Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
I have long been of the opinion that Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder can and should be expanded to cover forms and subject matter well beyond music. It would be fun, for instance, to hear more routine instances of a point guard walking you through a play; a carpenter through a chair; a copywriter through a tagline. Sure, the approach — having a creator of a thing walk you through the creation of that thing on their own terms — is plenty detectable elsewhere, even among podcasts. Even Vulture has its very own take on this; shout-out to Good One.
It was exciting, then, to hear that Song Exploder is finally playing around with a new target for the first time. Earlier this month, the podcast welcomed a new spinoff into its feed: Book Exploder, which applies its approach to the written word. This version is hosted by Susan Orlean, the longtime New Yorker staffer who’s written, among so many other things, books like The Library Book, On Animals, and The Orchid Thief. Currently, she writes a consistently surprising column of obituaries called “Afterword” — the latest dispatch being on the Choco Taco — and recently, she was part of the writing team for the second season of How To With John Wilson.
I’m a huge fan of Orlean, which made it a distinct pleasure to hear that she’s collaborating with Hirway on this project. The first episode, now available, features Orlean in the guest spot, with Hirway having her break down a key passage in The Library Book; from the second episode on, she takes over the interviewing role with a guest lineup that includes Min Jin Lee, Tayari Jones, and George Saunders.
Orlean is no stranger to podcasts. Years ago, she co-hosted a show with the writer and actress Sarah Thyre called Crybabies, where they interviewed guests about the books, television, movies, and other media things that make them cry. (That show is no longer active, and these days is only accessible behind the Earwolf paywall.) And, as you’ll learn from this chat — where we covered her turn on Book Exploder and talked about writing and what she’s listening to — she’s also a real narrative-podcast aficionado.
1.5x Speed: It was such a treat to hear that you were hosting Book Exploder. How did you end up collaborating with Hrishi on this?
Susan Orlean: Well, Hrishi and I had met several years ago. I’m a big Song Exploder fan, so I was super-excited to meet him. I don’t know if you know him, but he’s just the nicest, sweetest person. I immediately wondered — and this is probably just a phenomenon of L.A. in particular — if we could work on something together sometime.
So when he came to me with Book Exploder, it felt instantly right. The concept fits with something I really love doing, which is to take a really tight focus on a subject as a way into a much bigger truth. Some version of Book Exploder had been kicking around in my head for a while now; I’d been toying with the question of whether there was a focused way of talking about books. Speaking to people about the first line of their story, or something like that. It was as if the idea existed simultaneously for the both of us.
When you sit down for one of these conversations, what are you looking for?
I’m looking for a way to illuminate the actual mechanics of creativity. Creativity is in large part sort of magical, something that defies analysis. But as a writer, I also know there are deliberate, conscious ways that you can use words and structure and language and voice. That’s something we don’t talk about very often. How do you make this thing that ultimately feels magical, but involves some real machinery?
There are lots of podcasts about creativity, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard people talking about making work in that granular way … except for Song Exploder. It’s a perfect outgrowth. And what’s nice is that you don’t listen to a song on Song Exploder and like, “Oh, now that song isn’t magical any more.” It doesn’t remove the mystery to understand how it happens. You’re just filled with a different appreciation.
1.5x: Yeah, I’ve always thought that Song Exploder renders the process of making music in a way that feels more accessible. Or at least, less unreachable.
Absolutely. If there’s an overarching goal with this project, it’s to help people feel that creativity is not a rabbit to be pulled out of a hat. And if it is a rabbit pulled out of a hat, there’s the rabbit in the hat, and then there are the mechanics of how to get the rabbit out in a way that preserves that feeling of inspiration and magic.
Have you ever dabbled in magic?
Not really. I once got an app that allowed you to do one magic trick on your phone. It made me feel really proud of myself, because it was actually cool and involves having a screenshot of your home screen. I forget how to do it, but that was it. I’ve never done anything else magical. Except give birth, I suppose.
Do you find it difficult to talk about writing?
Absolutely, because a lot of it happens on a subconscious level. I often find, looking at an old piece, that there are tonal threads that weren’t clear to me when I was writing it. One of the fascinating things if you’ve ever had the experience of reading someone’s college paper about something you’ve written — which I’ve had — is that you read it and think, “Jesus, I didn’t even realize I was doing that.”
Is it hard to talk about writing? Yeah, it can be very hard. A lot of it is intuitive. It comes from something deep and inaccessible. But I think there’s enough there you can talk about that makes it possible to have a conversation.
I will also say that writers don’t talk to each other about writing very often. They, you know, gossip about editors. But they don’t very often talk about nuts and bolts.
That’s been my experience. My group chats are mostly about drama. Or money. Why do you think that is? Is it an insecurity thing?
Maybe. I mean, people talk about process with their editor over the course of working through issues in a piece, but it’s a fantasy that we sit around the office at the magazine talking about introducing a new character or setting into your story or whatever. It doesn’t happen. It’s a shame, because I think you learn a lot from it.
I’d like to go back to what you said earlier about reading a college paper on your writing. What was that like?
Oh my God. It was extremely strange. Well, there is the first thing you have to wrap your mind around: that you exist as homework for somebody, which is just bizarre. Then, there is the odd sensation of realizing that when you write and publish something, it exists as an entity independent of you. Somebody can take it and read it and analyze it. Obviously, that’s what we all do, but it’s still a little odd to experience someone trying to draw out themes and make references to your thought process. It’s very flattering, of course, but also disembodying.
Did you feel compelled to defend yourself? What do you do in that situation?
Well, this was something someone did as a master’s thesis. I can’t remember the exact context, but there wasn’t any commentary that I could make. To be honest, I found her discovery of a certain thematic coherence kind of fascinating. I guess that’s a little bit like what we’re trying to do with Book Exploder. We’re having someone explain their choices, and maybe they’d think, “Wow, I hadn’t even thought about why I did that.”
If I was in that situation, I think the thing I would feel a little weird about is — well, I don’t like being interpreted.
Right. It provokes a heckle-raising experience where you want to say, “Wait, I didn’t mean that.” It’s not quite as disconcerting as reading a review, but that’s just part of the phenomenology of having your work exist outside of you.
1.5x: What’s your dream Book Exploder guest who isn’t alive?
William Faulkner comes to mind instantly. His work is so crafted and so, so dense. There’s almost an element of poetry in his work that really does beg for interpretation.
Do you reckon he’d like being interviewed like that?
Orlean: Oh my God. From what I understand, he was a very ornery guy. So chances are, he would not. But wouldn’t that be cool, though?
1.5x: Let’s pivot to another podcast. Are we ever going to get more episodes of Crybabies?
You know, we had so much fun doing it. I still feel like it’s just a marvelous idea, and interestingly, not at all distant from what we’re trying to do with Book Exploder, where you take something very focused and it ends up revealing so much more than the purported single focus. The door isn’t shut. I love working with Sarah, and we still felt confident that it was a really good workable concept. Maybe someday.
What are you listening to right now? I get the sense you’re into narrative podcasts.
Orlean: I am! Though I feel like I’ve just run out of them. I recently listened to The Execution of Bonny Lee Bakley, which I liked a lot, and I was completely caught up by Deliver Us From Ervil. I just finished Will Be Wild, which I thought was amazing, and Tiffany Dover Is Dead*, which you had recommended. Now I’m a little adrift.
I mean, every night, in order to fall asleep, I listen to the Dateline podcast. Which, of course, means I’ve never heard one all the way through. I know how they start, but I really don’t know how they end. They’re cheesy and terrible, but they’re great white noise. Usually, I’d start one, then I fall asleep and my husband turns it off for me. I can’t even believe it, but somebody else I talked to recently said he falls asleep to Dateline as well, and I felt vindicated. There’s something about the lilt in the way they narrate stories. It’s singsongy, like they’re reading a Mother Goose story.
Very lullaby-esque. I know lots of people who fall asleep to the television show.
Yeah! I mean, it’s funny because of course they’re talking about gory horrible crimes. “And then on the table at night … a knife … covered in blood!” I guess the consistency is why I always listen to it. And also because I don’t really care what the outcome is.
The first episode of Book Exploder can be found here. New installments come out every other Wednesday, sandwiched between normal Song Exploder eps. Producers on the show are Hirway, Julia Botero, Theo Balcomb, with Nick Song.
Susan Orlean Falls Asleep to the Dateline Podcast