In Conversation: Jonathan Goldstein & Zak Rosen

Intro from Jay Allison: Up now at Transom, in a new piece for our “In Conversation” series, Zak Rosen talks to Jonathan Goldstein of Gimlet’s “Heavyweight” about making personal stories — turning the lens back on yourself in the podcast realm. Jonathan’s been doing that for a while, but Zak recently started a podcast with his wife about their decision to have a baby (or not). They talk about being too self-indulgent, mining ideas from therapy, navigating self-consciousness and, of course, babies.

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Listen to “In Conversation: Jonathan Goldstein & Zak Rosen”

Always Rolling

Zak: I’m about to call Jonathan Goldstein and interview him for the Transom series, In Conversation. I’m kinda nervous. [Phone rings] Hey.

Jonathan: Hey there.

Zak: Can you hear me okay?

Jonathan: Yeah, I can hear you okay. Can you hear me?

Zak: Hmm-hmm.

Jonathan: Okay, great.

Zak: Are you already rolling?

Jonathan: I am, yes.

Zak: Great.

Jonathan: Always rolling.

Zak: Yeah man. Have you always done that? Started to roll from before people know that you’re rolling?

Jonathan: Yeah, I’ve run into problems with technicians. I don’t know, they must be like from old school and feel like they have to conserve their reel-to-reel tape budget, because I’ve sometimes gotten really great spontaneous exchanges with guests only to find out afterwards that, when we were done, the technician would pipe in with, “Okay, so we’re all set to roll now that everyone’s comfortable.”

Zak: Terrible.

Jonathan: As though all that uncomfortable stuff, you don’t want any of that uncomfortable stuff.

Zak: [chuckles] That’s like all you want, right?

Jonathan: It’s literally all I want. I mean, I jokingly say it’s literally all I want. I think there’s a pitfall also because you can tend to think, well, if I’ve got something that’s uncomfortable, then I’ve got something that’s real and true, but that isn’t necessarily the case either.

The Act of Translation

Zak: Andrew Norton profiled you as part of his film series This Is Radio for Transom. And at the end of that piece you’re talking about radio, you say: “You create this stuff to make your peace with your weird self.” So, when did you realize that radio had the ability to help you make peace with your weird self, Jonathan Goldstein?

Jonathan: I think bundled into the idea of broadcast is that thing. Because you are attempting to reach a broader audience than, say, your circle of friends or your therapist. So, an act of translation occurs, you know, where you are on one level trying to normalize yourself, but what happens, the act of translation I’m talking about, is taking something very specific to yourself, or to your psyche, or your way of thinking, and trying to make it relatable.

Zak: Hmm-hmm.

Jonathan: Like trying to put it out there in the world so that you’re kind of throwing this rope bridge, is the thing that comes to mind for some reason, towards someone else that would allow you to connect. Because we’re all so alone, but what we share in common is this desire to connect. And, getting the words right, it’s sort of like you’re casting a spell that is going to magically allow someone access to your self, to your inner world, to your thoughts, through language. And I think a piece of it comes from the idea that it circles back to you. Like that there is something that happens in having this kind of communion with someone else. It has something of the therapeutic project about it, you know.

Zak: Right.

Jonathan: Where you’re creating a coherent narrative of your worldview.

Zak: Do you ever come up with stuff in therapy that you can then use on the air because it kind of forces you to make your internal world external?

Jonathan: I like the way you assume that I’m in therapy. Is that a part of your “gotcha” journalism?

Zak: [Laughs]

Jonathan: That you just kind of lead with the assumption? I think that any kind of growth, any kind of insight, will make you better at what you do, and will find its way into what you do. I don’t know if it’s going to take as direct a form as “I was talking to my therapist the other day and it occurred to me,” blah, blah blah, you know. I think that maybe there’s more interesting ways for this kind of thing to soak into your work and your life. I don’t know if that’s a very satisfying answer.

Zak: No, that’s okay. I interviewed my therapist in a recent story, so now I’m feeling self-conscious about that.

Jonathan: No, it sounds like your therapist is a good sport.

Playing To Strength

Zak: So a lot of your CBC show, Wiretap, was fiction, or at least had fictional elements. But Heavyweight, your Gimlet show, is not that, it’s non-fiction. Is there a difference in how vulnerable you felt as the host of Wiretap compared to how you feel as the host of Heavyweight?

Jonathan: Like I say, I’m big on this idea of translation, you know what I mean? You want to approximate the feeling of rawness, but it’s an illusion. Not to get too postmodern or anything, but if you’re good at your job, you’re always going to be very aware of what you’re putting forward. My attempt and my hope is that it gets closer to the real me.

Zak: Are you feeling constrained at all by the conceit of the show?

Jonathan: Yes, to some extent. In a way, I think it’s always just a matter of reminding myself that it could be whatever I want it to be. That the premise isn’t so much something that should constrain as exist as a kind of common denominator among all the stories that I like. My wife [Emily Condon] works at This American Life and Serial, and Ira asked her what the show was going to be about, and she said, “Oh, Jonathan like, you know, dives back into his past and tries to figure out something that happened that’s kind of tormenting him now.” And Ira responded by saying, “Oh, it’s exactly like every story he’s ever done.” And it’s kind of true, you know, and I think that’s what’s good about it because it plays to my strength, the kind of thing that I’m interested in.

Zak: Right, it’s articulating something that you’ve already been interested in.

Jonathan: I.e., regret.

Zak: Yeah, right.

Jonathan: Remorse.

Fruit And Baggage

Zak: And that’s why I wanted to talk about Freeze Frame, which is-

Jonathan: Re-litigation, recrimination, yeah.

Zak: [Chuckles] Yeah. And so Freeze Frame gets into that, where you actually use the power of radio to suspend time. You freeze the hands of time and you come up with more assertive or more pithy or better ways of asserting yourself in various scenarios.

Jonathan: Right.

Zak: When I first heard about the idea of Heavyweight, I thought back to that piece and wondered if Freeze Frame was a kind of ancestor to Heavyweight.

Jonathan: You know, that’s very true, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I actually didn’t put it together.

Zak: Well, I’m thrilled that I did.

Jonathan: It’s true, and it’s even truer, the outcome of that story. I don’t know if you remember the conclusion of it, but it was basically, you know, sometimes it’s just better to live life once then over and over, or something like that.

Zak: Yeah. It’s kind of a mature, wise conclusion.

Jonathan: Well, it’s something that’s kind of bearing out in season two. There are stories in season two which almost refute the wisdom of the premise, if that makes sense.

Zak: What do you mean?

Jonathan: Well, stories in which going back is a complicated and difficult thing to do. And while bearing fruit, also, there’s other things. It brings with it a lot of baggage. And sometimes unwanted baggage. There’s more a question of whether it’s worth it, I think, with season two.

Toggling Between Outside And In

Zak: I don’t know what’s going on in season two, but I just thought of the Galit episode, which was about your ex-girlfriend, in season one. You can feel the weight of that relationship. The whole story is predicated on Galit was your first girlfriend and you put up a wall in some ways because of what that relationship did you to. I don’t want to mischaracterize it, but would you say that’s true?

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s true.

Zak: You talk about the iron mask in that story–

Jonathan: Yes.

Zak: –and how a part of it was because of that relationship, right?

Jonathan: Yes.

Zak: And so how does a story like that, which is so heavy, go from being something in your past to something you knew you could actually make a story about that wouldn’t be too self-indulgent?

Jonathan: I really didn’t, and one of the things that was problematic about that story was that, you know, like when you go into a story you should have a sense of what the story that you’re going into is, right?

Zak: That’s one way to do it, for sure.

Jonathan: It’s an easier way to do it, I think. I mean, like just having some kind of, you know, like where you know the beats of your story somehow. I mean, it should always be exploratory and the best kind of stories have unexpected turns and surprises. But you should have some sense of what you’re driving towards. And I think what made it difficult to make that story, beyond whatever difficulties on an emotional level, was the fact that I went into it in a sort of whimsical way. And I think one has to be careful of that, or at least in my experience, I have found that. She had gotten in touch with me, and I wrote her back saying, “Hey, do you mind if I bring along my recorder?” And she was game, and so I remember talking about it with Alex Blumberg and he was game. He thought it sounded like it could be interesting, and so he was encouraging of it. And so, I showed up with the tape recorder and just recorded the day.

I think initially I wanted to write a memoir piece, you know what I mean, with the backdrop of that day as kind of almost ambient sound. Initially I thought at the very worst it would be a memoir tale, and it would be better than simply a memoir because it would toggle between the tape of that day. But what I learned was that the addition of tape didn’t necessarily make the story better. In some ways, it kind of took you out of the tone of melancholy, reminiscence or introspection. So it didn’t add, it felt like it was taking away, in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Zak: Hmm-hmm. And then so how did you pivot?

Jonathan: Well, I had to figure out a way to make the present day relevant, and to have something to say. I liked the idea of doing something that approached the way that literature works, where you’re toggling between the outside world and the inside world. And the inside world was the world of my memories, and the outside was the present where I was having this conversation with her, and it was really just a matter of finding that right mix and bringing structure to the whole day. And that was difficult, it took a lot of rewrites, partly I think because it started off as something that was just loose. I thought it was going to be the easiest one, but it turned out to be one of the harder ones.

Showing The Wires

Zak: You start before we meet Galit, you’re walking to work with your now wife Emily and you’re pitching her this idea of going to meet up with your ex-girlfriend. And then you have this line where you’re referring to Galit, you say, “What Emily doesn’t know is how this defensive crouch all started.” And to me, that made the story work in a way. Because you set up: We’re going to go back to hang out with the person that I was so we can better understand the person that I’ve become. And that’s fascinating. If you didn’t make that connection, I wonder how the story would have changed.

Jonathan: It might not have been as good. Quite far along in the process, I realized that I needed to make a statement like that more explicitly. I think sometimes radio, or this particular kind of radio, needs to be somewhat explicit.

Zak: Hmm-hmm.

Jonathan: Ira has referred to it as didactic, where you’re telling people what to make of something.

Zak: Right.

Jonathan: It could have been implied, like you could have had this conversation with my wife, my memories, and then getting together with her. And you know, it would all be there but it would be, what you’re saying, if I’ve got you right, is that it maybe wouldn’t be as satisfying.

Zak: I think in that case, it’s true, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying.

Jonathan: You wouldn’t know what you’re listening for in quite the same way.

Zak: Right.

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s very tricky, and that’s one of the things that makes radio a little different than literature.

Zak: Right, but then I feel like some stories are too didactic and too sign-posty–

Jonathan: Right, that’s true.

Zak: –and I crave the oblique, so. . .

Jonathan: Yes, that’s right, it’s a hard balance to hit and yeah, you don’t want to see the wires, you don’t want to be told what to feel. Especially if it’s not something that you’re feeling, and sometimes also it feels retrofitted, you know. Also, I should mention Wendy Dorr, who was my producer. We had many conversations and many different versions of the story in which the tape at the end, the message that Galit sends me — it’s a voice memo and it was in the story, it was out of the story, it was in the story. And then when it was pretty far along and close to airing, I played it without that message for Jorge [Gimlet editor, Jorge Just that is], and then both of us sitting in the room felt like there was something that just wasn’t complete about it. Like I was just worried that,talk about raw, I felt like that tape was just maybe a little too raw, a little too real, or, I don’t know I felt. . . [Sigh] It was weird for me to be playing it and maybe. . .She was totally game, Galit, and really kind, but I also felt like maybe it’s not the right thing to do. But the moment I played it to Jorge it was a no-brainer, like you have to have that in there, it’s very important. And I knew it was true.

Zak: It makes her more three dimensional.

Jonathan: Yeah, because I brought along this tape recorder because it was like a crutch in some ways, you know, in a way that I acknowledge early on in the story, that it just kind of helps me get through life occasionally. And in this case it did, having it around. But it made her feel self-conscious, you know, and you could hear it in the tape. It was the first moment where I think she felt like she was holding the microphone, it wasn’t me, and she was just able to reflect and be herself in a different way. And you’re right, actually, in the end it contributes to a fuller portrait of who she is.

Zak: Are you proud of that story now?

Jonathan: I am, yeah.

Zak: It’s so good.

Jonathan: I was very worried about it. And you know, really, it’s always such a surprise what’s gonna connect with people. I thought maybe doing something like this might be seen as a little indulgent and I worried that maybe it was going to be not so well received, but people really liked it a lot, you know, people really related to it; everybody had some first relationship, and was still nursing the wounds of that relationship to some extent.

Zak: Right. And so was it people that you work with, or Emily, or someone other than you that assured you that it wasn’t too self-indulgent? Or were you able to trust it enough?

Jonathan: There was a moment where we had gone through it so many times that we couldn’t hear it any more. So we brought in a really smart, bright, employee at Gimlet, and we played it for her and I remember at the end of it she said, “I think this is the best story so far.” And that made an impression, you know what I mean?

Self Conscious

Zak: Right. At the beginning of that Freeze Frame story from 2004, that kind of Heavyweight ancestor that we were talking about earlier, your first line is: “Let me start by saying I have regretted pretty much everything that’s ever come out of my mouth.” So, what’s the difference between how you self-deprecate in your stories and how you self-deprecate in your actual day-to-day life?

Jonathan: I think at that time maybe I thought more about what came out of my mouth, and I think it made me more tongue-tied, and I think I definitely have that tendency, which is why I guess I chose to write and do a kind of radio where I can edit myself. Because I just want to get it right. And, you know, I’m not so great in the moment, but as I’ve gotten older I think I care less about getting it exactly right and dwelling on the wrong things that I’ve said. I think I take a little bit more enjoyment in all the dumb things that come out of my mouth, or just kind of accepting that I’m gonna get it wrong most of the time. But in answer to your question, what’s the difference between the real-life deprecation and the–

Zak: Yeah. And your radio deprecation.

Jonathan: [Sighs, long pause] . . .I think the radio one is maybe more entertaining.

Zak: Hmm-hmm.

Jonathan: I don’t know that I’m as self-deprecating any more. . . [Sighs] There’s been a kind of democratic leveling that’s happened where it’s not so much that I think I’m worse than anybody, I just think that maybe we’re all kind of worse. That sounds pessimistic, that’s not what I mean. I think it’s just we’re all kind of struggling, and no one’s perfect, and no one’s so great all the time to the people closest to them. And that’s I think what passes for a feeling of grace, you know.

The Baby

Zak: You just had a kid?

Jonathan: Yes.

Zak: Mazel tov.

Jonathan: Thank you, but rather my wife did.

Zak: Do you feel some profound change like a lot of new dad’s feel after?

Jonathan: Yes.

Zak: Like you don’t even hesitate.

Jonathan: No, I do. So much so that I’m getting weepy thinking about it, it’s crazy. I’ve never understood how people would want to show you pictures of their kids; it just seemed like something that people do as a custom. But it actually brings me joy. And that I wouldn’t have anticipated. Like what am I taking pride in? It wasn’t like a radio story where I actually had to put some effort into it, you know.

Zak: [Chuckles]

Jonathan: It’s kind of like anyone can plop out a kid. It takes a lot of effort to make a radio story, and yet I feel this swelling feeling of pride, like an almost stupid pride in him, that’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. It still feels like a bit of a dream I have to say. Like, a great one. I know it’s something that you’re thinking about a lot by virtue of the signature on every email that you send out.

Zak: Yeah, well that’s the subject of the podcast that I’m working on.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Seeing Narratives

Zak: I have one more question. I actually talked to Mira and Crystal, (Mira Burt-Wintonick and Crystal Duhaime; producers who worked with Jonathan on CBC’s Wiretap. They now make Love Me and Pen Pals. Both soooo good.) just asking them if they had any ideas for me. And Mira, your former producer, asked: After doing this work for so many years, do you see narratives more easily or are you just crafting a narrative after you’ve found a topic or an idea?

Jonathan: I don’t know that it ever gets easier. I think as you do it more, you start to have some expediencies, but it’s never easy. Or, who knows, maybe twenty years from now it will be, but it certainly isn’t now. I think the crafting of a narrative is really just a working with what you’ve got. I’ve had stories that are failures, I’m working on stories that feel like failures, but I think done right, seen in the right way, if you come to an insight that isn’t rote, you know what I mean, doesn’t feel canned, but like connects with people as something real and surprising, I think it’s a challenge to tell those. . . Ah, what do I want to say here?

It’s like the best kind of stories are those stories that resist being told, right? But the worst kind of stories are the stories that are never told. And those two kinds of stories kind of walk a razor’s edge together. So, it’s sort of like you keep doubling down. What am I saying? Like the Galit story, for instance, it wasn’t like I saw from the outset what the story was. And I think if I did, and maybe I did, I think I did, probably, it wasn’t the story that I thought it was. And if it was the story that I thought it was, it wouldn’t have been as surprising and it wouldn’t have been as good a story.

Zak: Right. Yeah, that makes sense.

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s like if you see the narrative. . . all you’re doing is moving parts around and you’re trying to figure it out. But if you see the narrative, for some reason the image that I have is actually like looking through, like having cookie cutter eyeglasses where you’re looking at the world and you’re seeing it through this particular shape that you’ve imposed upon it, that makes it less than what it is.

Zak: Right.

Jonathan: But you have to shape things, you have to structure them, but I think something’s lost if you do that too early. You’re just fitting it into a Jello mold. I think I’m hungry, I think I’m using a lot of food metaphors here.

Zak: I think you need to go get some cookies and Jello.

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