Interview with Lindsay Harris-Friel

I may have mentioned one or a thousand times that I love folklore and mythology. While my favorite god in mythology is Dionysus, I also have a love for Loki who exists to fuck shit up. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is not as great as my knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology. But we all know that I’m a sucker for learnin and I love a different viewpoint. That segues us to Jarnsaxa Rising, A+ segue in my opinion. I DEVOURED Jarnsaxa Rising, Not only because it gave me some Norse mythology, but also because it didn’t paint the Æsir as these perfect gods. After marathoning all of the episodes, I just knew I needed to interview the awesome person who created it, and I gathered up my courage and asked the delightful and talented Lindsay Harris-Friel for an interview.

What was the inspiration for Jarnsaxa Rising?

Carin Bratlie-Wethern, our director, and I had worked together on a site-specific theatre production, Traveling Light, and we trust each other in terms of crazy ideas. One Friday night, I sent her a Facebook message, saying, “hey, I’m bored, give me a writing prompt.” She responded with the following:
“Just above the 60th parallel in the Baltic Ocean, a team of researchers arrives at an abandoned wind farm, to investigate some unexplained energy surges. They discover that the wind farm has become sentient. And hungry.”

I said, “challenge accepted,” and started digging. The Aland Islands are in the area she mentioned, they are beautiful, fragile, autonomous, and rich in iron. I started researching the mythology of the region, and what’s interesting about iron, and what could make a wind farm sentient. This led me to Jarnsaxa. She’s a Jotun giantess, one of Thor’s wives, and the mother of his children. Her name literally means “iron blade.” All together I had this image of a colossus, towering over the ocean, terrifying and beautiful and powerful. Later that year, we had a full moon on the Winter Solstice, and it was a blood moon and an eclipse. That night a couple of friends of mine gave birth to babies, while I was sitting in the waiting room of the emergency room waiting for my mother-in-law to be admitted/treated and released, and the energy of the night felt apocalyptic. So I had to run with it.

What is your reasoning in your portrayal of the Æsir in Jarnsaxa Rising?

In Norse mythology, the Æsir are always the good guys, with good manners, great hospitality, the best mead, their hair looks great, and so on. The Jötunn are always the bad guys: greedy, selfish, ugly, duplicitous, with bad manners, you get the idea. They’re always “the other,” the easy-blame target. When I was in sixth grade, we studied Norse mythology, and I read the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda in college. I also took a Coursera class about the Norse sagas and how they relate to Scandinavian places.  As I was digging around, it seemed as though early accounts said that Jarnsaxa was Thor’s wife, partner, and mother of his children. It also seemed as though later accounts (after Christianity had gotten some traction in Scandinavia), said that Sif, a fertility goddess, was Thor’s wife. Meanwhile, Modi and Magni, the sons of Jarnsaxa and Thor, are supposed to be the eventual winners of Ragnarok. Thor is supposed to surrender his hammer to them. This leads me to believe that the love triangle between Jarnsaxa, Thor, and Sif, has to be at the very least strained pretty tightly, if not downright acrimonious. Some accounts say that it was a polyamorous marriage, others describe them as the first and second wives. I went with a starting place of acrimony, because you can’t not have conflict in drama. Another thing is that the Æsir are so structured, with walls, towers, bridges, golden game-boards, wagers and competitions, things like that, while the other races in the Nine Worlds just camouflage and adapt to their environments, change their form, shed their skin, dig caves, grow more fur, fangs and claws, whatever. 

So it occurred to me that the Æsir are the ones who believe that peace and happiness have no room for chaos, everything is structured, whereas the Jötunn are wild and chaotic, and happy to stay that way. 

What is appealing to you about podcasting as a medium to tell a story?

As a consumer: I can put it in my ears and enjoy it alone. I can link it in an email or save it on a hard drive and give that emotional experience to a friend. I can sit down with a good set of speakers with a bunch of friends and my knitting and some tasty beverages and enjoy it in community. I can enjoy it in a box, with a fox, here or there or anywhere. I can be excited about the same thing that other people, anywhere in the world, are excited about. 

 As a podcast creator: The process of revelation (of character, plot, environment, etc.) is much more delicate than it is with movies or tv, because there are fewer variables to control. Much like a good striptease, you can conceal and reveal in a more concentrated way if you have a few buttons and zippers to undo, rather than a whole wardrobe. 

The first season was funded by self-funding and an Indiegogo campaign in 2015. Why did you decide to try crowdfunding to fund Jarnsaxa Rising before you started? 

By that point in my life I’d contributed to a lot of crowdfunding campaigns, so Indiegogo seemed like a good idea. Frankly, there wasn’t an alternative. If Patreon existed, it was in its infancy. We also didn’t want to interrupt the listener’s experience with ads. At the time, you didn’t have to have as much in the way of proof of concept to have a successful crowdfunding campaign: now people are more skeptical. We had a few things going for us at the time, one of which was that I had just graduated from an MFA program in Playwriting, Vince was doing really well in a band that was playing out quite a bit, and Carin has a solid reputation as a director in the Twin Cities. So we were able to say, “we’re already pretty good at these things, join us as we try out a medium we haven’t mastered yet.” 

How did you prepare and market the 2015 campaign? What would you do differently?

In 2015, we made a short teaser video, I watched all the tutorials on Indiegogo, read all the articles, and followed all the instructions. I tweeted and Facebook posted no more than once per day. I’d seen some Kickstarter campaigns border on harassment in their frequency and sameness of posting. One of them, I pledged ten bucks hoping they would stop. We planned backer gifts that were not difficult to deliver. I sent handwritten letters from different characters to the backers, we read people’s names in the credits. We received about 30% of our goal. Honestly, I’m grateful that we got that much. 

Crowdfunding in general has become so competitive, that I don’t know what I would do differently now. We have a Patreon that I’m not charging anyone for right now, since the season is over and everyone needs a break. When we start pre-production and publishing a new show, I’ll revive it. Patreon strikes me as a good way to build community. I can happily sit around reading Patreon posts for the podcasts that I support, and enjoy it, feeling like I’m a member of a secret club. That’s what I hope people get out of it, anyway. Patreon lets me have fun with the deep cuts and B-sides, deleted scenes and easter eggs. 

How did you market season 2 of Jarnsaxa Rising?

Too much and not enough. 

One of my friends said to me on Facebook, “Oh, you have a podcast? I had no idea.” He was kidding. Sometimes, you can talk about a thing too much.

I think I wasted money on Facebook ads. When I didn’t take the time to limit the target audience of the Facebook ads to only countries where Libsyn reported we had listeners (at the time, the US, UK, Australia, Canada and a smidgen of Europe), I got tons of clicks in countries where no listener downloads were ever reported. So, I got charged for clicks that never led to listens. 

Wil Williams’ review of Jarnsaxa Season 2 was a huge boost (Read that review here). I followed all the instructions on their review policies, we corresponded, and I sent them the first two episodes of Season 2 in advance of our Season 2 launch. So, they had a really clear idea of what we were doing. Elena Fernandez-Collins also has very clear review policies, and I stuck to them. You can read that review here. One of my past jobs was in marketing and PR for a theatre company, and I used to correspond frequently with the arts editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I also used to hand out hard-copy press packets to journalists at another theatre job, so I had a really good sense of what journalists want and need. The article that Wil and Ely published about how to make a press kit is pure gold. Everyone should be using that article to make their press kits.

It seems as though we need to use images as the hook to get listeners. Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky to know great visual artists. Kessi Riliniki and Matt Lichtenwalner both are good artists who happen to love the show. Matt and I have been friends for maybe 15 years, and he drew the first Jarnsaxa concept art for me. Kessi and I worked together on projects for 11th Hour Audio Drama. There are tons of people using Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube who are looking for new content. With good visuals, you can get more listeners, to say nothing of people who prefer to consume stories visually, and will enjoy reading your show’s transcripts. 

The most fun thing we did to market the show was that my friend Chris Herdt created a Twitter bot for SoloMom, the artificial intelligence who’s advertised in season 1, and is a big part of Season 2. She used to be the opposite of Jarnsaxa, discouraging things like freedom, breathing fresh air or drinking clean water. If you ask her questions related to the story, her answers can get more interesting. 

What has been the hardest part of creating Jarnsaxa Rising?

Scheduling. You’re never going to have enough time to do all the things you want to do, unless you draw a line around what’s important to you, and tell everyone else which side of the line they’re on.  A problem with podcasting is that since creating it can be done anywhere that you have electricity to power your recording system, people think it’s quick, easy, and cheap, and that makes the boundaries around it porous and flexible. Just because you’re recording this in your basement or attic or hall closet on a Saturday afternoon with your friends doesn’t mean that you should take this any less seriously than a 9-5 job. Schedule it like work. Don’t let anyone say, “well, can you get out early and take part of my work shift,” or “is it okay if I bring my parrot?” Take breaks. If you’re tired and hungry and achy, decision-making skill is the first thing to go. People who work nonstop for too long aren’t cool, they’re prone to making mistakes. Schedule enough time for inevitable things like a plane flying overhead, a dog barking next door, or a sound file being stolen by a gremlin in the machine. 

What advice would you give to aspiring audio drama creators? 

Know your story’s beginning, middle, and end. Don’t assume that you can just keep making episodes forever. By knowing where your characters are going, you can set up patterns and have them pay off in a fundamentally satisfying way. 

When you first start, write down all the reasons that you think this endeavor is a good idea. Write down everything that made you fall in love with this project in the first place. Take this piece of paper or clay tablet or etched slate or whatever and put it somewhere safe, that you can find it again (If one of those reasons is, “so people will think I’m cool and awesome,” smash the tablet or tear up the paper and do something else. If you want approval, don’t try to make art). 

Eventually, there will come a point where you won’t like this project anymore. You’ll be tired of it, and it won’t be fun. The initial burst of creative energy, when the idea alone was reward enough, will have worn off, and now you’re trying to figure out how to land the hot-air balloon. Other than taking a break, getting some air, and coming back to it, here are some strategies. 

Give up! Who cares if you finish it? Lots of people never finish anything they start. I’m kidding, of course, but just do it.
Find that list of reasons that this project is a good idea, and read it again. If it still rings true, then give yourself a little break, and go back into your project. 

Turn the project around and work on it from a different angle. If your problem is with editing, try a different editing tool. If your problem is with writing, try rewriting the scene from a different character’s perspective, or make a minor character the only one in a scene. If your story depends on research, read a piece of information that takes a perspective different from what you’ve read so far. For example, if your story is about Union soldiers during the Civil War, read some letters from Confederate soldiers. You get it. The point is, find a different point of entry to your project. 

Go experience art in a medium that has nothing to do with what you’re working on. For example, I’m really oriented toward things involving spoken words, but when I’m stuck, contemporary dance and ballet make me feel inspired and alive, even though I have no ability in that area. 

A Stanford University study from 2014 shows that walking improves creative thinking, and the study also proved that there was no difference between walking outside in nature or walking indoors on a treadmill.   When in doubt, take a 20-minute walk, even if it’s pacing the same room. The last day of writing my thesis was spent in a library study room the size of a closet, and if anyone saw me through the tiny little slice of window in the door, they probably thought I was trying to learn the cha-cha. 

Do you have any favorite podcasts at the moment?

Right now I’m catching up on my PodCon2 suggested listening playlist, so “favorite” is growing. I enjoy the elegant simplicity of A Thousand Things To Talk About. Flyest Fables is this delightful story within a story that’s family friendly and uplifting, while still exploring some really difficult topics such as chronic depression and gender dysphoria, with a lot of magic realism. Adventures in New America is so fast and funny that I have to stop and rewind it and listen again, and those characters are so plucky they’re rubber bands. Victoriocity’s next season is something I’m looking forward to. I miss Wooden Overcoats, but the ending of the last season was so balanced and lovely, I’m happy that this is where it seems to have ended. I tend toward stories acted out by a large, diverse cast, with a vivid soundscape, some magic and a crime and people surprising themselves. Give me a good heist and hide some rich character development and a socially relevant message in there, and I’m happy. 

If you found yourself at Hel’s table, what would she tempt you with?

I’ll tell you what: the pear and cheese combination that Hel offered Eric is based on something I had in real life. I was at the grand opening of a new supermarket. Someone in the cheese department gave me a cracker with some kind of soft French cheese and a fig or date (maybe both?) spread. It was so delicious, I dropped a stupid amount of money on stinky soft cheese, crackers, and unidentifiable brown fruit spread in a cute jar. When I got home, it was evident that, individually, the crackers tasted like regurgitated cardboard, the cheese tasted like soap, and the fruit spread tasted like boiled bark. But together, they were a creamy, salty, crunchy, sweet ballet on my taste buds that made my brain twist itself into one big question mark and demand more. Do I understand this? No. Is it fascinating? Yes. So, yeah, Hel would probably come up to me and offer me something that is much more than its parts would suggest. 

If you could travel to any of the nine realms, which one would it be and why?

I’m really curious about Vanaheim, home of the Vanir. The Vanir are apparently equal to the Æsir, but less is written about them, because what we have now comes from pre-Christian sources. The Vanir are equal to, but closer to nature than, the Æsir. From what I understand, the Vanir are less likely to be interested in golden game-boards and building walls, and more interested in meditating in meadows or carving charms into rocks on top of mountains. 

What are your thoughts about mistletoe? *Side Note: I am a nerd for mythology and plants so this is a totally reasonable question*

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite, which I find interesting. It gets all of this credit for being this adorable plant that people hang in doorways and use as an excuse for smooching. What people don’t know is that mistletoe is a plant that gets only some of its nutrients from photosynthesis, and the rest it sucks out of whatever plant to which its attached. Just like the Aesir, it benefits from good PR, while another species does the heavy lifting. I’m willing to be proven wrong on the benefits of mistletoe. If it turns out to be the cure for cancer, AIDS, poverty and greed, then I will salute the mistletoe. As it stands, I’m going to say that I have mixed feelings, tending toward the negative. 

If you could have the abilities of a deity from Norse mythology, who’s would it be?

I’m a big fan of Gefjon (also spelled Gefjun or Gefion), who is pretty much the queen of making something out of nothing. She’s another one of these virgin goddesses, women who died unmarried were said to be taken to the afterlife with her. She has four sons, who are oxen, that she got from a relationship with a Jötunn giant. She seemed to be a vagabond wandering in Sweden, and the king found her entertaining, so he told her she could have as much land as four oxen could plow up in a day and a night. Reportedly, her sons ploughed up enough land to dig Lake Mälaren in Sweden, and took the land to make the island of Zealand, Denmark. She has a history of taking raw materials and making something which transcends its ingredients. That’d be a great talent to have. 

You can find Lindsay Harris-Friel on Twitter @thislindsay. You can visit Jarnsaxa Rising on the web at Follow them on Twitter @JarnsaxaRising. Be sure to subscribe and listen to Jarnsaxa Rising wherever you listen to podcasts.