Brian Reed on Making S-Town and How the Characters Reacted to the Spotlight
On The Gist, Mike Pesca talks with Brian Reed, host and producer of the hit podcast S-Town. If you haven’t listened to S-Town yet, a warning: Spoilers abound. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Pesca: You posted everything on one day. Why that format?
Brian Reed: The basic reason is that I can’t write those shows every week. I can never do what Sarah Koenig does. We wanted people to be able to say something, make an allegation against something. I didn’t want to have to feel compelled to have the other person respond to them immediately. I wanted you to know that everybody’s going to have their say in this one package. It’s one thing and made it more fun to structure and write that way.
It lessens the primacy of the cliffhanger as the thing that gets you from episode to episode.
That was also a reason we talked about explicitly when we talked about releasing it this way. It had to do with wanting it to be like a novel versus modeling it after more like a TV series, where you do feel more compelled to have a cliffhanger. We wanted to be able to end in more ruminative or quiet ways.
Let’s talk timeline. A voicemail from John in 2014—is that the first contact?
The first contact actually was late 2012, the general email he wrote to our listener email. He was a listener to This American Life. It’s not even a tip email; it was really just like, I hate this story, I love this story, you should do a story about this. I brought it to a pitch meeting that we have every week, where I was like, Should I look into this? The subject line was, “John B. McLemore, lives in Shittown, Alabama.” Even in the punctuation I would say had a bit of erraticism. What he was saying was that, This place is terrible. You guys should come down and look at some of the stuff that’s going on here, namely, this alleged murder that’s taken place.
Was it the craft of the writing he hooked you? Or was there something about it that made you say, Oh, there really could be a murder?
It certainly had a kind of liveliness to it, but I do think I was like, If this is true, that’s really fucked up, and someone should look into that. But then it was a long time before we actually got on the phone. It wasn’t a huge priority for me, so we went back and forth, and we kind of lost touch for about a year.
Out of the woodwork, he came back with an actual news story that he linked to about a pretty bad case of sexual abuse and police misconduct that had happened in his county. When I saw that, I was like, Maybe I should just get on the phone with this guy.
During your exchanges over email, did he sparkle?
He sent me a whole introduction to himself with pictures.
Is he tatted in those pictures?
Not that I could see. I think the pictures were probably from before that. I thought I was talking to a guy who was going to give me information about a murder. Then he started telling me about his life, even in the next email to me.
How long until you pretty much decided that the original reason you were there—to investigate this murder—was nothing?
It actually took me a little while. John had me pretty paranoid in terms of contacting authorities of any kind. We were playing things close to the chest, and I was interested in him too, but I did want to figure out whether this was true or not.
Is there a gap where you and the staff question if you really have a story?
I came to that conclusion only very shortly before John died. I got to the point where I knew it hadn’t happened. I called John, I had that conversation with him, but I still wanted to go back down. I was interested in him and Tyler, and there were other things he had told me about that I was like, Maybe there’s another piece of corruption or something that’s worth looking into.
Our last couple conversations, among other things, were me saying, Let me finish this thing that’s airing on July 4, and I’ll be down the next week. He was like, Oh my God, I’m going to have to get the housekeeper over here, there’s fleas everywhere, and it’s going to be so fucking hot. It’s such a shit town in the summer. Jesus Christ. And then on June 22, he killed himself.
The memorial service was the week of this other story, but I wanted to go. I honestly didn’t know if anyone would be there. I thought that maybe just Tyler Goodson and his family would be there. I learned that he actually did have a lot of relations in his life that were far closer than he was with me. I was wondering what we would do after it, but I wasn’t as involved in my thinking about the story yet at that point.
The story as we hear it more or less tracks the stories as you come to understand them. One of those things was the revelation about mad hatter disease.
John had left this list behind of friends that he wanted contacted after he died, and I started talking to people off that list. Many of them were clock customers and horologists of different stripes. A couple of them started mentioning this fire-gilding process that involved mercury and mentioning mad hatter disease. But it was one thing mentioned in interviews about many other things.
After a couple of times, I Googled mad hatter disease, and I saw this list of symptoms that seemed to describe John. I talked to several experts, then in talking with my editor, Julie Snyder, we kind of put it to the side, because it seemed like speculation.
Then our researcher, in the course of fact-checking, started talking to some mercury experts about what John was doing. These experts were all saying that it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be poisoned in some way. That was in the last month or less before it came out. Maybe the last two weeks.
Do you think that’s the probable explanation for some of his behavior?
For some of it, but I definitely think there’s many other things going on in John’s life. I think he also had other mental health issues. He was on medication prescribed by a doctor earlier in his life. He was also just a person who was lonely. It’s an alchemy of things that are playing into his personality.
I think that anyone who writes that you betrayed a trust or violated privacy is actually paying you an unbelievably high compliment. Almost all of journalism is a betrayal of privacy or some sort of trust.
There’s something in the criticism where it’s like, He didn’t understand exactly what the story would be. I have never done a story with anyone who’s living where I can describe to them exactly what the story is going to be at the beginning. There’s no point in doing the story you can do that. That is the point of doing long-form reporting—to come to understand the story, and understand more than you know, and to make something at the end that you could not have predicted at the beginning.
To reveal something about characters that the characters didn’t know.
You’re always weighing the consequences of it. They’re everyday things that you deal with when you’re reporting, especially about real people. There are many things that we left out. We were weighing all sorts of information that we got. I learned way more than what’s in the story, and you make those decisions whether someone’s alive or not. The premise of that question points at a different understanding of journalism than I have basically.
Do you think there’s gold there?
I cannot speak any more on that than I’ve said in the podcast.
Do you want there to be gold there?
No, I’m above that argument. I like Tyler, and I like Rita a lot. I disagree with things that both of them are doing. I certainly was sympathizing with Tyler at the beginning when John died, and he was telling me this bad stuff was happening. But as I got to know Rita, I also totally saw from her side, and I hope that that comes through in the story as well. I like her, she’s funny, and I could totally see where she was coming from in a lot of respects.
You make the case that perhaps in some ways that his mom is better off with Rita.
I don’t know for sure, because I really didn’t get deep into his relationship with his mother when he was living. I visited with his mom since he died, saw where she was living, told her about the story, and did an interview with her that I didn’t ultimately use. She seemed good and to be grieving. Everyone has told me she had John’s wit before the dementia got worse, and she still is very funny and biting even with signs of dementia.
Can you update us on how any of the characters in your story reacted to the podcast?
Tyler and his family all listened in the first day. I’ve been chatting with Tyler’s mom, who said she loved it, thought it was very honest. Tyler said he really appreciated it; it seems to have also been very emotional for him. We’ve stayed in touch, and I think he’s having ups and downs—I can’t imagine being that close to someone and then hearing his voice in that way and hearing him presented in a story this way. I’m sure it’s both gratifying and upsetting, and that’s the sense I get of what he’s going through.
Any other of the minor characters weigh in?
When they saw the name Shittown and that it may be involved in murder, people were saying they wished they hadn’t taken part. I wrote them immediately and said, You guys should really listen. I think you have the wrong idea about what this is. I sent them a couple reviews of it. But as soon as they listened, they’re like, I totally loved it, and I really think you got the town very well.
A lot of people said that. A lot of Alabamans on Reddit.
One of the more interesting conversations I had was with the guy Bubba, who is in Chapter 2 in the tattoo parlor scene said some very obscene, racist comments. I’d let him know about the podcast, but I hadn’t heard back. I hadn’t seen him since that night in 2014. A few days after it came out, I had a Facebook message from him saying, “Call me.”
I gave him a call. He said he’d listened to it twice, loved the story, and thought it got John really well. I think he was like, I didn’t take you seriously. I didn’t know you were going to this. He said, My old lady’s a little upset, because people online are calling me a racist and a white supremacist, but you know what, I said those things, and that’s part of who I was. You got both sides of me. He appreciated his portrayal, even though he said some pretty terrible things. It was a weird experience to talk to him.
Do you expect to ever revisit it in audio form?
My inclination is no. I feel very satisfied with the package of it. In my head, it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that keeps going.
But there are unanswered questions.
If something were substantial enough, I’d be open to it, but I don’t it to want to just feel like an update. I’d want it to be a story.