Lea Thau, The Art of Podcasting No. 11

Lea Thau is the creator and host of Strangers, a podcast featuring true stories about the people we encounter and the ways they can change our lives. Produced by KCRW and a member of the Radiotopia podcast network, the show is now in its fourth year and has developed a large and very loyal band of listeners. The Timbre‘s Devon Taylor was fortunate enough to talk with Thau about producing her hit show, moving from Denmark to Paris to New York City, falling out of love with academia and in love with oral storytelling, and learning the power of honest vulnerability.

Not familiar with the show? Check out some of our favorite episodes with this Strangers Playlist.

THE TIMBRE

It’s so strange to hear your voice talking to me instead of talking to me through your show.

LEA THAU

<laughs> I totally know that feeling.

THE TIMBRE

Doing these interviews in general has been really wild because I am always talking to people who I have heard through their podcasts. It’s like, “Oh my goodness, you sound like that all the time.”

LEA THAU

I have that with the people I listen to on the radio or on podcasts, too. I’m like, “Wait, it’s actually you.”

THE TIMBRE

I want to talk a little bit about how you got where you are. I know you originally came to New York as a part of an exchange program for comparative literature, is that correct?

LEA THAU

Sort of. I came to New York because I really wanted to live in New York City. That’s why I came to this country. I wasn’t like, “I want to live in America.” I had gone to New York for a few weeks one summer with a boyfriend and pretty much the instant I landed in New York–the first night–I was like, “This is the only place in the world I want to live.” It was instantaneous, head-over-heels love. From that moment on, I was scheming to get back there.

So I moved to New York without a real kind of plan. I came on a tourist visa. Then I found a way to go to school so that I could stay.

THE TIMBRE

What is it you loved about New York?

LEA THAU

I’m trying to think of what I can say that isn’t going to sound enormously cliched.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

LEA THAU

I’m from Denmark, which is a very small place. Five million people in the entire country. When I was a kid, it was pretty much a monoculture. That has changed radically since then. There have been big waves of immigration and I am fully in favor of that. But it’s nothing like a place like New York, where 40% of everyone there is born in a foreign country. It’s so enormously diverse.

I had lived in Paris for a couple of years before New York, and Paris is also very multicultural. Coming from Denmark, Paris seemed like the big, big world. But then when I landed in New York, I was like, “Fuck Paris.”

There’s something tremendously exciting in the American outlook on life that is heightened in a place like New York. It’s an utter cliche, this idea of the American Dream, right? And I think it’s easy to dismiss because there are a lot of people in this country that don’t have equal opportunity, I think. There is a kind of myth of equal opportunity. Right?

THE TIMBRE

Right.

LEA THAU

There is a lot about the American Dream that is not true. But it is also too easy to fully dismiss it on that account. An 18-year-old American thinks “Who do I want to be?” There is this idea that Americans have that they might not even be aware of, but coming from Europe it feels very striking. This idea that you can create yourself according to your own vision. That creates something kind of rootless and a little bit shallow about Americans that Europeans often pick up on and criticize. But it also creates an incredibly dynamic society where people at the drop of a dime will move 3,000 miles across the country and be like, “This is what I want to do. I have a dream.”

The struggle in this country is so hard that you kind of have to be driven by that. Especially in a place like New York City. Now that I live in L.A., I get it. I didn’t think New York was so hard because I loved it. People would come and be like, “Life is so hard here.” And it’s true. Everything is expensive. There is no social safety net. You have to make every penny yourself, and if you can’t make rent, you’re shit out of luck. You’re out on the street. It’s too cold and it’s too hot and you spend an hour on the subway squeezed together with all these other cranky, stressed out people who have to pay the rent. It is a hard kind of struggle. But, for that reason, it also means that nobody lives there by accident.

I never had that feeling in Paris. In Paris, people got up and took the kids to school and went to work and did their work. They left, picked up their kids, they went back home, made dinner, and the next day they did it all over again. And they happened to live in Paris. But they also might have lived in Marseilles. They didn’t have a meta-awareness of “I am living in Paris” the way that people who are living in New York have. “I am living in New York City.” There is a soundtrack to everything. They are constantly seeing themselves as if they are in their own movie. They are never just playing ball in the park. They are like, “Here I am throwing a baseball in Central Park” and “Autumn in New York” is playing as a soundtrack. That’s a little bit silly, but it’s also tremendously exciting to live in a place where everyone is constantly writing their own story in that way.

THE TIMBRE

When you came to New York, did you have a desire to rewrite your own story?

LEA THAU

I think everybody who comes to New York does. I think that’s the quintessential New York experience. Any time we move 3,000 miles from where we grew up to a different place where nobody knows us, we have that opportunity. “I can be whoever I want.” There is something freeing in that.

THE TIMBRE

So you came to New York and you were studying at Columbia as part of this exchange program. What happened there? What pulled you away from that?

LEA THAU

I studied comparative literature, which is a very theoretical field. You don’t spend a lot of time reading good stories. You spend a lot of time reading and studying and discussing very abstract theories about how stories work. Maybe I was drawn to that initially because I was kind of a pretentious 18-year-old who fancied myself an intellectual.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

LEA THAU

Over the course of my studies, I became less and less infatuated with that to put it politely. I became less and less interested in abstraction. I actually started off studying philosophy for a year and then switched to literature for a similar reason. But I switched to a literary field that was very theoretical. I’d had this idea that philosophy could tell us something essential about what it meant to be human. Then I had this realization that maybe stories could get us closer to that. That it’s not something you can really approach from a place of abstraction. I had very little patience for these questions of like, “Does this chair exist?” I was like, “I’m sitting on it. Who cares?”

I felt like stories had a way of getting at a different kind of truth. To my mind a more essential truth of what it is to be human and what makes our lives worthwhile. And over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies, I realized that the theory became less meaningful. I became more interested in something that was not in fashion at all at the time: realism. Real stories about how people live.

THE TIMBRE

In trying to learn what it means to be human, you realized you needed to spend time with humans?

LEA THAU

Yes, exactly.

THE TIMBRE

So then you started up with The Moth? Were you doing that on a part-time basis?

LEA THAU

Only for a few months. Then it became full-time. Then it became my whole life. I ran The Moth for ten years. It was pretty much all I ever did.

THE TIMBRE

That’s its own education.

LEA THAU

It definitely was.

THE TIMBRE

What did you take away from that? I’m sure there were 1,000 things, but what were the big takeaways?

LEA THAU

I just loved this idea of working with real people on their stories. I was working at the U.N. when I first went to work at The Moth. I was like, “I don’t want to work at this weird place that’s this weird international bubble. I want to work with real people in this real city on their stories.” It was such a clear-cut switch for me. It was extremely humbling that people were willing to share their stories and open up in this way was surprising to me.

THE TIMBRE

It feels like your narrative–which of course is still being written–is this constant peeling away of the next layer. Like, “Let’s get a little deeper. Let’s get a little more real.” You go from philosophy to comparative literature to running this storytelling series and then to interviewing other people and now you’re starting to tell your own stories. It just gets deeper and deeper.

LEA THAU

The older I get, the less I think things are a coincidence. We’re not always aware when we make these choices how connected they are. What path we’re really on. The older you get, the more time you have to look back, and the more you see all these choices, the more you realize that they were all motivated by some fundamental desire or conviction.

So, yeah, I would say that’s true. It sometimes takes us a long time to become who we are. Some people never do and some people do much younger than me. I’ve been on a long journey to realize who I am.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve been listening to your show nearly since the beginning. I’m a big fan. It’s been fun to listen to for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that there has been this sort of slow reveal of you as a host. I feel like you have kind of come into the forefront of the show in a way that feels really natural. I was curious if that was something you intended from the beginning or if it emerged as it felt natural to you.

LEA THAU

It was something that emerged. I actually had a lot of resistance to it at first. I think I was sort of secretly drawn to it, but I was scared of it for a lot of different reasons. Someone at KCRW said, “You know, for a podcast, you can’t just be an anonymous announcer.” I came from The Moth and hosted the Moth Radio Hour, but that much more sort of like, “Oh, up next we have this story, which we recorded here.” It wasn’t so much about the host. Certainly not in a personal way.

This idea that I was going to be more that kind of personality was scary to me, but someone at KCRW said, “A podcast is different because people don’t listen to it by chance the way they do with traditional radio. They have to find you and they have to come back. In order to build an audience and sustain that kind of connection, you have to become more of a personality.” I think it was a really good note, so I sort of started dipping my toe in the water a little bit and would sometimes find that the little three-minute set-up or reflections I might have after the story would get a bigger response from the audience than the story itself–or certainly as big. People really gravitated toward that and wanted more of that. Little by little, I got more and more bold going in that direction.

THE TIMBRE

It’s surprising you say that you were fearful of it because you’re so open in what you do share, even if it’s just a two-minute snippet. I wonder if you felt like if you were going to be a part of the show, it was sort of all-in.

LEA THAU

It was not at all my intention from the outset to get so vulnerable. If you told me that I was going to do a four-part series entirely about me and my own personal life, I would’ve said “Never.” My interest in doing that came from a couple of different things.

One was in terms of the show. I was getting a little bit sick of this authoritative voice/host style. Like, “All right, children, let me tell you what this story was all about and let me tell you what life is all about because I am oh-so-wise.” That’s kind of bullshit. You know? That is the role of the host to a degree to help unpack the stories that you’re presenting and share with people why you wanted to share them. It wasn’t coming from a bad place, but sometimes it was slipping into something that was a little bit false to me. There was a part of me that was like, “Sometimes I’m a mess, too. I don’t have it all figured out.” I wanted to break down that role.

I was also in my personal life on a journey where I was more and more discovering that I had lived a lot of my life with these preconceived notions and stories like a lot of us do, right? From early on, we’re told things by our parents and we create these narratives about who we are and why we do what we do. We’re sort of defensive about it. Then there comes a point in our lives where those stories that we’ve created–that maybe we even needed for our survival or sanity because they create coherence and meaning–there comes a point where they become too small. Too limiting. Almost like a sweater we’ve grown out of. Our favorite sweater five years ago, but now it’s just really too small and someone ought to tell us, you know, “Don’t wear that sweater anymore.” I think everybody as they get older comes to a point where they can decide they are going to stay in that sweater no matter what, or they can decide to look very honestly at themselves and the stories they’ve created about their lives and realize there might be something limiting about it. I was in that process on a personal level and one of the things I was realizing was that I’d always been kind of defensive and if I started being much more honest about like, “Yeah, I’m kind of sad or confused or scared,” that the connection I’d have with other people was so much deeper than trying to pretend it was all okay.

THE TIMBRE

Absolutely.

LEA THAU

There was a part of me that was drawn from a very personal place to get really honest. Not just with the people around me, but with the world at large.

THE TIMBRE

There is something about sharing things on a larger scale that requires you to be more honest. It’s almost like you’re aware there’s a more careful bullshit detector and you can’t just tell yourself those stories or tell your friends and families those stories. It has to ring true to someone who doesn’t necessarily have a stake in helping you preserve your narrative.

LEA THAU

Exactly. And there’s also something easier about it in a way.

THE TIMBRE

What do you mean?

LEA THAU

When I was doing the “Love Hurts” series, I had to block out the fact that my parents and everybody I know was potentially going to hear it. If I had thought about that, I would’ve been too scared. Even now when I meet people that I know a little bit and they’re like, “Oh, I heard your ‘Love Hurts’ series,” I cringe. It’s easier to tell either your best friends in the whole world or total strangers. The in-between is a little uncomfortable.

THE TIMBRE

I remember exactly where I was when I listened to the first episode of that series. I had just moved to Denver and I was finally getting around to unpacking my clothes. I remember feeling exactly what it seemed like I was supposed to feel listening to something like that. This intense vulnerability that just reached through the speakers and connected with another person. I can only imagine what it’s like to have people like me say to you, “Oh, I really identified with that.” I’m curious what kind of response you got.

LEA THAU

On the non-personal level, the response has been huge and extremely positive and beyond what I could have imagine. I really thought there was a chance that people would just be like, “What is this unfiltered, confessional, self-absorbed bullshit?” Because there’s a part of me that’s still not 100% convinced that it isn’t that, you know? But I’m so grateful and touched–that sounds kind of trite, but I don’t know how to confess how deeply I feel this–that it touched so many people in this way and created so many connections for me with so many people around the country and around the world. So, on that level, it was extremely rewarding.

And on the personal front, it also was. I mean, there are awkward moments, like, my new boyfriend was like, “Oh, my sister listened to your ‘Love Hurts’ series.”

THE TIMBRE

Oh, boy.

LEA THAU

I have never met her and she lives in a different city. I was like, “Oh, great.” Do I really want my new boyfriend’s sister to listen to all of that? To know all of that about me before we even meet? So, there are moments like that where you kind of cringe.

I think my parents were a little taken aback. For a couple of different reasons. One is, while I consider myself fairly close with my family, we don’t always get to what is really going on. We’re very Scandinavian in this way. Talking about our feelings is not the easiest thing. Sometimes when I visit or they visit here, it’s been months and months and months. There is this enormous desire on both parts to really connect, but often it’s like the last night of the visit and, after three glasses of wine, my mom is almost crying because she’s like, “But I didn’t get to ask you anything about what’s really going on in your life.” She has this desire to, but she hasn’t known how to or I haven’t known how to open up about it.

And it has always been part of my personality and my character to kind of share more when things are going well and not so much when things aren’t going well. Maybe you don’t want to make your parents worry? Or I think it’s also something deeper in me where I felt some kind of shame or failure if things weren’t going swimmingly in my life at all times. I’d rather present the happy facade. I think there was an extent to which my parents hadn’t even realized, when my fiancé  left me and I was pregnant, there was a lot I hadn’t told them. I had certainly not told them how crushed I was by it all. Sometimes I think the more crushed I was, the more I kind of put on the brave face. If I admitted how crushed I was, I would sort of fall apart. It can also be sort of a survival mechanism. I think for them it was harder on that level. It’s painful to listen to your daughter and hear the actual pain she went through. That’s hard for any parent.

THE TIMBRE

Of course.

LEA THAU

But I also think there is also another way that they are very Scandinavian. It’s not very European at all to share personal things the way Americans do much more willingly and readily. That’s changing in Europe, but it’s certainly been true for a long time and still is to a large degree. So there was also just that. You know, “Oh my god. All of our colleagues and neighbors and all your aunts and cousins are going to hear this.” That’s a little bit awkward.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

LEA THAU

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of getting to a point, which is that my mom did have the exact reaction that I thought she would have, which was, “Well, really, was that necessary?” I think my father’s wife said, “Do you really have to do your laundry on the main square?”

But the next time I saw my mom, she and her husband came for a visit shortly after “Love Hurts,” and as a result of them having heard it, we started talking about what was really going on in our lives in a much more open and real way almost immediately instead of having that weepy last night.

THE TIMBRE

To speak to this idea that it allowed for more communication, I think that’s a cultural issue. It might not just be an American issue. It’s sort of the Facebook problem, where you only post things that are happy. You don’t say, “I lost my job” or “I had a miscarriage.” You only say, “I got a job” or “I’m pregnant.”

LEA THAU

Right.

THE TIMBRE

I feel like a show like yours–and not just the “Love Hurts” series–really encourages this dialogue about your vulnerabilities and about those moments where things aren’t always going well. Sometimes they have kind of a “happy ending,” but sometimes they don’t. Like the one about Greg O’Brien, who has Alzheimer’s. There’s no positive spin to put on that. I think that in general, by shining a light on those darker struggles, you’ve been able to encourage people to talk about them. Is that something you’ve found?

LEA THAU

Yeah, I think that’s a good point that there is this tendency in social media to create these glossy versions of our lives. We do need an antidote to that. In some ways your question may be better asked of other people. Do they feel like that? I’m just the one producing it. But, yeah, I am interested in real connection. How do we connect around what’s real?

THE TIMBRE

That feels like something you’re able to do a lot. You have that story about going to India and meeting that woman for what sounded like five minutes and she invited you come stay at her home and live with her.

LEA THAU

I think it’s true of all of us. If we’re willing to show up as a person, they’re willing to show up as a person. You can’t ask someone else to open up if you’re not willing to be open, right?

THE TIMBRE

You have to give something to get something?

LEA THAU

Yeah. I think that’s just a given in life, but we put on our journalist hat or our interviewer hat. We’re like, “I’m the one with the microphone, so I’m the authority here.” or “I have to be impersonal and objective and stoic. You’re the one who has to open up to me.” That’s never interested me so much. Maybe that’s why I don’t consider myself a journalist. I would much rather show up as a person and be involved and engaged and be moved by what they’re telling me and allow that to show. Share my own struggles and my own feelings and insights. I think you get a different kind of dialogue and connection in that way.

THE TIMBRE

You said you don’t consider yourself a journalist, so what do you consider yourself?

LEA THAU

That’s a great question. I guess a facilitator of stories?

THE TIMBRE

I think that’s a new occupation.

LEA THAU

Yeah. I don’t know that most of the major universities have a story facilitator program.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

LEA THAU

School of life, I guess.

~

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

  • I really enjoyed this discussion Devon, great job! Big time Lea fan as well…

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