Today’s guest comes to us from the studios of NPR’s beloved show, Car Talk. For 10 years, Louie Cronin (a.k.a. “Cronin the Barbarian”) served as Car Talk’s traffic cop, producing the show and ensuring that every call was entertaining. Her debut novel, Everybody Loves You Back, won the 2016 Molly Ivors Fiction Prize from Gorsky Press in LA, leading to the novel’s publication. with an MFA in creative writing from Boston University (and a keen eye for the absurd!), Louie is a recipient of the Ivan Gold Fiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston and has had fiction and essays published in Compass Rose, The Princeton Arts Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, and on PRI.org. Her short stories have been finalists for both Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings awards. Louie has been awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently she works as a technical director for PRI’s radio show, The World.
How Ten Years Producing “Car Talk” Helped Me Deal with Rejection
When I first got my job on NPR’s Car Talk, my friend Irwin from California emailed to congratulate me. He was a big fan of show, had even called in several times but had never gotten on.
“I guess I wasn’t good enough,” he wrote, or something to that effect.
I couldn’t believe that. Irwin was a lawyer for a downtown San Francisco law firm, turned AIDS legal activist, turned singing drag queen for the brilliant, a cappella comedy troupe The Kinsey Sicks. He was smart, funny, good hearted, and a professional performer!
Any radio producer would kill for a caller like Irwin.
“Call back!” I urged him. “Come up with another question. I would love to put you on!”
Then I settled into my job screening the calls. I learned the secret recipe that made Car Talk so very enjoyable. Two things: We thought of the callers as talent. And we put those callers together in an unpredictable, wide ranging, and satisfying mix, that brought out the very best in our hosts, Tom and Ray.
We screened the calls for geography. We were a national show; we had listeners from Alaska to Hoboken, so we needed voices from across the country. Tom and Ray appealed to both men and women, so we wanted a balance of genders. We strove for a mix of questions, some straightforward, some complicated, some gear-headed, some romance-related, some easy, some impossible to solve. And we looked for a mix of vehicles: foreign, domestic, antique, brand new, luxury, heaps, minivans, pickups, motorcycles. Once we even put on a call from the Space Shuttle!
Sounds easy, right?
Wrong! It was really hard to come up with that eclectic mix every week. Most talk-show callers are male. For shows about cars, that percentage is even larger. So I had to turn down a lot of talented men with interesting stories to let the female voices on.
Since Car Talk was based in Boston, we were always flooded with New England callers. Big radio markets like New York, Seattle, and Houston were always overrepresented. We had a surplus of calls about the most popular car makes: Fords, Toyotas, Hondas, and — hey, it’s public radio — Volvos. I jumped for joy when someone with a DeLorean or a Gremlin called in.
And then there was the California problem. Huge population. Major radio market. Obsessive car culture. Drive time traffic jams. We were inundated with calls from California. And they were good. As my predecessor once remarked, we could do a full show every week with nothing but great callers from California.
Back to my friend Irwin, a man, from California, who drove a Honda. Are you beginning to see the problem? In order to get onto Car Talk, Irwin had to be one of the best male callers in the entire U.S. Then he had to be better than all the other callers driving Hondas. If he was calling about say, his tires, his question had to be better than the guy who was calling about his exploding-tire-phobia. And finally, he had to compete with the flood of callers from the great state of California. I mean, what if he called in the same week as Geena Davis? Oops, sorry, Irwin. You’re great, but she’s a Hollywood celebrity.
But here’s the conundrum: There were plenty of weeks when, despite our surging ratings, despite the millions of listeners, despite the phones ringing off the hook, I didn’t have the calls I needed, weeks when I had huge holes to fill in the show, weeks where I was desperate for a lighthearted caller, or a straightforward problem, or something totally orginal, weeks where I would pray that someone like Irwin would pick up the damn phone.
So what does all of this have to with writing?
Rejection. And the inevitable rejection that we writers endure.
While I have never worked at a literary magazine, agency, or publisher, and I don’t know what particular criteria they are screening for, I know for sure they are screening — not just for good stories, but for variables we writers may never be able to anticipate. In many ways, they have the same challenging job I had at Car Talk: to slog through a mountain of submissions and come up with an artful, seemingly effortless mix.
I’m sure they’re trying to balance for men and women, especially now with the consciousness-raising VIDA count, and I don’t know about you, but every literary event, class, colony, or reading group I’ve ever attended, has been overwhelmingly female. So in this case, I assume being a woman is actually against me. I’m sure they’re also screening for genre, voice, point of view, setting, word count and current trends in theme and plotline. And who knows, maybe they’re flooded with unknown, sarcastic, Irish Catholic, baby boomer women from Boston.
Thanks to Car Talk, and the unrelenting demands of the broadcast cycle, I also understand why editors look for last year’s bestsellers. I did it. It’s only human. When something worked on Car Talk, I’d try it again. And again. Until my boss shouted, “Cronin! Enough questions from mystery writers looking for undetectable ways to blow up a car engine!”
So when the inevitable rejections flood my inbox and I feel like melting into a puddle of self pity on the floor, I tell myself:
- You’re a Honda from California.
- You will never know what behind-the-scenes decisions are being made about your submission, so don’t try to figure them out.
- If you know the name of this journal/agent/editor, so does everyone else. They are swamped.
- Editors make mistakes all the time. (I know I did at Car Talk.)
I also ask myself:
- Is there a way for me to be the DeLorean from Montana instead?
- (How can I stand out? How can I give the editor what she needs?)
- Did I make it as easy as possible for the editor to use my submission?
- (Or did I submit an essay to a fiction contest?)
Finally, I remind myself:
- If I submit my work an average of 100 times, at the 95th rejection, I’ll know I’m getting close.
- An acceptance from a little known venue feels just as good as an acceptance from a famous one.
- Somewhere out there is a weary-eyed, all-too-fallible soul like me, eager for good material, and praying somebody just like me will contact her.
Are you a Honda from California or more of a DeLorean from Texas? What inner dialogue helps you process rejection and keep writing?