Behind-the-scenes with Sophie Townsend

At what point did you decide to adapt your emails for the radio? What changes did you make to the writing so it would work for an audience of listeners versus loved ones?

I started writing a weekly update about Russell’s illness simply to let everyone know what was going on. But it became important to me too. It gave me a bit of structure around his illness and the pain that went with it. In the months after he died, I read them over a great deal so that I could remember everything, go over it in my head. And I sensed there was a story that would resonate with a wider world outside my circle of friends and family. People told me they might make a book, but I wanted to work with them in sound. There’s something about sound that brings you so close to the story, and I wanted to create that. The experience had been so much a part of me, of the way I lived, that it had changed me utterly, at a cellular level. I wanted to express that, and sound seemed to me the only medium that I could do that in.

The changes I made to the writing were largely structural. Stories need a beginning, middle, and end, and as we all know, life doesn't do that neatly all the time. I had a beginning, and an end (such an end) but the middle kept meandering and stop-starting, and I edited those confusing twists and turns so that an audience could follow. Mostly, this meant looking at the balance of hope and despair. I had to create a line where hope faded with the progression of his illness. In reality, hope and despair mingled, competed and changed from day to day. While I didn’t want to deny that muddle and that co-habitation of two competing forces, that move from hope to hopelessness gave me my narrative arc.

Through the piece we not only get a strong sense of your personality, but of Russell's as well. What tools did you use - writing, sound design, etc - to let us know him?

Russell was (and remains) a great character. He was easy to write because he had such a solid core. In making the piece, I stripped back some of the writing around Russell to its barest, and tried to get to the essential essence of him. I emphasised his dry humour, his love for his kids, his bravery because that was essentially the truth of him.

I didn’t want to deny the less love-able bits of him though, which I think can happen when someone dies. There’s a tendency to deify the dead, especially those who’ve gone through illness. It was crucial to me that there be space to make it clear that he was flawed, scared, sometimes hard to live with.

Music was important to Russell. I was very lucky to work with sound engineer (and genius, musician and friend) Louis Mitchell, and we talked a great deal about the music Russell loved. I had planned to use the music that had been important to him, and thought about which tracks to use and where to use them. Louis convinced me that known music might actually diminish Russell as a character. I think this was a fundamentally important call. So we gathered the music Russell loved, and found a sensibility in it that Louis composed around.

We also talked about creating a sound world for Russell's sickness. Neither of us wanted to be too literal, but we designed sound to give the listener an insight into Russell's experiences in his shrinking world of hospital and home.

When Russell became ill, I started taping him, so that I’d always remember what he sounded like. But I used Russell's voice sparingly in the piece. I thought the few moments of him talking with the girls over family dinner made it clear how central he was to our lives. I resisted the temptation to use more of it because it was important that people didn't ever forget the fact that he was disappearing before our very eyes.

Did you wrestle with how much humor and/or anger to include in the finished story?

I wanted to tell the truth. I kept most of the angry bits and the funny bits in the story, making allowances for the in-jokes, and the times when it would have been too hard to explain to people who didn’t know us why certain things made us angry at the world and each other.

There were moments from real life I kept out of the original updates for friends and family, simply because they were humiliating for him, or would be painful for others to read. But everything that made it into the original missives, made it into the piece. I'm a stickler for the truth, except when it would hurt Russell, or my children.

Can you discuss the choice to have an actor voice the letters?

My decision to use an actor to voice the piece was largely based on the fact that I’m not a trained performer. I thought the piece needed a strong, trained voice to bring the best out of it. It was not important that it was “Sophie Townsend’s voice.” It was important that the voice we used portrayed the emotional journey of the wife of a dying man. I decided that I was not up to the task.

It made decisions around performance and editing easier. I was no longer listening to me, but to a person going through this thing, and trying to make sense of it. It helped me make better decisions for the piece, and it helped me understand when the writing wasn’t sharp enough, or I was making assumptions about what an audience might know.

And to tell you the truth, it’s also quite nice to be played by a tall gorgeous blonde woman.

The story is so big, and so personal. How has it been to have it out in the world?

I’m proud of the piece. But it’s not straightforward to live with. I have all those worries about producing work as therapy, which I didn’t want to do. I was fortunate to work with Natalie Kestecher as my supervising producer, who talked the piece through with me for many months before studio production began. Natalie’s own work is personal, and she understood that difficulty I felt around it. I knew I was in safe hands. I knew too that the Radio National was unlikely to let me produce a program simply because it would make me feel better. Natalie was rigorous in her expectations of what I was doing, and that makes it easier to live with now. But that line between life and work is a blurry one, and it makes it hard sometimes.

I listened to the piece when it was broadcast, and once again to edit it down for a shorter duration. That’s enough for now. The girls have never heard it, because they just can’t. Maybe they’ll listen one day, but if they never do, that’s okay too. They’ll tell their own stories when they’re ready.