Ever Want to Get Your Story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE?
I’m a big fan of This American Life, and so is my mom. If you don’t regularly tune in to public radio, maybe you’re not familiar with this show out of Chicago. As the producers of the show describe on their website, “It’s basically just like Car Talk. Except just one guy hosting. And no cars.”
But you can hear regulars like David Sedaris, Meghan Daum, John Hodgman, and lots of super unknowns tell their stories to producer and host, Ira Glass. The stories cover the whole gamut from tales at Israeli Army summer camp to a woman risking her life in a war zone in order to restock the vending machines with candy to teenagers who babysit children who don’t exist. And the wonderful thing for people like me who aren’t disciplined enough to sit down to a weekly show, is that the radio show is also on the web, so you can tune in whenever you have time.
So how do you get your story on This American Life?
Well, it’s not easy. In fact, the writer James Spring calls the process “staggering.” Let me quickly introduce James Spring. I really and truly like this guy. He has a fascinating life, is generous in spirit, and is a writer’s writer. He also has impressive chest hair, which is why you should right this minute click on this link to see what I mean.
Now James Spring has agreed to share all of his behind the scenes knowledge of TAL, and later this month, we can all tune in to hear how his hard work paid off.
First you need a story. (Everything in italics is James Spring talking.)
Last August the Minuteman militia was camping at the border, 50 miles east of where I live in San Diego. It was big local news at the time, and, obviously, a contentious issue (San Diego’s Hispanic population is in the majority). I went on the Minuteman website, and the propaganda painted the “operation” like it was Da Nang. They invited all patriotic Americans to stand beside them on the border. It hit me that this scene would likely be very different than many of us might expect.
Then you have to record your story in a very specific way.
I’ve been a huge fan of This American Life for almost their entire ten years, and I thought this might be right up their alley. I checked out TAL’s website, and bought their RADIO comic book (“How to Make Great Radio”). I went to eBay and bought the equipment that they recommended (NOTE: the TAL printed info was very old. The equipment I bought was expensive and virtually obsolete.) I drove to the Minuteman encampment and began recording. Nutty stuff ensued. I got classic TAL moments on tape (when it wasn’t failing on me.) During the 24 hours I spent with the Minutemen, I was able to record about three hours of acceptable stuff.
Editing and splicing.
I’ll just say here that James had to log 24 hours of tape in specific increments, labeling the action, etc, and ended up with 30 pages of this log. He noticed a narrative taking shape but before deciding whether it was worth his time to write and cut away, he queried TAL.
The query and forces you can’t prepare for.
I spent a week on my one-page query letter, and then asked two of the pals in my writing circle to edit it. I’ve got to say, my query letter kicked ass. I sat back and waited for the phone call. Hurricane Katrina hit. Iraq went bloodier for a spell. Each week I could hear This American Life devoting all their time and resources to those two topics.
After six months without a response. contact from TAL.
Producer Sarah Koenig wrote and phoned me to say that she just read my Minuteman query and she really liked it could we talk soon? I called her at the first opportunity. She was funny and smart and quirky, just like she is in her stories for TAL. She asked me further details and about the quality of the tape. By the end of the first conversation, she agreed that the heart of the story centered on a particular Minuteman named Larry. She asked me to transcribe some choice bits of my interviews with him. I did. It took hours. I stayed up until sunrise so that I could get it to her in time for the pitch session the next morning. She read the transcripts and sent me a quick e-mail. “Did you mike your own questions (please say yes)?” I had.
It’s all about cutting and cutting and cutting.
That evening she called to tell me that Ira really liked the story. They wanted to do it for a show – in two weeks! She asked me if I could upload the three hours of tape to their FTP site. This was a challenge, but it worked. Sarah and producer Amy O’Leary listened to the entire tape and together they chose their favorite bits of tape. I wrote five pages of scene context (in the order of the tapes), and Sarah cut and pasted transcripted tape and relevant text from my contexts. This provided the structure of the story. She told me the story would be 8-10 minutes long. It was Friday at this point, and I was sicker than an Indonesian chicken. They told me they needed my script by Sunday. I spent about forty hours writing that script. My sickness transcended into something akin to ebola of the sinuses.
They read the script. “You are such a good writer,” Sarah said. I thanked her. It would be nearly two hours into the conversation before I realized that her statement was not a compliment. Being a good writer does not translate to being a good scripter for TAL. There was a lot of cutting to be done. On Monday I spent four hours on conference calls with Sarah in North Carolina and Amy in NYC. We were able to cut the story down to about a half-hour.
Say “Ira Glass” and many of us writers get sweaty hands.
[Sarah] told me that the next morning I would read the script to Ira.
“Ira Glass?” I said.
“Yeah,” Sarah said.
“I’m going to read the words?”
“To Ira Glass?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “You’ll stop where it says TAPE, and I’ll play the tape, and when the tape is done, you read until the script says TAPE again.”
I didn’t sleep much that night. At 8:00 the next morning, the phone rang.
“James? This is Ira.”
I tried to be cool. I don’t know how well I did. He bridged in Sarah and Amy, and I read the script.
“Twenty-six minutes,” Ira said.
I told him not to worry. I was confident we’d be able to trim ten to fifteen seconds off that with no problem.
But what is Ira really like?
Ira is exactly the guy you hear on the radio. He is a funny guy, and he controls everything without sounding like he has any control at all. Nothing is left to chance. We spent two hours paring painful paring the script and tape. Ira had another meeting at that point and we scheduled another conference call for the next morning. We were only half-way through the script.
I think this bears mentioning: Ira is foul-mouthed. He berates his computer’s slow performance like a drill instructor, “Come on, you fucking fuck bastard fuck.”
And he is irreverent. At one point he referred to my solo scene with Larry the Minuteman as our Brokeback Mountain moment. He tells me to write into the script, “I wish I could quit you, Larry.”
The bad news about long stories.
By the middle of day number two’s conference edit with Ira, he decides that this story needs to be longer. I am cut from this week’s show, and put into an episode called “Cat & Mouse” that will air later this month. By the end of the edit, the script is about fifteen minutes long.
How much money?
They paid me a couple thousand dollars for the story, which is a good chunk of change unless you think in terms of dollars per hour, in which case, This American Life could probably be tried and found guilty of something in US labor courts.
Oh, good grief. One more step.
Next up, I go to the local NPR affiliate, KPBS, and wear headsets for direction from producer Sarah as I read the script. KPBS will upload the file to WBEZ in Chicago, and then I don’t ever have to think about this story again.
So James Spring would never do this again, right?
The number of man-hours invested in each story on TAL is boggling. And the fact that Ira helms every single story is impressive, and a testament to his devotion to create such a high quality program. I hope that my next story meets their approval, and that I get to work with them again very soon
This American Life, drug smuggling, finding an agent – An interview with James Spring.
Last time I interviewed JAMES SPRING, we talked exclusively about how he got his story on This American Life and the vigorous process of shaping a story for radio. Today, a little more about the fascinating author and his as-yet unsold book which “reads more like Augusten Burroughs’s book DRY, but without the alcoholism. Or the gay sex.” I hope you enjoy today’s interview.
Updates with TAL?
Minuteman for a Day is the lead offering for this weekend’s show (Feb 24th.) Some guy named David Sedaris is doing a story or something, also, this week. The whole thing is still surreal. And the edit-for-radio process with Ira (chronicled elsewhere in this blog) really opened my eyes to what editing for print should be like, too. After we finished up the TAL piece, I was doing another final read-through like the 7,000th – of my book’s manuscript and suddenly saw it as the wordiest writing ever. I began to treat that manuscript like it was a corn field and I was a Mayan farmer. I slashed the hell out of it. My book-length manuscript is now nearly a haiku.
[A note to the readers of this blog: Um, regarding the archives for our previous interview, there are none. I always erase everything from the blog each week and start from scratch. But I do have the official description from TAL’s website regarding the show James is featured on.]
Cat and Mouse
Just near the US-Mexico border, a group of self described “pissed off patriots” called the Minutemen stake out illegal immigrants trying to cross the border. They’ve got call-signs and walkie-talkies and guns. But not long after they’ve set up their observation posts, another group shows up to cause trouble. In the dark of night, in the high desert of California, the chase begins. Plus a brand new story from David Sedaris. Broadcast the weekend of February 24-26 in most places, or here via RealAudio next week.
Tell me something I don’t know about Ira Glass.
He is a poker-hound. His addiction to Texas Hold’em might soon require Methadone.
Tell me more about what you write and when you do it.
I write short fiction sometimes. There is a group of writers here in San Diego with whom I get together six or seven times a month for prompts and timed writing practice. It’s fast and furious. It helps clear the carburetor of that pesky self-edit mentality.
With my narrative non-fiction manuscript CROSSING THE GAP, I’ve spent big chunks of four years whipping it into what it is today. I am not a morning person. I distrust anyone who rises before the sun. But I find that I write first drafts best at about 6:00 a.m., before the hateful editor in my head begins to stir. Much of what I write at this time is horrific, but it gets down on paper for later floggings. Anne Lamott talks about giving yourself the freedom to “write shitty first drafts.” It is imperative. Otherwise, you’ll never finish. You can obsess, like I do, later, on the subsequent thousand drafts. Just get yourself to the words THE END.
Do you use an outline?
I write chapter summaries, which are a version of outline points. I know writers who can keep it all straight in their heads, or who are flexible enough to roll with changes en route. I’m not that smart. Or that free.
Do you write everyday?
No. I aspire to write Monday through Friday. Then when Friday comes, I get distracted and shift the schedule so that I write Sunday through Thursday, instead. Sometimes I stick to it. That’s not true. I’m lying. I almost never follow through and write on Sunday. But I always feel guilty. I believe that guilt is the fuel that drives most writing on this planet.
What are your primary distractions?
All the clichs, of course, led principally by my 1-year-old baby girl who looks like she was designed at Disney studios. [Editor’s note: See photo of cutest baby on earth.]
I am the result of horrible parenting. And horrible living. I try to make up for it with a maniacal devotion to this child. I make her listen to Miles Davis, and I speak to her in two languages, and I read to her all the time. Sometimes Dr. Seuss, but often times Paulo Coelho. She indulges me.
Over the past few years, motorcycles have become something of an obsession, too. I just bought the dirt bike of my dreams a KTM 525 EXC and I’m looking to join a team to race in the Baja 1000. I spend a lot of time on the Baja peninsula. I dive and kayak and wander the desert. Last November I discovered previously unrecorded cave paintings. Baja California is probably the place I feel most comfortable in the world.
Do you have an agent?
I’m represented by the BJ Robbins Literary Agency in Hollywood. I’d struck out with a couple of the agents who represented big-time outdoor-adventure writers like Krakauer and Junger, but one day I read a great book called The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost, who writes actual narrative set in exotic locales, and he does it with a sense of irony that is similar to mine. His agent was B.J. Robbins. I hunted her down and made my pitch. She read the synopsis and my first fifty pages and signed me to her list.
Is CROSSING THE GAP not a Krakauer-type of adventure?
No. It’s not. Books like INTO THIN AIR and THE PERFECT STORM are journalism. Good examples, I think, but they’re dry facts, unencumbered by judgment or by characters that evolve. CROSSING THE GAP is an allegory. It shows how a selfish prick can be compelled to regain the humanity he spent a lifetime trying to ditch. There were points during the writing of the story where I wished I could have shifted to third-person. It was painful to admit to some terrible choices I’d made. I hope that to some degree, the end will justify the means. That is to say, I hope people read all the way through to the end to see that I’m better now.
Is this the time to address the white elephant? You were a drug smuggler. Is CROSSING THE GAP an apology?
The action of this book takes place nearly a decade after I’d left that life. But it’s part of the framework by which I’ll be judged by the reader. I mean, people will look at this story and say, ‘Well, Christ, you deserve to have bad things to happen to you.’ I know that. Ultimately, this story focuses on my search for redemption after all the lousy things I’ve done. It tells the tale of a crazy opportunity I was given to set my karma straight. This book takes place in a harsh environment and offers plenty of adventure, I suppose, but it is written with a very personal narrative. It’s still exciting, like SHADOW DIVERS, but it reads more like Augusten Burroughs’s book DRY, but without the alcoholism. Or the gay sex.
Will you address the smuggling at some point? With another book, maybe?
I’m currently working on a prequel, of sorts, that gives a hideous glimpse into the drug trade and the drug traders. It is also character-driven. I’m writing it straight through first, and then I’ll need to go back and substantially alter some character traits and places and events. Kind of a reverse-James Frey thing. This one feels like a rollercoaster in my guts. And what I fear most is the thought of what my daughter might one day think of me.
I think she just might think of you as courageous and a damn good writer.
I’m absolutely psyched to hear you on This American Life tomorrow. And when your book is out, I’ll be quick to purchase it.