Behind the Scenes with Tor Labs: How Steal the Stars Went from Podcast Sensation to Full-Length Novel

The Steal the Stars podcast reached its glorious end last week, bringing to a close a 14-week full-cast audio fiction experience that marked the auspicious debut of Tor Labs, a new audio-first imprint from Tor Books.This week comes the novelization of the serial (think along the lines of how popular movies are turned into books) goes even deeper into the story of Dakota Prentiss, a security guard at a facility holding the secret to humanity’s first contact with aliens who unexpectedly finds love in the worst place possible.

Steal the Stars is a collaboration between Tor Labs and Gideon Media. Recently we sat down to talk to the editors behind Tor Labs, Marco Palmieri and Jennifer Gunnels, and the novelization’s author, Nat Cassidy, who gave us a little bit of a behind the scenes info on the project’s origins.

Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell us about the origins of Tor Labs and the Steal the Stars podcast. How did this all come together?

Jennifer Gunnels: I never gave up my theater roots. That’s why I know Mac [Rogers] and the guys at Gideon Media—I watched them doing theater over a number of years, and I thought it would be cool to introduce them to Marco Palmieri, my friend and colleague at Tor. I thought, “My good friends should know my other good friends.” We went out for drinks, and the guys were saying, “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something to merge theater and publishing?” And Marco and I are like, “Yeah, that’s really really cool. We have no idea how we’d do that, but that is an awesome idea. Let’s have another round.”

A couple of days later, Marco and I are sitting in his office, and we started talking about it. Marco said, “We should do something like this.”

Marco Palmieri: We already knew Mac had great success with the audio dramas he wrote for GE—The Message and Life/After. The folks at Gideon asked us if Tor would be interested in doing something like that.

Nat Cassidy: By this point, Mac, Sean Williams, Jordana Williams, and I had been getting together to talk about putting an audio play platform on its feet. Mac had just done The Message and Life/After, and we were all writing our own radio drama scripts and serialized stories, so we would get together at the Williams’ place and read the next episode of each thing we were writing. A few weeks later, when we started talking with Tor about this collaboration, we decided to focus on Mac’s script first. It’s a phenomenal story, written by someone really comfortable and established within the medium, so it was a no-brainer first venture.

Was a book always part of the plan?

MP: Not initially, but as book editors, we quickly realized it was [obvious] for the project to include a book component. The original question we wrestled with was, “Can a book publisher also publish audio dramas?“

JG: It’s so crazy it just might work!

MP: We had to ask a lot more questions internally at [Tor’s parent company] Macmillan. Thankfully, we were met with a lot of enthusiasm. The Macmillan Podcast Network was basically like, “Oh my god, we’ve been waiting for something like this, and the timing is perfect!”

We started working with them to come up with a business model that would allow Tor to publish dramatic podcasts for profit. Once we had that, we presented our idea to the higher-ups at Tor and Macmillan, and we were consistently met with the same response: “This is brilliant, what do you need from us to make this happen?” The support we received was amazing. Part of the business model we came up with was, why stop at an audio drama? We’re a publishing house. Why wouldn’t we also do a novel based on the podcast?

So, the writer for the podcast is the writer for the novel?

MP: Mac’s work is the source material. But because of the need to get the podcast and the novel completed more or less simultaneously, it made sense to have someone directly involved with the podcast also working on the book. And lucky for us, our novelist is Nat Cassidy, who happens to be one of the core members of Gideon Media and one of the actors in Steal the Stars. He plays Lloyd, the chief scientist at Quill Marine.

JG: Nat is also a playwright in his own right and well known for doing extremely successful horror on the stage. He won awards for doing Lebensraum, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Temple. He staged it as a U-boat in the round.

Nat, how did you feel about getting a shot at writing your first novel?

NC: It was an opportunity I really couldn’t pass up. First off, it found me right as I was itching to get back into writing novels and novel-type things. That was something I used to do quite regularly as a preteen, before I really started focusing on plays. But being a playwright is hard—the business aspects are very frustrating; the work is artistically fulfilling, but it’s really, really hard to make a living of it.

I’d been thinking more and more of writing other media already. A chance to write my first novel in a supportive environment at one of my actual favorite publishing houses? I had to at least try. It was also an ideal scenario for me as a first timer, because it was an adaptation. I’ve been describing it as a kind of “training wheels adventure.” My very first play was an adaptation, my first teleplay was an adaptation, my first screenplay was a ghostwriting job doing a page one rewrite, which is basically an adaptation. I’ve found that whenever you’re writing in a medium that’s new to you, it’s actually a really handy way to get your bearings and figure out your voice. Everything is already mapped out, you don’t have to worry about the plot, you just have to worry about tonal and structural things, and how to make it all work best in this new environment. I’m a big believer in it being an extraordinarily effective way to learn—and, of course, as with those other media, now I’m addicted, and working diligently on my next novel.

How does one audition to be a writer for a novel?

MP: We already knew Nat had aspirations to be a novelist. So I said, “Look, you want to give this a go? Write us some sample chapters based on Mac’s episodes, and we’ll take a look at it and let you know if we think you have the chops.” And he really does have the chops. It was an easy decision: he already works closely with Mac, he’s an actor in the production, he’s reading all the scripts and giving feedback on them, he knows what’s being changed as it’s being changed. It was a win-win for everyone involved. And [he’s] fast! He’s a bit of a Jack of all trades.

JG: He’s a performative polymath.

MP: And he’s awfully funny, and don’t tell him I said this, he’s somewhat dashing. He kind of looks like one of the musketeers.

JG: He does. He could totally pass as a musketeer. And he’s got a dishy voice.

NC: Sorry, did you guys say something? I got distracted guarding the Maison du Roi.

MP: Nat was a consummate professional right out of the gate, and for a first timer, impressed the f*** out of us. He has great instincts, He really pulled it off.

JG: I kinda want to see some original stuff now.

NC: Well, good, because I’m 10,000 words into the next one, and will definitely be pestering you about it soon. And, seriously, I got through the process by like 30 percent pretending I knew what I was doing, 30 percent operating in blind terror, and 40 percent knowing you guys totally had my back.

How is the writing process different for a podcast than from writing a novel?

JG: You have to look at it as different the way playwriting is different. When you’re writing a play, you’re only writing dialogue. You’re not even really writing stage directions, because directors ignore them. So when you’re only dealing with pure character, I like to think of it as there being a lot of holes. In this instance, your actors and your designers and sound designers fill in those holes. There aren’t long narrative passages describing where characters are. That’s part of the art, and you trust that your actors and your designers are good at their art and will propel the vision forward and make it very intimate.

When you’re writing a literary text, you don’t have other people to fill in the holes. You have to rely on the reader, and only the reader. You have to fill in all those holes for them. So all that filler stuff, vocal intonations, sound of a room, the way somebody’s moving, how they speak to one another…that’s got to be described.

MP: Doing any media tie-in novel in most cases involves expanding on the source material in some manner. Whether it’s scenes that may have taken place between scenes in the original story, or flashbacks, or additional bits of dialogue.

NC: When you’re writing a script, you have to train yourself to think of compression. Every moment counts, every line should count, every action should count because you really want a script to move— [that] every moment is earned and everything is as concise as can be. That really involves utilizing all of the various aspects of whatever the medium is. If you’re doing a play, you want to make sure the staging is telling the story, as well as the dialogue, as well as the set and lights and sound. Every element needs to give as much information as possible. Same for podcasts.

But with a novel, it’s a great unpacking of the material, of all your layers of exposition. You never want anything to be masturbatory or slow, but you have a lot more leeway to really unspool things. And you also have to, because you don’t have the benefit of an actor’s performance, you don’t have the benefit of a designer. You have to make sure the audience is receiving the whole message. And then, of course, comes the challenge of doing that artfully.

So being involved in the podcast as much as you are really helps with that process.

NC: Yeah, it was a wonderfully immersive experience as a novelist, because I was there every day for every recording session.

So speaking of that, you’re Lloyd in the podcast, but you’re writing the novel from Dak’s point of view. What is that like to switch from being in Lloyd’s brain to Dak’s?

NC: In the novel, Dak is constantly talking about how handsome Lloyd is. There’s a lot of words dedicated to that; she’s just fascinated with him, all the time… No, I kid.

Actually, I looked at this novelization job as its own acting job, or even as a directing job. I didn’t have to manufacture a plot; I really was taking a script and figuring out what each moment meant, which is how I think as a director and as an actor. When I had just finished the first of three drafts, I gave a copy of the manuscript to Ashlie Atkinson, the actress who plays Dak, because more than anybody, I felt like she was the authority of Dak’s inner voice. She read it and wound up giving me her blessing, which was very vindicating

Marco and Jen, what was it like working with Nat on the tie-in novel?

JG: Nat is a freak of nature!

MP: He is freakishly talented. He’s musically talented, he’s an awesome actor, he’s funny as all hell, and he’s an accomplished prose stylist. And he wrote this under the clock!

JG: He wrote this so fast, it’s not even funny.

AA: So give us a sense of what is “normal” and what is “fast?”

MP: Every novelist is different, but it’s unusual to get a full length novel from an author in less than six months’ time. Most authors prefer to take a year—usually a year is built into the contract. But with Nat, we were on a crash schedule before we even had a contract, because we wanted to time the novel to come out right after the final episode went live. So the final episode went live on November 1, the novel comes out on November 7..

NC: I officially got the offer April 3, and the absolute last draft had to be in July 31, I believe. The first draft was done by the middle of May, the second by the middle of June, and then I turned it in July 30.

How do you think this experience will help you with future novel writing?

NC:  The psychology of writing a novel can be very intimidating. This manuscript ended up being 111,000 words, and coming at that never having written something like it before, it’s terrifying. How do I break up my time? How do I get from page to page? How do I make sure it’s interesting? Now, having done it once, I feel an enormous kind of relief. The next one won’t be easy, but it won’t be my first.

Working with Marco and Jen (and with Mac, too—his material was so well plotted and structured, I never had to worry about that stuff), their notes addressed a lot of habits I had that I’m now much better aware of. When I gave them my first draft, especially in the first third of the manuscript, they had to keep saying, “Hey, uh, maybe describe stuff more.” It’s not an impulse you get to indulge much as a script writer; I actually forgot that latitude that a novelist has. I could just describe things without having to panic about my page length or too much unnecessary marginalia. Now it’s a tool I’m much more comfortable wielding.

Why should our readers read the book and listen to the podcast?

NC: I think you’ll find a lot of really enjoyable and exciting supplemental material in the novel. It’s a seven-hour podcast, so there’s not a lot I had to invent, but there is a lot that I got to dive more deeply into. If you enjoyed the podcast I think you’re really going to love experiencing the story this way. Dakota Prentiss is such a fascinating character, on a whole host of levels. As a writer, my genre is horror. I like to lean into the scariest aspects of things. For Dak, this is a horror story. Falling in love is a very scary thing, especially when you’re not allowed to, especially when it drives you to do desperate things. You’re going to get to feel Dak’s fears and live her nightmare. If you already like Dak, you’re going to like her more, and if you’re not familiar with her yet, you’re going to want to experience her in all of the media that you can.

And if you’re encountering the book first, you’re gonna get an awesome story, and you’ve got an amazingly realized, living version waiting for you immediately afterwards! Aren’t you lucky?

The Steal the Stars novel is available November 7. You can listen to the podcast in its entirety now on Tor.com.

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