There is a moment in Brad Listi’s Other People interview with David Shields (Episode 454) when Shields and Listi riff on Bill Murray anecdotes, where instantly, I wanted to sit on the couch and run a Bill Murray movie marathon, then read Shields’ “Murray essay.” This impulse is how the podcast Other People with Brad Listi works. The conversations remind us of what we love in this American culture of ours and inspire us to engage, especially with books. Each episode, Listi speaks with an author, known or soon-to-be known, about their efforts and successes and what their writing life looks and feels like. How they do it, what they love and what they don’t love so much. He shares a candid conversation with Jonathan Franzen (Episode 426) as adeptly as he hosts a three-author interview with Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton (Episode 317). Self-aware, insightful, and funny, Listi leaves space for the unexpected. He leans into conversations; they are intimate and true.
Here, Listi and I talk about how he cultivates an honest conversation, the poet Mike Bushnell’s ingenious and technical writing process, and the most important advice Listi’s learned about writing and making it as a writer from his (472 and counting) author interviews.
K.L. Browne: You’ve been on the podcast air for five years now, so congratulations! What was your original intent for Other People and has that evolved as you’ve talked with more writers?
Brad Listi: I didn’t have much of a plan when I started. I think mostly I was just sick of social media and wanted to have some real conversations. And still do. Not much has changed in that regard. I certainly didn’t think I’d still be doing it five, almost six years later. I’m as surprised as anyone. Hopefully I’ve gotten a little better at hosting.
KLB: I appreciate the range of writers you interview, those published independently and from mainstream publishers. How do you choose the writers? How do you decide where to start the conversation, and what you want to ask?
BL: I choose the writers based on intuition, mostly. I don’t care if they’re published by a big or little press. I care about the quality of the work, their story: who they are, where they’re from, how they behave online, and so on. All of these things factor in. It’s a combination. I’m not scientific about it. In the end, it comes down to a gut feeling.
Back when I did phone interviews with regularity (I now try hard to only do in-person), I used to begin by asking the writer to describe his or her whereabouts, so that listeners could get a visual. It was an easy way to begin, but it often led to discussions of Brooklyn, where most of my guests tend to live, and how it compares to Los Angeles [where Listi hosts Other People], and so on. And, of course that gets old pretty quick.
Really, I don’t have a set plan for how I start a conversation. I just start. I do a bit of prep, but not a ton. I generally find that the less planning I do, the better things turn out.
KLB: Your opening monologues create a feeling of community with listeners. Do you plan or write your openings ahead of time? Do you correlate the monologue to the pre-recorded interview?
BL: Sometimes I write notes for the monologues ahead of time. Mostly I just wing it. And rarely, if ever, do I correlate the monologue to the interview. The monologues give me mixed feelings. My listeners tend to like them—I’ve actually polled them about this—so I keep doing it. It’s a way for me to personalize the show, I suppose. Weave in some kind of narrative. Sometimes it goes well. Other times, not so much. Anyway, it seems to be a normal thing to do in the podcast realm. People want to hear from the host.
KLB: You’ve talked about going for honesty in these conversations, and as the Jonathan Franzen interview shows, many guests share more personal details about their writing lives than I’ve heard anywhere else. How do you set the tone for an honest and candid conversation?
BL: By being honest myself. I find that if you’re honest with people, they’ll usually be honest with you. And, anyway I don’t know how else to be. Dishonest and evasive? That doesn’t sound appealing. Nor am I “performer” in the classic sense. I’m not doing an act. I mean, sure, there are performative elements to hosting a podcast, but who I am on the show isn’t a persona. It’s me.What I always tell guests is, if you want the episode to go over well, be candid. And “being candid” doesn’t mean telling everyone everything. If you don’t want to talk about something, then say: “I don’t wanna talk about that.” That’s candor. And in the end, it’s all listeners really want. They just want to know that they’re hearing an authentic conversation between two people who are making a sincere effort to communicate with one another. My primary job is to listen well, to ask the questions that listeners are asking themselves. It’s anticipatory, a kind of surrogacy.
KLB: In your conversation with Hanya Yanagihara, she described in detail the writing of her novel, A Little Life. She gave a blueprint of an intense 18-month process. What’s the most striking writing process or habit you recall hearing about on the show?
BL: Well, that would certainly be one of them. What Hanya did with A Little Life is incredible. To write that much, and that well, in that compressed a timeframe—it doesn’t happen very often. Aside from that, off the top of my head, I think of Mike Bushnell, the poet. If I’m recalling correctly, he works a 9-to-5 job, and at night records his television with his iPhone, using the voice-to-text feature, and then uses this text to compose poetry. So essentially his television and his phone write the first draft for him. I’d never heard of that before, leveraging technology in that way. Pretty ingenious. And maximally contemporary. Two screens, talking to each other, and the poet as the intermediary/translator.
KLB: It’s terrific when writers return to Other People, like Roxane Gay, Sarah Manguso, and Dana Spiotta. How do you go about covering new territory with them?
BL: Mostly I just focus on what’s happening right now. Take Roxane Gay, for example. I had her on the show at the dawn of her formal publishing career, about five or six years ago, and then recently spoke with her again. And by now she’s—what?—four or five books in, a New York Times columnist, writing movies for Marvel, and so on. Her career has just exploded. A lot can happen in the interim. So, you just keep the focus there.
KLB: Are there conversations on Other People, or books you’ve discovered through an interview, that have inspired your writing projects? What’s the best advice you’ve learned from a writer?
BL: Doing the show is an education for me. I get to talk with these talented people, some of the finest artists in the world. I’ve learned a lot from them, and hopefully my listeners have, too. Surely, it’s filtered into my life and work. One would hope so, anyway. You try to integrate as much good stuff as you can.
People often ask me some variation of this question, and it’s gotten to where I can boil it down. The short version of how to succeed as a writer—to do the work and enjoy it, to publish regularly, and so on—comes down to three principal things:
1. Read a lot. Read books.
2. Write every day, or close to it, on a regular schedule.
3. Don’t do it for money. (Especially at the beginning.)
That’s pretty much it. And good luck.
KLB: Do you have a favorite Other People episode? Or an interview that most surprised you?
BL: It’s hard to pick favorites. The truth is that I liked doing all of them. I genuinely enjoy talking with people, even when it’s awkward, even when you have to grind it out. I don’t care. I’m a fan of the attempt. And I find that the episodes always have surprises, by virtue of the show’s format. It’s improvisational and biographical. When you talk to someone about their life for an hour, you’re probably gonna be surprised a few times.
KLB: You’ve created a literary podcast treasure. Any plans to preserve the archive for eternity? I hope so!
BL: Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.
And yeah, I like the idea of keeping the show online in perpetuity. That’s certainly the plan going forward. And here it’s worth mentioning that I recently took down the paywall and made the entire archive free of charge. Which obviously makes things easier. Every single episode, more than 450 and counting, can now be streamed—online, via the show’s official app, via iTunes, Stitcher, whatever you like, for free. And that’s how it’ll be as we continue.
Brad Listi is the creator and host of the podcast Other People, and the founder and editor of the online magazine and literary community The Nervous Breakdown. TNB hosts a monthly book club, and Listi interviews TNB book club authors on Other People. He is the author of the novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder. (Gallery Books 2007).
Listi photo credit: Ryan Orange
K.L. Browne’s fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Ascent, and PANK Magazine. She received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Mill Valley, California.