Interview with The Three Hoarsemen

My guests today are podcasters The Three Hoarsemen: John E. O. Stevens, Fred Kiesche, and Jeff Patterson

SCy-Fy: Guys, I am very glad we managed to arrange this. How do you prepare for a show?

Jeff Patterson: Reading, contemplation, and bourbon. The reading and contemplation part I try to finish a day or two beforehand. In the early episodes I prepped up to the last minute, and the result sounded stilted and rehearsed. Now I tend to wing it. And to be honest even the bourbon has made fewer appearances. On the organizational end of things, Fred does most of the heavy lifting.

Fred Kiesche: I generally keep possible show topics in a Google Doc which is shared with my other two hosts. However, nothing is set in stone; sometimes an event will occur that will spark an addition to the show ahead of recording, or even so close to the show that it’ll be suggested right before we record.

We try to do a mix of host-only and “Four Hoarsemen” episodes, which are the three hosts plus a guest. Guest ideas come out of the Google Doc and conversations among ourselves, sometimes as a result of other guests. Preparation for a show with guests varies: sometimes we’re going to talk about a specific work, sometimes it is a more general conversation, such as anthologies, that relates to that guest.

The host-only shows are run along the same way: sometimes it is a specific book or author, sometimes it is a broad topic. The specific book or author shows tend to be a lot of work and preparation in reading, thinking about things to discuss, etc. The broad topic shows tend to be more relaxed in preparation.

SCy-Fy: Which do you think works better?

Fred Kiesche: Both. Neither. I really can’t tell. Some of our best episodes have been those where we did a lot of preparation. Where we had a guest. Or…where we did relatively little preparation and “spitballed” it going in.

I think it has worked more often than not because we’re all somewhat knowledgeable, we all take it seriously, and we all know and like each other. Despite jokes about our advancing decrepitude, we think fast and can think on our feet. You can cover a multitude of sins and omissions thanks to all of those things.

When we do a broad topic show, I just read a lot of different things. Our recent comics show saw me reading extensively both big publisher (Marvel) lines but also a lot of independents. When we concentrate on a specific author, I either do a lot of reading of many books by the author (the time we talked about Charles Sheffield) or a heavy read/re-read cycle of one book (either the episode about Samuel R. Delany’s Nova or the episode about William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland; for both, I read one book upwards of six times).

If something works (is enjoyable), this isn’t much of a problem (other than finding enough time). If something doesn’t work, and there have been a few episodes (our failed coverage of Peace by Gene Wolfe, for example), we bail before recording rather than put out something that doesn’t work. Sometimes we’ll revisit an idea that didn’t work earlier and it’ll work this time around. Never throw show ideas away!

John E. O. Stevens: Fred went over the group dynamic. I do a large amount of reading for episodes, probably more than necessary, but it buttresses my performance on the podcast. For example, I re-read Nova twice for the Delany episode, and some of Delany’s writing on writing, and dug up a few invocations of the novel in critical works. I am a pretty reserved person and like to speak only after lots of deliberation, so I need to do a lot of preparation so that I can be spontaneous, if that makes sense. Our shows are unscripted and often even we don’t know where it’s going; we play off of each other constantly. To do that I need to jam my head full of excess data.

Also, water and throat drops are your friends.

SCy-Fy: What are your future initiatives?

Fred Kiesche: To win a Hugo. What else is there to aspire to?

John E. O. Stevens: In addition to ongoing reviews at SF Signal, I am working on two books and a few short stories. One of the books is non-fiction and currently titled Travels across Terra Ficta, about the intricacies and joys of reading in general and reading fiction in particular. The other is a novel entitled No Fealty But to the Sun and Sky, a secondary-world fantasy about a group of anarchists from a commune who journey to a large, oppressive monarchy and in the process of renegotiating a treaty start a revolution. Also, ravens and rats are involved in the revolution. It’s very odd.

Jeff Patterson: I am also working on a novel, called Tables of the Canon. As for the podcast, I would love to do an episode from a convention. I’ve seen Coode Street and a few others done live before an audience and the dynamic fascinates me.

SCy-Fy: What do you think will be the major challenges for podcasts in future?

John E. O. Stevens: Getting heard over the din of the tumult. Podcasts are blossoming everywhere and I think finding a solid audience requires some way to be visible right off the bat. We’re fortunate that ours is hosted by a highly-visible, Hugo-winning website. I think we get a lot more people finding us and listening as a result. We’re all very active on social media, particularly Twitter, and we have connections to a wide array of people. We also know the field pretty well as long-time fans so that helps too.

Jeff Patterson: A few technical bumps lie ahead. There is a phrase in digital media: “Platform Agnostic”; it means seamless accessibility between devices and services. While this is becoming dominant in the video realm, it has yet to really click in audio podcasts. Right now if a listener wants to download an mp3 of a Hoarsemen episode off SF Signal, it’s easy. If they want to subscribe, not so much. I think proprietary audio codecs and formats might get more complicated before they get better.

Also, we’ve seen a few aggregators out there poach content and post it as there own. Fortunately the community is vigilant enough to spot these infractions and send a red alert out on Twitter.

Fred Kiesche: In podcasting overall, there’s a lot of growth thanks to recent shows like “Serial” bringing a lot of new ears into the audience. This is good: more people may listen to our podcast! This is bad: there’s a push to a certain format which will ruin the appeal of podcasts (at least for me): there is no format.

SCy-Fy: What advice would you give anyone presenting a podcast?

John E. O. Stevens: Find two excellent co-hosts who know more about doing them and team up!

Fred Kiesche: “KISS” or “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. We didn’t initially have a theme song, but added one (by the uber-talented John Anealio of the Functional Nerds) once we felt comfortable that the show “had a theme”. We use good, but cheap, equipment because this is not a thing by which we make a living. We use Skype and a free MP3 recorder for the same reasons and they’re fairly robust. Keep your panels down in terms of numbers; the more people on a podcast, the more the likelihood of somebody feeling trampled. Rotate hosts so everybody can stretch their verbal wings.

Don’t do a podcast if you’re not comfortable with the thought of a lot of people listening to you!

Jeff Patterson: Ditto to both. And also be mindful of your voice. Listen to professional presenters and note things like inflection and tone. You don’t want to sound fake, but you don’t want to flounder before an audience either. Keep a notepad next to you while recording. Note times that might require an edit, or when something really interesting is mentioned. Always test your recording equipment before each session.

SCy-Fy: Just between us – your secret list of useful resources?

Fred Kiesche: SF Signal, SF Encyclopedia Online, the Internet Speculative Fiction Database are probably my three biggest go-to’s. Google with search, images, and Docs are my big tools. We use Amazon for links and images of books or other media we reference because: money. I have shelves of books, I really do have something like 10,000 books at home. Many of the ones I use in preparing for the show are non-fiction works by Delany, Clute, Wolfe but also older works by Moskowitz, Asimov, Pohl, Williamson.

Jeff Patterson: My reliable audio editing program. I come from a broadcast background, so I am a stickler for editing out every “um” and cough. Also my stunning good looks… .

SCy-Fy: Nothing secret about that!

John E. O. Stevens: My brain. It is full of trivia, extended academic exegeses, and odd observations. My library, which is not as large as Fred’s but is still substantial (maybe 3,000 volumes?). My most useful resource is my academic training, years of doing research and writing 30-page papers overnight. Resources are only as good as the user.

SCy-Fy: Points to watch out for?

Fred Kiesche: Watch out for Patrick Hester. He has shifty eyes. And, really, can you trust anybody who wears a hat all the time?

Jeff Patterson: Technically, the key is to have your output be of consistent quality. Be mindful of bitrates and whether you are recording in stereo or mono. Most recorders and editors are fairly intuitive, but one should be well-versed in their workings. You can get good sound out of modestly-priced equipment and free software. Learn how to use the mute button, because the ice rattling around a bourbon tumbler can be loud.

John E. O. Stevens: Create a fresh approach. A podcast not only has to be distinctive, but engaged. You can have the best topic for discussion, but if you don’t get into the thick of it people won’t keep listening. You have to know your topic and also know what everyone else in the discussion is bringing to the table. Having a rapport with your crew is crucial, because you can then infuse the podcast with personality. Those elements go a long way to creating a vibrant conversation.

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?

Jeff Patterson: I can’t think of a period where one of the three of us was NOT going through hard times. Podcasting with John and Fred has, and I have said this many times, gotten me reading outside my usual comfort zone. It also gets me in a place where I can actually relax and let my inappropriate sense of humor off the leash for a bit.

Fred Kiesche: The funny thing is, this podcast was started because of a “hard time”; the aforementioned Patrick Hester was working like 200 hours per week and couldn’t schedule, let alone run, edit, wrangle, post, the SF Signal Podcast. The three of us were online friends, and pretty simultaneously came up with the idea of helping out by filling in for him. We enjoyed it so much that we soon wanted to run it as a separate show.

What else has kept us going have been our online/offline friendship, our flexibility in subjects, scheduling, presentation and format and – our online/offline friendship. Seriously, we talk a lot: on Twitter, on Skype, and even (gasp) a few times in person, about many things besides whatever the show for the month is. We’ve gone through gains and losses – getting jobs, losing jobs, health good and bad, family issues, even death – together. That is what has kept us going.

SCy-Fy: That’s great – and very inspiring. What about you, John?

John E. O. Stevens: Fiction that provokes and challenges me. Writing, sometimes to figure things out, sometimes to give life the middle finger. Friendships; as Fred said, the podcast has linked the three of us and has given me a lot of gifts. We did one podcast from the rehabilitation center where I was recovering from hip surgery. Every time someone voices their appreciation for the podcast I feel gratified and energized.

SCy-Fy: Any controversy so far?

Fred Kiesche: Surprisingly, none that we’ve really noticed. We have occasionally talked a “hot topic”, such as the time I got annoyed with various whining canines, but I can’t remember anybody mentioning it. Perhaps we need to be more confrontational amongst ourselves and go all full-metal jacket on any guests?

John E. O. Stevens: Thankfully no. And I’m pretty mean to most of the stuff I read, so I’m a bit surprised.

Jeff Patterson: Yeah, I have gotten small amounts of grief for a few comments, but just as much agreement. I think listeners expect us to be critical and grumpy.

SCy-Fy: The most popular show you’ve presented? Your personal favourite?

Fred Kiesche: Unfortunately, download numbers are kept locked behind several firewalls, so I can’t give you hard numbers, but we seem to do pretty well whenever John and Jeff try to educate me about comics. I think the Octavia Butler episode did well. My personal favorites have been our coverage of Nova and The House on the Borderland.

John E. O. Stevens: My favorite would have to be our Delany episode, because I felt our admiration made for a great conversation. I enjoy our episodes that look at a single author or work the most. The more of a focus we have the better our episodes seem to go.

Jeff Patterson: The Paul Weimer and Sarah Chorn episodes got the most comments, because their reputations precede them. I also really liked the Kate Sherrod and David Annandale episodes. My favorite was the one where we visited John in the rehab center after his surgery, because it was our first time together in Meatspace and we recorded it on the fly.

SCy-Fy: What have been the best books, films and TV shows you have read or seen recently?

Fred Kiesche: Have you not been listening to our show? Joking, joking. There’s no shortage of good stuff and we’ve talked about a lot of it. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, the ongoing webcomic series Schlock Mercenary, the Black Vortex crossover comic “event” and Avengers: The Age of Ultron. And that’s just a very tiny sample.

Jeff Patterson: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker. The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson. A few SF, non-superhero comics like Letter 44, Trees, and The Fuse have been consistently good.

John E. O. Stevens: I just finished a review of Liz Hand’s Wylding Hall, which was a book that built slowly but which I now firmly adore. I also heartily recommend Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Sisters of the Revolution anthology, which has a rich variety of feminist speculative fiction. I was surprised that almost every story was not just good, but thought-provoking and fascinating to read.

SCy-Fy: Which forthcoming books, films and TV shows are you most looking forward to reading or watching?

John E. O. Stevens: I can’t wait for Zachary Jernigan’s Shower of Stones, the sequel to his debut novel which was powerful and bursting with great characters and strangeness. Very curious to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora too.

Fred Kiesche: I want to see Alastair Reynolds’ next book. The next instalment in the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. A decent job for all future Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek flicks. Seriously, I look forward to way too many things. We’re living in an age of plenty; anybody who claims they are bored and has nothing to read is not thinking outside of the box enough.

I mostly look forward to somehow magically finding more free time to enjoy this stuff.

Jeff Patterson: The new Robert McCammon. And I am quite interested in the next batch of Best Of anthologies. We have a number of SF TV shows on their way, and I am curious how they will impact a landscape shaped by fantasy and superheroes.

SCy-Fy: Anything to add?

Fred Kiesche: Mene, Mene, Teqel, Upharsin.

SCy-Fy: Very apocalyptic, but fitting! Fred, John, Jeff – thanks to all of you for your time.


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