt Disney’s dream to build an Experimental Prototype World of Tomorrow became a reality. Progress City is a domed metropolis built in a heart of Central Florida. It is home to 50,000 temporary workers who live, work, and occasionally get murdered. The series follows the only pair of privet investigators in Progress. I can best describe it as a bit like the television series Monk, but as an alternate history, and with strong science fiction elements. There’s also a lot of in-jokes about Disney Park attractions, especially those that never left the drawing board.

I could keep going, but I’ll give one final shout-out to Gallery of Curiosities. They are a short story anthology podcast that specializes in retropunk and gothic fiction. That means steampunk, dieselpunk, and the like. More audiobook than audio drama, but I love the way they incorporate music and sound-effects into their readings of the stories.

The blog is not all reviews, of course. You've also started doing world building microfiction about various countries that never formed, in the format of a flag and a write up. Do you have larger plans for that world building or are they stand alone?

I have toyed with the idea of revisiting some of the worlds I created for my flags. However, nothing has come of this as of yet. The closest I’ve gotten are my Aztec Empire flag and my Inca Empire flag. I briefly mention that the Inca Empire also survived in the world of the Aztec flag. Does that mean they’re from the same world? Uh…maybe? I wanted the Inca flag to have its own lore, but nothing in it contradicts the possibility of being in the same world as the Aztec flag. So, if you want to believe they’re from the same world, go for it. I’m thinking about doing a flag of a surviving Mayan state at some point. Maybe I’ll have a more definitive answer then.

In terms of your AH fiction, you wrote a short piece for the SLP anthology 'Allo Americana' about the fusion mythos of a Japanese colony in the USA. What inspired that idea?

I have alway had an interest in mythology, folklore, and religion from a young age. So, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of an anthology that combined alternate history and folklore. It was such a fun concept. I’ve also been interested in alternate colonizations of the Americas. In particular, with regards to non-European nations participating. Sure, it isn’t very realistic, but it's fun to think about the new cultures that could emerge in such a scenario. So, I asked myself how the stories the Japanese colonist would bring with them might change and adapt to their new homeland. In Japanese Mythology, it is said that there is a giant catfish that lives beneath Japan. It is held in place by a water god. However, occasionally the god loses his grip, and the catfish wiggles about. And this, according to the legend, is why Japan has earthquakes. California is also prone to earthquakes. So, it seemed natural that the story would follow the colonists. Of course, there would be changes over time. I changed the catfish to a sturgeon, as those are more common in California. And sturgeons are one of the largest freshwater fish in the world.

Shinto is a highly syncretic religion that freely incorporates elements from other religions. Many Shinto gods have their roots in everything from Buddhism, Taoism, and even Hinduism. So, it seemed only natural that Japanese colonists would potentially incorporate Indigenous figures into their Shinto. Coyote is an interesting figure. He is often thought of as a trickster, and he certainly has his share of crazy schemes. However, more often than not, the tables get turned, and he winds-up on the receiving end of a trick himself. So, I could potentially see the Japanese colonists incorporating tales of Coyote into their mythology and folklore.

In terms of style, I took inspiration from The Moonlit Road. They’re a podcast that retells ghost stories, folktales, and urban legend from across the American South. They were the first fiction podcast I ever discovered, and I still love them even after all these years. I got to write two short stories for The Moonlit Road’s website. The first is a reminaging of the Japanese folktale Urashima Taro, but recast in 19th Century Louisiana, titled “Irwin Tarheel and the Fair Folk.” The second is a reimagining of the Golem of Prague, but set in pre-Civil War South Carolina, called Golem of the Gullah. So, I took what I learned from those stories and applied it to “Coyote and the Great Sturgeon.”

Reviewers frequently single out “Coyote and the Great Sturgeon” as one of the standout stories from AlloAmericana. So, I like to think I did a pretty good job.

You're also currently producing an anthology series titled 'The Books of Thoth'. What can you tell us about that project?

I’ve always wanted to produce an audio drama of my own. My friends from within the audio drama community have always encouraged me to do so. I’ve had my fair share of anxiety, self-doubt, and false starts. To be honest, I’m still incredibly nervous, but choosing to do nothing is still a choice. So, I’m moving forward. I’ve already gotten over twenty auditions for my first three episodes, with more on the way. The Books of Thoth is an anthology series. I started off listening to anthology audio dramas. I eventually did start listening to serialized audio dramas, and I actually listen to more serialized shows these days. Still, anthologies are where I got my start as a listener. So, it is fitting that my start as an audio drama creator is with anthologies as well.

Thoth is the god of wisdom in Egyptian Mythology. He’s also, among other things, the god of writing and magic. He’s also one of my favorite Egyptian gods, with Anubis as a close second. I like to think Thoth’s seen quite a bit in his time. There’s bound to be some pretty good stories within his collection of scrolls.

I’ve got the first three seasons planned out. Season one will be the pilot season, and doesn’t really have a specific theme. Season two will feature folktales from the multiverse. I had so much fun with AlloAmericana, and I wanted to write some more alternate history folktales. For example, one episode will take place in a world where Buddhism, rather than Christianity, became the dominant religion of Europe. And a few episodes will feature folktales from the future. For example, there will be a two-part episode covering folktales that developed during various points in the colonization of Mars.

Season three will feature investigative journalism from across the multiverse. I’m a big fan of the web series An Examination of Extra-Universal Systems of Government, and a few episodes will be homage to it. Of course, me being me, I always tend to insert things like dinosaurs and mythology into my alternate history. So, for example, one episode is set in a world where Greek Mythology is real. However, Ancient Greece is also experiencing an industrial revolution, and all of the social upheaval that entails. Another episode will take place in a world where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs never hit Earth. The dinosaurs continued to evolve, developed sapience, and created their own civilization. I’m also thinking about having some episodes that take the form of episodes from travel shows.

Beyond all of that, well, I guess we’ll have to see what the future holds. I do have some plans for a serialized show called The Calliope Brigade. It will follow the members of a traveling caravel in a fantasy world inspired by the United States. I’ve had the idea for Calliope Brigade for quite some time, and I really want it to see the light of day. However, I need to learn the ropes of audio drama production if I have any hope of bringing it to life. Gaining those skills is one of my goals with The Books of Thoth. And, of course, creating some great stories that I hope everyone enjoys.

Do you think your time as a reviewer has helped you as a creator in terms of seeing what works and what doesn't?

I’ve learned that audio dramas come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. Audio drama is not a one size fits all affair. As I said before, there is no magic formula that guarantees a successful audio drama. Now, all that being said, I do feel a bit of pressure at times. I worry that everyone will have higher expectations of me because I am a critic. But reviewing a working of art, and making a work of art, are two very different skill sets. That’s what Angela Yih, the creator of Residents of Proserpina Park, reminded me. And I do thank her for that. I’m also reminded of how Roger Ebert was one of the most beloved film critics, and with good reason, the man had a way with words. However, by his own admission, Ebert wasn’t much of a filmmaker. Of course, I certainly do hope I prove to be a worthy audio drama creator.

Of all the things you've done, what is the work you're most proud of?

I’d like to plug my flash fiction story “Spelling Test.” I published it with The Centropic Oracle. They’re a science fiction and fantasy short story podcast that is hosted on YouTube. They don’t need nearly enough love and attention, so I would encourage everyone to check out the many wonderful stories available from The Centropic Oracle. I’d also like to give a brief plug to my short story “Chain Reaction.” It follows a man who goes crazy and creates his own religion based around roller coasters. His best friend tries to desperately snap him out of it. “Chain Reaction” won third place in the short story contest that The Journey Into Podcast held last year. And be sure to check out the other fine offerings from The Journey Into Podcast.

What else can we expect to see from you in the future?

Well, in addition to reviewing and creating audio dramas, I’m also branching out into voice acting. I’m pleased to announce that I have been cast in season three of Residents of Proserpina Park. The series follows a young woman named Alina who discovers a park that is, basically, a nature reserve for creatures from across World Mythology and Folklore. I can’t say who I’ll be playing, as that would be a spoiler. However, I can say that I am very excited to have this opportunity. I have been a massive fan of Residents of Proserpina Park for quite some time. I fell in love with them when they only had a single episode out. I particularly enjoyed getting to learn about lesser known creatures from World Mythology. So, this is very much a dream come true. I am also participating in a cold read group run by Julie Hoverson on Discord. She is the creator of 19 Nocturne Boulevard, and runs the Audio Drama Infinitum account on Twitter. The cold read group is very laid-back and non-serious. It’s a great way to practice your voice acting skills in a fun and relaxing environment. Usually, we read scripts from 19 Nocturne Boulevard, but as of late, we’ve seen reading scripts from Life with Althaar. I’ve had the pleasure of playing the title character, and Althaar has been my absolute favorite role in the group. Not to brag, but everyone always seems to find my take on Althaar to be pretty hilarious. The group meets on Wednesday at 6 PM Pacific time, and Sunday at 1 PM Pacific time. I’m usually too busy to join the Wednesday meeting, but I’m almost always there on Sunday. There’s no commitments, so feel free to join us for whenever, and for however long, you want. You can join the group with this link:



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