Ten years ago, the people of Lubec, Maine, were met with an unpleasant surprise: an enormous finback whale had washed onto the beachfront of their tiny coastal town.
As the 60-ton creature began to decompose, the town was forced to come up with a plan to get rid of it. In Just Another Fish Story, the people of Lubec relive the burial of their giant visitor and, in doing so, tell us as much about the town as the whale.
Molly Menschel won the Best New Artist Award for Just Another Fish Story in the 2005 Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. The story was produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in 2004.
In the fall of 2004, Molly Menschel attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she participated in the radio program and learned about radio. She is currently involved in several book projects (for one of which she is recording stories and music from West Virginia) and is a part of the group Radio Pie.
Learn more about the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Molly Menschel
How did you hear of the story of the beached whale and why did it strike you as a good story for radio?
I saw a picture of the whale in this documentary photography book called Down East Maine, A World Apart by Frank Van Riper. Frank lives part of the year in Lubec, and had taken a picture of the whale on the morning it was buried. The picture really intrigued me. The people beside the whale looked so small. Something about the mystical quality of the early morning fog surrounding this massive creature made me feel like the story was somehow symbolic or archetypal, though I wasn't sure of what.
For some reason I was really drawn to the idea of finding the people who were in Frank's photos. I read what Frank wrote about the whale washing ashore and how they buried it. He mentioned some of the names of people who I thought I could track down. I had this vision in my head of the story being told kind of like a fairytale or a tall tale, and I thought if I could find the right person to tell the story, it would work.
Did you intend from the beginning for Just Another Fish Story to be as much (or more) about the town as the whale?
I didn't think about the town initially. I had never been to Lubec but as I began making phone calls to try to find contacts (almost at random out of the Lubec phonebook) I began to get a sense of this town and its people. The town's character started to become evident as I spoke with people on the phone. Hearing the way they talked gave me ideas about how the story could be told. It ended up just happening naturally that the people I interviewed represented a kind of broad spectrum of people in the town.
Just Another Fish Story also seems to be about memory as each person has a slightly different re-telling of the story, even the size and coloring of the whale. At what point in the production did you decide to use a multitude of voices to tell the same story, and why?
It was an idea I had from the beginning, but I didn't imagine it quite the way it turned out. I had wanted to find one narrator-type voice to start the story and move it along. I imagined it would be a real old Lubecker, someone who you would find sitting around somewhere telling stories. It turns out I found this man standing inside the QuickStop Market when I first drove into town. The QuickStop was the only place still open when I arrived carrying my photo book and picture of the whale. I saw this older man standing alone in the corner, and so I showed him the picture and asked him if he knew any good storytellers who could tell me something about this whale. "No," he said, "There's not anything to tell about that whale. I remember that whale. It was a huge mammal..." At which point I got his number and visited him the next day to record him.
While I was in Lubec I would interview one person and he or she would say, "You know, you should talk to my grandmother, she lived right there --" and they would give me a name and an address and send me knocking on someone's door. And then the grandmother would tell me to visit a neighbor who would lead me to someone else. Everyone basically told me the same story, but insisted on different facts. That was when I began to hear the story as told by all these different people, remembering the same thing in different ways.
How did you choose music for the piece, in particular the mouth harp?
The music is Finnish Jew's harp played by Tapani Varis. It was lent to me by the amazing Rob Rosenthal, radio teacher at Salt. I had tried out some different fiddle/banjo music and was considering some kind of circusy music, but when I tried the Jew's harp music and heard that first riff come in, it sounded exactly the way I wanted the story to sound. And so I had my first ever emotional moment with Jew's harp music, for which I am forever grateful.
As someone new to the field of audio, what challenges did you face producing Fish Story?
Well, what did I learn: It is more important than ever possibly imaginable to make sure that you are recording an interview in a quiet place. I wish that I'd had more confidence during the interviews. For example, if there is an old man telling an important story and his cat is sitting on his lap and purring directly into the microphone, it would have been okay to ask him to move the cat off his lap. And for half of Billy the backhoe driver's interview there was a hot water heater that came on and off, and I recorded some other unusable tape with his kids watching TV in the background. I had lots of good tape that was difficult to edit around because of stuff like this.
But the hardest part of the whole process for me was letting go of tape which I really loved. I had so many good quotes but the story was only supposed to be six minutes long. When I first put it together it was twice that long. I understood the concept that cutting things out of a piece can make it sharper, and more powerful, but it's hard to take out quotes that you just really love. I listened to the whole thing so many times that I totally lost perspective on which quotes were better than others. I sat down with a lot of friends and asked them what stood out. And everyone who listened to it didn't agree on the same things, and a lot of times I didn't agree with anyone anyway. So it came down to trusting my own instincts and very sorrowfully deleting quotes out of the piece.
What plans do you have to produce more radio stories?
Future plans are always hard to say. Because who knows? I am writing a book (fiction) and have been working for the past few years on a documentary photography book with my father in West Virginia. The book will have a lot of audio recordings which correspond with the photos and the interviews. We will hopefully finish collecting material for the book this summer. As for radio, I have a lot of ideas in my head but I need to buy a microphone. That's a bit of a bad excuse for not having started any radio projects since I graduated from Salt. But I have been gathering inspiration with intensity . . . and don't plan to wait much longer.