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Ari Shapiro on his memoir, 'The Best Strangers in the World'

J.J. Geiger

Afternoon listeners of KMUW will recognize the name and voice of Ari Shapiro as one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered. Shapiro has also just published a memoir, The Best Strangers in the World, and recently spoke with KMUW's Beth Golay about the book.

Interview Highlights

Beth Golay: The Best Strangers in the World is a memoir. It's your first book. Can you describe it for our listeners? Is there a specific part or aspect of your life that you are remembering?

Through this book I wanted to tell the stories of the people who I will never forget. You know, sometimes covering the news every day feels a little bit like standing on the edge of a rushing river and leaves just float on downstream and you never see them again. But every now and then, something kind of like snags and sticks around. And over the years, those people, those stories have not only stayed with me, but shaped the person that I am. And so in this book, I wanted to explore both the way those stories have made me, the person that I am today. And also on the flip side of that, the way the person I am has shaped the stories that I tell. And so through this book, you'll fly on Air Force One with the president. You'll go into a war zone to meet some vastly outnumbered fighters who are trying to hold ISIS at bay. You'll go backstage at the Hollywood Bowl before singing in front of, you know, 17,000 people with a band. And collectively, I hope these stories give people a sense of how much we have in common with one another, and how the differences between us are, are actually much smaller than those things that we all share.

Now, this is not a, "what is your favorite" question, but your book is


your book is brand new, so most of our listeners haven't had a chance to read it yet. Is there a story from the book you are particularly fond of that you'd like to share with our listeners?

Well, I alluded to singing at the Hollywood Bowl, and the truth is people may know that for years now I've sung with a band called Pink Martini. It's sort of a small orchestra from my hometown of Portland, Oregon. And growing up I had done theater and choirs and things like that, but I had never sung with a band. And the first time I sang with any band anywhere was at that legendary venue, the Hollywood Bowl, in front of nearly 18,000 people. And so the story of how I got there is one that listeners are gonna have to read the book to get in full, but it still feels surreal to me to this day, even though I've now been singing with the band for more than a decade. I've recorded one or two songs on each of their last several albums. And um, I use my vacation time to go on tour with them. So that's kind of my side gig, which until I wrote this book, always felt really different from what I do as a reporter. But it was in the process of writing this book that I realized what they share, which is that both of these activities are kind of about helping people relate to folks around them, helping people see the world through different eyes and helping people reach across chasms of difference to recognize what we all share.

In this book, you wrote about your reporting philosophy that with every story there are two bars. Can you explain that two bar philosophy and how it keeps you motivated?

Totally. So when I set out to tell a story, I'm almost always working on a deadline and I know I've gotta get something on the air. And so the first bar is just the sense of like, okay, I've got something that could air and I can meet my deadline. That's the first bar. The second bar is like the best possible story that transports you and opens your eyes and moves you to laughter or to tears, or to both. And every story that I've told on the radio for more than 20 years has been somewhere between those two bars. And it's always useful for me to have that reach goal of the second bar, like, how close can I get to that? But once I've cleared the first bar, then I can exhale a sigh of relief, because then I know that I can at least check the box, do the story I was assigned to do. And hopefully maybe with the next one, get a little closer to that higher bar.

One of your chapters—Answers versus Questions—it talks about books, you know, the authors you've interviewed,


how you rarely get to read for fun. You wrote that some newsroom bosses treat author interviews as a break or diversion from the daily news, but you disagree with that why?

Yeah. For me, artists, fiction writers specifically, but also filmmakers and musicians and theater makers, they help me understand the world. They help me see the architecture of the world beyond just the events that are happening every day. In that chapter, I quote this Venezuelan author named Karina Science Borgo, who is herself a journalist. I interviewed her after I returned from covering the story of Venezuelan migrants walking through Columbia because the economy of Venezuela was imploding. And then I returned to Washington, D.C. and I interviewed Karina Sainz Borgo about her new novel, which sort of documented through fiction, this same story that I had been telling through journalism. And what she said to me, and I'm paraphrasing here, was "Journalism gives us answers, but fiction provides questions." And I thought that was such an interesting way of framing the difference between the two, whether through fiction or through journalism. I think storytellers can take people, places they wouldn't otherwise be able to go, can help 'em see the world through new eyes. But fiction specifically helps me understand the world in a way that I think non-fiction and journalism doesn't always,

You are very frank about your experience with navigating the obstacles our country has set for same sex couples and the possible resulting impact on your job as an NPR journalist. Do you think that we've turned a corner in terms of our country's acceptance of same sex relationships? I mean, you've, you've mentioned in the beginning having to listen to an inner voice that was always questioning. Has that inner voice quieted down?

For me personally, the inner voice has quieted down. I certainly have a level of confidence right now that I didn't have in 2004 when I was deciding whether I would torpedo my career if I went and married my husband. As a country, and you know, as a planet, I think we've always forced LGBTQ people to work a little bit harder to carve out a space for ourselves in society. And for whatever reason that has been true of LGBTQ people's existence, for as long as I'm aware of, whether you're looking at Oscar Wilde or Harvey Milk, or Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson, or any of these great sort of early LGBTQ pioneers, overcoming adversity in the face of societal challenges has always been a facet of queer life. And one of the things that I love so much about the community is the ability not just to keep moving forward in the face of those challenges, but to live joyfully and to thrive in the face of those challenges.

You have been the host of NPR's All Things Considered since 2015, and listeners have heard your reporting for years before that. Our listeners hear you on NPR from Wichita. And I'm wondering if you could speak briefly about the role that local journalism plays in a community.

Oh, local journalism is the foundation of democracy in many ways. And particularly now as so many local newspapers and TV stations have either scaled back their hard news reporting or folded all together. The role that a local station plays is absolutely essential to a community in order to understand what's happening around them, what their elected officials are doing, where their tax dollars are going, and because of the work of reporters from KMUW, you're able to stay informed about your community and be an active informed participant in your democracy. And that's an essential part of living together in this country of ours.

The book is The Best Strangers in the World. Ari Shapiro, thank you so much for joining us today.

It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Beth Golay is KMUW's Director of Marketing and Digital Content. She is the host of the KMUW podcast Marginalia and co-host with Suzanne Perez of the Books & Whatnot podcast. You can find her on Wichita Transit in conversation with other riders for En Route, a monthly segment on KMUW's weekly news program The Range.