Q & A
Jonathan Goldstein is the host of CBC’s WireTap. His writing has appeared in The Walrus, The New York Times, GQ, and The National Post. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s This American Life and the New York Times Magazine, and was a 2002 co-recipient of The Third Coast Audio Festival’s Gold Prize. In 2004, he was awarded a Canadian National Magazine award for humour. He is author of Lenny Bruce is Dead, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, and I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow, a collection of stories about the year leading up to his 40th birthday.

Cristal Duhaime interviewed Jonathan Goldstein in November 2013. As well as being audio editor for carte blanche, Cristal works as a producer on Wiretap.

cb: What would you say are the characteristics of a good radio piece? How do you know whether something you write will work for WireTap or whether it’s best to leave it on the page?

Goldstein: I think you can definitely break it down, but sometimes something just works through force of charisma. And now, with the proliferation of podcasts, you can find the thing you find charismatic, what appeals to you, what you’re drawn to. I’ve talked with friends about what comedy podcasts we like and I find that it’s almost like deciding on what cigarette brand you’re going to smoke. Each one has a certain something, but you can’t say du Maurier are better than Export “A”. That does make it sound pretty unscientific… which it isn’t entirely, but maybe that intuitive aspect of taste, the way a voice makes you feel, needs to be pointed out. Some of it is alchemy. I personally like to be surprised. And I like hearing voices that sound alive, that make me feel like I’m hanging out with a friend. Sometimes it’s like choosing a friend. “This person is funny and smart, but do I feel like spending an hour with them?” And yet there are friends we don’t even know why we like. We just love them.

And as for leaving it on the page, I don’t always know. Though I think my writing has changed over the years… gotten more “radio ready” and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just the way my brain has begun to work.

Fans of WireTap often ask whether the stories featured on the show are real. Why do you think that radio stories are held up to a higher standard of veracity than say, written pieces?

Someone just wrote an angry post on our Facebook page about a piece we did where a mom planks on a hippo in the zoo to impress her kids and this person was so angry. “Why encourage someone who’s mentally ill?”, she charged. A part of me felt kind of happy that someone, at this stage of the game, was still taking the show at face value. There used to be more responses like that in the beginning. People have become more savvy media consumers… the flip-side being that they instead think everything on the show is untrue—which is also not great.

And I think people do tend to expect more un-ironic  “truth” from radio, or the CBC— because it’s what a lot of people rely on for the news. Over the years, this has changed a little.

WireTap often features comedic sketches with recurring characters, like Howard, Gregor, and Josh. Without giving away too much about how the show works, what can you say about the process of writing comedy for the show and how collaboration fits into it?  

It’s all collaboration. Though it depends on the individuals. But there’s always improvising, the sharing of ideas, and a lot of audio editing. Some pieces are more written out than others, though.

You spend a lot of time going back and forth between Montreal and New York as you have dual-citizenship. How much does place influence your writing?

Not so much. I know some people say they have to be here or there to write a sentence but I never understood that. I don’t have that great a sensitivity to place. Maybe I’m thick. You’re in your head when you write. I do like writing in NY, though. Maybe because I like being there in general. I don’t know if the “energy of the city” infuses the writing. I’d say probably not. But it’s fun to write there, though.

You’ve created a duality for yourself through WireTap. There’s Jonathan Goldstein the radio host—who some might describe as a nebbishy, introspective, sensitive fellow, somewhat of an anti-hero. And then there’s Jonathan Goldstein in real-life. This idea of creating a character that is uncannily similar to your own without being outright auto-biographical is something that has been used by other writers as well—I’m thinking of the novelist Philip Roth (who even had a character named “Philip Roth” in one of his books for instance). When you write for the radio show, do you consciously write for Jonathan Goldstein the character or does everything stem from one same voice and work out the differences through performance?

Weighty/pretentious part B to the question: Do you use “Jonathan Goldstein the radio host”  to hide behind or show yourself?

I think the writing that interests me most these days is the writing that pushes past the persona rather than leaning on it. And when I do that kind of thing, like write from a more emotional, less jokey place, it isn’t like people are jarred so there must be a shared feeling to it, one source from which it all comes.

And weighty/pretentious answer: Both. It’s a veil dance.

A lot of your writing, on the show and in your books can be introspective, psychoanalytical even. Again, as with secular Jewish writers like Philip Roth you seem to distance yourself from Jewish tradition and identity while at the same time embracing it in some ways. Is being Jewish something that preoccupies you or do you just see it as good fodder for storytelling?

I don’t know that I distance myself from it. I think it informs everything I do. I think I don’t worry about it very much. I just figure that it’s in there, so it doesn’t preoccupy me. Being Jewish is just being whatever you are. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any religious Jewish writers. Moses? I think they’re all pretty secular. Spinoza? IB Singer? Kafka? I’m not sure what makes a writer Jewish but there does seem to be a lot written about it, panels, etc.

In addition to humourous pieces and personal essays, WireTap often features very humanist stories that connect with listeners on an emotional level. What can you say about the power of radio to achieve that sort of connection versus the written word? 

I think at this point I can say that my stuff works best on the radio. It’s kind of frustrating to admit. I don’t know if I’ll always feel this way. I guess we kind of devalue the things that people like us for. I recently interviewed one of my radio heroes, Joe Frank, and I asked him about the only book he ever published, this book called Queen of Puerto Rico, and he said he shouldn’t have done it, that it was bad and that his stuff is best on the radio. I envied how well he knew himself, the level of self acceptance he had. I guess I tend to look at success on the page as the ultimate in artistic success, but maybe I should reconsider that.

WireTap is now in its 10th season on CBC. What are you hoping to try out writing-wise this season?

I hope to have the guts to try stuff that pushes the audience and pushes me. Stuff that isn’t always going for laughs. Stuff that isn’t afraid to reveal who I am, what my truth is. It’ll be tempered by Howard destroying my passport in all kinds of new ways, too, so no one has to worry that I’m getting too serious.