Franchises are big business in the entertainment world, and Averno Universe would definitely fit into that category. But what Morgan Smith has created isn’t your usual franchise; the Averno stories reach all over entertainment, from a podcast to music albums and other ventures. The latest Averno album, Over and Out, was released this week by Broadway Records.
I recently connected with Morgan to talk about how she first developed the idea that’s exploded into a full-blown Internet obsession, how she’s built a team that’s able to sustain the idea across different formats and even time zones, and all the ins and outs of building a fictional…well, universe. Learn more in our interview and listen to the new Averno record wherever you get your digital music.
Brittany Frederick: When did you first get the idea for Averno and realize that you wanted to build an entire universe?
Morgan Smith: The first inklings of Averno existing were when I was at a writing conference in Ohio, back when I was probably 17. I started writing this series of short stories and they all took place in the same place, this town. There were witches in the woods and the town was very strange. That was all I knew, and I became obsessed with it. I really liked this setting and I didn’t really have any set characters; I just liked the place.
I left it alone for two years because I was busy writing musicals and doing other things and stuff like that. Then about a year and a half ago, a year ago, I was just coming off the heels of an insane summer with a bunch of musicals in New York. I was like, I need to write something new or else I will go crazy. I’m done with being a producer for now. I really just want to write things. I came back to this place that I had been obsessed with, and I really started leaning into developing the world. I didn’t know yet what I wanted to write in it; I just knew that this was a place that I wanted to be creatively.
I came up with a couple of ideas and I couldn’t decide between them – whether I wanted it to be a musical, whether I wanted it to be a novel – and then I was like, “What if I just don’t decide?” Because I like writing all kinds of things, and I really didn’t want to get boxed into doing only one thing or another. I came up with the idea to just write in this world and come up with a couple of different storylines that interlocked and do them in different storytelling formats.
Obviously, it has completely blown up since then, but the first Averno as Averno was last October, and it was one musical, one podcast and one graphic novel.
BF: As you change the medium, from say a graphic novel to a concept album, does that also require adapting the creative process?
MS: I definitely write different things, different ways. It always, always, always comes first with a playlist and a Pinterest board, because I’m very aesthetic spaced in my writing. That tends to be how I understand a story the most, is just by the texture of it, so that’s always step one for me.
However, then different stories take much different amounts of development. For things like poetry, often that will just be me freewheeling it and going for it. For musicals, I always do a pretty tight outline, because musicals are very formulaic to some extent. They need to work a certain way in order to get everything that needs to happen done in a period of two hours. For novels, that has the most extensive development process for me. I usually will spend about four to six months doing just aesthetic research and making lots of playlists, lots of Pinterest boards, drafting out longer outlines, and really just digging in on the characters. So it definitely is different for me across different mediums.
BF: How did you build out and continue to build out the Averno universe? It’s one thing to have one good idea, but another to create the characters and textures to forge an entire world, and then to sustain it.
MS: It’s gotten to a point where it’s really easy. I would say the hardest point for me was trying to get the big structural stuff handled. When you’re creating a universe, the thing that you want is for it to feel internally cohesive and that it follows a set of emotional rules. Otherwise you’ll end up with those sprawling fantasy worlds where you’re like this is the same thing I’ve read before, just with slightly remixed names. Or, is there a reason that the sand people hate the technology people? There needs to be a structure underlying all of it, and figuring that out was the hardest part.
I eventually landed on the triumvirate of Averno, which is the town, the school and the forest. Triangles are always a good structure, and doing that really let me explore a lot of different personality clashes. But getting that triangle and what stories happen in each one, and what are the aesthetic sensibilities in each one, what are the questions I’m asking in each location, that was the hardest part. At this point the characters, the lore and stuff like that, it’s become very easy just because I understand this world so much and I get the texture of it so much.
I always work very much in place first, which is I think why Averno has been so natural for me, It’s a place that has so many innate conflicts that characters just spring out of it. You have a ruling family who’s been in power a long time via skeezy political back-dealings, and then you have people disappearing into a forest, and you have vaguely magical people living in a forest. And then you have college students who are arriving to this place all the time. There’s a whole bundle of conflicts there.
You end up with the queer daughter of the political elite who’s questioning what her family is doing. And then the people who are left behind when the people disappear into the forest. And the new students who arrive and they’re like, what’s going on here? It creates characters for itself, really.
BF: The major problem with universes is barriers to entry; people can get intimidated with so much content to consume. Where would you say that new fans should start with Averno?
MS: The two best places to start right now are Willow, which is the musical that we put out with Broadway Records, and then Live From Averno, which is a true crime podcast hosted by two college students at a new school. It’s a fictional podcast, but it’s the two of them investigating a crime in their town. Between the two of those, Live From Averno manages to dump a lot of lore and you pick it up naturally from there. And then Willow gives you a much broader sense of the heart of the town and the people who live here. Those are always the two places that I direct people to first.
BF: What’s the time commitment and logistical commitment for you as the creator? You also work with quite a few other folks, as well; it’s not a solo venture.
MS: It definitely just means that I live Averno. There’s no break. I live in this world all the time. The planning slash development team plus concept artists, it’s about 60 people in every time zone imaginable. We have people in Taiwan and people in Australia, and then people in California and stuff like that. In terms of just organizing it, there’s a lot of polls, a lot of who could make it to this when.
Then we’re all in school, but we’re all doing school remotely right now, so we all meet on our lunch breaks. Some people will be in class and have one headphone in for class, and one headphone in for our meeting. (laughs) But I think it also means that our team has ended up getting really close. We all know each other really well…It means that no matter what, we all talk to each other all the time, because we’re all working on this.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.