Producer on This American Life and co-host of Thirst Aid Kit, Bim Adewunmi, says podcasts are not as easy to produce as they may sound: ‘that covers everything: the characters, the emotional stakes and heft of the stories, the scoring choices, the pacing of the storytelling, the precision of the mixing… all of it. No detail too small.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I was really lucky: I had big eyes and indulgent parents. My dad told me books could be friends and I really took that to heart. He always gave us two types of pocket money: general pin money and book money. Like any good child of the Commonwealth, I bought and swallowed lots of Enid Blyton—I read every age-appropriate series of hers I could get my hands on. I also loved reading Nigerian folktales and my dad loved explaining their deeper origins to me. The Pacesetter series—what we might now call YA—was one of my reading touchstones. I remember being absolutely wrecked by Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.
I spent a lot of my book money on comics: Archie, lots of DC and Marvel (Ghost Rider was IT), and also Ikebe Super. I went to Federal Girls Government College, Sagamu in the 90s and in hindsight, I lucked out with the English literature curriculum: so many of the assigned books at school were just incredible: Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard, Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood stand out. I learned how to read in Yoruba, too, and even though I mostly hated that class, I still remember Chief TAA Ládélé’s Jẹ́ N Lò’gbà a Tèmi and Eru O B’odo. A lesson in the value of perseverance, I suppose. I also remember illicit copies of Hints magazine going around class during evening prep—if they survived to the end of term, they’d be absolutely tattered.
Wole Soyinka’s plays were the first to have an effect on me: The Trials of Brother Jero was the funniest thing I’d read at twelve or 13, and I really enjoyed The Lion and the Jewel. But the first play I truly loved was The Gods Are Not to Blame by Ola Rotimi. I was in the cultural and dramatic arts club at school and adapting and directing that play is the reason I write plays now.
I started reading romance novels very early, and I’m still a fan. Once we got the internet, I read a good amount of fanfiction, which I also still love to read. I discovered Maya Angelou when I was 15 and fell completely in love. Those mid-teen years, I would spend almost all weekend at my local library in east London, just reading everything I could. The library opened my life right up.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I would never presume to rewrite the late, great Buchi Emecheta but I would love to know what Kehinde, the eponymous protagonist of her 1994 novel, is up to. There are now so many novels by women that offer up perspectives of Nigerian womanhood and gender performance, and I’m really glad to have so many; Kehinde is one of their spiritual mothers. I liked her so much and I’ve never forgotten her. What would she be doing? What space would she be occupying in the world? What would she think of the Nigeria (and Britain, for that matter) of today?
My dad told me books could be friends and I really took that to heart.
What’s the one thing that makes a story ‘good’ to go?
I’m easy: characters that make sense. I need to feel like I’m not just going plot point to plot point. I want to get a full idea of the character, so I can go with them wherever they go. I don’t have to like them, or identify with them, or want to be their friend or lover. I just want to see them in situations and have everything about them fall into place. If that line of connection is broken, I can still admire the story and its ambitions… but I love it less.
What’s one way the pandemic has changed your reading tastes/habits?
Oh, man. I’m reading so much less these days. 2020 was a rough time: in my newsletter, I described it as a Crying Year™ and with hindsight, I might even go as far as to call it a Wailing Year™. I was so sad last year. So depressed. And it was really reflected in the amount of culture I consumed. In an attempt to make up my deficit, this year I find myself wrestling with tsundoku: all around my apartment are small piles of books. Advance Reader Copies, gifts, purchased with my own money… all staring up at me, like, ‘…pick me. Choose me. Love me.’ I am slowly making my way through them. Perhaps winter will be a more fruitful reading season.
Content-wise, not much has changed. I have never read specifically in search of hope or salvation; a habit that has been handy in a global pandemic when there was very little hope out there anyway! I’ve been reading a lot of great magazine essays and interviews online: most recently I was blown away by Casey Gerald’s Leon Bridges interview in Texas Monthly magazine—what a treat! I am going through a hardcore short stories phase right now, and was blown away by Mohsin Hamid’s Of Doors and Windows, John Lanchester’s Signal and Edwidge Danticat’s Sunrise, Sunset. I am trying to read more nonfiction; I read and loved my friend, Nichole Perkins’, memoir-via-essay, Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be. And a few weeks ago I picked up Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. She’s so smart and interesting.
I have never read specifically in search of hope or salvation; a habit that has been handy in a global pandemic when there was very little hope out there anyway!
What’s the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
Oh, I disagree with so many books! But not in the ‘big idea at its core’ way. Those kinds of books I never really go in search of in the first place. Like, I am exposed to so many bad faith arguments and takes online that I get my recommended daily allowance of disagreeableness out of the way by 10 a.m. most days. More often than not, I disagree with writers’ choices for their characters. I frown at some of their metaphors. I wince at rushed resolutions. I sigh when the love scene fades to black. But these are mostly my problems. ‘That’s not how I would do it,’ is part of the pleasure of reading when you’re a writer. And listen: there are a lot of bad books out there. Some of them are even very popular. What can you do? Life is a rich tapestry.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I’ve spent so long trying to answer this. I think individual books do not work like this for me. The job of changing a mind is more of a drip-drip effect—no single project springs to mind. There are many books (and articles and interviews) that have allowed me to expand parameters that I thought were pretty fixed, though. Mind-enlargers over mind-changers. Does that count?
Reading Madeline Miller’s Circe moved me profoundly. It made me think about womanhood and solitude and identity, and how often we are forced to (re)make ourselves by making decisions in nonideal circumstances. It made me rethink all the side characters in books and stories over the years and what wealth they might be hiding in plain sight. It made me understand viscerally that giving a name to something is like casting a spell. I was in awe all the way through reading it and every time I write a woman now, I think of that book.
‘That’s not how I would do it,’ is part of the pleasure of reading when you’re a writer.
What’s a common misconception about journalism/storytelling?
That journalism is just the collecting of the news of the day. Journalism is that, for sure, but it’s also marrying what’s just occurred to what’s gone before. Time is always happening—multiple threads looping around another—and every event is just one dot on one thread. A good journalist or storyteller is doing more than typing. Good storytelling gives you the information you want as well as the context you need.
A misconception I see in some more inexperienced writers is that living through a thing is enough reason to write about it. I’ve read too many books where the protagonist does something that is either a direct transplant from the life of the writer or lightly fictionalized—and my immediate and overwhelming thought is just… ‘yes, but I don’t believe it here.’ Whenever I feel myself getting yanked out because of the choice a writer has made, I mentally steeple my fingers and ask them in my most imperious tone: while this is possible, is it probable? Just because something happened to you doesn’t mean putting it unvarnished and unquestioned into a story or a book isn’t irresponsible, or stupid, or even dangerous. I wish more people would be a little more thoughtful.
Last thing, and then I’ll swing my leg all the way and get off this horse: a lot of people who should know better underestimate the necessity of an editor. We need editors. Writers make a lot of bad decisions! They do this in the ideas they explore, the words they use, the structure of their story or any number of other things. It’s necessary to be confident in your voice and your ability, because you need that to write. But a good editor is not there to slash and burn—they are your first and fiercest ally, not your enemy. They polish your best and brightest ideas while helping you discard your dullest turds. Heed their advice. We, the audience, deserve good work.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I spend a lot of time thinking before I do either straight writing or straight editing. Deadlines give me structure and energy. I’m a fast writer… but only after I’ve been thinking about the thing for hours or days or weeks or even years. I talk about it with trusted voices—my sister, a couple of writer friends, my editor(s)—and I say ideas out loud; I start writing sentences in my head (but never on paper) and discard them while doing mundane chores (washing dishes is my favourite). When I’ve reached a thought that feels solid and firm enough to jump from, that’s when I start writing. So really, I guess I’m editing before I write. It means the completed first draft is actually closer to a fourth… And editing a fourth draft is more pleasurable. I struggle to get rid of prose or dialogue I like—I once half-jokingly told an editor that each strikethrough was like a massacre of my beloveds—but once I see sense, I collect the cut phrases and put them into a ‘widowers and orphans’ document to see if they come in handy elsewhere. I’ve repurposed a lot over the years.
The process of writing is sort of simple for me because of that initial time taken to think. Beginnings are easier than endings (and I still almost always work out how a story ends right there on the page, like it’s live TV). I wrote Hoard in about a month. But I’d been thinking about it for literally a decade beforehand. I used to say that there’s no such thing as writer’s block but I could tell it annoyed a lot of people, so I don’t say that anymore… but I do believe that time spent not writing cannot be easily quantified as a ‘block’: it’s just a part of the process. You’re busy making sense out of smoke. That’s building, not blocking.
We need editors. Writers make a lot of bad decisions! They do this in the ideas they explore, the words they use, the structure of their story or any number of other things.
You’re currently a producer on This American Life. What’s one thing you wish more people knew about podcasts/radio?
I add nothing new with this answer but here goes: it’s very hard to do well.
Asking time of people, even if they’re listening to your show while they do other things, is still a very big deal, and you want to give them a quality experience. And that covers everything: the characters, the emotional stakes and heft of the stories, the scoring choices, the pacing of the storytelling, the precision of the mixing… all of it. No detail too small.
The ‘bad’ podcast tropes—hosts that banter a bit too long, no thought to sound design, a story that lingers or meanders pointlessly, and so on—are so familiar. But a lot of people have a bit of a hard time articulating what makes a podcast or radio show good. It’s just… so many small decisions adding up. One of the benefits of joining This American Life in its third decade on air is that I have benefitted so much from the experience and knowledge of so many amazing colleagues. An important thing that’s as good as a motto? Don’t outstay your welcome in people’s ears.
An important thing that’s as good as a motto? Don’t outstay your welcome in people’s ears.
You were also a co-host of Thirst Aid Kit. What was your process for creating each episode?
It was always deeply collaborative. Nichole and I communicate almost daily in some form or another and that meant that when it came to working on the show, we already had a pattern. Generally, the two rules we had were: 1) do we both fancy this person enough to create fanfic and talk about them for 45 minutes? 2) do they have enough of a foothold in the culture to bring forth interesting, insightful conversation between the two of us?
Before every season we drew up a longlist of guests and also a list of Thirst Objects (TO) and put them into categories: who did we want to talk to, who was the Impossible Dream to get in the studio, who did we want to talk about in a cluster instead of a solo show, and so on. And then each week we did deep-dive research on the TO, highlighted the things we wanted to talk about and created a show document and script for every single episode. This included talking points we wanted to hit in the order we wanted to hit them, interviews we wanted to highlight, the elements of their oeuvres that were discussion-worthy, some linking and segue language, what segments were going to be in that week’s show, the Fanfic Wars drabbles, and all the other show furniture. For a chat podcast, people assume you just walk in and start yapping. It’s actually very finely weighted. It should feel loose and unscripted. And that takes work. Don’t even get me started on live shows.
We were always very lucky to have excellent producer-editors who had cool ideas about how to make the show sound better and worked so hard to get it out, polished, on time every week. Nichole and I listened to every draft and managed all the show’s social media and inbox. I miss making the show with one of my best friends every single week, but I don’t miss the workload.
Besides those you’ve worked on what was the most interesting podcast/podcast episode you’ve listened to about?
One of my faves from last year is an episode of Snap Judgment called ‘Greetings, Prophet!’ And it’s about the staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in a small Texas town in 1999. I sat on the lip of my bathtub, riveted all the way through. More recently, I was very into Welcome To Your Fantasy, about the origins, rise and fall of the Chippendales. I did a lot of gasping and laughing, but I also learned so much about one of my consistent areas of interest: female desire and how its public face has been constructed over generations. I love every single bit of The Nod episode, ‘An Oral History of “Knuck If You Buck”’. Eric and Brittany are such a team, and their friendship is audible in a way that’s inviting, never alienating. I have such a crush on Anna Sale and the Death, Sex & Money podcast and one of my faves is the conversation between author, Tayari Jones, and the artist, Carrie Mae Weems, that I have listened to again and again since it aired. It’s such a dynamic conversation and I love its frankness, its warmth, and the chemistry between both women.
When you work on a project, what’s more important to you: the story or how it’s told?
I don’t think I can separate the two: If you’re thinking of telling a story, how you do it is intrinsically tied up in the decision. The content of the story instructs you on how to tell it. At BuzzFeed News I remember asking my editor, Karolina Waclawiak, what my word count should be on a story I was working on. And she said, ‘write what the story needs,’ and after a career in print where word counts often dictate very stringently, the freedom was heady.
Since I’ve returned to working in audio at This American Life, I’m leaning really hard into that idea that a story expands to fit the space and medium it’s in. Producing authors’ published work for radio has been a real boon for me: they’re so generous! The exercise of adaptation forces closer reading on my part as producer; radio pacing forces writers into new ways of writing; and reading their own work for the radio forces yet more adapting from the writer. The story becomes a new thing in front of their own eyes and ears. I love working with writers for that reason. And when it’s a writer we’ve commissioned, the process is just as enriching—figuring out what the show needs in terms of content and style is never not exciting.
Since I’ve returned to working in audio at This American Life, I’m leaning really hard into that idea that a story expands to fit the space and medium it’s in.
What’s your dream podcast story about (that one ambitious story you dream of producing or telling one day)? And what’s one thing you need to tell it?
If I told you, someone might go ahead and make it before I get the chance to! Instead, I’ll tell you another idea I’ve really been longing to make: a podcast that is about and by the students at a Nigerian boarding school. Every time I encounter Nigerian teens, I am struck by how different their world is compared to my teen years in Nigeria… So much has changed in so many ways, not least the technology, and the very structure of the education sector… and I would love to capture some of that richness on tape. I’d also really like to make a travel podcast in/about West Africa. I’ve still only been to three African countries so far, which feels shameful. Producing this show would allow me to rectify that, and all on the production company’s dime. Yes, I love a gentle scam!
And when you work on a project, what’s the most exciting for you: the process, the end-result or audience feedback?
This changes with every project! When I’m writing a play, my internal soundtrack is almost always a low-level hum of anxiety. I can’t explain it. And so, the excitement comes when I’ve worked the kinks out, when the audience is reading or watching and laughing or maybe crying. For TV writing, the excitement builds in the same way. When writing features or profiles or essays, the act of writing is the pleasure point—I love unspooling the rope, trying out sentences, moving paragraphs around… once an essay of mine is in the world, I rarely go back to read it, unless my thinking has changed drastically since publication. With radio and podcasting, the end-result is the thing. Because it’s such a joint effort, hearing all the bits come together is magical, every time.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
This is very specific, and I’m not sure it’s advice per se, so I apologize in advance. I have always had this unshakeable idea, based on my teenaged playwriting experiences, that I was ‘bad at dialogue’. So, it built over the years into this weird callus of doubt. And when I was writing Hoard, I lamented to a friend, the novelist Naomi Alderman, that I was ‘bad at dialogue’. And she said, ‘You might be good at dialogue. Just write down what the people are saying.’ And it completely floored me. Write what the people are saying. Of course! It unlocked something in me. And I’ve treated every other bit of dialogue that I write as if it’s being funnelled from a chat that I’m eavesdropping on.
My friend, novelist and short story writer, Karen Onojaife, is also a source of writing wisdom. From her I recycled a piece of advice she received from another writer—an exhortation to ‘leave some room for the reader.’ You can’t write all the way to the very edge of the page. I think about this literally every time I start to write anything, in any format.
‘Leave some room for the reader.’ You can’t write all the way to the very edge of the page. I think about this literally every time I start to write anything, in any format.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Ugh, so many. Even when it doesn’t make sense! Emily St John Mandel and Madeleine Miller, for sure. But then I think that their books would not have hit me in my 20s the way they did in my 30s, so discovering them sooner would not have given me the same feeling of resonance and peace. I wish I’d come across Danzy Senna much earlier. I somehow wish I’d read the book of my 20s, Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide To Hunting and Fishing, even before my 20s. I definitely wish I’d started reading Toni Morrison as a much younger person; think how much more time Sula or Song of Solomon could’ve been sitting on my chest!
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I get bored easily, so I rarely read by topic (it’s what made revising for exams awful for me). But I do love a well-written profile. I recommend all feature writers read that Leon Bridges piece I mentioned earlier; it’s so special. I still revisit Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Dave Chappelle profile from a few years ago, as well as her Toni Morrison interview. I’m enjoying newsletters of all sorts a lot these days. They feel like my Google Reader of old, a little bit: Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study is great at introducing me to all kinds of stuff I want to know about. Every Jean Hannah Edelstein newsletter makes me slow down and smile. I enjoy Jasmine Guillory’s letters a lot, not least because she often includes a recipe to try. I like getting Cass Marketos’ letter in the middle of the day or night.
I get bored easily, so I rarely read by topic (it’s what made revising for exams awful for me). But I do love a well-written profile.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I’m working on a couple of plays about women-only spaces, and some short stories. It’s there, but it’s slow going.
Question from Emmanuel Akinwotu: What’s been the novel or text that you’ve read which has given you the most joy?
This is an impossible question. How can I place ‘the most joy’ at the feet of one book? But fine: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Wait, maybe it’s Things I’ve Learned About Heterosexual Female Desire From Decades of Reading by Danny Lavery.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What’s the thing you’re chasing/what’s chasing you while you’re writing? Do you ever catch up to it/let it catch you?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].