Husband and wife producing team Ray Nowosielski and Ruth Vaca seem to everywhere these days. Their latest creation is the 10-episode podcast series, "George Bailey Was Never Born." a behind-the-scenes story of the beloved holiday classic 𝘐𝘵'𝘴 𝘢 𝘞𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘧𝘶𝘭 𝘓𝘪𝘧𝘦. We caught up (barely) with the always-on-the-go media-makers for a behind-the-scenes talk:
Tell me about the new podcast that just dropped:
(Ruth & Ray) It’s from iHeartMedia, all 10 episodes come out in November, called George Bailey Was Never Born. Our friend David Cassidy, who executive produced, describes it as “a nerd’s wet dream of a film school as a podcast.”
It looks deeply into American identity and the human experience through the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. One Apple Podcasts reviewer wrote, “This is the podcast that you didn't know you needed!” I think that was what we were going for.
Ray co-created it, Ruth helped develop it and executive produced through our company True Stories. This a Double Asterisk production, a company co-owned with Bloomingtonian John Duffy, another exec producer, and the show was co-created by Kurt Engfehr, best known for his documentaries with Michael Moore. It's available wherever anyone listens to their podcasts, like Spotify, YouTube, etc. SaveGeorgeBailey.com gives more info and all the listening options.
What's the synopsis for the "Ray and Ruth Story"?
Ray mostly grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis, where he had what some would say was a very wholesome Midwest upbringing worthy of a classic sitcom before heading to Columbia College Chicago. Ruth was born in Mexico, migrated to south Chicago with parents and her two older siblings, then to northwest Indiana, south Florida and Bloomington simutaneously, an unpredictable and colorful upbringing worthy of a dramedy.
We eventually met in New York City. Ruth was working at People Magazine, Ray was making documentaries. We had both chased big dreams. Ruth seeking a career in daytime talk show or radio, plus culinary arts. We met through a memorable hang-out with a mutual friend one night in NYC, at the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village. Ruth suggested we walk to Sing Sing Karaoke Bar on St. Marks, where Ruth belted out “Maps” atop the bar. She avoided getting kicked out only due to the support of riled-up hipsters.
What brought you to Bloomington?
We moved to Bloomington in 2018 after many years of hard work in NYC to build our careers. Despite a lot of what felt like success, we still found the city to be a financially overwhelming place to start a family. We wanted more space and to be closer to family, and southern Indiana also has turned out to be a great place from which to grow our own production companies.
How did you both connect with Morgensterns?
When we moved to Bloomington, Ruth was upset there was no major book store, so we were thrilled when Morgensterns opened. At the time, Ruth was managing some PR for Ray’s latest work and connected with Morgensterns, resulting in the first podcast-related event at the bookstore. Mitch Teplitsky gave a great career-spanning interview with Ray and John Duffy, co-owners of Double Asterisk. Ruth has hosted the Spanish language storytime on multiple occasions. We love this place.
What's on your nightstand now?
(Ray): Fiction, currently re-reading John Duffy’s novel A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing, and non-fiction, Bruce Cannon Gibney’s interesting Boomer take-down A Generation of Sociopaths.
(Ruth): I am more of an audiobook person, and I alternate about three books at a time. I am a memoir junkie, particularly celebrity. My favorite one I listened to this year is I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. It is well written, heart-breaking and transparent, about growing up as a reluctant child star with toxic parents. I also just started listening to Barbra Streisand’s memoir, which is 48 hours long. I hope to finish it by 2025.
As husband and wife, what's it like working together? How do your different personalities and skills complement each other...or not!
(Ray) Pure hell. Kidding.
(Ruth) Yea, just the worst, only 4 out of 10 recommend. Actually, despite us being very different, we align well as producers and on vision for where we want to go. We work intensely and at a fast pace and understand each other's work life balance requirements. It would be hard for many to tolerate the ups and downs of the media biz.
Who were your biggest creative influencers?
(Ruth) I have so many, depending on the genre, but I would say, in the way I see myself in this industry as a self-deprecating and sarcastic humored person, Kathy Griffin in her Life on the D-List era. Wendy Williams, Cristina Saralegui, Rosie O’Donnell, Larry King, and Oprah for television and radio hosts. Anthony Bourdain for his brilliant writing and approach to food culture on television. Andy Warhol for his brilliant use of mocking consumerism and his off-beat, controversial, nonsensical yet intriguing films. Honestly, I may have too many influencers!
If you could interview any other couple, who would it be?
We would love just one dinner date with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
This question is especially rigorous: what are your favorite beverages from the Morgenstern's cafe?
(Ruth) I love the Matcha Soy Latte with light ice.
(Ray) Coffee. Black.
Any future projects or collaborations in the works?
Everybody Has A Podcast with Ruth & Ray, first episode out next week. Check back to TrueStories.us from time to time to learn about projects as they come.
What do you do for fun, to get your mind off of work?
Guess we can’t get enough of the biz – when not doing family stuff or traveling, we tend to watch movies or TV. Ray likes Real Time with Bill Maher. Ruth prefers escapism and low-brow entertainment on stressful days, like Bravo and reruns of Sex and the City. And obviously, hang with our almost 5 year old, Pablo.
(Ruth) I also love to cook, creative writing, make digital collage art, and take long-distance walks and hikes.
(Ray) I like to hang at bars, bookstores, and take walks with Ruth around neighborhoods or cities. .
What's something about you two that fans might not know?
(Ruth) I am also a vegetarian and vegan chef who specializes in using whole foods and everyday delectable yet simple food ideas. You can follow my blog @veganishvegetarian. I hope to publish a cookbook in 2024.
(Ray) Our podcast listeners likely don’t connect me to my work producing Barbara Kopple-directed documentaries, including one I’m particularly proud of that came out streaming on HBO Max last month, Gumbo Coalition.
This month's Bloom Magazine also has a delightful story about Ray and Ruth, pick a free issue up at Morgenstern's or around town!
By Harrison Sutton, Morgenstern's fiction expert
In an attempt to share my love of books with the massive group of Bloomington book-lovers, I thought it would be nice to talk in a candid way about what we love to read, why we love to read, and what we can find more of to read. These are my goals, yet I feel obligated to tell you that I have my biases. Before getting into the different types of novels one should check out given their interests or to try and create some taxonomy of new fiction, I have to acknowledge that I am only human. A weird and sulking guy with a really awesome job. I get to sit around and look at all the new novels, history tomes, celebrity ghost-written biographies, and even literary exegeses on hot dogs (Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus , $26.99 from Forge Books). (I have to add a note here that this is not a total view of my job here at Morgenstern’s Books, my wonderful kind boss will have editorial rights over this write-up and will not allow me to imply that I get paid just to sit on my ass.)
Certain books catch my eye quicker than others. I have a tendency to lean towards the literary, especially if it’s weird (I run the Weird Fiction Book Club at the store, come join us on the third Wednesday of the month!). I get excited about awards season. Not the Oscars, though I do like to hate-watch the navel gazing as much as anyone else, but rather the National Book Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes which will always feel like a holiday when they are announced. I set aside the signed copies of new Colson Whitehead or Lorrie Moore books that we receive. I have a really serious obsession with Thomas Pynchon (I’ve read The Crying of Lot 49 at least four times).
So, yes, I am aware that these predilections may set me up already as the pretentious reader that stiff-arms anything that smells like Reese’s Book Club. But my goal here is to try and create a dialogue, to learn from others, to broaden the horizons of not only my own reading habits but also, if I’m good at my job, yours as well.
So for this first run, I wanted to share with you a write-up I did for fiction that has been released in the last year. You can also find this in the December Fiction edition of The Ryder, a wonderful local publication that really needs more recognition than it gets. They are doing a lovely job over there.
Thanks for reading,
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward ($28 hardcover from Simon & Schuster)
Picked for the Oprah Book Club, Jesmyn Ward’s new novel is everything you’d want from the back-to-back National Book Award Winning author. It is a gripping tale about grief and the torments of slavery that still haunt us today. Our narrator begins with the line, “The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand.” From that point on, we see Annis’ escape from a plantation and her internal dialogue begins to connect with a spiritual world as she traverses across the mid-19th century American countryside. Ward goes a step further than her last novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and focuses completely on the past, where the pain and hurt of so many Black Americans has its genesis. Her lyrical prose is in full force, the firmament above and the tilled soil beneath have such a breathtaking urgency. Just in her descriptions of the land, Annis not only shows us a voice that is developed and immediate, but also the soul-cleansing fervor of the world around us. It’s a gripping novel and a perfect gift for any reader.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett ($30 hardcover from HarperCollins)
Literary superstar celebrity, Ann Patchett has released yet another commercially and critically successful novel with Tom Lake. The book is heavily inspired by Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. In the Author’s Note, Patchett maps out her goal for her work, “to turn the reader back to Our Town…[which] has been an enduring comfort, guide, and inspiration throughout my life.” The story is set in the early Covid months and centers on the relationship between three daughters who ask their mother to retell the story of her romantic relationship with the actor, Peter Duke. They pass the time hearing it all relived, the quaintness of small-town Michigan, the passion of two actors falling in love, and the power that stories have on all of us. Told in a first-person perspective whose voice lulls you into the heart-warming genius you expect from Patchett, the novel pulls you in and heals those broken bits of your heart left over from the pandemic. It is a charming and cozy tale that imparts the value of family and story. Gift this to your mother who misses you so very much.
Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead ($29 hardcover from Penguin Random House)
We continue with the late era Colson Whitehead crime novels that show what an author of such caliber can do when he wants to have fun. Crook Manifesto is technically a sequel to 2021’s Harlem Shuffle but the author and publisher noted it can be read as a standalone. Ray Carney, protagonist of both novels, tried to leave behind his life of crime and focus on the future, for him and the rest of Harlem. But as the 70’s chug on, the underbelly of the city crawls up, and there may be no way to avoid going back to the old ways. The writing is punchy with a staccato flow that creates a rich layer for the thriller to step above genre conventions. Some may forget that the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner began his career with a conspiratorial novel about elevator inspectors. This charm is in full force with these last two novels which have the joyous racketeering of language and character you crave. Anyone can pick up these books and find something valuable within the pages.
The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut ($28 hardcover from Penguin Random House)
Following the break-out success of his first book to be translated into English, When We Cease to Understand the World, Labatut focuses on John von Neumann, the progenitor of artificial intelligence. The novel is told through a cacophony of voices spoken by people who had come in contact with the genius of von Neumann. They all wonder at the immense genius of the man who had a hand in so much of our modern science. Not only did he help develop AI, von Neumann also laid foundational work of mathematics in quantum mechanics and game theory, and most notably created the implosion mechanism of the atomic bomb. While the blockbuster film, Oppenheimer, eschews his role to focus on Edward Teller, the importance von Neumann had on the Manhattan Project cannot be underestimated. The novel allows for this overlooked character to shine in all his dirty brilliance. It’s sparse, daring, and foremost a compelling story that is a perfect read for anyone wanting to follow up their viewing of the Nolan film with something equally as impressive. (Fun fact: an AI program designed the cover of the book)
Blackouts by Justin Torres ($30 hardcover from Macmillan)
Coming off his award-winning debut, We the Animals, Justin Torres’ new novel is a National Book Award finalist. Blackouts is a strange book, all the text is printed in a light brown shade, historical pictures abound, some pages look xeroxed from lost documents, and of course, there are lines that are blacked out. While the formal invention is worth the price of admission, the plot centers around a dying old man telling the story of a book about a book he tried to write in his youth. What follows can be reductively described as a queer House of Leaves. Themes of history, injustice, the erasure of LGBTQ+ identity all make its way into these tightly-wound pages, plagued by trauma and the recovered documents of pained historians. The idea of blackout poetry, poetry that is created by the literal marking out of words and phrases feeds into our current political moment. While it has been proven time and time again that the history that we have been fed often has striking omissions, particularly ones concerning minorities, Blackouts asks, “Well, what the hell can we do about that?” And as this remarkable sophomore epic treks along, the answer becomes clear: you make art out of it. There is no changing the past but shaping our futures with the beauty we can find is an obvious goal of Torres’. It is a literary feat that is a must-read for everyone.
Penance by Eliza Clark ($30 hardcover from HarperCollins)
Her debut novel, Boy Parts, blew up on TikTok with its graphic depiction of violence, sex, and human depravity. Eliza Clark’s sophomore effort is even more online. The book centers around a murder of a teenage girl by her classmates and the ensuing internet drama that an author suffuses herself. In the first page, a quick warning is given to the reader: everything that follows may be fake. Constructing itself as a document that one is now privy to, it reads “It is our fundamental belief that readers have the freedom and the right to read and judge a text for themselves - that contentious works with artistic merit should not be erased from history simply for causing offense.” These lines border on the meta-fictional, a reading that is surely not lost on the author. For what follows is a self-aware investigation in the ways which the Gen Z ethos infects our ability to face tragedy. Clark layers on irony and distancing contraptions to exhume a sense of morality lost on the terminally-online population. The faux-reporting style differs from her last novel, but is equally as engaging; instead of focusing on an immediate voice, the reader leans in through the facade to find a quiet hopeful heartbeat for a better world.
America Fantastica by Tim O’Brien ($32 hardcover from HarperCollins)
While books about Trump-era America written by older authors may have a justifiably bad rap, Tim O’Brien’s new novel, America Fantastica, dodges these pitfalls by committing to a tantalizing satire and featuring his remarkably strong prose. Boyd Halverson, alt-right “journalist” and troll, robs a bank, taking the teller hostage and setting in motion a chase across pandemic-era America in search for vengeance. A cast of characters rolls through the book expounding their opinions on the crumbling world around them. Monologues abound, the craze of people caught in the post-truth world seeps through to the reader. One of the epigraphs is from Hunter S. Thompson, the ur-journalist of modern American psychosis, reads, “We are not a nation of truth-lovers.” O’Brien full-heartedly invests himself in this idea, spinning a wild yarn in an attempt to create some understanding of our own country.