A few weeks ago, I first listened to a new literary podcast: Other People with Brad Listi, which I found through Melissa Febos‘ Facebook profile. She was interviewed on it, as well as other people that I admire and am interested in: Victoria Patterson, Megan Boyle, Steve Almond, Emma Straub, and more. While I expected the podcast to be interesting I was blown away, finding it downright enjoyable — and now I’m hooked. In a world full of distractions — where almost everything I encounter is practically begging me not to write — Brad Listi‘s podcast has made me hit the pause button on my iTunes, blow off social obligations, and sit my ass down in a chair and write. The show is funny, insightful, entertaining, affirming, and, more than anything — inspiring. It easily one of the best podcasts on the web. Because I am now such a fan I wanted to ask Brad a few questions, and he kindly obliged.
BL: The show is called Other People with Brad Listi, and it’s an hour-long author interview podcast, with new episodes airing twice weekly, on Sundays and Wednesdays. You can subscribe for free via iTunes or, if you prefer, at Stitcher.
The podcast takes its name, at least partially, from People magazine. I’ve always been amused by the generic broadness of that title, and I used to joke that one day I was going to start a magazine called Other People, which would feature the non-famous, the beleaguered, and the marginally successful. But instead I started this author-interview show. And the name, I think, still works. In addition to being an ironic homage to the magazine, it’s also a hat tip to the solitary nature of the writing life, and the desire that most of us have to connect with other people.
I’m also a huge radio and podcast nerd. I listen to a ton of this stuff, and most of the author interviews that I find tend to feel too dry to me: a lot of lit-crit talk, a lot of plot discussion, a little too much highbrow musing. I wanted to hear a show that was a bit looser and more irreverent and personal, one that deals with who these writers are as people. Why they write. What happened yesterday. What they’re afraid of. What they had for breakfast. How they deal with adversity. How they relate to themselves, and the world.
The thing is, most of the time writers are very good talkers, especially once you get them going. Candid, thoughtful, funny, you name it. I know it firsthand; I’ve gotten to know hundreds of them over the past several years via my work at The Nervous Breakdown. There’s this perception that we seem to have of the socially awkward writer, mumbling, hiding, unable to hold a conversation. But in my experience, that’s been the exception and not the rule.
So basically, Other People is the show that I wanted to hear but couldn’t quite find. So I wound up doing it myself.
JJ: I don’t understand how you manage to run The Nervous Breakdown, put out two podcasts a week, write, AND raise a child. On your podcast, you’ve talked a lot about how important it is for you to maintain sanity by running. Do you have any other secrets?
BL: Well, to be honest, my writing output has suffered lately. I try to write most mornings for at least an hour or two, but it doesn’t always pan out. The phone will ring. The emails start coming. There’s a fire to put out at The Nervous Breakdown. My daughter crawls into my office. I have a lot going on. I’d love to find a way to be better about the writing. I miss it when I don’t get to do it. And I’m working on a book right now that I actually kind of like, so it would be nice to be able to finish it.
Other than that, it’s pretty much what you would expect. I just work a lot, basically. Six days a week. Often into the night. Exercise is big. I do something pretty much every morning, first thing, early. I hike. I go to the gym. It helps me keep my energy level up. I try to eat well. I try to read a little bit. That kind of thing.
JJ: I really appreciate how you don’t back down from asking the “juicy” questions (e.g. how an author got sober, or the delicious dirty stuff in your interview with Melissa Febos). What’s the most scandalous thing an author revealed to you? And alternately, is there anything you wouldn’t/didn’t ask?
BL: To be a good interviewer, I think you have to be willing to ask tough questions. It’s my job. I’m always trying to imagine my listeners. That’s always the first thought, the highest priority. What do they want to know? And then I’m also working to stay alert during the interview itself, to really listen to the guest, and to respond appropriately, in the moment.
And on the flip side of it, I try to be as candid as possible about my own life and experiences. That’s a big part of it for me. I try to hold myself to the same standard that I hold my guests, which is something that not all broadcasters do. A lot of the time, the interviewer is asking the questions but not divulging anything. A more journalistic approach. That can be fine sometimes, but I prefer shows where it’s a true dialogue on equal footing, rather than a one-way interrogation.
As for “scandalous” revelations… I don’t know. With guests like Melissa and Jillian Lauren, both of whom have done sex work in the past, there’s some titillating stuff to talk about, certainly. And they’ve both written beautifully about their experiences in their respective memoirs. But I don’t really see those conversations as scandalous. I see them as honest. I see them as interesting. I see them as human. What’s scandalous to me is when people lie or posture or judge or fail to have any kind of sense of humor about themselves or others. And so far, luckily, I haven’t really had any of that on the show. At least, I don’t think I have.
As for questions I wouldn’t ask: I’m sure there are some, but it’s hard to name them offhand. I think it’s different from person to person, guest to guest. You have to trust your instincts and do the best you can to be candid and direct while also respecting a person’s boundaries.
JJ: If you could interview any five authors for your podcast, living or dead, who would they be and why?
BL: I’d love to interview Gore Vidal. He’s a hero to me. I think he’s a giant in American letters who doesn’t always get his due. The essays in particular really amaze me. The breadth of his intelligence and scholarship. His access to power and refusal to cow to it. His wit. The guy can be mean as a snake, usually in the best possible way. And his memoir, Palimpsest, is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Lorrie Moore is another one. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking she’d be great company. To me, she’s like the Meryl Streep or the Helen Mirren of American letters. Younger, I should add, but on the same kind of career arc, and with the same kind of effect.
I’d love to interview Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote one of my favorite novels ever, Journey to the End of the Night. It’s a darkly funny, searingly intelligent book about war and industrialization and so on, and despite some bits of ugliness, it’s got a lot of warmth and deep humanity in it. But the thing is, later in his life Céline went off the rails and wound up writing all this vile, hateful, anti-Semitic stuff that’s really stomach-turning. I’d like to ask him what the hell happened.
I’m pretty sure I’d love to interview Don DeLillo. He seems kind of serious, but he strikes me as a deeply smart and perceptive guy who can talk intelligently about just about anything. To me, he’s almost like an oracle. I’d probably be extremely nervous while talking to him and would wind up asking him inane questions like, “Can you please tell me what’s going to happen in the future?”
And Zelda Fitzgerald. On a good day. I think she was underrated. She gets a bad rap. I’d love to sit down with her on a porch in Montgomery and hear what she has to say about her time with Scott, Paris in the 1920s, and so on. Hemingway. Gertrude Stein. Gerald and Sarah Murphy. All of it. I could be wrong, but I have this feeling that Zelda, when she was at her best, was the most fun out of all of them.
JJ: I loved when you were talking with Jillian Lauren about David Lynch’s meditation book on tape, especially since I love Lynch but didn’t know he had put this out, and I too feel that the act of meditation feels similar to the act of writing. Can you please elaborate on any/all of the following: David Lynch and your love for him, meditation, getting into an “authorly” state of mind.
BL: Meditation and writing have a lot in common, I think. Same with reading. They’re activities that require sustained attention and physical stillness. You have to sit there. You have to focus. You breathe. It’s harder than it looks. Simply staying put. Not getting up. Not walking to the refrigerator. Not clicking over to Facebook. Meditation can help with that, probably.
As for getting into the “authorly state of mind”… it’s easiest for me in the mornings. Meditating can help. Caffeine helps. Reading a good book often helps. Late at night used to be good, too, but now that I have a one-year-old, I tend to hit the wall around midnight.
As for David Lynch… he’s such an interesting guy. I find him inspiring. He marches to the beat of his own drum and works so fearlessly and has managed to forge a career on his own terms that doesn’t really have many equals. Not in the movies, anyway. Werner Herzog feels similar. Errol Morris. Guys who have worked in and around the corporate Hollywood system, at least to some extent, yet who manage to do so in such intensely personal and idiosyncratic ways. I’m in awe of them. Their output. Their energy level. The fact that they’ve been able to navigate those waters and do it so well, for so long. It’s amazing. The movie business can be such a clusterfuck. It makes publishing seem mild by comparison.
JJ: On your podcast, you frequently discuss the benefits and detriments that technology has on our society in general, and for writers and readers specifically. I think that’s great — the solution doesn’t seem to come with condemning technology, but from recognizing it for what it is and then discussing it in an objective and open manner. It is easy to name they ways that technology has harmed us, but how do you think it has helped writing and publishing?
BL: Well, the barrier to entry is lower, almost across the board. If you want to write a book, and you want to publish it and distribute it, you can do so, by god. You don’t need permission. Anyone can do this right now, today, fairly easily. You want to start a magazine? That’s doable, too. And ultimately I think that’s a good thing. If people want to express themselves and tell their stories and share ideas and so on, they can.
Obviously quality will vary. And obviously there’s a huge glut of content out there, which at times can seem overwhelming or maybe even annoying. But it doesn’t really bother me much. I still believe that the cream will rise to the top—most of the time, anyway. And there are plenty of sites out there like TNB and The Rumpus and Electric Literature, hundreds of lit bloggers, magazines like N+1 and Poets & Writers and so on that can help us parse the material. It’s not like there aren’t any filters. In fact, there are more filters than ever before. And ultimately word of mouth is the best filter of all. Good books will still find their way.
JJ: Have you read anything especially awesome lately?
BL:I just read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and really enjoyed it. I actually talked about it on a recent episode of the podcast. It’s a book that has a lot to say about how we live now, and in particular how we live now as writers and artists. And it has some really funny moments, too. Achingly funny.
JJ: What are you working on in terms of your own personal writing?
BL: I’m working on a novel, a dark comedy of sorts. It is, I think, another “white male fuck-up novel,” much like my first. My friend, the writer John Warner, coined that term. So far I seem to be writing white male fuck-up novels.
JJ: You mentioned in the episode with Steve Almond that the name “Brad” is generally reserved for douchebaggy characters in movies. Do you have another name in mind for yourself that you’d prefer?
BL: Henry. I like the name Henry. I have an uncle named Henry. But ultimately I’m not neurotic enough to change my name. I considered it, years ago, when I was just starting out, but in the end I didn’t do it. I figured fuck it. And I also realized that a name can’t save you. If your writing sucks, you could have the greatest, most literary name in the history of the world, and it wouldn’t matter. And conversely, if your writing is amazing, then the douchiest name in the world probably won’t be enough to scare off readers. You are who you are, I guess. I’m Brad. That’s my name. It’s on my birth certificate. I just have to deal with it. Goddammit.
–Brad Listi is the founder of The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community that now includes TNB Books, an independent press specializing in literary fiction and nonfiction. He is the author of a novel called Attention. Deficit. Disorder., a Los Angeles Times bestseller, the executive producer of The Nervous Breakdown’s podcast series, and the host of Other People with Brad Listi, a twice-weekly podcast featuring in-depth, inappropriate interviews with today’s leading authors. To learn more, please visit www.bradlisti.com.
–Julia Jackson is the editor of Electric Dish.