No one knows what happened in Limetown, Tennessee, where all 327 citizens vanished in February 2004. The town and its people are a work of fiction, but it's still maddening not to know the cause of the disappearance, especially when initial reports don't mention much more than a massive bonfire in the town square. Well, initial "reports."
That mystery is one reason the "Limetown" podcast is so popular. Created by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, "Limetown" shot to No. 1 on iTunes shortly after it first aired in 2015.
As of last month, it's also a book, written by Lawrence novelist Cote Smith. Soon, it'll be a TV show on Facebook Watch, starring Jessica Biel and Stanley Tucci.
The podcast picks up 10 years after those townspeople disappear, when a young investigative reporter, Lia Haddock, tries to solve the mystery on the air for "American Public Radio."
"She has a loose connection in that she knows that her uncle, Emile Haddock, was at Limetown. So, he's one of the citizens that disappeared," Smith explains.
The story feels a little like an old-time radio drama, complete with cliffhangers at the ends of the 30 to 45-minute episodes. One by one, survivors of whatever happened at Limetown come forward, agreeing to speak only with Lia, no one else.
"I know there are other fiction podcasts doing something similar, but I think what Zack and Skip do is unique because they aren’t coming from a radio background, they’re coming from a film or TV background," Smith says.
In 2016, Akers and Bronkie contracted with Smith to write a prequel to the action in the podcast.
Smith says he had a lot of freedom to build the characters and their stories. He, Akers, and Bronkie talked about how to maintain the tone of the podcast in book form, but many of the decisions were up to Smith.
"That was great, because Emile Haddock in the first season, he's basically a blank slate," Smith notes. Emile has the ability to read minds, but other than that, Smith says, "we don’t know anything about him."
Though the podcast slowly makes it known that some kind of mind experiments took place in the Tennessee town, Smith decided to set much of the book in Lawrence. He makes it the place where both Lia and Emile grew up, just after the "panic" at Limetown (as the disaster is called).
The story moves back and forth from Lia in her late teens to Emile in his late teens. In later chapters, the two characters come together, but never for long. Even with no knowledge or intention of listening to the podcast, the novel is a good read — though it definitely leaves an itch only the podcast can scratch.
Smith makes references that will be familiar to people around Kansas City, such as the Eldridge Hotel, the Menninger Clinic, and Lost 80 Park. But because the fictitious Eldridge Hotel is in Colorado, and the fictitious Menninger Clinic (which was in Topeka until it relocated to Houston in 2003) is in Australia, the mystery of Limetown seems to have deepened with the release of the novel.
"I love it," says Akers, who's from Tennessee but now lives in New York City. "People should write what they know and where they came from. I mean, I couldn’t write about people from Kansas, but he could. And I just think that that adds interesting color to it and makes it more authentic.”
But once the novel reveals these other key locations, podcast fans will have to wonder just how deep and powerful these Kansas ties really are.
"It’s a conspiracy all around you," Akers says.
Expanding the enigma was definitely his intent, Smith says, but he also wanted to include a nod to his home.
"As a Midwestern-slash-Kansas author, I like the idea of representing the area that I came from and trying to do that hopefully with some honor," he says.
"I mean, one of the things that was really fun about writing the book was inserting little Easter eggs like that, but also Easter Eggs that referenced the first season of the podcast, even part of season two, because I sort of knew where that was headed when I was writing the book."
Akers says he doesn’t know whether there will be a third season of the podcast, or whether the team will just focus on the upcoming TV show. Either way, he says, Smith's book is invaluable to the enterprise.
"You can't tell someone's story without looking at their whole life," Akers says. "Now that there's a canon, now that we know where these characters come from and what they've been through, that definitely will be part of how we build this thing out for sure."