On August 29th, the Other People Podcast will run its 100th episode. Host Brad Listi is an author and the founder of The Nervous Breakdown. His show stands out from book talk media outlets both in content and tone, and Listi’s interview style tends to be more candid, personal and often bold than the rest.
I caught up with Listi to talk about his favorite moments from the show so far, and about what writers are really like.
The first time I listened to Other People, you delved into a kind of mission statement for why you were doing this show. Would you reiterate that mission statement? Has it changed or evolved?
Part of the show’s genesis is rooted in the fact that I’m a big fan of radio and I love podcasts, in particular the interview format. So a part of it just came from being a fan. As far as my motivations go, I think that I’ve been obsessed for at least the past 6 years with trying to find out a way to move the needle in publishing. It’s been a dream of mine to help writers actually move books, to help get the word out and to help inch books back toward the center of culture from the periphery. I’m not operating under any illusions that it will be back at the dead center, though I guess you can dream. With the show, part of me is hoping that enough people will listen to it over time that it will bring readers to books in significant numbers. On a more personal level I think that there’s such a focus on computers and a tendency for writers to spend hours and hours in front of their computer screens that we all get reduced to these two-dimensional presentations. So much of our work and our lives, everything from family photos to vacation photos, to tweets, everything starts to feel like a sales pitch. I’m guilty of it myself. I’m aware of it because I’m constantly staring at my Facebook wall and my Twitter feed and I get really creeped out by that after awhile! I get frustrated by it’s two-dimensionality.
I think the show at its point of origin was a reaction to that frustration and it was me wanting to hear actual voices, to humanize things a bit and to focus attention a bit more. As I’m sure you know, when you’re on the internet, everything happens in flashes and you move latterly from one kind of information to the next, and it can be hard to focus. You’ve got all these people competing for your attention. You’ve got all these people trying to pitch their books to you on Twitter. One of the things that the podcast does, I hope, is it allows people to focus. You’ve got your earbuds in and you’re listening to actual voices. It humanizes things, which I think I was kind of hungry for.
Since there’s no standard thread to follow when it comes to books, I wonder, how do you decide whom to invite on the show? How do you filter through the droves of people trying to pitch their books on Twitter?
After bagging on social media, which I do a lot, I have to admit that it helps to give me a gestalt understanding of what’s out there. I’m pretty good at gleaning which books people are excited about and Twitter is often really helpful, as are the various literary blogs. The other thing that happens is I will here from editors or publicists at publishing houses, or I’ll hear from the authors themselves who will be fans of the show and will ask me if they can come on. Sometimes I’ll have friends recommend something to me or I’ll read something and reach out to the authors myself.
I think that if I’ve been able to curate a good list of guests, part of that has to do with the fact that the guests are willing. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of me paying attention. I think that’s really the key, you’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening in publishing and you have to like books and authors. That to me doesn’t really feel like work because I was doing it already by virtue of what I was doing at The Nervous Breakdown. I went into Other People with the strong suspicion that it would be easy to book the show because I know how hard writers have to fight to get the word out about their books. It has been relatively easy to book the show and I think that’s partly because writers want to work to get the word out about their books but I also think that hopefully I’ve built up a bit of good will with the work I was doing at The Nervous Breakdown and that writers at least know they’ll be talking to somebody who likes this stuff and is interested in it.
This is a topic I’ve always been fascinated by and I’d imagine you have a unique perspective on it. There is the stereotype of the neurotic, timid, anti-social writer. I wonder whether a good writer tends to be the kind of person who can tell a good story at a social event, the kind of person who makes a good interview subject, or the life of the party. Is there any correlation between being a good writer and a good conversationalist?
My gambit going into this podcast was that writers don’t get enough credit for being good company. I think the popular characterization is this anti-social type that can’t hold a conversation. My experience has always been that writers are excellent company, especially in small groups and one on one, that’s the rule and not the exception. The exception is the writer who can’t hold a conversation or who has a lot of trouble socially. Obviously there are varying degrees of ability when it comes to conversation.
I think a big factor in whether the conversation goes well has to do with me. I try to be as consistent as possible but obviously you’re not at your best every single day. If there’s variation from author to author some if it might have to do with the fact that I was scatterbrained that day and wasn’t listening as well as I should have been. I’ve had a good experience of it and I’m not surprised at all. Sometimes you may have people for whom it’s kind of shtick but I think that genuine inability to talk is very rare. If you go into a conversation genuinely and you are honest with people, they will likely be honest with you, and then, even if they’re not some great raconteur, it will likely be interesting and a good listen.
When you began the show, were there any writers in particular that were like, big fish you felt you really wanted to have as guests? Since the show’s begun who are some of the guests you’ve been especially thrilled about?
It’s hard to choose. It’s like choosing one of your kids or something, not to be mellow dramatic about it, but there have been so many great writers on the show. Ron Currie Jr. I was really excited to have on. I’m a big fan of his work. David Shields I was very excited about. Dennis Cooper, it was great to have him on, he was in studio. I had a great conversation with Jessica Blau, she was super fun to have on. I talked to Cheryl Strayed right before Wild launched, so I got to talk to her at this interesting time in her career, right before she really took off. Also Lauren Groff, Sarah Manguso — I loved her book The Gaurdian, talk about a stunner. There have been so many writers, Ben Fountain, Etgar Keret, that all have their own charm and amazing set of talents. So just to get to talk to them and to find out how they approach the work and the challenges they’ve been through, I find it all fascinating and as an added benefit I get to learn so much by way of these conversations, things that help me with my own work and I hope that other people do the same.
Are there any especially memorable moments in your conversations with these authors?
I think you don’t often hear authors talk about the things they talk about on the show, which has been good. For instance I got a lot of good notes about Ben Marcus talking about his competitive waterskiing as a child, which is just something you wouldn’t know otherwise.
I had David Rees on the program, he wrote a book that Melville House put out called How to Sharpen Pencils. He was an extremely cerebral, funny guy. This is a moment that I didn’t get talk about on the show, but he came into my home studio and just before we began, he said, “Just so you know, I’m not going to be able to look at you while we do this.” And I was like “What?” It was because he was trying to concentrate and give good answers. So in order to focus he wanted to focus he just kept his eyes on the floor the whole time. I found out from Lauren Groff that her sister is an Olympic tri-athlete so she’s competing in the London Games. Jerry Stahl was a great guest talking about his life and his younger days in Los Angeles working for Hustler Magazine. Kate Christensen was an awesome guest. She and I talked a lot about relationships and the “death of love” which was thematically dealt with in her work. Just talking about relationships with other human beings you get these startling insights and these moments of bracing honesty, which are the things I look for in any radio show or podcast. It’s always exciting when I get that, because I know that people listening are going to like it.