An Interview with Lauren Shippen

Today we have with us Lauren Shippen, creator of the acclaimed audio drama The Bright Sessions and it’s highly-anticipated spinoff, The AM Archives. We discussed the creative freedom offered by The AM Archives’ new home with Luminary, the impact of violence in fiction, and her upcoming debut novel The Infinite Noise.

Hello and welcome to the Inn! First of all, how are you and how have you been? 

Hello! I’m doing really well – I’m actually on the plane as I type this, coming back from a fabulous weekend in New Orleans. The past six months have been some of the busiest of my life – with lots of ups and downs as busy times usually bring – so it was nice to spend two days in a new place and stuff my face with beignets. 

You’re probably most known for The Bright Sessions, but I understand the spinoff podcast The AM Archives is currently being released through Luminary. Can you talk a bit about the new podcast and the creative/financial freedom that Luminary has provided?

It is! The AM Archives picks up six months after The Bright Sessions ended and involves some of the same characters (Dr. Bright, Sam, Agent Green,  Mark, and Wadsworth are the returning voices) but it’s a vastly different show from The Bright Sessions, hence the spin-off rather than a Season 5. 

Getting to make The Bright Sessions was one of the greatest joys of my life. It taught me so much about writing, directing, acting, producing – you name it – and gave me some of the most important relationships in my life. I know I probably could have kept it going for years and years, but ultimately it’s a small story about a small group of people becoming less lonely by finding themselves and each other. I wanted to keep it that way and end it on my own terms and I feel incredibly lucky to have done so. 

A RadioPublic embed for the first Bright Sessions episode.

All that said, there are still approximately a million stories in this universe and with these people that I want to tell. By the time I was wrapping up the writing of Season 4, I had a few different potential spin-off series rolling around my head. But I couldn’t make any of them the way that I made The Bright Sessions – I wanted them to be bigger and more ambitious and to pay everyone fairly and that just wasn’t possible with the money The Bright Sessions was making from advertisement and Patreon. So I started to look into different funding options and when I got talking to Luminary it was far and away the best path for this project. We were able to pay everyone a fair rate, expand our family of actors and writers, and have complete creative autonomy. This show wouldn’t exist without Luminary and, on top of that, we’ve been enabled to do a lot more. 

A few months ago, you made a Twitter thread discussing just how expensive creating quality audio fiction can be. How did fans react to getting an inside look at the true cost involved? 

Everyone was really receptive! We don’t talk a lot about how much certain creative endeavors actually cost, so I think it was eye-opening to some people. And I did get messages from other podcasters privately saying that they were really happy to see someone being honest about the amount of work and money that goes into making something of quality. 

Earlier this year you, Jordan Cope, and Briggon Snow founded the Atypical Artists production studio. In addition to The AM Archives, Atypical Artists is already creating ARCS, an actual-play D&D podcast. Why did you decide to create your own production studio? Can you tease any future projects you’re hoping to tackle in the near future?

This is one of the things that Luminary made possible! Through my years making The Bright Sessions and working on other podcasts (most of which aren’t out yet) I really, really fell in love with this medium. I want to pull more people into audio and make more shows myself and knew I couldn’t do that alone. Jordan and Briggon are two people that inspire me every day and balance out my weaknesses. We’re all really passionate about storytelling and want to help other artists make their shows, so a formalized company seemed like the best way to do that. 

I wish I could tease specifics of future projects, but I’ve got to keep them under my hat for now. Rest assured, we’ve got a lot of really exciting projects on the burners with a lot of really wonderful people. Really good fiction takes a while to do, but I think the wait is going to be worth it.

How in the world do you manage your time these days? Between The AM Archives, ARCS, voice acting in various audio dramas, and working on the television adaptation for The Bright Sessions, do you have any time left to yourself?

Honestly, not as much as I should! I am working on all those things you listed, but that really is the tip of the iceberg. I just finished the first draft of my second novel and I’ve been working on a couple projects that are still in top-secret stages. Time management has been something I’ve just willfully ignored for the past few years and I cannot stress enough how much you should not do that. 2019 has been the first year that I’ve actively been trying to carve out a weekend here or there where I don’t work (mostly I work 7 days a week) but that’s easier said than done when starting a company and producing several shows. In a few weeks, I’m taking my first true vacation since 2015 and I. Cannot. Wait. 

We talk a lot about self-care these days and I wish I was better about practicing what I preach. I think the most important thing I’ve learned in the past year is that, if I don’t make time for myself, my work will suffer. When you’re hustling and working independently and trying to stay afloat, it’s really easy to feel guilty about taking even a night off, but I promise you, it will be the right choice in the long run. Recently, self-care for me has been a lot about setting boundaries – when I manage to find that evening or that occasional weekend where I’m not on deadline or in production, I have to cut myself off completely. I turn off my text notifications, move my email app to where I can’t see it, try to stay off social media…for me, that kind of all or nothing has been the easiest way for me to not slip back into work when I’m supposed to be relaxing. 

You’re currently working on a trilogy of books with Tor Teen, with The Infinite Noise due to release this September. Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming book? 

This first book follows the story of Caleb and Adam – two characters from the podcast – falling in love. Except, unlike the podcast, we get Adam’s side of the story as well. It’s really a way to dive deep into these characters’ heads and explore the messy business of emotion and relationships. It’s a love story and a coming of age story, all about how the things that make us different don’t have to be things that isolate us from each other. 

And how exactly did the book deal come about?

An agent reached out to me to see if I had thought about writing a book in the Bright Sessions universe and I had actually already been working on the Caleb and Adam novel for a little while (though I hadn’t gotten far). When my agent and I decided to work together, we put together a proposal for a three book series and he worked his magic! I really couldn’t have done any of this without him – he found the podcast and saw something in my writing and I’ll always be grateful for that. 

In a past interview, you said that a TV show would allow the exploration of new characters and stories the podcast didn’t have time for. Do the upcoming novels offer you a similar freedom?

Absolutely! With prose, you can spend a lot more time in a character’s head than in a podcast that doesn’t have internal monologue or narration. It’s really allowed me to step into a character’s shoes in a direct way and dig down into the micro level of their experience. And then, of course, there are the moments (like Caleb and Adam’s first kiss) that we don’t get in the podcast because of the way the podcast is formatted that are really fun to write. 

You wrote an article for Medium criticizing how pop culture trivializes the impact of violence. How do you approach conflict in your storytelling, especially when so many science fiction fans are used to seeing gritty action sequences on the big screen?

Oof, this is a question that’s hard to answer succinctly, so I’ll do my best to boil down my philosophy. I’m not conflict or violence-averse in storytelling. Those things are part of life (unfortunately) and are often a natural story point. The sticking point for me – and, keep in mind, I’m not saying I do this perfectly or have an answer on how to do this – is that the violence has to have consequences. If we’re going to have violence in our stories, we have to grapple with what that means, rather than romanticizing or glorifying it. 

You’ve said you did very little outlining for TBS. Since The Infinite Noise draws so heavily on characters and moments from TBS, how—if at all—has this process changed?

Outlining is something I wish I had done for TBS and I tend to outline a lot more now. With TIN, I had a bit of a cheat sheet, because the book overlaps with the first two seasons of the podcast. So I was able to go off of the events I had already written in the podcast and work from there. That was both a blessing and a curse – it was great to have a foundation, but sometimes frustrating when I wanted to shift the way things happened. 

On that note, I noticed that you shifted some of the scenes that overlapped the podcast ever so slightly to give greater emotional depth and allow us to experience events Caleb discusses in therapy firsthand. How did you strike a balance between staying true to the original scenes and adapting the story to a new format?

It’s really just about leaning into the strengths of the medium! With a book, we can go a lot deeper into a character’s head and the first person perspective of a certain event. So, in telling this story in a book, it was about fleshing out those experiences that Caleb relays in therapy from his present-perspective, something that’s harder to do in the format as established in the podcast. 

What can we expect from future TBS books? Both Damien and Rose have backstories that aren’t explored as much as Caleb and Adam.

Rose’s book – the third and the only one that hasn’t been written yet – tracks some of the same territory as the podcast, but goes much deeper into her experience. We’ll actually get to go dreamwalking with Rose (which we do once in the podcast) and see her experiences in The AM and outside the therapy room. 

The Damien book is the most standalone of the three, because it takes place ten years prior. It’s a prequel about Damien when he’s 18 that gives some insight into where he came from and why he is the way he is. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling, but it’s very different from anything else I’ve ever written. 

Sometimes we as a society can get caught up in labels. I appreciated that Caleb doesn’t fully know how to define his identity. Was this a conscious choice? Were you making an effort to represent people who don’t fully know how (or have a desire to) define themselves?

I think it was a subconscious choice – some of Caleb’s journey with labels echoes my own. I think writing him the way I did was a subconscious effort to work out my own frustration with labels and the way we talk about sexuality. Caleb doesn’t know how to fully define himself initially and then it gets to a point where a strict definition isn’t important to him, personally. And maybe someday he will pick a label that he feels fits him, but I don’t know! As someone for whom gender isn’t a factor in who I’m attracted to, it took me a while to settle on an identity that felt right to me and, even now, my relationship to it evolves, especially as my understanding of sexuaity and gender more generally evolves. There are a lot of beautiful coming out stories in the world – more and more all the time – and there are characters, like Adam, who are more settled into a defined identity, so with Caleb, I wanted to show something different. I wanted to show – both for myself and others – that there’s a whole spectrum of possibility in how you see yourself and your sexual orientation. There’s no one right way to be. 

The mix tapes from the podcast made it into The Infinite Noise!

Yes! All of the playlists that are mentioned in the book were playlists that we released during those seasons – I shared them with the cast and our listeners. 

I heard you also liked to send mix tapes to the other voice actors to help them get into character. How similar were those playlists to the ones that made it into the story?

Every playlist is totally unique and for different reasons — in-universe playlists are for fun and “character” playlists are for writing. Making playlists is something I have always loved doing and mostly they’re for me to develop a character and listen to as I write. Sharing them with actors and the audience has just been icing.

Where would you recommend people jump into the world of The Bright Sessions for the first time? The original podcast or The Infinite Noise?

I wrote the book so that either would work! The book only tracks the first two seasons of the podcast, if that makes a difference for how people choose to consume the story, but both are meant as standalone pieces that complement each other, rather than companion pieces. 

What are you reading or listening to these days?

I’ve been so immersed in several writing deadlines, that I haven’t had much time to consume other stories! But I’ve been loving Billie Eilish’s album and I obsessed over the HBO mini series Chernobyl and its companion podcast.

About Lauren Shippen

Lauren Shippen is a writer most known for her work in fiction podcasts. She was the creator and sole writer of the popular audio drama The Bright Sessions, which ran from 2015 to 2018.  She went on to executive produce The AM Archives and co-produce Passenger List before founding Atypical Artists, a company dedicated to audio storytelling. She was named one of Forbes 2018 30 Under 30 in Media and one of MovieMaker Magazine and Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters to Watch. Her first novel, The Infinite Noise, will be released through Tor Teen in September. Shippen grew up in New York, where she spent most of her youth reading and going to Panic! at the Disco shows. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she does the same thing.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter @laurenshippen.

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