Early in 2016, I heard the creators of Book Fight!, Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram speak on a panel about producing podcasts. I knew Mike’s name from the excellent journal and press, Barrelhouse, and this connection is what initially got my attention. The podcasts, which I listened to binge-style on several summer road-trips, are smart, funny, and addicting. I learned a lot about my own literary tastes and about writing, and I found out about some authors who over time had been forgotten. I also learned a few things about raccoons, roller coasters, and the junk foods of my youth.
From the website:
The Book Fight! podcast is, in a nutshell, writers talking about books. Books we love. Books we hate. Books that inspire us, baffle us, infuriate us. These are the conversations writers have at the bar, which is to say they’re both unflinchiningly honest and open to tangents, misdirection, general silliness.
Linda Michel-Cassidy: First, I’d love to hear the Book Fight! origin story.
Tom McAllister: Mike approached me about it. We’d met in grad school, so we were already hanging out, talking about books, and (sometimes) drinking, so it was a pretty natural fit for us to just start recording. At the time (around February 2012), he had to explain to me a) what a podcast was, b) why we should do one, and c) what, again, a podcast was. I remember asking, “Okay, but what’s the goal?” He seemed sort of thrown by the question then just said, “I think the goal is just to make a podcast.”
Mike Ingram: I’d started listening to more and more podcasts, beyond the typical NPR shows that had been a kind of gateway into the medium. I found that I liked listening to people talk while I walked places, or worked out, or cleaned my apartment. A lot of the shows I was listening to were comedic and conversational—two or three people who had a good rapport and talked off-the-cuff—rather than in a more formal, scripted way. There was an intimacy and an honesty to them that I really liked. I thought, “There must be something like this about books and writing,” but I couldn’t really find anything. There were author-interview podcasts, like Bookworm (which I really like) and there were some more scripted, NPR-style shows about the publishing world. I had this idea in my head of what I wanted to listen to, and none of them fit the bill exactly. Eventually, it dawned on me that when you want to read/watch/listen to something and you can’t find it, you’re probably supposed to go make that thing.
LMC: How do you go about choosing the books you’ll discuss?
TM: In the very early days, we engaged in endless negotiation and discussion. It was untenable. So we started alternating book picks. This way, we can just impose whatever book we want on the other person and they agree to give it a fair shot. The two exceptions to this are 1) when we have guests who choose the book, and 2) when we do our annual Christmas special, where we mutually agree on a couple goofy books to discuss.
LMC: What book or story have the two of you disagreed on the most? And who’s right?
TM: Mike was pretty harsh on the essay “Werner” by Jo Ann Beard, primarily because he just didn’t buy that it could be classified as an essay. But I LOVE that essay and he’s 100% wrong for ever criticizing anything Jo Ann Beard does.
MI: I like other Jo Ann Beard stuff a lot, I think the project of that essay just bugged me. Why not just call it a story? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone wrote a story based on the imagined interior life of a real person.
TM: We disagreed pretty strongly on Emily Gould’s essay collection “And the Heart Says Whatever,” which I found to be pretty slight and short on insight.
LMC: What listener suggestion surprised you the most (pro and/or con)?
TM: We’ve done some fundraising in the past, and some years have offered a reward level at which a donor could make us read any book in the world. One donor chose Mine, by Peter Sotos. At the time, I knew nothing about him, but as we quickly learned, he’s an extremely controversial figure who has “unconventional” views regarding sexual abuse, child pornography, and obscenity laws. I think it made for an interesting episode, but that book—it was a challenge. It was interesting, but so confrontational, it took me a while to figure out how to handle it.
MI: Yeah, that book was—odd. I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to feel about it, except kind of dirty, like I need to take a very long shower. I’ve liked a lot of our guest picks, especially when it’s been something I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Even when it’s familiar, it’s interesting to hear about someone’s relationship to a book—why they love it, or hate it—or their other experiences with the author. I’ve said from the beginning that we’re not really a “book review” show. If someone wanted a book review, there are much more efficient ways of getting that than listening to us talk for an hour. I think (I hope?) that what listeners like is hearing people’s idiosyncratic and deeply personal responses to books and stories, and then a larger discussion kind of prompted by the work in question.
LMC: How did the seasonal episodes come about (“Spring of Success,” etc)?
TM: Boredom and necessity. We wanted to do weekly episodes, but couldn’t do a new book each week without it taking over our lives. So for a while we did “Writers Ask” episodes, in which we answered listener questions. But we found we kept hitting the same points over and over (so many questions about MFA programs!). So then we did the Summer of Shorts, easily our most divisive segment, and had a lot of fun doing it. Things have kept evolving from there.
MI: I’m not sure why it took us so long to arrive at the idea of doing short stories and essays. Once we decided on that, I made a dumb joke, while drinking a beer on Tom’s deck, that it would be funny to talk about short stories and also shorts. I think some people found it funny and other people found it incredibly dumb. But I really amused myself while making those episodes, at the very least.
LMC: I love the Winter of Wayback episodes, in which you pick a year and discuss what was going on in literature at the moment, as well as the sociological and political contexts that may have influenced writing and publication choices.
TOM: I love it too! It’s my favorite, though it’s also the most labor-intensive, since we’re starting from scratch each episode. The thing that drew us to it was finding work by authors who were prevalent in their day, but have faded from the public consciousness for one reason or another. The first one we did was on 1977, about a woman named Ella Leffland, who wrote a really good story and was publishing widely, being named as a contemporary to lots of big-name authors, but then she just kind of faded away. It was really interesting to put that level of success in the context of the longer view, especially since both of us go through our own cycles of panic about our respective levels of writing success. Plus, the amazing weird history we’ve dug up is really fun.
LMC: You manage to come at these pieces from two directions, probably because you are writers as well as professors. And you’re both funny and entertaining, but still using writer language. Tell us a bit about how you came to this balance. Did you have a particular type of listener in mind?
TM: I think the listener we really had in mind in the beginning was us. That is, people like us, who are most enjoying something when it mixes serious conversation with a sense of humor that keeps things in perspective. I have a ton of fun just hanging out with Mike and talking about books, and we wanted that to translate. The last thing I wanted was for people to feel like they were sitting in the back of the lecture hall in a lit course. I wanted to create an atmosphere where people looked forward to getting into the discussion, and where they felt like smart things were being said, but that wasn’t the whole point. These conversations are a natural reflection of our friendship; if we’d try to do anything else, I don’t think it would have worked.
MI: I talked Tom into starting the show because it’s what I wanted to listen to, and I couldn’t find anything like it. So I guess my imagined audience was basically me? And people like me. It was sort of a leap of faith that there were enough of those people to form an audience.
LMC: I’ve noticed this thing that you both do, being a little protective of work that you like, not giving too much away, but then I hear episodes like the Christmas special, where I didn’t feel you were particularly enamored with the writing, and you basically told the entire story. I guess this isn’t a question, but I’m wondering about that.
TM: That’s an interesting question. It’s definitely not a scientific system, but, at least for me, the decision often comes down to this: do I think people could conceivably be interested in reading this book? In the case of the Christmas episodes, we think it’s pretty unlikely, so I’m not worried about spoilers or any of that. But even some books I don’t love are ones that people in our audience may want to check out of the library on Tuesday, so I want to leave some of it undiscovered for them.
LMC: Have you happened upon any guilty pleasures, by which I mean writing that’s not particularly literary, but the book was just a lot of fun?
TM: The Sailor Steve Costigan stories! They were popular pulp stories in the 1930s, and there was no artistic merit to them at all, but they were fun, lighthearted, and full of punching. We also recently did an episode on “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” (the novel on which the film is based) and I enjoyed it way more than Mike did.
MI: I really enjoy reading rock-band bios, and the occasional celebrity memoir, though I haven’t sprung those books on Tom. Maybe it’s time to start.
LMC: Are you making episodes with graphic novels?
TM: We’ve done a couple. We were tentative at first, because we’re definitely not experts in that area. So the most recent one we did, we invited to local comic creators, Claire Folkman and Kelly Phillips, to be the guests so they could make sure the conversation was as informed as possible. I was really happy with how that one turned out, actually. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for graphic novels over the past few years, and I’m sure we’ll do more in the future.
LMC: Is more enjoyable or easier to talk about books that aren’t great?
MI: Those episodes might sometimes be more entertaining. I find it fun as long as the target feels deserving to me. Like, Nicholas Sparks, from everything I can find online, seems like a real pompous jackass, and he’s also a millionaire, and so I feel 100% ok taking potshots at his incredibly trite books. With the Christmas books, or the occasional romance novel, I don’t mind making fun of them, though hopefully not in a too-mean-spirited way. It’s something we do think about. Like, we’re not going to pluck some book out of obscurity and then trash it. That would just feel mean.
TM: We’ve had a few people suggest books to us that look terrible, but that are either self-published or very small press books, and it would just seem cruel to find a book nobody had ever heard of just to say it’s garbage. But James Patterson? Sure, he can take it.
LMC: I appreciated several episodes where you’d examined a story or book that was wildly popular or received acclaim in its time, and you both were quite honest about its shortcomings. Is that disheartening, as writers, as readers, and as professors, to unpack a bestseller and be like: Nope, nothing here?
MI: I find it heartening, actually. It’s helped me think in more concrete ways about what I want to do with my own writing, what I care about and don’t care about. It also helps you see how arbitrary certain aspects of publishing are. There’s a lot of “right place, right time, right marketing plan” when you start unpacking how certain big books become big books.
LMC: Have any writers requested rebuttal time?
TM: In the Peter Sotos episode, we actually gave Josh Isard (a friend and past guest) a chance to offer a rebuttal to our harsh review of a novel called “The Finkler Question.” We’d both hated that book, and Josh thought we were way off base, so we had him chime in.
LMC: I’m intereste dto hear about your favorite episode.?
TM: My two favorites are both guest episodes: Asali Solomon discussing Marlon James’ novel “The Book of Night Women” and Leslie Jamison discussing Michael Clune’s memoir “White Out.” I think both are successful versions of the thing we want to make —smart, funny, accessible, and interesting. It helps that we had two great guests for those episodes.
MI: It’s hard to narrow down favorites, because I like different episodes for different reasons. A lot of the Winter of Wayback episodes, because I found that I really enjoy finding weird human-interest stories from the past. I also really liked the episode we did on Ready Player One, because we got one of Tom’s friends who isn’t a writer, or even a very avid reader, to come on and talk about it with us, which is something I’d like to do more of.
LMC: How do you go about crafting the episode so that it has something for an audience who may or may not have a familiarity with the work or author?
TM: One of our big considerations is trying to make it accessible, and I’ve found one way to do that is to try to broaden the conversation. So it’s not just a thirty minute discussion of a character, but rather saying something like, “This character drove me crazy; is it possible for a writer to have such an unlikable character without driving readers away?” Or, as in our most recent episode, on Kanan Makiya’s “The Rope,” which is about the aftermath of the Iraq War. The conversation builds from the specifics of the book to something broader about the challenges of writing politically-motivated fiction. So, at least in theory, the book or story just becomes a discussion prompt that we can try to use to engage people in this conversation.
It helps, too, that we’ve both been teaching for a long time, usually to students who haven’t done the reading. So you find lots of tricks to try to work around that.
MI: I’d also add that it’s a practical consideration, mostly. We didn’t want it to be a book club, with homework. We wanted to replicate, to at least some degree, the sorts of conversations we were having in the bar with our friends, about books and writing and the publishing world, so that’s been a useful model to keep in mind.
LMC: Thanks, gentlemen. I’m looking forward to binge-listening to more episodes.
Tom McAllister is the non-fiction editor at Barrelhouse and the co-host of the weekly Book Fight! podcast. His first novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook is forthcoming from Algonquin in February 2017, and his memoir Bury Me in My Jersey was published by Villard in 2010. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University. You can follow him on Twitter @t_mcallister. He writes occasional short essays on his website: tom.mcallister.ws
Mike Ingram is the lead editor for Barrelhouse Books and co-host of the weekly Book Fight! podcast. His stories and essays have appeared, most recently, in The North American Review, Phoebe, EPOCH, and Arcadia Magazine. He currently lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches at Temple University. You can find more of his work at his website: mikeingram.net