About 5 years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Polly Frost and her husband Ray Sawhill through our mutual friend, Steve Vineberg. Immediately, we hit it off upon realizing we shared a passion for horror, sci-fi and pulp. I have to admit I was a little intimidated; both Ray and Polly have pretty intense journalistic, critical and creative resumes. Polly was featured in James Toback’s documentary The Big Bang, has written and produced plays and published a multitude of articles. Her humor pieces and interviews have appeared in mags like The New Yorker, Elle and Interview, including this fabulous one with Julia Child. Ray covered books, arts and culture at Newsweek for years and has contributed pieces to Salon, among others. But what has really been exciting to watch is how they’ve made a successful transition from being traditional media professionals to new media mavens, working on projects in as many as 3-4 mediums at a time. They’ve been especially adroit at using social networks for audience building and digital tools for distribution as well as adapting work for new channels. For example, Polly is a frequent contributor to Grin and Tonic, part of Barnes and Noble’s new, Nook-friendly content movement, as well as the ever growing online lit mag, Narrative.
The relevance to the Culture Hacker and greater Workbook Project audience is clear to anyone who has attended a DIY Days, or similar event. There is a consistent (and frustrated) population of writers and filmmakers who are struggling to make these new tools work for them. I wanted to reach out to Polly to see what they’ve done that’s different–what specific steps they’ve taken to make their work available to the largest audiences possible, almost completely on their terms.
Culture Hacker: Polly, the reason we’re excited about this interview is that you seem to be the exception to the rule. What do we mean? At events like DIY Days, we often meet filmmakers, novelists, playwrights and, for lack of a better term, “traditional artists” (I suppose we just mean pre-digital age artists) who are asking for help. New distribution systems elude them. Basic web technologies are burdens they don’t want to (and often believe they shouldn’t have to) suffer. But you not only transitioned–you’re flourishing! At what point did you begin to step into the digital space to either create or distribute your work?
Polly Frost: First, I’d like to say that I love what a pleasure it is to talk to Culture Hacker. I love what you’re doing with DIY Days and I’m glad to see that traditional artists and writers are making use of what you’re offering. I wish I’d had DIY Days when I started out.
However, I was lucky because, back in the ’90s, my husband was working as an arts reporter for Newsweek. He’d come home with this amazing information about how the media world was changing. He was right there, talking to all kinds of people involved in movies, publishing, technology.
At first I felt dizzy from the possibilities and anxious about my own lack of new media experience and expertise. But Ray and I decided to learn as best as Old Media people like us could! So we both put together websites pretty early on, at least pretty early on for writers! And we both applied ourselves to learning and studying some of the essential tools. I took Flash animation lessons from Tom Hart, a NYC comic strip artist and teacher at SVA. Ray learned video editing. It’s not like we’re professional at any of this, but just encountering it all does affect how you think about things. Developing a website is very different than developing a book, for instance.
A lot of people we know who have had impressive and productive careers in the old media have failed to move into the new world. Some of them tell me they hate everything about it. I even know a few who seem to have experienced complete personality collapses. I’m not unsympathetic; everything they knew and valued and were proud of has been yanked out from under them. It’s a very disruptive experience.
I think there are a whole bunch of reasons why so many old media people have such trouble:
1) Gatekeeping. I think they enjoyed being cultural gatekeepers. They’d worked hard to get themselves into those positions, for one thing. For another, I think they enjoyed being the prof or the critic, the person who was looked to (or who felt he was looked-to) for opinions and judgment. The new digital world is much more of a free-for-all. Puff yourself up too big and zillions of people throw mud at you. That’s not fun. Many old media people want a more dignified life than that. They want respect. But here’s how I think they should see it: this is a chance to move past the old boundaries and reach audiences you never had a chance to reach before. What I’ve discovered is that audiences are ready to take risks — even if the gatekeepers aren’t.
2) Interactivity. New media people and contemporary audiences raised on games and the web expect interactivity. People who grew up with the old media often don’t. They don’t even like it. I know a lot of artists and writers who don’t even have websites. They don’t want to be in touch with their audience or with the fans of their work. Why? Sometimes that comes from a desire to put themselves above their audience. Other times I believe it comes from the fact that many artists and writers are introverts and are more comfortable doing their work in seclusion. They don’t want to be influenced by their audience. But here’s my take on this: I love getting input from my audience and getting immediately the way you do today on the internet.
3) Free-form-ness. There’s no longer any one accepted way to do things. It used to be that there were certain definite paths by which an artist or writer’s work could achieve respect. You would strive to get into a certain gallery if you were a painter, or to be published by a particular magazine if you were a writer. These days, as we all know, a lot of that has been blown to smithereens. If you’re someone who likes established ways, it can be awful. Here’s how I see it: this is one of the greatest eras to be an artist or writer because there are so many possibilities to work in different mediums.
3) Initiative and promotion. Many writers and artists lack the desire or ability to promote themselves. It’s hard to believe, because we’re so used to Madonna, Oliver Stone, the legacy of Andy Warhol — people like that with no shyness about pushing themselves on the world. But it’s just true that many artists simply want to do their work, and wish that at that point someone else would take over — take over the “making it public” duties as well as the advertising and promotion duties. Even if you publish a book through a traditional publisher, 99% of the promotion is going to fall in your lap. If the book takes off, then maybe they’ll get on board. But so much is now up to you. That’s great, of course, but it can also be exhausting. And if you don’t have the appetite for it, it can be really depressing. Here’s my take on that: stop thinking about promoting yourself and start thinking about having a conversation. IMHO, you have to put out a lot of positive energy to get any back. And that’s a good thing.
4) New tools. Let’s face it, many writers and artists simply aren’t techies. Many of them went into the arts at least partly because they weren’t any good at math, engineering, technology. They’re more intuitive, more about feelings and imagination. The new digital tools are great but for non-techies they can be very daunting. Plus people who came up in the pre-digital world have already mastered their own pre-digital tools and methods. Now you want them to master a completely different set? It’s like being middle-aged and being parachuted into a completely different culture. You have to learn a new language, new habits, new ways of going about things. My take: don’t see it as something that’s a test, and don’t think you have to understand or do them as an expert. Let yourself venture into the unknown.
5) Everyone’s a critic. Nowadays everyone gets to have, and to express opinions and reactions. People on Amazon or on blogs sound off to their heart’s content. I think that’s great, but I may be unusual in this. I think many pre-digital creative people experience this kind of rough-and-ready handling as rude and degrading. They didn’t put in all these decades of work, study, and networking so that gangs of rubes and know-nothings could reject their work! They want to be given respectful consideration by people they themselves respect. My take on this is: Great! The more people who have opinions and write about the arts the better. Get to know these people and show them some respect and you’ll be amazed at how generous they are with what you’re doing.
But inspite of my own positive attitude about those five aspects of the digital era, I still have to remember that it can leave a lot of artists and writers feeling very unmoored and very uncomfortable.
CH: In recent years you created two major works in old media forms: your collection of stories “Deep Inside,” and a series of live evenings at New York City clubs where actors would perform your fiction. But you’ve also created two major new-media works: an ambitious webseries called “The Fold,” and an audiobook called “Sex Scenes.” How did those old-media experiences affect the choices you made on “The Fold” and on “Sex Scenes“?
PF: I’m very proud of “Deep Inside” which was reviewed and written about over 50 times. I think Tor did a wonderful job publishing it. I confess, though, that I did find the pace of old-style book publishing amazingly grinding. It was almost two years between when I finished the writing of the last of the stories and when the book actually appeared on bookstore shelves. For the life of me I can’t understand why books aren’t produced a lot more quickly than they generally are.
When it came to producing “The Fold” and “Sex Scenes,” one of the goals that was high on my list was to work much more quickly and directly than I was used to doing in the old media world. Have an idea, give it form, and get it out there, dammit.
The main way I benefited from putting on the live shows was completely different. I loved them, the hustle of it, the suspense, the scrappiness, getting to work with amazing actors, the immediacy of the audience’s response. Talk about a great way to test material! But what I mainly found myself doing was developing a kind of informal ensemble of people who I liked working with, actors whose work and spirit I loved. Many of the people we used in “The Fold” and in “Sex Scenes” were performers I’d first come to know during my years of putting on live shows.
I think it’s also fair to say that I developed a taste for working collaboratively thanks to the live shows. We writers are often fanatics about being on our own, having the last say, controlling everything, and I’m certainly prone to all of the above. But when you’re working in the theater, it’s all about working with other people. You’ve got to open to that experience or there’s no real point to being there. And I found I loved it. It’s not like I’ve lost my taste for solitary creation. But I certainly did learn to love collaboration, seeing what other people can bring to the table, and figuring out ways to partner-dance with that.
“The Fold” came about in a classic New York City downtown kind of way. I was eating regularly at the Cedar Tavern, and I’d strike up these conversations with a good looking young waiter there named Matt Lambert. It turned out he was a recent graduate from NYU in film, so we swapped works. I gave him some writing, he showed me some films. And we wound up, along with my husband, drinking a lot of wine and beer and dreaming up what became “The Fold.”
At the time, about three years ago, webseries were new and hot. And one thing the three of us shared was a love of crazy ’70s sex-trash-poetry movies. No one was really making these films any longer and we all thought that someone should. So we had the idea that we could use the webseries format as a way to project the same kinds of nutty entertainment values that the old ’70s midnight movies had peddled. Short version: there was no way to make a movie-movie that would essentially be a blend of “Barbarella” and “The Three Stooges” — who’d finance it? Which theater would show it? But using DV and the techies and performers the three of us knew, we could put on our own show. A classic case of, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”
“Sex Scenes,” which is an audio project that I wrote and produced with Ray, developed a little differently. The two of us are huge fans of audio generally. We listen to audiobooks together on long trips. My book “Deep Inside” was turned into an audiobook, and I had the chance to sit in on that process, and Ray is a total Teaching Company addict.
Anyway, many of the stories in “Sex Scenes” are things that we first developed live, during those live evenings we’ve talked about. When we’d rounded the project off as a live thing, which took a couple of years, we started to think about what we’d do with the material, and we realized that it was perfect for an unconventional audiobook. What we envisioned was a collection of linked radio plays, with real vocal performances and even some sound and atmospheric effects.
We knew we wanted complete control over the project, and we knew that we wanted to do something beyond our own skills. It was a project that would need more than just a basic GarageBand production. So I went around the city checking out sound studios. Luckily for us, business was slow, so we got a decent rate at Georgia Hilton’s Worldwide Audio, where we worked with two really gifted young techies, Dan Cioffi and Casey Zanowic, who loved rocking out on “Sex Scenes.” Many of the actors we’d already worked with came in to read the characters. We spent two months and tens of thousands of dollars producing over ten hours’ worth of audio storytelling.
In the spirit of maintaining total control we also decided that we wanted to distribute the project ourselves. So we went ahead with that. We had a website created, we printed up bunches of MP3 CDs for people who’d want hard copies, and we arranged with E-Junkie to sell “Sex Scenes” via downloads too.
I learned a lot while I embraced these new formats. The main thing is that it’s a blast. So long as you’re someone who can work within limitations, you really can make what you want to make these days, and put it out there in ways that suit you.
That said, there are many challenges. One is something I touched on early on — it’s all up to you, or up to you and your collaborators. Designing the logo, the CD cover … Figuring out who to work with … Wrestling with the back end of online-money places, things like that. It can drive you nuts, especially if you have no gift for that kind of thing.
Another real problem is getting the kind of notice your work deserves. This is still major. With “The Fold” we had pretty good luck getting noticed. Our proudest moment came when David Chute, who’s one of the country’s best film critics, wrote that “The Fold” reminded him of early John Waters and early Almodovar. He wasn’t just open to watching something that wasn’t a conventional movie, he really got what we were up to. And Geno McGahee, who makes horror movies, loved “The Fold” and wrote wonderfully about it. Coverage like that helped attract tens of thousands of viewers, many more than would have seen “The Fold” if we’d made it as a movie. We were grateful for the reviewers who saw that a webseries could have the same value as a feature film.
We had less luck with “Sex Scenes.” Which is something we didn’t expect, because the live performances of “Sex Scenes” were big hits, almost always filled any house across the country and were well-covered in magazines and alternative newspapers. Yet those same media places wouldn’t spare any coverage for the recorded audio version of the project.
We’re super-proud of “Sex Scenes,” which is satirical, up to the moment, and raunchy in a way the world could really use now. It’s a funny, rowdy audio entertainment, but it also, y’know, says something about the modern world. Just between you and me, it’s a major work! It’s certainly the most ambitious thing Ray and I have ever written, and may ever write. But almost no one has wanted to cover it. People who run across “Sex Scenes” love it. Though we’re a long way from recovering our costs, we’ve sold copies of it to people in Denmark, Germany, and India as well as in the States and England. But we’ve gotten almost no help from the usual media outlets, who we’d thought would find the project interesting, if only from a cool-new-thing point of view. We’ve gotten almost no help even from the blogworld, which is maybe even weirder.
When we try to figure out why there has been such resistance or uninterest, we’re a little baffled. What’s not cool and newsworthy about a satirical, sexy, independently produced audiobook that grew out of a long-running live downtown event? If I were a critic or editor, I’d be a lot more interested in that project than I would be in the latest literary novel. So how to explain it? The best explanation we’ve come up with is that we’re ahead of the times. From a squaresville, old-media perspective, maybe it’s confusing. After all, what is “Sex Scenes”? And in what section of the magazine should it be covered? Under “Books”? “Music”? Maybe “Theater”? Meanwhile, big-budget movies and stars demand attention, and as everyone dithers “Sex Scenes” falls by the wayside.
What it has all illustrated for us is one major — and let me repeat that, MAJOR — challenge in the new-media space, which is that too many people who could write well about new media prefer to write about old media. They’d rather review the latest new movie than check out a webvideo or an independent audio production. Here’s this incredible new media world developing right under their noses — wouldn’t you think people would want to cover it? But all a lot of people want to do — and this includes many people like bloggers who you’d think would be more open — is offer an opinion about what’s new at the mall or mega bookstore.
Incidentally, it’s possible I’m being unfair here. It may not be the journalists, critics and reviewers who are the problem, it may be their bosses and editors. As for the bloggers, well, they really ought to be taking more chances than they do. There is going to be someone who recognizes what a golden era this is and they’re going to be the Pauline Kael or Manny Farber of new media.
Here’s the kind of advice would I would offer to old-media people who are just beginning to think about entering the new media world:
1) The key thing to understand is that you don’t have to wait around for validation any longer. That’s a huge change, and it’s one that takes some getting used to. Using the new tools, you can create, publish and distribute your own work. Nothing can stop you from moving forward with your creative projects. The age of the person who loafs around complaining that publishers don’t get him, or that no one’s throwing millions at him to make his movie — that’s over, and about time. If you really want to publish your novel entirely on your own terms, let me introduce you to Lulu and CreateSpace. If you really want to make your own movie your own way, scrape together $10,000 like we did for “The Fold” and just go make it.
2) You need to be very confident about the value of your work. Why? Because so much is going to be up to you. You aren’t done when you’ve finished painting your painting or writing your novel. Now you have to think in terms of arranging distribution, publicity, and finances. You really have to learn a bit about all these things, and you have to have the persistence and patience to make your way through some pretty confusing mazes. You guys who have been coding and creating digitally for ages can laugh, but to a novelist, even something as basic as setting up a WordPress blog can look terrifying. And who do they turn to for help?
Incidentally, I highly recommend the website-making service called Squarespace. Ray and I both use Squarespace for our personal websites, and we had a very beautiful website for “Sex Scenes” created on Squarespace. I don’t know why the service isn’t better known than it is.
3) As far as promotion goes: One thing I often run across is artists who’ll fasten on a “system” for promoting their work. They’ll hear that they need to create a Fan Page for themselves on Facebook, or they need to maintain a mailing list, or to cajole their friends into voting for them in some poll or other. I don’t think most of these approaches accomplish much, except sometimes on a short term basis. I mean, what’s the point of forcing your friends to join your Fan Page? They’re not going to look forward to your Fan Page updates and they’re going to resent you.
4) The one thing I have learned is to be very adaptable. I seem to have my best luck when I change the ways in which I go about things on a regular basis. I’ve had to learn to embrace the unknowable! IMHO, the age of having “a career” as an artist or writer is over anyway. As soon as you try to identify yourself in a certain way the rug is going to be pulled out from under you. You’ll define yourself as a novelist only to find that no one wants to read novels any longer. It’s best to go with your instincts and do the work you believe in and get it out there. Don’t try to define yourself in a branding way. Let history — if history exists in a hundred years! — define you.
Part Two of this interview/profile will be coming soon!
Posted in Person of Interest audience-building experimental transmedia video