Interview: Carrie Poppy on Investigative Journalism, Podcasts, and Filling Yourself Up Creatively

12:00 pm


Someone embroider this interview for me on a pillow so I can gaze at it when I'm feeling uninspired. 

Today I'm sharing with you the absolute joy that has been interviewing Carrie Poppy, journalist, podcaster, writer, performer extraordinaire. I'm pinching myself because, honestly, Carrie was on my list of 'people to reach out to when you're feeling a little too confident' and, by god, she was so kind and answered all of my questions right away. For the uninitiated, Carrie co-hosts one of my favourite podcasts (we all know I'm a podcast fiend), Oh No, Ross and Carrie, writes about science and belief, and is an all-round interesting, hilarious, and hard-working person. I urge you to read on and find out more. Hopefully you'll come out of it feeling as inspired and uplifted as I did reading through her answers for the first time. 


Magic & Musings:
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Carrie! Would you like to introduce yourself and what you do?

Carrie Poppy:
Sure. My name is Carrie Poppy, I'm a writer, journalist, and podcaster. A lot of the work I do centers around the subject of belief (religious, spiritual, metaphysical, alt-medical, and more). My favorite project is my podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie, where I and my co-host, Ross, join fringe spiritual groups, undergo freaky alternative medical treatments, and examine any extraordinary claims that come our way. I also write and speak on the intersection of science and belief for various outlets and events around the world. Most recently, my TEDxVienna talk on science and the paranormal was featured on Ted.com. Some people call me a 'skeptic', although I don't like that word, so I don't usually use it. I like to think of myself more as an evidence-lover. I also have a dog named Ella, who is very, very cute.

Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into writing and journalism? Is this something you've been formally trained in?

Carrie Poppy:
Journalism sort of fell into my lap. If I had to pick two central aspects of my personality, they are empathy and curiosity. I don't mean the empathy part as a self-compliment -- I think I've given people the benefit of the doubt when it didn't make sense, and I think I've failed to give people the benefit of the doubt when I should have -- but generally, I tend to assume that everyone is trying their best. And I am an intensely curious person, always wanting to know more about what people believe and why. I now realize these are two characteristics that I see in most good reporters: they always want to know more, and they are able to step into other people's shoes with little effort. So, in that way, I was built for it. But I didn't plan on becoming a journalist. I started doing the podcast, and after a couple of years of it, editors started paying me to write articles about the same stuff I was reporting on, on the show. And I thought, "Oh, wait, did I accidentally become a journalist?" That's when I decided to make it official and earn my master's in journalism. I got a full scholarship to the USC Annenberg master's program in journalism, and graduated in 2015.

Magic & Musings:
When you first started sharing what you'd written with those around you, did you find yourself having to overcome any hurdles regarding your confidence?

Carrie Poppy:
Hm. No. Is that terrible? (No! Not at all!) I guess I always knew I was a good writer and a good public speaker/performer. Now I look back at some things I wrote years ago, or episodes we made early on, and I cringe at them. Perhaps more modesty was in order. But whatever keeps you producing is good. The only guaranteed failure of a project is the one you never finished.


Magic & Musings:
On Magic & Musings I love talking about female-identifying and non-binary creatives and their work. Which female journalists and writers, if any, would you say have been influences on your work or inspire you the most?

Carrie Poppy:
This is a great question. The women writers whose work inspire me the most are: Naomi Klein (her book, No Logo, had a huge impact on my life and buying practices, Sarah Vowell (the wittiest woman alive), Mary Road (whose book Spook had an enormous effect on me as I was reconsidering my own beliefs in the paranormal), Rebecca Watson (who vlogs about science and women's rights in the news, and is biting and funny), and my girl, Gloria Steinem. Not everyone likes Gloria, but I LOVE Gloria. She started out as a journalist, and became an activist and organizer. She is an engaging and warm writer, and she inspires me every time I read her. I have a framed photo of her looking out over my freaking bed. When my boyfriend shows people our bedroom, he likes to joke that if he were single, he would look like he was trying too hard.


Magic & Musings:
Tell me a little more about your podcast, Oh No, Ross and Carrie! It's one of my favourites that I always jump straight on when there's a new episode.

Carrie Poppy:
Aw, thank you! I love hearing that. The show centers around investigations of fringe science, spirituality, and claims of the paranormal. My friend Ross and I try out anything that makes an extraordinary claim. That might mean getting fire-cupped on our backs until we're both black and blue (did it) or getting Reiki for injuries and migraines (did it) or looking for ghosts on the Queen Mary with various "scientific" equipment (did it) or going to the Kabbalah Center for their introductory lectures (did it), or even joining Scientology undercover for three months (yup!) The show's been on for six years now, and our investigations are getting more exciting every year. We have some really fun stuff planned in the next few months.

Readers of your site might be interested in the business side of the show. We started out with a $0 budget, and we recorded episodes on the floor of my North Hollywood apartment, then. I didn't even own a table. In those early episodes, you can hear my dogs running around on the floor and wind knocking through the very thin walls. We had two $40 USB microphones, and that was all we could spend money on. I remember back in those days, I was stoked when we got 50 downloads for the first episode. I thought, "That has to mean strangers are downloading the show! I didn't tell 25 people about it, and I doubt Ross did either!" Sheer hard work and passion for the subject kept us going for three years, growing that audience into thousands. Each episode of our show takes between twenty and eighty hours for each of us, and sometimes more, so those years of not being paid were brutal. In our third year, Lindsay Pavlas at Maximum Fun spotted us and recommended us to Jesse Thorn as a potential podcast for the network. We signed on with them, and continued growing with the support of the incredible MaxFun family and our sponsors. Last month, we got half a million downloads in that month alone. We've been lucky, of course, but we've also worked our asses off. Neither of us is making riches off the show (in face, we need more members this month for MaxFunDrive!), but we feel very lucky to be working on a show that people love.




Magic & Musings:
What's been your favourite investigation for the show, and why? I imagine Scientology was pretty special but I know there have been some other eventful ones that are probably particularly memorable.

Carrie Poppy:
The Mormons always stick out in both our minds as a favorite because they were so kind to us even after they realized what we were up to. After six months undercover with them, taking classes, getting baptized, and joining the church, we told them we were actually hosts of a podcast, and would be reporting on everything that had happened. They responded something along the lines of, "Well, you say a podcast brought you here, but we think God brought you here. And you're always welcome here." That blew me away. I actually used it as an example in a talk I gave on what everyone can learn from Mormon outreach.

Other favorites that come to mind: The Aetherius Society (absolutely delightful people), Laughter Yoga (gut-busting, good fun), The Raëlians, ghost hunting on the Queen Mary, and yes, definitely Scientology.

Magic & Musings:
I'm interested in knowing how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done? A specific hot drink? A relaxing album?

Carrie Poppy:
I just bought a little $2 piece of art that I found that says, "Don't spend time on it. Spend time in it." And I thought, "Yeah! That's exactly it!" For me, I have to totally release control and immerse myself in something to get it done. This interview right here is an example. If I had tucked it away when I received it, I might never have gotten to it, or kept thinking about doing it, 'til it gnawed at me like a chore. Instead, I decided to do it right away, give it my full attention, and intentionally enjoy it. Treat it as an opportunity to think about the questions and get new answers, myself. That kind of attitude is the only way I get things done.

There's also a book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird that's for writers, and is wonderful. If you're a writer, at least read the chapter on writer's block. That was the most powerful and important part, for me. She says that when you can't write, it's not because you're "stuck"; it's because you are empty. Give yourself permission to fill yourself up! Go see art, go be among puppies, go experience joy. That's not cheating; it's creating the space where you can work again, because you're filling yourself back up. That change in perspective is what has made it much easier for me to be creative and productive.

But that's all theoretical, and your question was much more pragmatic. Practically speaking, the best place for me to get work done is in a big comfortable chair, either facing my desk, or with my laptop in my lap so I can face my balcony and look at the birds who visit me every day. I also sometimes take my laptop and walk about a mile and a half to my public library, and work there, and get my 10,000 steps on the way there and back, to boot.

Any hot drink will do, except those bullshit decaf herbal teas that are really just hot fruit juice. If I wanted that, I'd sit on a juice box.

Magic & Musings:
What do you do when you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively?

Carrie Poppy:
See above about filling yourself up. For me, it's playing with my dog, watching movies that inspire me, reading books and plays that are really good (usually new ones, sometimes ones I've read) and planting seeds. I get really intensely weird and hippyish about seeds. You plant them in the ground and they just BECOME PLANTS? This shit is going on all around us! This is alchemy. 




Magic & Musings:
If there was one thing you could say to the world if you knew everyone was listening, what would it be and why?

Carrie Poppy:
"You can probably save way more lives than you are currently bothering to save. You can save hundreds of animal lives and dozens of human lives a year with very small changes in your personal life. Eat less meat, give money away. Don't overthink it. That's always worse than just giving it away. If you're one of the people who needs to receive aid, not give it, then I'm sorry, and know that you are deserving and worthy as you are."

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out working in this field?

Carrie Poppy:
"Nut graphs are really important. You look like you don't know what you're doing if you don't have nut graphs." (Also, "the guy you're dating is a dangerous con man with a secret life, so get out of that," but that's not that applicable for other people, so...nut graphs).

Magic & Musings:
Fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song?

Carrie Poppy:
Sure. The best book I read in the last year was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It's a memoir by a surgeon who discovers that he has a rare, terminal cancer at a very young age, just as his wife becomes pregnant with their first child. The two of them face birth and death at once, and the prose is beautiful in a way I can't possibly do justice. Read it.

As for films, everyone has got to check out Holy Hell on Netflix" It's an amazing documentary about a cult called The Buddhafield with an extraordinary story. The director was himself a former member, and he even confronts his former leader within the documentary. It's very powerful stuff, and the filmmaking is creative, yet never overproduced. I watched it twice in two days.

Oh no, music. I am never up on new music, so I will recommend you listen to the only thing I ever listen to in my car: Lemonade.

I think you only wanted recent things, but if you were looking for my favorite book, movie, song, and album, then it's A Prayer for Owen Meany, Magnolia/The Graduate, 'Moon River', and The Mountain Goats' 'Heretic Pride'. My favorite TV shows are The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Love Lucy in that order, and my favorite color is orange. I LOVE favorites, but most of my favorite things were made before I was born.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? Anything exciting we should look out for in the future?

Carrie Poppy:
Find our show on iTunes and at maximumfun.org!

Since this outlet is mostly for women, let me just say: if you think people are treating you differently because you're a woman, you're not imagining it. You're almost definitely right. Know that there are good people out there -- men included -- who are ready to listen and be good to you. I felt for a long time like I had to take that bullshit because what was the alternative? Now I have met enough good people to know, there is an alternative. It's to be loud and unrelenting about your rights, and the good people will surround you like dolphins and carry you to shore. Is that a thing that happens? If not, dolphins are weak.

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