The Confession Book: Sarah Koenig

Interviews with Great Writers on Writing, Publishing, and Favorite Snacks

/ by Noah Charney

Sarah Koenig, a veteran of National Public Radio’s This American Life, one of America’s most beloved radio programs, made a huge splash as the voice behind “Serial,” the most popular podcast ever made. Season Two solidified the success of “Serial.” We interviewed Sarah as she contemplates her next project.

 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on Long Island, New York, in a hamlet called Sagaponack, right near the beach.

 

Where and what did you study?

I went to University of Chicago. I have a degree in political science, but I really don’t know much of anything about political science. I mostly studied Russian literature and history. That’s what I loved. I also did theater there – mostly improv.

 

Where do you live and why?

I live smack in the middle of Pennsylvania, in State College, because my husband is a professor at Penn State University.

 

Did you have any special training in the podcast/radio serial story format, prior to Serial?

Yes and no. I’d worked at the radio show This American Life for about a decade before we started Serial. So I knew how to make a good radio story which, to me, is the same as making a good podcast. But I hadn’t done a serialized story before.

 

Do you think “Serial” would work as well in book format, or is there something particular about the radio-ness of it?

That’s actually a question we ask before we make almost any radio story (and I use the term radio here to mean audio, I guess – old habit): Is there a reason to do this as radio? Is this actually a better print story? And sometimes we won’t do a story, because it has nothing to recommend it as radio.

 

What you need for a serialized radio story are: good talkers (people who can tell stories and who reveal something of themselves in a conversation); things happening on tape in real time; and confusion. Lots of questions about the story you’re reporting. We had those elements for season one and season two of Serial. That’s not to say they couldn’t have been done as books, but I don’t think they’d be better as books – at least not as books written by me. Yes, to me there is something particular about hearing people talk, all the information they convey with word choice and tone and pacing and accent, that I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to capture.

 

Had you researched the whole case in season 1 and only then, afterwards, recorded the episodes (essentially knowing where you were headed from the start, rather than giving the feeling that, each episode, the listener is discovering new things along with you), would Serial have had the same effect and appeal? Or is the as-you-go format one of its keys?

I doubt it would have had the same effect and appeal, if we’d had it all in the can before we released it. Surprisingly, that was a surprise to me. I didn’t foresee that the week-to-week-ness of the thing would stoke anticipation in such a huge way. I think there were probably a bunch of reasons for that (one being that people lately are so unused to waiting for satisfaction), but I do think the fact that even I didn’t know quite how the story would turn out, gave the series vitality. And unpredictability. For me, too, actually.

 

Describe your morning routine when writing, or in your case preparing for a podcast.

I’m bad in the morning. I’m never as productive as I hope to be. I futz around and do every other thing – pay bills, fold laundry, answer emails – rather than the work I have to do. It’s terrible. I’m always so jealous of people who say they get up at whatever – 4 am – and, “Oh, I make coffee and write for three hours before my kids wake up.” Alas, I find I’m most productive at about 4 pm. In fact, right now, it’s 10:26am as I write this. I’ve had coffee, taken the dog to pee while walking my son to his bus stop, eaten most of a peach, I’ve boiled an egg, but it’s still sitting in a cup of cold water in the sink, I read an infuriatingly stupid (and long) article in the NYT travel section, when I meant to read the jumps to three actual news stories on the front page, and I’m not dressed for the day. That’s pretty typical, and I’m not proud. Unless I’m on deadline. Then everything changes and I will get up super early and sit down to write and cut tape like a normal person.

 

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I don’t know that I’d call it a distinctive habit or affectation, but I notice that, especially when I’m a little nervous in an interview, I’ll talk too much and then also offer up the interviewee a couple of answers to the question I’m asking. Which is a rookie move, and doesn’t get me the best tape. So I’ll say something like: “When you saw that the soldier was missing, were you angry or simply confused or did you just say ‘what the..’?” I’d probably get better tape if I just asked, “When you saw the soldier was missing, what did you think?”

 

What is your favorite item of clothing?

Right now it’s this Levi’s western-style denim shirt I got at Goodwill. I wear it all the time. The reasons I like it are practical: It has snaps rather than buttons, and it’s not too hot, but heavy enough for a cool morning, say. And now that I think about it, the reasons are also highly psychological. But the psychological reasons are embarrassing, so I will not spell them out.

 

Describe your routine when conceiving of a Serial episode, before the writing begins.

My partner, Julie Snyder, and I will sketch out what needs to happen in the episode. Usually we’ll do this over Skype, since she sits in New York. We’ll figure out what plot points we need to cover, what ideas we want to convey, how we’ll pivot to the next episode at the end. Then we figure out what tape we have to make all that work, or what tape we still need to get, or what other reporting or research we need. If it’s a pretty straightforward episode, all of that maybe takes an hour or an hour and half to talk through. If it’s a tricky one, it can take many hours or even days to riddle it out. And often we’ll come back together after a couple more days and rearrange the whole thing. Once I’ve got the basic structure in my head, I start to build it, which means combing through the tape and pulling out relevant sections. It’s a slow process – it’s a lot of reading, and then listening, listening, listening for the part I like. Once I have all the pulls, I refine them into cuts by editing them into the precise pieces of tape that I want in the story. And once I have, say, the first two or three cuts the way I want them, then I’ll finally start writing. So a week can pass from the time Julie and I map out the structure, to the moment I start writing.

 

How much do you write beforehand, and how are you able to produce such a wonderfully casual presentation method, that feels as if you are ad-libbing?

I write every single thing beforehand. Every word, every pause, every joke – it’s all planned. I’m very careful about what I say. The stories we’re doing for Serial are all heavily reported, so I don’t want to make an error. I fear error enormously. What’s interesting about radio to me, is that no matter how many times I read the script out loud during edits (usually it’s at least three times) before we finally record, something intangible happens once I’m at the mic, and suddenly sentences that sounded perfectly fine when I read them to my colleagues in edits – now they sound bad. Either the rhythm is wrong, or the word choice is inelegant, or it’s confusing. So often we’ll tweak the script as I’m recording. But I’m never winging it. Our process is the opposite of casual, but I’m glad it sounds that way. It’s supposed to. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being read to. I’m very used to reading scripts now, so I don’t struggle to make it sound conversational. But when I was still learning, I’d repeat this in my head: “You’re just telling a story to someone you know. Just tell them what happened.” Of course, at some level it’s a performance. (I just don’t want you to notice the performing.)

 

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I don’t think I have a writing routine, perhaps because I don’t write every day. I do know that once I get going, I can lose track of time. It’ll seem like 45 minutes have passed, but it’s three hours – like that. To me, the writing part of what I do is the easy part, even the joyous part. I love the tape, but I don’t like how much work it takes to gather it and cut it. The writing is the part I always look forward to. The trick in writing for radio is that you have to make sure the writing (the script) and the tape are speaking to each other properly. I want my writing to tease out the best aspects of the tape, without sucking the life out of it. I might write a sentence I think it pretty smashing, but when I read it next to the tape, it’s all wrong. So a lot of what I’m doing when I’m writing is: writing, reading out loud, playing tape; rewriting, reading out loud again, playing tape again, etc., until I’m happy. The next day, no matter how far I’ve gotten in a story, I’ll always start over at the beginning, reading aloud, playing tape, making changes. I do many drafts of each script – sometimes as few as three or four drafts, if it’s an easy one, but it can go upwards of ten or 11 drafts when it’s rough one.

 

I eat all the time when I write. I’ll eat small things, like nuts or dried fruit or whatever I can find. I’m constantly eating.

 

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

If a Serial listener were to wander in my downtown office (which is my favorite place to work, as opposed to home), they might be surprised at how unprofessional it looks in here. On my desk, right now, are lots of papers that should be dealt with (I tend to take notes on anything at hand – old bills, napkins, receipts, newspaper margins); a photo of my father wearing a suit and sitting on a small pony, an open bag of pretzels. I’ve got a giant bulletin board that I aspire to fill with important ideas and documents, but right now is nothing but personal notes and souvenirs, and my dog spends the day sleeping behind me.

 

I have a window on my right, but there’s a curtain across it, because the view is a small parking lot and garbage containers. And also for privacy, since my window is right off a fire escape. (Lately there’s been a young guy going out there and yelling at someone on the phone about a legal situation. Lots of swearing. I think it’s a custody fight. I don’t think he knows I’m four feet away.)

 

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I walk away for a while. Take a walk outside. Or I might sleep on the problem and the next morning (this is a cliché, but for me it actually works sometimes) I figure out a solution in the shower.

 

Describe your ideal day.

To me an ideal day is a whole day at the ocean. Unfortunately, I am more or less alone in this in my family.

 

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My European mother is very mannered and dignified. But she loses it, in the most giggly, out-of-control schoolgirl way, whenever she hears a fart joke of any kind. When she does that, I also lose it.

 

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Anything about kids suffering. Or about civil rights victories. I’m susceptible like that.

 

Do you have any superstitions?

I say a nonsensical prayer in Hebrew and English to my dead grandmother as I’m getting on an airplane. Totally nonsensical. I touch the outside of the plane, the part just to the right of the open door, and I pause and say this prayer.

 

What is something you always carry with you?

Dental floss.

 

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I find questions like this too difficult, because you have to settle on one goal of such a resurrection. Is it to improve the country, or to reverse a disaster, or to satisfy curiosity, or is it personal – to make you less sad about someone you loved being dead (or to have more Peter Sellers movies to watch)? I can’t whittle down my list.

 

What is your favorite snack?

Consistently, almonds.

 

What phrase do you over-use?

In radio writing, I apparently overuse the word “anyhow,” or “anyway.” (I also, apparently, overuse the word “apparently.”) During season one of Serial, about half way through, a friend told me he’d seen something on the internet about kids playing a drinking game where they’d listen to an episode, and then drink every time I said “anyhow” or “anyway.” I stopped cold after that. You will hear nary an anyhow or anyway in season two, or the second half of season one.

 

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as a presenter?

No. I still don’t feel as if I’ve “made it.” I’m more confident and relaxed as a radio reader, by dint of doing it so much. But other than that, no.

 

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

I need to have puzzled through a significant section of a story, to feel like I’ve been productive. Each section does feel like a puzzle to me, because I’ve got all these parts I need to fit together, and sometimes my favorite tape doesn’t hew to the plot points very well, or my favorite writing isn’t servicing the tape the way it should, or the other way around, and I don’t want to give anything up. It can take me days to reconcile.

 

What would you do for work, if you were not a journalist?

I think about that a lot. I sometimes think I’d like to teach, but then I think that’s probably not true. I think about becoming a lawyer, and then going to work for someone like Bryan Stevenson. In a more fantastical way, I want to be an actor. I’d really love to do that, but I’ve never had the guts to try it for real. I keep hoping someone will just ask me to be in their movie or play. I’d say yes.

 

What advice would you give to an aspiring podcaster?

I think aspiring podcasters underestimate how hard it is to make a podcast that’s any good. It’s extremely hard. To massage that into a piece of advice, I guess I’d say: Knowing how hard it is, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t sound like you want it to sound right away. Keep trying things that are ambitious and uncomfortable. That’s what this medium is for: experimentation.

 

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

This reminds me of a story we tried to do a long time ago, about this guy in Chicago who was in an ongoing dispute with his son, and one of his tactics was to get a headstone made for the son. The headstone had his real date of birth, and then date of death was the day, the father explained, his son became dead to him. I was so impressed by the father’s harsh dedication to their beef.

 

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I don’t use shampoo. I got my hair cut this summer, and the woman who did it told me to stop washing my hair and I did. And not one person has noticed. Also, I like to play sports. I’ll raise my hand for any softball game or tennis game or Frisbee or whatever. 

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Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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