Conversation with Alex Kingsley
Stand-up comedy, voice acting, podcast production, game design, oh my! Find out all of this and more with Alex Kingsley.
Alex Kingsley (they/them) is a writer, comedian, and game designer based in Madrid. They are a co-founder of Strong Branch Productions where they write and direct the sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure. Their work has been published by Sci-Fi Lampoon, Mystery & Horror LLC, Interstellar Flight Magazine, and more. They’re also a contributor to Ancillary Review of Books. Their games can be found at alexyquest.itch.io, their dramatic catalog on the New Play Exchange, and their silly tweets at @alexyquest.
Alex is also the author of the short story “This Is Not a Place of Honor” from Radon Issue 2.
Does your experience as a stand-up comedian affect the way you write stories?
Absolutely! When I was taking comedy classes in high school, one of my teachers had us do this great exercise. We were supposed to keep a comedy journal, and every night before we went to bed we were supposed to list every funny thing that happened that day. I only kept the journal for a month, but in that month the practice trained me to always be looking for the joke. Now it’s like my brain has a built-in comedy radar, always looking for levity in every situation. Naturally I don’t use this in every piece I write—sometimes I wanna keep things completely serious—but it’s a great tool to have when I want to temper the darkness of a piece with humor. It allows the comedy to seep into my work in a way that feels natural instead of forced.
Beyond that, the practice has also taught me to find seeds for stories everywhere, the same way I’m always looking for the world’s inherent humor. That one-month exercise allowed me to realize that there’s creative inspiration everywhere if you’re only looking for it.
You’re a voice actor and produce your own podcasts. How do you prepare for roles?
One of my favorite parts of acting is tablework. I love to get together with the other actors and ask questions about our characters and their relationships. When we first started recording The Stench of Adventure, I spent weeks sitting down with each different pairings of actors and asking, “How do these characters feel about each other? What do they want from each other? How do they present their feelings, and how do they truly feel?” And when I’m acting as well, I answer those same questions! Whenever I’m trying to get to know a character better, whether it’s one I’m writing or one I’m playing, I fill out a character dossier. It’s a set of questions I’ve written up that help me flesh out the character. Everything from “What’s their greatest fear?” to “What’s their favorite food?” Not only is it super fun, but even the most mundane questions can be incredibly informative to me both as a writer and actor.
Several of your short stories have been produced into audio podcasts. What's the transition process like from a written to auditory medium?
It really depends on the piece! Some of my stories, like “Little Acid Girl” and “The Strange Garden” were originally written for print. But when podcast publications accepted them (The Ensemble Arts Exchange and Weird Tales Podcast, respectively) they translated pretty well to audio without modification because they’re both first-person narratives with a pretty strong sense of voice. And they were both performed by experienced actors who didn’t need my direction to give life to the characters. Other pieces I write with audio in mind. “Summer Reading Champion,” for instance, I wrote specifically for The Storage Papers. So in addition to really defining the character voice to give the voice actor lots of room to play, I also tried to write in opportunities for creative sound design (e.g., a demon with a very distinctive voice, or a scene with a bunch of children all chanting in unison).
With The Stench of Adventure and Tales From The Radiator, I’m the director, so part of the transition process from written to audio comes from the collaboration between me and the actor. With Stench, by the time we get to recording, writer-Alex is gone and director-Alex is in control so it becomes less about “how do we stay true to what I wrote?” and more about “how can we, together, make the most interesting choices to bring this text to life?” Radiator provides an interesting challenge because (with the exception of “His Name Is Chad”) the stories are not my own, so the actor and I are working together to discover our own interpretation of someone else’s text. We’re walking a tightrope between trying to get a reading that stays true to the author’s work, while also making some choices that will surprise and delight both the author and the audience.
During the penning process of your stories, do you pay attention to how they’ll sound aloud?
Usually when I’m writing, I don’t. Instead I’m focusing more on staying true to the character’s voice. I really enjoy writing in a conversational tone with a close perspective. I write in first person for short stories and third person limited for novels. At first I wasn’t sure why I did this, and then I realized it was because I love closing in the narrative distance between me and a character as much as I could, and in a novel I want that wide scope of multiple perspectives while still focalizing on one character in any given moment.
Once I finish a piece, though, I will read it out loud. I often do “Alex story time” with my partner (who is a fantastic beta reader and gives excellent feedback! Thanks, Noa!) and it provides me an opportunity to read my story aloud to an audience and hear things that sound awkward. I also go to a monthly writer’s open mic in Madrid, where I try out stories aloud and see how the audience reacts.
What media would you cite as influences for your own diverse set of work?
I write in a bunch of different modes (I think of it as a spectrum from “silly” to “spooky”) and each mode is influenced by different pieces of media. On the “sillier” side of things, I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was eleven years old and it was absolutely foundational to my sense of humor. Tons of fans of Stench have noted that it has distinctly Adamsinian vibes. (Which of course I take as a major compliment!) Other audio-comedy influences include Welcome to Night Vale and Cabin Pressure. For my short fiction, George Saunders has had a huge impact on me. I love the way he blends humor with darkness, his subtle (and sometimes unsubtle) capitalist satire, and his all-around bizarre concepts. For my SFF novels, I owe a lot of inspiration to Brandon Sanderson. He’s the only author to claim not one but two of my hyperfixations (Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive). I also adore Becky Chambers and Ted Chiang. For my plays, I’m mostly inspired by Annie Baker, who manages to write complex character dynamics with great subtlety.
How do you approach the craft of writing for each different medium and genre?
I generally start with a concept first, and form comes later. When I have an idea, I just start writing, and then as it develops I start to discover what it most wants to be. The novel I’m currently peddling started out as a short story. My podcast was originally going to be a novel. I have a new piece of prose that still doesn’t know what it wants to be, but it started as a game module that later became a LARP (and that LARP is now available on my Itch!)
Once I know what medium I want something to be, I then start to ask how I can use that medium to best tell the story I want to tell. So with prose I start asking, whose perspective makes this story most interesting, and what does their voice sound like? With games I’m asking, what mechanics allow the players to have more fun, and shape the narrative in a satisfying way? With podcasts I’m asking, how can I use sound to better serve the atmosphere and the story?
Tell us about your game designing and the games you've made.
I love to make games that are silly and weird and often I make them because I’ve discovered some gap in the game world and decided to fill it myself. Most of my games happened because I asked, “Does this game exist? No? Okay I’m making it myself then.” I really like games as a medium because they’re one of the only modes of collective storytelling. I’ve tried to use a gameplay-model in other collaborations I’ve done to give everyone a sense of shared ownership and narrative control. It is also very important to me, in life, to maintain a sense of play, so prioritizing games in my life is like championing one of my core values.
I first got into game design when I was Dungeon Master in a D&D campaign that clearly did not want to be a D&D campaign. The players loved to roleplay, which meant swe hardly ever used any of D&D’s many mechanics. Whenever I set up a combat situation, the players preferred to find creative ways out of it instead of fighting. This led me to write my first game, De-escalation, a humorous fantasy game in a Discworld-like universe where you play as a City Watch that had been forbidden from using violence. Writing De-escalation opened my eyes to the possibilities of game design. Anything can be a game with enough whimsy, and maybe even a set of dice! That’s how some of my weirder concepts like OSHA Violations: The Game or Cool Rocks: The Game Where You Find Cool Rocks came along.
Which of the many games you’ve made would be your favorite?
As my first game and the one that introduced me to the indie game design scene, De-escalation will always be near and dear to my heart. I think the game I’m most proud of, however, is actually Dance The World New (DTWN), a game I wrote to allow fans of The Magnus Archives to roleplay in that world. I’m particularly proud of the core mechanic in this game—the players are in two teams: supernatural creatures who have teamed up to bring about the end of the world, and humans who are trying to prevent it. Both teams play by a different set of rules in order to reflect the fact that they function based on different metaphysical rules. The humans, for instance, play on a d6 system, whereas the supernatural creatures play on a d20 system.
The other reason DTWN is really special to me is that it was actually a huge collaboration. Since it was based on a pre-existing property that already had a fanbase, when I announced the game a ton of artists reached out and contributed their work to the gamebook. In the end, we had this huge piece of collective art, and the experience was really special, and reflected the collaborative nature of the indie games world. It was a great reminder of why I do this work in the first place.
Tell us about the book of short stories you published two weeks ago with Strong Branch Press, The Strange Garden and Other Weird Tales.
The Strange Garden and Other Weird Tales is a collection of my favorite short fiction I’ve written so far. The stories range from humor to horror (including my Radon story, “This Is Not a Place of Honor”) but the main throughline is that they all have a heavy dose of weird, often tempered with humor and heart. Some of these stories are already out in the world, but some of them just felt so personal to me that I wanted to put them out there on my own terms.
What was the process like narrating your own audiobook?
So much fun! I already do freelance audio editing for indie audiobooks, so I was already equipped with the technical skills. It was really exciting to have the chance to put all that to use on my own work. I especially loved doing all the voices for my different characters. Voice is important to me when writing, so actually literally giving those characters voices was a delight. I really hope people enjoy the audiobook, and I hope they can hear in my voice how much I enjoyed making it. I even composed the little theme song at the beginning.
Tell us what’s next for the busy Alex Kingsley!
The project I’m most excited about is the post-apocalyptic sci-fi trilogy I’m working on. It’s about a future where giant crabs have taken over the Earth, and a boy who gets lost in the desert discovers he can speak to the crabs telepathically. It’s full of adventure, humor, fucked up creatures, and of course, queer romance. It will be out in the world eventually, whether through a big publisher or Strong Branch Press, and I can’t wait for people to read it! These crabs have been in my brain for too long. I need them to be in other people’s brains, too.
Naturally there are more podcasts coming up! The Stench of Adventure Season 3 comes out this year, and the show will conclude with its final season in 2024.
Lastly, SBP is producing my sci-fi play, Unplanned Obsolescence, at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival this year. We’ve just gone into rehearsals for this show, and I’m so excited to share it with the world (or at the very least, with Philadelphia!)
Between the crab novels, the silly sci-fi show, and the robot play, I’ve got my hands full with delightful and fulfilling creative projects.