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NPR's Frank Tavares: Always Heard, Seldom Seen

Frank Tavares

JOHN BAILEY, WFIU: I'd like to begin by talking about your new book of short stories, "The Man Who Built Boxes and Other Stories." How long has it been in the making?

FRANK TAVARES: Well, the first story, or the oldest story in the book, I think I published about a dozen years or so ago. And I've always been a writer my entire professional life, but not fiction. It was about 15 years or so ago that I decided that I really wanted to write my stuff. Everything else had either been for a client or for my day job, which is a professor of communication at Southern Connecticut State University here in New Haven. It always had something that had a measurable outcome. It sold the product. It got into the academic journal. And the fiction started a little differently.

I mean, I've written fiction – I've got some things in my personal archives that go back to high school – we all wrote fiction in high school, right? But I started doing it seriously not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, and then started publishing in various literary journals. And, John, there's something about when somebody else – an editor at a journal – reads it and accepts it that makes you start to believe, well, maybe I'm on to something here. So, a couple of years ago a friend started to encourage me to pull things together in a collection. And my reaction was, "yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, one of these days." And finally, early this year, I said, "OK, all right." And I spoke with a publisher, and we decided to do this.

And, John, it's one of these experiences where I figured, well, how hard can this be? All of the stories are written. That's the hard part, right? And most of them have been published, so I just pull them together, I send them to the publisher, and I go about my merry way! [laughs] John, you didn't tell me that it was going to be a lot more work than that! It was a very, very interesting four or five months. A lot of decisions. If I'd known about all of the decisions that I would have to make at the beginning, it would have seemed daunting. But, you just do them one at a time, just one at a time.

BAILEY: What surprised you the most during the creation of the book?

TAVARES: I think, how important it was to choose the right stories to nest together in this volume. And also to make the decision about which stories not to include. That was something I hadn't really thought about. And then the order of the stories hadn't occurred to me before – well, it did, but not seriously – that it makes a difference how you kind of build the energy of the book from the beginning to the middle and the end.

And then we had this chapter from a novel that I'm working on that didn't quite fit with the short stories because it didn't have a … it didn't tie together well as a short story. And so, figuring out how to include that in here, having the stories end and then a break, and then this chapter from the upcoming novel.

Little things also, John, that I hadn't thought about. I'm very fond of particular character names, I hadn't realized it until I read all of these stories together. So there was some confusion when you would go from one story – and here's John Bailey in this particular story, and then he shows up in another story, but it's a different John Bailey! And so, having to rethink some of the character names! [laughs] And some of the names are just perfect. I mean, when I named that character John Bailey, that was the perfect name for him! [laughs] And changing it, just, I felt – this is where it's important to work with an editor that you trust, and that makes all the difference in the world. When she said, it's OK, I believed her, and it was!

BAILEY: Did you feel, or do you feel, close to any of the stories in particular?

TAVARES: The short answer is, often. And it has to do with getting to know the characters, and as you get to know them. And I know this sounds – I hear writers say this all the time, but it's true – the characters reveal themselves to you. I know it's all subconscious, I understand that. But they really do come alive in a particular way that you don't expect. You get to know them. And so I found myself with some of the characters feeling really close to them. You know, there are little bits and pieces of myself in some of the characters, not all of them. Some of them are really strangers to me at the beginning. They're personalities that are very different than mine. I don't understand all of their motivations, certainly at first.

But that's a long, rambling answer to your short question that, yeah, sometimes I found myself very close to a number of them and missing them and feeling badly about how things turn out for some of them, wishing that they had made a decision a little differently, but that's the decision that that particular character would make. And it's easy for the two of us on the outside of the story to read it or look at it and say, it's not a good idea, don't do that, don't do that. And the character basically thumbs his or her nose at me as the reader and the author and says, "I'm sorry! It's not your life!" [laughs] Well, that sounds kind of strange, doesn't it?

BAILEY: During the process of creating this book, what did you learn about yourself?

TAVARES: Wow. … First of all, just in terms of the process, I understood in a whole new way how important patience is, and persistence, in terms of getting the story out. I used to think, when I first started writing – or actually, when I first thought about writing fiction – that I don't have the time. If I had these critical masses of time, then I could write the novel, or I could finish the short story, or I could do this, and I don't, so that's why I can't. I'm not one of those people, I used to tell myself, that could ride on the bus to work and do paragraphs on the back of envelopes. And then I realized that that was all just an excuse.

And one of the things I've really come to believe is that, somebody asked me, a colleague asked me not too long ago, have you thought about teaching fiction writing at the university? And I was aghast! I said, oh, I couldn't teach writing! How could I do it? How could I question somebody else's ideas? I can grade writing, business writing. I can tell you what's working and what isn't working, but in terms of the ideas, the creativity, I feel kind of at a loss. And I pursued the thought with my colleague a little bit further on, and then I realized that one of the things that I would have trouble in teaching writing is how I finally came to believe that you have no excuse for not writing.

And, this sounds a little harsh to somebody who might be starting out as a writer, but I've come to discover and realize and believe – this is me – there is no muse. You can't sit around waiting for the muse. There very seldom is inspiration, and when you have it, it's lucky, but don't count on it. The only thing about writing that you really need to understand is you have to get off your duff and sit down in front of the pad or the laptop and do it. There's no trick to it. And as I found myself talking about it with my colleague, I realized, probably a good thing I don't teach writing! [laughs] That might be just a little discouraging to somebody who's playing with ideas!

And so I found that, OK, maybe I don't have the critical mass of time. Maybe I might have on some days only 15 or 20 minutes, or even less than that. And maybe I don't write every single day. But the important thing is that I need to sit down as often as I can. And maybe it's just a sentence, maybe I'm rewriting a paragraph, maybe I'll have a day where I'll have the freedom to do a couple of pages, and that is just OK. Because sooner or later, it's like taking the step as you go on the journey. Every day it's a little bit more than you had the day before and pretty soon you turn around and you look and, son of a gun, there's the first draft of a story, and the rest of it is writing it.

The other thing you asked me – to remind both of us what your original question was! [laughs] – what did I learn about myself in the process of doing this, aside from the persistence and how important it is, is that I need to trust myself in my storytelling. And I learned that by doing it, but also I had a mentor to whom this particular volume is dedicated, a fellow named Leo Connellan who's no longer with us. He died about ten years ago. He was the poet laureate of the state of Connecticut for a number of years and a widely published poet. I don't write poetry but I understood how he talked about the power of words. He officed for a while on our campus so I got to know him a little bit, and he taught me how to trust my writing.

He said, you have to be careful listening to what other people tell you about what's working and what isn't working. You have to trust yourself in terms of getting the words out on the page, and then you can go back and rework it. And if you think something is not as strong as it could be, you know, every one of these stories I probably reworked at least a dozen times, and some of them twice that to get them to the point where I felt that they held together fairly well. So another little piece of learning about myself is trusting yourself and trusting the characters as you create them. See, I'm not – I do have a reality check here. I did say, "as I create the characters," even though I also talk about them revealing themselves.

BAILEY: How does the satisfaction of publishing a volume of your original stories compare with that of your other roles in life, as communication professor and as the producer of voiceovers with NPR?

TAVARES: That's a great question, John, and I've never quite thought of those things all together. But there are some commonalities. I think some of it has to do with it's this illusion of control that writers have in terms of writing their short stories. Now, we just talked about how the characters lead me in a particular way, but I do understand that I have the choice to follow them or to move them in a little different direction. And there's something about sitting down and writing and working on a story, where if I do trust my own voice, nobody else can tell me what to do, and that's a kind of a freedom that most of us don't have in our day jobs.

There's a certain satisfaction I have in the other professional parts of my life. I remember when I headed a programming department at NPR for about ten years, and that's when I started doing the funding credits way, way back when, and I remember when I left my full-time position at NPR and started back on a college campus teaching, early conversations people would ask me what I missed about being at NPR as opposed to what I was able to do as a college professor, and I found myself concentrating on the similarities between the two.

And I said, some of the things as an executive producer and a program host at NPR, some of the things that I did as an executive producer, working with people who were trying to shape ideas, were exactly some of the same things that I do, that I have the honor of doing with students, helping them figure out what's going to work and what direction to go in and how to make sense out of an idea. And then I think in my writing, I get to do that a little bit with myself. And so I guess there is a commonality. Thank you for asking that question. Now maybe I can think of it more articulately [laughs] if somebody else asks me, without rambling quite so much! I'm enjoying this, John. I hope you are too! [laughs]

BAILEY: I am, I am. So you're a published author, and you're a nationally broadcast voice, and hardly anyone knows your face. Do you prefer semi-anonymity?

TAVARES: [laughs] Yes, is the short answer! Every once in a while, I get the sense of what not being anonymous might be like, and there are aspects of it that are really quite frightening, to tell you the truth! [laughs]

BAILEY: How often are you recognized?

TAVARES: Visually, very, very seldom. Occasionally by voice. And if I'm having a conversation with somebody – I'm at a reception, or I'm dealing with somebody in a professional situation – then I'll sometimes get the response – you know, first of all, it's almost always they'll say – "you seem very familiar" – and they're crossing the visual with the audio references in their brain. And then they might say, "your voice, I've heard your voice before." And I'll look around to see if I'm going to embarrass myself or the other person, and then I'll ask them, "well, are you an NPR listener? Do you listen to NPR programming?"

And if they say yes, and if they say it enthusiastically – because sometimes I choose not to give up the secret [laughs] because I don't want to deal with negative reaction – I'm fragile, like all other writers and voiceover people – but then I'll lean in a little bit and I'll just use what I've had a friend refer to as the magic phrase – "support for NPR comes from NPR member stations" – and then there'll be this – John, it still amazes me after so many years – there'll be this kind of note of recognition and the eyes get wide and I realize, both of us listen to a lot of public radio! [laughs]

There is a satisfaction to that, though, knowing that I'm a part of the daily fabric of public radio, even after having left my full-time job with them so many years ago. I t is very satisfying. And, you know, I could ask you the same question, and I think I know what the response would be, and it would have to do with why do we work in public radio. And I would bet you a dollar that you're also a supporter of your own station. And why do we do this? We do it because we really believe in public radio, and that's a type of satisfaction that we have in our jobs that relate to public broadcasting that we don't always find elsewhere.

I'm lucky enough to find that in my teaching, also. So I'm twice blessed. I've had these two experiences and both of us know people who wish they could say that.

BAILEY: Your voice is sufficiently iconic that it was tapped by a group called Capital Cities for a song this year called "Farrah Fawcett Hair," also featuring a contribution from Andre 3000 of Outkast. How did that come about?

TAVARES: Well, first of all, I do acknowledge those are two names you would never, ever expect to hear in the same sentence, and you just said the sentence! [laughs] They came to me. Actually, their agent came to me, it was last winter, early spring, and asked if I might consider doing something with them, and then members of the group contacted me and we had a very nice conversation. They said, "you know, we're big NPR fans, and we'd love to use your voice in something, and here's an idea we've been playing with." And they sent me the tracks with stuff they had filched off their local public radio station, so we could get the sound of the voice, even if it wasn't saying the things that they had in mind for that particular song, so I could get a feel for it. And they brought me along very slowly and "this is what we're hoping to do here" and then they listed a number of different things.

Part of the premise of the song – and because of one word in the refrain, it's not particularly airable, and I wish they had done the two versions of it, because it would have been easy to do that – but I'm an artist as a writer, so I have to respect what other artists choose to do. So, the basic premise of the song is, this is a song about all of the good stuff that's out there – and NPR is one of them, so they wanted this voice, "National Public Radio, NPR." And then I list a number of other things that are just positives, and one of them is Farrah Fawcett hair, which is the refrain.

So they sent me a version with one of them doing it, and then I recorded several different lists for them, and then re-recorded some of them. And then I heard the finished version about the same time as – well, actually they did send me a preview version of it – as everybody else. And it was – let me tell you, John, it's given me a different type of cred with some of my students! [laughs] "Dr. Tavares and Andre 3000?" I can see them kind of holding their heads and stumbling down the hall!

BAILEY: There was a bit of cognitive dissonance for me! I think that was intentional on Capital Cities' part.

TAVARES: [laughs] I think you're right! In my other life, as the voice of NPR, one of the things that I have been careful of is how I use my voice professionally. There's nothing in my contract with NPR that prohibits me from doing commercial stuff or whatever, but being an old-school NPR person, I've always been careful what else I've done.

And indeed, one of these stories – some of my characters are much more profane than I am, are much more comfortable in their profanity than I certainly am, and one of the editors for one of these stories in the book, on their website, he asked me if I would be willing to read this particular story – it was actually "The Neighbors," that's the name of the story, and it's two Iraqi war vets who live next door to each other that are friends, but really have some issues with each other, and perhaps that's how I should leave it.

And he asked if I'd be willing to read that for the website, and my first reaction was, "Oh sure, that'd be fine, I'd be glad to do it." And then I went back and I thought about it, and I actually ran this past several of my NPR colleagues, and they said, "Well, look, chances are it would be just fine, it would be OK. But one NPR listener who makes the connection and all of a sudden it's "here's the voice of the NPR funding credits just swearing up a blue streak reading the voice of this particular character," and they said, "You know, you might think about it," and I said, "Well, you know, you're right!" And so I declined! [laughs] It's funny that I should be so sensitive to that! It's not as if the characters didn't come from someplace!

BAILEY: The voice-of-NPR gig for you has always been part-time for you, hasn't it?

TAVARES: It was even when I was a program head at NPR, when we started doing the funding credits. And the idea behind the funding credits and using a specific voice for the funding credits was to make that firewall clear between the program content and the support for the program, in the news programs, primarily is what we were thinking about at the time. And my voice was heard on the air, I did host several different programs, but they weren't news programs – documentary programs, several other things like that – so I had a safe, neutral voice. I wasn't one of the news personalities that was doing this.

And so, yes, and I was available, I was in the building all the time, so it was an easy choice for the producer – Wendy Blair was the person who produced it from the beginning, up until just the beginning of this month. And so, yeah, it was a part-time job there, and then when I left, I started – I would come back to D.C. from Connecticut. Once a month we would do these enormous four-hour sessions – well, they're still about four hours – in the NPR studios, and in between I would go into the NPR New York bureau or I would do it at one of the NPR stations here.

And then as the number of credits increased and the format of them changed – they used to be less than 30 seconds, now they're 37 ½ seconds for most of the programs – well, it just makes sense to let Frank do them from home, and this allows us to turn them around much more quickly. So if there's – here's an odd concept for you. A funding credit emergency! [laughs] What the heck could that be? But if there's something that needs to be changed very quickly, I can drive home between classes. We can get the thing on the air that day. Usually we have a little bit more lead time than that. Usually it'll be the next day. But every once in a while there'll be something that needs to be changed immediately, and so we've been able to fill that need quite nicely.  And so it's been good to have this separate identity along with my teaching day job and the writing. I've been a very lucky guy, John.

NPR has made the decision to bring all of the funding credit production in-house starting this fall. It'll probably happen sometime in November is what it looks like now, and so the same person who'll be voicing the funding credits will also be producing and editing and distributing them, and the idea is this might make the workflow a little more efficient.

And so, there'll be a change that listeners will hear in the next month or weeks, and when I had the original discussions in the early summer, late spring about helping with the transition for this, which of course I was glad to do, my adult son for years has called the funding credits the "Mr. Dad Show," and so I emailed him and I said, "well," I said, "the Mr. Dad Show is not going to be renewed this fall, and I got this wonderful email back from him that said, part A was, "well, Dad, that's a real bummer," and part B was, "but what a great ride!"

BAILEY: It has been thirty years or so, hasn't it?

TAVARES: That's right! I started when I was six, and [laughs], well, maybe 16, well, OK, twenty … well, OK, you know! We could keep going down that path for a while. But it really does amaze me, and I've had – and this scared me in the beginning, when I had an audience researcher tell me this. He said, quite matter of factly – audience researchers are like this, he said, "You realize that you are the most heard voice by the greatest number of NPR listeners than any other voice in the history of public radio." And when he told me this, I – it astounded me! And scared me! I'm not sure what that means, but it's a little scary to me! And then I kind of internalized it and processed it, and I came up with the reaction of, "Well, that's just cool!" [laughs] "That's pretty neat!"

And the way he got to that figure, he said, is because the voice is heard across more of the NPR venues than any of the particular NPR reporters might be, and over all of the different NPR stations, and of course you factor in the number of years, and that's how he got to that conclusion. And I thought, "you know something?" As my son said, it's been a great run, and I think I've got a record that may not be broken, so … [laughs]

BAILEY: So, thirty years as what NPR has described as the "connective tissue" of the programming. What will you miss about being such a part of that organism?

TAVARES: Boy … first of all, I will miss it. And there's something about having been a part of, having been that connective tissue, having an obvious daily part where I could hear myself interacting with different stations around the country, and with different programs. Yeah, I'm gonna miss that. Is that an ego thing? Yeah, of course, some of that's ego.

But it makes me feel I'm still connected to public radio. It's not been my day job for years, but that connection is really important. I mean, those of us who work in public radio, what I was saying before is it's really important to us, we really believe in it. I'm a member at any one time of three or four different public radio stations, because I believe it's important to support. I believe in this thing that we created and we work in and we work around. I think it's a very important way of getting information to people.

And I love that even when I moved out of Washington, D.C., that I was able to keep this connection to public radio and to NPR. That was, something that I've been very proud of. But because I have this record of sorts, we have figured out that I have recorded somewhere north of 300,000 funding credits over the years. That's an astounding number when I think about that.

I feel so blessed, so lucky. I have this long-term relationship with public radio, even if my voice won't be heard on a daily basis multiple times at so many NPR stations around the world. And I say around the world because a lot of people listen online these days. I've got a very satisfying day job. I love teaching, most of the time, many, many more days than not. I'm really happy to be in the classroom and working with students. And that's something that surprised me. I didn't think I would be teaching as long as I have been.

And yet, every semester when I meet new students and I find that I can take them to places that they didn't think they could go, that's very much like being an executive producer at NPR, or a program head at NPR like I was, where you're working with producers, and you're helping them flesh out ideas and you're helping them put together something that they didn't quite figure out on their own. Talking people up.

I remember one time explaining to someone that my job as executive producer and head of this particular programming department at NPR was, some days my job was to talk people down off the ceiling! [laughs] And other days my job was to talk people up off the floor! And it's something that, it's a skill, and it's something that I think I became fairly good at, working with people, listening to them.

And I find the same satisfaction in my teaching. The venue is different. The people that you work with quite often are very similar. They're looking to find ways of having their voices heard, and part of my job in the executive producer role is to make that happen. And part of my job as a college professor is to make that happen. Give them the skills that's going to help them, once they leave college, to fend their way through various job markets and hopefully find things that are satisfying in their lives and make a difference to them and the people around them.

I'm a lucky guy, John. I'd wish my life on just about anybody. Well, of course there are those pieces that I could do without, but overall, it's been very satisfying, the way I've been able to work with people and to keep my connection with broadcasting.

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