Brad Listi Thinks You Should Write as if You Were Already Dead
The author of "Be Brief and Tell Them Everything" on curating a fictional self and the writerly desire to capture the whole world with brevity
Brad Listi has made a name for himself by talking to other people. On his podcast, Otherppl with Brad Listi, now in its tenth year, Listi has interviewed hundreds of writers. He’s known for asking questions not just about craft and literature but also about—well, everything. In my favorite episodes, he manages to ask inappropriate questions appropriately, usually within a conversation that appears to have no relevance to writing but actually turns out to be very relevant to writing. I think it’s fair to say that Otherppl is built upon the hypothesis that everything is relevant to writing.
Fittingly, Listi’s sophomore novel, Be Brief and Tell Them Everything, is an autofictious work of both breadth and depth. Structured as a non-linear series of vignettes, the novel opens in the life of a writer named Brad who can’t seem to finish the novel he’s been working on for twelve years. In the midst of this creative crisis, Brad’s six-month-old son is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The diagnosis is devastating for all the obvious reasons, but it also serves to sharpen Brad’s persistent and pre-existing existential ennui. As he writes and rewrites his novel, he finds himself asking and re-asking a series of questions: Who am I? What happened? What should I do? Be Brief grapples with a diverse array of topics—fatherhood, disability, death, autobiography, creative failure—but it ultimately tells the story of an ordinary life. If readers are looking for Listi on the page, they will undoubtedly find him. That said, I suspect they will also find much more.
Listi and I connected via Zoom to chat about curating a fictional self and the writerly desire to capture the whole world with brevity. It was a pleasure to compel him to answer the sorts of questions he’s usually tasked with asking.
Wynter K. Miller: On your podcast you’ve been talking a lot about the publication process, and specifically about the anxieties associated with putting this book out into the world. Recently, you said something like, “I worry about how to talk about the book. What if I say something stupid?” So, let’s start there: What are you afraid of saying? What is the stupid thing you’re worried you might let slip?
Brad Listi: I think it’s interesting how much fluctuation there is in the lead-up to a book’s publication, in terms of how you feel about it. And I think in particular, because this is a book that’s very personal, I feel at times uneasy about how it might be received, particularly by those people who are close to me or who might be implicated by the book in some oblong way. But then there are days where I don’t care. And then the anxiety is also maybe about not wanting to sound precious about it. I think it’s emotional for a writer to put a book out in the world—not always, but sometimes you have these little fevered moments of caring a lot, and in those moments you might be more susceptible to preciousness or taking yourself too seriously.
WKM: Be Brief has autobiographical elements, but it’s not autobiography. The main character is named Brad and he runs a podcast called Otherppl, but he isn’t you and things happen to him that have not happened to you. I feel like autofiction can be a messy genre—wouldn’t it have been simpler either to just write a memoir or write a straight novel?
BL: Well, I would say first that autofiction is very natural for me as a writer, and I also really appreciate it as a reader. Almost always when I’m reading novels, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with the author, and I’m often frustrated by what I feel like are layers of fiction between me and the author—I wish the author would just talk about what’s going on with them. So, maybe I’m trying to emulate the books that do that.
But I would also say that, to me, my book is a straight novel, and it was much easier to write this than it would have been to write a memoir. I wouldn’t want to be bound to the facts like that. It seems like an impossible adventure for me because I would always be second guessing myself and thinking that I’m fictionalizing anyway. It was helpful for me to have the permission to fictionalize and to move things around and to make things up and to change some details.
I’m not sure I’m capable of just making something up and rendering it on the page in a way that’s interesting. For whatever reason, I have to grapple with myself. I can’t take pure acts of my imagination seriously or something. I don’t know. Some artists work from the inside out and maybe that’s who I am. When I tried to write the other way, it just fell flat and, eventually, when I started to write from the inside out, it worked better.
WKM: When you’re putting someone on the page who so resembles you in a personal way, do you worry that you won’t be liked?
BL: Yeah, sure, in a natural human kind of way. I think we all want to be liked. But I think you have to be very careful, especially if you’re working in autofiction, about trying to be too cool on the page—readers will often love it because it’s fun to be in the hands of a cool narrator. Somebody with, like, I call it, “Teflon intelligence.” They never say anything that can make them seem mottled and shitty. It’s very subtle, and I see it all the time from very skilled writers. And maybe they’re right—I could be wrong, but my impulse is the opposite. I don’t want to be too cool because I’m not too cool. In real life, there’s none of that in me. I’m a mess. I’m making stupid mistakes or errors in judgment or, you know, stumbling socially. So I think it’s about finding an honest balance between being truthful about the mess, but not to the point where you’re so self-deprecating that it’s insufferable. You don’t want to be too cute, but you don’t want to be bashing yourself all the time or constantly fucking up, either.
WKM: It was really important to you that Be Brief have some levity and funny moments with its darkness. How much of that is that is because you consider yourself a funny person, because you’re thinking of it as “putting yourself on the page,” and how much of it is it that you’re just think about your readers and wanting to give them a balanced reading experience?
BL: I think the rarest experience that I have as a reader is laughing out loud. And it’s the one that I most appreciate. And if I do that while I’m reading your book, you have a fan in me for life. I think as a writer, I try to emulate that. On the level of lived experience, too, I’m trying to render the world as I see it on the page. I have never experienced a world that is all one thing, there’s always laughter amid the darkness for me—and often, in really unexpected ways. These things don’t have any real internal logic, and I think I want my art to reflect that.
WKM: Be Brief is a slim novel, but it contains a lot. How did you make decisions about what to include and what to cut?
BL: That’s something that it took me a long time to sort out, and it required a lot of failure. For example, there’s a chapter in the book where I talk about a miscarriage, a single miscarriage, even though there were multiple miscarriages. There was an entire iteration of this book that was like “The Miscarriage Book,” where it was all the miscarriages and it was way too much. When you go through all that failure, you start to get a more developed sense of the reader, which is ultimately what you need to edit yourself and get your book into shape. I finally figured out that I had to pick my spots. I had to keep things moving. I had to be brief.
WKM: I think the book’s title also functions almost as the book’s thesis statement.
BL: You know, it’s funny because this book covers a lot of time. But I appreciate brevity and concision in writing. This is another thing that I’m trying to emulate that I’ve really responded to in writing and in books that I love. I feel like compression is part of the project of being a good writer—doing all that work for the reader and also not falling in love with the sound of your own voice, which is something that I can easily do and did quite often in earlier drafts. And frankly, as a reader, I often see it on the page. I feel like most books could be cut. And maybe that’s just my taste, but I didn’t want there to be wasted motion in this book. I wanted it to be concise, but I also wanted it to feel like nothing was missing.
One thing that I’ll say is that I tried to give myself—and this is where I can start to sound precious—but I tried to give myself the directive that I should write it as if I were already dead. What would I say if I were already dead? What’s most important to me? What if I didn’t care or wouldn’t even be around to hear about the outcome? And I got this idea in my head that maybe I should never write a book unless I have something very urgent to say. Like, what’s the point? Why waste anyone’s time? Just to entertain myself and entertain other people? That might be enough [for some people], but I don’t know if it’s enough for me.
WKM: I think the idea that you shouldn’t write something unless you have something urgent to say can be intimidating, especially for writers who don’t think of themselves yet as writers. The question becomes: how do I know that I have something urgent to say? How urgent is urgent enough? But do you think that mindset can be a helpful way to manage failure and writer’s block?
BL: Yeah, I think that. I think everybody probably has something to say. We all have things that are deeply important to us or troubling to us or painful to us. For me, it was about locating the things that were most important and urgent to me. Most difficult for me. And to think about things that I was scared to talk about—and to talk about them. And to slow down when I got to those parts. Not to make it sound melodramatic, but I think it’s very common for writers to avoid that stuff, even if we feel like we have a handle on ourselves. The impulse to skip over those things or move quickly through them is strong. I didn’t want to give myself an out when it came to that stuff.
WKM: There’s a scene in the novel where Brad purchases a lottery ticket and on the drive home starts having a detailed fantasy about what it will be like to collect the jackpot. But then, mid-fantasy, he realizes that by having so vividly imagined his dream, he has effectively guaranteed it will never happen. I love this scene because we’ve all had this kind of fantasy. Did you ever imagine what it would be like to publish your book and give interviews about the difficulty of writing it?
BL: No, and this is a significant difference between my debut novel and where I am now. It has been significantly less stressful. I have been significantly less neurotic. I think maybe it’s because this book was such a hard one for me. The fact that I was able to get it to a place that I feel really good about, and that I was able to wrestle it to the ground after all that time and failure and struggle—anything that happens beyond this is just gravy to me.