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Podcasts Must Find the Small Moments to Give Life to Big Secrets

How Dani Shapiro makes guests' secrets come to life on her memoir anthology show Family Secrets

As Dani Shaprio finished up the manuscript for her memoir, Inheritance, people kept telling her their secrets. The book was about her shocking discovery—after submitting her DNA to a genealogy website—that her father was not actually her biological father, and everyone who read it en route to publication responded with an earth-shattering family story of their own. Wishing she could share these stories with a wider audience, Shapiro went to her publishing teams at Knopf and Penguin Random House to propose the idea for Family Secrets. They leapt at the idea, and both the book and the podcast were released in January 2019.

“I feel like we live in such a noisy world, and a world in which whoever shouts loudest gets heard, but I think that there’s always going to be room for these quiet, small stories as the antidote to all that.”

“In my life as a writer over the course of 10 books now, I’ve always written about secrets,” says Shapiro. “My memoirs and novels center around family and secrets, so it was a very natural progression to telling the secrets of other people in my podcast.” Over the course of four seasons (so far, with a television series now on the way), guests like Saeed Jones, Alicia Keys, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk discuss—as the tagline puts it—“the secrets that are kept from us, the secrets that we keep from others, and the secrets that we keep from ourselves.”

The book that inspired the show

While many of these stories lean toward the sensational (secret adoptions, sperm donors, affairs, hidden half-siblings) Shapiro is a lifelong champion of the ordinary, and she strives to honor the quieter unfolding of secrets too. On the day we speak, Shapiro received an email from a listener praising an episode from season three, “The Lobster Shift,” saying that she was riveted by journalist Michael Hainey’s tale of unraveling a detail of his father’s early death. The revelation relates to the common experience of coming to terms with the fact that our parents are human beings with flaws; it doesn’t clamor for the top of the tragedy hierarchy like so many confessional episodes do. Yet it clearly resonates. “It’s not about having a capital-B Big story. It’s very easy to be misled into thinking that’s what people want,” Shaprio says. “What we want when we hear a story is to be swept up into the consciousness of another, and to be swept up into another life, another reality, another way of thinking.”

Shapiro discusses this in her essay, “Ordinary Life,” from her book, Still Writing. The essence of the stories we find most moving are the small moments, the minor details, and she makes sure to flesh these out on Family Secrets. A story is brought to life by the imagery of the street corner on which a narrator stands, by the dialogue of the fight between a couple or the anxiety of waiting in line at security in an airport. “Think about how we’ve been talking to each other during the pandemic,” says Shapiro. “We’re asking, ‘What’s it like for you? What’s it like in your house?’ We want to know the small details of each other’s lives. I think that’s what we really long for as human beings.”

There is pressure in the podcasting world to focus only on our most salacious stories; Shapiro views Family Secrets as a way to push back on that. “I feel like we live in such a noisy world, and a world in which whoever shouts loudest gets heard, but I think that there’s always going to be room for these quiet, small stories as the antidote to all that,” she says. “We may want these wild and crazy stories as an escape sometimes, but most often we want something we can identify with.”

The benefit of a podcast is that the medium is ideally suited for what Shapiro considers a crucial difference between autobiography and memoir. “When someone is buying an autobiography, they’re buying it because they’re interested in that person. They’ll be buying Obama’s new book because they’re interested in Obama. There’s an understanding that the author is saying, ‘I’m not leaving things out, I’m telling the full story of my life.’ That’s not what memoir is.” Instead, memoir is a specific story, and the narrower the framing, the better. “A review recently described me as a ‘public contemplative,’ and I really like that because that’s really what I do,” Shapiro says. “My book, Hourglass, is entirely and only about time, memory, and marriage. I’m in a long and content marriage, and the story is about what it is to walk alongside a human being over the course of a lifetime. What does it mean to be changed by and grow alongside a human being? And because the information I have about that is my marriage, it’s a memoir.” Podcast audiences already expect there to be a specific lens for storytelling, whether the story is stretched out over a whole season or is only told within one episode.

In Family Secrets, many of the guests have already told these stories publicly. Some have written books about them. But the specificity of examining the secret itself and its aftermath makes the story feel new. Whether it’s her own secrets or others, Shapiro says, “It’s like I’m looking through this window, and I’m only going to tell the story of what I see through that window, and then I’ll look through another window and tell that story. Writers shape and control the narrative of a story to their liking. It’s not confessing, or journaling, or spilling the beans.”

Podcasts have more flexibility in shaping a story creatively than if it were told as an essay or book. Shapiro took production cues from other storytelling podcasts she loves, like Terrible, Thanks for Asking and Heavyweight. Like these podcasts, she interviews her guests but it’s not a freewheeling conversation. She’s carefully guiding them through a fuller realization of their story, and there’s a self-awareness that their discussion will be remade into something larger. “I’m holding my guest’s story,” says Shapiro. “I’m editing it and adding voiceover and commentary to it so that it becomes this multi-layered production. It’s more of a dance that I’m doing with my guests to then create something that has a real arc to it.”

Photo by Michael Maren

Ultimately, Shapiro sees memoir podcasts as a powerful tool for connection. “One of the greatest compliments anyone can pay me is, ‘Your show made me feel less alone in the world,’” she says. Shapiro saw an opportunity to do just that at a time when we were all feeling particularly alone. “At the beginning of Covid, like many of us, I was hunkered down at home and I really couldn’t write, I was really struggling, and I was longing to connect and know how other people were doing,” Shapiro says. “I decided to create a new daily podcast called The Way We Live Now, where I did these really brief interviews with all different kinds of people who told their stories about how they’re handling their lives during the pandemic. It was clear to me that it should be a daily podcast because I wanted it to be an offering—I wanted to help people feel less alone, less freaked out, and understand that everybody was having an experience collectively in our solitary worlds.”

Similar to Family Secrets, these episodes ranged from the giant subjects, like speaking with a nurse working in the ER, to the more understated, like a singer who missed performing after venues closed. The Way We Live Now was only ever intended to be a three-month series, but its popularity during its short run is a testament to the desire for insight into other people’s lives, and to hear our experiences reflected back to us so we can see it anew. Thankfully, Shapiro has found a deep well from which to draw as she continues to make Family Secrets. “While sometimes the thematic elements can overlap, I feel like every story that gets told is different. They’re riveting to me, and I’m so thrilled that they’re resonating with my listeners,” says Shapiro. “When Family Secrets launched, it exploded. People were hungry for these stories, and there’s always room for more.”

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