Somewhere along the way to becoming one of those names that reoccurs on the NY Times best seller list, Cathy FitzGerald put down her pen and picked up a microphone. The literary world's loss is radio's gain.
Cathy brings a quiet elegance to her work. Short on sound design, long on imagination. Like a good author, she develops characters and tells compelling stories with layers of nuance. Much like eloquent words on a page, those stories resonate and stay with you. Her nearly-whispered narration drawing you in. Her lucid writing carrying you along.
In radio years Cathy is a relative newcomer. In reality, her growing collection is impressive in quality and quantity. Notable is how she explores ideas outside the mainstream— and often out of left field. Here's a short list of our FitzGerald favorites, including her latest.
Feeling the pain in a museum dedicated to broken hearts.
Going six feet under with gravediggers who still dig by hand.
A high-flying paraglider juxtaposed with a man behind bars who can only dream of soaring above it all.
Finding out what drives New York cabbies to get behind the wheel.
If you know much about FitzGerald, you're aware she collaborates with Matt Thompson on many of her pieces. You can read about that here on the Third Coast site (click on the Extras tab). But to keep it simple, our focus was 100% on Cathy and her work. Happily, she was nice enough to answer all of our nosy questions.
You studied for a Ph.D. in literature (Dickens). What was your ultimate goal (we're guessing it wasn't radio)?
FitzGerald: I don’t like ultimate goals much. I used to think I had to have one, but then around the end of my twenties I realised I wanted to have a life, not a career. Lives are much messier and (like most messy things) are much more fun. So I didn’t have a plan beyond the fact that few things made me happier at that time then spending a rainy Sunday with a pot of tea, a packet of ginger nuts and a very sharp pencil, scribbling on a Victorian novel.
How did you settle on radio as a form of expression?
CF: I gave up trying to be a writer. And then it turned out radio was already in my head, waiting for me.
Where did you learn and polish your craft?
CF: Well, it might sound daft, but Dickens taught me a lot about radio. I love how his writing is a mix of hyper-realism and surrealism; the practical and the poetic. And then Matt Thompson – who makes radio in an old rockethouse on the Scottish coast – taught me the nuts and bolts of documentary-making, plus the most important thing of the lot: confidence in my own voice. That’s a lifetime’s debt.
You use music very sparingly, which helps give your work a simple, calm elegance. How would you describe your style?
CF: Um… I like the idea of Essex Weird. Or Docu-Fantasia (to borrow from Guy Maddin). But I’m not really sure I want to reduce it to a tidy formula or even to think about it too much. The programmes grow out of my mental compost, so they are me in some ways.
It’s easier to say what I aim for. I want what I make to have a tang of honesty, for listeners to hear and feel that I’m being as truthful as I can be in my response. And I want the programmes to fly… to be imbued with a sense of things numinous and hopeful. But to be of the earth as well: irreverent, mischievous and bawdy.
Does the BBC have first right of refusal on your work? And if so, do you still do a full pitch to the network before you record anything?
CF: I’m an independent producer so I can pitch to anyone… and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Has your success earned you a goodly amount of creative freedom or does the network continue to exercise a strong guiding hand?
CF: I think of it as a Venn diagram. There’s a circle of things the BBC wants and there’s a circle of things I want to make. I pitch the stuff in the middle. But I also try to find a little time every year to work on the stray, curious love-projects that don’t fit the BBC and which might not fit radio either. There isn't a radio-me and a non-radio-me... there are just things that belong on the radio and things that will work better in other mediums.
Do you still produce podcasts and museum tour audio, as well?
CF: Yes. Lately I’ve written tours to accompany Tate Modern exhibitions about Gauguin, Miró and Matisse. I like learning about the paintings from the curators, but more than that, I love reading the biographies and the letters. Artists are often so good at life. Take Miró. I want to make a radio doc about his notebooks which are full of tiny wonderings about what he might do next, such as:
“Pyrograph pumpkins, which have first been painted with white tempera, and once they are drawn, add a little colour”
“Pass a pumice stone over the two black canvases I have in Paris. That would make a more beautiful texture”
And my favourite:
“Remain a self-taught amateur as for technique. That way I will do lovely work”
Maybe that’s my ultimate goal. To remain a self-taught amateur and make lovely work.
What are the best things you've heard (radio or podcasts) in recent memory — besides your own, of course?
CF: The Yalta Game by Dmitriy Nikolaev
False Ending by Jonathan Mitchell
Arthur's Story by Suzanne Ahearne & Steve Wadhams
The Real Tom Banks by Jesse Cox & Tim Nicastri
And a tiny wonder: Lullaby by Phil Smith
Finally, will you be giving U.S. producers a chance to ask questions of their own by attending the Third Coast Festival this fall?
CF: No, I can’t afford it, alas. But I’m one of the judges so I’ve had a little taste and got to meet lots of kind & clever people at the judging weekend in Chicago