Intro from Jay Allison: How do you maintain family traditions, or build new ones, after a divorce? Would an 8,000-piece jigsaw puzzle help? Michelle Orange thinks so. In fact, she’d even go 12,500. This is a lovely and unconventional radio telling by Michelle and her father about tradition and habit, obsession and commitment, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and the Garden of Earthly Delights.
About The Process
Listening to the finished piece, despite 16 months of thinking about and working on it, was remarkably unsettling; it told the story I wanted to tell, but in a far different way than I originally intended. A year passed after a print interview with my dad about the Sistine Chapel puzzle appeared on mcsweeneys.net and then in Brick magazine, and I felt like some follow up might be fun. Radio seemed like a more challenging option, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if I was relieved of all the writerly tools I depend on in storytelling. In addition, I had delusions of innovation, despite my limited exposure to this type of radio, I had contracted (airborn?) the idea that much of it was too dependent on scripted voice over narration, you know, like that Sex and the City moment when Carrie arches over her laptop, fingers flying, and we get ready for the predictable “I had to wonder…” device. I wanted to get as far away from that as possible primarily just to see if I could, but also because I felt it would be the most interesting way to tell this particular story.
I pitched the idea to Jay in the fall of 2002 and he thought it had potential. When I went home for Christmas that year, I was packing the recording gear transom had sent me. Over the course of the next month, until my dad’s birthday on January 22, I followed him around the house with a microphone for a week, made the equally ill-advised choice of taping myself as I spent New Year’s Eve alone, returned to Toronto to interview co-workers and came back home to record my dad’s reaction to his birthday present: an even bigger puzzle. I made a rough log of the parts of the roughly six hours of tape I thought might be useful and shipped them off to Woods Hole.
Over the next few months I worked with Chelsea Merz on an edit of the piece. She was so patient with me, and I think we went through maybe four edits before the whole thing went on a bit of a hiatus. I moved from Toronto to New York to attend graduate school and it was decided that full attention would return to finishing the piece in the late fall. In the last script I made, I should note, I was still sticking to my non-intrusive guns, and I thought I had assembled the bits and pieces of my dad, and, to a lesser extent, me in such a way as to create a coherent narrative.
So I was, like, totally wrong, eh? It took a train, a cab, four buses and a car ride to the Transom cottage’s studio, where I was sat down to listen to the edit of my script, before I realized that this was going to be much more difficult than I anticipated/fantasized. I think Jay and I just looked at each other and decided the only thing to do was go to dinner. Over the course of the evening and the next morning our conversations about the direction of the piece led me to a new paper edit. Over the course of reassembling it (the production of this piece has no shortage of “over the course of”‘s,) decisions were made about upping my presence. I suppose what made it easier for me to swallow was the idea of having all of my narration unscripted. I really didn’t want to write. And not because I’m lazy, I swear. I think there’s one exception — in the bus station I had to write down a few sentences because the stares from my fellow booth-dwellers were freaking my beak and I kept careening into Sputterland. Like Swaziland only less coherent.
I would take the DAT recorder to bed at night in the Transom cabin and try to address the things Jay and I had talked about that day in terms of what the piece was lacking. Then the next day I would direct him to bits that might fit into the loose framework we were working from. Of course along the way much was discarded and I was sort of on the spot to decide about the story I wanted to tell, since there were about six subsets of the story that would require a lot more time to serve it properly. My focus, probably more in line with the original interview, was the dynamic between my dad and I, conversations, proddings, promptings and basically cracking each other up. Some moments I was very partial to revealed themselves, largely through Jay’s ears, to be not quite as amusing, or germane, as I found them to be. Some of the stuff that remained, the cotton ball bit, for instance, I now considered trite and unnecessary. It was balk city in the editing room, I felt things were getting too personal, way way too much me.
I came around. I suppose it should be noted that I limped into Woods Hole after a, let’s say, “draining” fall in New York, and after agreeing that the story was possibly better told from a personal perspective and realizing that mine was the only one on hand, it was all too easy to double fist tapwater in a blanket fort at 3 am and get my muse on. The trouble is then you’ve said all this stuff, and it’s all true and it’s all for the good of the story, but you’re still Canadian, and you’ve broken the code, which, in terms of being sincere, is to zip across the surface of something bottomless and then turn back to admire the ripples when you think nobody’s looking. Use a laugh as dazzle camouflage, efface with dryness, all that, and I couldn’t help but think that somewhere my passport was twitching itself into a full-on panic attack when Jay and I went over my tape.
Enjoying this feature?
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
I had grabbed a handful of CD’s before leaving for Woods Hole, having not given it a lot of thought. Steve Malkmus’ solo debut reminds me of the early puzzle period, and it fit well. I consider Nature Boy to be my dad’s theme song so we found a place for it, and the rest we decided on through trial and error—a process that has never done much for me, I might add, and that I have never enjoyed more.
After three days in Woods Hole we had come up with a framework and had completed enough of the piece that I felt comfortable leaving the rest of the assembly in Jay’s hands. A few weeks later I heard a cut, and like I said, it was jarring. I like it, but I’m jarred. On paper, it’s much easier to conceive of yourself as a character in your own narrative, and when it’s you talking, there’s really no trap door to fall through. It may seem dichotomous but I consider myself a very private person, and I felt I was walking a fine line in exploiting my experiences, which I have never felt before. My dad trusted me in agreeing to be recorded ad nauseum and I took that as my cue in dealing with Jay. He was absolutely invaluable in keeping the spirit of this piece in focus, and I trust him implicitly – another bred-in-the-bone capacity of every writer. Not. So it didn’t come easily, but it came, and here it is.
I have to thank both Chelsea and Jay for all their work, patience, ideas and support in getting this done. Special thanks to Jay for showing me the bitchingest running trail on the Eastern Seaboard. I recorded all the Toronto/London tape on a Sony TC-D5M with a RE50N/D-B microphone. All of the Woods Hole voice over was recorded on an HHB DAT machine. Jay edited and mixed the piece using Pro Tools. We both work on Macs.
Additional support for this work provided by
with funding from the