Podcast traces ink in Maraniss blood

Daughter draws stories out of Pulitzer Prize-winning father
Maraniss Convo
David Maraniss (left) is interviewed by his daughter, Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff.)

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff wasn’t thinking about a podcast when she threw a surprise 70th birthday party for her dad, author David Maraniss, last year. But the party helped ready her for the podcast.

First, the party.

It was a roast in Washington, D.C. in October (David’s birthday was in August). Sarah very much wanted it to be a surprise, and in her invitation to more than 100 of her dad’s friends and colleagues she implored: “Let’s scoop David.”

They did.

The guest of honor told me last week: “It was wonderful, but it ticked me off that I fell for it.”

David was speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., where he lives half the year with his wife, Linda. They also have a home off Monroe Street in Madison, where each grew up.

Preparing for the party and roast, Sarah — who lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters — made a deep dive into her father’s career as a longtime, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist and bestselling author.

“I went through his whole career,” Sarah said last week from her home in Lawrenceville, adding that she made a book out of her dad’s first 100 stories for the Post.

“I could see his evolution as a writer,” she said. “From reporting on a school board in New Jersey to writing the series on Bill Clinton that won the Pulitzer Prize.”

At some point, looking for ways to promote David’s latest book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father,” a podcast was considered. A tech and media savvy friend, Jeremy Ryan, was enlisted.

The finalized format: David and Sarah in conversation, with subject matter beyond “Good American Family,” including all aspects of David’s career and how writing has been the through line for several generations of the Maraniss family.

The podcast, with episodes posting twice weekly starting last month, is called “Ink in Our Blood.”

Sarah And David Maraniss Podcast Homepage

“The party prepared me for the podcast,” Sarah says, but the fact is, she’s a writer, too.

A decade ago, Sarah began a blog, “Lunch Box Mom,” of her personal, sometimes funny and sometimes not-funny-at-all takes on being a sleep-deprived parent of two small daughters. The blog’s success — she was profiled by the newspaper in Trenton — led to regular freelance stories in the Washington Post.

Last fall, Sarah’s play, “Sustain Me” — she studied theater at Northwestern — was performed at the University of California, Davis’ New Play Festival.

Of the podcast, Sarah says, “I imagined it as a fun dinner party where my dad tells stories. He has so many amazing stories, but they’re just part of his life so sometimes he forgets they’re interesting.”

“It was something I would have never done on my own,” David says. “Sarah pulled it off. Whether the public is interested or not is a question I can’t answer, but it was both fun and meaningful to me.”

The reading public should be profoundly interested. I haven’t listened to the episodes in their entirety, but what I’ve sampled is fascinating. Hearing one of the country’s best writers of narrative nonfiction talk about the tenets of his reporting and writing is inherently interesting, but in the podcast episode titled “Going There” David does it in context with his published work, giving those tenets life.

For instance, in preparing to research his bestselling biography of Vince Lombardi, David turned to Linda and said, “How would you like to spend the winter in Green Bay?” (Once they were there, word spread quickly, and one night David got a message on his answering machine: “I hear you’re writing a biography of Guy Lombardo.”)

David also interviews Sarah about her writing, and in an episode titled “Andrew and Sports,” David interviews his son, Sarah’s brother Andrew Maraniss, about his award-winning sports books that include “Strong Inside,” a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American scholarship basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.

The first season of podcasts runs seven episodes and season two is in the works, with hopes that it can commence shortly on the heels of the first.

David, meanwhile, is hoping to finish the manuscript of his new book, a biography of the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, sometime next year.

The ink in the Maraniss blood may extend for yet another generation. David recently read an essay on the play “Othello” written by Sarah’s 15-year-old daughter, Heidi. He laughed. “She might be the best of us all.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.