Anything Can Be Fascinating — Avery Trufelman of 99% Invisible on Telling Stories Well
Hosted, narrated, and text by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Stanley Cheng
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Stanley Cheng
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Avery Trufelman: My name is Avery Trufelman and I work for a podcast called 99% Invisible. I always feel weird calling myself a podcaster. I feel like a title for what I do is still being defined.
Charis Poon: So how do you usually describe what you do then?
Avery: I mean it’s normally got a lot of question marks and it’s normally like, “I work for a podcast? Do you listen to podcasts?” Yeah, I guess in emails when I’m reaching out to people I call myself a producer. But you know a producer can mean so many different things in so many different media and I guess what I do is probably similar to what you do. I reach out to people and I research them and I interview them and then I transcribe them and then I take all of it and I turn it into an essay and then I edit it and then I put music behind it. That’s what I do. So I guess that’s a podcaster; I don’t know.
Charis: Well, how do you describe it to yourself? What do you tell yourself that this is what I’m doing?
Avery: Mm, that’s such a good question. For a while, this sounds really pretentious, but I was calling myself a conversationalist because it’s almost like being an essayist. What I love about the work that I get to do is I get to use other people’s voices already, like I’m the kind of person who could never design clothes but I can design outfits, like if there are pieces that are already made for me I can put them together. And there’s something that I love about working in this medium and working with other people’s conversations that it’s never a completely blank page. It’s never like I could do anything. I have these limits. But it’s interesting because podcasters could be two people who sit in a room and have a conversation completely unedited. And that’s so great but it’s just a very different thing than what I do.
Charis: 99% Invisible is one of the most popular podcasts out there with over 250 million downloads. It was created and is hosted by Roman Mars, (Avery’s boss). 99pi is about the things in the world that are overlooked—each episode looks at different objects and architecture that were created with intentionality, design, and thought. Things we regularly don’t pay any attention to.
I met with Avery on a clear day (though every day in the Bay is clear) at the office of 99pi in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.
Charis: How would you describe what’s happening in the podcast world right now?
Avery: Oh my God.
Charis: Even in general because I feel like a lot of publications are going into audio, like The New York Times, right, like The Daily. It’s a podcast but it’s also very much just part of everything The New York Times does.
Avery: Totally. It’s like the new front page of The New York Times. I could rant about this forever, but the thing that I loved about podcasting was that it had this kind of punk quality about it. It felt like anyone could do it and all you needed was a microphone and you could get set up. And I mean that’s what happened with Marc Maron and Roman Mars, just these people in their garages making shows.
Charis: Marc Maron started the podcast WTF with Marc Maron in September 2009. He interviews comedians, authors, musicians, and celebrities in his garage in LA.
Avery: And now we’re getting this influx. I mean it’s kind of beautiful because it means the medium is being taken really seriously. There’s an influx of money and these production houses and people take classes in it, like people go to school for podcasting which is amazing and it’s great for the medium. It’s great for the art. I think the most annoying thing is when people are like, “Oh, X Y Z sold out.” Like, no, it’s great. More people know about it; it has more resources. But the thing is, my only fear is that it will become less accessible and that the only voices who will get heard will be the ones who are affiliated with big production companies that already have a lot of money and experience behind them and people will feel less and less empowered to just pick up a microphone and make their own thing in Garage Band.
Charis: Right, the start of podcasting is kind of like the start of blogging where anyone could write. So it’s sort of the same thing. Everyone could publish their voice to the world if they wanted to. I thought that shaped society in an interesting way.
Avery: I think about that all the time, the blogging analogy. I mean, do you feel intimidated by going into the audio space?
Charis: I do because of the very high quality of popular podcasts, not even the stories, but the sound production and people have an expectation for a certain level of sound that wasn’t what it used to be. Just listeners have become more educated and they want certain things from, like, intro music and outro and production credits. That’s a lot of just the extra stuff to me.
Avery: Totally, totally. And it’s funny, because I also think listeners are becoming, again, totally great they’re getting really attuned to what sounds good and what is high quality in terms of like a good microphone and a good mix, and I think before I used to be, like, “Yeah, I’ll just use this cheap microphone. Use the internal mic, whatever. Edit on Garage Band. It’s totally fine.” And I think now people can tell, which is great. I mean, it makes good work appreciated. But also, yeah, there’s a high barrier to entry.
Charis: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about 99pi.
Charis: So I’ve been a long time listener, but I was kind of wondering what you think is the magic thing that makes it resonate so widely.
Avery: I mean I can definitely speak to that because I was a fan before I ever started working there. I have so many memories of walking down the street and listening to Roman Mars. But I think what Roman found was a way to just make the world really magical all around you, to see the things in your life in a new way. I think a lot of podcasts were really preoccupied with telling you the craziest story that you never believe. “You’ll never believe what happened next!” And the fact that Roman was taking advantage of the position he had literally in your ears, in your mind to kind of imbue these magic thoughts in your head and use this soft music and really create a sense of wonder. I know it made me really happy listening to it. He developed this way of making radio, this way of narrating that is really useful where he kind of jumps in and co-describes the story with the subject and he’s very much holding your hand in this whole journey and you don’t feel alone. It’s not just a bunch of like blah blah blah experts parading one after the other. I think he always said that it was trying to be like a design column. He wants us to be people in the show too. We are not just Vanna White presenters. We’re also a part of it.
What I love about the work that I get to do is I get to use other people’s voices already, like I’m the kind of person who could never design clothes but I can design outfits, like if there are pieces that are already made for me I can put them together. And there’s something that I love about working in this medium and working with other people’s conversations that it’s never a completely blank page.
Charis: Yeah, I have to be totally honest. I definitely listen to episodes or re-listen to episodes and try to dissect the structure and then take that and reuse that same—
Avery: Really? That’s so amazing.
Charis: It’s not just what the story is. But it’s like, “Okay. It was a really powerful quote and then it’s 30 seconds of narration explaining who this person is,” and then just looking at the way 99pi sequences things and then thinking about, “Okay, how can I apply that?”
Avery: Can I ask you which episodes you like?
Charis: In preparation of talking to you I did re-listen to “Lessons from Las Vegas”. One thing I really like about it is the person of Denise Scott Brown.
Avery: Oh my god, I know. Yeah, she was just extraordinary, like even more so than I thought she would be.
Charis: Denise Scott Brown is an American architect who was incredibly influential in the 20th century through her architectural work, writing, and teaching. She and her husband Robert Venturi wrote Learning From Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. To learn more about her and her work, listen to episode 302 of 99% Invisible, which was produced by Avery.
Avery: I read their books first, or, like, understand what they have to say and their field of knowledge. And if I like what they have written or what their field of knowledge is I’m like, “Okay, that’s enough,” because I love the thrill of meeting someone for the first time. I find when I preinterview someone they start talking I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait. No, no, no. I’m going to ask you to say this all again. This is so good!” And there’s something about the eagerness of first impressions that makes really great audio. And so with Denise, I knew she was this iconic figure. I watched all these videos of her just sitting pretty much quietly next to her husband on all these talk shows and in reading the book I realized that she had written most of the syllabus, she had done a lot of the work, and so I was like, “Oh, I’ll just talk to her.” And lo and behold she was just the most extraordinary character. I remember I walked out of this studio and I was like, “Guys, I think I just had the best interview of my life and I can’t believe it. It was with Denise Scott Brown. She’s so incredible.”
Charis: I know that this is not the point of the episode but I feel like you’re correcting the record, so much of history has been about her husband. And here we are, like, finally giving her something that’s just hers.
Avery: Yeah totally.
Charis: I know one of the stories you’ve done that you liked was “Miss Manhattan”.
Avery: Oh, yeah.
Charis: I think there are similarities as well between the two stories.
Charis: “Miss Manhattan” is another episode of 99pi, also produced by Avery, about a model named Audrey Munson who worked in the early 1900s as an artist’s model. Her likeness can be seen in statues all over New York City. The similarities I saw in these two episodes was women in history who had been instrumental in the development of art and architecture that were overshadowed by men who received more recognition.
Charis: I was wondering if it’s emblematic of other stories that you like to tell, like if it has the same themes as most of the stories that you’re drawn to.
Avery: Well you know it’s interesting that you bring up “Miss Manhattan”. I think that one of the biggest differences between “Learning from Las Vegas” and “Miss Manhattan” is that “Miss Manhattan” is about someone who is dead and “Learning from Las Vegas” is about someone who’s alive and the way you tell stories about living people and dead people is so different and I definitely prefer to do stories about living people even though it’s so scary. I had to show the piece to Denise Scott Brown and I felt so sick to my stomach. I was like, “Oh god, oh god, oh god.” She didn’t like the way I expressed her views on modernism, like they’re much more nuanced. She considers herself a modernist. She likes modernism, whatever. It’s very architecture and we simplified it a lot and she was a little upset about that but other than that she liked it. I was like, “Whew.” But it was cool. We could fact check things with her. She knows her story. She’s the expert. It’s great.
Most of the time I am doing stories about people who are no longer alive and it’s so interesting. And this is like the main thing I’ve learned from doing my job is that you have to tell your own story or other people are going to tell it for you. And every time I try to figure out what someone was like or what their motives were, there are like different camps speculating the ways they were. This happened definitely with Audrey Munson. One book was portraying her as this feminist, empowered, kind of third wave-y figure who didn’t mind getting naked. The other one was about a poor girl who was taken advantage of and her beauty was her curse. And I tried to split the difference down the middle and both historians were furious at me, like they both thought I had done it so wrong. It happens actually quite a lot. You just get these different interpretations of what a person was like. And so, honestly, “Learning from Las Vegas”, it was such a relief to be able to e-mail her and be like, “Is this correct? Is this correct? What do you think of this?” I would say that is the kind of story I would much rather take the time to interview a living person about their life, especially someone like her, which is like an amazing story.
Charis: Do you have guidelines in place for yourself when you’re pursuing a story or it’s just go with your gut?
Avery: Huh, when I come across a story idea …
Charis: Oh, I guess it’s two things. One, is there a guideline for choosing to pursue this story over another, but then once you choose it are there guidelines for how you bring it to fruition?
Avery: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think everything comes from reading. It’s like the first thing I’d say. My partner and I went on a trip to Vegas and I hated it. And I got back and everyone was like, “Oh, you work for an architecture show. Have you read Learning from Las Vegas?” And, you know, I Googled around a little bit but I don’t start pursuing anything until I, like, read the book or I come up with an idea for something and then the first thing is check the library, check the bookstore downstairs. Is there a good book on this. And then read the book. Is the book good. If it’s as interesting as you suspected, go for it, because so much of the work I do is … you know what it is, you’ve researched for this interview. It’s research based.
Charis: Yes, it is. I also read that you tend to talk through your stories a lot before—
Charis: —they’re finalized to find out if it’s not just interesting to yourself but interesting to other people.
Charis: And that’s such a tricky thing I think, because I always pursue stories that are close to me. So I have an editor-in-chief and he does sometimes assign me stories and I know that, like, those don’t come out as good because I’m just not as passionate about it.
Avery: Yeah, I’d say first thing is read the book, is the book good, interview the people. I think it’s that moment after I have all the raw interviews and all the raw materials I’m like, “Oh no, how am I going to put this all together?” That’s when I’m grabbing friends, I’m like, “Hey, can I tell you what I’m working on?” That’s usually … you know how it is with any project there are these crests where you’re like, “This is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done or like, oh no, this is stupid, why am I pursuing this!” And I think when I get in those ruts of, like, I don’t even know what this story is about that’s when I need to go talk it out with someone and see what parts I just speak to naturally.
If you go far enough away and zoom out and look at larger pictures everything is fascinating; if you zoom in and in and in closer and closer and deep into histories and linguistics of anything everything is fascinating. Like everything has a context, everything has a person behind it, everything has some sort of conflict.
Charis: Do you think there’s something in your personality that makes you well suited to this job?
Avery: I can get really passionate about, like, anything. My coworkers make fun of me for being too peppy and enthusiastic, like you always hear me on tape like, “Yes!” or, “Oh my god!” Just getting really amped up about stuff. You know that Charles and Ray Eames video Powers of Ten?
Charis: Powers of Ten is a nine minute short film produced in 1977 by Ray and Charles Eames that deals with the relative size of things in the universe.
Powers of Ten Narrator Philip Morrison: We begin with a scene one meter wide which we view from just one meter away. Now every ten seconds we will look from ten times farther away and our field of view will be ten times wider.
Avery: Everything is kind of in those powers of ten. If you go far enough away and zoom out and look at larger pictures everything is fascinating; if you zoom in and in and in closer and closer and deep into histories and linguistics of anything everything is fascinating. Like everything has a context, everything has a person behind it, everything has some sort of conflict. I think about that all the time every time I go anywhere to like a restaurant I’m like, “Okay, this place has its own conflict, its own drama that’s like brewing behind the scenes.” You two have your own life and your own conflict and your own drama. I love being able to use objects as a lens to tell those stories.
Charis: Do you ever find yourself not curious about something?
Avery: Honestly, you know, I do. I do, especially as I’ve worked in the podcast industry, I’ve gotten more and more jaded about stuff, but honestly it’s mostly when people are trying to have some extraordinary story that’s like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard and they think it’s wild. I mean sometimes it really is wild but oftentimes it’s like, “Okay, it’s fine.” I think any story can be good if you can tell it well. Have you read 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso?
Charis: No, but now I’m going to look it up.
Avery: Oh my god, can I buy it for you downstairs? It’s so great, her literature. I think one of the blurbs on the back calls it whiskey instead of beer. It’s like twice distilled. She just took all the lines that you’d want to underline from a book and read out loud and say like, “Oh, this is so great.” And it’s just that. It’s just a series of amazing tiny quotes which would otherwise be platitudes but they’re so beautifully written and I feel like anyone can tell a very mundane story. Like my co-worker Sharif just had an amazing story on This American Life about moving to a new school in Egypt and it was just so well done. So it’s all how it’s told. And I think that’s where the problem is. I think when people are trying too hard to have the most amazing story, I think the message outshines the medium or like the content is focused on too heavily of just, like, making sure the story gets to you without focusing on, like, the telling or the poetry.
Charis: After our conversation, Avery really did go downstairs with me and bought me 300 Arguments. Here’s an argument from the book: “We like stories that are false and seem true (realist novels), that are true and seem false (true crime), that are false and seem false (dragons and superheroes), or that are true and seem true, but it’s harder to agree on what that is.”
I would say 99pi consists of stories that are true and seem true.
Charis: Sometimes subjects, the people who are being interviewed, they imagine that this is the thing that is the most fascinating or this is the thing that will get them the most crowd attention and that’s not actually it.
Avery: Yeah, yeah.
Charis: It’s something else.
Avery: Did you listen to Mystery Show?
Avery: Mystery Show was an amazing podcast from Gimlet Media and the host Starlee Kine, she did this amazing episode about Britney Spears. She goes to see Britney Spears and the best parts are while she’s waiting to get tickets on the phone with Ticketmaster she’s interviewing the customer service representative and they have this incredible conversation. And yeah, the main story about Britney Spears is not the best part of the story. The best part is like the little, the little stuff.
Charis: I love that.
Charis: Here’s a clip from episode 2 of Mystery Showthat’s a snippet of the conversation Avery referred to. This can give you a sense of what Avery means when she says this conversation is the best part of the episode.
Starlee Kine: I like to ask questions.
Dennis: I got that feeling. You are curious. More people should be curious about other people and not focus on themselves. I believe the purpose of life is each other. If everyone cared about everyone else, then no one would have to care about themselves. When i was younger I got in a lot of trouble. You have to be the sort of person you would want someone to be attracted to.
Starlee: That is true because if you are not even if that person attracted to you at first, if you don’t believe you are worthy of that person they are not going to stay interested.
Dennis: That is my problem right there in a nutshell.
And the weird thing is it’s like this double edged sword, right, because in some ways I do want to get more confident so I’m not sweating all this stuff that I sweat every single time, but also I think it’s good to feel a little nervous.
Charis: About 99pi, I think there’s a lot that goes on that listeners don’t see. We only get those final 20 to 30 minute episodes and, like, what’s on the website. I know because I work in a similar field that there’s way more that happens behind the scenes that’s probably not glamorous.
Avery: Oh, well, yeah! So it’s interesting. So many people will say, “Do you want to come and record a live podcast?” And we saw this on SNL when they did a spoof of Serial. They were like, “Alright, Sarah Koenig, go in the studio and make your podcast,” and they think that you just go in and, “BLAH,” like make the show and it’s so not like that. I mean if someone wanted to watch me make a live podcast it would be me sitting and underlining books and then doing a lot of transcribing. The actual glamorous stuff of actually interviewing someone, it’s like an hour every month. Like that’s just a couple of hours every month and most of it is booking. Like the hardest thing is, like, booking, sending e-mails, and getting people to meet with you, as I’m sure you know, prepping, transcribing, and then, like, a little bit of editing at the end. But most of it just feels … sometimes it feels like school in the best way, like preparing for this deadline.
Charis: It does kind of feel like that and also, I mean, not that I’m a mother, but I feel like it’s a little bit like birth as well. You spend so much to get to the final part and when you get to hit publish, like, that’s the easiest thing.
Charis: Hitting publish is the easiest thing. Also being in the booth is the easiest thing, because I already have the script.
Avery: Totally, totally. And by the time I’m in the booth reading the script, like, it’s already gone through revisions, we’ve read it out loud, it’s been edited a bunch of times. And so, you know, honestly I want to find ways to play around with the medium. I would love to make a podcast that I just do off the cuff that I can go in and, like, maybe do all my research and have an idea of what I want to say. And that is how shows … I think Reply All does that well. Radiolab does that well, where they just talk it out.
Charis: Yes Yes No is one of my favorite segments ever.
Avery: It’s really brilliant. It’s totally brilliant.
Charis: Reply All is a podcast produced by Gimlet Media co-hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. On the surface it’s a show about the internet, but it goes to way more emotional depth than that description conveys. Yes Yes No is a regular segment on the show where Gimlet Media CEO Alex Blumberg brings a piece of internet ephemera he doesn’t understand to Vogt and Goldman and they try to explain it to him.
Avery: So the thing is, like, if you ever listen to interviews with them, it’s so hard to do that, to keep that spontaneous energy. They take great pains to make sure that one of the hosts doesn’t know what’s going to happen so there’s genuine surprise. I think for what we do, which is very fact-y based and also making sure that we are guiding people through this maze of facts that our language is really refined and really good.
Charis: Do you ever think about what you might be doing if not 99pi?
Avery: Well, I’m working on a little project that is a spinoff show that will come out in September. It’s about clothes. So it’s going to be on 99pi’s feed and for one week in September we’re going to be releasing a show every single day and each one is going to be about a different piece of clothing and it’s called “Articles of Interest” and I’m working on it now. I’m flying to Scotland to work on a story about plaid.
Charis: That’s so exciting.
Avery: It’s really exciting.
Charis: Oh my goodness.
Charis: And the whole thing … this is something that’s been percolating and you’re, like, “I just have to pursue this.”
Avery: I’ve been thinking about this for so long, especially because working on this show about design. It’s just been so interesting that fashion is so cleaved from the design world. People sometimes are like, “Oh, how’s your fashion podcast?” And I’m like, “Oh, no, it’s not about fashion, it’s about clothing. Cars fall in and out of fashion; interiors fall in and out of fashion, and clothing … I mean, it’s a massive percentage of the waste in the world. It was a driving force behind the industrial revolution, the power loom, and the jacquard punch card loom paved the way for the punch card computer. It set the groundwork for the institution of American slavery. Clothing is so important and so I just wanted to find a way to talk about it.
Charis: I can’t wait to hear.
Charis: So I know that you’ve been doing radio for a while now and worked at NPR before. And I was wondering if there’s been anything in this writing audio world that’s been the hardest thing for you to learn.
Avery: Hmm. I’m not very technically adept. I don’t know how to master my own stuff. Honestly, I’m really not adept at a lot. People will ask me about the business side like, “Oh, what does it take to start your own podcast.” I could not tell you. I could not tell you how to sell ads. I could not tell you how to even start your own podcast feed, basic basic stuff, or mixing, mastering. All I really know how to do is record people talking and chop it up and make it into a piece and it is something I would like to get better at. And I think in my dreams I would like to learn how to score my own piece and learn how to be completely self-sufficient which is why I’m really lucky to be part of this incredible team where we have a composer on staff and they can make anything. It’s incredible. Yeah, Sharif is an excellent mixer and so I have this support system. I lack a lot of the technical skills but it’s also just kind of my own stubbornness. I tend to get very set in my ways. Like I still don’t know how to drive, because I’m like, “I don’t need it. I’m fine.” And I use my own recording equipment and I’m fine. So I think there’s a part of me that needs to work on growing and expanding.
Charis: Actually that was my second question is, like, what else is there that you want to learn.
Avery: Yeah, I think I should learn the tech stuff I should learn how to, like, mix and master and do really good sound design and maybe learn how to play a synth or become a real gear head. It kind of goes back to what we’re saying about making sure podcasting was accessible. I think I really prided myself when people were like, “What do you use?” and I’m like, “Look, really cheap. Use this. Use that. I don’t know what I’m doing. You don’t need to know what you’re doing. I’m using these really amateur tools.” But now I’ve been working here for five years I should, I should pro up.
Charis: What about besides the tech aspect, the things that you are good at, like researching and interviewing people, recording interviews, etc. Is there something that you keep on working on to get better at that?
Avery: It’s so funny, because I always … It’s, it’s actually really reassuring to talk to you right now, because I’m in the throes of, like, getting ready for this trip to Scotland and I’m freaking out. I’m like, “I’m not reading enough. I’m not preparing enough. I’m not doing it right.” And every single time it’s like I’m doing it for the first time. I’m so nervous before every single interview. I’m worried that I’ve botched the booking which is why I felt so bad when I wasn’t letting you inside. I know that feeling! And the weird thing is it’s like this double edged sword, right, because in some ways I do want to get more confident so I’m not sweating all this stuff that I sweat every single time, but also I think it’s good to feel a little nervous.
Charis: I totally identify and it’s funny because you completely called it. Thirty seconds before you reached the door I was like, “What if she forgot?”
Avery: I know. I know.
Charis: I’m totally that person, where I’m like, “The person is just going to forget or not want to meet me like at the last second.”
Avery: Totally, totally. Especially being a young woman, I’m so … people think I’m like doing a school project or they … especially abroad, they’re like, “What’s a podcast?”
Charis: What do you do about that? What do you do to talk yourself down from that ledge?
Avery: Oh man. I mean honestly I over-research things, like that’s the way. Usually I’m like, “This guy’s going to get the best interview of his life and he doesn’t even know. He doesn’t know that I’ve read his book three times and I’ve underlined all the pages. He’s going to be so impressed.” And it’s true, people get really flattered when you’re like, “So when you said this in your book.” They’re like, “You read my book!” because—
Charis: This is true.
Avery: I’m so flattered that you prepared for this. It means the world to me. And I feel like that’s the greatest gift, like that’s the greatest exchange of an interview, like someone gives you their time and you give them your time and it’s beautiful. So I think once the conversation begins … but that’s where the fear comes from. Have I given enough of my time to this person?
Charis: But I think there’s also … like you can do as much research as possible but you still have to bring yourself in an interview, like all the research in your head doesn’t necessarily save you. This is just like me asking you honestly, “What do you do with that anxiety?”
Avery: Oh god. I don’t know. I was just transcribing an interview where I asked the same question like three different times in the course of the interview and it’s just like, “Ah, stupid! So stupid! Why weren’t you listening?” I don’t know. I don’t know how I deal with it. But I think … maybe you feel the same way, I’m happiest when I’m interviewing someone. It feels like a flow state because you have to focus, like I see you looking at, “Okay, what’s the next question going to be,” and you’re keeping track of where the conversation is going because you have things you want, but you want them to feel comfortable and you want them to go on at their own speed. And it’s so great, because I feel like when I go into an interview I have anxiety and anxiety about my own life. I’m like, “Can I get to my next appointment.” If I’m in a foreign city, “How do I even get home?” And then as soon as it’s interview time it all just goes away and it’s time to just focus on this person. It’s such a gift to be able to practice it.
And I think it’s something, especially here in the Bay Area people talk about their rituals and their practices and the things they do, and I do think the practice of really delving into someone’s work and really listening to them for two hours is one of the things that brings me actually out of myself, because you can watch a movie and get out of yourself, but there’s nothing like losing yourself entirely in one other person, like not the work they make, not the book they wrote, but just them and their presence and their minds and the things they’re telling you right in that moment. It’s like a gift. It’s so amazing. And I fall in love with everyone I interview. I’m like, “They’re the best person in the world.”
Charis: It’s true because it’s like the ideal version of conversations you wish you could have regularly, but you can’t do this with your friends. You can’t just ask them deeply intimate personal questions about their work and yet you can do it in an interview setting.
Avery: Totally. The microphone is like a magic stick. Although I do have this problem. I do do it at parties. My friend Sophia will be like, “You’re doing it again. You’re interviewing me. Stop interviewing me. Just talk to me.” I don’t know. I actually do think this is the only way I know how to function, like, interview mode.
I do think the practice of really delving into someone’s work and really listening to them for two hours is one of the things that brings me actually out of myself, because you can watch a movie and get out of yourself, but there’s nothing like losing yourself entirely in one other person, like not the work they make, not the book they wrote, but just them and their presence and their minds and the things they’re telling you right in that moment.
Charis: What about when a story goes out. You mentioned this before too, like worrying that Denise Scott Brown is not going to like it or like the historians for “Miss Manhattan” are going to be pissed that I’m not making it that way, but it’s like totally out of your control.
Avery: Kind of, but also, I don’t know, when Denise was like, you know, “My views on modernism are much more nuanced,” like, “Ah, shit. They are. We could have done a better job.” And so, yeah, no, I feel really really sick to my stomach as soon as an episode comes out and I don’t feel right until I hear back from the people in it and know their feedback and know what they think because we never show it to them before. And that’s the thing. There’s this magical moment of the interview where like you’re vibin’, you’re talking, and it’s so amazing. And I worry that it will feel like a betrayal if then if the final product is something they don’t like, like, “What the hell.” Especially because, I don’t know, and this is when you were asking me what my title is, I’m like not a journalist, per se. Have you read The Journalist and The Murderer by Janet Malcolm?
Avery: It’s so great. It’s about this journalist who wrote a book about a man who was accused of murdering his wife and kids and the journalist becomes friends with this guy for years. They know each other’s families. They get really really close. And then the journalist comes out with a book being like, “He totally did it. He murdered his wife and kids.” And then the murderer turns around and sues him and is like, “This is deceit. I can’t believe you were friends with me for years and slowly recording these things.” And so it becomes this legal battle like, “Well, where do you draw the line? What is the line?” And Janet Malcolm, like if I could be anyone in the world I would love to be Janet Malcolm, wrote this incredible book about their dynamic and then investigates her dynamic interrogating the journalists, interrogating the murderer, and talking about how complicit do journalists have to be, because so much of it is like getting people to like you, getting people to trust you, getting people to open up to you and then what do you do.
I think maybe one day I’ll reach a point in myself where I’m confident enough to be able to turn around and like stab someone in the back but at this point I really want to be like a joyous communal experience. I want them to like it. I want … and that’s why I like doing stories about objects because I’m not, “So tell me about your divorce.” I’m like, “Tell me about this thing you made. Tell me about the work you did,” so we can both talk about it together and we can share in it because something about making work about someone’s life or their character or choices they made is hard.
Charis: I definitely struggle with that because actually all of my stories are about people so I have to talk to a lot of people and have to ask them the hard questions and I have no ability to stab people in the back.
Avery: Well it’s such a different way of interviewing because I feel like the way I interview is like, “Alright, so tell me everything. I’ve read all your books, let’s just cover it all.” I call it like squeezing a lemon. You know this. I know this. Let’s just make sure we cover everything and then some. Like, I’d like to be surprised still a little bit. But I’m like, I know the points I want to touch on, let’s just get to them. There are interviews that are more like an excavation where you’re like, “Do I dare go over here? Do I dare go over there?” And you’re kind of tangoing together and you’re like, “Let’s circle back to that later.” Maybe I’ll ask that question again and reword it differently. Those are mental gymnastics and I so admire Chana Joffe-Walt and the people at This American Life who can do that and that’s my goal. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this clothing podcast. Every episode begins with a wearer, like I interview a friend about this garment and that’s been fun; that’s been my little practice in interview tango, but I’m amazed that you can do that.
Charis: I mean, it’s a lot of practice and work, like you said it is a lot of practicing. I think every time I get into an interview I get better. It’s very situational, like is that person in a state where they can talk about that to themselves and I just have to know that at any time they might shut me out. They could dance around the question. They don’t have to tell me.
Avery: Right. That’s the other thing, like, oh right, no one’s in debt. No one has to answer any of your questions. It’s so interesting.
Charis: Yeah, it is. I wanted to ask, because we’ve been talking a lot about hard work, the work that goes into it, do you think there’s an element of luck that has brought you to where you are?
Avery: Oh yeah! Definitely. I’m super privileged and lucky. First things first, my parents met working in radio. They worked at WNYC and so they were always like, “Oh yeah, radio. That’s a job.” They were never like, “That’s crazy! You have to become a doctor.” They were like, “Okay, do that.” I was lucky enough to be able to go to a private college and work at the local radio station there. I was also lucky to, at this college, learn German which is what got me into NPR because I applied for the internship like four times and I didn’t get it until I applied for the NPR Berlin internship which is based in D.C. so I was making German radio in D.C. It wasn’t even in German; it was just about the weather in Berlin. But I think knowing German helped in the interview. So that was super lucky. And then another lucky thing is my aunt lives in San Francisco so I was able to take this internship at 99% Invisible. I was never planning to move here. I just packed a suitcase for the summer and then slowly over time asked my parents to send me more and more things and here I am. It’s super duper lucky.
Oh yeah! And I found the internship listing because a friend of mine from college, it was a private listing it wasn’t on Craigslist or anything, he just sent it to me. I’m so lucky. Everything is luck. And every interview is luck, ways of getting to meet people, and book people. Yeah. Totally. Totally. And I definitely want to emphasize that, that it’s not just like, “La di da. Here I am just through pulling myself up by the bootstraps.”
Charis: I think it’s true. I think that’s part of why I ask that question, because—
Avery: No, thank you for asking it.
Charis: Young people who are just starting out in their first creative kind of job a lot of their questions are about, like, people have asked you how do I start my podcast and it’s like how do I make my portfolio better, how do I get an internship at Apple. I think it is misleading to just tell them, “Oh you need to work harder,” because sometimes it’s not just that.
I don’t think it necessarily has to do with closeness or distance from the mountain but how much energy you have to scale it and I think I was so on fire and I wanted to work in radio so badly that I was like, 'Hey, I’m going to climb this mountain.'
Avery: I will say, people come to me sometimes and they’re like, “How do I get started in podcasting?” I definitely had a lot of luck but the other thing is that I just did it. I just went and I interviewed people and practiced and so that when these opportunities presented themselves I was so ready. I knew what I wanted to do. That’s the other thing. It’s not like someone knocked on my door and was like, “Do you want to work for…” Like, no, I applied to NPR many many times and I submitted a portfolio which over time got better and better. I just interviewed my professors at my college and then I interviewed my coworkers. I just interviewed everyone and I just practiced and I edited it on garage band. So—
Have you ever seen Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech? It’s really wonderful. He has two great pieces of advice that I think about all the time. The first one that reminded me of this is he was like, “Think of your goal as a mountain and then just take steps towards the mountain,” and then at every juncture just be like, “Okay, does this bring me towards the mountain or not.”
Charis: Neil Gaiman spoke at the University of Arts in 2012.
Neil Gaiman: Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you’re doing the correct thing because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get. Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be—which was an author primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama, and supporting myself through my words—imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain, my goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I’d be alright. And when I truly was not sure what to do I could stop and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.
Avery: I was offered a job to work for this PR company and I refused. Which is super scary. I didn’t know what I was going to do and this seemed like a life raft. But it wasn’t going towards the mountain so I didn’t do it. The other interesting piece of advice that he says is that in life there are three things that matter: If you’re nice, if you make good work, and if you’re on time. But the best thing is you only need two out of three, because if your work is not that great but you’re nice and it’s always on time, sure, it’s fine and if you’re not nice and your work is great and on time, whatever. And then if you are—what was the last combination?—if you’re nice and your work is great but it’s always late, it’s totally okay and so you only need two out of three.
Charis: That is reassuring.
Charis: I really like that. I already immediately know which two out of three I am.
Avery: Which are you?
Charis: Nice and work is great, ‘cause I’m not on time.
Avery: That’s awesome.
Charis: During our conversation, it slipped my mind to ask Avery which two of the three attributes she felt she had. She responded to this follow-up question in an email of which this isa part: “Honestly? I know I am very prompt, and I think I try to be nice. I don’t think I make the greatest work of all time. I am not a perfectionist. My boyfriend is an artist, and he can peck and peck and peck at a piece forever, trying to get it as close as possible to his platonic ideal. This is completely alien to me. I kind of work in a mad passionate frenzy, do my diligence with the fact checking, and then get it out the door. I tend to turn things in early. And I’m not exactly proud of this.”
Charis: Back to the mountain thing.
Charis: How do you know that you’re not stepping towards the mountain? Don’t you ever think, “Oh, but maybe it’s this way. Maybe the PR job winds up taking me on a fork that … does …”
Avery: Yeah, I mean this company was based in Boston and they’re like, “Do you want to move to Boston?” And I was like, “Okay, well, I’m about to arrange my whole life around this.” I don’t know. I guess all I can say is it felt like taking a step away from the mountain, like it was farther from where I needed to be. And it was a really hard time. I got rejected from a lot of jobs before I took this internship at 99pi and this internship, when I applied to it, I was like, “This is it. If I don’t get this, forget it.” I was like, “Well, I’m just gonna throw myself into it first, like I’m going to try to get to the mountain.”
Charis: Do you think it’s a sensation of distance? Like somehow you can feel how far or close you are from your eventual goal? I think even now, even though you are at 99pi and been here five years, it doesn’t mean that you’ve ascended the mountain. There are new—
Avery: New mountains.
Charis: Yeah, metaphorical mountain.
Avery: Well the nice thing is my life will go on, hopefully, but I don’t have a mountain. Well, I want to make this series that I’m working on but other than that I don’t see anything in the distance. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with closeness or distance from the mountain but how much energy you have to scale it and I think I was so on fire and I wanted to work in radio so badly that I was like, “Hey, I’m going to climb this mountain.” And I think by the time I had gotten far in the interview process and been rejected from four jobs I was like, “Okay, I can’t ascend this mountain, so I’ll do this one more thing and then that’s it.” So I guess that’s the thing, if there’s the energy and the fire and you feel like you can fight for it.
Charis: How would you define success to yourself. In Hong Kong there is culture of success is financial and it’s making X amount of figures. Being a creative in Hong Kong it is fighting against that culture and I don’t know if it’s like that here in the Bay or not, but I imagine that every individual has their own definition of what success is to them.
Avery: Totally. Basically I want to be like Denise Scott Brown. Like I interview so many amazing older people from my job and I get so inspired by them. And I think the reason I want to make work throughout my life is to one day be an interesting older person. I want to be someone people talk to when I’m old. I want to be a part of the world of ideas. And like of course be comfortable and, like, maybe one day have a house. But I think the most important thing is, like, I went to see Marina Abramovic speak and she was so … she was so herself. She had the red gown and the long hair and she knew her philosophy; she knew what she was talking about. Everyone had questions for her and not that I would ever want that kind of adoration, I find that kind of intimidating, but I just found that so inspiring to be someone who knows what they think, knows how they want to look.
The thing that I always joke about is, like, one day I want to know myself well enough to order a martini, because when you order a martini you have to go through a little questionnaire. “Well, gin or vodka? Shaken or stirred? Do you want it dirty? How many olives?” And I’m just like, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what I like. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not a person with, like, exacting taste. And one day I want to be able to be like I want it this way and this is how I like this. And so I think that for me will be success when I really know what I’m doing and what I have to offer.
Charis: Another passage in Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments reads, “I’d like to meet someone whose passage through life has been continuous, whose life has happened to an essential self, and not been just a series of lives happening to a series of selves.”
I feel meeting Avery was meeting someone who fits that description.
Even if she hasn’t yet established her martini order, my impression, from sitting down and speaking with her, was someone in tune with herself. Who was an essential self whose life is a continuous thread. Who sensed what her mountain was, measured that distance, and had the energy to ascend it.