Lulu Miller on the fulfillment of making ‘Invisibilia’

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The first installment of Think & Drink, a new series from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, features NPR reporter Lulu Miller reading from her upcoming book, Why Fish Don’t Exist. Staff photo The first installment of Think & Drink, a new series from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, features NPR reporter Lulu Miller reading from her upcoming book, Why Fish Don’t Exist. Staff photo

When Lulu Miller was a kid growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, she’d peel away from her family to write. She’d take reams of computer paper—the kind that’s one long, continuous accordion sheet with tearaway perforations on the sides—from her dad’s printer and write for hours. It felt like sledding, she says, like she could go wherever.

“It was a super happy feeling, making stories up about whatever,” so that desire to tell stories and be a writer “locked in very early,” Miller says.

Miller, who earned an MFA in fiction from UVA in 2013, and now resides mostly in Charlottesville, still writes fiction (she recently published her first story, “Me and Jane,” in Catapult magazine). But as co-host of NPR’s popular “Invisibilia” podcast, which launched in January 2015 and for two seasons has explored “the invisible forces that control human behavior—ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” Miller and her co-hosts, Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin, tell stories that aren’t made up at all. They tell true stories, most of them stranger than fiction, such as the one about Daniel Kish, a blind man who uses echolocation to see (yes, see); and the story of Martin Pistorius, a man who was locked in his body, his brain fully functional but he had no ability to communicate, for 12 years before he was freed; and the tale of a woman who has never experienced fear.

Stories like these are the ones that pulled Miller to radio in 2005.

After studying history in college (“I felt like I needed to know more things,” Miller says) and moving to New York to write, Miller found herself working for a woodworker and listening to public radio—which, for the record, she hated when she was a kid—to “Radiolab” and “This American Life.” The way that radio transported her from her seat on the train and into the story unfolding in her earbuds was a force she couldn’t escape.

For Miller, there was nothing quite like it, and she had to be part of it. So she interned at “Radiolab,” at first answering phones and e-mails and burning CDs, eventually helping “Radiolab” co-host Robert Krulwich edit the “Detective Stories” episode before conducting an interview of her own about an elderly man who had begun having musical hallucinations. “They were very vivid and very real, and he eventually realized it was his subconscious keeping him company because everyone in his life was dying,” Miller recalls. “He ended up crying.”

She’s often amazed at the things people reveal about themselves in an interview. It’s a reminder that when you’re vulnerable, “when you do show your worst side, that can be an act of humanity, because it shows everyone that everybody else is so deeply imperfect,” Miller says. “That can be such a gift, because sometimes people put up such a front.”

It’s her job to break through that front, and she has some favored methods for doing it; for getting Kish’s mom to talk about how she was called reckless by other parents for letting her blind son live his life as any other kid, taking horrible falls off of bicycles and running into poles, for example.

“Really listen,” Miller says. “Really show you’re with them. Sometimes people are almost shocked when they’re very closely listened to.” Once the person is a bit more relaxed, she says she starts poking and prodding gently.

“The range of people and their take on the world, that’s what never ceases to amaze me,” Miller says.

She recalls interviewing a woman who snuck into a mental hospital in the 1970s. Miller says she asked what the place looked like, what it smelled like, asked for physical details, and the woman responded with, “‘Oh, the smell. The smell was like this sour mop that, no matter how much you mopped, it still smelled like that.’ Her voice changed,” Miller recalls, “and it went from this story she’d told a million times to the disgust of that mop. And she started talking more slowly—you could tell she was remembering new information. And then I asked something like, ‘What did that smell mean to you?’ and she paused and said, ‘It’s the smell of neglect.’”

Miller likes to think of her job in terms of a scene in 1991’s The Addams Family, in which Gomez and Uncle Fester go into the library, Gomez pulls a book, and the bookshelf turns and there’s a secret passageway behind it. “I sometimes think that I’m [rooting] around in people’s memories, trying to pull the right book, where suddenly you gain entrance to this other wash of memories.”

Reporting for radio is “this profession where you still get to be an explorer and go into all these spaces where you wouldn’t otherwise have access,” Miller says, adding that she loves working through these stories with the “Invisibilia” team that is currently planning season 3, which will focus on how we interact with reality. She might have traded her dad’s computer paper for a microphone, but she’s still sledding. Microphone in hand and a world of subjects before her, she can go wherever and take her listeners along for the ride.

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