Welcome to Tried & True: the Assay Podcast! We're thrilled you're here.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer, book coach and podcaster based in Santa Barbara, CA. He is the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (HarperPerennial), and his work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, as well as online at Brevity, and Essay Daily. Since 2005 he has taught nonfiction writing and literature classes and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from VCFA. More at www.pzak.info.
Tried & True will highlight today’s most original and eclectic writers of nonfiction from the academy and beyond. Join us as we explore important and controversial issues in the theory and practice of nonfiction writing.
Julija Šukys, senior editor at Assay, sat down with Paul Zakrzewski to chat about the new podcast and what listeners can expect to hear.
Assay: Paul, congrats on the new podcast! What are the questions that guide your work in Tried & True?
Tried & True: Hello, Julija! I’m really excited to be hosting this podcast, and very grateful to both you and Karen Babine for this opportunity.
Okay, down to brass tacks. The Tried & True podcast will pose similar questions to ones I see Assay asking: what are some of the most interesting and underreported trends in nonfiction theory and practice right now? Where do some of these intersect? And how can we combine different voices in a way that broadens or moves the conversation forward?
Of course, like any anxious-to-please audio producer and writer out there, I’ll be guided by questions of stakes. Why is this subject interesting to me? Why should others care? And how can I use what’s fun and unique about audio to keep listeners invested?
Assay: Tell us what listeners can expect to hear in the first couple episodes.
Tried & True: The first two episodes will feature interviews I conducted on-site at the NonfictioNow conference held in Phoenix, AZ last November.
Episode 1 will feature a conversation between Francisco Cantú (The Line Becomes A River) and Reyna Grande (The Distance Between Us), about how and why their writing on immigration and borders is—unfortunately—a perennially hot topic.
Episode 2 will feature Yvette Johnson (The Song and the Silence) and Taylor Brorby (PZ asking Taylor about forthcoming memoir from Milkwood) mulling over the the intersection of race, toxic masculinity, and #MeToo.
One thing that struck me when I looked at the 2018 NonfictioNow schedule was just how many panels dealt with our current political and social moment. This makes perfect sense with so many of us living in a state of heightened anxiety and vigilance the last two years. I felt like a podcast that accurately represented NonfictioNow 2018 was one that had to account for all these panels. But instead of merely reproducing what attendees already heard on individual panels, I thought it would be more interesting to bring together speakers on related issues, to see how we might broaden the conversation.
In both episodes, I was lucky enough to find writers who displayed real generosity of spirit. This comes across with Francisco and Reyna, who are friends. Then there are the happy accidents. For example, even though Yvette and Taylor had never met before the day we recorded, you can really hear their chemistry. I learned quickly not to get in the way too much. As a newish audio producer, I’m mindful of Didion’s famous advice about writing: it tells you, you don’t tell it.
Assay: What brought you to podcasting? Who taught you to produce audio?
Tried & True: I’ve loved radio and radio docs forever but only got serious about producing last year. I took a terrific podcasting workshop with Shaina Shealy, a producer for Snap Judgment, who showed us the basics of recording and editing. The class was held several hours north of me, in Oakland. For the most part they just videoconferenced me in—except for the time we got to record ourselves using the high-end mics in the Snap Judgment studios. I drove up early one morning for that. We even got to peak into Glynn Washington’s office (fanboy alert!)
Assay: I’ve heard it said that we’re in a golden age of audio. Do you think this is true? How is audio a good medium for the essay and other forms of CNF?
Tried & True: I have to say, I didn’t always get the appeal of podcasts. At the risk of coming across like that infamous New York Times put-down of the memoir, I used to hear the word “podcast” and think: meandering and pointless. And maybe back in the early aughts, when they first got going, that was the case.
But for several years now—even before This American Life’s Serial broke all sorts of download records in 2015—there have been a ton of talented audio producers at work. These days, just as the limited-run streaming series now dominates TV, so too there’s been an explosion of top-drawer limited-run podcast series.
There’s an enormous cross-over between CNF and good audio. Like a great essay, a good podcast is driven by questions—both genres thrive on the needs for stakes, for creating a compelling story.
Also, both CNF and audio are incredibly capacious forms. As with the essay—the amoeba of the writing world, forever mutating and absorbing new structures and approaches—audio allows for all sorts of cool innovations.
Most important, I think, is the way both forms captivate us through the power of voice. I can remember how I first felt, back in college, discovering great essayists like Baldwin, Orwell, Didion, Woolf, etc. They’d might’ve written something a hundred years ago, but the wit, style—the sheer force of the voice on the page—made me feel a powerful sense of interiority, the sense of knowing someone inside out. And of course, radio, which literally isolates the voice, does exactly the same thing.
Assay: How often do you plan to produce episodes?
Tried & True: Editing a podcast is very time-consuming. So for right now, we are looking to release a new episode every two months. Of course, if inspiration strikes—and time permits—this might happen more often.
Assay: So far, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in writing for and producing audio?
Tried & True: Obviously, it takes time to learn how to properly mic, record, and mix a good podcast. In the months leading up to NonfictioNow, I spent a ton of time on Transom.org and YouTube figuring things out. I also decided for now to edit Tried & True using the simple but elegant Hindenburg Pro software, rather than ProTools, which is the industry standard.
That said, I think radio (like writing) is the last frontier for the DIYer. If producing a podcast calls to you, chances are you’ll figure things out intuitively.
Assay: Any revolutionary or zany ideas you hope to try out on the podcast?
Tried & True: Yes! To paraphrase Flaubert, be bourgeois in your life so you can be violent and original in your podcasting! Though for now I want to keep the surprises under wraps. Stay tuned for announcements.
Assay: Will Tried & True be open to pitches and submissions? If Assay’s readers and soon-to-be listeners want to contribute to Tried & True, how can they get in touch with you?
Tried & True: I would absolutely love to hear from listeners. If you have an idea for an episode—or better yet, you’re an independent audio producer who wants to edit something, or wants to collaborate––please drop me an email!