This month in Speculative-Inspired Arts, Jessica Best talks about writing for dramatic podcasts, her artistic inspiration, and inclusivity in the stories she creates.
The Strange Case of Starship Iris is brilliant science fiction that is also expressly inclusive. Can you speak to how sci-fi naturally pushes for active inclusivity?
From the beginning, sci-fi has been all about using fantastical elements to explore the big questions. One of the biggest questions today is, “Given how we’re still grappling with racism, transphobia, homophobia, and so on in the present, how can we build something better for the next generation?”
I think writing something set in the future, you have a certain responsibility to think about those issues, and try to imagine where things might go. You don’t necessarily want a spaceship full of just straight white cisgender people. That sends a pretty chilling message to everyone else, like are there not bisexuals in the year 2189? Where did they go? You want to be able to reach out to people in marginalized groups and say, in your own small way, “You have a future, too.”
All that said, though, I don’t know if sci-fi naturally pushes for inclusivity. Plenty of sci-fi stories aren’t inclusive. Plenty of sci-fi stories exploit some of the trappings or aesthetics of, say, Chinese or Japanese cultures, and then center only white people. I think it’s important to confront the ways in which stories, even stories we love, can cause harm. But sci-fi certainly has the potential to let us dream up a world in which more groups have a place at the table, and there’s a lot of value to that.
You’re also a staff writer for Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery, where you alternate writing podcast episodes with other writers. Do you feel that limits your creativity or pushes it?
It pushes my creativity, absolutely. Having some limitations forces you to rethink your ideas and come to novel solutions. Also, working with three super talented writers (and two super talented producers) is invigorating; I can’t slack off because I want to impress them!
What unique challenges does audio drama writing present that prose or novel writing doesn’t?
With audio scripts, you often can’t rely on those subtle body language cues to express what a character is thinking and thus, save you a lot of writing. You have to find ways to convey where your characters are in space and what they’re doing. And transitions can be hard, smoothly re-orienting the audience using only sound.
That said, I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue above all else, and when I write prose I have to push myself to include enough description of how things look or what people are doing with their hands. I finish scripts much, much faster than prose. Even though I’ve only been doing it for about four years, I think writing audio drama comes the most naturally to me.
From where do you draw inspiration for your stories?
I don’t really know! I’m very focused on the dynamics between characters, though. That’s usually what comes first, or near first. With Starship Iris, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write an ensemble drama with comedic elements, and shutting the characters together in a spaceship would make it easy for the audience to track where everyone was, while also creating instant drama.
What first got me into the specifics of the show, though, was imagining the scene between Violet and Kay at the end of the first episode, all of the emotions at play. That was my jumping-off point.
In addition to podcasts, you compose music and have written a YA novel titled Pretending to Date Gabe Novak. Which of these artistic mediums brings you the most satisfaction and why?
Not to totally cop out here, but honestly I think the mediums each bring different kinds of satisfaction. I will say that songs are probably the most fun to share. As a former theater kid, I love the chance to perform and get instant feedback. Writing the novel was tremendously rewarding and I really hope it finds a home someday, but nobody claps at the end of reading a manuscript, you know?
Can you share a bit about your current or upcoming projects?
I have a handful of new podcasts that I want to make. It’s a question of matching each project with the right team; I produce Starship Iris myself and fund it all on Patreon but in the future, I want to focus solely on writing. A few of the ideas are sci-fi, and one is a musical.
I have one song written for the musical so far. It’s about the joy and heartbreak of the largest frying pan in Iowa. A group of people in Brandon, Iowa were trying to make the largest frying pan in the U.S. but nobody actually stopped and researched what pans were already out there, and it turns out Long Beach, Washington already had a bigger pan. There’s something so beautifully human about that.