CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL A.G. GILMAN
Rappahannock Review Audio Editors: “After the Beep” has a very unique format. What inspired you to tell a story through recorded voicemails?
Rachel Gilman: When I started college, my phone generally became busier with all sorts of messages—texts, emails, and indeed, voicemails. It was overwhelming. I found voicemail the most interesting because of the sheer variety. Some people left their intentions brief. Others babbled on. A few were wrong numbers with so much detail. They had such a life of their own in the way the written messages did not. The combination of everything in my phone was rather fascinating and personal (there are some voice memo bits in the piece, too), and I wondered if there was a way to use these snippets to create a more abstract yet similar way for a listener to experience my life. My junior year at NYU, I was given an assignment in Craig Morgan Teicher’s class to create a nonfiction narrative in a non-written format. Behold, the perfect opportunity for the voicemail project!
RR: The voicemails give the listeners a good idea of the people interacting with you in this story, but less of an idea of time. Over what span of time did you take the voicemails from, and how did you plan for time to influence your piece?
RG: Right, I could feasibly be getting all of these messages in the same day (alongside a dead phone battery and a nasty headache, I’m sure). That was not the case, thankfully. The messages actually came over the course of about two and a half years. I admit I have digital packrat tendencies. I wanted the experience of the piece to be a lot quicker than that, though, since majority of the messages were received over a much closer period of time. I wanted the listener to feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of information they were receiving, to create the feeling it was all entering their brain at once and getting jumbled. I was personally very exhausted by the amount of communication I was experiencing while creating the piece, and I wanted to simulate the sensation of allowing that feeling to burst and break free.
RR: What did you find to be the most challenging technical aspect in creating this piece, and what did you do to overcome it?
RG: I had actually managed to forget about this, but I now recall that the week I was working on the piece, my laptop went completely wonky. It took ages to open files (if it opened them at all) and had issues turning on and off without the screen lighting up in rainbow colors. It was quite the spectacle and also a huge problem. The audio editing software I was using was out of date and if I were to transfer the piece to a different computer it would have compressed the multiple tracks I had created, taking away my ability to adjust sound volumes, fade things in and out, and manipulate the individual messages. After a couple of weeks of working around my MacBook’s temperament, I was able to export and save the piece, finished. Sadly/miraculously, the laptop died the following day. A sacrifice for art! Aside from this abnormal and wild challenge, it was a bit of a process to decide where to splice the messages and how to arrange them, and of course calling people’s phones and assuring I got their voicemails in order to record them. Totally not awkward or anything…
RR: You note in your biography that you’ve made audio pieces before. When did you become interested in using the audio medium as a form of expression? What in particular sparked your interest in it?
RG: I worked at my college radio station throughout my entire undergraduate degree, arguably spending as much time there as I did in class (I lived in the same building my first year, making it quite easy). Though I had joined the station because I was interested in becoming a music journalist and thought it would be a good opportunity related to that industry, I quickly found DJing was not my jam and that it was far more compelling for me to create my own journalistic pieces. As my writing swayed more creative, so did my ideas for what I could do with audio. This piece was actually sort of a surprise because it so far removed from my original intentions in radio. However, having the skills of a podcast host/editor and the resources of the station really gave me the possibility to make my strange ideas for projects into fully-formed creatures.
RR: What advice do you have for someone beginning their exploration into audio pieces?
RG: Each storytelling medium is more or less working to achieve the same goal: to tell a story. Different stories work better in different forms—something with a lot of dialogue often works well as a drama whereas something with rich visuals could be best in a photography series. The considerations for audio are no different. The skills are not the trickiest part of working with audio (YouTube and patience can equip you with this overtime), but instead it is the same challenge every writer has, which is coming up with ideas. Listen to other audio pieces and consider why their ideas work as audio pieces versus other forms, and then put your own ideas through the same test.
Rachel Gilman’s work in Issue 6.2: