Lulu Miller, The Art of Podcasting No. 15

Lulu Miller first found her way onto the airwaves when she joined the team at Radiolab. Now, several years and a graduate degree later, she’s back taking the podcasting world by storm with Invisibilia, an NPR show she co-hosts with Alix Spiegel. Recently The Timbre‘s Devon Taylor caught up with Miller to talk about her experiences working at Radiolab, her new show, and of course a little light existentialism. 

LULU MILLLER

Can you still hear me?

THE TIMBRE

I can hear you! And you’re not echoing.

LULU MILLER

Wait, now I can’t hear you.

THE TIMBRE

Technology is so hard.

LULU MILLER

I know. I’m working from home because my fiancée just had surgery, so I’m sitting in the car out in my driveway.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

LULU MILLER

Let me drive a little closer to the house, so I can make sure I’m picking up the wifi. I’ll just drive onto the yard.

THE TIMBRE

Don’t drive into your living room or anything.

LULU MILLER

If I do, I’m totally going to sue The Timbre.

THE TIMBRE

This is all going into the interview, just so you know.

LULU MILLER

But don’t you love how MacGyver radio is? Like, “Okay, I’m doing an interview from my car. That’s a studio.”

THE TIMBRE

Right. No one has to know. You can be in your closet.

LULU MILLER

Exactly.

THE TIMBRE

And I’m so glad you wanted to do audio only. Sometimes people are expecting to do video, and I am so awkward. Poor Jeff Emtman was like, “Hey, where’s your video?” I had to be like, “Yeah, can you turn that off?”

LULU MILLER

It’s so bad! You should never be forced to have to make conversation when you can see your face the whole time.

THE TIMBRE

I know!

LULU MILLER

Having to see what I look like the whole time. Nothing is more horrible than that.

THE TIMBRE

I like to stare off and be sort of contemplative and with video Skype, I feel like I have to make eye contact with my computer.

LULU MILLER

So awkward.

THE TIMBRE

Well, I’m really excited we’re doing this. Not only do we love your work, but you just seem like the most friendly, open person.

LULU MILLER

Oh, well, I’ll give you the real me.

THE TIMBRE

If you’re a total bitch, I’m going to be so disappointed.

LULU MILLER

<laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Sometimes when you talk to someone, they’re exactly who you expect them to be. And sometimes they’re not at all. You know, you bring so much to an interview.

LULU MILLER

Oh, I know.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like that’s something you’ve had to pick up on–how to interview and how to adjust on the fly?

LULU MILLER

Oh my gosh, totally. They say exposure therapy will make fears go away, but I still get nervous before every single interview. Sometimes I get really profoundly nervous.

That is one good thing that has been happening lately by working on Invisibilia. The Alix Spiegel method is such a numbers game. She will interview dozens of people and she’ll cold call. She finds her way. Maybe she heard about a cool study and she’ll try to get in touch with as many people who were involved. She’ll just talk to so many people. I think in a way, I’m trying to learn that process because it yields such better results.

I feel like my preparation has changed. I used to meet somebody or read something and then put such pressure on needing that person to work out.

THE TIMBRE

You would form the story in your head before you even interviewed them?

LULU MILLER

Yes. Without them, the story wouldn’t work. I would get so nervous and I would spend so much time getting ready for the pre-interview. If they weren’t what I thought they were, that would be really devastating.

There is still some truth to that. It’s still hard when you call someone and they either don’t really want to talk or you can’t find the magic. But one thing I’m trying to do is approach one with less pressure. I try to have more faith in the breadth.

THE TIMBRE

I’m curious how you prep. I feel like I’ve tried a lot of different things and I’m still not sure the best way to approach an interview.

LULU MILLER

One of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to keep the conversation going. I won’t have enough questions. There will be nothing that will cast out into the world. There will be nothing beautiful. That feels like this very scary thing.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, I know.

LULU MILLER

Alix says she makes her mind like water and she just pretends she’s them and she thinks through everything they would be feeling and makes this list of hundreds of questions. I think that’s really cool, but it totally doesn’t work for me. The questions don’t stick with me in the interview. They evaporate and disappear.

What helps me is that I kind of write almost like a short story version. I’ll handwrite a page about what I think the story will look like. That helps me get the scenes. Then I reduce it down to these little pictograms. It’ll be like “The Knife Scene” and “The Therapist Scene.” That kind of eases the panic in me. If I walk into the interview and all I have to remember are these five pictures, it helps me. The ideas and the questions and the meaning and the interesting philosophical stuff sticks to those pictures. I spend my time almost crawling around each picture. That keeps the panic at bay.

THE TIMBRE

I’m really fascinated by that. I feel like what you’re talking about is structure. I guess that approach works better for stories than straight interviews.

LULU MILLER

Totally! I think what you guys do or those Q & A’s in The New York Times. With those, you do need the questions. We’re often trying to create these little films. You need the scenes.

But the other part of that is that I walk in with my fantastical fantasy story and then I let it get busted up. You walk in with a little bit of scaffolding and then it gets blown up by the reality. But that scaffolding helps.

THE TIMBRE

I was just talking to Eric before I called you because we are editing the most recent interview. We were talking about how it’s kind of important to have some softball questions queued up because some people aren’t willing to really go where you want them to. You need to lead them.

LULU MILLER

Oh, absolutely. Sometimes you just throw something that either feels tiny or vague and it just unearths some interesting line. But that’s what I think is so fun about this!

One thing I have found limiting about writing is that, at the end of the day, you’re limited to your own head. With this work, you have your own head to help you see the poetry. And then you share it with someone else and they bitch-slap you with something better.

All you need is the beginnings of ideas and then the people fill it in and make it so much more tremendously interesting than your head can. That’s why I realized a life of just writing was not for me.

THE TIMBRE

It is a solitary lifestyle. You have a room of one’s own–and then you lock yourself in there and write.

LULU MILLER

Which actually sounds great! I do think I spend a lot of my time yearning to be a hermit. There is a lot of hermit in my family. I romanticize the idea of a recluse a little bit. I crave it. But then when I went back to school to write, I quickly became unhappy.

THE TIMBRE

So, let’s talk about your timeline and how you ended up back in school. You have a really fascinating trajectory of your career. In fact, I feel like I still don’t know where your career is going. You could be making films next year or a curator at a museum. Nothing would surprise me.

You started out as a woodworker–is this correct?

LULU MILLER

This is correct. I was being a woodworker because I secretly wanted to be a writer. I found a guy on craigslist who would pay me under the table to be his wood shop assistant. My plan was that I would do woodworking during the day and then I would write at night. But I never wrote.

THE TIMBRE

So you wanted to be a woodworker because you wanted to be a writer? That’s a really curious choice. Did you feel like they complimented each other?

LULU MILLER

Yeah. I thought I would spend my whole day using my hands and letting my mind wander. Then I’d be able to come home at night and write. It just didn’t work that way. I was too exhausted at the end of the day.

THE TIMBRE

I love the idea of you as a woodworker. I know there are woodworkers, but it sounds like something from the 17th century. Like, “I’m a woodworker. I go and trade my woodworking for eggs and milk in the village.”

LULU MILLER

<laughs> I know! And, honestly, I wasn’t very good.

THE TIMBRE

So, you were woodworking. What made you then say “I’m going to go into radio” instead of pursuing writing more.

LULU MILLER

I think it was just the proximity factor of Radiolab. They were just right there and they were this new thing. In my mind, they were this motley crew.

The intensity of the hook with which Radiolab pulled me out of life, it just yanked me out of the water. What a radio story could do was so strong and so exciting. I was seeing the pictures of the stories and I was laughing so hard and I was feeling so much emotion. It just felt like, “I still want to write, but I kind of want to see what this is all about.”

Then five years went by in a blink. I thought I would dip my toe in that water, and then I fell so hard in love with it. I looked up five years later and I was so deep in that world. But I still had that nagging desire to write.

THE TIMBRE

I feel like writers have this thing that lives inside of us that is like this gnawing guilt. This feeling of like, “Am I fulfilling this? Am I pursuing this?” It doesn’t go away. You can’t turn it down. That feeling sounds like what you’re describing.

LULU MILLER

I know! This is one of the mysteries of my life. What to do with that voice.

I was talking to a friend, Stanzi Vaubel, about it and she said, “Oh, that’s what Kafka calls ‘The Indestructible.'” It’s this thing that lives inside of every human that must be listened to. It’s this indestructible desire. If you don’t listen to it, it is powerful and it will wreak destruction in your life.

THE TIMBRE

I love that.

LULU MILLER

I can’t be cool and say I have actually read Kafka or even that I truly know what she’s talking about. But I like the idea. I think about it a lot. Is this desire to write my vocation? Is it this pure, beautiful thing that I need to fit into my life? Or is this an illusion that is causing me unneeded misery? Is it the work of my life to accept this?

THE TIMBRE

I get that. Even though I am writing, I’m not writing the kinds of things I thought I would be writing when I was getting my MFA. The way I reason is that I know that I want to figure out ideas and I think there are so many different ways to access those ideas. The writing is important, but it’s the grappling with them that writing facilitates.

I mean, you are writing, right? You’re just not necessarily writing a book or whatever.

LULU MILLER

I think you’re right. I think this is the enlightened view that I’m just starting to realize. I think it’s the grappling. There is no one or the other. There is just this life of bouncing in between. I think the work of how to lead a life where you’re not just overwhelmed and haunted by the guilt and failure feelings is just somehow give the writing desire enough and try to enjoy it.

But it’s hard! I look at myself from the outside and I think, “Just be a little more calm. Don’t let it torture you.” But from the inside, it’s harder to take things slowly. But I pretend to.

THE TIMBRE

I totally get it. This idea that when you’re not doing the thing that feeds the–what’s it called?

LULU MILLER

The INDESTRUCTIBLE.

THE TIMBRE

The Indestructible. I love it.

LULU MILLER

Isn’t it better than vocation? Vocation sounds so lovely, but Indestructible is what it feels like.

THE TIMBRE

And it suggests that you’re kind of a servant to your core.

LULU MILLER

Yeah, exactly. You are a servant to your core. It’s this thing that if you don’t listen to it, it won’t be silenced.

I think a lot of meditation and yoga and all of this stuff that is becoming increasingly popular is trying to be an antidote to how that thing can cause you pain. You know, “Be present.” We need that coaching so desperately because so many of us in this capitalist mindset and in this idea of artistry being about genius–all that stuff gives the Indestructible more power. We’re in a society that kind of validates that thinking.

THE TIMBRE

But you’re sort of suggesting something different than the Indestructible. That it’s a construct that’s forced on us. But I don’t know. I do agree that meditation and yoga are there to help you get calmed down, but don’t you feel like when you get in there and really write or really do whatever it is that drives you–

LULU MILLER

It feels fabulous.

THE TIMBRE

Yes. In a way that yoga can’t.

LULU MILLER

Totally. Yeah. The feeling you have after writing is up there with a very few select things. Nachos, sex, and hiking.

THE TIMBRE

Yes! Perfect. That’s going to be the name of this interview, by the way. We’ll abandon the usual homage to The Paris Review. Just “Nachos, Sex, and Hiking.”

LULU MILLER

<laughs>

THE TIMBRE

So I am going to keep running with this Indestructible thing. When you were at Radiolab for five years, was that thing being fed?

LULU MILLER

Yes, it was totally getting fed for a while. I am so grateful. I think working there changed the course of my life.

Jad makes stories step out of their bullshit coats. You come with an idea or someone has an idea that is laced with all of these bigger ideas and he is like, “No. What’s it really about?” He is incredibly earnest. He likes big questions, which I think are often forbidden in ultra-cool, ironic contexts. He’s okay with wonderment.

In that way, the Indestructible was getting fed. At that point, I was kind of a disciple. I was so moved by how Radiolab told stories. It was just listening to someone you had complete faith in.

It was really interesting to see what crazy attempts of mine Jad would keep and which ones he would jettison. It was so cool. He would throw whole parts out and totally solve it in a different way. Story by story by story, there was so much learning. That desire to think about how to tell stories was really satiated.

In a way, I had so many ideas from working there. So much input and so much content. But I did crave a little bit of time to go make something with them. Do the stories that I wanted to tell. I felt like if I didn’t try it, I might never.

THE TIMBRE

Wow. Everyone is trying to get in the door there, and to leave? Especially for that surefire bet of fiction writing…

LULU MILLER

<laughs> Yeah. Right.

THE TIMBRE

Believe me, I know. I left law and became a writer.

LULU MILLER

No way!

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, it’s like, “I have a great job that everyone wants. I think I’ll go be a grad student and write.”

LULU MILLER

Right. Do something that I know will never make money. But the scales tipped. I think that’s all it was. The scales tipped and I had to try it.

I also felt like I didn’t want to be wasting the seat of someone who might want to be there. I always thought I might circle back to Radiolab. But I had to go try it.

THE TIMBRE

So you went to the University of Virginia for your MFA?

LULU MILLER

Yes.

THE TIMBRE

And it wasn’t for you? You didn’t find it as fulfilling as you thought?

LULU MILLER

I should be fair to the experience there. It was really fulfilling. The chance to clear the plates and just do writing and think about writing was so huge.

But by the end of two years, I didn’t feel as energized. I think it was in part because I wasn’t forcing myself into the world. Without the job description requiring me to, I think I felt kind of far away from the world. That was a scary feeling.

THE TIMBRE

At least with nonfiction writing, you can go out and do reporting. But so much of fiction writing is in your head. It lives inside of you.

LULU MILLER

Yes! Exactly. I think with nonfiction writing or radio, the constraints of reality make the writing project feel more like a puzzle. You have these limits. They said this. They did this. Then the work is not like an intimidating blank page. It becomes so much smaller. It feels like a puzzle–and puzzles are fun. I think I missed that feeling where creation felt more fun.

THE TIMBRE

So when you got done with grad school, were you racing back to radio? Or were you kind of like, “What now?”

LULU MILLER

It was a little bit “What now?” I told myself I would do a year of freelancing while trying to keep writing.

THE TIMBRE

Freelance radio or freelance writing?

LULU MILLER

I was thinking some hybrid of the two.

I got a job doing a weekly blog for Radiolab, which I don’t think anyone ever read. And then I was working on a little book project that I will probably never finish.

And then I met Alix! We met at a Third Coast Festival. She was like, “You want to go do this story in LA?” I had been so lonely and without collaboration and suddenly here is a woman who throws herself upon the world more than most. She is incredibly charming and disarming and says whatever is on her mind and can open up everyone around her. It’s really beautiful. She was like, “Help me produce this as a longer narrative piece.” We made these two hour-long episodes and then it was suddenly like, “We’re on a train! We’re making this show!” That’s kind of how Invisibilia happened.

THE TIMBRE

I am asking you for these conclusions about your career trajectory and you’re like, “I’m still answering these questions.”

LULU MILLER

Yeah! It’s like reporting. You go in with an idea of what the story is and then reality busts you up. I go in with an idea about my life and then Alix Spiegel drops out of the sky. I could have never envisioned this for me.

I feel like I am really outside of my comfort zone, but I think that is a good thing. It’s been this whole new world of trying to create in this space. There has been so much support and so much challenge and no part of me that is going to walk away.

Writing is still in there, but I think I’m getting better about being like, “Its time will come.”

THE TIMBRE

So, let’s talk about Invisibilia. What’s in store for us next season? And when is the show coming back?

LULU MILLER

We don’t know our exact date yet. It is going to depend on if we are able to get enough of a budget. If it’s just the two of us, it’ll be longer. If we get some people to work with us, it’ll be sooner. So, we don’t know when, but we’re working on it.

THE TIMBRE

What can we expect from it?

LULU MILLER

We’ve kind of decided our goal for season two is that it doesn’t sound like season one.

We’re working on a show about personality right now. We have also collected some crazy tape on algorithms—which maybe sounds boring, but I swear to you is not. Some of the personality research is making me feel a little frightened, which I feel like is always a good sign.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, yeah.

LULU MILLER

I am also trying to do a story about a town in Europe where the abnormal is normal. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. It’s almost like a reverse, upside-down society.

THE TIMBRE

That’s the best teaser ever.

LULU MILLER

I have wanted to go there for ten years and I think I am going to get to go in two weeks.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like this is the world where you’re just going to be like, “Ah, at last. Things feel normal.”

LULU MILLER

<laughs> Yes! I will probably fit in there.

THE TIMBRE

You’ll call Alix and tell her you’re not coming back.

LULU MILLER

Actually, yesterday we did what we call a brain dump where you record yourself telling the person the story for the first time so their reactions are real. I did a brain dump about this town and I said, “There comes a time in everyone’s life where people find out about this town and they get this fever,” and she said, “Wait, are you handing me your resignation letter?”

THE TIMBRE

That would be an exciting way to end the show on the show. Like killing off a character.

LULU MILLER

Right! But as far as season two, let’s just say we’ve talked to athletes, puppeteers, comedians, neurologists, and a town that is upside down.

THE TIMBRE

And is the beast inside being fed?

LULU MILLER

It’s pretty damn fed right now.

~

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.

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