When his mother decided to sell his childhood home, Austin Bunn returned to help clean out the basement and rediscovered traces of a childhood game that never really ended.
His experience takes shape in this unsettling exploration of mental illness and loyalty between twin brothers.
Though he writes regularly for magazines and fiction outlets, Basement Story, produced in 2010, is Bunn's first audio production. Read an interview with him in the EXTRA section below.
Austin Bunn is a writer and performer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Zoetrope, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a professor at Grand Valley State University.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Austin Bunn
Though you have considerable experience as a writer, we hear this is your first audio story. (Nice work!) What inspired you to take the plunge into audio production?
I originally wrote Basement Story as a monologue for performance. But I'm really into theatrical sound design and sound design generally -- the Walter Murch/Michael Ondaatje collaboration The Conversations completely reprogrammed me to think about the metabolism of listening and perception. After discovering the actual audio tapes from my childhood (from the real basement clear-out) -- with all their spooky, upsetting material on them -- I knew I wanted to use them, with atmospherics layered on top of that. The version you hear is pretty much the live version of the show.
And how did you find the experience? What was most challenging in transitioning between the written and spoken word? Most suprising?
My biggest challenge, I think, is that audio story-telling is a one-shot, real time event. You can't linger over the text as you might while reading, or dilate time like you might in fiction. So the story has to be exceptionally clear and paced. At the same time, audio is much closer to a theatrical experience, where atmosphere is king. I've always wanted to give readers soundtracks for my stories. In this case, I just wove it underneath the tale!
What does audio bring to Basement Story, that might (or could) not be conveyed in print?
So much. I think of this piece as a genuine tale, something that gets told by a teller. And because it generated from my life, it has a conjuring quality for me when I read it, like a ghost story; the story comes alive for me, which I've tried to summon for listeners with my voice. Print creates this distance, emotional and physical, that I often fight against.
The story starts on the lighter, more comical side, and gets increasingly serious, and darker. Even your voice seems to get progressively angrier. Was this intentional from the start, or something that evolved naturally as you were working on the piece?
I'm glad you noticed that. I feel, personally, that people listen better to dark material if you're funny first. It's some strange chemistry of attention. You need to prove to listeners/readers that there's levity before taking them into the Twilight Zone. And I think all audiences are mostly listening for development: how do things change us and how do we get through them?
Have your mother and/or brother Colin heard Basement Story? If so, what did each think?
Great question. I performed the piece for my brother and he just laughed -- and not because he's psychotic! But because he sees just how I took events and turned them into a story. Plus, my mom's ex "Angus" is sort of a running joke between us. I think my mom, as with most moms, is worried about how she sounds to people! But as a writer, I've turned to her for inspiration a few times now, so she's getting used to it. Thanks mom!
Are you pursuing more stories via audio now? What else are you working on?
One of the best hours of radio I've ever experienced was listening to the broadcast of the Third Coast Audio Festival award winners while on a cross-country trip. So I'm thrilled to have been a finalist (Editor's note: Basement Story was a finalist in the 2010 Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition) and have at least another in the works. At the moment, I'm working on fiction (with a story coming out in the Atlantic Monthly in July) and a devised play about the close of a GM plant here in Michigan. I'm a multi-genre maniac. Mostly, though, I'm working on not eating the entire box of Nilla Wafers.
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