An Interview with Lulu Miller

[Radio Reporter, Writer]

“Think about every simplification you make. Every sentence or piece of background info you don’t use, every line you write, what is it implying? How is it cheapening or disfiguring or disrespecting someone’s reality? Uh. It’s so hard.”

Martha Stewart’s Beet Pasta:
Turns the spaghetti magenta
Includes ricotta
Makes Lulu Miller very happy

I first met Lulu Miller in the autumn of 2008, as the economy crashed, on one of the top floors of the governmental building in downtown New York City where people go to get married. At the time, WNYC had its offices there—some kind of cheap-rent deal with the city—and it meant that every morning on my way to intern at RadioLab I passed by a long line of brides and grooms, joyfully waiting in outfits both serious and silly. 

When I arrived, I was greeted daily by Lulu, with her signature saucer-size silver hoop earrings, wide smile, and endless enthusiasm for story, character, and life. Over bottles of Beaujolais and clandestine trips to downtown cafes for overpriced lattes, we became friends of the truest sort, endlessly excited about each other’s enthusiasms. At the time, Lulu was an associate producer at RadioLab, where she was helping to shape the signature sound of that show. A few years later, she left RadioLab to ride her bike across the country and attend the MFA program in fiction at the University of Virginia, and eventually went on to co-found Invisibilia, another landmark radio program in the ever-expanding landscape of podcasts that have reoriented the thing we used to call “public radio.”

Sometime after University of Virginia and before Invisibilia, Lulu came to stay with me in Chicago, where she started to talk about writing something—an essay, maybe—about a man named David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered a full fifth of the fish species known to humans. He was a man obsessed with order who had his world thrown into chaos when the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 rattled hundreds of jars of fish off their shelves, destroying much of his collection and separating over a thousand fish from their names. But Jordan was unphased—he immediately set himself to the task of re-ordering the chaos the earthquake had unleashed.  Lulu wanted to understand if Jordan was a fool or a sage; if his desire for order might provide a lesson in how to manage the anarchy of life, or if the better choice is to accept, and enjoy, the mayhem, or if such a need for control could prove dangerous. The project grew to include memoir, reporting, and deep historical research, and became the basis for Lulu’s first book: Why Fish Don’t Exist. One of the twists at the end of the book is that taxonomists today no longer believe that the category we call fish is a sound one: many of the creatures we call “fish” have very little to do with one another. Lulu makes a case for why this flawed understanding of nature’s order may have ramifications in everyday life.

Over the past several weeks, as Coronavirus gathered a head of steam, I interviewed Lulu over a series of Voice Memos about narrative, chaos, radio, suicide, and beet pasta. She offered dispatches from long runs she took along Lake Michigan, from bathtime with her son, and from the last el train ride she took before the city shut down. Over the weeks we spoke, Lulu found out that her book tour had been cancelled, and we all started to see the uncertainty, havoc, and horror that the pandemic would bring to our lives. Why Fish Don’t Exist is a fable for our time: it offers an object lesson in the merits of living with chaos instead of trying to resolve it. 

—Heather Radke

THE BELIEVER: The first question I wanted to ask you is about your relationship with fairytales. Because the book, in a way, is a fairy tale, but is also a critique, or an investigation, of fairy tales. And so I’m wondering what your relationship is to the fairy tale form.

LULU MILLER: Oh, you know, just a gigantic craving for life to work like one while knowing that it never will; a deep craving for magic, moral clarity, and narrative tidiness. [Laughs]

No, but I do think there is actually a parable-sized hole in my heart just from growing up with an atheist father and with a mother who studied Russian literature. In my childhood home it was like: “Nothing means anything. If something means something, it can mean multiple things.”

And so every big question I ever went to my parents with was met with some mix of nihilism or ambiguity. And as a kid, when you try to understand your world, you just want a little clarity. Eventually you can go rebel against it.

I started the book from a private, desperate place, looking for some moral instruction. I was so lost. I felt like my pining for something—for a person, for a different kind of life—was leading me into insanity, but I also didn’t know how to stop.

So I started out searching for a parable in David Starr Jordan’s life. I think there were elements of his story that simply felt epic to me. The lightning, the earthquake, and the primal nature of what he was trying to do: battle chaos. At first I felt that whatever happened to him has to teach some kind of lesson because what he’s doing is so massive and, almost like a caricature of what we are all trying to do everyday: overcome doomed odds, find some sense of control inside a blender.

Finishing the book took almost ten years. I grew and changed as a person and as a journalist during that time, becoming more and more aware of my own desire to search for a story, and the potential complications that come with that.

Now, I’ve become increasingly enthralled with complexity and I’ve tried to show that, actually, Jordan’s story lands in a profound place where you can see that he is many things: horribly evil, charming as fuck, hated, beloved, wildly successful, and, I think, a little scared. There are concrete things to learn from him—in a cautionary tale way and a role model way—that can actually help you on a dark day.

BLVR: It makes so much sense, then, that as you searched for parables in your early twenties you ended up in the world of radio making. One of my struggles with radio was that radio in the early aughts was very parable focused. There was such a strict, even dogmatic, adherence to Aristotilean narrative. The training for radio was always: story, story, story!  Beginning, middle, end, take away! The fear of the listener leaving used to be such a huge way people thought about radio structure—there was an utter terror of the flip of the dial.

And that structure has proven to be such a great way to convey information and to teach lessons, but as your book shows us, it also has limitations because it suggests the world is ordered in a way that it really is not.

LM: The anxiety of, “they’re going to leave”—you hit the nail on the head! That anxiety has been hammered into me from my training at Radiolab and, more broadly, I think, from storytelling in the pre-podcast era. It’s a part of how I write. It’s a part of how I make every piece. I worry constantly about wasting someone’s time.

I learned how to make radio at a time when listeners couldn’t really rewind. So the idea was just like, if you catch a radio piece, it’s just this train going by. It had to be free enough of digression and associative sections that someone doesn’t get lost.

But in the book, there are places where I just threw that pressure off and was like, all right, by chapter twelve, you’re either with me or not. And I tried to let myself write in a more associative way, a way that runs more at the speed of life, of research, of thought. Where random stuff creeps in. Where there’s looseness, and everything might not add up.

I was also just noticing what I enjoyed reading, and it was stuff that was sparser and free from some of the narrative tricks and machinery that I often employ in my radio stories. Sometimes you can feel those tricks poking into you.

But I don’t know how to do that stuff as well. So it’s this painful place where I profoundly love reading more associative, essayistic work. I want more and more of that. And like, I read stuff like “52 Blue” by Leslie Jamison or “Such Perfection” by Chloé Cooper Jones and I just want to swim in it but I don’t know how to do it.

But there were parts of the book where I tried to just let go of my role as a showman.

BLVR: Can you give an example?

LM: Sure. When I meet two women, Anna and Mary, whose lives were deeply affected by David Starr Jordan’s life nearly a century later because Jordan was a huge proponent of eugenics and Anna and Mary had harmed by eugenics laws in Virginia. There’s a reason they are in the book, yes, that has to do with Jordan. But then I show up at their house in Virginia, and boom, we’re just rolling. We’re drinking iced tea. We’re hanging out with their parakeets, Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl. It’s a chapter that, I hope, moves more at the pace of life. That breaks free of a lot of what came before.

BLVR: How is writing for the page different than making radio?

LM: I think with writing because you aren’t bound to tape, like there’s just the possibility for it to move in really strange directions and also to spend a lot more time in your head and a lot more time in silence.

I don’t really write with music. I write in silence. And I write for a really long time. The whole day can pass and I can still be writing and time moves strangely. I hope there are some moments where a more intuitive, associative pace took over. And I want to learn how to do more of that.

But at the same time, radio can be so lovely because you can just remove yourself from the piece for whole long sections. The listener gets a break from your bullshit. From the way you phrase things and the way you see things. And, yes, you are there as the builder, deciding which tape goes where, but for entire minutes at a time—for entire pieces, if you do non-narrated stuff—you hand over the writing, the pacing, the mic, to someone else. And sometimes that someone else is just wind, or the rush of a stream. It’s beautiful. It’s one of my favorite things about radio.

And radio is also changing, moving more toward the more associative stuff. Now that, thanks to podcasting technology, you can rewind. That little “back thirty seconds” button on your smartphone. It’s changed what we can make. And I think we’re still just seeing the very, very beginning of that. Podcasts like The Heart or S-Town or the CBC’s Love Me, there are so many, they feel more like strange, delicious essays or even novels. And I can’t see what else is going to come, and to change myself as a radiomaker too.

BLVR: It’s funny to me that you seem to have this shame about storytelling, because in some ways I have the opposite—shame about not always being so good at storytelling, which does seem to be dominant in almost all forms of narrative nonfiction. Because storytelling is actually so, so hard, especially in nonfiction where you have to collage a story or an argument together out of real-life facts, which don’t always (or usually) lend themselves to that structure. It’s not some “easy way out” to tell a compelling narrative.

I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about your “story shame”—about what stories offer us, and where you see them as being dangerous.

LM: I really like the phrase “story shame.” I think story can be so dangerous. The desire to simplify reality into something compelling—it can be so dangerous.

Like, this is why I can’t sleep at night. I was up three nights ago, the night of my birthday, I was up the whole night with my heart just banging worrying about this. There is a moral nausea that comes from my desire to simplify and order. Like, I always have to ask myself: what am I getting wrong?

For example, I have always had an interest in disability stories. And I think when I first started I thought it was for a pure reason: I grew up with a sister who had certain differences and I saw her be treated really cruelly by the world.

So I wanted to talk to people with disabilities and hear what they had to say and tell their stories with dignity. But then I learned about the idea of inspiration porn, this idea of an able-bodied person telling a disability story with an angle of, “despite all their problems, they could find happiness” or “their life is so hard, but they were able to overcome it, so maybe you can too!” It’s like using a person with disabilities as a way of warming the heart of an able-bodied person. And in doing that, you completely miss the complexity of their experience. So there are all these screwed up angles you can take on a story of someone’s life. And I’ve had kick-ass conversations with people who are disabled and activists and listeners who like some of my work but have issues with parts of it. And I embrace those conversations because I want to learn and I have blind spots and this is a kind of story I want to tell, but I never want to tell it in a way that’s like defeating the point. And, I’m just going to have a lifetime of learning to do there.

And not just there. Everywhere. Think about every simplification you make. Every sentence or piece of background info you don’t use, every line you write, what is it implying? How is it cheapening or disfiguring or disrespecting someone’s reality? Uh. It’s so hard. And then… you can’t sleep. Sometimes I really consider walking away from this work because it’s almost like too much power.

If I’m working on an NPR story, I have a huge audience and I’m just an imperfect person with biases I’m trying to overcome. I worry all the time about how the stories I make impact the people who are a part of them. At Invisibilia, we often tell really emotional stories and I think sometimes the conversation and the process of taking a moment to really talk about things can almost lull interviewees into forgetting that we’re going to broadcast their stories on the radio. And for private people, that can impact family dynamics or work dynamics and they don’t always realize that in the moment. A lot of times an interviewee will come back a few days later and say, “Whoa, what did I share? I actually don’t know if I want to have my kid hear that.”

I want to be mindful of those dynamics because these people end up in that position simply because I happened to get curious about their life, hoping it could help me understand something or make the world less confusing. I always want to have the best journalistic practices, but I never want to hurt people. And those two things don’t always square.

And so, I think I have “story shame” because I think the order we make can be horribly destructive. And you go back through the history of journalism, and you just see it over and over again: “welfare queens” or “refrigerator mothers” or even “Y2K.” So, yeah, I’m afraid of it. My story shame, my fear of trying to turn confusion into order. I’m terrified of how I can F it up.

But I keep coming back to it, I guess, because I’m also desperate for it. Stories have helped me so many times over. Like a fricking lifesaver thrown into dark seas. People’s experience of hurt, or finding a way to climb out of shame, or to find forgiveness, or find a new angle on a bleak time—they can transform a life. And so, I want to keep searching for them, and sharing them. Maybe I couldn’t even stop, even if I tried.

BLVR: David Starr Jordan is an object lesson in this: he is so certain that fish do exist, that some people are better than others, that he can’t imagine that there is any other story that you could possibly tell. I wonder how, both formally and intellectually, working on this book helped you find strategies to push beyond that order and certainty?

LM: One of the biggest things the book did was to make me wary of certainty. I saw so clearly how David Starr Jordan’s certainty utterly did him in. He believed so deeply that there was a hierarchy built into nature and he couldn’t let it go. Even though he had devoted himself at a young age to being wary of beliefs (following in the footsteps of his teacher Louis Agassiz’ dictum: “science, generally, hates beliefs”), he couldn’t do it.

Once he started clinging tightly to that hierarchy, oh my gosh, there was so much violence, so much destruction, so much palpable harm he caused in people’s lives, particularly victims of the eugenics movement, but dozens of other people too.

My middle sister Alexa Rose Miller, has dedicated her professional life to teaching healthcare professionals how to be less certain. She teaches them to look at art as a way to improve their diagnostic skills. She’ll ask them, for instance, to describe a painting, and then she will interrogate them on nearly every statement they make—”You think the figures are wrestling, what makes you think that?” etc. To really show how many assumptions we make in any given interpretation.

One of the main things she’s doing is teaching these med students or doctors or nurses or dentists to wait just a minute longer before they go with their hunch. When they can do that, when they can slow down their certainty and ask themselves a few more questions or pull in another person with whom to discuss questions, their diagnostic skills improve by some huge margin. And that translates to like less deaths. Like when you have less certainty, you kill less people.

That blows my mind and I think about it all the time as a sort of touch stone. Less certainty equals less death. Less certainty equals saving lives.

I think that’s the biggest thing for me: just don’t be certain. That’s the point of the title of the book: Why Fish Don’t Exist. It seems that fish should exist, but, if you keep questioning your certainty further and further down, the fish evaporate. And, like, this is not a controversial idea in scientific circles that care about this, fish don’t exist. No big whoop. But for me, it’s mind blowing that something so simple, so seemingly certain, fish, could not be so. So the title of the book, the point of the book, is a reminder. Maybe it’s trite, but: question everything, every hunch, every feeling. Just don’t be certain. And when you do that, you free yourself.

BLVR: You write fiction and got an MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia, you of course make radio, and now you’ve written a non-fiction book. How do you feel these different genres work together?

LM: For me, reporting and writing fiction have something in common: there is a sense of discovery, of chasing my hunches and curiosities and not knowing where they are going to take me.

Many years ago, Shankar Vedantam (host of Hidden Brain) sent out a staff email to everyone at NPR about the problem of storytelling. He was basically saying that your desire to tell a good story can be really dangerous, can create biases, can shortchange the truth and actually hurt people. And because it was Shankar (whose work I adore), the email was studded with all these terrifying links about lives that have been harmed by a reporter’s desire to tell a good story. And as we’ve discussed, I got into radio for storytelling, not so much the straight reporting stuff, so I immediately felt guilty. Like, am I doing harm here?

So I went to my dad and talked to him about it and he offered the idea that this is what often happens in science too. He said: “The hunch is what gets you out the door, the discovery is something wilder than you could ever imagine.” His point was that it’s not a sin to have a hunch. The hunch, or craving for meaning, can be the engine that at least gets you moving, out the door, interviewing people. And then it is your job to note and track and describe the discovery as carefully as you can. Even if, especially if, it differs with your hunch.

Writing is like that too. The very first story I wrote was about a bat that flew into my house when I was a kid, and I noticed it in the rafters and my dad caught it in a Tupperware container and let it go. And I remember being like, “I wonder where it went?” And I wrote this silly little story about how it flew into a shipwrecked boat, and hopped on the steering wheel, and got it out of the muck and drove it down the river or whatever.

Writing and reporting both always go back to that bat feeling. I have the little hunch or the little like prickle of: where did that bat go? You know, I want it to be magical or wonderful or surprising or dark—I want it to be better than just flat bleak stuckness. So I go into my imagination and say okay, let me just, with no plan, no ending, let me just go see where the bat went.

In fiction you just follow your unconscious, but in non-fiction you follow the weirdness of reality. You let the truths unfold, and try not to hold onto the idea you came in with. I think I’m going to always lean a little more toward reporting because I like learning from other people and have found the process to be way wilder, more like a rollercoaster ride. But there’s something really cozy and fun about occasionally trying to write fiction and just seeing: what’s going on in my subconscious?

BLVR: It’s interesting you say that because I think that desire to think out of the subconscious is actually also connected to fairy tales. In Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and I’m sure in a much larger body of literature on fairy tales I’m not familiar with, fairy tales actually seem to function not as narrative parables, but as something weirder and more unconscious. And of course, in that book in particular, fairy tales function as a way for us to think about creativity itself and its purposes in the world.

LM: Lewis Hyde, The Gift. Yes. You are the person that gave me that book, Heather! Many years ago and it has been such a gift in my life, like a very real powerful one. Any time I lose my way creatively or feel stuck. I’m not getting things published. I’m not connecting. I always go back to the thought of creating as a gift, and as an act of radical resistance. I make things that aren’t for a public purpose—I make stories for my son, I make stories for my nephew. My friend Maria Adelmann and I started this thing called “The Hallowzeen,” a ‘zine in honor of halloween, where every year friends submit scary stories, essays, and drawings in the spirit of low stakes. We bind the thing together, and then have a bonfire where we share each thing and then tear it out and throw it into the fire. The point is to encourage creativity for fun. For no record.

These ephemeral, private, creative things have been so energizing. It’s just making. It recenters what I love about making and making outside of public consumption. It just extinguishes the demons for a while.

Even cooking can sometimes do that. I am not a good cook. And I’m not an adventurous cook. But there is this one beet pasta recipe. It is like a pesto made of beets. And, oh my god, it is so good. It has these dollops of ricotta. It will change your life. Can we link it? I didn’t even think I liked beets until this recipe. Let’s link it.

BLVR: The prose of this book holds such a potent mix of joy and sorrow. You talk about your own suicide attempt in these pages, and your despair, but there is also an incredible amount of joy in the book. Not only in the content, but in the sentences. You seem to be having a great time, even as you are plunging in and out of darkness. I wonder if you can talk about how joy and despair exist for you as twin impulses as a storyteller and as a person. I mean, even the way you just talked about beet pasta. It’s so joyful!

LM: Someone else recently, a friend of mine, told me he read the book and said, “I think a lot of people who just know your radio persona will be like ‘She’s so cheerful! This is so surprising.’” And that surprises me because like, yes, I’m cheery, but I feel like every piece I do is Combos. You know, those kind of horrible and amazing snack food Combos that you buy in a hunger rage at the gas station? Pretzels with fake cheese on the inside. I try to make every radio piece that. If you think it’s a sparkly pretzel pf science gee-whizz, there’s gonna be sadness inside. If you think it’s all dark, there’s gonna be weird joy inside, unexpected humor.

It’s such a small stupid example. But, fine. Beet pasta. Here is why I am so joyful about beet pasta. My mom hates beets. Beet soup. Canned beets. I think she had to have them a lot growing up, and they were a punishment to endure. So we never had them growing up. And then this recipe, it’s so delicious and there are these ungainly dollops of ricotta, this decadence. And it looks so absurdly pretty. The spaghetti turns magenta. So it’s this tiny shock of joy. In a place I never thought it would come. It’s tiny but I try to pay attention to that stuff because I need to take joy in things to warm the chill. I don’t know how else to put it, so, well here’s how to put it, and Nietzche put it better. I believe the quote is something like: “Happiness and misfortune are brother and sister, and twins, who grow tall together… or remain small together.”

I came across that in this book that has been so helpful to me, Stay by Jennifer Michael Hecht. She’s a historian of philosophy and years ago she found herself in the middle of a suicide cluster, a couple of her colleagues killed themselves one after the other. And she set out to write a book that looked at all the philosophical arguments against suicide that are secular. Like what else have moral leaders said about why you shouldn’t besides just “don’t.”

And she compiles all these gorgeous, healing reasons to stick around. And the Nietzche thing really stuck with me, which is happiness and sadness are twins that stay small or grow together. And I have found that to be 100% the case in my experience. That, like, the deeper you go into the scared, shaking dark hole, that actually later, and you don’t know when it’s gonna come, and it may be small and it may be right around the corner and it might be a year away, it might be a decade away, but that the joy you get on the other side is bigger.

There was one time I was really, really, really low. And I was taking a plane somewhere, and I felt, like, repulsive, and all the bad things I had felt for a long time, and I felt like there was no good, and this, this is so weird. I was sitting next to a woman, and I kind of got the vibe she thought I was weird or bad, all my demons were going, that I was off-putting. And there was turbulence, and it was so intense that it bounced the armrest up, and then she looked at it to put it back down, and I was like, Of course she’d want it back down, you want to draw a line between us because I’m creepy and you would want to be away from me. And then she left it up. I remember being like, so grateful I almost cried, that maybe I’m not that bad! and to notice that you have to be in such a pit of self-hatred, to find that much joy in a woman not putting down the airplane seat divider arm rest. But the joy I felt was real.

But there are all these little moments I can tell you these stories if you want, but I don’t think they matter. There’s one story about seeing the words “perishable goods” on a box of tomatoes, there’s another story about a dental hygienist calling me “sweetheart.” Uh, I don’t know. I do think that the deeper you tunnel into despair, the more when you see a good thing—however tiny—it can fill you. Because you’re like that empty or that desperate. I think as I’ve gotten older I do feel healthier, I have more strategies for coping. But I also think one of the things that helps me the most when I’m going through a hard thing is that I have this faith that an even sweeter thing will be on the other side of that.

That the hardness sweetens the next thing.

So I guess I’m able to take joy in beet pasta because I have to take joy in beet pasta, because if I don’t take joy in beet pasta, I’m a little bit closer to the edge. Seeing the contours of despair help you see the contours of joy, because they are related; they are each other’s negative space. And when I see the contours of joy, I’m going to note it and I’m going to delight in it, like, I love chips. I love salty things. I love running, I love the fact that my kid puts his arms around my neck like a koala bear right now and that’s new. And like Mary Oliver says, “See it and tell.” Or is Annie Dillard? Whichever one of those amazing, wonderful women who loves nature and helps me to notice things, says: “Notice it and tell about it.” [The actual quote is Oliver, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”] So I noticed it, and I told you about it.

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