Monday, February 24, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Heather McElhatton

Q&A: Heather McElhatton

Before Heather McElhatton burst onto the literary scene in 2007 with the choose-your-own-adventure book “Pretty Little Mistakes” and delighted “bitch lit” lovers in 2009 with “Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single,” she was a reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio. Now she’s back on the airwaves with “A Beautiful World,” a news variety show taped before a live audience that focuses on what’s going right in the universe. “A Beautiful World” debuted to a sell-out crowd in St. Paul in November and returns for a second installment on Tuesday night.

Q: What inspired you to want to make “A Beautiful World”?

A: I have been writing for about the past five years. I got this really great multi-book book deal with HarperCollins, which was wonderful, but what happened was I had to give up reporting and work on these books. It was very fulfilling, but I had no idea how isolating the life of a writer really was. While I was writing, I never stopped listening to MPR; it was one of my constant companions throughout the whole process. I admit, though, I had to turn it off a lot because I got overwhelmed by the news. I’m a very sensitive person and I would really get engaged with the stories and I would feel kind of helpless sometimes, like, “I know all these cool people in the world who are doing great things and I never hear about that stuff. Couldn’t we also hear about that?” Not to discredit important news that’s negative, because we need that as well, but I decided that when I fulfilled my book contracts, I had to go back to reporting because I missed it so much. I pitched the show that I wanted to hear to Tony Bol [Live Events Director at MPR] and I was very shocked when he said, “I think it’s a great idea. Let’s give it a try.” The support that MPR has given me has been phenomenal and I am very humbled and grateful for it.

Q: Your next show features Krista Tippet and solution journalism. For those of our readers who are unfamiliar, what is that?

A: It’s a movement. I don’t know that any one personal can claim it, but David Bornstein from the New York Times was one of the first people I ever heard talk about it. His idea is that it’s not enough just to present problems in society. It used to be, at the turn of the century, muckrakers would go to horrible situations and uncover bad situations and report it and things would change. We’ve evolved to the point where we good at reporting crises but we need to take it one step farther and provide potential answers to these problems. Journalists are reluctant to do that because we don’t want to look like advocates. Also, good news or solutions are sometimes seen as soft. But that’s really not what I’ve found. We’re looking at science and medicine and technology and education and ecology. I have yet to find a soft story in the bunch. I think it’s more of an attitude shift.

Q: You incorporate music, literature, humor, science and personal stories into the program. How did that structure come about?

A: I think it’s a combination of looking at shows we admire, looking at shows that worked, and then creating something a little bit new. It’s an amalgamation of multiple concepts. We’ve found that when you’re going to present a night of stories, you need to connect with your audience personally so that they trust you, so they’ll go on this journey with you. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t talk about anything to do with me—that’s my least favorite part—but it does seem to make the audience more familiar with me and know more about my values. It seems like a natural marriage between story-telling and news. True essays from my own life are an entry point for bigger issues.

Q: What made radio the right medium for “A Beautiful World”?

A: Radio has always been my true love. When I was a little girl, I remember going to bed every night listening to the radio. The sound of the human voice is just music to me—I could listen to a crop report.

Q: Why is having a live audience important to the show?

A: We believe that the solutions journalism movement is committee-based. We wanted to create a sense of community. Yes, you can hear it on the radio, but also you can come to the MPR studios on a cold, snowy night, have a glass of wine, hear some great stories, hear some great music, and meet like-minded people. It seemed important to have a central event—a jewel in the crown—in the project.

Q: For people who are interested in contributing to the program, what makes a good story for “A Beautiful World”?

A: A good story is something that moves you, something that you think is fascinating, something that you stayed in the car to listen to on-air, or tore out of the newspaper to keep, or e-mailed to a friend. Something that sticks with you is undoubtedly going to resonate with us, too. People are welcome to send me story ideas. We get some of our best stories from independent sources. 

Originally published on in Feb. 2014.