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In Naomi Alderman's Podcast, Listeners Walk Into The Story

Mar 26, 2018
Originally published on March 26, 2018 8:49 pm

Dystopian thriller, The Walk, is a tale of mistaken identity, terrorism, and a life-or-death mission to walk across Scotland. But the format of this story is — unusual.

The Walk is an immersive fiction podcast, and the creators want you to listen to it while walking. It begins with a terrorist attack at a train station; you are the protagonist, known only as Walker, and the police think you're a member of a shadowy terror group called The Burn.

Author Naomi Alderman, whose latest novel was a bestseller called The Power, is the creator of The Walk. It's not her first foray into audio storytelling — she was also one of the creators of Zombies, Run!, a phone app that dropped unwilling exercisers into the middle of a zombie apocalypse and had them walk — or run — to escape the shambling hordes.

"I'm really interested in what you might call storytelling that bleeds into the real world," Alderman says. "And one of the most brilliant things for me is to be able to tell a story where you're listening to it as you're moving through a landscape."


Interview Highlights

On the protagonist Walker

Walker is you. Walker is every listener, and my ethos is that I like to allow my listeners to become very involved in being that character by not insisting on the character has a particular race or a particular gender or a particular age or even a particular ability at walking. You can equally listen to the thing whilst rolling along in a wheelchair.

On how the story encourages listeners to keep moving

We start out as the character in the story; we sort of get mistaken for some members of The Burn. So there's a terrorist incident in the first episode, after which, this shadow organization, The Burn, is after us and also the police are after us because they think we're the people who did this terrorist attack. So, right from the start, there is an imperative to keep moving.

On writing for audio drama

It's a really, really fascinating discipline, actually. And of course, I'm writing not only for the ear, but for the ear of somebody who is potentially on the move. So there may be traffic noises, there may be other things, so there's a certain clarity that it demands. But there's also a kind of informality that you can get into the language. And I think when it's done right, audio is an incredibly intimate medium. I mean, here we are, speaking directly into someone's ear.

One thing that you can absolutely do in audio, which I think you can't really do in film or TV, is to have characters just chat to you about who they are. So it's more like the soliloquy and a play onstage. It works really well, if I have Walker, who's my silent protagonist. Walker's walking along, and somebody else is walking next to them, and this person will just tell Walker about themselves.

Alyssa Edes and Matt Ozug produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This next story takes us inside a dystopian thriller called The Walk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's a tale of mistaken identity, terrorism and a life or death mission to walk across Scotland. The format is unusual. The Walk is an immersive fiction podcast. The creators want you to listen to it while walking. It begins with a terrorist attack at a train station.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST "THE WALK")

NAOMI ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Come with me, side exit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Madame, Madame, there's no exit down the tunnel that direction.

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Don't look back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All passengers must...

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Just ignore him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If you do not stop...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHAPIRO: The creator of The Walk is an author named Naomi Alderman. Her most recent novel was a bestseller called "The Power." And when I spoke to her recently, I started by asking, what makes an award-winning writer decide to create a podcast?

ALDERMAN: I have been doing audio drama for almost as long as I've been writing novels. So by 2010, my business partner and I in the U.K. were working on this kooky idea that we could make a fitness game that would inspire you to keep running by telling you a brilliant story in which you were being chased by zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Don't look back. They're right behind you. Just keep running.

ALDERMAN: Who would have thought you could make a decent living telling stories of the zombie apocalypse to encourage people to go for a run?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ALDERMAN: And yet, you can.

SHAPIRO: And this sort of has the same objective, getting people to go out and walk as they listen to this story called The Walk.

ALDERMAN: Sure. So I'm really interested in what you might call storytelling that bleeds into the real world. And one of the most brilliant things for me is to be able to tell a story where you are listening to it as you are moving through a landscape. And our listeners report to us that they place the landscape of the story onto the landscape that they're looking at so that it becomes blended together.

So, you know, if I say, there's people after you, you can see them behind you, then it's quite hard not to turn your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK")

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) There - man reading a paper, 4 o'clock. Don't look now. He's followed us up the platform. Now he's following us back down. He's The Burn. Woman at 9 o'clock taking a long time over her croissant could be Burn. It's only going to get worse from here. Hurry.

SHAPIRO: The Burn, we should say, is the shadowy group that is trying to kind of take down the infrastructure of Scotland, where the walk is set.

ALDERMAN: Exactly so. Yes. And we start out - as the character in the story, we sort of get mistaken for some members of The Burn. So there's a terrorist incident in the first episode. After which, this shadowy organization, The Burn, is after us. And also the police are after us because they think we're the people who did this terrorist attack. So right from the start, there is an imperative to keep moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK")

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Walker, Walker, don't stop. Please don't stop. I'm monitoring your vital signs, Walker. You're dipping closer and closer to hypothermia. You have to keep moving.

SHAPIRO: The central character in the story is called Walker. Let's listen to the moment that we first learn about who this person is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK")

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Code name - none listed. I'll just quickly generate one for you by pressing my magic button here. And it's given you the name Walker.

SHAPIRO: The voice we're hearing is Charlie, who speaks through a device in Walker's ear. Is it rude of me to say that Walker is a bit underdeveloped as a character?

ALDERMAN: (Laughter) My thinking - Walker is you, Ari. Walker is you. How...

SHAPIRO: Walker is me. And Walker is also you. And Walker is every other listener.

ALDERMAN: Yes, Walker is every listener. And my ethos is that I like to allow my listeners to become very involved in being that character by not insisting on the character as has a particular race or a particular gender or a particular age or even a particular ability at walking, you know, and you could equally listen to the thing whilst rolling along in a wheelchair.

SHAPIRO: Is it difficult to write a story for a central character that is unspecified?

ALDERMAN: I'm quite used to it now (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So it was at first?

ALDERMAN: Yes, at first it was really quite challenging. The challenging thing - OK? - if you'd like to know the secret of how to do this...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ALDERMAN: ...anybody out there wants to write one of these. The secret is that you'll be tempted to go - have one of your characters go, where's Walker? Oh, she's over there. But, no, never do that. Instead, someone says, where's Walker? And somebody else says, oh, there you are, Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Nicely done, Walker. You're a real pro. Now that I think about it, maybe you are a pro. It's not like we know anything about you.

ALDERMAN: (As Charlie) Walker got the job done. That's what matters.

SHAPIRO: In the radio business, we talk about writing for the ear, not the eye, the idea being that you're going to write a different kind of text for somebody reading a page than you will for somebody listening to the radio. Do you find that you write differently when you're creating an audio drama as opposed to one of your novels?

ALDERMAN: Oh, 100 percent. It's a really, really fascinating discipline, actually. And, of course, I'm writing not only for the ear but for the ear of somebody who's potentially on the move. So there may be traffic noises, there may be other things. So there's a certain clarity that it demands. But there's also a kind of informality that you can get into the language.

And I think when it's done right, audio is an incredibly intimate medium. I mean, here we are speaking directly into someone's ear.

SHAPIRO: I think about that a lot.

ALDERMAN: Yeah. It's very intimate. One thing that you can absolutely do in audio, which I think you can't really do in film or TV is to have characters just chat to you about who they are. So it's more like the soliloquy in a play onstage. It works really well. If I have Walker, who's my silent protagonist, Walker's walking along and somebody else is walking next to them and this person just will tell Walker about themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE WALK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Do you know he was the one who argued for me to get my funding? Oh, yeah, yeah. The research council didn't want to give it to me because I hadn't done well enough in my first degree.

SHAPIRO: Was there ever a moment that you wanted to have more exposition than the frame of a walk would allow?

ALDERMAN: In a way, I'm so used to it from Zombies, Run! where let me tell you, if walking is bad, writing a story where the main character has to be constantly running is just a nightmare.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) A literal nightmare because you're being chased by zombies.

ALDERMAN: Exactly so, yes. So I think walking gives you more leeway, actually, because you can just be walking around a house or something like that. So, yeah, when I first started, I did get irritated that I couldn't write a story where, you know, then the characters dig for treasure for six scenes.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right. Your next podcast will be the dig.

ALDERMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Thirty immersive episodes where you dig.

ALDERMAN: (Laughter) I need somebody to invent a digging machine at the gym. How has no one done that yet?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That seems like it would be a really good workout, honestly.

ALDERMAN: Yeah (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, Naomi Alderman, it's been so great talking with you. Thank you.

ALDERMAN: It's been great to chat to you.

SHAPIRO: Naomi Alderman is the creator of the immersive podcast The Walk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.