Anna Sale makes her living through difficult conversations. As the host and managing editor of WNYC’s hit biweekly interview podcast Death, Sex & Money, Sale gets celebrities and regular folks to open up about life’s three touchiest subjects. In one episode, Jane Fonda describes going through puberty. In another, former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth, talks about the balance of power and money in his marriage.
A veteran public media reporter, Sale approaches each interview with the gentle, supportive tone of a motherly therapist. She says she hopes the show is a comfort to listeners who are going through times of personal transition.
As the holidays approach, we thought a talk with Sale was in order to prepare for the inevitable strained dinner table conversations. We came away with insights into how to use the awkward pause to your advantage, how to get people to go off script, and why it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together.
Where did the idea for “Death, Sex & Money” come from?
I covered politics for a long time. When you’re covering politics, you’re asking people: How do you feel? How are things going in your life? Why do you feel that way? Maybe that becomes a short paragraph at the top of your piece. But that was the stuff I was really getting something from. WNYC had a contest and asked for show ideas. At the time I was in time of transition: nearly divorced, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I asked myself, what are the conversations I’m craving? It came down to these personal questions about acknowledging there are moments where you don’t know what to do and hearing how other people navigated that can be such a comfort. The idea of the three topics, death, sex and money, came from: What is the thing we all engage with and don’t always talk about in polite company?
What was the most surprising or inspiring interview you’ve done?
There were two moments. The first was one of our first episodes. A friend of a friend from Brooklyn wound up getting priced out of the apartment on the block where she’d lived for more than 10 years. I asked her about what it’s been like to finally confront the reality that she could not afford the life that she’d built for herself anymore. Hearing her reflections on what it was like to try to indicate to friends that she didn’t have the money to go out the way she did before, but how awkward that was because she didn’t want to make it seem like she was asking for help–the pure uncertainty of where she was going in life—you don’t often hear people talking about those kinds of things. We got an incredible outpouring of responses on the website. It gave people permission to say they were in the same place.
The other was a more recent episode where I interviewed the actress Ellen Burstyn. I interviewed her in her apartment in Manhattan, then after the interview we heard she wanted us to come back. Most of the time when you hear that, it’s like: “Oh God.” But in the original interview I had asked her how she would describe herself, and she called back because she thought she’d given an answer that was too pat. She wanted to give an answer with more nuance that showed even the bad parts of herself. I was touched by that, because how often do you call back a reporter to say: Hey, actually I’m not that great! It felt like a really generous endorsement of the show and what it’s all about.
How do you feel about awkward pauses? Do they work or not work to your advantage?
I love pauses–I love them! And I love them when they come after I ask a question. We often leave those in to show that the answer wasn’t something that was on the tip of his or her tongue. And it also gives the listener the space to reflect on what she is hearing.
What techniques do you use to get people to delve into difficult material?
My task is to make people feel safe, and the way I try to make them feel safe is to say: This is why I’m asking you these questions. Not to be provocative or get graphic answers. It’s because this show is all about moments of uncertainty and transitions, and we all have moments to share. The interviews we do are not quick hits. We sit down for about an hour. Also, the other thing I can say is that the show is all recorded. If you want to rephrase something, you can.
What types of fictions do you find people tell about death, sex, and money?
It’s not so much fiction as it is evasion. Or describing something from 10,000 feet up, versus in detail. And that’s what I try to listen for in interviews, are the moments that need a follow-up question. My favorite follow-up question right now is: “What was that like when it happened to you?” There’s a moment when I interviewed Jane Fonda when she describes a profound sense of anxiety when she was becoming a woman during puberty, her mother had died and she didn’t know what it was like to be a woman. I said: “Can you tell me more about that?” She described looking at herself in the mirror and trying to figure it out, and it was like “Oh, this is what it was like for teenage Jane Fonda.” There are polite answers to all these questions. If you’re indicating interest in someone’s story, they’ll open up! They’re excited to be heard! That can be a lesson for outside of an interview booth, too.
You talk about your own divorce in one of the first episodes of the show. Was it difficult for you to broadcast your personal life?
That’s something I’ve had to learn to feel comfortable with. I’ve never had to talk about my personal life as a journalist before, so that was a leap. But I felt I had to. It’s a show that talks about life decisions and getting through moments of ambivalence and uncertainty, and I felt I needed to show that I’m not coming at this from a “voice of God” kind of place, but rather, from a place of being willing to share and be open. I talked about my relationship and divorce, but not my immediate family and money. Definitely the thing that makes me most uncomfortable is talking about money.
My fear is that there’s a lot of judgment when people talk about money. Like if you’re not successful enough, or are more comfortable than what you’ve earned. That’s what makes it socially so awkward. How to talk about it in a way that doesn’t create a sense of division or apartness in the person I’m talking to. Also I’m generally worried about money. [Laughs] It’s not pleasant for me. To think about retirement is not a pleasant feeling. It makes me very anxious.
What was it like growing up in West Virginia?
I had a great time. We lived in the state capital, Charleston, which is a city of 50,000 people. It’s sort of American suburbia. My mom’s a physical therapist and my dad’s a doctor. I was fortunate growing up, and went to a great public high school. There are certainly class divisions in West Virginia, and they are very apparent. But the thing about being a West Virginian, is as soon as you leave the state you kinda get made fun of. There’s this sense of, as much as we may differ, we’re all sorta in this together. There’s a real suspiciousness of elites.
If you had a suspiciousness of elites, what was it like attending Stanford?
That was really transformative. I was a freshman in the fall of 1999, during the first dotcom boom. I was so disoriented by the amount of money and the feel of it being such a gold rush. There was a sense that if you weren’t getting in on it, you were a fool! I was a history major, so I didn’t fit into that at all. It was like: Huh? How do I fit into this place? But then I have wonderful friends from Stanford and feel so grateful I got to go to college there. I could spend weeks in the library. It’s an incredible institution.
Do people run screaming from you at parties because they think you’re going to ask them difficult personal questions?
I’ve always been the kind of person at a party who ends up in the corner with someone hearing some long saga about their life just because I’m interested in peoples’ stories. I haven’t felt like I was driving people away. I have had the other really unexpected thing. Once people find out what I do, they start divulging things they might not otherwise say. I was at work conference recently, and heard stories about somebody’s breakup, someone’s fertility problems, and somebody loosing an infant daughter pretty recently. Those are really heavy conversations to be having when you’re in the context of a work networking setting, but I was touched that somehow knowing what the show was made it safe to bring that up. It made me wonder—what other things are people carrying around?