BEHIND THE SCENES with Erica Heilman

Vaughn is, as you say in the piece, your sister’s hair stylist. How much did she tell you about his story before you met him?

She didn’t tell me very much. She said, "You should talk to this guy. He’d be an amazing interview." When I went over to Vaughn’s salon to meet him, I knew inside of a couple minutes that I wanted to interview him. He had a great voice and there was a profoundly gentle quality about him, combined with an almost scary stillness. In some strange way he seemed almost more than human. Or that was my first impression.

You sat and talked with Vaughn for a couple of days. How did you prepare for the interview, and how open was he to discussing his time in Vietnam?

I didn’t prepare for this interview at all. We agreed that we were going to talk about Vietnam, but I would’ve talked with Vaughn about anything. I think he was open to talking because the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont is a pretty open part of the state. Not in the touchy-feely way of being open. I think people are open because they’re less media-saturated than in a lot of places. He’d never been interviewed before, and I definitely don’t want to underplay what it cost him to talk about his experience in Vietnam. He hadn’t ever told those stories before. It was a big deal. But…he was game. We set up in the back of his salon, in those chairs with the big dryer hats. And I didn’t do much but look at him and listen and occasionally ask for more detail on a point, or go digging for a beginning or an ending to a thought. Recently Vaughn said to me that, for him, the interview felt more like he was talking to the microphone, not to me. That I was a witness to this conversation he was having with himself.

And maybe I’m lying when I say ‘I didn’t prepare.’ I didn’t write any questions down. But I had to be prepared to listen…and to know when to recede and then when to guide the conversation. It’s kind of abstract and I’m a little embarrassed to write about it here, since your primary audience is radio producers. But there are times in interviews when you feel like you and the interviewee have traveled to some new place that didn’t exist before, and you’re both stunned to be there together…and I think before an interview I’m always preparing for that trip. Or hoping for it.

You say that Rumble Strip Vermont is a “conversation that sounds like Vermont, and takes its time.” Can you talk a bit more about what this means?

Part of the reason I started making this show is that I wasn’t hearing stories or voices that sound like where I live. I wanted to hear them. I think Vermont often gets ‘covered bridge-ified’ in the media. There are obvious things, like regional voices and turns of phrase that I’m really attached to here and I wanted to record. But it’s the more subtle, difficult parts of life in Vermont that make me love and hate it so much. I guess it’s like a marriage. And marriages are interesting in part because they’re difficult.

But most of my shows are not expressly about Vermont. They’re mostly just conversations with people about all the living they do between the ‘important’ or notable parts. Selfishly, I think that everyone I interview knows something that I need to know, and if I knew it, I’d be a better human. But I’m hoping that if I make enough shows that feature my fellow Vermonters, some of the spirit of this place will become evident. (A girl can hope.)

In terms of ‘conversation that takes its time’….I think that means that my shows allow for a slightly looser, less directed format than most radio formats allow. And the great thing is, podcast audiences are sending the message that they like that. They like to be surprised, even sometimes confused or confounded. They don’t need you to stick to the same show format every time. They appreciate good entertainment and artistry, but they’re far more patient and adventurous than we’ve given them credit for.

What was it that you needed to know from Vaughn?

Some people would be ruined by what Vaughn went through. I guess in a lot of ways he was ruined by it…or at least he still suffers from PTSD. But as I said above, there’s a profound gentleness and calm about him. I get the sense that he’s always been this way, since he was a little kid. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I think there’s a frequency, like on a radio dial, that’s always there, and every now and then you hit it and kind of fall into some weird, timeless, perfect state. And then it’s gone. My guess is that Vaughn spends more time there than most of us.

I have no idea if the awful things that happened to him affected that ability, or tuned it, or whatever. I’m not even sure exactly what I’m talking about. But that at least points to the thing I learned from Vaughn. He reminded me of a state of mind I only wander into by accident now and again. And that is my way-too-esoteric answer to your question. On any other interview, the answer might have been as simple as, 'I learned to make a really good sandwich.'

In the comments section on your website, many people who know Vaughn wrote in to say that they were very touched. It seems that this story has fostered a real sense of community - not just via the Internet, but in real life. Is this important to you?

I’m not sure how to answer to that. Yes, I love that I run into people all the time who’ve either been in a show or who know someone who has. This is a very small state. So the effect of a show is really direct and felt. It’s like having a party with ‘my people,’ about my people, but without all the anxiety that comes with hosting a regular party. I’m an extroverted introvert so that works well for me.

The other night I gave a talk up in the Kingdom and I couldn’t believe how receptive and open and curious everyone was. And Vaughn was there. And he talked about how this show has marked an important milestone in his life. I don’t think there’s anything more gratifying to me than that. It was thrilling to read all the comments from haircut clients of Vaughn’s…who’d never heard these stories. So that’s it. If I can make little windows into someone else’s humanity…little points of connection between people…that’s my kind of community.

You co-produced this piece with Larry Massett. How did the two of you meet, and how do you collaborate?

Larry was a senior producer at NPR’s Hearing Voices. That’s how we met. He mentored me through a few shows there, and I fell in love with his work. When I’m demoralized I listen to Larry’s stories. They’re heretical and beautiful and made entirely by his crazy intuition. I go back to his stories so I can remember this: that every story should start with, ‘What the hell does this want to be?’

I recorded my first interview with Vaughn, and I knew after that interview that Larry would love the tape. And I knew the tape would be best served by Larry’s edit. That was an admittedly painful thing to realize, but there it is. So I pored over it, massaged it a little, broke it up into chunks, and sent it to Larry. We conferred about what more we might need and I interviewed Vaughn again. I sent Larry the additional sections then I waited. He made the story. We had some ugly arguments about a couple breaths… silences…the order of two or three words. I cried a couple times. Then it was finished.

You’ve worked as a private investigator. Can you talk about how this work was similar to – and different than – making a radio story?

I became a PI because I needed money and my friend Susan agreed to hire me. But I think I also became a PI because it satisfied a need to go find people and interview them. Part of that is prurient and ugly, but part of it is just who I am. I really like to have a reason to knock on that door at the end of the road, and have an excuse to ask a lot of personal questions. I think the part that’s not just prurient and ugly is that when I’m doing the job well, the exchanges are almost always mutually satisfying, and the job, and the case, falls away.

I’m curious about who the witness is. Why do they hate or love the alleged criminal…what are the stories that led to that feeling? How do they survive the difficult parts of their day? Why in hell were they not wearing pants on the night when it happened, when it was 20 below zero? It’s a weird, mutual catharsis that can happen….comparing notes about being human with a total stranger. Maybe there’s something perverse about that. Egocentric. Both? I don’t know. Anyway it’s very similar to the first part of show making. But then with PI work, my job is to shovel the stories off to an attorney to build a case with. It’s honorable work, but it means I don’t get to actually make anything with the stories I hear. But in fundamental ways, the exchanges with witnesses are very similar to radio interviews.

I was born and raised in Vermont. And I grew up having no idea how much suffering there is here…drug abuse, multi-generational poverty and turmoil. As seriously depressing as a lot of the work is, I’m glad to have a clearer view on what makes up this place where I live. I love Vermont more for it.