With Diary of a Misfit, Reporter Casey Parks Turns a Mystery into a Memoir
June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. When?
Speaker 2: When I first got into this book writing class at Columbia on the first day, the professor said, If you think you can be happy doing anything else, don’t write a book. And I just knew already, like, I have to do this. I don’t know why, but I have to do it. I don’t care what else in my life suffers.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Kathryn Hahn.
June Thomas: And I’m your other host, June Thomas. Hi, June. How are you? I am fabulous. Thank you. I am getting settled in our new home, which is in Scotland. I more or less over jetlag and most relieving of all, I’m finally getting back to a routine of working on my book. So that is great. How are you doing?
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: I’m doing pretty good. I have to say. It’s always fun when someone you zoom with a lot has a new Zoom background, which you now do having moved. So it’s a very novel experience.
June Thomas: Yes, it’s looking very empty right now because all of our stuff is, well, I think, waiting to be put on a ship rather than actually on the ship. Oh, wow. But it’s funny because you don’t need that stuff. I need to tell myself all that stuff that I paid a fortune to send it. I don’t need it. But hey, there we are.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: So who did you talk to this week for this episode?
June Thomas: So the voice we heard at the top of the show belongs to Casey Parks. She is a journalist at The Washington Post and she has an amazing new book out called Diary of a Misfit, A Memoir and a Mystery. And I wanted to speak with her because in some ways, it’s a book about the struggle to write a book, but it’s also a really beautiful and compelling read. I really highly recommend it, but I really wanted to talk to her about it.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Yeah, it sounds really, really fascinating and I guess kind of on that subject, what can we look forward to in the Slate plus bit this week?
June Thomas: That’s right. Speaking of fascinating. So Slate Plus members will hear what reading the audio version talked about the book she’d spent 13 years working on. And I also asked her about books that she read to help her structure or frame her own memoir.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: That sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to listen to it. And Slate Plus members, you will hear that at the end of the show.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: All right. Let’s hear June’s conversation with Casey Parks.
June Thomas: Today. Casey Parks, I want to talk with you about the writing of your new book, Diary of a Misfit, a memoir and a Mystery. And I’m really curious to hear how you would describe the book.
Speaker 2: It is essentially about a person in rural.
June Thomas: Louisiana who.
Speaker 2: Was assigned female at birth but lived as a man. And my decades long quest to try to find out about his life and consequently about the role my family plays in that quest. I don’t know. I’m a horrible elevator pitch person. This is probably my worst skill at my job and.
June Thomas: My.
Speaker 2: Way to start off with the hard hitting questions.
June Thomas: It is a difficult skill as it’s a difficult thing to do to summarize things very concisely. But I think it’s especially hard with your book because there are a lot of things going on. So I think you did a great job of kind of mentioning a whole bunch of them because it is kind of about Roy or the search to learn more about Roy. But it also isn’t. It’s really, you know, the memories of you and your story of finding it rather than Roy in it. I guess I’m curious how you sort of figured out what the subject of the book really is.
Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s kind of a book about the making of itself.
June Thomas: Yeah.
Speaker 2: So when I started back in my twenties and let’s say 28, 29, I really thought it was just a straightforward documentary project about this guy, Roy Hudgins, who played country music on his porch. His family was they picked cotton. He lived across the street from my grandmother. And my grandmother told me about him. And when she told me about him, there were all these mysteries in his life. She said he’d been kidnapped as a little girl and raised as a boy. And then other people in town told me that he had these evil neighbors and they forced him into the nursing home. Then the nursing home forced him to live like a woman. And so I thought I had kind of a simple story for a long time, like, I’m just going to go learn about this person.
Speaker 2: The problem with that is he didn’t leave behind a ton of artifacts about his life, and he died when he was 80 in 2006. And most of the other people who knew him were around the same age or older. And so the few people who were still alive were, you know, not in great possession of their memories anymore.
Speaker 2: And so. It just took a ton of digging. And sometimes that digging wasn’t really that fruitful. And for years I kept trying to apply for grants to get someone to help me make this documentary, and I would often get turned down for the grants. And finally, one of the people who turned me down for the grant said, you know, I’m not going to give you any money, but I want to tell you why, because, like, I think you do have a good story. And I think she told me is when you have a big project, be it a documentary or a book or a magazine article, your main character has to change over the course of that narrative. And your main character can’t change because he’s dead and you don’t have enough information to chart what changes he might have had in life. So you need to find a different main character.
Speaker 2: And at the time I said, Well, what about my grandma? Because she’s the one who told me about him. And the woman on the grant maker said, Well, what about you? And I really resisted that. I had no interest in writing about myself. I am a journalist. I work for newspapers, and I really grew up being taught that you never include yourself, you never have opinions, you never have feelings. You’re just a, you know, a cardboard cut out in the shape of your newspaper. And it took me many years to get comfortable with that. And really the only way actually, I’m still not comfortable with it.
Speaker 2: But the the way that I wound up writing about myself as I went to Columbia University to get my master’s and I took this book writing class, and I thought maybe this book writing class will help me figure out, like, how to outline the narrative. And I’m still thinking I’m writing this simple narrative about this other guy and my professor.
Speaker 2: Kind of gently said, I don’t know if you can sustain 80,000 words about this person. Like, why don’t you try including yourself? And so in that class, you write chapters of the book. And so he told me to write one of them with myself in it. And at the time, I was like, Okay, well, no one’s going to see this, just the professor. I’ll do it for him. And then after I wrote that one chapter that included myself. Like I just knew it was better than everything else I had made. And so, like, even though I didn’t want to include myself, like the, the me who loves creating something good or reading something good could just tell.
Speaker 2: So I’m like, okay. And so from there, I kind of just started back scratch, like the initial version. We had videotaped probably eight terabytes of footage, and I transcribed all of that myself. This is like pre Trent pre, you know, the programs that’ll do it for you. And because I was transcribing all of that myself, which is a horribly laborious process, any time there was like side action, I would just kind of paraphrase it like Casey talking to her mother for a long time.
Speaker 2: And so when I went back, I was like, Okay, well, what was Casey saying to her mother? And so I just kind of went back and almost re reported by just rewatching all this video footage to see, okay, as I was reporting about Roy, what else was going on in my life. And as I looked back at it, I started to see. Oh, a lot was happening. And yes, like that grant lady was right. Like the person who’s changing over these ten years is you.
June Thomas: Yeah. And I mean, I would say that comes across really beautifully in a way that is very subtle. And, you know, sometimes you’re obviously a little hard on yourself and you’re saying, you know, my skills weren’t good at this point. I wasn’t doing very well. I wasn’t a very good reporter, which, you know, I think it’s clear you were exaggerating, but it’s also clear that you have gotten better. And that’s very difficult to do. It’s very difficult to show improvement.
June Thomas: You know, as it happens over the course of time, you know, you’ve mentioned that you had many terabytes of footage, but I’m curious kind of how you were able to access that level of awareness of like what you knew and what you were aware of on your first reporting trip to Louisiana or your third or your fifth, like, how were you kind of tapping into that knowledge of where you were by then?
Speaker 2: Well, two things really helped me. One, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve written a journal every single day. So I had lots of journals of what I was thinking at the time, or even just detailed things of like what we ate for dinner that night.
June Thomas: Now.
Speaker 2: Some of my journals are really weird. They’re just like grocery list. But the other great thing for me, which did not feel great in the moment, is I took a friend with me on all of these trips who is a videographer. Their names Aubrey Bernard Clark, and they’re a legit filmmaker. Like one of their films was in Sundance last year. They worked on Transparent, and after every single interview we did, Aubrey would film me and make me recap the conversations and talk about how I felt about it. And I hated those. I mean, if you look at this video footage, I hope somebody does something with all the video we have at some point.
Speaker 2: I look so bratty because I just did not want to be a part of it and I just kind of look dead in the eyes and, like, annoyed and tired and nervous and, you know, but it is amazing to have that contemporaneous record not only of just recapping, but like, you know, they were filming me talking about how nervous I am or like I, you know, and because there’s all this tape I can see, there’s one point in the book where I’m going to confront this neighbor and I’m really scared to do it. And I can see on the tape that it takes me 3 minutes to get out of the car. And that’s just stuff that you wouldn’t write down if you’re just taking notes, you know, like, so I really got lucky that we had all of that.
June Thomas: But it’s a lot of material, so it’s great to have big plus, but also a minus that you have to process it, you have to deal with it. And you know, also it’s really hard, I imagine, to put the create the necessary distance between this person in that minute and the person who have many years later who has to make a book out of it.
Speaker 2: You know, sometimes it was really surprising to me to go back and look at those journals or even like I just tried to report about myself the way I would report about someone else. So I just took away my concept of memory and looked for actual documents to be like, Okay, what were you telling people then? So I went and looked at all my charts back in the day because back in my twenties I was on Gchat all day long at work and just spewing opinions left and right about everything. But my memories are kind of glossed over, you know, even going back to my childhood memories like I first.
Speaker 2: Some of the chapters are about my family in the nineties, in the eighties, and I remember when I was starting those, I would think, Oh, well, your childhood wasn’t as bad as you thought it was. And then I pulled out my fifth grade journal on my sixth grade journal, and I remember there was one journal entry that said, I’m scared to go to school today because my mom won’t wake up like she’s passed out on the floor. I’m afraid she’s going to die if I go to school. And then another one saying that my parents stayed up all night fighting because they couldn’t afford my school fees and reading those.
Speaker 2: Yes, it’s a lot to process, but I it allowed me, I think, to confront myself and just to see, oh, actually, your childhood, maybe it was worse than you thought. Or maybe in your twenties you were more lonely than you can remember now because you’re married now and you’ve lost touch with how much yearning you did or how much drinking you did. So just getting time to go back and just, I guess in a sort of safe place, revisit how I felt at all of those times and start to make sense of why I might have felt that way.
Speaker 2: Because before I wrote this book, I was a really closed off person. And I think some of that was I kind. I’ve carried my role as a journalist into my personal life. Where if you’re friends with me, I’m going to ask you a million questions. And that allowed me to never have to tell people anything about myself. And as I started to write it, I realized, like, there are things in here I’ve never told my spouse. I’ve never told my best friend. So it was a gift to be able to just go back and I guess share that with people and even just share it with myself.
June Thomas: I wonder, do you know how it was possible to do that? I mean, some of the things that you admitted to, you didn’t need to reveal them. They weren’t even they were kind of extras. Know, you shared, for example, that on an early trip you kind of held up a make that wasn’t actually attached to a recorder or you’ve mentioned that you cheated on a girlfriend who we hadn’t even met. You know, you grew up kind of creating a version of yourself that that was in some ways not worse necessarily, but, you know, more truth telling that it kind of needed to be. Was there something that you did to be able to share those things?
Speaker 2: I think the main thing that I did is never think about who was going to read it. And I’m paying for that dearly now because now all these people that I did not think would read it are reading it. Some of it is other, you know, like I was a little bit tough on a few of my aunts, I think, and I did not expect they would read it and they all immediately bought copies and read it the first day in one sitting. So I’m kind of going through that right now. Different and aunts like, you know, telling me what they thought or didn’t think. And I mean, they’re very they’re being very generous to me.
Speaker 2: But yeah, you know, I have this thing I do when I write articles for the post or for magazines or wherever, and that’s when I find someone I’m going to write about because I write pretty long articles. I tell the person at the beginning, Look like right now in your mind you’re thinking, this person is going to write about me and I’m going to come off great. Like I’m going to. Everyone’s going to think I’m awesome and I’m going to be perfect in this and that’s not real. Like, I’m going to write down your faults and the times you mess up. And the reason for that is that real people aren’t perfect. And if you come across as perfect, no one’s going to relate to you.
Speaker 2: And so my goal is that when you read this article, you’ll recognize yourself. But that means recognizing yourself for all the good and bad. And so I need you to be honest with me about those things. But the end goal is that you move people with your story and they see themselves in you. Some people don’t want to do that. That’s fine. That’s why I give the spiel at the beginning so they can know. But it makes it easier as you go through the process to say, Well, remember, I need to know about the times you messed up and the things you did wrong. And it’s not because I want to beat up on you. It’s because I want to show how we got there. And usually people mess up for very good reasons. Maybe it’s their own traumas, maybe it’s systemic racism that’s caused them to have all kind of, you know, people aren’t usually just bad actors.
Speaker 2: Yeah. And so I just kind of went to myself with that same proposal of like, okay, Casey, what did you do right? And what did you do wrong? I think in addition to all the emotional family stuff and gender stuff and sexuality stuff, the book is also just a memoir of what it’s like to be a young reporter.
June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.
Speaker 2: And so I think I wanted to show. What it actually takes to become a better reporter. And I think there are people now who think I’m kind of like a fancy journalist, like I’ve had stories in The New Yorker magazine. I’ve had them in The New York Times magazine. I work for The Washington Post. Like, if you’re a journalist dreaming of becoming something like I have accomplished.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. Aside from, like, huge prizes, like everything you could want to accomplish as a journalist. And I think oftentimes people call me and they’re like, well, how do you get to that place? And when I was young, I didn’t know how you get to that place. And I think I thought, like, you have to at 21, be as good as Katherine Boo is and at 50 or and I don’t know that she messed up as much as I did, but I kind of just wanted to be transparent about that, of like, yeah, it might look like I have all these fancy journalism connections now, but like there was a time when I just didn’t even know how to use my microphone where I could not convince myself to get out of the car where I got demoted twice.
Speaker 2: I guess it’s sort of a kind of offering of hope, of just like to become what you want to become sometimes. Just takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of failure. And one failure doesn’t direct the rest of your life and you learn from all of that stuff. I think I became a way better newspaper journalist because I messed up so many times reporting this book. Like once you have to talk yourself out of getting out of the car and your mom’s really conservative hometown, it becomes much easier to do, you know, in a more welcoming place. We’ll be right.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Back with more of June’s conversation with Casey Parks.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Hi listeners. We want to hear from you whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem. Tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Now let’s return to June’s conversation with Casey Parks.
June Thomas: I definitely felt that this book, you know, it’s a whole series of love stories, you know, your family to the south, but also to journalism. And I wonder if the process of writing the book changed the way that you feel about or approach our profession.
Speaker 2: Yeah. So there are some there’s some passages in there about what kind of journalist I was as I started reporting this book. And at the time, I worked out in the suburbs of Portland covering city council meetings. And back then, I thought, like, I’m in the lowest of low positions and like, I just want to get downtown and be a superstar and like get on the front page. And as I return to that time to write about it now, I really realized like. All of that time was so important in making you the journalist that you are now. Like, I learned how to get documents in the suburbs. I learned how to talk to people. I learned what I wanted to write like.
Speaker 2: I remember when I made my second demotion, one of the reporters that I really looked up to at the paper told me, This is great. No one’s going to pay attention to what you write so you can just try anything. And at the time, I was like, You are crazy. Like, This is not great. I’ve been demoted twice, but I think she was right. I just tried all kind of weird stuff and very few people read it and I could just figure out who I was. So I think I came back to that time just with a lot of gratitude and like a lot of.
Speaker 2: I guess I feel sad that young journalists don’t get to have that bureau experience. Sometimes you get thrown into a big beat before you’re really ready. And I feel a lot more grateful now that I had a really slow roll up, that I wasn’t a prodigy, that I wasn’t a superstar in my twenties. I’m almost 40 now. And I just got to the paper that I’ve been dreaming of working at since I was seven and. I guess I just appreciate that more of like, you know, it took you a long time to know what you’re doing and you do now. And I can come in to the job I have now more confidently.
June Thomas: Mm hmm.
Speaker 2: Because of all those failures?
June Thomas: Yeah.
June Thomas: Well, as you said, you know, your day job, as it were, is you’re a reporter at The Washington Post. And one of the challenges that working listeners often ask us for advice on is how to combine a day job with the creative work that they really want to do. And I think that being a reporter, it uses a lot of the same skills and brain parts as the thing that we’re talking about now, which is writing a book. And I wonder if you developed any particular strategies to be able to combine that day job and get this book written and, you know, stay sane and also, you know, get all that work done?
Speaker 2: Well, I have to say, it’s not easy. When I first got into this book writing class at Columbia on the first day, the professor said, look, if you think you can be happy doing anything else, don’t write a book. It is going to be lonelier than you expect. It’s not going to pay you as much as you expect. It’s going to take a ton of work. There’s going to be a lot of waiting around. You might sell 200 copies. So if you think you would rather be doing anything like go into a concert, sitting at the bar, working out, go do those things because this life sucks. But if you feel like there is no way I can get through my life if I don’t write a book, then you have to do it. And I just knew already like I have to do this. I don’t know why, but I have to do it. I don’t care what else in my life suffers. I need to make this and.
Speaker 2: You know, four years at my day job, I spent every vacation day going to Dale High, Louisiana, to report this. So I never recharged. I never just, like, sat on the beach getting my brain cells back together. But I knew that it was important to me and it fulfilled something in me that worked didn’t, and that it was in its own way recharging and made in the times when I didn’t love my work as much. It made it worth it because I had the money to go down there. I had the paid vacation to go down there, and I hoped it would someday pay off. But. That part was almost easier, though, because it was so different because I was like traveling and I didn’t travel at my job at that point and it was reporting.
Speaker 2: When you get into writing in your day job and writing for your hobby or your passion, your vocation. Yeah, it’s really hard because I do think there’s only so many words a brain can churn out. I got really lucky because I won a fellowship to Columbia. It’s called the Spenser Fellowship, and it’s an education reporting fellowship. And essentially they give you $83,000 to work on one magazine story for a year, and you get a little office at Columbia and you get access to their crazy library, and you really just have to produce that one article. And my article took me three years to do, but it did eventually run in the New York Times Magazine. But I got lucky with that, where I wasn’t having to churn out daily stories all the time so I could spend more time on the book.
Speaker 2: But even with that, like I was freelancing for The New Yorker, I was working on this New York Times Magazine story. And really what I would do then is just severely organize my days where I know I can’t think about. The rise of homeschooling and black families at the same time that I think about rural Louisiana. So I would say like on Monday, I’m working on this story for The New Yorker. On Tuesday, I’m doing my book. On Wednesday, I’m working on the story for the New York Times Magazine.
Speaker 2: And I would just give myself wholly to those things. I would not allow anything else to creep into my mind. And I would just say, this is your time to just think about that. And even if you can’t do that in the weekdays, I think just finding like weekend time where you’re like, okay, for these 2 hours, I’m not thinking about how dirty my shower is because my shower is always dirty. I’m not thinking about who I have to call back. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to cook like. I’m just giving myself this gift of 2 hours to just work on this and I am super anal, so I make like hell to do list.
Speaker 2: So I’m like in the early days before I was writing I would be like to do list for this weekend is I have to transcribe two interviews and so I’m not moving till I get that done. Or when I was writing. My goal was always to write 500 words. And sometimes I would write more than that. And I would be like, okay, like it’s 11 a.m.. Like, You’re done. Like, let’s go walk around Prospect Park or. Yeah. And some days I would sit there till like seven or 8 p.m. and, and still hadn’t made the 500 words. But just having those goals for me allowed me.
Speaker 2: Okay. So like I said, my book is 130,000 words. That is hard to think of. I don’t even know how to imagine that. But for me, just thinking like, okay, you can do 500 words like you’ve written 10,000 word articles. 500 words is an AP brief. You know, it’s a little more than an AP brief, but it just made it manageable for me.
Speaker 2: And then I guess like probably the other super spoiled thing is that I was married when I wrote this book. I’m not married now, but my spouse was awesome and they cooked me so many great meals. I just like I don’t even know how I could have done a book without them because. We lived in this minuscule Brooklyn apartment. It was 400 square feet and they worked every day. They also had a really high powered job, but they worked every day at our chest of drawers so that I could have the office to myself. They made dinner every night, and like on the nights when I couldn’t get to 500 words, they were just like, Come in and put a plate, a plate of food and like, walk back out. I know everybody can’t go out there and get themselves a spouse like that, but if you can like, I really recommend it. It just made everything so much easier. And like, even though we’re not together now, we have we’re on great terms. And I’m just so grateful for the ways they made that happen.
Speaker 2: I don’t think people think a lot about all the other stuff that has to get done. When you’re reading a book, you’re not thinking like, Oh, this person, pick somebody, kid up from daycare or did this. But all of those life things are really hard to do on your own. And now that I’m not married and I have to make my own dinner, it’s so much more exhausting. Like there so many days when I get off work and I think, Damn, I wish I had a wife. That sounds misogynistic, but I mean, I can cook. But yeah, it’s really nice to get off work and just have dinner ready, especially if that person’s a great cook.
June Thomas: So absolutely.
June Thomas: I suspect that this book will be of extra importance to those of us who have broadly similar backgrounds to yours, people who are first generation college grads, people with parents who are sometimes, let’s just say, difficult or different or whatever. And I know from my own experience that when you share facts about your day to day experience of, you know, what can be described as growing up in poverty, it can affect the way that people who didn’t have that experience respond to you afterward. And how did you negotiate concerns about talking about class as it plays out in America? Because it’s kind of a third rail that we don’t talk about it, but at the same time, it shapes so much. So how did you kind of prepare for that?
Speaker 2: I think my background very much shapes the kind of journalist I am and it guides me toward the stories I want to do. So I have already been pretty open before the book, just on like Twitter explaining sometimes when I do stories of why I understand things and.
Speaker 2: I will say, though, when I was initially trying to find an agent for my book, I first talked to the agent that I have. Her name’s Anna Stein. She’s awesome. She’s probably, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met, and she just, like, has a real coolness about her. And when we first talked. I didn’t have Roy’s diaries. And that’s kind of the crux of the book on my first trip down there. Someone tells me that Roy kept a diary every day of his life and that his neighbor has them all. And so I asked the neighbor if I could see the diaries, and the neighbor said, no. Stop reporting this story. So a lot of the book is there’s a tension of like, can you get these diaries or not? And I go back to this neighbor multiple times and every time he tells me no.
Speaker 2: So I had this agent that I like, but she told me basically, like, I think you’re a good writer, but I don’t think you have a book if you don’t have these diaries. So I can’t represent you. I’m sorry. So I kind of just went on after that and I didn’t have an agent, probably like four or five months went by. And then I had my first story in The New Yorker, and after that, probably like six agents wrote me and they were like, Oh, we want to represent you. And I was excited because I really wanted to get my project out there. But as I talked to each of these agents, almost every one of them talk to me like, ooh, I know how to sell you like poor lesbian. And, you know, it’s kind of like this is going to be Glass Castle, like, what a freak kind of vibe.
Speaker 2: And I knew I didn’t want to I didn’t want to go through life as, like, a specimen. And I didn’t know what to do because I wanted an agent so badly. And I but I just didn’t want to feel like that. I didn’t want someone to be like, Oh, we can sell your poverty. So I just wrote Anna back and said, Look, I don’t have the goods, but I like you more than anyone else. A lot of people want to represent me now. I feel like I got to take somebody because I got to do this book, but nobody else is you. And she just was like, All right, I’ll take the long game with you. So she agreed to represent me and she’s like, But you’ve got to go back one more time if I’m going to represent you and ask again. So I did go back one more time and ask at her insistence, if you want to know what happens, you go read the book.
June Thomas: Exactly. Exactly. It’s quite the payoff. Casey Parks, thank you so much. Really enjoyed the book. Recommend it to all our listeners. Thank you for joining us on working.
Speaker 2: Thank you so much.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: That was such a fascinating conversation. And all of us, before we dig into it all, I want to start with what we heard in the episode’s open, because even from that segment, I was like, Oh, well, we have to talk about this because Casey, talking about knowing she had to write is so interesting because I feel like it’s relatively rare that someone’s able to say that and then remain like working in that field successfully. We are very lucky in that a good handful of our guests have shared similar stories, but I’m curious if you’ve ever felt that way about anything, and if so, what that thing was.
June Thomas: So I also always wanted to be a writer, although of course I had no idea if that would work out or if that would be possible. But I have to say, I also found Cassie’s commitment to this particular story really inspiring. She spent 13 years I won’t say writing it, because as we heard for the longest time, it was going to be a documentary. It was even going to be a podcast. Like she just knew this was the story she wanted to tell and she just kept pursuing it. I’ve never shown that level of tenacity.
June Thomas: There is definitely a topic that I always want to shout about and that is of course, dentistry. I just want people to know how easy it is for a person’s teeth to effectively exclude them from the kinds of jobs that permit what we might shorthand as a middle class lifestyle and how difficult it can be to, quote unquote, fix them. I’ve written a bunch about dentistry, but I’ve learned that publishers want a story that isn’t the one I want to write, which I respect, because publishing is a business.
June Thomas: And also, you know, to kind of get back to something that Casey said, I’m also aware that my dental journey has what you might call a successful outcome. You know, I got access to the tens of thousands of dollars it has taken to rehabilitate my mouth. I still get gnarly infections like I’ve had for the last couple of weeks now. But, you know, that’s not a typical outcome. And I don’t also I’m not sure that’s the outcome that you want to kind of highlight. But nevertheless, that is why I know what it’s like to have a story that you want to tell. But I also. Yeah, I haven’t stuck with it the way she has.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Mm hmm.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: But also, with regards to your conversation with Casey, I really appreciated what she was saying about what she was taught about, like, the journalistic standard of being objective and not putting yourself in the piece. Like I’ve definitely heard that from some editors before was never use. I never like put yourself in there. That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily.
June Thomas: A.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Rule that you should think of as that concrete, like it’s not necessarily the best approach for every topic. And I was curious if you had a take on that rule.
June Thomas: Yeah, I think acting like you, the writer, don’t exist. Like that’s crazy. If you have a direct connection or a deep knowledge of a certain thing that feels wrong, not to mention it. You know why? Ask somebody on the street to give you an opinion when you have a much more informed and nuanced opinion? I’ve never like that just drives me crazy. That said, I have no patience for writers who can only talk about themselves, you know, and feel the need to put themselves in stories where they really don’t belong because they think they’re more interesting or important than the real subjects. But to bring it back to dentistry, if it’s a news story, it might not be relevant, but it is a piece about how it feels to have bad teeth. I want to know that the writer has had a toothache or has experienced the judgy looks of people who haven’t. So sometimes I think having a connection is really relevant.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Yeah, I totally agree. Like I don’t think you should totally exclude yourself. It’s just a matter of like turning the dial of, like, how much of you should be in there? Because again, like, you probably aren’t the subject of the piece and you should keep that in mind. Yeah, it was also really fascinating to hear just how much past work Casey has archived, like she talked about going through her chats and stuff. And I don’t think I keep records in that intense away, or at least I can’t remember having to go back and try to find archives like that. And I want to know if you do and if you do or if you don’t and if you find that helpful.
June Thomas: I don’t. And I think I suspect I document more than many people or probably most people. But it is not on the level that Casey described or the way that Alison Bechdel in her book, Are You My Mother, she showed herself effectively documenting every single conversation that she had with her mom. You know, and and it’s clear from reading Diary of a Misfit that Casey used the footage that was recorded for the documentary really effectively. But what did she say?
June Thomas: Five terabytes. No. It was very clear that she watched it and rewatched it. I don’t think I could have. I know she said it wasn’t fun, but just sitting through it, you know, even though I journal, I keep records of the work that I do. I rarely look back at those things and when I do it, the cringe is so intense that yeah, I’m just not sure I can handle that.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Yeah, I know the feeling that you’re talking about. And I guess to stay on the topic of slightly more kind of a more personal aspect to your work, it feels pretty significant to me that Casey admits that prior to writing this book, she considered herself a very closed off person and that she thinks that this process changed her as a person. Have you ever had that kind of experience through your own work?
June Thomas: I don’t know that I have in my own writing, but I have repeatedly, weirdly, maybe seen that in the work of friends of mine who are writers. Like, I’ve learned really significant things about people I thought I was pretty close to from reading their books. No, mostly just facts, you know, facts from their lives. Maybe like touchy subjects that they’d choose not to chat about, you know, like or things that maybe it would be hard to bring up. And the first time it happened, I was kind of hurt or insulted. But it has happened so many times now that I’ve realized it really isn’t about me. Another thing that isn’t about me.
June Thomas: And, you know, again, another interesting thing about Diary of a Misfit is how Casey talks about how she realized at some point that this project that she spent so much time on is in many ways, a way for her to connect with her family. Mm hmm. You know, she works in a professional job, and she lives in a different part of the country from rural Louisiana, where she grew up. She has less and less in common with her family. So talking about Roy, the ostensible subject of the book, bridges that gap. And I think something similar happens for some other writers. They can only talk about certain personal things in the context of their work. And I think at some point you just have to accept that that’s you know, it’s not about you. It’s just about, you know, their personalities, I guess.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Absolutely.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: And to pull back a little, I really appreciated what Casey had to say about the idea of the turn.
June Thomas: I thought you might.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: I spoken a little bit about my personal experience with this kind of thing before, like being expected to produce at least one piece a day and stuff like that. But it really does affect the kind of work that you’re able to do. And it’s obviously also a mandate that’s set for you by somebody else rather than something probably that you want to be doing. And I wanted to ask about your experience with this kind of churn. How do you deal with it? And I say this knowing that both of us quit our jobs constantly recently in order to find time for other projects.
June Thomas: Yes. Yes. Good point. It’s funny, I have to tell you that before we started recording, Casey and I were chatting about something and I said, Oh, I didn’t remember a certain piece that she mentioned, because it was back from the era of volume when I had to write a story a day. And she told me that at one point in her career, she had to write 12 pieces. What’s that? 12. That is definitely excessive. But I do think that learning to write at volume is a super useful skill for a writer. Like, I much prefer it when I have time to cogitate, but learning to write on demand, it provides a sort of a reassurance that can be really valuable in what’s a very stressful field. So don’t you know? I’m not sure I would have chosen it for myself, but actually it taught me something that I’m really grateful for.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: That’s a really nice way of thinking about it, and I’ll try to think about it that way too, because I mostly feel a lot of resentment towards the turn. I think the problem kind of was like we were expected to produce so much work and then some editors that I work with had been like, We really want you to write like a really long profile of these people and really long investigations. Look at these journalists who were doing this, and it was like, if you look at those journalist bylines, they’re writing one piece a month, one piece every two months. And we absolutely don’t have the kind of time or resources that they’re getting. And you can’t ask us to work on these projects. And in that way, it was both unfair to us and also kind of prohibitive because we literally couldn’t work on anything on a larger scope.
June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: All right. Moving on from that. Great.
June Thomas: But I love.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: What Casey had to say about the experience of being sold or packaged by her agent, as it were. It was also incredibly interesting because I think a lot of us who are from marginalized communities in any sense of that word have definitely experienced the same thing to some degree. How do you deal with it and how do you get around it?
June Thomas: Karen I’m going to do something extraordinarily. Sanchez in my answer with a quote from a poem. Wow, I know you’re ready for this. So Pop Parker wrote a poem called For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be my friend. And the first lines are the first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. Second, you must never forget that I’m black. So for myself, to be clear, a white woman.
June Thomas: I do want people to know that I, you know, whatever we call it, grew up in poverty, that I’m a first generation college grad until recently, and I still kind of feel like it now. But anyway, I was an immigrant and you know, it’s sometimes relevant because of the perspective that it lends me, but also I’m so much more than that, you know, and there are parts of my life where that background is not relevant at all because apart from anything else, I also have many privileges along with those areas of marginalization. So I’m very aware of how many times I’ve said probably out of context. I grew up with an indoor toilet and I kind of live in fear, so I’m making like a disco remix of that.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Okay, you say that, but that’s the first time that I’ve heard you say, Oh, so it’s actually very new to me.
June Thomas: Yes, I remember that just in my head. But I also think that’s a really handy shorthand that like gives a certain image. It’s also the absolute truth. And so, you know, yeah, I think it can be useful.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Yeah. I guess the important thing to take away from it, it’s like you need to know like where to draw the boundary for yourself when you’re talking to other people about it and also like how to kind of advocate for yourself in that respect if they’re not being cognizant of this. But yes, it’s a tough, tough field to navigate.
June Thomas: Yes. This today’s theme seems to be how much of yourself you share and how much of yourself you hold back. And yeah, it’s a constant struggle.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: I know all of our kids was like, yeah, like you could do a lot, but also you don’t have to do very much.
June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: We hope that you’ve enjoyed these very inconclusive answers if you have.
Kathryn Hahn, Karen Hahn: Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you’ll never miss an episode. And just a reminder that by joining Slate plus, you’ll get ad free podcasts. Extra segments on shows like The Waves and Culture Gabfest, and you’ll never get a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com, Slash working plus.
June Thomas: Thanks to Casey Parks and to our outstanding producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week with Karen’s conversation with film and TV editor Stacey Moon. Until then, get back to work.
June Thomas: Hey, Sleepless members, thank you so much for your support, which we appreciate very much. We’re so grateful, in fact, that this next bit is just for you. So you read the audiobook and I listened to it. I loved it. Did that experience change the way you saw or understood the book in any way?
Speaker 2: Recording an audiobook is so much harder than I thought it would be. You have to really enunciate. And I was trying to do slightly deeper voices for the men to kind of differentiate. So as a side note, I actually had never listened to an audiobook before this year. And then while I tried to listen to Don DeLillo’s underworld on tape back in the early 2000, and I remember it was like 30 tapes or something, and it just didn’t go fast enough for me. Like I can read faster than I can listen. So I gave up on audiobooks for good and like 22.
Speaker 2: And then earlier this year, I had an accident on a reporting trip and went, I’m getting a really bad concussion. And I couldn’t do anything for two months. And I was so bored. I was like, Okay, fine, I’m going to listen to some audiobooks because you can’t read if you have a concussion. So I’m just laying in the dark. My different friends gave me their audible accounts and they’re like, Okay, these are the books you should listen to. And as I listen to a bunch of them, I came to see, like, there is a wide variety of quality and audio books, but the people who are good at it make you feel as if the characters are distinct from each other.
Speaker 2: I have no acting background, so I was a bit intimidated, but I tried in recording mind to do that somewhat so that it wouldn’t just feel like my same voice the whole time. Because I found when I was listening that I didn’t like ones that that never changed. But making your voice deeper is really taxing on your throat. So like, I would come home from night at night, from recording the audiobook and just be in agony. My throat hurts so bad I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I had plans that week, but after the first night I called and canceled my plans for the rest of the week because I was like, I cannot talk once I get off work from the audio book. Perhaps because it was so hard. One thing I felt when I was doing the audiobook is that my book should have been at least 30 pages shorter because there is, as I was reading it, there are parts are like, okay, why did you include this? But I don’t know if my publisher would really want me to say that, but well.
June Thomas: I disagree for the record.
Speaker 2: Think I’m one of my I had a reading in Seattle and I don’t know literally what to do with praise. And this bookseller came up to me and she said, I loved your book. And I said, Oh, thank you. It should have been 50 pages shorter. And she said, Well, I liked the other 50 pages.
June Thomas: I don’t know. Those were my favorite 50 pages.
Speaker 2: I don’t know if you know, because I had already watched all the video so many times. I don’t know that recording, the audiobook changed it that much for me because in some ways I was just trying to capture the voices in my head and it was, you know, it’s really hard to do. I wish I could have just well, what I really want to do is make a podcast because we have all this footage and Aubrey and I, you know, we have most of the people that we recorded have since died. And I would just love to preserve their voices and have them out there telling the story because. They have such amazing accents and the way they talk, they’re so dramatic. And just like there’s something that you just can’t write about the way these people talk. And I would love to be able to get that out there in the world. So if any podcast people are listening and want to buy the rights they’re available.
June Thomas: Podcast people, do we know any? No.
June Thomas: Last question. I am curious if there are any books that you consider to have been inspirations for this one or maybe kind of related to this one? You know, it’s funny that you mentioned, you know, you didn’t want to be Glass Castle, too, because I have to admit that like two books that popped into my mind were Fun Home and Bastard out of Carolina, which now makes now I feel kind of cliche for even thinking that, but kind of do you see it as part of a lineage or were you aware of that as you were writing it?
Speaker 2: I wouldn’t even dare put myself in Dorothy Allison’s lineage, but I love that. Like, I saw her speak one time and her accent just feels so much like home to me.
June Thomas: And I talk about an amazing reader to my God.
Speaker 2: Oh, yeah, she’s a great reader. Yeah. You know, I love both of those books, and I think they probably informed me more as a person and as a writer. I think I have historically probably more dependent on journalists to be like my writing ancestors. But there are a couple of books that I read that helped me think of like, how do you structure this kind of thing that are one really on book that help me a lot is called Out of Sheer Rage. And it’s about this guy trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, but he can never finish the book about D.H. Lawrence. And he’s a bit funnier than I am, but it’s really a book about trying to make this book, and I loved it, and it just kind of gave me some solace and also made me see like, okay, how do you spin off for a little bit from the narrative to like deepen it?
Speaker 2: Of course, I love Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Similarly, it’s a book about her mother who has died and about her going on this journey. I think it has an amazing first sentence, so I read it a couple of times as I was trying to outline my book just to see because she has people who come in for a little bit on the trail with her. So that was really helpful to me. This is in a book, but I think the the Dixie Chicks album that came out in 2005 taking the long way around. I guess they’re just the chicks now. Like that helped me a lot because it’s almost about being from this place and also feeling a bit outcast from it. And so I listen to that album a lot.
Speaker 2: I read a ton of memoirs. I don’t often love memoirs because I feel like sometimes they’re just like, This is how bad my life was. And there’s not really a tension or an arc that’s like, I want to know what’s going to happen. Because usually if they’ve sold the memoir, I generally know what’s going to happen is that you’re going to end up okay because you’ve sold a book, you know. So somewhere along the lines like, you somethings turned out right for you.
Speaker 2: So I know that’s not my favorite kind of book to read, though. There are some good ones out there. I mostly just like reading for fun though, and I, you know, just read whatever sounds fun sometimes. I read for education. I read a bunch of dense nonfiction books for this about cotton and evangelicalism, and those were a little bit less fun, but they were illuminating to me.
June Thomas: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. That’s it for this week. Thank you so much for being a member of Slate Plus.
June Thomas: So.