C. Christopher Hart, 1001 Interviews No. 8

C. Christopher Hart is a novelist, playwright, and actor from Newport, Oregon.

His formative experiences include twenty-three years as a member of the venerable Red Octopus Theatre Company and three years as the regular co-writer on Charles Marier’s independent comic book THOUGHTFUL MAN.

His latest project is EXOPLANETARY, a serialized science-fiction podcast drama (or, as he styles it, “podrama”) that takes place 500 years in our future. He lives with two cats named Percy and Chompy.

Keep up with C. Christopher Hart and EXOPLANETARY at:

facebook.com/exoplanetarymedia/
twitter.com/exoplanetarypod
patreon.com/exoplanetary

 

INTERVIEWER

What is EXOPLANETARY?

 

HART

EXOPLANETARY is a podcast about a supercorporation 500 years in our future called Exoplanetary, one of four that control pretty much everything in our solar system. Humanity was forced to leave Earth due to environmental destruction and overpopulation… too many people and not enough resources…

Exoplanetary and other corporations took the best and brightest out to the other planets, moons, and asteroids. The story is about four siblings who work for Exoplanetary and the problems that result when the corporation wants to expand.

INTERVIEWER

Why should we listen to EXOPLANETARY?

HART

Because you’re bored. Because you don’t like entertainment or art that’s spoon fed to you… already too much of that in the world. Because you have a sense of adventure. Because you’re concerned about many of the issues that I mentioned above. Because you’re at work and you don’t think your boss will spot you laughing.

I think that EXOPLANETARY will be huge among joggers and insomniacs.

INTERVIEWER

What stage of production are you in now?

HART

In a word: Early. I know pretty much everything that needs to happen in order to record and start publishing the podcasts. I’m just getting the ducks in a row. Our target is this summer, 2016.

INTERVIEWER

How are you recording it and how do you want to mix it?

HART

Well, I’d like to delegate all of that to Tony Visconti or Brian Eno or some other brilliant professional, but it turns out that professionals are very expensive. So I’ll be doing it myself, at first.

INTERVIEWER

So I have to level with you. I’ve been working on writing my own podcast, a kind of paranormal investigation drama. So in this interview I have a bit of an ulterior motive, I’m going to be asking a lot of advice.

You’ve built a complex world. You have a lot of characters and a lot of plot lines. But it feels all very well ordered. It’s easy to follow, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to write. How do you keep everything in order?

HART

With great difficulty. It’s trial and error. Finding the process is part of the process. What I find useful is lots of outlines and notes.

But, for the most part, if I think of a fun idea and I’m still thinking about it a few days later, that’s how I decide something is a good idea.

It also helps that each character has distinct motivations and interests.

Having a bunch of people who all want the same thing tends to create cypher characters.

INTERVIEWER

Do you try to balance different character motivations? Is it important to have conflicting motivations?

HART

Well, human beings tend to mostly want the same things… to find love and acceptance and eat food and have comfort. But what drives them, yeah, that’s really important to me. For humans and androids and spider-people, too.

It’s science-fiction on audio, so believable characters are my best special effect.

INTERVIEWER

Humanity was forced to leave earth because of global warming and overpopulation. What are some major questions you want to ask in writing this series? Is this project at all speculative?

HART

I’d like to think that it’s all speculative, sure. I’d rather live on Earth and breathe air and eat real food. But the truth is that we’re heading in a number of bad directions. We’re spoiling the environment, we’re not taking care of ourselves, and our values seem to be centered around greed. EXOPLANETARY assumes that we never get over this. I mean, human beings tend to be selfish, but we can also see the benefit of helping each other. The thesis of the show is that we continue on the road we’re on and complicate our lives even further.

INTERVIEWER

What are some potential consequences if Exoplanetary tries to expand?

HART

Are you familiar with a guy named Christopher Columbus?

Basically, what happened to the indigenous people of the Americas, only in space.

Stephen Hawking likes to warn us that we might be harmed by aliens who come here for the same reason. I tend to think that we’re more likely to harm other cultures… if we make it that far.

INTERVIEWER

Exoplanetary will colonize and colonize and colonize?

HART

And take and take and take. Europe had heavy famine in pre-Columbian times. Once they had room to expand, suddenly there were plantations all over the Americas and many food scarcity issues were resolved… for the Europeans. But the cost on those early Americans was severe. We forget that many of the crops we take for granted here in the U.S. originated elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

How would the company describe itself? What business would Exoplanetary say they are in?

HART

Well, they started out as a soda company. Solar Cola.

But there is no government in this post-Earth solar system, so without regulation, the various companies gobble each other up and consolidate power.

So Exoplanetary is in the “everything” business. They are in the business of consolidating power and wealth for their owners.

INTERVIEWER

Are there investors?

HART

Not in the sense that we think of, where you could go on your computer and buy shares in some company.

Living in space, it’s slightly more like feudalism. The CEOs and Chairmans are like unto Kings and Princes. Working stiffs are more like serfs. In fact, the whole thing becomes more like the Middle Ages. Pre-Magna Carta.

That’s what you wind up with when there’s nobody looking out for individual liberty and regulating things. We complain about government all the time in America, but we (as a culture) have no idea how bad it was for people before.

Like MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL… “How do you know he’s the king?”

The people of this solar system are, essentially, space peasants.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the Wolvertons?

HART

The Wolvertons are four siblings, one elder sister and her three younger brothers, and they are adults making their way in the solar system. Each of them represents the four major storylines of the series.

Alice, the eldest, has had trouble maintaining a job. That’s a big issue in a world where you are expected to pay for oxygen. She takes a job with Exoplanetary related to interstellar exploration.

Ben, the eldest of the brothers, is the practical pig of the family. He works for Exoplanetary as a sort of android/human relations expert. He prefers androids, on the whole.

Calvert, the middle brother, is a R&D scientist for Exoplanetary who has invented a practical form of time travel.

Dustin, the baby of the family, is a monk. As Brother Dustin, he’s part of a sect that is owned by Exoplanetary. In the 26th Century, all of the world religions are owned by the four corporations.

INTERVIEWER

What are the four corporations? Is it worship of products?

HART

No. But I’m stealing that idea.

Exoplanetary, MarsTech, and two that will be revealed at a later date.

INTERVIEWER

Do you follow a formula for writing your episodes? Do you have a set plan for conflict and resolution in each episode? Or do you follow threads to see where they go?

HART

I’m slightly stream of consciousness. I create a problem and I see how the characters resolve it.

INTERVIEWER

So that’s where the ideas for each episode come from?

HART

Well, sort of. Again, these are ideas that I thought were interesting enough to remember a week later. If you want to go to the genesis…

I started having many sort of science-fictiony ideas. And, at the time, I was mostly writing prose. The idea of intertwining all of the ideas into a coherent universe seemed more interesting than having them just be sort of solitary. It’s an old tradition in this sort of fiction.

But a number of things happened and I starting to think of it as not so much a novel as a series. And not so much a novel, but a theatrical experience. But doing space opera on stage… there are issues.

So, around the same time, a friend of mine invited me to get involved in a community radio station. And they wanted radio theater, which is something I love. Radio plays still exist in many other countries, but we’ve mostly forgotten it in the U.S. Possibly because it doesn’t make money.

So, I developed it with the radio in mind. And when I parted ways with the radio station, I decided that it was too good of an idea to put in a drawer, so that’s how the podcast came to be.

It was always going to be a podcast as well as a radio show, but this way feels cleaner.

HART

Yeah. In the long run, I’d like to become sort of a showrunner where I write an overview and accept submissions and assign stories and so on.

But that’s pie in the sky.

I have to get people to listen first. (lol)

INTERVIEWER

Anything in particular you turn to when you need an idea for Exoplanetary?

HART

Most of the issues in Exoplanetary stem from issues that I care about. How we cope with the legacy of colonialism. How we maintain our dignity in a world wracked with greed. How we treat other people. How we solve problems. Religion and our complicated relationship with our ideals.

You can find most of that in any decent newspaper.

INTERVIEWER

What do you listen for when you workshop? Do you get much out of hearing others read your work?

HART

I get SO MUCH.

I come from a theater background. In terms of my creativity, I was sort of raised by the Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport, Oregon. So I know that everyone brings something different to a role.

What I listen for are: Does it sound how it sounds in my head? Does it sound better than what’s in my head? And, if I’m honest, if what a person is reading isn’t what I’m going to need, what kind of character might work for that actor.

INTERVIEWER

What’s it like for you, as the one who created the characters, when a voice actor hits a character just right?

HART

Are you familiar with the God Complex? But seriously…

It’s very gratifying. It tells me that the actor is seeing what I put there for them to find. It’s better when they find something I didn’t put there. Then I can take credit for it. It makes it seem REAL.

INTERVIEWER

This is a huge endeavor. What’s driving you?

HART

Well, I’m turning 40 this year. It was either this or a sports car.

I mean, yeah, it’s big. I’ve always thought big. I’m just at a point in my life where waiting is not really an option. I don’t really take no for an answer when I’m the one saying “No more! No more!”

The big question is, can this find an audience? I think that podcasting has huge potential as a source of new content. And… while there are a number of people doing original scripted material, there’s nobody doing quite what I’m attempting. Which either makes me a trailblazer or a lunatic.

INTERVIEWER

Any podcasts or radio shows you’re inspired by?

HART

They are very different from what I’m trying to do, but I greatly admire what WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is accomplishing. In terms of radio shows, anyone doing science-fiction with comedy in audio owes a debt to Douglas Adams and THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. People forget that, before it was a novel and a computer game and a movie and everything else, it was a radio series first. And, in some ways, that’s where it worked best. I used to listen to the old American radio shows from time to time, too, especially Jack Benny and YOU BET YOUR LIFE with Groucho Marx. Saying that makes me sound like I’m in my eighties.

When I was young, though, and before I became aware of all of that, my local radio station used to replay a segment from this now-mostly-forgotten comedy duo called Lohman and Barkley (Al Lohman and Roger Barkley), who were a sort of nightclub act that were on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW a bit (before my time) and had a game show, but they never really became household names.

INTERVIEWER

Lohman and Barkley?

HART

They wound up doing morning radio in L.A. and people who were living there in the 80s have dimming memories of them. The segment was this sketch they would do everyday called “Light of My Life” which was a parody of a soap opera. Roger Barkley was the straight man of the act and would narrate it and Al Lohman did this large cast of character voices… Doctor Duncan, Howard T. Pines, Bigfoot the Beast, and Dame Edith Pines Laudermilk Duncan (who would frequently get married and divorced or widowed and, every time she remarried, another surname was added) all in this fictional place called Pines City. It was very silly and very funny and they played it in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. If I missed the first two, I would stay up late and wait for the evening one…

I was aware of that long before I was aware of old time radio, and it really made an impression on me as to what you could accomplish with just audio. I was about nine and ten years old when they were syndicating those segments, which is the perfect age for that silly, weird, MAD MAGAZINE-type humor. The other odd thing was that the radio station never credited Lohman and Barkley… it was just “Light of My Life.” For years, I had no idea who was making the show and where they came from. It was only in the last few years that I’ve learned about their history. The story has a sad ending because, without warning, they stopped playing “Light of My Life.” Turns out that Roger Barkley ended the partnership, just walked out on Lohman one day in 1986. Kind of sad, really, because it was hilarious. That was the most formative influence, I think.

[LIGHT OF MY LIFE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xceTOR-DAwIhttps://archive.org/details/LightOfMyLife]

INTERVIEWER

What kind of writing practice do you get the best work from? Consistent or sporadic? ‘Butt in the chair’ and write (no matter if you’re churning out garbage or not) then cut and cut? Or wait for inspiration to come then rush to the nearest pen?

HART

I don’t have the luxury of being able to write whenever I want to. I have a “day job” that keeps me very busy and is pretty demanding on me. Writing means not going out all the time and enjoying a hell-raising social life. I have to make time to do it. Thankfully, I enjoy it more than drinking or being out and about. I would rather be writing or working on EXOPLANETARY than nearly anything else I do in my life. It’s meditative and relaxing. For me.

INTERVIEWER

I have heard your podcasts read live. It’s a very clear story, very strong sense of environment.  How do you establish that your scene and change in the scene?

HART

An audience doesn’t need to know every little bit of information in order to understand the scenario. In fact, withholding information can add to the humor. I really only try to explain what needs to be explained.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a narrator?

HART

There’s an announcer, but having a constant narrator would be too much like other audio offerings. There are a few episodes where there’s heavy narration, but it’s coming from an established character as opposed to an omniscient voice. But the format allows me to do either, so there will be a few episodes that work a bit more like audiobooks, but I much prefer dialogue and character interaction on the whole. Whichever serves the story I’m attempting to tell.

INTERVIEWER

You have a lot of big ideas and Exoplanetary is tackling a lot of big ideas and a lot of big plot, but I never felt I was getting lost when I was listening and reading.

I’m wondering, how do you keep that balance between letting your mind run wild with high concepts and not getting too far out there for the audience, or not going too far into exposition land?

HART

I trust the audience to deal with big concepts and lots of information. People still read Tolstoy and, good grief, some of the most popular media in the world are written by people like Tolkien, George R. R. Martin… there’s also Neal Stephenson, just to name a few off the top of my head. I’m not saying that I’m like those writers in terms of accomplishment or style or quality, but dumbing things down for my audience would be disrespectful to them.

My rule of thumb is to make each individual episode somewhat self-contained, with elements of the larger story woven in. When I was co-writing with the cartoonist Charles Marier… we collaborated on his comic book THOUGHTFUL MAN in the mid-nineties… he always said that “every issue is someone’s first.” I’m trying to keep each episode interesting in its own right, but with enough of a hook to get people to listen to another one. Same way you write chapters in a novel, in a way.

INTERVIEWER

Exoplanetary is Funny. Like Damn funny. Do you have a background in improv or standup?

HART

I am terrible at improvising because, if I’m with someone who doesn’t really respect me and want to help me out, I get the giggles. I tried stand-up when I was in college and I was kind of terrible at it, though I had one or two good nights. Eventually, it morphed into a Spalding Gray-style storytelling thing, but by then I had to focus on school and maintaining a job and other things, so I never really figured it out. Most of my accomplishments are in theater, and that’s the environment where I’m most comfortable.

INTERVIEWER

I imagine, in writing a series, there’s a lot of trial and error. Anything you’ve tried that absolutely did not work? Any weird experiments that turned out great?

HART

When I trust myself to be weird and funny, I almost never go wrong.

INTERVIEWER

You have a Patreon account. How can people help you get this podcast produced?

HART

Donating as little as a dollar a month would go a long way. Higher donations have bigger rewards. We’re also going to be launching another crowdfunding option for people who just want to do one-time donations.

The Patreon is probably going to be more interesting for people once episodes start dropping.

INTERVIEWER

Any advice to someone writing their own radio drama?

HART

There are other, simpler archaic art forms to try. How about calypso music? We’re ready for a big calypso resurgence.

Interviewed by Bobby Eversmann

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