From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist' Comedy writer Steve Hely details the journey of a young writer's effort to create the greatest best seller of all time in his new novel How I Became a Famous Novelist.
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From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist'

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From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist'

From Comedy Writer To 'Famous Novelist'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Steve Hely, is a comedy writer who has worked on "Late Night with David Letterman," "American Dad," and now writes for "30 Rock." His new book is a satirical novel about best-selling books. The main character is a young man who tries to figure out the formula for writing a best-selling novel so that he can show up his ex-girlfriend, and so that he can issue pronouncements like: A writer makes it his duty to be midwife and doctor to an idea being birthed. The best-sellers Hely created for his novel sound like the real thing, like this one, "Caesar, CEO: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans."

Steve Hely, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a book about bad books?

Mr. STEVE HELY (Comedy writer, author of "How I Became a Famous Novelist"): Well, I like going to bookstores and I'm always just taken aback and awed by the sheer number of books that come out every year that are lining the shelves of bookstores, and I love - just like rifling through them and finding the weird, crazy books. And each one represents some person's fanatic interest. And it takes a lot of energy and effort to write a book, and there are so many of them. And so many of them are so crazy that I thought it would be fun to write a book that sort of played with the idea of people who are writing these books and authors trying to invent this version of themselves, and people trying to write books - maybe not for the best motives, and whether there's a difference between people who are trying to do it for the sort of noble motives of art, and whether it's possible to sort of fake your way into that and come up with a book just sort of with the most crass and commercial motives possible.

GROSS: And the latter is what your author tries to do. He has ulterior motives.

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Exactly. He's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: He's interested in money and fame and humiliating his enemies.

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. HELY: And whether it's possible to sort of bluff your way into writing something that people could consider good.

GROSS: OK. Let's start with the title that he comes up with, "The Tornado Ashes Club." What does the title - meant to communicate, because everything he writes is meant to sell this book?

Mr. HELY: Right. Well, he makes a study of the best-seller list. The main character makes a study of The New York Times Best Seller List. And he discovers that they're a lot of common tropes and things that seem to be in popular, sort of literary books. And one of them is like clubs, people who are in clubs. One of them is natural disasters sort of sweeping American landscapes, long journeys - and he compresses all these things into a crazy, wild narrative that involves people trying to throw the ashes of his grandmother's long-dead lover into a tornado, which seemed like the most - to him seems like the most sort of poetically ridiculous image he can come up with.

GROSS: To more fully describe the book, let me read the blurb that the writer writes, hoping that this will be the best-seller blurb.

Love, loss, and the soul of truth are explored when a wrongly accused man goes on a road trip with his grandmother and an American folk singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Although, later his editor changes the American folk singer into a ranchera singer, a singer of ranchera music because she thinks that might appeal to the sort of Hispanic market.

GROSS: He has a lot of rules. Your author has a lot of rules he came up with for creating a best-selling novel. As you mentioned, you know, have the word club...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: the story.

Mr. HELY: Yeah, he's got to have his club.

GROSS: There's got to be club or a mysterious, secret society, shy characters, surprising love affairs. Also, the novel must have scenes on highways, making driving seem poetic and magical. Why is that important?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Well, he wants to tap into the audio, to the rich audio-book market, so he's got to have scenes that make people who are driving feel like they're being included in this lyrical, mythic journey across America's rugged landscape, even if they're just driving to Costco.

GROSS: It has to involve music, which you have through the American folk singer.

Mr. HELY: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Because a lot of bookstores are also selling music so, you know, there's possibilities for crossover, a movie soundtrack. The fake author of this book is targeting a multiplatform media distribution landscape. He's very savvy about how he's going to sell things.

GROSS: And dull points: Include descriptions of delicious meals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: I find when I'm reading, I'm always usually hungry. And like, as long as I'm reading I'm always also thinking about getting up to get a sandwich. And so if a book is sort of like stimulating that sense, it will probably keep me going a little bit longer than it might otherwise.

GROSS: And finally, the prose must be lyrical. And how do you define lyrical?

Mr. HELY: Lyrical means resembling bad poetry as far as this guy can figure out, so it should be easy enough for him to do, and he does a little practice.

GROSS: Well, give us a taste of the novel that your fictitious novelist writes, hoping it will become a bes-tseller...

Mr. HELY: Yeah, there's excerpts...

GROSS: ...and following all the rules that he came up with.

Mr. HELY: There's an excerpt at the beginning of the book: (Reading) Away from them, across the field of low durum wheat, they saw Evangeline's frame, outlined pale in shadow against the highway sky as it trembled. That's the way it is with a song, isn't it? she said. The way it quivers in your heart. Quivers like the wings of a little bird. In a story, too. He spoke it softly in a voice that let her know how close they were. That's the way it is with a story. Turns your heart into a bird.

GROSS: Oh god, I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is something that your author doesn't mention as one of his rules, but to talk about the magic of the story is also a really important thing in some best-sellers.

Mr. HELY: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Well, the strange thing is that, of course, that is true. People do love stories and...

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. HELY: ...stories grip people and people get excited about them. But, of course, authors and writers and people who are interested in stories often sort of get hyperbolic in talking about how powerful and evocative these things are. And it just seemed fun to play with that idea of a guy who's sort of faking it, and he's coming up with this totally crap story that means nothing to him but trying to present it as this sort of like transformative, mythic, religious experience and hoping he can bluff people into believing it.

GROSS: So, when you were writing this book and going to a lot of bookstores and seeing a lot of books that struck you as really crazy or merely bad, did you start keeping a notebook of particularly purple phrases that you'd come up with, or stock phrases that seemed to be recurring in a lot of different novels?

Mr. HELY: Yeah. It seemed like lyrical - the word lyrical appears on the back cover of almost every sort of work of literary fiction. And sometimes it's accurate and means that the prose is like, incredibly musical and falls lightly on the ear, and sometimes it just sort of means that like, there are going to be a lot of adjectives and it's sort of crazy writing, and the simplest act of every author is described in the most sort of luscious, purple prose possible. So that seemed like a pretty key one to hit.

But I was also sort of focusing on what story elements seemed to be really popular. The amount of murders that occur on the New York Times Best Seller List is just incredible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Very few books get on the New York Times Best Seller List unless someone has gotten murdered in them. And this is true of TV shows, too, and movies as well. People love reading about murders.

GROSS: So you had to put a murder in the novel within the novel?

Mr. HELY: Yeah, of course. You've got to have one.

GROSS: You know, your writer writes his outline for the novel and he ends with, a stunning literary debut told with lyrical prose - check -

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: gentle humor and an artist's eye. "The Tornado Ashes Club" is a novel for anyone's who's had love or lost it, learned a wise lesson or a dark secret, or felt the magic of the story that is America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: That's so great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: That is - he's this guy who's sort of basically just trying to write the purplist(ph) description he can and nails it, and it's shameless...

GROSS: And who hasn't had love or lost it, or learned a wise lesson or a dark secret? And - but it...

Mr. HELY: Or it felt the story that is America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or felt the story of the magic that is America. But that's another thing that he thinks is key. You know, talking about like, the magic of America. Why does he think that's important to include in the book?

Mr. HELY: Somehow, I mean, that seems like a very popular and recurring theme in American fiction and especially popular American fiction, that it often takes place in some rugged or strange place. It's strange to, you know, the people like you and I that work in the media and you know, sort of fantasize West Virginia and western Texas and the plains of Montana - although we don't bother living there, but we sort romanticize it. And I think there's a sort of a hunger for that authenticity among people who are sort of looking for experiences in books and doing a lot of reading, who sort of crave that idea of the American wilds. And there is something magical about it.

This guy doesn't know anything. He is living in, you know, suburban Boston and doesn't know what he's talking about. But he knows that that is a thing that people crave when they're reading books, and he crams it in there as much as possible.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely. And he's written a new really funny, satirical novel about the book world, which is called "How I Became a Famous Novelist." Hely has also written for David Letterman, for "American Dad," and now he writes for "30 Rock."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. HELY: Right.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely, and his new comic novel is called "How I Became a Famous Novelist," and it's a satire of bestselling books and of authors who write them. And Hely has also written for "The David Letterman Show" and "American Dad," and he now writes for "30 Rock."

In your novel, "How I Became a Famous Novelist," you come up with your own best-seller list. It's...

Mr. HELY: Yeah.

GROSS: So, I'm going to ask you to read a few of the fiction and nonfiction entries on the best-seller list that you wrote for the book.

Mr. HELY: Sure. The New York Times Bestseller List is a just great piece of writing. They always have these terrific summaries of books that are obviously very weird and oftentimes difficult to summarize, and it's just an amazing kind of poetry that I love reading every week. So here's some of my fake ones:

"Mind Stretch" - Trang Martinez suspects her Pilates instructor may also be a vicious serial killer. "Great Fish" - The biblical story of Jonah, retold from the point of view of the whale. "Kindness to Birds" - On a journey across the Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life. "Expense The Burberry" - A young woman in Manhattan spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.

So those would be some fiction. Here's a couple of nonfiction: "Cracked Like Teeth" - A memoir of petty crime, drunken brawls and recovery, by a writer who was addicted to paint thinner by age 9. "Empanadas in Worcester" - Traveling from Khartoum to Madras to Rhode Island, a commentator for CNN suggests globalization means a stranger but friendlier world in the 21st century. "Bonds Sealed In Freedom" - An account of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, focusing on the friendship of Washington, Jefferson, and a little-known Philadelphia orphan.

GROSS: I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I know I've read these books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: You may have had them on.

GROSS: I may have had them on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The best-seller list usually also reflects the culture wars, because you've got the books from the left and the books from the right, and they're always vying for the top spots.

Mr. HELY: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: So you've come up with like, your right-wing author Donny Vebber. Tell us about him.

Mr. HELY: Oh, yeah. He's sort of a radio host that the main character of my book listens to on the way to work, just to sort of try and stimulate some emotional excitement in him. And he's a radical; he wrote a book called "Tax the Jihadis" that talks about how he wants to deport illegal immigrants to Iran and see how they like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And sort of - our main character listens to right-wing talk-radio, as I and some people I know have, to sort of - it's just a way of like, sort of getting yourself worked up emotionally. And gradually, as he becomes emotionally deadened, he realizes that even this isn't doing it for him anymore. He just can't get worked up, and he becomes more and more indifferent.

GROSS: You're getting interviewed right now, and I'm sure you've been doing, you know, a bunch of interviews for your new book - as authors always hope to do in order to get the word out about their book. So did you study book interviews...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...both to write your book and also to like, perform after the book was published?

Mr. HELY: I have studied book interviews. I love reading interviews with authors because they are always terrific. I think the interview that Cormac McCarthy gave with Oprah is one of the most amazing pieces of television that has ever occurred. I mean, one of the first questions Oprah - this is Oprah, remember - asked Cormac McCarthy is, you know - there aren't a lot of women in you books. And Cormac McCarthy just looks at her and goes, I've never met a woman that I understood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And it's true. This was just an absurd meeting of American culture, two geniuses who are trying to have a conversation with each other. But yeah, you know, I have studied author interviews. There are a lot of authors who are great at presenting an image of themselves which is awesome and incredible. They come up with - the best character possible is themselves. I feel like I'm going to make my life a lot easier if I just tell you the truth as best as I can.

GROSS: Preston Brooks is the best-selling novelist who's the kind of part model, part rival for the writer in your novel. He says - and I think this is, if I remember correctly, this in an interview. He says, I found a tattered copy "Of Mice and Men," maybe from an angel's hand, maybe just a lazy schoolboy, but I read it, and John Steinbeck showed me that there was stronger stuff than whiskey.

Mr. HELY: Right. This is from a moment in the book where Pete Tarslaw, the main character, is watching this interview on TV and seeing this guy. And he can't believe the just reams of garbage that's coming out of his mouth, the absurd statements that he's saying, and he's thinking to himself oh, I can totally pretend to be that guy. And part of the story of this book is, is it possible to pretend to be something you're not in order to become really successful? Can you bluff your way into this? And some - you read interviews with authors and you wonder how much of it is true and how much is fake.

I love the author Mark Helprin. I don't know him; I've never met him. All I know about him is what I read in interviews, and his interviews are crazy. He just wrote this book called "Digital Barbarism," where he's sort of responding to people who criticize him on the Internet. And it includes so many remarkable, just sort of castoff passages about his own life, which - I don't know if they're true or false - but he talks about, you know, when I was 14, I went off on a bike ride across the United States. And he talks about these encounters he had with corn farmers and stuff.

Now maybe this is all true, I don't know, but certainly he's having, he's presenting an image of Mark Helprin which is awesome and admirable and which you want to, you want to know more about this guy. So, I think that they're - whether they are fake or real is - is part of the fun of figuring it all out.

GROSS: Now, your previous book, which you co-authored, was called, "The Ridiculous Race."

Mr. HELY: That's right.

GROSS: Describe the premise of that book.

Mr. HELY: This was another television writer. A friend of mine named Vali Chandrasekaran and I had an idea to have a race around the world in opposite directions without using airplanes. We were both living in L.A. at the time, and we agreed that I would go west and he would go east, and we would circumnavigate the globe without using airplanes. And the first guy to get back to L.A. from the opposite direction would win an expensive bottle of scotch. And we set out to do this journey. And I went around the world without using airplanes. I did not get back to Los Angeles first. However, I still consider myself the winner. And I had a lot of adventures along the way in China and Mongolia and the Pacific Ocean and so forth. And Vali had his own set of adventures too. And hopefully, the book is funny and entertaining and people will enjoy it.

GROSS: Now, I have to tell you, that's a genre of book that I tend to really dislike. I consider it like, the pointless exercise designed for the sole purpose of getting a book contract to carry out the pointless exercise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Oh well, it was absolutely a pointless exercise. We absolutely just wanted to do it. We were lucky enough to find a publisher that would sort of fund us to do it and sort of, as our part of the bargain, we wrote a book that we hope is funny and entertaining to readers. And I think, you know, it should basically even out. But I absolutely confess to it being a pointless act,that we just wanted to have a race around the world.

GROSS: Now, I want to read an explanation you gave of how the race began. You wrote, it was at the Magnificence Consortium, a society I'd founded. The members - myself, Vali, and our delightful young associate Leila(ph) - met weekly for the purposes of wearing preposterous suits, inventing cocktails, attempting to cook forgotten foods of the 1920s, drinking wine from the 99 Cent Store, sampling expired medicines, and proposing toasts to one another.

And I wasn't sure if that was for real or not because in that, you have some of the elements that the writer in your novel decided has to be included in any book to be a best-seller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You have a society, you know, a club.

Mr. HELY: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely…

GROSS: You have like, food, you know - like, forgotten foods of the 1920s.

Mr. HELY: Right.

GROSS: …recipes of forgotten foods.

Mr. HELY: I tell you that all of that is true. Most of the foods in the 1920s were supplied by the one lady in the society - Vali and I can't cook at all. But all of those things did occur. They did really happen, and I won't deny that we were definitely pretending to be more awesome than we were, but we did do these things. So, I can vouch for that being 100 percent true.

GROSS: Why did you have a magnificence consortium, a little…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …a little society? And why do you see it as something to be satirized now, you know, all the books that actually have, you know, clubs or…

Mr. HELY: Well, we all - well, people love clubs. There's a reason why people form them and people have them. I have nothing against clubs. I've been part of quite a few awesome ones, and I'm proud of them. And there's no - and book clubs are certainly a big way to get books across in a way that people talk about and love books. Now, if you were a absolutely cynical person and you wanted to -and if all you were thinking about is how to make your book popular, then you'd certainly want to appeal to book clubs because those are people - those are groups of 10 and 15 people who are going to buy books.

And you'd also want to appeal to people who are reading on their own and sort of dream of being a part of a cool club. Now, I was lucky enough to live with my friends and we formed this little society, which was short-lived because it was so ridiculous. But we did form it and it did exist. And I - despite any satire, I endorse clubs and encourage people to join and found them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely and he's written a new, really funny satirical novel about the book world, which is called, "How I Became a Famous Novelist." He has also written for David Letterman, for the series "American Dad." And he now writes for "30 Rock." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Hely. He's written a comic novel about the book world, specifically about somebody who sets out to write a best-selling novel, and it's called "How I Become A Famous Novelist." Hely has also written for David Letterman, for "American Dad," and now he writes for "30 Rock."

Well, how did you break into television? I know you edited "The Harvard Lampoon" when you…

Mr. HELY: Yes, I was president of "The Harvard Lampoon." And then I - after graduating college, I sort of just sat around my parents' house and worked and just tried to write samples of packets for television shows. This is how -you sort of just write a sample of the shows that you like. And I wrote a bunch and tried to get hired on different shows. And then sort of through a lucky break, I was able to find someone who would send my packet to "The Late Show With David Letterman." And they liked what I'd written. And I got a job interview there. And then I didn't hear back from them for two months and I moved to Los Angeles to try and look for work there. And then immediately on arriving in Los Angeles, I got a job and I had to move back to New York to work on "Letterman."

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. HELY: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you do 10 best lists?

Mr. HELY: I did write top 10 lists, yeah. And sometimes we would get home - the most fun of working on that job was that sometimes we'd write a top 10 list, and then we'd stay at work late. And, you know, it would be 11:30 or so, we'd be going home in a cab, and the cabbies would be listening to the top 10 list on the radio, which is always fun to actually hear someone enjoying the work you'd just done that day.

GROSS: Did you write top 10 lists for politicians? Sometimes Hillary would come on and do her top 10 list, which I always assumed the writers wrote.

Mr. HELY: Yes. I don't remember any politicians when I was there. I'm sure there were some. I remember one really fun one we wrote was like, we had to write a top 10 list where there was going to be a team of Army, you know, Special Forces guys rappelling off the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater - the 14th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater. And we had to write things for them to yell as they were rappelling off the roof.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: I don't remember all the good ones, but it was fun to write for those guys. I remember - I don't even know if I wrote this joke, but I just remember an Army paratrooper jumping off the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater yelling dude, you're getting a Dell, and just rappelling…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …down the side of 14th - 54th street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you've also written for "American Dad," which is an animated series. What's it's like to write for cartoon characters as opposed to people?

Mr. HELY: Oh, it's great because you - it's a lot easier than dealing with actors because it's, you know, you can have them record it 50, 60 times and it's not that stressful for them. And you can manipulate the sets a lot more easily. There's no physical restrictions. You can move people around and have them in different countries and invent new characters whenever you want, and all you have to do is find a voice to supply it. And there's also a long time lag in the time between you write something and when the actual cartoon appears on the air.

So when you're working on a late-night show like "Letterman," for instance, there's people running around in costumes and you have to get stuff done in five minutes. And you've got to run it down to the stage. And it's frantic and show-bizzy. And working on an animated show is a lot more relaxed because, you know, you write something and then it's going to take nine months for someone to draw it and process it and color it, and get it all back. So, it's a little more laid-back.

GROSS: You've been writing for "30 Rock" since June. So, this is your first period. We haven't seen any of your shows yet, right?

Mr. HELY: Yes, I just started working there.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HELY: I can't take credit for any of the genius that they've already done. But I'm excited to be a part of that team.

GROSS: So, what's it like when you join a show that's already in progress? Is there like…

Mr. HELY: Oh, there's absolutely brutal hazing. It's merciless. No, it is - it's a little weird because there are people there, you know, who have been there since the beginning and they've - they've gotten down the voice of the show and they've figured out how to work with each other. And they know what they're doing, and they know what works and what doesn't. And you sort of have to figure that out very quickly on the job and hopefully, make a contribution. But it's tough. And especially a show like "30 Rock" that, you know, has set the bar for comedy brilliance, you really want to bring your A game and do your best.

GROSS: Let's get back to your novel a second.

Mr. HELY: Sure.

GROSS: Your satire about the literary world and about somebody who tries to be a best-selling writer. You know and he knows that when it comes time to be interviewed for his book, he could present this super, awesome version of himself…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Exactly, yes.

GROSS: …to help interest people in him and his book. So, if you were taking your life…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Oh, the best version of my life.

GROSS: The best version of your life.

Mr. HELY: Well, I was a young…

GROSS: To be an awesome version of yourself.

Mr. HELY: I was a younger child, and I always had to struggle for attention my whole life. And I scrappily managed to work my way through the town of Needham Park and Recreation System…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …slaving away at the town pool in the bowels of misery. But through there, I found comedy offered me a way out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: And I worked my way up to Harvard, where I got on "The Harvard Lampoon" and showed those rich kids what was what. With my witty satire, I entered the circles of the aristocrats. And from there, I managed to break into Hollywood. But soon I found that Hollywood disgusted me with its…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: …deplorable, silicon lifestyle and values degraded by wealth and pools. And so I came back to New York City, the only place where a writer could be. And I took on the publishing world. The towers on 14th Street, sorting out America's literary world, I told them that I would show the emperor had no clothes. And so I've done, with "How I Became a Famous Novelist." And I intend - I don't intend to rest until I've destroyed the entire facade of American publishing and shown it for what it truly is.

GROSS: And now you can make it in Hollywood, too, because the book has been optioned, your book has been optioned.

Mr. HELY: It's true, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: My - now finally I'll go back and I'll put it on the big screen and of course, those bastards in Hollywood will probably tear it apart and put a happy ending on it and ruin everything. But I needed the money for my whiskey and women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELY: Is that the person - is that the version you're looking for?

GROSS: Very good, very good.

Mr. HELY: Unfortunately, I've found that it's tiresome to pretend to be a character, although very fun.

GROSS: Well Steve Hely, we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's been really fun and…

Mr. HELY: Sure, my pleasure.

GROSS: I really enjoyed your novel. So, thanks a lot.

Mr. HELY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Steve Hely is the author of the new satirical novel "How I Became A Famous Novelist." He also writes for "30 Rock."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,

I'm Terry Gross.

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