Interview with Christopher Jarvis at Tales from the Frontier

This week I took part in an interview for Elite: Tales from the Frontier, the Elite: Dangerous short story anthology which we are currently turning into an audiobook and in which I have contributed a story (Children of Zeus). There's even a short clip from the audiobooks included in the interview (reproduced here):

The Elite Anthology Interview: Rose Thurlbeck talks to Christopher Jarvis.

Christopher Jarvis (@holdmykidney) is a well known name in the Elite community, writing and producing the audio serial Escape Velocity (which has recently completed its second series), and producing the Abook of Forced Entry by Michael Brookes.

He was the natural choice to lead the Fantastic Books Audio project, which involved building the studio as well as directing the actors Toby Longworth, Penelope McDonald and Scott Ainsley.

RT - You designed and built the FBP Audio studio - how much fun was that?

CJ - Honestly? None at all. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic achievement and I'm really proud of the studio we built with our own hands - but I'm really not a DIY person. Once the walls were up (with thanks to Dan Grubb of Fantastic Books Publishing for his incredible bricklaying skills) and covered I could get on with the bit I really enjoyed which was running all the cables, fitting the microphones and patching all the recording gear together. That's much more my area. But the design worked really well in practice, which was gratifying. Not least because I made a drastic re-design the night before the build.

RT - What help have you had from Frontier Developments?

CJ - Well we can't understate the huge opportunity at being able to be part of the game universe in the first place. Opening the franchise up to outside writers is a gift and not something every game studio would do. In terms of practical help, FD have sent over a very thorough library of sounds from the game. It may not sound like much, but since I've not had the time to get far enough to upgrade my own ship in the Premium Beta, recording my own effects would have been problematic. So to have sound effects for the higher end ships like the Cobra, the Eagle, the Anaconda and various weapons not accessible to me has been a huge help.

RT - How did you feel that first day working with professional actors? How much did you learn from them?

CJ - It was a little nerve-wracking for two reasons. Firstly the studio build only finished on the Friday before the first recording session on a Monday, so any snagging issues would be discovered with a performer on site. Not ideal! The air seemed really damp, because all the building materials were wet and it seemed to take an age to dry the studio out! I was also nervous before our first booking as it was Toby Longworth. I'm such an admirer of his work and I'm also a massive fanboy for some of the shows he's been in (Doctor Who Audio, Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, Week Ending) so I was caught between being a huge fan but also needing to put in a solid few days directing him as an actor and getting the best possible recording of his performance. Scott Ainsley and Penelope McDonald came a little later and I'd had a chance to settle the studio and listen back to some recordings, so I had more confidence. Ultimately with the great actors we had in - real pros - you just have to create a space where they can deliver and aren't overly hampered by the technicalities of the recording process.

A lot of the stuff I learned I didn't appreciate until I came to edit. I had a lot of worries about little noises we noticed during recording, but on the playback it turned out they couldn't be heard. The only one I've had to edit out was the "click" of the thermostat in the portable radiator we put at the actors' feet, because it was so cold in the months we were recording.

RT - What are you aiming for with the recordings of Tales from the Frontier - an intense audio experience, or just a voice with occasional sound effects to add emphasis? What differences are there to the way you recorded the novels?

CJ - I think it's going to vary from story to story. Ultimately it's down to the writing style. Some of the stories are written in a very scenic way, which lend themselves to a more dramatic treatment. At LaveCon 2014 we did a live performance of Chris Booker's Crossing the Line as a pure drama, with no narrator. I would say that 90-95% of the story was carried by Chris' own dialogue from the story, with just a few additions where important information was in the narrative. So the audiobook version of that story is very dramatic and has a lot of audio effects. Others, like Lisa Wolf's A Question of Intelligence describe a more lonely character journey - there's lots of interior monologue stuff where the main character is travelling through this vast, abandoned space station. As a result the audio edits tend to be more hands-off, relying just on some nice background ambience or subtle music, just to emphasise the tone.

Again, the actors did such a great job at performing different voices, it's easy for me to make that dialogue sound like it's in the scene and it really lifts the interaction between characters. I think overall the anthology will veer towards the dramatic.

The novels aren't really any different, except that because of the greater length, they tend to have some sections which are more narrative and others which are more dialogue-heavy.

RT - Did any of the stories present you with any technical difficulties or surprises?

CJ - The amount of time it took to edit the pure recordings before sound effects and music was a challenge. I won't say it was a surprise - I'd had my suspicions up front - but since my previous experience was purely with full-cast drama, it amazed me how much a straight reading of a text still needed pulling into shape. It was a long and quite laborious process, because it's not really a creative process; it's more of a technical task that has to be overcome.

The cast list for Elite: Lave Revolution was a shock. We're doing that book as a full-cast drama, so the process is very different to the other stories. The challenge is that of all the novels, LR is easily the most complex. The way the story is constructed, the different layers, the quasi-historical way the events are presented - all this makes creating simplicity in the dramatic conversion almost impossible. On top of that there are minor characters whom, as a producer, I would have cut out or merged into another role, but because of the nature of Kickstarter they had to stay for the benefit of backers. I wholeheartedly support that, but when I counted up the distinct named voices in the script, I realised I had 100 characters to cast! Some of these are cameos and one-offs and are easy to record with actors playing more major roles. But it does mean that some actors are playing three or four major parts, which is quite unusual.

RT - How do you think your story - The Children of Zeus - turned out, and was it difficult to stay detached and not make changes during the reading?

CJ - One of the things I've learned from writing scripts, as opposed to prose, is that as soon as you put your words into another person's mouth you lose a certain amount of control over it anyway. An important lesson from Escape Velocity was that I had to let go of my own concept of how a character sounded or delivered particular lines. I have terrible recordings of actors trying to deliver things in a way that I was micro-managing. Then when I took a step back and let the performer do it in a way that was comfortable and natural, the whole thing slipped into place.

So, I didn't really feel the need to make changes. I was more interested in the added layers a new voice brought to the story. As for the writing itself, I'd been pretty brutal with the early drafts. I intentionally exposed it to some very harsh criticism, because I wanted to make sure it was in good shape, so I was pretty happy with the version that got recorded.

RT - Do you have a favourite sequence - something you are really looking forward to people hearing? 20 seconds that says ‘this is what I can do,’ perhaps?

CJ - I'm hoping it's still ahead of me. Seriously, I always hope I'm about to do something that's better than what I've already done. From the recording, I suspect that An Ode to Betty Cole by Nicholas Hansen and Darren Grey could be quite special. For those that haven't read it, it's about this crew that come across an old, damaged holo message and throughout the story they gradually piece it together. During recording, I went through the story and pulled out the whole transcript of the recording and Penelope McDonald did a straight performance of the whole message. It's genuinely chilling.

I'm pleased with the way some of the narrative layers with sound effects from the game and other audio elements. It feels very authentic to Elite: Dangerous. This section from Mission Almost Completed by Matthew Benson highlights the level of immersion I feel we can achieve with these audiobooks.

RT - Some of the stories have a strong musical theme, did this change the way you set about recording them?

CJ - A couple of the actors were surprised when I asked them to sing. I don't think that's expected from a book recording. There have been a few challenges so far. Allen Stroud's music score, composed specially for the books, is incredible and gives me a huge array of themes and styles, from tribal drums, to deep space and quite melancholy pieces. Where we've struggled is in some of the specific musical references. As mentioned above, Mission Almost Completed features a very clear reference to opera - and particularly a soprano. The limiting factors are my own knowledge of opera and our budget (or lack thereof) for licensing music. And we can't recreate it, because opera requires a very particular set of skills. But with some research I found an old recording of one of my favourite pieces of music - it's so old it's entered the Public Domain so we can use it! Experts will note that the singer is a contralto, rather than a soprano but it's such an excellent piece of music, hopefully people will suspend disbelief.

RT - And finally - why are you asking strangers to hold your kidney?

CJ - There's the short version and the long version.

The short version is that when I signed up for my first online gaming and mail accounts back in 1996, all variations of my name had been taken and I didn't want to be known as chrisjarvis2 because, frankly, I'm the most important Christopher Jarvis I know! So I decided I'd choose a name that wouldn't be in common usage. You'd be surprised how much randomly targeted spam still gets to me, though.

The longer origin is that my older brother and I used to have a running joke about "death lines" in movies. Characters always managed to say something really profound before popping off and we felt they would be more concerned about the fact their ribcage was hanging open and their insides were slipping out. At around the same time there was a FPS for the Amiga called Gloom. The enemies would explode in a shower of organs. Somewhere along the line we decided that "hold... my... kidney!" would be an excellent last line to yell. It's kind of stuck. It's weird that from LAN parties there are several people who know me as holdmykidney that couldn't even tell you my real name. Elite: Dangerous will probably be the first online game I've not gone by that handle.

RT - Well that makes perfect sense. Christopher Jarvis, thank you very much.

You can find out more about Christopher Jarvis, Escape Velocity and the #FEF Abooks at