First Draft: Behind the Podcast

From July 1 to Sept. 5, I drove more than 6,000 miles and recorded more than 40 interviews with authors for what has become the First Draft podcast series. It was a lemonade-from-lemons desperation project, and one of the most insane things I’ve ever done. It made my mother quite nervous.

Many forces converged to make a great escape palatable: My marriage took a southward turn; after a couple close calls, my book did not sell; my day job is still a typical, dull day job; and I realized that being 3,000 miles away from my family and the Pacific Ocean for six years had taken a hearty toll on my happiness.

So I decided to do something that would shake up every corner of my life. Professionally, I love podcasts and wanted to know how to create one. Personally, I wanted to get out of the now-half-empty apartment I could no longer afford, and back to the best coast. Creatively, I wanted to let a big adventure open up my mind. A plan formed: Take a road trip (ending at my mom’s house in Seattle), and along the way meet and interview as many YA and MG authors as will tolerate me, to create a podcast series that is to authors what WTF With Marc Maron is to comedians. (No hubris involved in that comparison, nossir.)

The idea was scary as hell. At BEA I told Veronica Roth about my fledgling plan. Saying it out loud felt awful; the whole project sounded flail-y and weird and like flat-out lunacy. I started to feel the floor give way under my doubts. But then, with a shrug, Veronica said the thing that saved the entire venture: “Just say yes.”

So I bought a microphone, packed up my Prius, and started emailing every author I’d ever had a kind interaction with. (Bless you, Twitter.) So many of them responded ‘yes!’ that I was stunned. It was officially too late to back out.

June was spent watching the World Cup, packing up and storing all my belongings, prepping my Prius, and drowning in email. Then, at about 5 a.m. on July 1, I said goodbye to Hammer and hit the road.

The first leg of the journey took me to New Jersey, Long Island, then New York, where I stayed with my best friends (who provided lots of hugs, support, and wine). I bought a thick copper band to fit over my now-bare ring finger like a Band-Aid, where it stayed put all summer. I walked from Central Park to Soho and started to understand that monster of a city for the first time, and made a little piece of it my own. I struggled to find the right words to describe what I was going through, my heart and mind in a humidity-addled haze.

The last interview before I grabbed the LIRR to retrieve my Pirus (stored with the endlessly accommodating Kara Taylor) was with Libba Bray. The interview was a game-changer, and not just because Libba Bray is a force of nature. She was describing artists who create work with a truly singular sensibility (Wes Anderson or David Sedaris, for example), whose work manages to capture their worldview so well,”It’s like looking at the world with your head on its side,” Libba said. She mentioned her friend and bandmate Natalie Standiford – her work is infused so entirely with such a distinct point of view, Libba said, “I think Natalie kind of sees the world with her head slightly to the left.” And when I explained my endeavor to her, Libba smiled. What better thing than a road trip, she said, to set your head at a tilt?

The task at hand was crystallized: the road trip was not the creative thing itself. It was a catalyst, the experience that would challenge me to figure out what I wanted to explore in my writing. You can only tell so many stories in this one life. What will mine be?

From there, I went through New England, back to New York, and finally set my compass west. Through Pennsylvania, stopping at Fallingwater, to Asheville, N.C., to Nashville. I saw so much beauty, met so many amazing creative people and their families. Slept on so many couches, visited so many bookstores – including one that doubled as a champagne bar.

I felt myself growing anxious for the moment another writer sat across from me and I hit record. I didn’t quite understand why it felt so freeing until Myra McEntire summed it up: small-talk had been eliminated from my life. Traveling meant alternating between hours of alone time in coffee shops or driving, and intense hour-and-a-half-long conversations with authors I admire about things we care the most about. Myra had been looking to streamline communication in her life, too, as part of a search for authenticity. “I just don’t see any sense in wasting time,” she said. “I think it freaks people out – I know it does – just to get deep immediately. Just to say, ‘Here’s my stuff!’ But … to me, you can start at point pre-ABC, or you can start right with A.” In conversation with Myra I stumbled on the phrase that would become a kind of slogan for the trip:  My people; not my people. Hitting record gave me the chance to dive right in and see what camp someone fell into.

At this point in the trip, I started meeting with people I didn’t know, authors recommended by those I’d already interviewed. (“Are you going to talk to [author]? You have to, they’re the best!”) Truth is, these conversations – the ones that came out of nowhere, with authors generous enough to respond to my random tweets – were some of the most profound interactions of the entire trip. I started tearing up at practically every interview. These were my people, they spoke directly to my heart, and it was so beautiful to be welcomed into their homes, their coffee shops, their libraries.

Then Kirsten Hubbard flew to Midland, Texas to meet me halfway through my journey. I got a speeding ticket in a one stoplight town, such was my desperation to get to her. That was when the music stopped and the Prius was filled with conversation. The interviews slowed down as Kirsten and I took time to explore the southwest – Marfa, Texas; the Petrified ForestRoute 66; the Grand Canyon; Sedona, Ariz.; the Salton SeaSalvation Mountain.

This part of the trip, more than any other, led my head to gently tilt. It’s easy to imagine extraordinary things in the desert.

In San Diego I finally had my reunion with the Pacific Ocean, and I left Kirsten at her house to head north. Los Angeles is a veritable warren of YA writers. I booked an AirBnB with an ivy-covered deck, record player, and no kitchen for 10 nights in L.A. to give myself time to meet with as many of them as possible.

The first stop was meeting with Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs. They are perhaps the most in-love couple I’ve ever met, but they’ve both been married before. They literally and figuratively opened their arms and gave me such needed encouragement, I’m not sure I can express it. And Tahereh said something that I think I may tattoo on my eyelids: “You have to remember not to be selfish.” It’s a tall order.

The last haul of my journey – the Bay Area, Sonoma, Fort Bragg, Eureka, Portland – passed by in a blur. The more miles I ate up, the more momentum built up to finally get to Seattle. In fact, I cut my time in Portland short because, simply, I needed to be at home. (I was also disturbed by the number of men sporting mustaches and shorts prowling that city. What gives?)

When I parked my disgustingly dirty Prius in my mother’s driveway Sept. 5 (never did manage to make time for a car wash), I had driven more than 6,600 miles, interviewed 48 authors, and recorded more than 60 hours (a full two and a half days) worth of audio. I’m not the same person who left Washington, D.C. in July – I’m more inspired, more ambitious, more ruthless, more kind. And I can’t wait to share all the thoughts and wisdom of the people I met along the way with all of you.

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