This is Death, Sex & Money. The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. I'm Anna Sale. And first off, I want to say, if this is one of the first episodes of Death, Sex, and Money you are listening to welcome! We're glad you're here. Go to deathsexmoney.org, and you can find a starter kit of some episodes to help you really dig in along with our complete episode archive. That's at deathsexmoney.org, and we hope you'll subscribe to Death, Sex, and Money on whatever podcast player you use so you won't miss any of our upcoming episodes. We've got some really exciting shows in the works in the months ahead.
As of this week, I can officially say that my book Let's Talk About Hard Things is out in the world. And today's episode is a conversation about that book with my friend and colleague Noel King. If you listen to NPR's Morning Edition, then you know, Noel's voice and her wonderful energy. She's also been on this show a couple of times in the past. We've linked to those episodes in our show notes. This conversation between us took place last week, live over Zoom through WNYC's The Greene Space.
The interview is about my book. But really it's a lot about the life stuff that helped inspire the book with questions that only a friend would ask. Like about the listeners I've connected with through this show, or what happened during one "hot girl summer" years ago. Here's my conversation with Noel King. I hope you enjoy it.
NOEL KING: Hello and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for being with us to celebrate Anna Sale and her new book Let's Talk About Hard Things. I'm going to show you my copy of the book. It is already stained with coffee and tea and bits of food and crumbs. And I think that is the way it should be with a book like this.
Um, if you know, Anna, if you know her podcast, Death, Sex & Money, you know, that she, bizarrely and virtuously really does like leaning into tough conversations. It is the way Anna is. And she and I have been friends for, I just learned from her - it's close to 12 years now. And I have always thought that Anna's brain is wired a little bit differently than everybody else's because of this talent. And because of this desire to learn more about people, to uncover the difficult things about people. And I think that when it comes to somebody whose brain is a little bit different, you should try to learn from them. And this book is a really good example. This book is a really good way of learning from somebody who has a particular view about the world and who tries to be helpful.
So underpinning a lot of Anna's work is this question: Why don't we talk about certain things? Why are certain things taboo? And what do we lose when we make certain things taboo? And what might we gain if we just said it's actually okay to talk about that? So the book is a blend of memoir, research and also interviews that Anna has done with fancy people, celebrities, household names, and a lot of ordinary people as well who've shared their stories. And throughout the course of the next hour, we're going to talk about how the book came together, some of the people in it, and we're going to talk a bit about how Anna got to be where she is tonight. Anna welcome, and thank you for being here.
ANNA SALE: Oh, thanks Noel. I'm so excited to do this with you.
NK: So I just described you, um, in ways that I usually only do behind your back, which is to say you're a little different, I think, uh, what do you think? Am I being fair?
AS: You know, I don't think of myself as being wired that much differently than most people. Particularly from other journalists, like, I feel like when you are someone who chooses to be a journalist, you are someone who is like, I'm gonna look out and try to gather information on what is happening in the world. And then I'm going to tell you. And I'm going to tell you in ways that, um, you know, might be upsetting, might be uncomfortable, but, uh, the alternative is to pretend it's not happening. And I think that, um, maybe it's unusual to sort of really put that lens on the most private tender parts of ourselves? Um, but I sort of think of it as a very, the curiosity is, is a journalistic instinct. It's like, "Tell me what that was like. I want to understand." And I want to understand, because there are parts of that I might relate to, there are parts of it that other people might relate to, or there are parts of it that might be quite different than what I've experienced or what people listening have experienced and that they - that's useful for them to hear as well.
NK: I remember a story you told me when we first met. We were young producers at WNYC and you were telling me about a trip you had taken to Afghanistan as a reporter for West Virginia Public Radio. And you had been sent on this trip to cover the troops and the war. And it was a very big deal. And you said you found yourself talking to a gentleman. And instead of asking him about the war, you started asking him about his marriage and you found yourself really wanting to know what that experience was like being away from his wife, trying to deal with that being in Afghanistan. And I remember at the time, having come from the background of conflict reporting myself, thinking, wow - just having met you - thinking, Oh, she's, she's, she's doing something different. So even at a young age, I think there, it seems like there was part of you that understood there was a certain line of questioning that really interested you. And that line of questioning was about what is, what is your life? And what is it like being you in this very extreme situation, but having to deal with all of the regular stuff that everybody has to deal with, like having a spouse.
AS: Yeah. That's - I like that you brought that up because I actually have thought back on that. That was in like 2007. Um, and, and I was embedded with the West Virginia Air Guard. And so these are people for whom, um, it was, they, a lot of them were, were, uh, volunteers. So they had many other lives. They were, you know, weekend warrior type people. And then all of a sudden they were called up to go to Bagram Air Base, and I just remember being fascinated by like, wait, how does just being sent off to war fit into your, how are you making this fit into your life and not? Um, and that's - that's, I'm not sure that's what West Virginia Public Radio thought they were going to get when they sent me to be embedded with the troops. But that's what I was really interested in.
NK: Early, early Death, Sex and Money. You are a very proud child of West Virginia. You write about this in the book. Uh, you write about something that I did not know as a New Yorker, a lot of people have thoughts about West Virginia and preconceived notions about West Virginia and not all of them are great. And one of the things that you discovered as you went out into the world, went to the Bay Area for college, to Stanford, was that your 'West Virginia' was something that people were going to kind of judge you by. Talk a little bit about your pride in being where you're from and how it, it shapes you today, even though it's been some years since, since you've lived there full-time.
AS: Yeah, I left in 2008. Um, that's the beginning of the chapter about talking about identity. 'Cause I was like, what is the way in which I have felt, oh, there is something really core to me that connects me to people in a really deep way, even when I don't know them. And then there's ways this is core to me and I feel completely misread by other people. Um, and, and I wrote about, like, what the experience was like to leave West Virginia and to - I just kinda thought like, when you grow up somewhere, you have an attachment to home. Like, there's this feeling of like, this is who we are. And then when you leave, I would meet other people who had a very strong attachment to home. And certainly I did in California, but I met a lot of people who just like didn't care where they were from. Like, I just really, like, that was the question that I would ask someone after their - I met, learned their name. Like, where are you from? Like, help me understand what part of the country you're from, what part of the world? Like, tell me about your family, like I wanted to know that. Um, and I realized like, oh, for other people that doesn't matter as much. And, and being from West Virginia people sort of either have a whole set of ideas about the place that are mostly negative, which is like, this is a place that is struggling economically, or there's not a lot of opportunity. Um, more recently it's where there's, um, a lot of people who are racist, a lot of people who, um, uh, are uncomfortable with changes, demographic changes happening in America. Like these are sort of the big ideas about West Virginia. And then there's also like a ton of people who just like it's not even a place that registers as worthy enough to even have an idea about, you know? Like I found that particularly among Californians, anything outside of California it doesn't really matter. So of course my experience of identity then was like, "Oh, you don't know about my place? I'm going to double down and I'm going to like be the most West Virginia that I can be." And I, to, to an absurd extent, like I would, you know, I, I can remember listening to Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" in my dorm room on Stanford University's campus. Like it's ridiculous. You know, like, like I was some, I don't know, working class hero and I just like, it was this sort of, I was just trying to figure out where do I belong? Who am I, you know? Um, but the other thing about being from West Virginia is like, I think it, it totally affects the way I like read political situations. I think about like who's being left out. Like what are the outside interests that are, that are gaining here because that was a big phenomenon in West Virginia. Um, but I also am very aware, like, oh, you can't - in most professional settings, like if I don't mention where I grew up, I just look like any other coastal, like reporter who lives in an urban area. And, um, so I - that's the other sort of key part to how I think about how I talk about identity. Like I can sort of like pass and shapeshift and it's not something - I don't have to take on people's ideas about what West Virginia means, unless I disclose that I'm from West Virginia. And I think that's a really core difference, um, from than from a lot of people in how, depending on sort of what categories they're identified as slotting into.
NK: And when you have interviews, when you do interviews with people and have these conversations, some of them very difficult about how they, how the rest of the world sees them versus how they see themselves, especially in an era and at a time where I think, overwhelmingly, white Americans are starting to understand that the experiences in this country of Black Americans and of other people of color are actually quite different than theirs. Um, it became, it has always been a difficult conversation to have. I think in some ways it became easier after George Floyd was killed because everyone was having the conversation, all of a sudden. But I think in other ways it became harder because people's defenses were up. My defenses were up. I know you and I talked about that at one point last summer. Do you, when you're talking to someone who comes from a different background and you're hearing them talk through the process of how the world sees them and how the world presents them back to themselves, how does being from West Virginia help in situations like that?
AS: Um, I - I don't know if it's because I'm from West Virginia and I think that there's - that it's not been intuitive for me, there's been a lot of learning about like... As an interviewer, I think one of the things that, um, you know, sort of motivated me at the beginning was like, how - help me understand you. Help me, like, get it, like inhabit what's happened in your world. So I want to ask really concrete questions about your life and I want to pull you out. And so that's kind of the emotional space I try to go into. But when you're talking across like really important identity differences, I think the thing that I've just really tried to concentrate on is the sort of like allowing myself to not understand and like to not, and that that's okay. Like not to sort of force whatever my own experience has been on what someone else is telling me. Does that make sense? Sort of like sit in the space of like, oh, what you're describing to me is never going to be intuitive to me because that's not how I have moved through the world. Um, but to go back to your original question, how has being from West....? I dunno, what do you think? What have you observed about me?
NK: I actually, I do have, I do have a thesis.
AS: Okay, tell me your thesis.
NK: I think that, um, I think it is because you are from West Virginia and because you understand what it is like to have a kind of dominant culture have negative ideas about the place that you're from. And because you're proud of the place that you're from. Even if in college, you went a little nuts. You are proud of being West Virginian. I think it helps you get inside the heads of people who are seen broadly in the world, as there is something wrong with that person, that person might be dangerous, that person might be - that person is not like us. Um, majority and minority cultures in the United States are fascinating to me. They always have been. Um, and I think that there are different sorts of majority and minority cultures and one of them, you know, there's race, there's gender, there's ethnicity. There's also, as we both know, there's where you're from. I - you're from West Virginia, I am from a very rural, very small town.
AS: That's why we're friends, that's why we're friends.
NK: It is exactly why we're friends. It shapes every single interaction that I have after 18 years in a town of 1,300 people. Um, there are certain parts of rural America and certain things that I feel like I understand intuitively. And there are certain things about "city people" as my parents - "city people" - would have called them, uh, where I find myself baffled. And I need to know more. Um, I want to talk about your motive. I want to talk about the thing that underpins a lot of what you do, and you lay this out very clearly in the book. You talk about being a young kid who would turn to song lyrics and passages and books, and, uh, notes that your sisters had written you and you would take out the helpful bits or the bits that you thought were helpful, you would harvest them and you would kind of say, okay, this is the thing that's going to guide me through X, Y, or Z. Now look, that is, I've interviewed a lot of people in my life. I have never heard anyone say that they did that kind of psychological and emotional collaging to get themselves through young adulthood. Tell me a little bit about that. Why you think you did it and whether you still do it today?
AS: Oh, I a hundred percent still do it. I mean, the thing - the like, the like way, I - I think that's what this work is. It's like trying to figure out yeah, trying to figure out how life works. I mean, I, I was in, in ninth grade, I was a freshman in high school doing a research paper and we could pick anything to do a paper about and I chose to do it about adolescent girls' psychological development and what was happening as they move from being girls to women. And I, and the book Reviving Ophelia was out at the time, it was very important to me. I mean, so I was like in the public library in Charleston, West Virginia, being like,you know, reading all the psychological - psychology books, to be like, oh, it's difficult for me to understand the difference between thinking and feeling. It feels, like I can't differentiate because of where my brain is. Like I was studying my own emotional experience as a way of, I think, coping with adolescence, you know? So I think what, um, where the utility of thinking you can study and do homework - where that ends is, like life is going to come at you no matter what, like there's no hack, you know? I think we just really want hacks to get us around the hard stuff. And, um, and I tried. I like collected all the, I had, you know, I had all these journals. I had all these conversations with older sisters. I've always had older mentors who I'm just like, how did you do that? And how did you do that? And like, just really cultivated those kinds of relationships. And then I still found myself at 30, like with my life turned upside down from anything that I thought it was going to be, when my first marriage was falling apart and everything that I thought I had sort of been laying the groundwork for fell out from under me. And then I had to sort of - sort of change the question, which was, how do I get through this? How do I get through this? Like, what are the small steps that I'm going to take this week and the next month, like to figure out what I want and then how to make it so? Um, and I think that's - that sort of change in my life sort of powered - that kind of became why I was interested in, in, in Death, Sex & Money and this idea of like, let's accept the inevitability of these hard things, and then let's have conversations around how we each have encountered it. You know? We can share that information and we can get a lot of help from listening in to how - other people talking about how they've made their way through. But, um, it, it kind of allows you to sort of hurdle over the question of like, why did this terrible thing happen to me? Like, because terrible things are going to happen to each of us, you know? Um, and, and some people - terrible things, you know, many more happen to some people than other people, but there's, there's limits to each of our individual control. So, how do we talk about what happens when that's going on in our lives?
NK: You write about this very beautifully in the book and very openly in the book and I hope you don't mind me sharing yet another anecdote that is actually not in the book. But, uh, about a decade ago you and I were supposed to go to Washington D.C. on a reporting trip together to cover, I think Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert was having some big rally in D.C. And I remember maybe a day before we were supposed to go, I was very excited, a day before we were supposed to go, you walked over to my desk and you said very quietly, "I cannot come to Washington, DC. I need to stay in town this weekend and work on my marriage." And that was it. And then you, then you walked away. I had no idea what to think. We hadn't known each other for very long. Uh, and you had said it in such a quiet way, uh, that was kind of indecipherable. In the book you talk a bunch about your first marriage and understandably so, because it is one of those crucial, pivotal, capstone relationships. Talk a little bit about how you went from West Virginia and a marriage to all of a sudden being a very different person, living a very different life.
AS: Yeah. Um, oh, I just, that makes me, I feel so - I just want to hug that little person telling you that! She doesn't even take a day off work. She knows she can't do a work trip, but she's just going to say, "I gotta work on this." Um, so looking back at what happened in my first marriage, it was kind of - just really incredible. Um, I met, I met my ex-husband when we, when I was in college, my - right before I started my senior year. He was also from West Virginia. Uh, he was a civil rights lawyer at the time. I was doing history...civil rights histories of, of West Virginia for my thesis and that's how we met. And, um, and it was like, we just like clicked. We just like got each other. We got that, like, where we were from was important to us, but we also liked art and movies and music. And, you know, we would do these, you know, the, the early years of our relationship were like going on road trips and we would go to, we like, you know, there wasn't like a big city in Charleston. You had to go to the big cities to see the cool bands. So we would like do all these road trips and it was really fun. And we just like, we were like best buds. We just were each other's person. And we were figuring out how to be adults together. And we were together for...how many years? Uh, a lot of years before we got married, five years, four or five years. And then we got married when I was 26 and about a year into our marriage um, he said, I don't want to be a lawyer my whole life. I want to go to film school. I want to go to NYU. That's my dream. And, um, I said, okay, that's - that sounds really exciting. And then I think, I don't know if in that same conversation, but soon after came, like, but what about me? You know, what about us? Like, how does this work? Um, and, and we did it. Like he applied to film school, he got in, he got a full tuition scholarship. And it was 2009 and we decided to move to New York City. Another thing happening in 2009 was uh, the financial crisis.
NK: Oh yes.
AS: Um, which was also really impacting journalism and, and media opportunities in a really real way, because print was collapsing, podcasting hadn't really taken off. Um, and so I, my experience of moving to New York was not, "Oh, I'm going to follow my dream," It was like, how am I going to pay rent? And now my, my husband is a student. Um, so it was very scary for me. And, um, It's sort of like, we, we decided to take, do this adventure together. Um, and then there would just be, it took, uh, it was like a, a very slow unraveling at first. It was like, we're doing this, Anna's freaked out, but we're doing this. Um, and I think that we didn't recognize it took us a long time to recognize, Oh, like we're making this big change because you want your life to be really different than what it is. And I didn't, I, I knew really deeply that I wanted to eventually have a place to live, have a family like put down roots. Um, and he didn't, he wanted to travel all over the world and do film projects and not think about stability and like go after his dreams.
And we didn't know how to say that to one another. So instead we just would argue about like little things. Like, can we spend money on this? Can we spend money on that? Um, and, um, probably when I told you I have to stay in town for a weekend to work on my marriage, um, probably it was like right when all of that was cracking open and we were just beginning to say...and we did the thing, we went to couples counseling, we read the books, we tried, you know, we really tried to sort of sort it out together. Um, but...and had a lot of hard conversations. And it wasn't until I was writing this book, it's been, it's been a long time since we've been apart. Um, we broke up, it was, it's been more than a decade. Um, but it was, it was in writing about those conversations and also interviewing him for the book that I realized we didn't fail at having these hard conversations. Like we didn't not do what we were supposed to do. Like we actually had these hard conversations and they revealed that we wanted different things. Um, cause I think with my original sort of mindset about if you work really hard at talking about hard things, you can like reach an agreement, work it out, you know? Um, and instead we had hard conversations that revealed that we didn't, we may have had a wonderful love story and grown up together and really like helped each other launch out into the world, but we didn't need to be married. Um, and that was really sad. The conversations were sad and difficult, but we were doing them the right way. 'Cause they eventually revealed that that's what we needed to learn from one another.
NK: You separated, and then, there is a joke in our friend group, which I will let people in on. Um, we all went out to a bar, a few of us and we were young - we were, I don't know, 29, 30. We got a little too drunk and we said, "This is going to be the summer of us. We are going to dance and meet men and drink and party!" And then like three weeks later, three weeks later, you came to us and you were like, "I think I've met someone." And hot girl summer was completely canceled, but let's talk about the fellow who you met. Who you're married to today. Uh, you talk about Arthur in the book. He is a fascinating person. Um, you guys compliment each other in a lot of ways. Talk about how you met Arthur and how you transitioned from woman who's like, young twenties going to go out there and, and just party, to wait, maybe that's not what I want. Because I have always wondered whether or not you regret that you didn't just party with us that summer.
AS: Well, you know, I will - I will just say, like, I, in my mind, that was still very much hot girl summer.
NK: Okay! Okay!
AS: It wasn't with a lot of other people. I just settled on who I was doing it with. Um, uh, I let's see, how did we meet? I mean, we met, we met when, I write about this, like I was, uh, we, it was a weekend away. I was kind of going to go to a 4th of July party with friends and I, um, and I knew I was like self-conscious because it was like everybody else was couples. Most of whom were married. Most of whom knew each other from college. And I didn't, I was like a new friend. So it was - felt as if I was like, it was like The Big Chill. Do you know that movie? The Big Chill. So it's like this reunion, everybody knows each other. Everybody's married. And then I'm the like weird, recent divorcee lady who shows up. Like I'm, what's her name? Jennifer Tilly. In like the...in the leotard. So I was Jennifer Tilly, um, who was like the weird person who nobody else knows. And, but there was another single man who showed up. This was on Cape Cod and I am like cutting a pineapple as I....I remember this, I'm cutting a pineapple in the kitchen for this big group dinner. And then this like, man comes around the island and these shoulders and he's like, "Hi, I'm Arthur." I was like, "Hello. I don't know where you've come from, but you've made an impression." And then I was just like, who is this person? And it turned out, uh, just like we've been talking about like, he was doing his graduate work in Laramie, Wyoming, and doing his field work in Northwest Wyoming, rural communities. And we talked a lot about, um, just what that...the politics of working, where he worked. And I talked about West Virginia and it was like, Oh, there's things that we have to talk about. So we just started talking and, uh, I liked talking to him and he liked talking to me. Um, but I was in a sort of like, you know, there is....this is the summer of Anna. I'm not looking. That was what I called it.
NK: That was it. The summer of Anna.
AS: The summer of Anna. It was just beginning and, and I was also just like, dude, here's what's going on with me. I am just getting out of a marriage. I'm kind of a mess. I live, uh, like it was just all on the table. Um, and what was like, what I did notice was like, Oh, he can, he can like handle that. Like he's not making me feel weird about kind of being, you know, the fact that there's a lot, that's like up in the air and a little bit messy about me. Like, he's kind of like, just can handle it. And so. We met that weekend and then he flew back to Wyoming and, um, then I emailed him and said like, I really liked meeting you. And then that just became, then we started talking on the phone and then it, then I was like, would you want to...I looked back at the email history. Cause I was like, how long did it take, it was like within the week that he was like, do you want to come visit? And um, well it's summer of Anna. I've, I haven't been to Wyoming as an adult. Like, yes, I will come. And then, but, but, uh, um, you know, I think it was, I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to be like super interested in and committing to someone. I was still very much like finding how to stand on my own two legs. So that kind of became a thing that we had to work through. While we knew each other. And while we were deciding, you know, what is this and how serious is it? And, you know, and it took lots of years for me to feel like I wasn't like, just to feel confident that I wasn't just jumping into another sort of slot, because I was afraid of being alone. I had to like really sort of like test it, you know, like, is this, is this really what you...do I want this? Do you want this? What are we doing? And we broke up and then we would, then we got back together. Um, and yeah, it took, I think I met him really quickly and we very quickly knew that we really thought a lot of each other. And I think the thing that kept me in it was like, even when it was like, what are you doing? Like when I would get the most scared, I remember saying to people like, that's when we have some of the best conversations, like he can talk to me about all the feelings like, and so that was a real sort of thing that was like, Oh, That is very attractive to me. Like, I can tell you all the feelings and all the mixed feelings and fears, and you can tell me your fears and mixed feelings, and we can both handle it. You know? Um, we don't have to protect each other from our, um, we don't have to protect each other. Like we can handle it. And that's been, that was like, Oh, this is something that's a really important building block of a long-term relationship.
You're listening to my conversation with NPR's Noel King. She interviewed me for a virtual event, marking the release of my book - Let's Talk About Hard Things, which is out now. Coming up, we talk about my move from covering politics to creating this show.
This is Death, Sex and Money from WNYC, I'm Anna sale. Today we're sharing my conversation with NPR's Noel King at a live event last week that we called How To Talk About Hard Things, and Why You Should. If you are a regular listener to this show, then you know, that honest, sometimes uncomfortable conversations are kind of our thing.
And my book about just this is now officially available. Noel interviewed me about that book and what inspired it. Here's the rest of that conversation.
NOEL KING: So as you and Arthur were getting to know each other in your personal life was sort of starting to figure itself out, you at WNYC were still known as a politics reporter. You had some come from West Virginia, you'd done Connecticut. You'd now done New York City. And I think a lot of people at the station viewed you as the woman who will cover politics for the rest of her career. She's really good at it. Um, she gets the politicians to open up. And then WNYC does - holds this competition and says, does anyone have ideas for a new show? And I know that you've told this story before, and I'm sure a lot of people listening have heard it, but one of the things that I'm incredibly curious about, there was a perception of you as person who does X and inside, you were like, but I'm person who wants to do Y. So I know that you went ahead and you pitched the show and it worked out and it's Death, Sex & Money. But I am very curious about what it took inside of you to get up the guts, to be like, I don't want to be politics lady, I want to be Death, Sex & Money lady.
ANNA SALE: It was scary.
NK: Was it?
AS: Yeah. Well, I think what I remember really worrying about is, um, are people gonna still take me seriously? You know? Um, because I had worked really hard in, in my journalism career up to that point, you know, how long had I - not yet 10 years, but I've been covering politics for about that. And like, to sort of like, you know, when you come up as a young woman reporter in the state house, like there's always the, like, men reporters who've been covering the budget for like 25 years. And they're like, "Eh, you should look at this line item over here." You know? And so part of my project as a young reporter was like, I'm going to impress those dudes. Like, I want them to think, like, she is smart. She like is seeing stories that other people are missing and she's like, we need to be afraid of her. Like I wanted to compete, you know? And, um, but I think when I think about that transition, um, kind of critically between, like, I, I did a lot of coverage of just talking to voters, you know? Um, around political campaigns and around the 2012 presidential campaign, I did road trips and just like found voters where they, where they lived and, and would ask them to tell me how they thought things were going for their family. And that was very similar to the work that I have continued to do on Death, Sex & Money, but just in a very different container, you know? It became, it was like a soundbite that I would put at the top of a story about polls and how, you know, Mitt Romney was up here in this county because X, and so-and-so says this about how things are going, you know, like, but the actual work of getting those people to open up was very similar to what I continue to do. Um, but I, I had to just like, kind of decide, um, that it was worth trying, even if - I had to, like, I just, I, it was like almost like giving myself a pep talk. Like, I know I'm doing stuff that's meaningful, even though it's not going into the like serious journalism box in the same way. Like I know that I need these kinds of interviews and conversations. Um, and I think that they, that if I can apply what I've learned covering Medicaid budgets and campaigns to like, make it - helping us feel more competent in our personal lives? Like that that's meaningful. But, um, I did have to just sort of get to the place of being like, if you don't get what I'm doing, I'm gonna - it's okay. You know, like I am confident in what the vision is, and I know that I'm still doing journalism that matters.
NK: When you first pitched the show, who did you want to listen? Who was it for?
AS: Oh, it's like, I have a pitch document that I look back on every so often. And it's so weird and dated now. Um, 'cause it was like 2013 when I was first making my notes. And it was stuff like, um, oh, I reference Oprah and I reference Lena Dunham. I reference like, um, uh... but I did think initially I was like, okay, here's, so at that time I'm like 33 turning 34. I'm like, I'm in a relationship, I'm divorced. I'm not sure if I'm going to have kids or be able to have kids. I don't really know what I want to do for work and where I want to live. Like I'm in this tumult. Like I bet there are people like me who could use this show. So that was like the original sort of, like, I think there's a need that this would - an itch that this would scratch. And I pictured myself as the audience. And I think that what's been so cool about making the show is like, the listeners have continually sort of like, like banged their fists at my own conception of like who, who, um, who wants a show like this and who to invite in and who to lift up. And so it's just been this like really fun um, like way of just like me being like - now, I don't think like, oh, I'm sure this is a story that our listeners would like. 'Cause I don't even really know what that means. Like I think, I think more like this show is for people. This show is for people who are like, in it, like, they're in a moment of just like, ugh, you know? How are other people doing this? Or who've been through it. And now are like - anything - like "it" being really broad, like, but who've just like trudged through something and kind of like, um, are, are in that practice of like building the vocabulary for how to like, talk about their emotional lives and, and, and, um - you know, Katie Bishop, our executive producer, she Slacked me like, I think it was just a couple months ago. She's like, I think our show is for people who are either curious about therapy or are already in therapy. It's like, that can mean a lot of people.
AS: And also it's quite specific.
NK: Is there any group that you hear from, and by group I mean, like, do you, do you occasionally hear from a handful of a type of person where you're like, "Oh my goodness, you're listening to the show, I didn't realize it!" Are there any surprises?
AS: Oh one person I just love to hear, like, I see him on Twitter, sometimes he favorites my tweets - Ernie in Vallejo, California. I first, um, he is, he must be now in his later seventies, but I first met him because we did an episode where we just asked people to tell us about living alone. Um, your experiences of living alone. And I, of course, was in this experience of, I had lived with my husband and then I was divorced and I had live with my - in a college dorm before that, and then with my family before that, so I had never lived alone. So I'm like thinking of it in terms of like living on your own, career woman in the city. Ernie lives in a trailer in Vallejo, California, in a trailer park. And he, um, had split up with, from his wife and didn't really want to, but now is living on his own. And he initially just told us about his, his story of like, how he has found, you know, what he does. I think you talked about baking pies in his trailer in that first episode. And, and I interviewed him, um, and said like, Ernie, like just curious, like, how did you find Death, Sex & Money? And he had a job where he worked the night shift and he, you know, he was kind of on his own. And he had somehow you know, gotten onto Radiolab or something... somehow, some way he had made his way to Death, Sex & Money and we had become part of his lineup. And, um, years later, when we were working on an episode about, or a series about class and how each of us sort of define our class identities, I went to Ernie's trailer in Vallejo, because now he lives not far from me out here in California and got to spend time in his house and, um, interview him about, uh, you know, his own sort of, um, class transition. He sort of opted out is, is, was his experience of - kind of opted out of trying to hustle middle-class/upper middle-class life and, and is quite happy. But Ernie is somebody who I just like, I just love like, oh! You're listening, you know?
NK: So you, um, you started the show. The show actually took off. I mean, it was instantly, it was an instant hit. It was something that I think people had been craving. For a couple of reasons in particular, but there's one I want to ask you about specifically, which is: you and I have never discussed religion or your religious background, but I will admit the one thing about Death, Sex & Money that I sometimes have to skip through, and the one thing in the book that I had to kind of....it's the sex part. And I was not raised in a deeply religious household. I had, like, I had Catholicism looming over me, but I'm not baptized or confirmed. I have trouble with the sex part. And I am very curious how it could be that I assume you were raised going to church on occasion? Um, I know you have a big family with a lot of sisters, but what exactly gives you the confidence to speak so openly about sex and to write so openly about sex? And what is, um, for someone like me, who's still reading through, through, uh, my fingers - what is the value of it?
AS: Well, uh, I was raised Unitarian Universalist going to church, but if you know anything about Unitarians, like they figure out ways to talk about sex and for sex to be okay. So I think that's pretty important.
NK: And there you have it.
AS: Um, I also was raised, my, my dad is a doctor, my mom's a physical therapist. So I was like raised where like, uh, with this idea, like, uh, kind of conversation about the body. Um, and how the body worked and how we talked about - and like were taught about sex by my parents and in my family was kind of like, this is an extension of a way bodies work. Like my parents told me how babies were made when I was young, like in a...my dad was telling me, um, like in a bed, like a nighttime story. We were at the beach and it was like, well, he told us stories. He would make up these stories about Strawberry Shortcake and her family. And one night. Strawberry's parents decided they wanted to have another kid. And I was young enough that I was like, "WHAT?" So, I think that like, it's like, okay, this is like part of what we, how bodies work. Um, but then I guess like how I think about my comfort and what I chose to write about in the book, like. You know, like I'm a married woman who has two little kids and like, I will tell you, I think it's important for you to know that pleasure is something that I think people deserve and can figure out like, um, it's important to like give yourself permission to explore how to talk about in relationships. Um, I also believe that like, there's lots of different ways that if - that you can have sort of ethical sex lives. Like you can choose, there's not one way to be moral when it comes to sex. You can choose, like you can choose with your partners whether you're a monogamous, whether you're not, who you sleep with, how many people you sleep with, like, um, like, so I think that those are sort of the bedrock things that I'm like, ooh, is this okay to say? And I'm like, well, it's pretty clear that I have had sex because I...I got pregnant. Um, and I have two kids, so that's clear. So I wasn't really like saying anything that people probably didn't know about me. Um, and then I also think it's, like I wrote, there's a section of the book about like, um, about married sex and especially like early parenthood sex and about, uh, and the reason I wrote that is because I think it's important to talk about sex. We...there's a lot of cultural conversation about the right ways to talk about hookups and consent and what you want to do with someone for the first time. Like when you're having that conversation, like how to make sure you're both on board and want the same thing, but I want it to also focus on sex conversations within the context of longer relationships, because our bodies change, our hormones change. We want - you know, our stress levels change and that that's also okay. Like that's part of living in a body like, and so that's why I chose to tell that story. I tell a story about um, my OB-GYN after I had my first child, like kind of talk - like opening up the conversation about like, "How's it going? How's it going intimacy with your husband?" Which was like, I was like, "Oh my God, I can't believe he's asking this." And then I was like, but it was, it ended up being such a nice conversation because we talked about whether I wanted to have a second kid, like what I was getting, I was in my later thirties at that point. And so he just wanted me to sort of like - he was like, if you can open up the conversation about what, how you are relating to each other, physically, that can be good because that way you don't immediately go into like high stakes, we need to get pregnant, you know, sex. Like you can have, you can, you don't go from zero to sixty, you know? Um, which I thought was just really good advice. Um, and, uh, so that's why I chose to write about that. So this...I'm, I'm looking at your face and I'm like, this is a part of me that Noel's like, Anna's brain is different.
NK: Yes, no, it truly is it truly, as I read through peeked fingers, as I fast forward, I will re....I will, I will urge everyone if they have not heard the episode with Lucinda Williams to go back and listen, because that was one of the funniest and most extraordinary things about our changing bodies that I had ever heard in a podcast. I put down my phone and walked slowly away from it. Obviously this is my deal. I'll get through it. So tell me, let's talk about now, you and Arthur got together. It took some time. Uh, it took a lot of conversations. You guys had to negotiate a bunch. And then in 2015, I think you moved across the country. With a new husband and a baby inside you and a show that was still relatively new. Um, talk about those...talk about, just talk about that one month maybe. What was that road trip like?
AS: That was wild. Yeah. We got married in 2015 and then I very quickly got pregnant and then we were....then Arthur got a job in California and I, we had to be like, oh wait, whoa. Like, how do we...How are we going to do this? Like, like, can you do your show? Like, do you have to leave your show? Do you have to get a new job? Like all these big open questions and even like, where do we want to have the baby? If we're...we're moving while you're pregnant, like, do you want to have the baby in New York City? Have the baby in California where we didn't have housing yet? I mean, there was a lot that was just like buckle up. Um, but, uh, We sort of figured it out. And I think Arthur taught me a lot of, um, you know, I can tend to be very, uh, like to-do list and what are the things that need to happen to make this work. And Arthur is the one in our relationship who's like, hang on, hang on. What's the vision? Like, what are we after here? And, and he was the one who was like, he, you know, he's - nature is very important to him. For him there, there was a moment where he was like, I don't want my baby's first experience in the world to be getting in a cab in Manhattan. Like I want to have my kid in, like, because we have, we, we, there's a possibility, I would like to have our kid in a different environment. So we decided to not go to California, but to go halfway. And we decided to do, I would do my maternity leave in Wyoming, which is where we had gotten married, um, in Cody. So, uh, that was, we packed up our Brooklyn apartment. I figured out with WNYC that I could work remotely and the rest of the team would stay in New York City and they're still in New York City. Um, and then we got on a plane with our dog. And the rest of our stuff was in a truck on its way to Wyoming and at 36 weeks pregnant I arrived in Wyoming and I had a baby three weeks later.
NK: I - we're getting close to time, but there is a last and very important question that I want to ask you because I'm asking it for me and I'm asking for everyone else out there. So the past four years in this country have been incredibly difficult speaking as a reporter and a human being, uh, as somebody who has lost more than one good friend over the last four years in a very polarized and divided time. Um, we are existing in a space in which people don't even agree on the same facts they are living in what we often shorthand call completely separate worlds. Although maybe that's, that's a stupid shorthand, but, but it works, I think. Um, what is the benefit of having hard conversations at a particular time like this when mistrust is really high, when misunderstanding is really high? And when misinformation is off the charts, what's the optimistic outcome here?
AS: Okay. I think there's a couple of different answers to this question. Uh, cause I think about this a lot, like, am I doing something that is building back something that is really missing? Like when I think about, am I doing what I ought to be doing in this moment, in this country? Like, that's the question that I turn over in my head. Um, and one answer is, you know, it's not just like, we often talk about it, like we're polarized. And like, it's so hard to talk to people who are different and we're in different worlds. But even people who like occupy the same worlds as you, like, we're not...there's a lot that could also, that could be done to reinforce our connections with, with people who, um, with, in relationships that we're not tending to. And what I mean is, um, because of what's huge structural changes to how our economy works and how our communities look and where we gather like online instead of in person, like there's, there's a lot of ways in which like when you are struggling with something, you can be very alone. Like very, very alone. It's you and Google and whatever Reddit thread you find. And, um, and I, I that's like part of the mission of the book is to say like, we actually need to be talking about this stuff and not thinking we can just, um, sort of present that we've got it figured out when we're out in the world and not engage and stare at our phones and then figure it out on our own. Like when you talk about this stuff in relationship, you are comparing notes, you're building community, you're realizing the thing that you feel the most ashamed and isolated around is not something that you alone are going through. Um, and even just like, like so much of just the economy now is like, it's all, it's on our shoulders in different ways. Like now we don't have pension plans. We have, you know, individual retirement accounts. We have, you know, just even just like that example, like it's on our shoulders to figure it out on our own. So we need to build the informal networks and relationships to help us through that. So we have to learn how to talk about this stuff in our personal lives.
The separate part of your question is like, how, and should we talk to people who we are very different from and vehemently disagree with and have very different worldviews? Um, I think yes and no, I don't think there's an answer to that. I think it's, it's, you know, for, for people, you know, I, I have a life right now that is unusual in America, which is, I spend a lot of my time in Berkeley, California. And then I spend a lot of time in Northwest Wyoming and those political environments are very different and the ways in which, you know, I was there during the pandemic in Cody, and like the ways people talked about Corona Virus and masks and, you know, it was just very different contexts. And so I know when you say people are really different, like I can picture a face here and picture a face there. And I'm like, how do I talk to those two different, very different people. And it's....it goes back to like that idea of my West Virginia-ness. Like I want to enter a conversation with like, without thinking, like I have you all figured out. "I know - I know how you do this. Like I know like, Oh, you think that? Like, you fool." Like don't...you know? And so certainly there's going to be things in both environments where I feel like, Oh, you're....we really don't move through the world in the same way. Um, but I want to sort of like, I personally try to take a sort of position of...and a posture of like, what's the thing that we can talk about, like, you know, if you're, if you're, what's the thing that like, we both think is cool? You like horses? Let's talk about horses first. And then let's talk about...I want to know about your family and I'll tell you about my family. And like, and then as you get to know each other, then you can bring in like, Oh, you actually, I really don't agree with you there. Like, I really - like, what about, you know, you can bring in personal examples to sort of challenge what they're missing from their worldview. And because you're their friend now, you know, you have that opening.
That said, that's not always possible. Like there are people who are hostile and mean, and mean-spirited and hateful, and I'm not advocating for just, um, trying to, you know, like passively listening, um, because it's doing something for democracy. Like I don't, that's not how I work either, but I think as sort of like just, uh - I do think there - it's important to just remember when you're moving through the world, that, that there's a lot that you don't know. Um, and that you can be taught when you are curious about other people.
NK: Anna Sale. The new book is called Let's Talk About Hard Things, read it in bed, read it with a glass of wine, read it with a pint of ice cream. Kick everyone else out of the house and read it. It's a wonderful book. Anna you have spent years doing the work sincerely. Uh, no cliche intended having the hard conversations, digging deep, doing it, even though it is uncomfortable. Even though it means I have to listen to stories about people's sex lives. And I think everybody listening really, really appreciates you and what you've brought and the way you've helped us all connect and continue to connect. So thank you for being here. Thank you for doing this. And, um, have a wonderful night out there in the Bay Area.
AS: Thank you, Noel. I just also want to say thank you for doing this with me and thank you for being my friend and my colleague who has shown me, like, what I've learned from you is like, you talk about hard things, but you also do it with this incredible sense of like willingness to laugh it off. And that's really - really an important skill as well. So thank you very much.
That's me with my friend Noel King from NPR's Morning Edition. I was lucky to have her interview me for this event, celebrating the release of my book - Let's Talk About Hard Things. Thank you to the team at The Green Space at New York Public Radio, who made this conversation possible. Veronica Guity, Ricardo Fernandez, David McLean, Utsuki Otsuka, Allie Pinel, Jennifer Sendrow and Emma Wagner.
Yasmeen Khan produced this conversation for Death, Sex & Money, and the rest of our team is Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Emily Tafur, and this is her last week with us. Thank you, Emily, for all your hard work. And I really look forward to following all that comes next.
And again, if you're new to Death, Sex & Money, we are glad you're here. Please subscribe and go to deathsexmoney.org, where you can see a starter kit with some of our favorite episodes of all time. Along with some playlists about the big three topics: death, sex, and money.
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex and Money from WNYC.