‘Calling a thing a thing’: Anna Sale on the art of hard conversations

Not every difficult conversation needs to be had. Not every relationship can be healed. Not every conflict can be resolved. And that’s OK, according to Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money and author of the newly published book Let’s Talk About Hard Things.

To be clear, Sale does not shy away from hard conversations — in fact, she has made an artform of them, and written a book to help others do the same. But, unlike other books of this genre, Let’s Talk About Hard Things does not pretend that if you follow a certain formula, everything will turn out all right. In fact, all the hard conversations in the world did not save Sale’s first marriage, something she openly admits.

The important thing is to “call a thing a thing” and not look away, Sale said in an interview in her leafy North Berkeley backyard recently. The important thing, in this time of pandemic, is to acknowledge that “we all die, we all have people die on us, we are all figuring out what kinds of relationships feel right to us, we are all trying to survive.” 

Straight talk at a time of huge uncertainty

There is something oddly comforting about hearing straight talk at a time of huge uncertainty. “Turning away from the pain is not ignoring pain,” Sale said in her book. “It’s deciding to stop poking at the wound.”

Sale calls it like it is, and she does it with aplomb. Sitting amid her two daughters’ red plastic play equipment, underneath stately old trees, Sale projects the same sense of calm and consideration that marks her podcast and her book. She takes time to think about her answers, and the words often come out in fits and starts. She is clearly searching for honesty rather than polish.

Let’s Talk About Hard Things is part memoir and part interviews, with a smattering of psychological research thrown in. The book chronicles Sale’s journey to “accept the inevitability of bad things,” as she said in a recent podcast episode. “I want this book to feel, chiefly, like a companion,” Sale wrote. “My goal is to open up that buried passageway between us, to let us connect and understand our lives more clearly.”

Sale chronicled her first marriage and its eventual demise, and even interviewed her ex-husband in the last chapter, just to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

“Sometimes a hard conversation doesn’t end with a strong declaration, but instead points you to a quieter realization of what needs to be let go,” she wrote. “In my memory, that’s what the decision of divorce felt like — a final exhale of acceptance.”

Delighting in Berkeley’s ‘connective tissue’

Journalist, author, and podcast creator Anna Sale poses for a photo outside her Berkeley home on May 11, 2021. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Journalist, author, and podcast creator Anna Sale outside her Berkeley home on May 11, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Perhaps Sale’s sense of groundedness comes from her West Virginia roots. While she moved to Berkeley in 2016, and now lives in a quintessential 100-year-old brown-shingled house, she still feels “like a West Virginian,” she said. “I really treasure my sense of home and sense of place.” 

Sale did not arrive in Berkeley fresh out of West Virginia, though. There were some stops along the way, including several years living in New York City and working at the public radio station WNYC, first as a political reporter and then as a podcast creator and host.

“I have taken the most delight in the places in Berkeley where community pops-up.”

The Berkeley move came about because her current husband got a teaching job at UC Berkeley’s environmental science department. Getting that job was “like a dream come true,” she said. “But not long after that, we thought, ‘how are we going to find a house’?”

Berkeley is a place of huge inequality, and housing is unaffordable for many, she points out. Sale is especially concerned about the students who come here to get an education, but probably won’t be able to afford to live here after graduation. And, at the same time, Berkeley has a wonderful history and a strong sense of place, Sale said.

“The way work is rewarded with money in this country does not reflect the worth of the work or the labor that’s gone into it,” she writes. “I host a podcast and make more money than my husband, who spent seven years getting graduate degrees and most often puts in more hours a week teaching, advising, fundraising and writing.”

“I like living in a [town] that has some idea that it’s valuable to have connective tissue between the people who live there,” she said. “I have taken the most delight in the places where community pops-up,” such as the community of dog owners who gather every night around 5 p.m. at Codornices Park. “Not 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., like in Brooklyn,” she said. “Five o’clock.” Sale herself has two dogs, one of whom made a cameo appearance during our interview. 

Sale admits that as a mother of two young children who works remotely (her podcast is still produced in New York), it has been “hard to figure out where to plug into” the Berkeley community. The evening after the Berkeleyside interview, she emailed with delight at discovering the tennis courts at Strawberry Creek Park for the first time. “What a great neighborhood,” she wrote. 

Sale’s journey to Berkeley started with Stanford, where she got her undergraduate degree. “I used to come to Cal to go to the archives,” she said. But Stanford in the early 2000s was “very disorienting” for a West Virginian. “I arrived just before the first dot-com crash, when people could make a million dollars doing ‘whatever’,” she said. “I was a history major, so I kept wondering, ‘Do I fit in here’?”

The answer was no, and after college Sale returned to West Virginia and became a journalist. When her first husband decided he wanted to switch careers and become a filmmaker, she followed him to New York so he could attend film school. But his dreams of adventure and travel did not track with her dream of a home and family, so eventually the marriage dissolved. 

Shortly afterward, at a Cape Cod get-together reminiscent of The Big Chill, she met her current husband, who was getting a graduate degree in environmental science.

“That long-distance relationship — it was so weird,” Sale said. “I was a New York-based journalist, and he was in rural Wyoming studying large mammals. How was that going to work? But the physical terrain there was telling me that the horizon was broad. It was telling me, ‘Be open, Anna. Don’t be afraid’.” 

The couple eventually married, and accepting the Cal job meant they could finally both live in the same place while pursuing their individual careers. Sale was several months pregnant when the job offer arrived, and so they shopped for a house online. 

“It was COVID house shopping before COVID,” Sale said. In typical Berkeley fashion, the house they purchased was the seventh one they bid on. “The first time we stepped foot in this house we were under contract,” Sale said. “It was tremendously scary.” The house needed a lot of work, and it will be a long-term project, she said.

The value of labor, the reward of money

Since Sale encourages difficult conversations, she admits in her book that they could not have afforded this Berkeley house if not for her podcasting job. 

Sale was not willing to disclose the budget of her popular podcast, or the size of her audience. “I don’t think we are supposed to disclose that; it’s proprietary,” she said. “But [the audience] is in the hundreds of thousands.”

Sale believes that her iconoclastic background — a West Virginian who went to Stanford, a New York-based journalist who spent a lot of time in rural Wyoming, a Unitarian who grew up in a misunderstood state — helps explain some of her openness to diverse opinions. “I have a lot of cross-cutting identities,” she said. “For every pronouncement I make, I can pull up someone in my life who would roll their eyes at me. When you approach a question of rightness or wrongness — related to hard, knotty policy questions — with the idea that you have figured it out and the other side must have bad values or is illogical, you miss a lot.”

“I have a lot of cross-cutting identities. For every pronouncement I make, I can pull up someone in my life who would roll their eyes at me.”

Before starting her podcast, Sale actually covered politics for WNYC. But what she liked to do was cover real people’s reactions to politics and policy — she did not enjoy interviewing lobbyists or policy wonks. “I spent 2011 and 2012 [presidential election years] on the road, going out in a rental car and stopping at shopping centers and talking to people,” she said.

“What really drew me away from political reporting was that after the presidential debates, you would go to what everybody called — with a straight face — the ‘spin room’,” she said. That is where political operatives “spin” the stories that they want to see in the upcoming news cycle. “We all know what’s happening with the manufacturing of this news, but also — let’s have some self respect!” she said. 

That sense of disillusionment with political reporting led to the development of Death, Sex & Money. “I wanted to stop covering elections,” she said. “At a certain point, when you are in the political press corps, you wonder: Is my one version of the story doing anything to improve the world?”

What we don’t talk about: thorny issues that can’t be spun

It was 2014, the early days of podcasting, and WNYC was looking for new ideas. Sale pitched a straight-talking, compassionate show dealing with thorny issues that wouldn’t be spun. Her show would feature deep conversations about difficult topics that everyone deals with, but few people talk about.

It turns out there was a huge hunger for these conversations. Death, Sex & Money debuted at the top of the Apple podcasts chart in 2014, and was named the top podcast of the year by New York magazine in 2015. Sale won a Gracie for best podcast host in 2016, and the show won a 2018 Webby for best interview show.

Sale clearly has her finger on the pulse. “I started my show at a time in New York City when the media landscape — and the podcasting landscape in particular — was discovering that podcasting provided a whole new source of revenue,” she said. 

“I started a show that established an audience” and this audience grew way beyond the New York “terrestrial” radio audience. “Very quickly you build a base of potential donors and a whole new stream of underwriting,” she said. In 2019, National Public Radio predicted that podcast sponsorship revenues would surpass revenues from broadcast sponsorships in 2020. That prediction has come to pass.

“Death, sex and money was not an exhaustive list of topics,” she said. “It was a way to call out the sensibility of the show — it signaled that we were going to call a thing a thing. I also wanted to signal that we were going to do it with some self-awareness and humor.”

‘It’s obviously easier to name a hard thing when talking to a stranger’

Sale decided to write the book four years ago, long before our current difficult period started. “I wanted to put words to what I thought I was doing on the show,” she said. “When I am in an interview, I relax in the actual moment. I rely a lot on intuition and deep listening, and I feel like I am improvising the whole way through.” When people asked Sale how she was able to have those difficult conversations week after week, she couldn’t readily explain. The book was her attempt to answer that question.

“We’d be ‘better off building an alternative network of loved ones’ as families ‘inevitably fail us over the years, in ways small or large.'”

“It’s obviously easier to name a hard thing when talking to a stranger,” she said. “The stakes are different when you are trying to work something out with someone you have a deep relationship with.” The book grew to include chapters on family and identity, as well as death, sex and money. 

“Talking about family conflict is uniquely hard,” she wrote. “Our family relationships are the longest of our lives, and paradoxically they’re often the most resistant to change.” Sometimes, Sale wrote, we’d be “better off building an alternative network of loved ones” as families “inevitably fail us over the years, in ways small or large.” Hard conversations can’t always overcome challenging family histories, or toxic relationships.

When asked how she felt about the novel experience of becoming an author and suddenly becoming the interviewee rather than the interviewer, Sale said, “I feel myself sometimes having difficulty surrendering the thread of the conversation.”

After a moment, she added, “I am tired of hearing myself talk. That’s why I am an interviewer. I like hearing other people talk.”

And what she “craves more than anything” is to hear what conversations take place after people have read her book. Because sometimes, just sometimes, hard conversations do have surprising and satisfying results. Sale is eager to hear about those.