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all photos: Kimberly Cadena

BYT sat down with American radio journalist and current host of NPR’s All Things Considered, Michele Norris at the National Book Festival a few weeks ago to discuss the release of her first book: The Grace of Silence.

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BYT: How long have you been in Washington, DC?

Michele Norris: I came to Washington, DC in 1986.

BYT: So a while. What is your favorite restaurant?

Michele Norris: Hmm, favorite restaurant? Can I name two? My favorite fancy schmancy restaurant and my favorite just like anytime restaurant is this little Greek restaurant near my house called The Parthenon. We eat there every Friday since we moved into our house. It’s a restaurant that serves food that tastes like it came from your mom’s house.

BYT: Yes.  Well my mom’s not Greek but…

Michele Norris: (laughs) Nor is mine. But the food is just always really, really good! We are there every Friday, and I love it! And my favorite for when I want to get dressed up and put heels on and all that is: anything that has Jose Andres’s name attached to it. Count me in.

BYT: I just ate at Minibar. Have you been to Minibar Yet?

Michele Norris: I have been to Minibar. Minibar… helloooo? Zaytinya… we had the book party for the launch of my book at Zaytinya. Anything that has his name attached to it.

BYT: So what’s your favorite of all those places?

Michele Norris: I actually think Minibar. Just because.

BYT: I was trying to explain to somebody that, literally, things just explode in your mouth.

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Michele Norris:You think it’s done, and it’s like if you go to see the fireworks on the National Mall. You think it’s done and then all of a sudden…

BYT: Yes. The cocktails, the frozen cocktails, were unbelievable.

Michele Norris: He [Jose Andres] is a genius.

BYT: Yes, he really is! And the guys who work there… he has basically brought in a crew of scientists.

Michele Norris: But he is also such a regular guy. I mean you know he is fun. And he has brought new things to D.C. He is promoting healthy eating, and he is everywhere all at once.

BYT: Yeah. Cool! Great recommendations. The Parthenon, right?

Michele Norris: Yes, on Connecticut Avenue. They have this Greek soup… avgolemono.

BYT: Avgolemono?

Michele Norris: Yes, Greek Soup. And you know we are told that chicken soup has these great natural properties but this avgolemono if you like don’t feel great give yourself a little of this avgolemono…

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BYT: Alright, I am going to go check it out on your recommendation. So, All Things Considered, were you angry when Bob Boilen lifted the name for All Songs Considered?

Michele Norris: Well he borrowed it. He borrowed it. See, he used to be our director.

BYT: Okay, but it was sort of biting your style, wasn’t it?

Michele Norris: No, no. It was so good that we had to just share it. Spread it around. He was the director when I first arrived at All Things. So I used to look at Bob through glass. So, no, I am not mad.

BYT: Oh, okay, so its more of an offshoot than anything else.

Michele Norris: Exactly. It’s a tributary.

BYT: Tributary.

Michele Norris: And a tribute! Haha

BYT: So the mayoral race in D.C….

Michele Norris: Wasn’t that intense?

BYT: Wasn’t it? What do you think are the implications for Michelle Rhee and the implications…

Michele Norris: To be determined. You know, I think she said that it was devastating to the children and I choose to believe that is not true. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I choose to believe that our children are not to be devastated… or whatever.

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BYT: What do you want to happen? What do you think would be best?

Michele Norris: Wel,l true reform… true reform survives a change in leadership, a change in administration. And if this reform is taken here and if it is strong then it will survive. I mean you can’t build systems that are built around individuals. If she stayed and continued, it could be a great thing for the city. But if she chooses to move on then something wonderful has started and I choose to believe it will continue because we need these people in the city. We need to believe that the best is yet to come. That, you know, I need to say this because when you talk about it on paper you can’t send the message that the best days are already behind. Thatt is not a message you should hear.

BYT: We hope.

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Michele Norris: Well they are not going to hear it from me. So that’s my anthem and I am sticking to it.

BYT: The new book is a memoir of sorts. Can you tell me a little but about it, give a synopsis of the book?

Michele Norris: Well it’s an accidental book. An accidental memoir.

BYT: Accidental memoir?

Michele Norris: I set out to write a book about a conversation about race in this country. About President Obama’s election, and when I started listening to the hidden conversation in my own memory I discovered there were secrets that weren’t shared with us because they didn’t want to poison us with their with their disappointments. To clutter our path with their pain. Among the things I learned is that my dad was shot. My father was shot as a young man by a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. He didn’t tell his kids about it, and he didn’t even tell my mom because he didn’t want us to know.

BYT: It was a secret? A complete surprise?

Michele Norris: Totally. It was a surprise to me, and my mom didn’t know. He had kept it to himself, not because he was dishonest, but because he was part of a generation. I discovered that he was a veteran and he returned from the war at a time when veterans were coming back and wanting to participate fully in American life and they met a white wall of resistance. And they were part of a generation that had lots of reasons to be angry. So many of them I discovered didn’t talk about their experience of being marginalized by the military and then marginalized when they returned to society.

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BYT: Didn’t talk about it at all?

Michele Norris: Didn’t talk about it at all. And decided not to tell their kids about it. That’s the title of the book, “The Grace of Silence” because it would have been easy for them to be malcontents and it would have been easy for them to pass on all their disappointments and they chose not to. They chose to let their children go out into the world without knowledge of that kind of pain. You know when you want your kids to do well in the world? You want them to soar… you don’t put big rocks in their pockets on the way out the door.

BYT: Is it a generational thing or a military thing?

Michele Norris: Probably a little bit of both. In the military part of that culture, World War II vets in general didn’t talk about their experiences. But I think this was also cultural. They believed there was something better and that they were going to prove to America what they could be and show America what it could be by being the change that they wanted. Like that Ghandi phrase “be the change that you want to see” but I think that it was also just a different culture. People didn’t want to complain, whereas today if you go to the Starbucks and they mess up your order you might tweet about it. You know it’s a different kind of culture.

BYT: I don’t tweet but…

Michele Norris: Well if you did, you might.

BYT: Generally people might. I don’t go to Starbucks either so… Interesting…. So when is the book out?

Michele Norris: It was released on Tuesday September 21st.

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BYT: Congratulations!

Michele Norris: Thank you. You know they handed me this little card thing and it actually says “author” on it.

BYT: Oh yeah, you are on the other side now?

Michele Norris: New adjective. [laughs]

BYT: This is your first book, are you going to do a tour?

Michele Norris: I am going to 34 cities. I think there is a lot of driving in there, and there may be a bus involved.

BYT: Are you taking your family with you or just…

Michele Norris: On part of it. I have young children and they are going to come and experience part of the tour with me but they have this thing called school so…

BYT: Yeah you cant be one of those parents who pulls their kids out of school for like a month.

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Michele Norris: I could but I don’t think it would be a good idea.

BYT: No, no, that’s cool. So where are you most excited to visit?

Michele Norris:You know, I think… well, it’s hard to say because I am going to so many cool places. I mean I am going back to Birmingham, where my father is from on Monday. That will be pretty cool.

BYT: I was just speaking with Edward O. Wilson earlier, and he was mentioning that he just wrote a book on the history of Mobile, Alabama. It’s not published yet, but it sounded quite interesting.

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Michele Norris: Yes, that sounds interesting. Mobile is an interesting and sort of misunderstood city.

BYT: He’s from there, and it’s kind of like his personal history weaved in with the history of Mobile, Alabama. He is the most fascinating person I have ever met. I mean, besides you…

Michele Norris:I knew that!

BYT: So tell me the title of the book again?

Michele Norris: It’s “The Grace of Silence”

BYT: A memoir. So you didn’t start out to write a memoir yet you wrote a memoir. How did that feel?

Michele Norris: Surreal.

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BYT: Yeah. Especially for a first book!

Michele Norris: Yes. I had to let the book take me where it wanted to go. I had to surrender to the story.

BYT: Sure. Did you enjoy the process?

Michele Norris: I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed every minute. I made painful discoveries that made the process very painful. Writing is hard! Writing about these painful things is even harder. My son, he is ten, and in his wisdom he said it’s not fun to write but it’s fun to have written.

BYT: He said that?

Michele Norris: Yeah. I know… he speaks like the the Buddha of haikus. (laughs)

BYT: It’s so true though. I mean wow! I hate the process of it and once I do it I’m like… {pauses} I’m sorry I’m not trying to be distracted but there are several presidents right behind you…

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Michele Norris: Oh! My!

BYT: I don’t know who the one on the right is but maybe Clinton. I wish we could have gotten a picture of Craig Robinson (Michelle Obama’s brother) and Barack Obama. That would have been fantastic.

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Michele Norris: Even with that big head I think that he is not as tall as Craig is.

BYT: Craig is pretty tall!

Michele Norris: Craig is very tall.

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BYT: So… plans to write more books?

Michele Norris: I write my future in pencil. I don’t know.

BYT: But you didn’t dislike the process enough to say never again. There we go. Any other secret spots in D.C. we should know about?

Michele Norris: Most people already know about Rock Creek Park. But you know I would say the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Have you ever been?

BYT: I have.

Michele Norris: I think it was designed so that the sun falls right in front of it. The light plays off the water…

BYT: Yeah, the monuments at sunset, sometimes if you hit them right, they all turn golden.

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Michele Norris: Yes!

BYT: It’s really weird. I came past the Capital one day and it was just like a poem of geometry how the sun just lit the capital in this golden light. I swear it was just for me. It was really cool.

Michele Norris: They call it the golden hour, and if you are actually out there then you understand. I don’t do that enough because I am on the air.

BYT: I know. I work up in Rockville so I don’t do it enough but I try. You know we take it for granted, this city.

Michele Norris: I know! We really shouldn’t take it for granted.

BYT: Especially since everything is free. You don’t find that. It’s the best city in the world to come to on like a cheap vacation cuz you can like spend months or years…

Michele Norris: You know my favorite spot in DC is Eastern Market. I love it because in DC is not really a city of street culture but in Eastern Market you feel…

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BYT: Have you been to Lexington Market in Baltimore?

Michele Norris: I have. The crab cakes are intense.

BYT: Oh yeah the crab cakes… god! I love Lexington Market it reminds me of the souks in Morocco. Just this crazy blending of all the cultures coming together and you can buy anything you want…

Michele Norris: I wish I could say yeah I know what you mean.

BYT: Yeah well like a market kind of thing in any country you go to. Wherever there are just big open air markets. It kind of reminds me of that. Anyways Eastern Market… and the book festival. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with us!

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Michele Norris: My pleasure.

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