Clear Diction Keeps a Fast-Paced Train on Track

“This can’t be for real.”

These were the first thoughts I had while listening to “Santa Fight Club”, by Josh Bearman on This American Life. Imagine a group of Santas, the first national Santa convention, a coup, and Santa fights caught on camera. Sounds absurd? This is the story of Santa Nick and Santa Tim, two bearded Santas caught in a political schism. When all the power of Christmas goes to one man’s head, chaos ensues… I was completely enraptured, listening to it.

Dispel all existing assumptions you might have about Santa Clauses. They may appear jolly and just, but they engage in political battles and sometime even physical ones.

This rich and complex story shines a light into the secret life of a most mysterious man. The pace is quick, with rapid-fire alternation between the perspectives of Santa Nick, Santa Tim and their respective followers. The conviction each side holds that they and only they are in the right sharpens the dramatic climb in finding out the fate of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.

Clear diction helps ensure that the audience can keep track of all the characters introduced. A prime example is the introduction of Santa Tim who is described “dressed in a sort of Santa casual, red and white shirt and green pants dotted with candy canes.” This vivid depiction is what I imagine every time Santa Tim speaks, and this helps hold together the momentum of the story.

Later on, the host uses little phrases like, “the one who sang to me,” or “the other embroiled Santa from the beginning of the story.” These tiny tags work wonders, keeping the listeners’ focus on the story so they don’t have to remember everyone’s names (which they wouldn’t, anyway). They might forget which one is Nick and which one is Tim, but they’ll never forget the one who sang.

In a world of warring factions of Santas, the accepted notions of Santa Claus are turned upside down and inside out. Where Santas are deemed naughty or nice, what happens to naughty Santas?

You will hear for yourself that Santa is real, in this story. And although parts of the story might sound sound unreal, this Santa is both real and real-bearded.

Santa Fight Club
By Josh Bearman for This American Life in 2008
27 minutes

What Happens at Dos Erres Does Not Stay in Dos Erres

Last May, my boyfriend Jon and I drove from Guatemala City to Petén, the northernmost region of the Guatemala. When you reach Petén, you instantly become swallowed up by the jungle. The air is thick and humid, animals and insects cry out in the night, and everything is green; the moon is barely visible through the thick branches and leaves of the trees. At one point, we stopped at a dingy gas station and got out of the car. I remember staring into the immense darkness and thinking, this is the jungle, and it has so many secrets.

A week after I got back to California, I heard episode 465 of This American Life, “What Happened at Dos Erres.” Produced by Habiba Nosheen and Brian Reed, this podcast tells the horrifying story of a military orchestrated massacre that took place in 1982 in the area I had just visited. The amazing thing is that his story, while horrifying, finds a way to inspire listeners.

{spoiler alert}

During the Guatemalan Civil War, a unit of the Kaibiles, an elite special operations force, was sent to Dos Erres on a mission to recover stolen guns. The Kaibiles’ interrogation of the villagers escalated into a mass execution in which men, women, and children were systematically killed. Everyone in Dos Erres was murdered, with the exception of an 11-year-old boy, who escaped, and two younger boys who were adopted by Kaibiles.

Telling stories of atrocities, famines, war—essentially stories of very large scale injustice or devastation—has always been a challenge for reporters, journalists or anyone who has witnessed them. In this piece, we learn that over 180,000 people died or disappeared during the Civil War, and that over 200 people were slaughtered in Dos Erres. When faced with daunting statistics such as those, it’s hard for almost anyone to really grasp the tragedy much less how to communicate it to others. And most people feel exhausted by stories of injustice and widespread maltreatment; we learn to tune them out.

One way to give readers or listeners a way to relate to such large scale tragedy is to tell the story of just one or a few people who experienced this, and this is just what This American Life and the producers do here. “What Happened as Dos Erres” is not a fiery human rights piece, or simply a document of tragedy. The hour-long episode is grounded in the story of Oscar, one of the two adopted children from the village, and even though his story involves massive tragedy, it is not a downer. When we look at the effects of the massacre through the eyes of Oscar and his father, we are able to begin to understand both the immensity of the loss and the resilience of the remaining survivors, who are beginning to cope.

For example, in one segment of the story Oscar’s father Tranquillo stops the reporters in the middle of an interview to ask if he can tell them the names of his children. While he speaks Spanish, the translator’s voice lists the names: “Esther Castaneda… Etelvina… Enma… Maribel. She was around 13 when she died. Then, it was Luz Antonio… Then, it was Cesar. Cesar was seven years old. Then, two other girls, Odilia and Rosalba.” There’s little in the world that’s as emotionally difficult as a father listing the names of his murdered children, but we do and it means something to us because we are hearing one person, one voice, transmitting an experience.

Another strength of the way the producers handle this story is that it does more than simply relay the tragedy Oscar and his father experienced. Case in point, when he shares the names of his children, he does it out of a sense of reverence, not out of a sense of devastation. And the story ends with Tranquilino getting on a plane to visit Oscar. By focusing on a story that ends on a positive note, this episode helps listeners’ ears stay open to an extremely painful story – and it also allows the opportunity to call out for justice – specifically, for military and government officials to be tried.

By the time I finished listening to the piece, that’s exactly what I was hoping for, so I was excited to see that the story of Dos Erres has continued to develop in positive ways, with a few months of the episode’s release.

Sometimes it takes a powerful investigative piece to help us understand an event as horrific as the Dos Erres massacre. Let this episode guide you through the northern region of Guatemala and show you how focusing on the people affected by the massacre can bring a ray of humanity to an otherwise dark and overwhelming story.

What Happened at Dos Erres
Produced in 2012 for This American Life by Habiba Nosheen and Brian Reed,
With reporting from Sebastian Rotella and Ana Arana
1 hr

An Advantage of Awkwardness

To my ears, Love + Radio has one of the freshest sounds of any radio show around. The episode “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” (warning: not kid friendly) is a perfect illustration of how to make radio that feels immediate. It’s an interview with a man who runs a strip club from his house, and it’s a lot more.

This piece does a lot right, especially in its use of music, and in the intensive re-shaping of recorded sounds, through editing.

There’s one neat trick in particular I want to focus on: This piece makes excellent use of a difficult/awkward interview, and it does so by keeping the producer in the story.

First, some background. Love + Radio is produced by a guy named Nick van der Kolk, and there’s not much information about him on the internet. He usually inserts his voice into the show in subtle ways, but I’ve never heard him host. The shows tend to consist of one or several stories, carefully and thoroughly soundtracked with music. The biggest dissimilarity it has with a show like This American Life, is Love + Radio never really tries to draw a moral from its stories, the way Ira Glass likes to. Also, the movement of a show is pretty organic. Van der Kolk tends to just connect his stories one to the other, not really announcing where one begins and one ends. In other episodes, short, creative interludes break up longer stories. It’s a form I’m drawn to, but it can be disorienting to a new listener. “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” is a single story, but, as with most Love + Radio pieces, it kind of asks you to figure out where you are. So let’s get to that trick.

The piece includes a rendition of van der Kolk’s attempt to get an interview with Thunderbolt. Two actors perform the dialogue, in which Thunderbolt is fairly rude — at least aloof, and asks for money. “You’re trying to date me, not the other way around,” he says. When the interview finally starts, we hear Thunderbolt complain that no money was brought. Van der Kolk tries to explain that his radio station is a non-profit. It’s a somewhat antagonistic conversation, and van der Kolk, sensing this, offers to buy beer. Thunderbolt insists on tequila. We know this will be an interesting conversation, and he loves to talk; we can also hear an antagonistic edge, a resistance to give the interviewer what he wants.

Van der Kolk decides to include their interactions, and, even though he kind of apologizes for it at one point, the inclusion of van der Kolk’s perspective is really important.

Some radio producers, such as the Kitchen Sisters, like to excise themselves completely from what they make. That’s an admirable tack. But a lot can be gained from opening up the hood, and letting the listeners hear how the piece got made. In this story, we start by hearing Jay, the protagonist, relate a story of being shot when he was a child. Van der Kolk’s questions play a prominent role in the tape. This is nothing too deviant by radio standards. Even straight-forward programs like Marketplace will use tape of the reporters asking question in scene.

But next comes something more unusual. We hear a phone ringing. Is it Thunderbolt’s? we wonder. We hear a beep, someone answering the phone. Then van der Kolk’s voice, “So, Noah, can you describe what Thunderbolt’s house looked like after we arrived?” Noah, who presumably is van der Kolk’s co-producer, launches into a description of the place. It’s a cool trick, reminding one of Radiolab’s penchant for embedding narrator within narrator, up to three or four layers deep. The effect is nicely disorientating. It keeps the listener on his/her toes, and it gives the listener a feeling of participating in the creation of the story, rather than the passive receiving of a “made” story.

If you ever have an interview that goes badly, let this episode of Love + Radio to remind you that it’s possible to make something brilliant out of something that initially seems like a bust – because the bust – and how you got yourself out of it – can become a critical part of the story.

The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt
Produced by Brendan Baker, Nick van der Kolk, and Nick Williams for Love + Radio in 2011
28 Minutes

Laughing on the Radio

I love listening to Jad and Robert laugh on the radio, because it brings out the smiley, laughey part of myself, and I like that part of myself. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Consider Car Talk. It’s a nonstop laugh-a-thon, masquerading as a car repair show. And for a while it’s been the most popular show on NPR. It feels good to laugh with the people on the radio.

If there’s one lesson radio producers can take from this, it’s this: apply generous portions of laughter, especially when engaging in some kind of back-and-forth. Now, to discuss this further, let’s look at the “Laughter” episode of Radiolab.

In this episode, Jad and Robert playfully tackle one of the most pleasant enigmas of humanity (or is it one of the most pleasant enigmas of creatures?), and it’s great.

Jad and Robert laugh on the show – a lot. In fact, they laugh on every show — Jad’s giggles, Robert’s guffaws, gasps of surprise morphing into dumbfounded, what-else-can-we-do-but? laughter. It made me wonder. Why are they laughing so much?

I think we can find part of the answer by listening to the story they tell about Fran, called “How Does Laughter Affect Us.” In the story, the sit-com “The Nanny” hires people to laugh during the live tapings of the show. Other sit-coms follow suit, hiring professional laughers on their shows too.

The professional laughters have a profound effect on the performers, who express their appreciation directly to the laughers. The laughers LOVE this, and it encourages them to continue doing their jobs. They love laughing. They are good at it.

Jad and Robert, in a way, are also professional laughers – I feel like their laughter keeps things light in the recording studio while they repeatedly take opposing sides on issues, and I feel like they consciously include that laughter in the final versions of the show because it keeps things light for the listening audience as well. They’re exporting happiness, which is super important in a program that tends to cover weighty subjects.

It’s equally important for Car Talk’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi; they talk about cars to a listening audience that probably doesn’t self-identify as “car lovers”. I like Car Talk because I like listening to how they engage people while also keep the mood up during the show. We all need people in our lives who can engage while keeping the mood up, like Click and Clack can.

It’s no coincidence that Car Talk is both NPR’s most popular program and also full of laughter, and it’s no surprise that distributors want to keep it on the air after Click and Clack stop producing live shows. They teach people about cars and they make people happy – what’s not to like?

Well, there’s actually some controversy over whether it’s a good idea to play Car Talk re-runs… our hope, in the midst of all of this, is that producers will find creative ways to incorporate laughter into their work.

All storytellers can become professional laughers by laughing with/at the people they’re playing off of. Collaborators will appreciate it; listeners will appreciate it, and most importantly, the storyteller will appreciate it.

Just like the professional laughers in the Radiolab story, you’ll feel your mood lift as you incorporate laughter into your work. Go ahead, try it. Laugh on the radio.

Laughter” [1 hr] Especially the piece called “How Does Laughing Affect Us
Produced by Radiolab in 2008

Returning to the Scene of Inspiration

The summer before my freshman year at Stanford, my entire class read three books: Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Kite Runner, and a collection of literary short stories. In the scheduled book discussions that we freshmen had with our RAs, the first two books had the floor. Paul Farmer, we had read, would walk four hours through rural countryside to treat a single cholera victim. Many of us felt we should become doctors. The Taliban, in Hosseini’s novel, was gut-wrenchingly evil. We would go into politics, or international relations. The third book didn’t make nearly so powerful an impression on our ambitions – or at least, my ambitions.

It is surprising, then, that I became a writer. The storyteller’s life doesn’t seem as noble as the life of the other two aspirations. Even though I love being a working writer, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with it. Am I actually having a positive effect on the world? Do stories really generate the kind of change that medicine or politics do?

This American Life recently aired a story that changed my mind about the significance of stories. The story, which is part of the episode “Crime Scene”, is called “A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime.” It is about a man named Bobby. Bobby is a recovering drug addict, a former thief and con artist. In this story, he returns to his old neighborhood, the same place where he stole things and tricked people, to coach a Little League baseball team.

The story, which is narrated by Bobby’s neighbor, Katie Davis, is affectionate, funny, and bittersweet. Bobby, despite occasional bouts of gross unprofessionalism, is trying very hard to do a good job. After spending years not even able to control himself, he has to control a bunch of wily ten-year-olds. It would be a hard task for anybody. But after a while, the kids respond. They like him. And in a way, they’re made for each other. Bobby even says at one point that the biggest troublemaker on the team, Benjamin, is his favorite kid, because Benjamin reminds him of himself. It’s an incredibly touching moment, and when the kids win the final game of the season, you’re right there, rooting for them.

“Return to the Scene of the Crime” originally aired in 2000, but the part that struck me the most did not air until a few weeks ago, when TAL re-broadcast the entire episode of “Crime Scene”. Ira Glass included updates on all of the stories in the episode, and he included one here: Bobby did go on to start a kids’ basketball team, as he had planned. Eventually, however, he relapsed, started using heroin again. He ended up at a halfway house, and he died there. “His counselor,” Ira concluded, “said that among his few possessions, when he died, was a CD with this story on it.”

Listening to this last line, I literally dropped what I was holding and started to cry. I felt I had been slapped in the face; it was the most visceral reaction I have ever had to a piece of radio. Not much later, I realized that this moment both embodies the central problem I have with stories, and offers a redemption for that problem.

One of Bobby’s only possessions at the time of his death was his own story. It did not save him. Stories, to my dismay, do not save you. They are not the doctor who walks four hours to find you. They are not diplomats, or drug rehabilitation counselors.

But stories can still be our most important possessions. They give us meaning, a reason for going about – or trying to go about – life in a certain way. They do not dictate our actions, but they can smooth our paths in one way or another, and they can help determine which of those paths we find fulfilling or beautiful.

I wanted to become a doctor, not because I knew anything about chemistry, but because I read a story that I loved about a doctor. I wanted to become a diplomat, because I read a story that presented a battle to be won.

When you listen to Bobby’s story, you’ll see clearly the importance of stories; they’re so valuable that you’ll want to have them with you, even at the very end.

A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime
Produced by Katie Davis for This American Life in 2000
21 minutes

The Discrete Sound of Skin Color

I think of the words “performance art documentary”, and I’m not quite sure what to imagine… perhaps some video of a guy doing experimental painting in his studio? Or maybe an audio guide to a site-specific installation in a city? It doesn’t really matter what I picture. The point is that I picture something at all: the very words “documentary,” “performance,” and even “art,” at least for me, connote something visual. These tend to be visual words.

But it certainly doesn’t have to be the case. Dmae Roberts and damali ayo have made some brilliant examples of performance art captured via audio. Check out Living Flag and Paintmixers.

In both cases, ayo is the performer: with low-tech audio recording equipment, she provides random people with a fresh, quirky, original opportunity to talk about race, then she captures their candid responses. These are social experiments as much as artistic endeavors.

In Living Flag, she asks white people to pay reparations for the former enslavement of Africans, then turns around and gives the payments (which range from $0.20 to $10) to unsuspecting African Americans. And in Paintmixers, she asks paint-store workers to provide a color-match for the tone of her skin, her “flesh tone.”

Since race is the central element in both experiments, they might have translated well into video or film, but it’s clear, through these pieces, that you don’t need the image in order to get a good idea of what’s going on, and the choice of audio provides her with some key advantages.

People get anxious around cameras, especially in unfamiliar circumstances. In these pieces, the circumstances are intended to be unfamiliar (“I’ve been at this store since 1974 and I’ve never matched any body before,” says one paint-store worker), so it’s important to be discrete with whatever documentation apparatus that’s used.

It’s easy to be discrete in the audio business. Really easy. When she says, to an unwitting participant of “Living Flag,” “it’s a payment for the work of my great-great-grandfather who was enslaved to people related to you,” it’s fun to know that the person’s response (“What now?”) is a response to ayo, directly, not influenced by some camera in-between.

The audio quality is actually fairly poor at some moments in these pieces, and that’s ok. It just emphasizes the fact that she’s experimenting. The sound quality in “Paintmixers” sometimes feels almost like one of those reality TV spy cams, like on a cop show. It doesn’t engage the listener by sounding beautiful – it engages the listener by sounding real.

You don’t need top-notch multimedia equipment in order to make compelling art. You don’t even necessarily need press-releases. You just need a good idea and a decent-enough way to record it. Sometimes a microphone will be less intimidating than a camera, and you will find that people will be freer to move toward the edges of their comfort zones. Just play with what you have, and see what you can get to happen.

Living Flag and Paintmixers
by damali ayo and Dmae Roberts in 2007 and 2004
10 minutes and 6 minutes, respectively
via Reality Radio

Both Showing and Telling

There are certain stories that make me ache. Stories, usually, about a person’s suffering, and their ability to accept, endure, or overcome their pain. Sometimes my whole body will flush and I’ll cry. It’s not necessarily sadness, but the entire spectrum of emotions visiting me at once. A good story of this kind hits me like a lightning bolt of human experience. Hence the ache afterwards.

Claire Schoen’s ‘Heart to Heart’ has such an effect. In a series of three 1-hour documentaries, Schoen introduces us to some of the difficult questions associated with death and end-of-life care. Part II, Children Sometimes Die, probes a topic that is so charged with pain that it is almost taboo to broach. But Schoen reminds us that even though we might not want to think about it, “sometimes children do die,” and discusses what we as a society can do to “help them on their journey.” Schoen’s careful balance between storytelling and reflection imparts this piece with both emotional and intellectual resonance.

The hour centers on Brittany, a 13 year-old girl who is living with cystic fibrosis, and Lamante, a 5 year-old boy with severe cerebral palsy and obstructive airway disease. Both are raised by their adoptive mother Dawn and both “live in the shadow of death.” Brittany is facing a decision about whether to get a lung transplant, and Lamante is having such difficulty breathing that his caregivers aren’t sure that the benefits of continued treatment outweigh the distress of his everyday life.

The story of Brittany and Lamante is interwoven with the institutional perspective of pediatric palliative care: doctors, child life specialists, and healthcare administrators from around the United States describe the challenges associated with their work. The alternation between one family’s story and the reflection about the institutional context within which their story takes place is part of what makes this such a potent documentary piece.

Achieving a seamless connection between specific instance and general significance can be one of the most difficult tasks in writing a radio script. In this piece, the movement between storytelling and reflection (showing and telling) occurs in 5 minute chapters. First we receive the sensory and emotional account of Brittany and Lamante, then this is balanced by the intellectual and analytical narrative of the healthcare professionals.

There is a synergy at work between the showing and telling in this story. Without the story of Brittany’s panic attacks, or Lamante’s charming smile, the larger perspective of pediatric palliative care would not have much emotional relevance. In turn, the doctor who explains that children often do not have the words to express their fear about dying lends Brittany and Lamante’s story another layer of depth.

Brittany does not let her disease define her, and she doesn’t let it prevent her from dreaming about her future. Her situation is heartbreaking and her cheerful resilience is incredible. That she should look so closely at mortality at such a young age seems unfair. But then the doctors who care for dying children on a daily basis remind us that though it is rare, a child dying is a part of life. Stories like this help us learn to confront such wrenching possibilities in a new way.

Children Sometimes Die [1 hr] Claire Schoen, Part II of III in ‘Heart to Heart’
Produced for Public Radio International, 2003


When I first started producing radio, I took it upon myself to enlighten my listeners with unusual sound combinations. I would edit my stories so that the fast and the slow were sporadically mixed. Long, slow fade-ins were placed between quick, short speech excerpts. Sometimes I would sandwich five minutes of music between fifteen-second intervals of an interview. I thought I was doing my audience a favor by challenging their normal listening habits. I thought that the element of surprise would foster their keen listening.

Now when I go back and listen to those stories, I realize that more than catching their attention, I was probably testing my listeners’ patience. The varying speeds of speech and music, and the unpredictability of it all, probably prevented the kind of attention I was hoping to encourage. In creating such a wild mish-mash of fast and slow, I think I thwarted my own attempt at producing immersive, engaging stories.

There’s nothing wrong with a slow or fast story, per se, but over time I’ve come to prefer one or the other, not both at the same time. Listening to a good story should be like walking, or rowing, or carrying on a comfortable conversation. It should have a rhythm, a tempo, and it should keep that pace from beginning to end. This, I think, is more likely to sustain a listener’s attention over a long period of time.

If you listen carefully to any great radio story, you’ll notice that there is usually a regular pace to its editing. The distance between speech, music, and ambient sound clips will be pretty consistent. Radiolab is super fast; This American Life tends to be on the medium side, sometimes slow. One venue that produces very immersive medium-paced stories, in which the balance between narration and scoring sustains a natural sense of momentum, is WNYC’s Studio 360. They cover the historical as well as the contemporary, in a sort of theme-based cultural exposé. Their Peabody-award-winning episode, Moby-Dick, traces the influence that Melville’s 1851 book has had on several artists. Host Kurt Andersen speaks with, among others, musician Laurie Anderson, painter/sculptor Frank Stella, playwright Tony Kushner, and Juilliard professor Stanley Crouch.

Towards the beginning of this episode, Andersen follows Professor Crouch into the classroom at Julliard, where he is teaching a class on jazz in American history. Crouch compares the prose of Herman Melville to the stride piano of James P. Johnson, even though Moby-Dick was written ‘half a century before jazz was born.’ This five and half minute vignette [7:00-12:30] follows a typical editing pattern of a just-right-paced story.

If you listen with a stopwatch, you’ll find that this story has a pretty even clip: 20-40 seconds of speech are followed by 10-20 seconds of music or ambient sound. There is some variation, but the regular rate of exchange between narration and music allows the listener to take in a reasonable amount of information, then have moment to process it, while anticipating the information to come.

The music in this piece is edited to round out the ideas of Professor Crouch, as well as to cue us as listeners about what to expect next. In the opening, Professor Crouch compares the ‘fearlessness’ of Melville’s prose to the improvisational technique in Johnson’s music. As Crouch draws this parallel, we hear the piano underneath, illustrating his idea. When he has finished a sentence, the piano music takes the stage for 10-20 seconds, as if adding color to the picture Crouch has created.

Then, just when we expect it, the music fades down slowly, but stays softly underneath, and Crouch comes in with a new idea. The music simultaneously begins a new motif, paralleling the change in the direction of the story. When Crouch finishes his sentence, the music surfaces again, as if it absorbed Crouch’s new idea and is further embellishing it. The balance between narration and scoring in this piece, and the steady tempo of the exchange, sets up a structure of anticipation and satisfaction which carries us listeners merrily along throughout.

A good tempo is the kind of thing your listeners will probably never notice. It only stands out when it’s missing. If you listen to this Studio 360 piece, you’ll find it much easier to pay attention to the story than to notice the pacing. This, I’ve realized, is a good thing.

Kurt Andersen interviews Stanley Crouch [7:00-12:30],
Produced by Studio 360, Episode 1252, Dec 2011

“I never would have thought of that, but now that you mention it…”

I care more about voices than words. The textures and emotions and cadences – all of these features, to me, carry the most important parts of communication. But every now and then, I’m reminded of the power of words.

When I listened to T.C. Boyle read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”, in The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, I had a minor epiphany. In the second half of the podcast, the host Deborah Triesman says that this particular story is really about language… and even though that’s not why I fell in love with the story, or why I wanted to listen to it, I immediately knew that she was right.

For me the New Yorker podcast can be hit-or-miss, since some written stories don’t translate well into audio, and since some New Yorker writers seem lost in a culture of writers, and/or the culture of New York…

The STRUCTURE of the podcast, however, is solid: A writer reads another writer’s story, then discusses the story in an interview with the New Yorker Fiction Editor, who hosts the podcast. This interview is where, for me, the story is able to grow some wings and fly, because these New Yorker people really know how to read stories in a way that I don’t, and when they talk about the story with each other, I start seeing things that I never would have seen otherwise.

When I first read “Bullet in the Brain,” I admired its structure: it begins with a curiously hatable character, then quickly (…fast as a bullet?), it coaxes you into empathising with him. It’s like a 3 page version of Citizen Kane. I love that.

But Triesman and Boyle don’t really discuss the story’s structure during their conversation. Instead, they focus on the fact that the protagonist cares deeply about words – In fact, it’s his dedication to language that allows the reader to be curious about him in the beginning, and then empathize with him in the end.

This analysis – delivered with casualness and ease – augments the story, bringing it to life by revealing why Boyle and Triesman love it. And you’ll find yourself loving it too, for the same reasons they do. Their pleasant discussion will guide your attention toward aspects of the story that you may not have otherwise noticed.

Hear it for yourself.

One With a Bullet
by The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
T. C. Boyle reads Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,”
and discusses it with Deborah Treisman
19 minutes (discussion of language begins at 15:40)