The mind behind audio dramas “The White Vault”, “Liberty”, and “Vast Horizon” discusses how to horrify audiences with dialogue and sound alone.
I had the chance to talk with K. A. Statz, co-founder of Fool & Scholar Productions and writer for the podcasts The White Vault, Liberty, and Vast Horizon.
The White Vault is a horror audio drama that focuses on the disappearance of a research team at Svalbard, a frigid wasteland where secrets resting beneath the ice for millennia are more chilling than the unforgiving environment of the Arctic Circle. The “found footage” style podcast boasts a talented and diverse cast of characters and voice actors and uses dialogue and sound to create a terrifying story.
INTERVIEW WITH K.A. STATZ
1. Tell us a bit about what inspired The White Vault.
In 2016, Travis (Vengroff) and I went on a trip to Iceland during the winter. I was just out of university, so the only time we could really afford to go was in the winter off-season. So, we packed for snow and ice, and off we went. It was spectacular: black sand beaches, steaming saunas, fields of volcanic rock, and entire mountains of ice that spread on past the horizon.
It was also where I came to realize how harsh and neutral nature could be. All that ice and snow, those impossibly strong dark waves that could pull you out to sea like you were nothing, everything could harm you. It didn’t want to or need to, it just could. I loved it. This gave me the idea for a much different story, but over time as I worked on building something out of those ideas, it took on some supernatural elements and eventually became the story of The White Vault as it exists today.
2. In a previous Q&A short, you mentioned that you were drawn to audio fiction because of its efficiency and how enjoyable the process was. What are some of your favorite aspects of creating content for audio fiction?
It’s accessible. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can write a script and make a podcast. It’s this open-door to podcasting that has allowed so many great stories come into being. But, from the writing perspective, I enjoy the freedom I have to craft worlds and horrors. I create my script, but listeners do a lot of the work in their ‘Theatre of the Mind’. The creature someone creates in their mind’s eye will always be more terrifying to them than anything I describe.
3. Conversely, what are some of the biggest challenges?
Time. There is an assumption that podcasting is an easy medium and that content creation should be simple and quick. This leads to the time pressure of trying to create our own level of quality while still releasing episodes on time. From the writing side, though, the most challenging problem I combat with every script is the ‘show, not tell’ issue. How can I, using nothing but dialogue and audio, describe a character or situation, without relying on boring narrative or bland dialogue? It’s one of the keys to success for a good audio drama, and it takes time to learn.
4. What do you believe are the keys to a successful audio drama?
Quality. Character. Consistency.
If an audio drama, or fiction podcast, is missing one of these, it will struggle to succeed. Quality in writing and production draws listeners in. Relatable characters and the emotional connection listeners have to those fictional people help keep listeners around. And finally, while there are some exceptions, consistency in episode releases and audience interactions helps listeners grow to trust the creators themselves and rely on them for the quality and character.
5. Both The White Vault and Liberty take place in their own respective universes with stories that are not always connected. How do you go about creating these universes and tying them together cohesively?
I’ve never found this to be too difficult for me, but I know it can be. My head loves to think of one hundred and one things at once, and I enjoy the aspect of world building that helps create interconnected stories.
I go into stories like The White Vault knowing that it’s much bigger than I first let on to my listeners, so I use the smaller side stories and exclusive content as a way to pull back the curtain on the larger weave of my world.
With Liberty, Travis and I have an entire established timeline to work from, so picking and choosing when to place our smaller stories helps us build the world brick by brick. There were certainly been a few consistency hiccups along the way, but we just adapted and rolled with it.
6. You and producer Travis Vengroff began with your podcast Liberty: Critical Research in 2015 and have since founded Fool & Scholar Productions together. What was that journey like, and what were the steps you took to get there?
We didn’t start podcasting thinking it was going to be where our lives were headed. We started Liberty: Critical Research to help share a story about the vast world of Liberty we had already created, and from there it grew so quickly that we were swept up in the podcasting world before we knew it. We didn’t form our company, Fool & Scholar Productions, until we incorporated in 2017 or 2018. But even before then we treated our work like a professional job and had already started the process of branding.
We set up our release schedules, built our worlds, invested in better equipment, and over time I learned a lot more about branding and marketing so I could try to cast a wider net with our shows. It was years of amazing experiences, and some dark lows, but through it all we’ve been able to share our stories with thousands upon thousands of fans. There is no way for me to recall the exact steps, as we were both just trying to make it work. To this day, I’m not sure how we do it.
7. How do you go about creating such vivid and eerie worlds without the use of visuals while also keeping the audience immersed?
This is a tricky balance we had to learn along the way. When I’m writing, I have to focus on creating story elements that work in the audio world. Battles, fights, action sequences; those are far more difficult to convey when there is nothing to see. So, I write hints, clues, subtle things that character say, that create tension and build the mythos without losing listeners’ attention.
When I’m writing my sound directions for Travis to create the effects for, I have to be very specific. Footsteps changing from rocks to a metal floor tells listeners a lot about the environment without a word being spoken. The way voices bounce of enclosed icy spaces will sound different from when they stand in a large open space. With little hints like these, we’re able to coax the listener’s mind into forming the world around them.
8. Do you have a favorite sub genre of horror?
I enjoy physiological horror, existential horror, Lovecraftian, and folk-horror. I try to incorporate scientific and cultural research into my stories, and I expect the horror I consume to frighten me, but also inform, educate, and move me.
9. Donations from listeners keep Fool & Scholar Productions ad-free, creating a more immersive experience. If fans are unable to donate to your Patreon, what are other helpful ways they can support their favorite podcasts?
The White Vault is ad-free, and we really want to keep it that way. We know Patreon support isn’t an option for everyone, so we have a few avenues people can choose to help support our works. If fans of The White Vault want to hear Artifact, the first mini-series spin-off, they can purchase it from our website (https://thewhitevault.com/product/artifact-full-). We also have a TeePublic shop where supporters can purchase great gear from our shows, like shirts, pins, stickers, and more. Supporters can also help us by purchasing tickets to our live shows.
For those who cannot support us financially, there are also great ways to help us out. Telling your friends about our shows is the single most important thing you can do. Alternatively, leaving positive reviews on places like iTunes helps others to find our work. This is really the key to our success, word of mouth, so if you enjoy our work, telling others helps us grow. Also, if you listen to our show via apps like Himalaya, we are actually compensated by the app, which means you help us out just by listening!
10. You recently posted on Twitter asking: “What is it you all would like to learn from me? How can I help you in some way?” Fool & Scholar podcasts also includes multiple Q&As and interviews with voice actors that answer questions regarding the audio dramas, their stories, the industry, and production. What inspires you to be so actively engaged with your audience and drives you to share that knowledge?
We were only able to really make podcasting work for us because the community is so supportive. We are constantly looking for ways to give back, so we like to take questions from new creators, go to conventions and conferences to talk about our medium, and create resources creators can use to make learning more accessible.
I’ve always supported education; I think people should always be looking to better themselves. It may just be projection, but if I’m looking to learn more, I think others are as well.
11. You’ve stated that you didn’t want to tell another American story set in another American town and have featured various multicultural characters and voice actors. What’s is like working with such a diverse group of people?
It’s lovely. We’ve worked with so many people from around the world, and every new project brings a new voice, new take, and new possible language to our team. When I was writing The White Vault, I was creating characters based off of real people that I knew whose voices, languages, and lives I wanted to share with my audience. When I went to university, I sat in lecture halls and classrooms with people from around the world, and it was far more interesting and engaging than any all-American class I had sat through years before. I not only believe that it takes people with different experiences and backgrounds to really flesh out an amazingly realistic world, but I value how much their voices can bring to my works.
12. With a live show, three different podcasts, and a variety of mini-series and spin-offs being made, Fool & Scholar Productions seems to be thriving. What are some upcoming projects that listeners can look forward to?
We just launched Season 3 of The White Vault. We are a small company, so we are focusing on creating our three current shows, but we will also be working on some new exclusive content in-between seasons. We also have plans for a new show down the line, but it’s not horror. And while I’ve completed the outline for the first season, we don’t yet have a production schedule lined up. What I can say is that it’s planned as fun for the whole family.
13. Do you have any advice for hopeful writers or creators looking to get into podcasts and audio dramas?
Start. Nothing makes it seem so difficult as looking at it from the outside. It will be a struggle once you’re in the thick of it, but nothing should stop you from trying. If you have a story to tell, podcasting is still the easiest way of helping you take that story to an audience. The old saying is that ‘practice makes perfect’, but I don’t think ‘perfect’ should be a goal. Every time I write a story, I just get better. Never perfect, always better.
Also, the one piece of advice I always add is for people who are already podcasting. Simply, if you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it. For most people, podcasting is a hobby, and hobbies should be enjoyable activities. If you are creating and you no longer find it fun, it’s time to try something new!