Ari Shapiro, THE BEST STRANGERS IN THE WORLD: Stories from a Life Spent Listening

Ari Shapiro, THE BEST STRANGERS IN THE WORLD: Stories from a Life Spent Listening

Zibby speaks to Ari Shapiro, the award-winning cohost of the most listened-to radio news program in the US (NPR’s All Things Considered) and debut author of The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening, an utterly beautiful, humorous, and revelatory memoir-in-essays about his globe-trotting journalism and the people he met along the way. Ari reveals what he hopes readers will learn from his book. He also talks about his love of fiction, and his experiences performing at the Hollywood Bowl, singing in a college acapella group, reporting on the Pulse nightclub shooting, coming out at a young age, being the middle child, and more!

In April, you can see Ari at Café Carlyle in New York City, where he is scheduled to join Alan Cumming for a residency!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ari. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening.

Ari Shapiro: It’s an honor to be here. I’m so looking forward to talking with you.

Zibby: I feel like I could write a book called Stories from a Life Spent Listening. I think I might steal that at some point.

Ari: The great thing about listening is that it’s something we all have the ability to do. It can kind of be a superpower. I actually think that the act of listening can change people’s lives. It’s not a talent you have to be born with or study for years, like playing the piano or the violin. It’s just something you can pay attention to and focus on.

Zibby: It’s true. Everybody out there, get better at listening. Just practice. Take it from us. Ari, tell listeners about your book. Why did you write this book? What’s the book about?

Ari: Friends often ask how I stay optimistic as a journalist given everything that’s happening in the world today and everything that I chronicle on a daily basis on All Things Considered. The answer that I give them is something that evolved into what’s in the pages of this book. Yes, as you read the book, you’ll go aboard Air Force One with the president of the United States. You will go into a war zone and meet vastly outnumbered fighters who are trying to defend a sacred temple against ISIS. You’ll go backstage at the Hollywood Bowl before singing in front of thousands of people. If the book has any impact, I hope what that impact is is reminding people of all of the incredible humans in the world who are so much more like us than we might realize and all of the good that those people are doing to bend the arc of the universe in a direction of hope and connection and empathy and goodness. I hope that doesn’t sound too starry-eyed, idealistic, but that’s actually how I feel, even as a journalist covering the terrible things that happen in the world.

Zibby: I think it’s even better coming from a journalist who has seen all the terrible things in the world. By the way, I went back — I’ve had the best time preparing because all morning I’ve had your music on my computer. I watched your Hollywood Bowl performance. I was like, this is so cool to know what he was thinking and then to watch. It’s so neat.

Ari: I think performing at the Hollywood Bowl is a stretch for anyone in any circumstances. For me, it was the first time I had even sung with a band anywhere. It was not just any band. It was a band that I had idolized and been a huge fan of since I was in high school. Pink Martini is the name of the band. To be invited to sing with this group that I had been obsessed with my whole life at the Hollywood Bowl of all places — as I describe, before you walk on stage, you see these big framed photographs of Ella Fitzgerald and Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles and Judy Garland. Then you’re literally walking in their footsteps to go out there on that stage. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Zibby: Amazing. For context for people listening, not only is Ari on All Things Considered, but in his spare time, he tours with Pink Martini. You have to go and google this and download some of the songs.

Ari: My alter ego.

Zibby: Yeah, alter ago. I love how, even, you said that people at work, you didn’t even tell them about it. They would find it on the clips and all of that.

Ari: It felt like kind of a betrayal of my journalistic ideals. I thought I was supposed to be this Walter Cronkite-esque figure who would be stern and stentorian and therefore, taken seriously. The voice in the back of my head said, if you sing with this band, if you have fun in a visible, public way, then you’ll no longer be taken seriously. That was more than a decade ago. Fortunately, I’ve evolved somewhat since then. I now think it’s really important to have fun. Demonstrating the importance of fun is one of the things that I hope I can do for people because if you take yourself too seriously, then what’s the point?

Zibby: I love that. I went to Yale too, by the way. What singing group were you in?

Ari: I was in Mixed Company.

Zibby: I had a feeling.

Ari: You had a feeling that I was — wow. I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or a dig.

Zibby: No. My really close friend, Rebecca Schrag, was in Mixed Company. Do you know her?

Ari: Oh, my god. I love Becca Schrag. Yes, I just saw her at a reunion. Actually, she is coming to see — another thing that I do besides singing with Pink Martini is I do a show with Alan Cumming. We’re performing it at the Carlyle in mid-April for a couple of weeks. Rebecca’s going to be there. I’m looking forward to seeing her. Were you in a singing group as well?

Zibby: No. She was. I got to college, and I was like, wait, suddenly, being able to sing is the ticket to being cool.

Ari: This was before Glee, before American Idol, before any of that. That is so wild.

Zibby: I know. All these in the dorm trying out for Baker’s Dozen and the Whiffenpoofs. I’m like, oh, my god. I remember this one — did you know Matt Maizer at school?

Ari: I did not.

Zibby: He’s like, what’s going on? I can’t sing. Now all my friends are in singing groups. Who knew? I thought it was athletics that I had to be good at.

Ari: Somebody who was in Mixed Company with me became one of my best friends and is the reason I ultimately met Alan Cumming. My friend Ben Eakeley was in Cabaret with Alan on Broadway for the second time. It was when I went to see Ben and then went to visit him backstage that Ben introduced me to Alan. Then Alan and I, years later, created this fun, ridiculous, absurd show that we do, which there’s a whole chapter in the book about, featuring Chita Rivera.

Zibby: Sometimes I organize events for the Moms Don’t Have Time To community. We should do an outing and watch your thing at the Carlyle. It’s only a few blocks away.

Ari: I would be thrilled. That would be so fun.

Zibby: I’m going to look it up and find out when it is. Now that I’m totally off track here in our conversation.

Ari: I should’ve asked how much this gets edited, but whatever. I’m along for the ride.

Zibby: It doesn’t get edited at all.

Ari: Okay. Thank you, listeners, for coming on this journey with us back into our college reminisces.

Zibby: Rebecca was one of my best friends in high school. Then I knew her in college, obviously.

Ari: Amazing.

Zibby: One of the chapters I loved was your writing about how you select fiction, what the role of fiction does for you, what you read on your vacations, how you deal with your mom recommending books, all of that. Talk about the power of fiction.

Ari: First of all, I just have to shout out to my mom. She’s a voracious reader. She has great taste. I never read anything she recommends, but for good reason. Ninety-five percent of the reading that I do is for author interviews on All Things Considered. If my mom is recommending something, it has already been published. The only books I get to read are ones that have a pub date in the future. That said, for me, fiction is the way I see the world through the eyes of somebody else. It’s what I aspire to do through journalism that fiction does so effortlessly when it’s written well. I just read the novel that Abraham Verghese has coming out in May called The Covenant of Water, which covers seventy years in one family in Southern India. It transported me there and helped me understand a way of life and a perspective on the world that I would never otherwise have access to.

One of the fiction writers who I think about, actually, the most frequently is N.K. Jemisin who writes in the fantasy/science fiction genre, which is not one that I would otherwise gravitate towards, but I read her Broken Earth trilogy for an interview after she won the Hugo Award for the third year in a row for Best Novel for this trilogy. She was the first Black woman ever to win that award for Best Novel and then the only person ever to win it three times in a row. I was interviewing her. I asked about why she wanted to write about apocalypse or start this trilogy with the end of the world. She said she was really interested in when we consider an apocalypse to have begun because what so many people think of as apocalypse is the reality that others have been living in for a very long time already. That blew my mind. I think about it all the time when I’m out in the world covering climate change, mass murders, racial justice protests, whatever the case may be. I hear the voice of N.K. Jemisin talking about apocalypse. In so many ways, I just think fiction helps me understand the world even better than — I realize I’m kind of dissing my own chosen profession here — better than the real-life stories that I tell through journalism.

Zibby: You said in the chapter, too, that losing a child or one of these things that it changes your worldview forever, the fires that you were dealing with at the time, how is this just the norm? What does that do to you when you realize that? I just loved it.

Ari: The question is, what do we even define as the norm? That’s what I loved about that.

Zibby: If it’s okay, I just want to read this paragraph you wrote at the end of the chapter.

Ari: This is the first time I’ve heard anyone else read from my book. I’m really excited. Please.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my god, I have so many underlined. I could just do this the whole time.

Ari: That’s so exciting for me. Go for it.

Zibby: I’ll do two passages, then. “Fiction serves as that reminder for me. Newsroom bosses sometimes treat author interviews as a treat or a diversion, a break from the daily work of chronicling the world’s politicians and corporations, but for me, those conversations are not a novelty. They help us find a path leading out of the darkness. Despite what power structures may want us to believe, writers help me see that we are all walking together in the same long journey toward the light. I don’t have to glance over my shoulder to make sure it’s true. I can just look down at the page.” I love that so much.

Ari: I love reading. I love that I get to do it for my job. I love that I get to talk to authors about it. It’s one of the many privileges of hosting All Things Considered. I don’t take it lightly. I also really mean what I say about, it’s not dessert. It’s not a treat. It’s not an afterthought. It is as much the bricks and mortar of the structure we’re building as anything else I do, to mix several metaphors.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s okay. Mix them up. You also wrote about — hold on, there was something so — oh, I loved this line. I’m going to read the whole paragraph. “It felt like a superpower, this ability to move between worlds, and by the time I graduated from Yale and became a journalist, I realized that these boundary-crossing skills I had picked up as the Jewish kid in Fargo and as the gay teen in Portland could serve me as a reporter. I found a career where I could perform those acts of translation and be a liaison for groups to which I had no personal connection beyond my journalistic interest. My microphone and headset served as a snorkel and mask. When I strapped them on, I could enter colorful, hidden worlds that were invisible to people on the surface, and then came the important part, sharing those worlds with others.” That is so good. You should have the whole logo — you should do the snorkel and mask as your signature sign or something.

Ari: It’s so true, though. Whether I’m in coastal Senegal talking to people whose homes were being swallowed up by rising seas or at a Bikers for Romney rally talking to guys with their Harleys, I found this job where I can go into places I would never otherwise have access to and ask people really personal questions, invite them to take me into their lives. So often, they do. Then I get to tell you about it. It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted.

Zibby: It’s so cool. How do you pick books for All Things Considered?

Ari: The blessing and the curse is that I’m on a lot of publicists’ mailing lists. I’m sure many publicists listen to this podcast. The really good book publicists are the ones who know what makes a book good for All Things Considered and maybe even, bonus points here, know my taste. A book that I might choose to do is different from a book that Mary Louise Kelly or Ailsa Chang or Juana Summers might choose to do. There are so many books published in any given month. I try to get a range. I try to get books that I actually want to read because I read every book cover to cover before I interview the author.

Zibby: I can’t believe it. That’s amazing. I try to do that too, but I can’t.

Ari: I feel like if somebody’s going to spend two, three years writing a book, the least I can do is spend a week or two reading it. Also, I want to be an informed interviewer, whether I’m preparing to interview a politician, in which case I’ll read speeches they’ve given and interviews they’ve done recently, or interview a filmmaker, and I’ll watch the movie. If I’m interviewing an author, I want to read the book. It’s an art, not a science. I try to keep a balance of fiction and nonfiction. I try to get books that sort of reflect the world as it is in all of its diversity and richness and uplift and heartbreak. Of course, if there are authors I love and they have a new book coming out, I think to myself, yes, absolutely, I want to do that.

Zibby: I do a podcast every day. When I did one a week, I would read the whole book cover to cover every single time. I was like, how could I possibly not read the whole thing? Now I’ve figured out ways to read quickly.

Ari: I want to have a whole sidebar conversation with you about how —

Zibby: — I know. We should just talk about this another time. You’re right. The secrets behind this line of work, of sorts. Mind you, I was so fascinated about your sweating, which seems ridiculous, but I really have to hear about this.

Ari: I wrote this chapter as sort of a burst the bubble, release, breath of fresh air, whatever you want to call it. There are all these stories about difficult, in some cases, heartbreaking things. I wanted a chapter that was just fun, light, funny, take me down a couple notches. Every single person has asked about it.

Zibby: Oh, no. I’m sorry. I hate when I ask what everyone asks about.

Ari: No, it’s great. That was not a criticism. I think it’s important, especially when you are in a position of high-profile success, to show the ways in which you actually struggle and to show the things that are difficult and to show that not everything is an effortless slam dunk. The chapter about sweating is basically a chronicle of all of the times and places I have felt embarrassed, humiliated, fill in whatever phrase you want to use, by just profusely sweating in the wrong time and the wrong place in front of very important, powerful people in moments when I’m supposed to be keeping it together, a voice of authority, a suave performer on stage. Instead, I’m a melting snowman. I’m a popsicle in the heat. I want people who look at this book and think, ugh, he has it so easy — I realize, I recognize that I have so much privilege. I also want people to know that sometimes there are humiliating moments, and that’s okay too because that’s a part of life.

Zibby: Yeah, like when you hug Bono, maybe you’ll be drenched in sweat.

Ari: Oh, my god, just thinking about it. You got to read the book for the full story, listeners. There’s an anecdote involving Bono.

Zibby: I didn’t take away from this book — by the way, I did read your whole book cover to cover. Just so you know, I did read yours.

Ari: Thank you. I appreciate that, Zibby.

Zibby: I didn’t take away that you felt like you had life so easy at all. You detail things you’ve overcome and even — there was nothing about it that seemed glib and taking things for granted, especially in the really great way you write about coming out early at age sixteen. Your whole chapter on the Pulse nightclub was heartbreak but amazing. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and how it feels to you when gay clubs, which are like family, as you write about so beautifully, get targeted and how you get over that and friends you knew from before, that through line, even though you poke fun at so many things, like your best friend Rich and all of that and finally getting to marry him, which I loved.

Ari: One of the things that I wanted to explore in the book was the way the stories I’ve told have shaped the person I am and on the flip side of that, the way my identity shapes the stories I tell. I entered journalism at this time where the view from nowhere was put on a pedestal. The value of objectivity was above all. I recognize that for every story I tell, I bring my history and I bring my full self to it. Sometimes that’s relevant. Sometimes it’s not. Particularly when it came to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which was a story I volunteered to go cover, I realized how much I brought to that story myself as the storyteller. I had other colleagues who were there covering it as well. They did a great job. The fact that I had not only been to gay bars, but been to gay bars in Orlando and, spoiler alert, as I learned at the very end of my reporting in Orlando, I had actually been to Pulse. I had had this incredibly memorable night there and made these friendships, but the name of the bar had sort of vanished in my mind. By the time I went to cover the Pulse shooting, I thought, whatever that place was, I’m sure it had long since closed. It was late in my week of reporting that I was interviewing the editor of a free gay weekly paper and I said I had actually gone bar hopping in Orlando and made friends with these bartenders. He asked what the name of the place was. I didn’t remember. He asked me to describe the layout. I described what the place looked like. He said, “That was Pulse.” Suddenly, these memories that I had been treasuring were connected to this story that I was covering. As I say in the book, any pretense of objectivity popped like a soap bubble. I look back on those stories, and I think they’re some of the best work I’ve ever done, not despite my history and identity, but because of it. I think that’s important.

Zibby: Wow. It was really beautiful. That chapter was really moving.

Ari: Thanks.

Zibby: I also found it interesting that you brought up how you were a middle child and that your mom says, of course, you end up talking to millions of people so that they can listen every day because none of us listened to you at home. We sent you to school with eczema all over your face.

Ari: I did not think I was an ignored middle child, to be clear. At my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday when my mother, who is very funny, said, “And then there’s my middle child, Ari, who was so ignored he had to find a job where millions of people would listen to him every day,” it blew my mind. I thought, oh, my god, does that explain my entire career, my entire adult life? I don’t know.

Zibby: You never know.

Ari: If so, it worked out all right. Thanks, Mom.

Zibby: I love how you brought up the whole crazy dog/calm dog thing, which I think about all the time when my kids have tantrums, for instance, how you have to be the calm — if I tantrum when my kids tantrum, it just makes them spiral more. You have to be in it. You used that analogy as well. Talk a little bit about that and the importance of you being the calm, objective person in that scenario.

Ari: I don’t know if you remember the show The Dog Whisper.

Zibby: Yes, of course.

Ari: I don’t know how many people watched this. This was before everything was streaming. One of the things he would do when there was a high-strung dog was, he would just bring in a calm dog. No matter how yappy and barky and snarly the high-strung dog was, the calm dog would just exude chill energy. Eventually, the crazy dog would chill out too. I think we all have crazy dog moments. We all have calm dog moments. I tend to be more on the calm dog end of the spectrum. The first time I went to record with Pink Martini in studio, which was before I performed with them live at the Hollywood Bowl, I was a full spun-up crazy dog. One of the percussionists named Martín Zarzar, who’s no longer with the band, he was my calm dog. The fact that he was literally keeping time might have had something to do with it. It was also just, in that moment, his personality gave me what I needed to come down from my crazy dog mania and do what I needed to do.

Zibby: I think that’s a very good reminder for all of us, when you’re having your crazy dog moments, to have a calm dog around. I feel like my husband is my calm dog.

Ari: Totally, somebody you can call, somebody you can just check in with. They don’t even have to do anything actively. It’s just their presence.

Zibby: My husband’s out of town. I can feel myself falling off the rails with just a few days. Why does this happen? In the book, you give advice to people to just start. If they want to start a career in journalism or any of that, you just have to start. You just have to do it. Tell me more about that and what advice you have in general. How else can you help people in this whole ?

Ari: Especially people who are accustomed to operating at a high level, they want to do things well. The way to get good at things is to start out by doing them poorly and just do them. I often tell beginning journalists, don’t be precious about trying to create something award-winning. Just make things. Keep making them. This is going to sound crazy. Focus on quantity almost before quality. Especially for people who take pride in the work they do, you can get so in your head as a perfectionist. If instead, you are just like, I’m going to make one thing and then another and then another and then another, the act of repetition will make you good at it. Of course, seek feedback. Get assessments and critique. Do the work to improve, but don’t get so in your head about trying to do it right that you don’t do it at all. I go back and listen to my early stories, and I cringe. I think, ugh, god, I would’ve done that so differently today. That’s a good thing because if you’re not growing and improving and learning and doing things better twenty years down the road than you were when you started, then you’ve been stagnant for twenty years. Of course, there’s a learning curve. Of course, there’s improvement. That shows you’re doing it right.

Zibby: When I interviewed Dani Shapiro, she was saying the same thing. I loved Slow Motion, one of her first memoirs. Actually, I think her second memoir. She was saying, “You’re always talking about my early work. I’m so much better now.”

Ari: That what I was terrified about with writing this book. Nobody goes back and listens to my early radio stories, but a book will sit on the shelf forever and be the book that you wrote. I was like, god, if I’m as bad a writer in my beginning career as an author as I was a journalist in my beginning career as a journalist, I’m going to be really embarrassed for this book. I was like, you know, the fact that it’s scary means I need to do it. The fact that I’m uncomfortable and it’s unfamiliar means it’s worth putting myself out there and trying.

Zibby: Also, I feel like — not that I know you so well, but it’s your voice in the book. It’s very clear that it’s you writing. It’s not like you’re trying some esoteric literary device.

Ari: I’m glad to hear that.

Zibby: I feel like you’re letting us get to know you on the page.

Ari: That also made it really fun to record the audiobook. After this long journey of an unfamiliar place, when I sat down to record the audiobook, I thought, oh, okay, this is something that’s in my skill set. This is something I know how to do.

Zibby: When I recorded my audiobook for my memoir, they were like, “We’re going to allocate two weeks for this.” I was like, “No, no, no, I just need a day.” They’re like, “No.” I was like, “No, trust me. I’ll be fast.” I was in and out in a day, but it’s fine.

Ari: Really? Amazing.

Zibby: A day and a little bit. What else is coming next? What do you have on the docket? What can we look forward to?

Ari: Obviously, I’m hosting All Things Considered on a regular basis, though I’m taking a pause to promote this book in an eleven-city tour, which I’m so excited about. It’s getting out into the world and meeting people where they are. I’m also doing this run of shows with Alan Cumming at the Café Carlyle. Then I regularly perform with Pink Martini. I do every New Year’s Eve show and other scattered shows over the course of the year. I also have a course coming out with Wondrium, the online teaching platform. That’s about the power of storytelling. I always try to keep using a variety of different muscle groups, so to speak. As I say in the book, the thing that I love about hosting All Things Considered is not any one piece of it. It’s the totality and range of things that I get to do. I also apply that to my life beyond All Things Considered. I really get joy from using my vacation days to go out and exercise my creativity in these other ways. I’ll continue doing that.

Zibby: It’s so cool. By the way, it was so genius — on your social media, you have chapter descriptions in different posts. No one’s done that. I was like, why has nobody done this? This is so brilliant.

Ari: It randomly occurred to me to do that. I looked at the calendar. When it occurred to me, I thought, wait, how many weeks until my pub date? It was literally seventeen weeks until my pub date when I thought of it. I have sixteen chapters and an introduction. I just thought, oh, starting now. One thing that I’m very proud of is that I managed to keep one single Twitter thread going with all, so far, fifteen of those chapters. I was sure I was going to mess up and break it and do something wrong. So far, so good.

Zibby: I’m scared of Twitter. I’m like, I’m just going to stay away.

Ari: It can be a scary place. I don’t blame you.

Zibby: Ari, thank you so much. This has been really fun. Thanks for coming on.

Ari: I have loved this conversation. Thank you for having me. Let’s all hang out with Rebecca Schrag.

Zibby: Yes. I’m going to organize a thing for your performance at the Carlyle.

Ari: I would love that. Let me know.

Zibby: I will.

Ari: Thanks. Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Ari Shapiro, THE BEST STRANGERS IN THE WORLD: Stories from a Life Spent Listening

THE BEST STRANGERS IN THE WORLD: Stories from a Life Spent Listening by Ari Shapiro

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