BEHIND-THE-SCENES with Sophie Harper

You are a filmmaker, first. Why tell this story as a podcast? And how has it turned out differently than a film version might have?

Five years ago, as I began planning to become a single mother by choice, I began recording audio. I was inspired by documentary films that unfold over time, like the 7-Up series and Hoop Dreams. I thought the audio would probably be used in a film one day, but I recorded very little video. I found I could record audio of intimate and personal events in a very unobtrusive way without having to think about it too much or remove myself from the experience of actually living it. This was important. Living life had to come first for me.

When the time came a year ago to start working on the project, I knew I would need to raise a lot of money before I could start making a film, and I’d need to build a team to work with me. I didn’t want to do all that. I just wanted to start producing, quietly, alone, and not wait for anyone to give me permission. I was inspired by other serialized storytelling podcasts like Startup, How to be a Girl, Millennial, Love Hurts on Strangers and First Day Back. I decided if I made a podcast instead of a film, I could do it alone, with no funding, no obstacles, no expectations from anyone but myself, and with immediate international distribution. I knew my filmmaking skills would transfer well, though I’ve had a bit to learn about the technical aspects. I felt sure that if the storytelling was any good, I would find an audience.

As I began working, I realized the other great benefits. I can tell my story over time, make it as long or short as I like (where a film would have been about 90 minutes in total), go into great detail when I want to, be vulnerable, create real intimacy, and receive feedback after each episode to keep me motivated, inspired and focused. It has brought back my confidence in my creative ability, which had faded as I hadn’t made a film for quite a few years. A few episodes in, it became very clear that there is no better medium for me to tell this particular story.

It sounds like you recorded all the time – even your phone calls to your friends. How do you decide when to take out your recorder, and when not to?

I bought my audio recorder about six years ago, knowing I was going to try to get pregnant on my own, but not knowing exactly when or how. I thought I’d keep an audio diary, but it turned out that didn’t come naturally. I started out recording events when everyone got together, like Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I became a little more focused, recording conversations with family and friends where I was talking about my plan. Then as I started to take action, I recorded those events and all the phone calls I made where I had news or stories to tell about whatever actions I’d taken.

There are long periods where I was caught up with work and life and didn’t record much at all. Now when I record it’s more about showing my daughter’s relationships with our friends and family and things that we do together that feed into the themes I want to explore. Sometimes I sit down with people to talk about past events, specifically for an episode, which I never did before I started production. I am much more precise about what tape to gather now that I know what I’m doing.

The series is not told in straight chronological order. Can you talk about how you plotted out its structure - both of episodes and the series arc?

I wrote a list right at the start, of ten episodes that would cover the chronological story, from making the decision to have a baby to being the mother of a three-year-old. Then I put that out of my mind and started writing. I found myself wanting to cover a lot of backstory to contextualize. I wrote about 20 pages of prose looking back about 10 years, covering health issues, my coming out and my love life. These seemed essential to be able to understand how I came to be doing this on my own.

I made the first episode, about the day I was inseminated, so the time pressure was on. Then I realized I couldn’t just drop that storyline for a few episodes, I’d need to keep things moving forward while looking back. I broke down my writings into themes and stories for the next three episodes, then with each one, I spent days trying to figure out how to jump around in time from the present to the recent past to the distant past, without being horribly confusing. It was very challenging and gave me a lot of headaches. After three episodes were out, I revisited my episode breakdown which was now meaningless, and made a new one mapping out about 20 episodes. I haven’t looked at it for months so am probably far off track again. As it’s such a personal story and I’ve been thinking about how to tell parts of it for years, I hold a lot of the threads in my head and work very intuitively. I structure each new episode during the two weeks I have to make it. I often struggle and agonize and don’t crack the structure for days, but eventually (so far at least) I have a breakthrough days before it’s due to be released and everything falls into place. It’s not a relaxing way to do it, but I’m not sure I could do it any other way.

Your narration of the episodes is so natural and intimate sounding. Can you talk about how you approach the the voicing?

Writing my narration is often a very emotional process as I really re-live the experiences as I write. Then I go into my bedroom with my laptop and microphone, feeling strangely nervous, and re-live the experiences again as I read, standing. Often I find myself in tears. I work alone at home while Astrid is at childcare, and have barely spoken all day when I go in to record. I’m not sure this is ideal and I didn’t plan for it to sound this way from the start. It just comes out like this: a very intimate, introspective, quiet and emotional telling of intensely personal stories.

Has recording your experience with motherhood changed the experience in ways that surprised you?

Recording the experience was relatively passive until I started producing the series, so didn’t change the experience of motherhood much. Listening back to the recordings has been a more intense experience, reliving good and bad things, some of which I subconsciously chose to forget. I hear myself four years ago talking about events and find that the way I remember them has morphed. For example, my memory of an elated early pregnancy was, it turns out, only part of the story. There was a dark shadow as I overcame the anger and sadness remaining after my last relationship ended. I’d remembered that those feelings had left well before the insemination. Overwhelmingly though, I find myself filled with gratitude and joy over the existence of this little girl who I wanted so much. I think it has made me less grumpy and irritable with the trials of everyday parenting, and even more filled with love for my daughter, and for my family whose support I take for granted less as I relive it through this story.

Now that the series is underway, I am much more conscious and premeditated about what to record. I have found myself setting up scenes with my daughter and initiating conversations to tie up themes in an episode, but I try to fight this impulse. It feels exploitative, and is not the kind of parent I want to be. I want the series to be a record of experiences, not to change her experience of her childhood.

What’s next for the podcast?

I’m still figuring out what is next for the podcast. It does have a natural conclusion when I reach the present in the chronology of the story, but I’m not sure I want to end it at that point. I may break it into seasons and take time off to allow more of life to happen for me to reflect back on. There are themes and ideas that I’d like to keep exploring and I may experiment with weaving in other people’s stories alongside ours. Hearing listener’s experiences and their reflections on mine has made me eager to look at some things again from another perspective. When the time does come to stop though, I have a couple of other podcast series ideas I’d like to get my teeth into.

What does Astrid make of the whole thing?

Astrid is only three and a half, so doesn’t fully grasp what this thing is. She knows I’m telling our story as a podcast, she knows that when I sit the audio recorder down in front of her it’s for our story, and she hears a bit as I work on the episodes, though I’m quite careful about what she hears. She likes all those things, as long as it doesn’t keep me from interacting with her. She has no sense of an audience beyond the people she knows and loves. I think she sometimes sees it as a way to send messages to them, grabbing the recorder and declaring her love for some of those people. I don’t know what impact all this will have on her, but I hope it isn’t a negative one. I think it would be healthiest for her if I stop before she’s old enough to really know what’s going on.

She can’t give consent, so I feel this has to be primarily me telling my story. Protecting her privacy and her safety are vital to me in this process, and I hope that I can, as much as is possible in telling such a story. I thought a lot before I started about whether to use pseudonyms for her and for me, but on trying, I found I couldn’t tell the story in such a heartfelt way if I did. I made the decision not publish photographs of her face, to give her at least that level of privacy, and for her safety. I hope as she grows older she’ll be happy the series exists, and won’t come away feeling like a damaged former child star. I am making it for her more than for anyone else, and I hope in doing so I’m giving a gift rather than taking something away.