Leaving A Mark

“I have a small swastika tattoo on my left arm that I want to have covered up.” From Bruce Roderick’s Craigslist ad. (Photo by Emily Hsiao.)

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Here’s what I want to know: On the radio, why don’t we hear more conversations with interesting people? Not newsmakers, not academics, not pundits, not authors…. interesting as they may be. I’m thinking of people telling stories about what journalist Walter Harrington calls “the momentous events of everyday life.”

Emily Hsiao’s radio story, “Leaving A Mark,” is just that. On the face of it, the story is a simple conversation between Emily and Bruce Roderick. But, there is SO much more going on.  In fact, you should listen twice.

As you listen, keep in mind, this is Emily’s second story ever. Her first, and this one, were both produced at the Transom Story Workshop this fall. If we don’t hear more stories from Emily — and soon — I will personally hunt her down, put a mic in her hand, and make her start interviewing strangers. Her interview with Bruce is THAT good.

Best, Rob

PS – The Transom Story Workshop is currently accepting applications for the Spring 2013 Workshop. Registration ends January fourth.

PPS – “Leaving A Mark” is not for the feint of heart, even after I beeped all the expletives.

 

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23 comments to Leaving A Mark

  • Big fan of the podcast, but I don’t get what was so impressive about this interview at all. Granted, the interviewer is inexperienced & shows great promise, but her tact comes off like a precocious student exploiting a “character” for a school project. It played more like a scene than an interview and felt like this guy was equally annoyed & just wanted the scene over.

    I also find it difficult to understand why you would encourage a young student contacting a rough ex-con heroin addict on craigslist and getting in his truck to drive off to who knows where to do who knows what… for the sake of an interview with a crispy “character”.

    Had a friend who did the same many years ago, but she wasn’t as lucky. They found her body several days later in a North Dallas ravine.

    • rob

      Hi Skip,

      Thanks for writing. Great comments.

      First, and most importantly, we took safety precautions. I’m not entirely convinced they were enough, but we had a plan in place. And, I’m terribly sorry to hear about what happened to your friend. Truly.

      It’s true, Emily was fascinated by someone who she found to be very different than her. Maybe what you hear is that fascination. What I hear is equal parts curiosity and courage.

      I do think he was annoyed by the end. Emily believes it’s because he talked about some difficult subject matter (aging and regret) and hit a wall — he was done and he let her know it. At that moment in the story, he also sounded genuinely interested in her success when he asks if she got what she wanted. He felt completely annoyed, I don’t think he would have asked if it had gone okay.

      Perhaps the reason it played like a scene was because it became a scene. It unfolded the way you hear it. She could have chosen, I suppose, to produce an acts and tracks and music piece. But, leaving it relatively verite reveals the rawness of his character and the situation. Frankly, it feels more honest. Another approach might have sanitized the story. And, I think her choice to make the interview itself part of the story was clever.

      I should say that the plan was for her to spend time with Bruce while he got the tattoo removed. We hoped that she’d capture the story of someone in transition. The tattoo removal never happened during the workshop (not sure it has since). But, when she returned with this tape, the story seemed complete — his mere contemplation of removing it and his reasons why offered enough of a glimpse into his transition and his character complications.

      I hope that helps you understand some of the decisions that were made. I’ll be sure to forward your comments to Emily. Maybe she’ll chime in, too.

      All the best, Rob

    • Hi Skip,

      Emily here. Thanks for weighing in on the piece. Several people have asked me if I was playing a character–or even a caricature of myself–during the interview. I’m still not sure whether I should be offended or perplexed by that. It’s interesting it sounds that way, because the thought never crossed my mind. That was me in the moment, and it was real.

      I interviewed Bruce for over an hour in his truck, and then I interviewed him some more as he drove me to my bus stop. I felt very comfortable around him. Some questions I asked were more tactful than others. But I knew within minutes that Bruce was a no-frills, no-BS type of guy. If he didn’t like something, he’d tell me. Over the course of our interview, Bruce did become tired and annoyed. I’m sure of it. I had pelted him with questions for over an hour. I had repeatedly asked him to stop shaking his leg. I had made him explain uncomfortable things about his past to me. I had refused his gum. But I don’t think it was a “this girl’s way of asking questions is unbearable, she needs to leave already” kind of annoyance. He wouldn’t have given me a ride or answered more questions if that were the case.

      You do bring up an interesting point about “crispy characters.” I have felt conflicted in putting this piece together; I’ve wondered if the piece is interesting only because it involves an ex-con heroin addict with an offensive tattoo. At times I’ve even felt like I was in some ways exploiting Bruce, like “Look everyone, here’s a criminal. What a rough life he’s led!” But I’ve realized that I haven’t portrayed Bruce as just a crispy character or an interview subject. I’ve ended up presenting a story about Bruce. There’s more to him than just being a racist, ex-con druggie. He’s a son, a brother, a sports fan, a person. Whether people like him or not, I think almost everyone can empathize with and relate to him on SOME level–going wayward somewhere, hurting your parents, not getting what you want out of life, and so on.

      What happened to your friend is devastating. I’m sorry that happened. There ARE large numbers of dangerous ex-convicts out there, no doubt. I was lucky. But assuming all ex-cons prey on women (something I’m guilty of myself) is an unfair blanket statement. Meeting Bruce was my choice. Rob forced me to consider my safety, but I knew I wanted to (or at least try to) get the story. I went with my gut, and things turned out all right. Bruce is STILL giving me flak over the way I met him. He’s told me several times not to go meeting people off of Craigslist, and I appreciate that. There’s so much about Bruce I don’t agree with, but after spending some time with him, I also see the good in him. Things aren’t so black and white.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, Skip.

      Take care,
      Emily

    • Hi Skip,

      Emily here. Thanks for weighing in on the piece. Several people have asked me if I was playing a character–or even a caricature of myself–during the interview. I’m still not sure whether I should be offended or perplexed by that. It’s interesting it sounds that way, because the thought never crossed my mind. That was me in the moment, and it was real…terrible teen voice and all. Don’t worry, I’m not the biggest fan of my voice either.

      I interviewed Bruce for over an hour in his truck, and then I interviewed him some more as he drove me to my bus stop. I felt very comfortable around him, maybe too comfortable. At no point did I ever feel afraid. Some questions I asked were more tactful than others. But I knew within minutes that Bruce was a no-frills, no-BS type of guy. If he didn’t like something, he’d tell me. Over the course of our interview, Bruce did become tired and annoyed. I’m sure of it. I had pelted him with questions for over an hour. I had repeatedly asked him to stop shaking his leg. I had made him explain uncomfortable things about his past to me. I had refused his gum. But I don’t think it was a “this girl’s way of asking questions is unbearable, she needs to leave already” kind of annoyance. He wouldn’t have given me a ride or answered more questions if that were the case.

      You do bring up an interesting point about “crispy characters.” I have felt conflicted in putting this piece together; I’ve wondered if the piece is interesting only because it involves an ex-con heroin addict with an offensive tattoo. At times I’ve even felt like I was in some ways exploiting Bruce, like “Look everyone, here’s a criminal. What a rough life he’s led!” But I’ve realized that I haven’t portrayed Bruce as just a crispy character or an interview subject. I’ve ended up presenting a story about Bruce. There’s more to him than just being a racist, ex-con druggie. He’s a son, a brother, a sports fan, a person. Whether people like him or not, I think almost everyone can empathize with and relate to him on SOME level–going wayward somewhere, hurting your parents, not getting what you want out of life, and so on.

      What happened to your friend is devastating. I’m sorry that happened. There ARE large numbers of dangerous ex-convicts out there, no doubt. I was lucky. But assuming all ex-cons prey on women (something I’m guilty of myself) is an unfair blanket statement. Meeting Bruce was my choice. Rob forced me to consider my safety, but I knew I wanted to (or at least try to) get the story. I went with my gut, and things turned out all right. Bruce is STILL giving me flak over the way I met him. He’s told me several times not to go meeting people off of Craigslist, and I appreciate that. There’s so much about Bruce I don’t agree with, but after spending some time with him, I also see the good in him. Things aren’t so black and white.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, Skip. Good stuff to ponder for my future pieces!

      Take care,
      Emily

  • Hi Rob,

    I have mixed feelings about this piece. On one hand, her voice sounds like a teen doing an interview for school & she’s at once thrilled at the thought of being able to show off some gritty tape to her classmates.

    She also sounds like she’s overusing “confidence” to mask sheer terror and coming off like a brat instead of cute & sassy. However, for that bit of moxie it took to get into the truck & ride to the beach with a complete stranger’s truck… well gotta give her props for that.

    Back in school almost two decades ago, I did something similar video interviewing homeless transients on the street and ultimately hanging out with them taping at a hobo camp by the railroad tracks. At the time I didn’t even think about how wrong that could have gone, especially wielding an expensive video camera and a pocket full of cash around a group of “characters” who mostly didn’t want their faces possibly Identified by authorities. Got great footage, but I have to wonder how bright that was.

    I agree with Emily that there should be far more I interviews with regular everyday characters who aren’t YouTube sensations, reality TV stars, entertainers, etc. I think that’s why I’m drawn to you excellent podcast & others like Radiolab, This American Life, 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, etc. There’s something deeper going on when a story is done well using only sound.

    Keep up the stupendous work Sir!

  • Genevieve

    Great job Emily! I truly enjoyed this because of the contrast of the two peoples’ life experiences, ages, and voices. But also because Emily was confident in speaking with him and they had great rapport with one another.

    She does not sound like a brat as noted above, nor is there any need for her to be “cute & sassy”. Confident young woman on a mission to record a fascinating life story would be a more appropriate description. Can’t wait to hear what you do next!

  • Audrey

    Hi Skip and Rob,

    I’d like to echo Skips last remarks that it’s always wonderful to hear interviews with “regular everyday characters.” Not to mention the willingness and talent on the half of the producer to create a compelling or interesting story out of something that might have been passed over by most. This does set great producers/artists apart from the rest.

    I did want to point out some things I found problematic in Skip’s post. I listened to the piece before I read these comments and I will say that I agree with Rob that I found Emily’s tone to be curious, encouraging. The options of tone that you suggest, Skip, are for Emily to be either a “brat” or “cute & sassy” as if those are the only two options for someone who might be displaying “confidence.” I’m sure you will agree that this a tired stereotype of the “confident” woman, that ff she is not to be cute and sassy, she is over-confident and being a brat.

    As someone who has spent time working and interviewing diverse populations, I did not sense “sheer terror” in Emily’s voice, but rather cool, calm and honest curiosity about her subject. Assuming that this was a “terrifying” situation is making assumptions about Emily and also about Bruce. I also did not get the sense that the piece was exploitative, as Bruce was willing to be interviewed, seemingly honest with Emily, as well as trusting enough to actually open up to her. They seemed to have hit it off quite well!

    Congrats Emily on a work well done. And like Genevieve, looking forward to hearing more of your work.

  • Hello all,

    First of all, if I didn’t didn’t think this piece had potential for me, I wouldn’t have bothered taking the time to critique. Emily herself says that she was “sassing” him so don’t give me that gender tripe. I was using Emily’s own term.

    Second, this critique was in no way an attack on Emily of her piece. It was an honest personal impression of the piece. Most people won’t take the time to give you their honest feedback, they’ll simply pat you on the back or move on without a word.

    After reading Emily’s reply, I think what might have made the piece work better for me would be if it were cut a bit longer to allow the story to unfold a bit slower so the listener could get the initial trepidation and ultimate rapport develop. As cut, it comes across like a teen doing a hit piece on a crispy character.

    I applaud the spirit of the piece, but for me it needs more work in the editing suite. However, I have to give a well deserved congratulations to Emily for reaching this level on merely her second interview. VERY well done!

    Emily, did you know Bruce was an ex-con heroin addict before you got in the truck with him, and did you know that he was driving to the beach? Or, did you just you just blindly get into a vehicle with a complete stranger off Craigslist without a clue where you were going? I’ve been around the block, spent time in the military, have traveled 22 different countries, spent 3 nights in a Guatemala City half-way house after being robbed, was nearly clubbed in an abandoned Varanasi India building, been kicked in the chest by some crazed Argentine while just minding my own business, and recently punched in the face by a glue-sniffing punk during a failed mugging attempt in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. And even so… I would never get into a vehicle with a stranger I met off Craigslist and drive off into the unknown. It might have been better to meet up in a public place first to at least get a feel for the situation. My mother was a psychiatrist so I heard plenty of stories growing up. Bruce’s incessantly shaking leg would definitely give me pause. My gut tells me, you got very lucky.

    Great job, consider re-editing to let the story build a bit so the listener gets a feel for you initial trepidation and how a rapport was ultimately achieved. This plays more like a compelling scene than an interview because the interviewer is as much a part of the story as the subject.

    Please do be careful out there and looking forward to hearing much more from you in the future!

  • Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Much appreciated.

    Skip–it’s true that I did sass Bruce several times during the interview (in response to his sass), but it was never my intention to be sassy or cute. I was there to interview him and get his story. At the time, I didn’t know I’d end up including myself in the piece. That was a decision made after the interview, when I was deciding how I wanted to put the piece together.

    For whatever reason our personalities really gelled. Of course there was some initial nervousness, but that was brief and at the very beginning. By the time we had forced some small talk and gotten sodas and driven to the beach, we were pretty good. There was no sheer terror. And that’s when I started recording. What you hear at the beginning of the piece is pretty much the beginning of our interview (some things I left out: him asking “You gotta put that thing [the mic] so close to me?!”, me saying yeah, me asking him to introduce himself…three times). It was mostly just me trying to get the interview up and running. My voice at the very beginning of the interview is noticeably softer–perhaps that indicates something? But I don’t think there was any real trepidation to capture there; in order to capture that, I would’ve had to start recording as soon as I met him. But I do think you can get a sense of the “build” or “initial tension” in Bruce’s answers. Those first few pauses weren’t edited…he really waited that long before saying anything else. He was the uncomfortable one.

    Before meeting Bruce, I had talked to him a little bit on the phone. I knew he had been in prison for some drug-related charges, but I didn’t know about the heroin or details of his record. He was actually less scary in person than he was over the phone. The day of the meeting, we had arranged to meet at the bus station. I knew we’d then go somewhere and conduct the interview in his car. I am definitely grateful nothing terrible happened. I know I got lucky. Thanks for your concern; I’ll continue to be careful from here on out!

    Take care,
    Emily

  • Emily,

    Ok. Just giving my personal impressions.

    Nice job & good luck.

  • Rob and Emily – just wanted to let you know that I thought this was a fantastic story. Catie Talarski shared it with me.

    A great, gutsy interview…and you really got the story that he needed to tell. “Faking confidence” is a great piece of advice that I think all of us can learn from. I share a bit of Skip’s concerns about driving off in a car with Bruce. I’m sure you took precautions, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. And, not just because he might be violent or dangerous. But because there was a chance that he’d be “in charge” the whole time – and use that leverage. Anyway, I love characters who leave you with questions and no clear moral compass. You gave him a great platform – and miked it beautifully, so you really heard his voice.

    And I love your answer to his question: “will this be a trying experience?”

    Just really great work.

    jd

  • [...] an episode of How Sound titled “Leaving A Mark“, radio producer Emily Hsiao talks to Bruce Roderick, who posted a Craigslist ad inquiring [...]

  • Hi,

    I think I was over-critical on this story. I do think there were some unreasonable risks taken and that it could be even better with a little more editing, but overall it was a very compelling story and was nicely executed. I think I forgot what this podcast is really all about and judged it in the wrong context.

  • I think Emily is really brave and I would be pretty scared going into this.
    Skimming the comments above, I did not think, like Rob, that Emily sounded confident in the story. She sounded a bit reticent in the part that was played, but I do not blame her. She was asking a guy to talk to her about his personal hatreds and how those personal hatreds (at least, in part) evaporated. That’s very emotionally tricky stuff and to do it in conversation with a guy who has put guns in drug dealers faces – man.
    I somewhat agree with Skip that the circumstances of this interview are just terrifying. In his truck? On his terms? Man. I am glad it all worked out but it was very, very risky.

    But I do think, in the end, whether she sounded confident or not (I don’t think that’s an important question – honestly) – I think Emily got an important piece of tape and got a rare bit of vulnerability captured for all time from the sort of character who is not going to often let himself be vulnerable. I am glad HowSound exists so that this story was able to get out there a bit more. If I’m not wrong, this piece has never been played on the radio, has it?

    One aspect of this tape that I was a little surprised that Rob didn’t ask about was the way Emily left the recording equipment on in the truck after the interview was over. That seems brassy, as well. And I always wonder what the ethics of that are ( I am not a reporter – I am not make a judgment here – I just wonder ).

    To Rob’s question: “Why is it you are quiet in class but more confident while doing an interview,” I think that a lot of shy people find that when they are “on the job” (whatever that job is) they are able to transform a bit. While no one would exactly describe me as shy, I can have a hard time at parties, usually. Unless, somehow, my appearance at that party has something to do with some job I am doing. Then I know what my mission is, I know what my objectives are and I am much more likely to be able to confidently approach strangers and talk to them. I have a feeling it is somewhat the same for Emily when she turns that audio recorder on, and she sort of seemed to say that.

    • rob

      Hi Brady,

      Thanks for your note. Much appreciated.

      To my knowledge, the only time this story has aired on the radio is via Public Radio Remix, a service of PRX. Remix programs about six hours of content from PRX for stations to air — a kind of automation service, if you will. A handful of stations air Remix, typically over night. And, Remix regularly includes HowSound, so…..

      As for keeping the recorder going, it’s good practice to do so. Indeed, it gave Emily her solid ending. The only time that would be unethical is if you put the mic down as if you weren’t recording but kept recording. In Emily’s case, she didn’t do that. And, if memory serves, Bruce asks her in the piece “You still got that f-g thing on?” and she says yes and he laughs.

      And lastly, yes, there is a power in a microphone, a power that gives permission for the interviewee *and* the interviewer.

      Thanks again!

      Best,
      Rob

  • Christina Montemurro

    Rob and Emily, I really enjoyed the piece and definitely felt like I got a sense of who Bruce is. But having just listened to The Burning Question with Audie Cornish, I couldn’t help but notice that Emily did just what Audie said she’d learned not to do – ask open-ended questions. Like “tell me about yourself” or “what’s it like to be in prison?” I have no journalism training at all – I’m just an avid listener – but I’m really curious about the use of questions like this. Is it common to start with something that’s really vague to get a sense of how your subject is going to respond? I would think a more targeted question might yield a more specific answer?

    • rob

      Hi Christina,

      Thanks for writing. I think you may have stumbled upon a paradox of dolling out advice about radio storytelling — what may not work with one person, may work with another. :) “Ask wide open questions” and “don’t ask wide open questions” — both statements are true even though they may contradict each other. Wide open questions may not focus the interviewee enough which can cause an them to muddle through their thoughts verbally on the hunt for an answer. In that case, the interviewer ends up with a mushy response that’s not usable. On the other hand, a wide open question may allow someone the freedom to focus on what’s important to them. And, you may hear about something you didn’t imagine in your more focused questions.

      For me, I’ve never asked someone to tell me about themselves. That feels too wide open. I’ll ask them to introduce themselves providing name, age, occupation, where they live, that sort of thing.

      I think we hear Bruce stumble a bit in response to the “tell me about yourself” question as he wonders if he should keep going or not. On the other hand, “Tell me about prison” worked pretty well.

      My hunch is Bruce may not be used to talking about himself in such an open manner so he stumbled a little bit. On the other hand, I suspect he’s talked about prison a lot so he may have a ready narrative to answer that question.

      Then why wouldn’t Richard Gere call up his ready narrative a film for Audie? Who knows. :) Maybe he’s just tired of the question.

      Wish I had a more concrete response for you. I think, maybe, the most concrete thing I can say is ask a wide-open question and see if it works with the person you’re interviewing. If it doesn’t, don’t ask them.

      Maybe someone else can chime in and save me. :)

      Thanks for listening,
      Rob

  • Rob, thanks so much for your reply. I’m a photographer – and can certainly relate to the concept that there are widely-accepted rules that sometimes get thrown out the window, with good reason.

    And you may be on to something – I’m trying to recall your interview with Audie Cornish – and it was Richard Gere who said “don’t ask open-ended questions.” I’m sure when actors/writers/whoever are running the press junket, they must get extremely tired of hearing the same questions over and over again. So I can understand why he wouldn’t want to have to give the whole spiel over again.

    I thought that Bruce did sound annoyed with “tell me about yourself” because it was too big a question. I thought he was expecting just to talk about his tattoo and didn’t know which direction to go with his answer.

    Again thanks for your reply, and also for your show. While I’m not a journalist, I’m fascinated by the way stories are put together and felt like a kid in a candy store when I discovered your podcast.

  • Jim Saunders

    I listened to this on XM 123 last night. I thought that it was really thought-provoking. It must have been. I am still thinking about it 24 hours later and took the time to use google until I found this site. In one of her comments above, the interviewer mentioned something about how everything is not “black and white,” and that it what captured me. I see things always in shades of gray and am continually amazed that others do not. The subject of this interview, I thought, (despite his rough exterior) was at a point in his life where he was looking at himself critically, and I think that he showed a lot of respect to the interviewer, in his own unique way. … I have listened to countless shorts on PRX and have never commented publicly on anything. This interview made an impression on me, at least. There were thoughts of “aging,” “but for the grace of God,” “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood,” and all the things that make me wonder how much of how our lives live out are in our own control. Thanks!

  • Robert Crisp

    Hi, Emily (and Rob, and anyone else reading). I’m a composition teacher in Savannah, GA, and I used “Leaving a Mark” in class the other day as a different way to introduce my students to profile writing. Though they’ll be writing a traditional paper, they’re expected to interview their subjects, and I thought Emily’s piece was intriguing enough to grab their attention. I was right; my students really enjoyed listening to the piece. Hopefully, I’ve also won How Sound a few new fans.

  • L

    Love it, great work. Having Emily in the piece is what makes it.

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