Born and raised in Chicago by artist parents, our newest FACE began with a bohemian upbringing and worked her way to a journalism career that includes the book series Word of Mouth Conversations and a recent TEDx Talk titled “Talking to Strangers is My Self Care.” Her intimate style of “interview therapy” has led her to document conversations with more than 1,000 people through the years, from celebrities to corporate healthcare workers, and she has even had her work featured at the Nashville airport. Please welcome Lily Clayton Hansen!
Can you tell us about your background and what brought you to Music City?
I got started writing really young. In college, I actually started getting paid to write, which was a huge blessing, and I started in music journalism and arts and entertainment writing. My first gig was writing for my school newspaper. Then I started getting bigger internships at some of the local publications that were hot at the time like Modern Luxury, which is a really beautiful coffee table magazine. From there, I moved into doing profiles. That started my love of biographical writing, and by the time I moved to Nashville when I was 25, that was my passion. I did a lot of freelance writing in my first year here, and actually feel like I was pretty successful at establishing myself as a writer, but I also wanted to do my own thing and carve out my own niche. That’s when I started my first book, which eventually became the series Word of Mouth Conversations. In essence, I do interviews and pair them with intimate black-and-white portraits of my subjects. My tagline has always been “How people make a living doing what they love.” I’m interested in people who have followed their paths and done what they’re passionate about in a way that has integrity.
In your TEDx Talk, you discuss experiencing joy from strangers. How did that concept come about?
When I moved here, my boyfriend and I broke up within five months, and I didn’t have many friends here. Like anyone in their mid-20s, how do you meet people? Either you go out and get drunk at a bar, which I’ve done millions of times, or you try to find a healthier way. So, I sat down and thought about what I liked to do the most. In my writing career, it was interviewing. So, that’s when I decided to create a healthier project (and coping mechanism, quite frankly) to deal with my grief around the breakup and being alone in Nashville. My first book was called Word of Mouth Nashville Conversations, and it was somewhere around 60 profiles — mostly artists and small business owners because that was the area I was familiar with in my writing until that point.
I reflect a lot on my life. I’m big into meditation, and I also take a lot of time to just think about what I do, how it’s affecting me, and how I can affect the people I come across. I started thinking about this concept of the therapeutic interview, where I’m having conversations with strangers. By asking the right questions and listening and having empathy, I’m helping them. And by them just showing up and being open to my process, they’re helping me as well. I realized that I was not only healing a lot of my own issues from my conversations, but I had lots of people who came to me afterward and said, “Wow, you really helped me as well. I had an epiphany after we talked.”
Why do you feel people are drawn to talking to strangers when, in some cases, they’re uncomfortable talking to those closest to them?
I think there’s a lack of judgment and preconception. I’ve never been a religious person, but I would imagine it’s similar to going to confession. I’ve been on a fair amount of meditation retreats where you have a leader who you talk to halfway through, just to make sure you’re not flipping out. I’ve said stuff to them that I don’t care about sharing because I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. Maybe [my interviewees] know that they don’t have to see me again, so they won’t have the same emotional hangover that they would have by telling someone they are close to. Sometimes people don’t respond in the “right” way, and then you have to see them for the next 20 years of your life. But I’m very non-judgemental. It’s a safe space, and they know I’m not going to tell anyone. I care, but I’m also detached; it’s like seeing a therapist.
What are the biggest benefits of striking up a conversation with a stranger? What does that experience have to offer us?
I think it shows us we’re all one. We’re all made up of the same stuff. We all go through the same emotions, even if our experiences are different. I think it’s helped me to show respect to everyone. I’m not perfect — there are times when I don’t feel like talking — but I try to have a sense of mindfulness. I think talking to strangers has given me a tremendous amount of compassion for people. The common denominator between the thousands of people I have interviewed is that we’re all human.
You’ve based your books and interviews on meeting strangers, which has likely been challenging during this time of isolation. How have you had to pivot?
I have had “quality over quantity” conversations during COVID-19, meaning I’ve become closer with those in my inner circle because we’ve had the time and brain space to connect on a deeper level. It’s been a really beautiful period in my life where I’ve had some of the best interviews and conversations with loved ones that I may have ever had, simply because everyone is being so present, self-reflective, and appreciative of one another.
When I realized it was impossible to meet with my subjects face-to-face during this time, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to try my hand at video interviews. I’ve released them on YouTube and social media. It was an interesting challenge for me to interview subjects on-camera, knowing that I wouldn’t be editing the videos afterward. I have to be much more precise with my questions and on point with my listening skills to keep the conversation flowing. I very much enjoyed the rawness of the format and felt proud of myself, as many people should, for adapting to the times.
Have you found any new and unexpected ways to connect?
Yes! As someone who is not tech-savvy, I love Zoom (and fortunately have not experienced a “Zoom bombing” yet) and find it to be very easy to use. While I wouldn’t quite equate virtual conversations with the intimacy that comes from in-person contact, being able to see the other person certainly does help and has made me feel much less lonely. I have also been sending more snail mail than before and receiving it, too, which is a wonderful way to keep in touch. I have sent drawings to loved ones and cards to let people in my life know I am thinking of them. As someone who loves the tangible, I think there is something so beautiful about receiving a handwritten letter. It shows someone you’ve put in time, effort and thought versus just firing off a text. I hope to bring the art of “pen-paling” and letter writing back!
Of all the interviews you’ve conducted over the years, do you have a favorite?
I love the interviews I’ve done in the corporate world. When I worked on the HCA 50th anniversary book, it was rewarding to interview doctors and nurses who had never been interviewed. It was very touching to be someone’s first interview and have a nurse say, “Wow, no one has ever really taken the time to appreciate what I do. Thank you.” Last year, I interviewed 233 architects, engineers and interior designers for a global firm. I was talking to all of these brilliant people who are kind of average Joe types that you wouldn’t look twice at, and they were amazing — off-the-charts smart. They have so much knowledge and are 100 times smarter than I am. They were excited to have someone honor their career path. That’s really where my heart is. That, and working with nonprofits. I just want to celebrate people who are doing really good work in the world. It’s part of the reason I still interview celebrities or even institution leaders; I’m hoping I can use the high-profile people to shine a light on those who don’t get as much attention.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Go for what you want, don’t be afraid, and always have integrity.
Excluding faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
A good night’s sleep. I love good skincare – I’m very into my skin. And my ride-or-die foods are coffee and peanut butter.
Thank you, Lily, for sharing your story. Read some of the many interviews Lily has conducted on her website, wordofmouthconversations.com, and check out her video series on YouTube here. And thanks to Leila Grossman for the photos!
Feel like being even more inspired? Check out our FACES archives HERE!