Dissecting the Warped Imaginings and Dark Genius of the Creators Behind The Illuminae Files
As the final book in the beautifully intricate and stunningly original Illuminae Files enters the world, we spoke to the authors and production team about their inspiration, thought processes, and how they adapted this immensely complex story for audio.By Emily CoxMar 26, 2018 1:46 PM
Like so many YA and sci-fi junkies, I've been completely obsessed with The Illuminae Files since authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff introduced the series in 2015. Spanning three novels, this is an epic space opera presented as a dossier of digital documents, transcripts, videos, photos, comic book illustrations, and much more. It features a zombie-like virus (Book 1, Illuminae), bloodsucking alien snakes (Book 2, Gemina), and an eerily calm-voiced AI who is somehow both murderous and loveable (all three books), all brought together to create a jaw-dropping, twist-filled, high-body-count, totally engrossing tale. It could so easily have been a total genre-blending mess, if it weren't for the creative genius of the authors. One of them, Jay Kristoff, was a graphic designer in a previous life, and that influence is evident in the way the book is visually rooted. I often describe this as "almost a graphic novel, but not quite."
If you've never physically picked up one of these books, it's difficult to explain how unique and complex they are, and the challenges faced by the team that adapted them to audio. So we created this little "illuminaeted manuscript" to demonstrate how the audio and visuals work together in this audio adaptation. Hit play and watch an aerial battle unfold:
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with the authors (calling in all the way from Australia), as well as both the producer and director of book three, Obsidio, about how this monstrous story was originally conceived, and then evolved into a completely new experience in audio.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Emily Cox: Hi there, this is Emily, an editor with Audible. I'm here with Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, the genius author pair, behind the Illuminae Series. Welcome guys.
Amie Kaufman: Thank you for having us.
Jay Kristoff: Hello there.
EC: Thank you for joining all the way from Australia. I feel like I'm speaking to the future, because it's the second of March for you and the first for us.
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JK: It is. It is Friday morning.
AK: It is. Friday's pretty good. You should come on and join us.
EC: We were talking this morning about if we could tesseract anywhere, because everyone's re-reading A Wrinkle in Time and a lot of people were saying Australia.
JK: Well, we're in summer down here at the moment, so it's a little more pleasant.
EC: It must be so nice .... Okay, so first off, I always find it really fascinating and awe-inspiring when there are authors who write together and develop a cohesive story. Your series takes it to a whole other level. I wanted to dig into your process a little bit, but first whose idea was this? How did you guys arrive at the plan for the Illuminae Series?
AK: I sort of wish you could see us as we both just started silently laughing as you were talking. I guess the first thing to say is that I don't know that there's any part of the series that we can point to beyond a particular line or a particular paragraph and say, "That was my idea," or "That was the other person's idea."
The strength of having two of you is that nothing is just one person's idea. That the good stuff comes when one of us has a thought, and then the other one bounces off it into a new arena, and then maybe the first one bounces off that into another arena. That's where the strength comes from.
JK: Yeah. It originally started ... This is a kind of strange story, but it originally started as a dream that Amie had. Amie and I were buddies before we were co-authors, and we would gets together every month or so and have brunch and just talk shop, because we were both newbie authors. Amie came in one day and said that she'd had a dream that we wrote a book together. She couldn't remember what the book was about, but she remembered that it was told in email format. We kind of looked at each other and didn't think much of it at the time, but then we started kicking the idea around, and we thought we would give it a try, why not?
The idea that the book was going to be written in email format was the genesis of everything else in the book. Like it asked the fundamental question: why don't these two characters go up and have a face-to-face conversation with each other? Why are they're talking via email? From that we put them on two different spaceships, and we had a plague break out on one of them, so people couldn't travel back and forth. Then a computer went crazy, and there was an enemy ship chasing them, and all these other complications got put in the way. It all fell out of that single idea that these two characters couldn't physically have a conversation face-to-face.
JK: Yeah. Remember your dreams, I guess, is good advice.
AK: Yeah. I know I always kind of joke that Stephenie Meyer says that Twilight came from a dream where she saw a boy sparkling in a meadow and wrote the book to figure out who he was, and why he did that when the sun hit him. Mine was an anxiety dream where I spent the whole dream trying to fish for clues about what this book that I'd forgotten was about. Being all like, "Hey, so Jay, if you were to pitch this, how would you describe it? And what do you think should happen in the next chapter?" Because the whole dream, I couldn't ... It was like those ones where you show up, and you forgot you had a test, and now it's in German. It's so me that my "book-a-dream idea" would be an anxiety dream about not performing well enough.
EC: That's really interesting, because I would have said, "Okay, we decided we wanted to start with something 500 years in the future, and there's going to be some wormholes." But it started with email, which is almost charming.
AK: It started with- ... why can't they be in the same place? What's stopping them? We're both giant nerds, so space was not-
JK: It wasn't a huge jump.
AK: ... it wasn't a huge leap to say, because they're in space on different spaceships.
EC: Right. Not the obvious reasons of separation.
AK: I feel to other people it might've been, because they're in two different high schools on different coasts of the U.S. To us more ... obvious that it was different spaceships.
JK: Yeah, you think you're having a bad day until ...
AK: Your planet gets carpet bombed. Yeah.
JK: Yeah, I found that email when we were talking about the idea the other day, and it was so loose. It was literally like these kids were originally going to be in the same class together. They got lumped together doing an assignment that they didn't want to do. And then our plan was and then something happens-
AK: I think I maybe wrote-
JK: ... dot, dot, dot, revolution?
AK: I remember that I was going to say ...
JK: We had no idea.
AK: Yeah, revolution question mark is the plot of a lot things I do.
JK: Yup, should get on a T-shirt.
EC: I remember when the publisher came in and pitched the first book in the series to us and he said, "So, Kady and Ezra are going through a breakup like most high schoolers do at some point, and then all hell breaks loose." That was really how they sold me on picking it up originally, because I was starting to read more and more YA at the time. I just thought that sort of normalcy but mixed with insanity was really very cool.
JK: Yeah, you think you're having a bad day until ...
AK: Your planet gets carpet bombed. Yeah.
EC: Did you guys map out the entire series arc in advance? Or did you finish one book, and then figure out, "Well, what's the next problem we're going to throw at them?"
JK: We had a loose idea of where it was going to go. We knew that there were going to be companion novels as well as sequels. They were going to deal with two new protagonists in every book. It was a gradual process. Initially, we were just working on the first book, and we planted seeds where the second one was going to go. The second and the third one kind of got worked out in tighter conjunction with each other than the first one, but to say that we had a plan is probably overstating it a little bit.
AK: Look, I think if you'd asked our publisher back when we sold in the first one, I think they were probably under the impression there was more of a plan than there was. We both talk a good game. We both come from backgrounds where we've learned to make things sound more certain than they are.
JK: We didn't even have an end for the book when we sold it.
JK: We sold it ... on a sample of 130 pages. We didn't even know how the first book was going to end when we sold it.
JK: It's part of being a writer, I guess, making things up for a living.
AK: Yeah ... We would plot out giant chunks all at once. Like I don't want to spoil anyone, because people who hear this might then pick up Illuminae, but I think given the sort of books they are, it's no spoiler to say there are some giant space battles.
AK: There's one in book three that the two of us were on tour, and we were driving across Texas, and we plotted out this 200-page space battle as we drove all the way across Texas.
JK: Thank you, Texas.
AK: As those who meet him always say, almost immediately upon meeting him, "Jay's very tall." That's the number one thing that gets said to Jay.
EC: I've heard that.
AK: When people meet him. "Oh gosh, hi. You're tall." To which he patiently says, "Yes." Jay's six foot seven, which means putting Jay on a plane is nobody's idea of a fun time.
EC: Oh, wow.
AK: Also he always gets randomly searched by airport security.
AK: Like every single time. Every time. To the point that I now go through airport security before him, so that I can go get the coffees while he's randomly searched, because it is guaranteed to happen.
JK: Randomly in quotation marks.
AK: Yeah. When we can drive on tour, we love to drive instead. We get our publisher to get us a car instead, and we set off, because we love road tripping. It was on one of those road trips that we spent hours and hours planning out this entire space battle with me with this giant notebook in my lap and a giant grid marking out like fifteen minute increments of time passing, and then rows for every single participant in this battle, and where they were and when and what they were doing.
JK: I think it's definitely the most complicated thing we've written is ... There's probably a dozen different moving parts in kind of three or four major set pieces. It took a little bit of sitting down. But yeah, driving through Texas very pretty.
EC: When I read this, the publisher literally snuck it into my building for me, because they weren't allowed to print it yet.
JK: Oh, right.
AK: That's amazing.
EC: She wrapped it up in Christmas wrapping paper and brought it for when she came to visit and present the spring titles.
AK: Oh my gosh, that delights me.
EC: I devoured it.
AK: Was there ever a more suitable book to be smuggled somewhere as contraband?
EC: No, it was perfect. I devoured it. But when I was preparing for this interview I was like, "Wow." I knew what happened, but I needed to go back, because that space battle is so complicated, and yeah, it's amazing. My co-worker, Katie, who is also a big fan of the series, the question she wanted me to ask you guys was, "How do they decide when to write in a spiral?" I thought that was a fair question to ask. Just the cool, "winding-ness", how do you communicate that to your publisher?
AK: That's a good question.
JK: What we'll do is write ... We essentially write art direction notes at the top of every page or every scene, I guess, is a better way to put it. The guys who have been working on the book now have been working, the internal designers, have been working on the project so two and half, three years, so we have a pretty good shorthand with them now. Initially, it would start out with these long and descriptive paragraphs written in blue, so no one would actually confuse them for text that's supposed to go in the novel itself, describing how we saw each layer working. Sometimes it was more expedient for us to just show rather than tell. I used to be an art director in a former life, so I would just jump onto Photoshop and do a rough comp and show our art direction guys what we wanted rather than try and explain us. Yeah, basically there's huge chunks of descriptive notes before every scene break, every scene change.
AK: Yeah. In terms of, I guess, deciding, "Well, is this bit going to be a spiral or is this bit going to be a journal entry or is this bit going to be an instant message conversation?" For the uninitiated the book is ... There's no narrative anywhere in the book. The entire thing is made up of documents. Generally, what we'll do is we work that out together what's going to go in, say, the next 100 pages. And then we'll decide for each part of the story that will happen over the next 100 pages, who is going to be the narrator of it, and what format are they going to use.
That's determined by stuff like how much do we want the point of view character to know? Do we want them to have all the information, or do we want them to only have part of the information that the reader has? If, for instance, we wanted something to be a very quick, simple delivery of information, we might have the captain make an announcement to all hands aboard.
If we want it to be something very quiet and personal, we might make it a journal entry. Because as Jay once said, and it's always stuck with me, "We're most ourselves when we think nobody else is watching us." If you really want to get as close to character as you possibly can, you look at their journal. You look at what they do when they think they're being unobserved.
JK: It's almost like watching your book get adapted into film, because it's a different medium, and it has different strengths and different limitations.
AK: Sometimes what we want to convey is, not a particular mood or a particular sort of piece of information, but we want to draw the reader into how strange the moment is. The text might turn on a spiral, or if it's shuttles having a dogfight in space, the text might loop and fly around the page like they do to show how chaotic the moment is.
EC: Right. One thing I found so fascinating about this is, it's an epistolary novel, but unlike Dracula or Lady Susan, it's not just letters or diary entries. There are video transmissions, and audio moments, and there are bulletin boards, there are notepaper scraps. Were you guys thinking about the audio as you were writing this?
AK: I think mostly what we were thinking is, "Oh my goodness, we'd rather be us than them. How on earth are they going to do this bit?"
JK: Yeah. Particularly in book three, there's a couple of sequences that are almost purely visual. We did ask ourselves the question at the time, "How the hell are they going to pull this off?" It's almost like watching your book get adapted into film, because it's a different medium, and it has different strengths and different limitations. You have to trust the people that you're working with to realize the vision that you had, while not necessarily executing it 100% what's on the page. The guys that we work with, Nick and crew are just incredibly talented people. We're more excited than worried about what they're going to come up with.
AK: Yeah, and we almost wouldn't want to tell them how to do it-
AK: ... because they're so good at it. That they are going to think of options that wouldn't even occur to us. I am quite the audiophile. I'm an Audible subscriber, and I was counting up the other day, and I have like 270 audiobooks in my library-
EC: You do, wow!
AK: ... and rising rapidly. Far more rapidly than I can listen to them. I've heard a lot of audiobooks. I've never heard one like this.
EC: There aren't-
JK: They're definitely the best I've heard. I don't say that like it's easy for us to say, because we wrote them. But we had actually nothing to do with the production of them, and the production of them is just incredible, absolutely stellar if you'll pardon the pun.
AK: It really is. The most we ever contributed was explaining how to pronounce the odd name or word, and because I'm a giant audiobook nerd, occasionally I would nudge forward names of narrators who I'd particularly loved in other books.
EC: Erin said that you hand-picked her for Asha.
JK: Yeah, she's amazing.
EC: Yeah, she is.
AK: Yeah, we did a little more than nudge Erin's name forward. It was a pretty strong suggestion, because we knew how fantastic she was. Did she tell you that she made a cameo in book two? As Lexie Blue-
EC: Lexie Blue.
AK: ... the singer, yeah.
EC: I so wanted to find that song on Spotify. Why is it not readily available, because it was amazing? Got so stuck in my head.
AK: We are asked that ... We have fans asking us that all the time.
JK: All the time.
AK: Asking where's the full version of this terrible earworm slightly suggestive, pop song that she sings. That's just another example of they did something with that, that we never could have imagined. They made it sound like a full, produced, genuine hit.
EC: Totally immersive, like it really is.
EC: Just real quick, I want to talk about a few things in the story that are so interesting. Today in the States, it's the first of March and we kicked off our Women's History Month feature here at Audible. I've been thinking about the role of women in this future world that you created, and how it just feels really remarkable and very natural. I think right now women are very new to being part of combat. But in 500 years, it just ... I think there's a lot writers who would just shove a gun in a woman's hand and be like, "Go be a man." But I feel like you dealt with the women's role in a very organic, natural way. If that makes sense. I was just sort of interested to understand your approach to gender roles in this future universe.
JK: I had a ... really an epiphany, I guess ... I would describe it. Writing a character in the first book, who ended up being called Winifred McCall, she's a marine sergeant. When I first wrote that scene, she was a guy. Her name was Winston. She was named after the lead singer in one of my favorite bands, Winston McCall. I wrote the entire scene, and I got to the end of it and realized that I had automatically made that character male. Simply because it was a position of authority in a combat unit, and I asked myself, "Is there any reason whatsoever why she can't be a woman?" And the answer, of course, was, "No."
I changed the character to a woman and went back and re-read the scene, and literally, all I did was change he to her and Winston to Winifred. I asked myself the question, "Would men treat her any different, would she handle this situation any differently, would this scene play out any differently if this was a woman rather than a man?" And the answer was, "No."
That changed the way I think I viewed the book and the series and myself as a writer as well. Like I say, it was kind of an epiphany, the idea that there was absolutely no reason why women can't be in positions of authority and command.
I think every senior officer by the end of the third book is female, and that kind of happened organically. It wasn't something that we went into with any intention. It was just a natural evolution of the characters in the situations that we put them in. Obviously, it's a reasonably high body count in the book and people tend to fall down along the way. Yeah, by the end of the series, there's, I think, every command position is filled by a woman.
EC: Well, one of my favorites was Syra Boll. I think she's probably my favorite character in the whole series, and I don't want to-
JK: Yeah, I really like Syra as well.
EC: I don't want to talk too much about it, because I don't want to spoil anything, but ...
AK: Oh, she's fantastic. And I think when it comes to writing women in series like this ... I guess for ... My background to this is that first of all, I'm a feminist historian. I literally did a degree in women's history. And then, I guess, my experience beyond that was of being a woman in a senior position in a very large organization when I was fairly unusual in being both young and female at that time. I had a lot of opportunities to observe how that went. And how that went both with people who didn't particularly welcome me, because of that and with people who did, but it was still interesting to watch how they behaved.
I think when you're writing women in a series like Illuminae, you need to write women who are very much like Winifred, who are, as Jay said, it's just a pronoun change. She's a soldier. She's not thinking about gender. She's not thinking about anything except getting the job done and taking care of her squad. No one in her squad is thinking about what anyone looks like or what gender they are or where they're from. They're just thinking about getting the job done.
AK: Looking at these teenagers and the strength and dignity with which they're leading, I sort of feel like just pointing and saying, "Well, why would you want to write for anyone but them."
I think that there is also room to write women in a different way. There's a whole tangent I could go off here. Nick, who you've already spoken to, and I have had a long and nerdy Star Trek discourse. One of the things, we've talked about is the fact that a lot of people say that they don't like Captain Janeway, who's a female captain of a starship. A lot of the things they criticize in her are kind of traditionally female behaviors. That they criticize her for doing things that you might not see her male counterparts doing.
I think there's also something to be said for characters like Syra Boll, who is the mother of her ship, and makes decisions from a very caretaker role. Whether that's gender or whether that's personality or whether that's some combination of those things and other things is for the reader to decide.
I think that is as important as showing a range of men behaving in a different way as well. During Illuminae we also have a scene where there's an evacuation of a ship, and there are various groups being led. This one guy called Danny Corin, who the entire time, as he's trying to escape, all he's thinking about are his husband and his kid. I guess that could be seen as a traditionally female behavior. That all he's thinking about is family and that he has to caretake for them, and that he has to find a way to be with them. I think it's really interesting to play with that stuff and then to watch ourselves as we respond to it.
JK: A lot of the protagonists, in particular, aren't ... While they're in positions of authority, and they're obviously the center of the narrative because of the protagonists of the book, and they are female, they're not at all in that position because of masculine behaviors. Characters like Kady and Ella. Hanna's a little bit of a ... She's kind of a kung-fu gal, but-
AK: Yeah, she's a kung-fu gal who will then tell you about her latest pair of shoes and how freaking amazing they are.
EC: Yeah, I got the sense that she was judged by her elders, because of her age and perhaps that she was spoiled. Not because she was female.
JK: Yeah, I think characters like Asha and Kady and Ella, they're not at all masculine. It's more of a meritocracy, I guess, they rise to the positions that they have because of what they can do rather than who they are.
EC: I think that it was really amazing that you changed the expectations of the characters in the society, and you fast forwarded people, which I thought was fascinating.
JK: That was one of the interesting things when we were writing book three, because in book one and two, it's typical YA construct in the sense that the adults aren't there. Like the teenagers, the responsibility falls to the teens, because they're the only ones in a position to do anything about it.
AK: Yeah, there's a lot of dead parents in YA.
EC: And in fairytales.
JK: In book three, once everyone get together on the mound, not to get too far into spoiler territories, but our protagonists are suddenly surrounded by traditional authority figures. Adults who treat them as kids, and, all of sudden, even though in the previous two books, they've done these amazing things and saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives if not billions and trillions of lives, they're sidelined, just because they're teenagers. That's one of the struggles in book three. The idea that they do get treated like children, and technically, they are children, but they're immediately relegated because of their age.
EC: Right, and then yeah, that must just relate to teen readers so much, "Oh, my gosh, I get that feeling all the time."
JK: Yeah, the simple solution in a lot of books is to, like Amie said, kill the parents, or in some other-
AK: Sideline them somehow.
JK: ... way remove them.
AK: And the thing is that's a valid choice in a lot of books.
AK: We've done that. It's in other books that we've written.
JK: Book one and book two.
AK: Yeah. It's not at all to criticize that choice, but I guess as much as it's fun to explore different gender roles, it's fun to explore putting the teens in different positions in the ... As Jay said, sometimes the door is open for them to take the lead, and other times they have to fight to be allowed to take part.
JK: Yeah, that was one of the really interesting struggles in book three. Them trying to assert themselves again once they were put in a world of adults.
EC: It's interesting, especially right now, and I don't want to take this conversation too much of a heavy direction-
JK: No, we can get heavy.
EC: ... but with everything that's going on in the States right now.
EC: Teens are rising, and it's-
EC: ... amazing to see.
AK: At the moment, we're watching teenagers step up where adults haven't.
AK: And lead a conversation. Watching it, I have to say, there's a lot of YA authors who spend a lot of time being asked, "Are you ever going to write a book for adults?" There's a heavy subtext there. What they mean is, "Are you ever going to write a proper book? You ever going to write a grown-up book?"
Looking at these teenagers and the strength and dignity with which they're leading, I sort of feel like just pointing and saying, "Well, why would you want to write for anyone but them."
JK: These are the people that are going to change the world. They are literally changing the world.
AK: Adults are welcome to come and read these books. Most of the best adults do, but these stories need to be aimed at teens, because look who they are, and look what they can do.
EC: Right. Another thing that feels super-timely to me about your story is that the bad guy, so to speak here, is ... Well, there's lots of bad guys, but the really baddie is BeiTech Industries.
EC: It's just, I guess, because of the volume of the world you've created, like how many humans there are and how huge and vast this future world is. It frightened me a little bit that a corporation could get so big that it could be more destructive than a government, and I just thought that was fascinating. Was there a message there?
JK: I'm not sure there's a message there, but that's definitely the reality that we're moving towards right now. Corporate control over governments is a reality. The interference of capitalism in the democratic process is an undeniable reality. We're looking at government spending to places like NASA being cut, and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, it looks like he's going to be the guy who takes us to Mars. I don't think we're necessarily saying it's a good or a bad thing, it has the potential to be a bad thing, like all power it has the potential to be abused. But I don't think anyone can deny the reality that corporations are exerting a tremendous amount of control over government policy and society as a result.
AK: Yeah, and I think, we don't generally set out to convey a "message" in anything we write. We set out to ask a lot of questions, and it's entirely up to the reader to answer them. I guess the question that we're asking in relation to large corporations is, have you looked at what they're doing, have you seen that? What do you think? It's up to the reader to decide what they think, and whether they think it's better or worse than the alternatives, and how they'd like to respond.
JK: Yup. The potential of individual abuse of power in large structures. Essentially, the conflict in all three books gets kicked off by half a dozen people, a decision made by a small cabal inside a massive corporation. All this chaos and destruction and death is a result of that.
JK: There's a tremendous potential for abuse of power inside these structures with no kind of oversight. That's not a new concept. Like the idea of the megacorporation has been around in science fiction for a very long time. We're not pioneering that idea.
AK: Joining a tradition.
JK: Yeah, very much so.
EC: Well, yeah, what kind of books do inspire you guys most? I know you've said you're huge nerds. I know you both write a lot of, within this world, or not this world, but within sci-fi, and fantasy, but what are some of your favorites?
JK: My favorite books of all time you mean?
EC: Yeah, why not?
AK: Oh, it's a big question.
JK: That is a huge question. Probably my favorite science fiction novel of all time would be a book called Neuromancer by a writer named William Gibson. He was one of those original writers that thought up the idea of the megacorporation, and him along with Neal Stephenson in a book called Snow Crash, imagined the internet before the internet ever existed. And Neuromancer is a book I go back and read every couple of years. So that was really formative for me in terms of some of the ideas that I have, but also, writing style. Dune, Frank Herbert's Dune, is another huge one as well. That's more grand space opera-y, Star Wars-esque, if you ... I'm constantly amazed at the amount of people that we meet on the road who say they don't typically read science fiction.
AK: They say that literally at a science fiction book signing, "I'm not much of sci-fi reader." I'm looking at them going "Well, you've just made it through 600 pages and liked it enough to come along and get it autographed, so I feel reasonably confident that you've become one of us." The first science fiction I ever remember reading was Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne.
EC: Oh, cool.
AK: My dad gave it to me when I was eleven. I had been a big fantasy reader until then. I loved those fantasy books more than air, but I always used to wistfully wish that there was a way to get inside those books and imagine that there was, but know that I was unlikely to get ... Well, it wouldn't have been my letter to Hogwarts back then, because that was pre-that, but I was never going to find that magical door. Dad gave me Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea when I was 11 years old for Christmas, and they didn't see me again until the 27th of December. I remember having the experience of reading it and thinking, "This is completely different to anything I have ever read in my life." It was because it was science fiction, it was a book that technically speaking there was nothing in that book that was happening that I couldn't participate in. There was no barrier between me and that except maybe time or technology, but it was all possible. I've had that experience a few times. I remember back, I guess I was kind of a Game of Thrones hipster. I was reading them when just book one was out. I remember reading the first chapter and pausing after it and thinking ... I'm being cagey, I'm not sure you have to avoid spoiling the start of Game of Thrones anymore, I feel like-
EC: I think that's fair.
JK: I think we've passed the statute of limitations on Thrones.
AK: ... On Game of Thrones, but I remember reading it and assuming that Stark was going to be my hero for the book. That idea comes to an end pretty quickly, and I remember putting it down and thinking, "This is totally different to anything I've ever read, and if I keep going, I'm going to be changed." I literally remember thinking, "If I keep going I'm going to be changed." I think that for me was my introduction into the idea of the sprawling epic where nobody is safe. In a weird way, the Illuminae Files are kind of a descendant of that moment of realization for me. Because that was when I understood that readers will go with you if you have a giant cast and a complex plot-
EC: And not everyone's going to make it through to the other side.
AK: I can literally recite the whole of the radio play.
JK: Oh, yeah.
AK: I'm not even sure I should admit that in public, but I can.
JK: No, no. The BBC television series, yeah, that was crack to me when I was a kid. We're also enormous Red Dwarffans. I don't know if you guy got Red Dwarf in America.
JK: It was a BBC science fiction show based on a couple of great books by Grant Naylor, and, god, I can't remember-
AK: Grant Naylor and someone. Oh, no, that's terrible.
JK: I forgot the other dude.
AK: Oh, no.
JK: That's the worst. He's going to hate us forever.
AK: As authors, too. Oh, that's really bad.
JK: Yeah, it's this amazing, super-funny, super-smart science fiction series, and they developed into a television show. That was crack to us.
AK: And there are a couple of little jokes in Illuminae from ... There's little jokes in Illuminae from everything we love. There are Star Trek jokes. There are Princess Bride jokes. There are Rocky Horror jokes. There are Red Dwarf jokes. There are ... there's a line in book two that readers kept asking us if it was a Hamilton shout-out, and the answer was that it wasn't a Hamilton shout-out only because Hamilton hadn't yet premiered when we were writing that book. But I can say that all of the Hamilton references in book three are definitely deliberate, and because Jay hasn't listened to Hamilton-
JK: I don't get any of them.
AK: He doesn't know where they are.
AK: It will just be me and the readers-
EC: I haven't either.
AK: ... having a giggle.
EC: I keep saying to myself, I'm going to go see it, so I can't listen to the CD, but I probably need to get over that whole idea.
AK: Being in Australia, I just listened to it. I knew it would be awhile before we got the stage show.
EC: You guys are coming over to New York and to the States to tour for the release of this book, is that right?
JK: We are. We fly out in, I think, eight days.
EC: Oh, wow.
AK: We should pack or something soon, hey.
JK: Yeah. We have an Australian tour first. We've got three stops in Australia, and then, yeah, we're doing, I think, eleven stops around the States. It will be great to go back over there and see our readers again. That's the best part of being an author really. Getting on the road and meeting these amazing people, sharing stories, and getting fan art, and having people show you their tattoos. That's pretty crazy.
AK: It is, and there's-
EC: People have gotten tattoos ... from this book?
JK: Yeah, yeah.
EC: That's cool.
JK: It's great.
AK: It is. There's no greater thrill or honor than ... I think it was Stephen King who said that writing books and reading them is the closest we can come to telepathy. This idea that if Jay and I can imagine something, and we can write about it well enough that readers can come and join us in this place that we've imagined, and we can be there together. Going on tour is essentially a celebration of that. It's a celebration of our ability to imagine this world together, because although we write it, the reader participates in the book as well. The reader is imagining every step of the way. It's amazing for us to hear about the bits that they are also bringing to the book. The touches that they add.
JK: It's great when one of them actually spots those hidden little references that we put in there. Like a reader confronted us the other day on Twitter about our Rocky Horror reference.
JK: That's always, yeah-
EC: I feel like such a failed fan.
JK: ... it's always a nice little thrill when someone gets it. Yeah.
EC: I need to go hunting for Easter eggs, because I feel like I haven't ... I thought I was a super-fan.
JK: Oh, the books are full of them, but a lot of them are quite obscure. You would literally have to be us, in our heads, to get all of them. But the others, there's probably something in there that everyone will spot at one point or another.
AK: I'd say by far the most commonly spotted Easter eggs are definitely the author names. We've popped a lot of author names into the book in various places. In book one, there's a medical dossier, and the subject of it is Laini Taylor.
EC: Oh, right.
AK: People keep asking us, "Are you doing terrible things to them, because you don't like them?" We say, "No, no. These are our friends. These are the people who have blurbed our books or have helped promote our books or who are just our buddies."
JK: Though we did ask permission first before we made Laini the subject of a medical experiment.
JK: She was super-enthused.
AK: She was almost disturbingly enthused about it, but we appreciate that not everyone would be. There's casualty lists in the books and a lot of our friends and family are in those. We're in those. We killed ourselves in one of the casualty lists, because we-
JK: In book one, yeah.
AK: ... sort of felt like we probably deserved that after every other terrible thing we'd done. We killed George R.R. Martin in one of those casualty lists, because we were like you know what buddy you've-
JK: Red Wedding.
AK: Yeah, you've killed enough people to-
EC: Speaking of characters that die or don't die, is AIDAN, well, no we can't spoil it, but do you think there's a future for AIDAN? Are you guys going to come back to this world at all, or are we saying sayonara?
JK: You'd never say never. We're working on a new series together.
EC: Oh, you are. Great!
JK: Which comes out next year. Yeah, but that's an entirely new universe, a new set of characters. It's functionally different. It's not an epistolary novel. It's more traditional prose. But you never say never.
AK: Yeah, I think we've left the door open, but at the moment, there's not a plan to come back. But it's also not completely an accident that the door's open.
EC: Right. Cool. Thank you guys so much for joining and for this conversation. It's been fabulous talking to you, and we're so excited to see what's next for you after this series.
JK: Thank you so much for having us.
AK: Ah, thank you very much and thank you everyone for listening.
Emily Cox: Hello. This is Emily, an editor with Audible. I'm here with Nick Martorelli, the producer of the new audiobook from Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, Obsidio. We're joined on the phone with Erin Spencer, who's not only the director of this series, but also one of my personal favorite YA narrators. Welcome, guys.
Nick Martorelli: Thanks!
Erin Spencer: Hi. Thank you.
NM: Excited to be here.
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EC: So we're talking about Obsidio, which is the third book in the Illuminae Files series by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. It's hard to explain to people who are listening, who haven't seen the physical version of this book, what this thing looks like. So we are going to be pairing some photos along with the story to give people a sense of what the physical copy of this book is, but when I recommend it to people, I tend to describe it as almost a graphic novel. It's not quite, but the visuals really do add to the story. The audio production is so involved and a lot of that is driven by the visuals. How do you even begin to approach a story like this? What was your process?
NM: Well, for me, the process started with going back to books one and books two and listening to them, and figuring it out. And I actually listened to the audiobooks as I read along with those books. Sort of figure out exactly how we treated everything in the past and what the conventions that we'd established for this world were so that we could bring all of those conventions into book three. And then you get the book three and as I started to read through it, I was very aware of, "Okay. We've established how we do sequences that look like this. So we'll just do the sequence like that." And after we have that kind of language in place, what I started looking for were the new moments we had in this book, or the moments of emotional shock as you turn the page, or the certain feeling that the design of this book is giving to us in this moment so it's going to be on us to replicate that feeling in audio for the listener.
EC: So it's saying, "This is the feeling that I'm getting now, how do I make that happen if I were listening and not reading?"
NM: Exactly. And I went through it and I sent it off to Erin so she could go through it, and I think Erin, I'd sent you a list of like, "Here are the moments that I want to talk about when you've read it, but I don't want to tell you what I'm thinking about yet."
ES: Right. Yeah. You wanted to see if we were thinking the same things, I think.
NM: And I didn't want to color your ideas with my own because part of the collaboration process between you and I specifically is we both come at it from a slightly different angle and the best idea is usually somewhere in the middle and it's like taking a little bit of each of our ideas to figure out how it works.
ES: Right. And because I had directed the past two, there were some things like, I just knew ... Like you said, you listened to the past two, but I knew how to address it right away just because we had solved those--I don't want to say problems--we'd solved those issues in the previous audiobooks. Reading this book and listening to this book are two very different experiences, but they can meld together very well. I went to a book signing that Amie and Jay did last year in Huntington Beach. And they told me that they have talked to a lot of readers/listeners. Meaning a lot of their audience is reading and listening simultaneously.
EC: Oh, really?
ES: Yeah. Just because I think some people read this and then they think, "How in the world did this get put into audio? What does this sound like?" And so, they may reread with the audio and looking at the visuals because there is so much, but the audio brings so much to this book as well.
EC: We were talking earlier about this is an epistolary novel, which is sort of a collection of items, or ephemera, or documents, or diary entries. But unlike Dracula, for instance, which is an epistolary novel, which is letters and news clippings, this has such a digital profile as well. And because a lot of the original sources are potentially in audio and then they're transcribed for the print book it was then up to you guys to turn it back into audio.
ES: ... the process of dissecting it is done page by page, section by section ... , you can't just blanket this book in one process.
NM: And we talked about that. We talked about the moments where it is a transcription of a radio conversation, that we are in a sense, performing the original conversation. So whereas the transcript may say, "Sound of static" is this an opportunity for us to actually employ the use of a sound effect of static? But there are other times where it is a transcript of video footage where the idea of saying, "Sound of static" actually feels more correct because we are now reading the transcript as opposed to watching the original video footage.
So there was this sort of balance. Even in a book where there are so many different options, we're still very zeroing in and very specifically on, "What is this page?" It's not just a blanket approach to the whole book, "Oh, it's all dialogue so we'll just read the dialogue." It's like, "No, this is dialogue of this kind. This dialogue of that kind." And how do we approach that.
ES: Yeah. And really ... I mean the process of dissecting it is done page by page, section by section because like Nick said, you can't just blanket this book in one process. Each page has to be broken down and analyzed in a different way.
EC: How long did it take you guys to crack this nut? It feels like maybe longer to break it apart than to put it back together.
ES: Yeah. The prep on this was the most important thing. Because once we get in the studio, it's live and it's going. So we worked together I'd say, two months. Wouldn't you say Nick? Two months on prep?
NM: Overall from the beginning to the end, I agree. Yeah. And we had about a two and a half hour phone call once we both read the book to sit down and--as Erin said--go literally page by page. "Okay on page 34, there's this. Now on 35, there's this. On 36. Who's talking?" And that was really helpful. That was a great conversation because we were able to identify some of the same questions we had for the authors. And identify some of the same opportunities of, "Let's do something cool here." And there were a number of moments too, where we're like, "Let's do something cool." But we could never quite figure out how to do it so we went with a simpler solution and put our efforts elsewhere, in like, how do you balance out the prep? How do you balance out the work?
EC: Right. And so Erin, how many characters did you end up needing? I think you were telling us, you had it all tabulated.
ES: Yes. There were 20 characters that were recurring from the past two books. The characters that we'd all met and heard before. There were 14 new voices that came in and then there were 9 small roles that were maybe just under 10 lines, that we were able to cast with people in the Penguin Random House offices and friends and the like. Overall, 43 voices.
EC: That's a lot to keep track of. It's very intense.
ES: It's a lot to keep track of. And some of the actors voiced a few different characters because this book is set in the universe, there can be any accents. There're people from all over the universe. So we were able to use some actors that were adept at multiple accents and dialects.
NM: Which is one of the things I really enjoyed listening to the first two books. That there is this global feel to the cast. Like there's this wide variety of people in it, which I thought was really great.
EC: And how did you guys land on which accents to place with which characters? Do you think the creative discretion was left up to you guys or were there clues?
NM: One of the first things we did was talk to the authors about ... Erin actually identified all of the new characters we had. And the authors gave us brief notes on all of those people with some specific suggestions for narrators or certain qualities of the voice. And some of them were just you know, "Men, 30s." So at the point, we found the specifics that the authors had been looking for and at that point, I threw everything back over to Erin as Erin was the one in the booth with the actors as they were recording.
ES: Yeah. So I made my character list of the new people. I had maybe eight descriptions about that character. Like, the description could be, "Great hair, perky, analytical." So I would have these descriptions about one person and I just would think, "Who is this? Who is right for this?"
EC: Right. Yeah.
ES: And there you go.
EC: I loved in the second book, Steve West, who is English, that was so sneaky because then his character turns out his American. Surprise. And his accent changes to American. It was really ... And he's one of our favorite narrators anyway especially in the romance side, his pseudonym.
ES: Yes. Steve is exceptional.
EC: Yup. So Katie from Random House who helped set up this interview for me. She told me about getting pulled in as one of those extra last minute additions to help record the battle scene and I wanted us to kind of dig in to that a little bit because this was one of the more complex moments in the book and it's really fascinating that you were able to translate it. How do you even tackle this thing?
NM: So the first step is that the pages are laid out with words all over them, going up and down, sideways, and all in different fonts and colors. And we had the authors write out all of the dialogue that's on this page as a linear piece of paper, just what order do all of these words happen in. And we also asked, "Are any of these characters we know already?" And they said, "There are all just ... These are all fighters, these are all pilots. These are not people that we know from any other part in the story." So at that point, I sent it over to Erin.
ES: Right. And it's interesting because on the first book, in a similarly formatted scene, I didn't know that this had actually originally had been written out in a linear way. And if you listen to the first battle sequence, I was visually trying to piece together these pages and piece together the order and it was really difficult and complicated. On the second book, I thought, "I should ask." You know, if this was ever written out just linearly. And it was. I thought. "Oh my gosh. I wish I would have known this before." So the second book, boom! I got it. And then this one, I already knew to ask, got it out and you start to actually see that there is a story and there are conversations happening within this battle sequence, when you see it written that way. And so, it was just a matter of having different people that were willing and excited about it to come in the booth and do some lines for me. And I think everybody had a lot of fun, Nick, did some lines.
NM: Yup. I'm a pilot in the sequence too.
EC: Did you make it?
NM: Spoilers. I don't think very many of them do.
ES: Yeah. No. But yeah, it was fun and everybody had a lot of fun with it. People that are not normally actors came in to the booth and gave it their all.
NM: And then we took all of that recording and turned it over to our editors and our sound designers, Ted and Heather Scott. And they took the story that Erin had found in the pages and did the same thing with the sound design for it, by putting in the effects of radio calls, by putting in sound effects, by putting in the laser fiber, by putting in the ships zooming past each other, by putting in like radar beeps and targeting scanners and things like that. And I think they did an incredible job with the sequence. It really, to me, feels like you can feel the camera zooming from one cockpit, out into space into the other panning around. I think they just crushed it with this sequence.
NM: "This spread, when you flip to it, gives such a visceral, emotional reaction to the reader. We have to figure out a way to do this in audio."
ES: Yeah. And I would like to add that Ted and Heather Scott, every day I thought about them because their job ... I'm not an editor, but I think, "Gosh! This is so complicated." Every day they're getting bits and pieces and they have got this huge 620-page puzzle to put together. And because of the nature of this book, we didn't record it in linear fashion. We didn't start on page one and end on page 620, we skipped all around based on scheduling and the day and who's talking to who. And so, it's really complicated and I just deliver Ted and Heather files as well labeled and organized as I possibly could, and they just do magic with it. They are amazing.
NM: And in that preparation time, I had been having the same conversations with them that I'd been having with Erin, in that sort of sense of, "Here's a moment where we can do something cool. Here's a moment where I feel this happening." The pages that immediately follow the battle as they are good example of this, where the visual layout of these pages to me suggested a very specific kind of feel and a very specific sound. So I talked to Ted about, "Let's shift the action. Let's include explosions. Let's bring the sound out a little bit and then bring it back in." Again, as I was saying earlier, we wanted to replicate the feeling of what looking at and reading these pages felt like by listening to the sounds and the performance and the pacing of it in audio.
EC: Right. I've listened to the battle scene, but I haven't listened to the pages following, but there's a lot of shattered glasses there you know, is that kind of tinkling in there?
NM: Well, it's shattered glass in the sense that it's the shattered spacecraft. And the words on these pages are mini-profiles of three of pilots who've just been killed and it's talking about their hopes and their dreams and what they want to do when they get back from war. And then, it shifts to broken text font, where it basically says, "They're not coming back from this war." So there's this sort of like bravado and melancholy in it all at the same time. And I was talking to Ted, I was like, "We need to figure out how this works. We need to get this feeling in our ears."
EC: Amazing. Really cool. So there's some other challenges in this book that we were talking about earlier. There's a bulletin board that is a code, that the people on the planet--they are now captives on this planet--are using a notice board to communicate in code to each other. And this is super visual. How did you guys do this in audio?
NM: And this was one instance of that adaptation process, where less is more. And the question for these pages became about, "What do we really need? And what is visual color?" Because it's gorgeously laid out. There's visuals all over the place. There's lots of red herrings and then when you turn the page and you get the key for the secret message, it's amazingly clear and it's the same visuals just with certain words underlined. So as we were doing it, Erin and I were talking about the idea that these things that don't change from one page to the other, we probably don't need to include at all because that's not where the focus falls. So what we need to do is we need to strip way the things that are distracting to focus and really concentrate on the stuff that tells the story.
ES: Exactly. And we did that in some way, almost in every page in the book. You know, on the book, on the transcriptions, it may say, "So and so is talking." And it says it every single time. We have to just take those away and let the actors talk to each other. So every page was adapted in some way.
EC: Right. And so, what were some of your favorite scenes, personally, to work on?
ES: I've really loved Lincoln Hoppe as AIDAN. His voice as AIDAN was in all three titles. And he is, to me, funny-
EC: I love him. By the way, I listen to everything he reads.
ES: I love him too. I love him as a person, I love him as an actor and I loved him as AIDAN. I just would laugh and smile and be afraid of him all at once. He really to me, was the perfect AIDAN. And so, working on his sections bought me a lot of joy.
NM: I was lucky enough to be in the room while they were recording his first day and there are long strings of code that AIDAN recites and-
EC: Because AIDAN is an AI, I just wanted to add that in so that people listening know that.
NM: AIDAN's a computer.
EC: Maybe evil, maybe a genius, maybe great.
NM: All of the above.
EC: It's all of them.
NM: All of them. And as he is either malfunctioning or catching up with what's happening in the world, he occasionally spits out lines of code. And in the previous two books, Lincoln had read the code and then would stop a little bit early as opposed to hearing the whole string of numbers, he would stop a little bit early. And as he was performing in the booth, I talked to Erin, I was like, "I've got this weird idea that let's get him to read the whole thing, but we'll get Ted to speed it up a little bit in post-production." So Lincoln is performing it as an actor reading the numbers but then Ted gets a hold of it and does something with it to make Lincoln's voice do something that a human voice could not do and it gives another level of computerization to him that I think is really really cool. And that was directly inspired by being in the room with Lincoln and hearing him work.
ES: Right. Yeah. That was a brilliant idea on Nick's part. Just because we'd already done it a different way in two other books, I was still sort on that track and I really think that was really an effective way of addressing that.
ES: But to be in a booth with other actors and act and respond and see each other and develop those relationships was really fun and really important for this process. And it makes, I think, the performances so much more authentic to have everybody working together.
NM: I'm looking for my favorite scene. My favorite scene, do you remember where the ... Erin, do you remember where the baby montage is? The baby mosaic?
ES: Yeah. Let me look.
NM: There it is.
ES: We found it.
EC: That's when my heart clenched. I was like, "I don't know. I might have to put the book down. I don't know if I can continue."
NM: When you were reading it?
EC: Yeah, when I was reading it. Yup.
NM: So for the listeners, there is an AIDAN scene where he makes a certain decision and what follows is a two-page spread of an infant done as a photo mosaic of lots of different individual pictures of people and then it comes back to AIDAN. And AIDAN continues explaining what he's done with the decision. And this was one of the sequences where I was reading the book, I was like, "This spread when you flip to it gives such a visceral, emotional reaction to the reader. We have to figure out a way to do this in audio." Because you get plot and like we can just have AIDAN read his thing. Skip these pages and go on and you understand what has happened, but the print design has done such a great job of giving you this sort of like catch breath in the middle of the scene, so we needed to figure out how we do this.
NM: And Erin and I talked about it. We had a couple different ideas. And we settled on the idea that someone was going to sing a lullaby over this section.
EC: Oh wow.
NM: It was Emily right?
ES: Emily Woo Zeller. Yup.
NM: Emily Woo Zeller sang this lullaby and then it all went to Ted and Ted and I, really sort of worked the details of the sound of this moment, "How do we convey the melancholy, the danger, the sadness, the longing but also the menace, and how do you put that all into 30 seconds worth of audio?" And I think Ted just did an incredible job again. But it was.
EC: I need to find that part of the file and listen.
NM: But again, it's one of those instances of "the print book gives a feeling, how do we give the same feeling with the audiobook?"
EC: That's awesome.
ES: And I'd also like to add, something else that was fun for me because I read the role of Asha Grant in this book.
ES: I've actually read little bits on every book, but this was a bigger role.
EC: Did the authors cast you for that or did you?
NM: The authors did.
ES: I believe so.
NM: Yes. In that original casting email, the authors suggested that Erin read Asha Grant, particularly because of her involvement in the first two books, reading another role. And they thought that learning that the role on the previous books was also Asha could be a cool Easter egg.
ES: Yeah, but it's fun too, for me, that all the actors are so excited to be in the booth with other actors. Because normally, this is a solo job, you know, they're sitting in their booth and they're reading a book and they may or may not have a director. But to be in a booth with other actors and act and respond and see each other and develop those relationships was really fun and really important for this process. And it makes, I think, the performances so much more authentic to have everybody working together.
EC: That's really interesting that you bring this up because I wish I brought it up earlier. I don't think I realized that ... So for the radio transcriptions, I mean the moments of dialogue, you had two actors together reading?
ES: Yes. There were two to three actors in the booth at once. The only person that was ever solo was Lincoln as AIDAN just because he has a lot more solo narration, but most of the time, it was two to three actors talking to each other, responding and listening and reading this book with each other.
EC: That's so cool. Amazing.
NM: We were also lucky enough to get all of the actors from the first two books back. I know we talked about the 20 returning narrators, but everybody came back to finish out the trilogy, which is really cool.
EC: That's very cool. I personally fell in love with so many of the voices. With every book, I've been like, "I hope they stay, that they keep them on."
NM: That's the thing, you can't recast actors who have done such iconic work in these kinds of roles because it's not the usual kind of audiobook work either. It's not reading as a narrator and playing everybody, it is MacCleod, that's his voice now.
ES: Well, and I do want to say, my biggest disappointment in Obsidio was that the pop star, Lexi Blue did not come back. She was in the second book and she sang this Bubblegum pop song that was the earworm. I was seeing all kinds of posts about it on Twitter. Everybody was loving it and hating it because it was that annoying, cheesy pop and I was dying for her to come back because that was actually me. I got to sing the song.
EC: You did? And so, who wrote the music?
ES: Jay and Amie wrote the song and then the editor, we found the sound bed and we recorded it. So I kind of came up with my own way that I wanted to sing it and we worked with the ... The producers on the last two books was Janet Stark. So we worked with Janet and the editor and came up with that song. And I was dying for Lexi Blue to come back in Obsidio.
EC: I was dying to find that song on Spotify because it really got stuck in my head. I was like, "What? Is that a real thing?" We need it to be a real thing.
ES: I know. And Aimie told me she said that they actually have the entire song written and so many people asked them to do it.
ES: To have the full song. I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I have new career."
NM: I pushed for Lexi to be in this book Erin, but they wouldn't go for it. They wouldn't bite. Closing credits music something like that. They wouldn't bite.
ES: Oh my god! That would have been so funny. Well, I'm excited too. I'm narrating Jay's next book.
EC: Oh great. I have that on my coffee table at home.
ES: It's called Lifelike.
EC: Are you enjoying it? Is it highly recommended? I need to ...
ES: I just started, I'm on page 40, but I'm loving it. It's right up my alley. And it's interesting to see some of the words, some of the similarities. Just because I got so involved with this Illuminae series, I feel like I know him. So he'll use a certain word in a sentence, and I'll think, "Ah, that's so Jay."
EC: Well, I think that's probably does it for us. Thank you guys so much for joining me and for talking me through your process and how you guys collaborated. It's an immense project and I'm intent on getting as many people to dive into this series as possible.