Intro from Jay Allison: Sue Mell is an artist and writer and she's also been a stand-up comedian. This is her first radio piece. It's not funny. It's about the aftermath of a friend's murder, and the desire for resolution.
About the Story
In the year and a half before Jay died, I’d been pursuing a career as a stand up comic. Jay was my biggest fan–I used to email him my material every week while he impatiently waited for me to have my own sit com. But I wasn’t always that happy. I struggled with finding my true voice and I sometimes talked about finding other venues–maybe doing a one woman show–something with greater dimension. I thought about trying to put something together for “This American Life”. I kept a file of ideas to the side.
After Jay died, I didn’t feel like I could do any of my old material–after everything that had happened–I just didn’t feel like that same person anymore. I stopped getting on stage. But my voice ran on in my head and I still wanted to do…something.
After those first five weeks in North Carolina I went up to NY for a month for a job. One weekend I was alone staying in a friend’s apartment, still very much steeped in grief, and I found myself poking around the TAL website. It was the week after Jake Warga’s story “When Brian Took His Life” had aired and I ended up at Transom listening to the archived version there.
Hearing that story was the thing that gave me the freedom to do Girl Detectives–the idea that I could do something that sad, that dark, that personal–and that there might be a place for it. And here was this web site that could give me the tools to do it.
And this website needs funding.
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
I recorded the interview–one 90 minute tape–on a Marantz PMD 222 tape deck with an Audio Technica 835B shotgun mic.
In May, when I first made plans to record, we were still waiting for an outcome from the second medical examiner–we thought more would happen with the case–that there might be a trial. I didn’t think I’d be able to talk about things publicly for a year or more but I wanted to get their story on tape while they still remembered things clearly in their heads.
I knew I was going back to North Carolina in June for the beach trip we take every year along with some other friends so I added two days on to the end of my stay to do interviews. I did a sort of practice story before I went–about two friends of mine who’d gotten married to each other twice–so I could get used to using the equipment.
I wanted everyone to feel as easy and relaxed about it all as possible. I thought I’d do something like record 2 hours the first day for all the stuff about Jay’s death and the police investigation and then 2 more hours the next for the story of them going down into the creek. Maybe interview their husbands as well–see what they thought about their wives having done this thing.
But by the end of June Laura had just sold her house and bought a smaller one and we pretty much spent every minute of those two days franticly packing up her life. People were coming and going with boxes and rolls of tape. I had a terrible cold. I felt guilty taking time out to record and I had a lot of doubts about making Susan and Stephanie go through everything again on tape. I worried about how upsetting that might be for them… and also for me. Basically, I wondered what the hell it was I thought I was doing. But I’d bought this equipment and I’d lugged it down there–I was determined to follow through.
Susan only had about an hour to spare. She drove over to Stephanie’s between some business appointments and picking up her two boys. Stephanie had all 4 of her kids and I think one of her nephews. She made them all go outside and play in the back yard–they were so loud I made her close the windows even though it was hot–you can still hear them playing in the background. I had Susan and Stephanie sit on the couch and I sat on the edge of the coffee table so I could get close enough with the mic.
The interview felt like a runaway train–I didn’t feel at all in control of the situation. I’d known Susan from before Jay’s death but I’d only gotten to know Stephanie in this terrible context. I felt like I was taking these two people who were really Laura’s friends and pulling them into my world, into my agenda. They both seemed to have a lot of things they were determined to say for the record that weren’t necessarily the things I was after and a lot of the details were confusing on tape–I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten what I wanted or even anything I could use for a story but…at least I’d done it. About a week later we found out that the second medical examiner’s report was a dead end.
I made a tape log and used a Griffin iMic USB adapter to get the sound into Pro Tools Free on my iBook. I had two audio tracks–one from each side of the tape. I created regions on each of them that indicated where the things were that I thought I might want and I used a list of those regions to try and organize the story. Making versions of that region list was more helpful for me than using the tape log. I copied and pasted from those two tracks onto a third sort of “master” track and tried to get things down to a manageable size. I wrote narration around the edited tape. I tried to use the narration to create a beginning and an end and, in the middle, to move things forward. I poured over the TAL comic book and was constantly haunted by the part where they say that it isn’t enough to have a little story–that you have to explain what it means. I listened to the story over and over–trying to hear what that was–trying to make sense of it for the listener, to make sense of it for myself.
I recorded the narration (several times, in a closet with blankets hung on the walls), imported that track and, again, copied and pasted into the master track. I was unable at this point to figure out how to import music from a CD into Pro Tools. Frustrated and impatient, I bounced that track to disk and sent a taped copy to TAL.
About an hour after I dropped that in the mail, I figured out my music problem—a simple issue of where you save the file—and I thought, “Well, at least I can send a really finished version to Transom”. I imported the bounced master track into a new file and added the music in there. I’d originally had all these ideas for things with lyrics that seemed apt but when it came down to it they didn’t really seem right and I was limited by the number of tracks I could use. The song is “Green Arrow” by Yo La Tengo. I copied and pasted pieces of the song onto a separate (grouped) track using slip mode and adjusted the levels by hand making points with the mouse. I out put it onto tape by selecting this second music track along with the master one.
In September I got email from Chelsea Merz saying they really liked Girl Detectives but that it needed further editing before it could be accepted. Her editorial suggestions helped me achieve a clearer and more dramatic story line and brought the piece to a more appropriate length for radio. Initially, I’d included a lot of anecdotal material from the original interview which I was very attached to but which ultimately took away from the script I’d written.