Other People: An Interview with Brad Listi

Posted by @ 4:27 pm on December 12th, 2011

Other People with Brad Listi is a twice-weekly author interview show with a unique literary emphasis. Rather than focusing on their books, Listi asks his writer guests to open up about their lives as writers, what’s driving them, how they work, their personal philosophies and their opinions of other writers’ books. Sometimes an episode seems to be about everything except the subject’s latest book. Whatever they talk about, the shows—which typically clock in at just over an hour—are almost always filled with interesting conversation, and Listi has, in just a few months, had a lot of terrific guests, including Blake Butler, Steve Almond, Victoria Patterson, Joshua Mohr, and Dennis Cooper.

Hearing it for the first time, one wonders why it took so long for this podcast to arrive. The thread that runs through every show is Listi himself: intelligent, self-conscious and completely open about his own idiosyncratic approach to life as a writer and reader. In addition to posting two new episodes of Other People each week and serving as editor at his online culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Listi works as a novelist. His first novel, Attention. Deficit. Disorder. was released in 2007.

What kinds of things do you try to avoid with your podcast?

Whenever I talk to an author about being on Other People, and they ask me what to expect or how to prepare, I tell them that candor is the only rule. That, to me, is the key. And I should note that the rule applies to me as well. The show is a two-way conversation rather than a traditional journalistic interrogation. When I listen to myself on playback, that’s the kind of thing I’m most concerned about: Was I honest enough? Did I let any bullshit creep in? The goal I have for the show is the same goal I have as a writer: to move people emotionally and make them feel less alone. Candid conversation between two human beings tends to have that effect. And when a conversation has too much bullshit in it, the opposite is true. You can’t fake it.

And the other thing I’d like to steer clear of is self-seriousness. I don’t mind if the interviews themselves have serious moments—that’s inevitable and totally fine. And I absolutely don’t mind when authors take their work seriously. I actually prefer that they do. But what drives me crazy is when authors—or anyone, really—take themselves too seriously. I think the general public tends to perceive literary culture as being stuffy and a little bit full of itself, and not entirely without reason. But my experience has been that most authors, on a one-to-one level, are a hell of a lot of fun. They’re some of the most thoughtful, funny, self-effacing people around. And good conversationalists, too. Hopefully the show is demonstrating that.

You mentioned looking at the analytics of the show when you were interviewing Dennis Cooper. I have no sense of what good numbers for a podcast are. Do you know how many listeners you have? Or is it gauche to ask?

The response that the show has gotten in the early going has been unbelievable to me. After only six weeks, it had more than 10,000 listeners, and it has continued to grow from there. It’s less than three months old. And I have zero marketing budget. It’s all just word of mouth, and the kindness of several people in the online literary community. McSweeney’s has been supportive from the outset, as has HTMLGIANT and Impose magazine and Largehearted Boy. Gabrielle Gantz, a lit blogger, has been really great in helping to get the word out. Volume 1 Brooklyn. There are several. And I’m probably forgetting some (please forgive me). And most importantly, I’ve been hearing some really nice things from listeners via email, which is extremely gratifying. It makes me want to keep going.

Several of the writers you’ve interviewed are probably better known in the indie press world than to mainstream readers. Was it your aim from the beginning to focus on writers publishing outside of the “big six” or whatever they’re calling the few companies who own 90% of publishing now?

No, not really. I just want to talk to people who are doing interesting work. To me, it’s about them, not their publishers. There are plenty of writers at the bigger corporate houses whose work is totally compelling and stands on its own merits. Just because it happens to be published by Random House doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to the author.

But at the same time, I do have a soft spot for the indies. That’s my world and my general sensibility. There’s a ton of incredible work being published by small houses these days, books that are every bit as worthy as anything coming out of New York. Plus, having run The Nervous Breakdown for going on six years and being an indie publisher myself, I feel much more aligned with independent presses than I do the big six. I don’t say that with rancor. It’s just a function of our size, and the way we relate to readers, and our overall approach to the business.

I notice that the sponsors are sometimes also the publishers of whichever writer you’re interviewing that day. Do those factors play a big role in deciding who you interview?

No, not at all. Sponsorships so far have been tied to the TNB Book Club, but that’s changing a bit as the audience grows and other sponsors look to get time. The publishers who participate in the club get a plug on the podcast, and that’ll continue to some extent. And I’ll always interview the authors whose books we feature in the club, which feels like a natural thing to do. But I’m not going to start selling guest slots or anything like that. I think that’s a bad road to travel, and I think it would diminish the show. It goes back to the whole “no bullshit” policy

I see what you mean. In thinking of it, my gut reaction is that it’s a gray area, not that it’s outright wrong. Writers do need different platforms to publicize their books, whatever that means. I listen to a lot of film podcasts, and sometimes I fantasize about sending the reviewers money to review movies that I’d like to hear them talk about.

Yeah, I can understand that. And the truth is, listeners will often give me suggestions on possible guests. It happens pretty frequently, and sometimes I take their advice. But I mean, it’s one thing to hear from listeners and follow their lead; it’s another thing entirely to accept payola from corporate publishers when booking the show.

The word “payola” made me feel like a horrible human being for even entertaining it.

Clearly you have no moral center.

Right now you’re doing two shows a week. That seems like such a brutal schedule. Are you doing this just to get started, or do you think you’ll always try to do two a week?

I’m committed to two shows a week and might eventually move to three if the audience demands it. But three, I think, would be the maximum. And it’s entirely possible that two is perfect, as is. I’ll just have to see how things go.

It’s definitely a huge amount of work—way more than I expected—but as far as I know, it’s the only way to build a listenership. You can’t ask people to be loyal to your show unless you’re loyal to them in return, and you deliver new content. It’s the nature of the beast.

Even now, at this stage of the game, I have a backlog of interviews in the queue, and I get inquiries everyday from publicists and editors and so on. Authors need more places to talk about their work, which is one of the reasons why I started the show in the first place.

Can you talk about how you prepare for the interviews?

I don’t prepare much at all. That’s one of the keys to the show’s concept: it’s primarily about the authors as people; it’s not about their books. I couldn’t do it any other way. Considering all of my many work obligations, there’s no way I could possibly finish the necessary reading. And I mean, in some cases it does happen where I’ve read the books beforehand—and that’s great. Other times, I may scan a book, or I may read up a little bit online to get the gist, but generally speaking, I go in cold. And I like it that way. I like to improvise. I like the spontaneity of it. And I work to keep the focus on the author as a person, on their life and how they approach the work, rather than focusing too much on the work itself. Because the truth of the matter is, discussions about books tend to be boring. That’s just a fact. It’s like talking about a song: at some point you just have to go listen to the goddamn song.

I loved it when you spoke with Megan Boyle. It felt like the whole show was sort of haywire, except that you were behaving as if everything was normal.

Megan was a great guest. She was very honest, and she seems like a really sweet person. She’s also a gifted writer. I kind of wanted to take care of her after talking with her. That’s the kind of effect she had on me. You listen to that show, and you sort of want to make her a bowl of soup or something.

I think that’s what seemed haywire about the interview. She was totally open and unguarded. It was disarming.

I know. And I think that’s also the charm of her writing. It’s not just unfiltered sounding—it might actually be unfiltered. And it’s from the heart.

Do you have a favorite show so far?

Oh, man. That’s like Sophie’s Choice. It’s hard to say. But I will tell you that I love it when the show introduces a writer to a new group of readers. I’ll get an email from someone, and they’ll be raving about, say, the Jessica Blau episode, or the Blake Butler episode, or Melissa Febos or Steve Almond or Katie Arnoldi. And they haven’t even heard of the author before, but now they’re dying to read them. That, to me, is the best possible outcome.

Your email signature made me laugh. It lists two email addresses, three websites and three Twitter accounts. Do you ever feel like maintaining a web presence is itself a full-time job?

It’s a challenge for sure, particularly as things grow. But I should mention that I do have some help. I have a terrific editorial staff at The Nervous Breakdown, for example, without whom I’d be nowhere. I have help with social media stuff. The site has interns. This is far from an individual enterprise.

Are you at work on The Nervous Breakdown daily?

Yeah. I’m constantly working on it. Pretty much every aspect of the operation. I manage the design and the upgrades, working with our engineers. I coordinate with the editors on features. I change the site out every Saturday. I do the slideshow.  I change out TNB TV. (Our senior editor, Greg Olear, does a good bit as well, and helps me with the homepage stuff. He’s instrumental.) And increasingly, I try to do as much editing and copyediting as I possibly can. I go back and forth with authors and work on individual stories to try and get them into their best form, and that kind of thing.

And now there’s TNB Books. What have you guys published so far?

So far we’ve published three books: Subversia, an essay collection by D.R. Haney, one of our most popular writers; Paper Doll Orgy, a cartoon collection by Ted McCagg; and My Dead Pets Are Interesting, a humor collection from Lenore Zion. And right now we’re working on a new anthology called Beautiful, which will feature a bunch of essays by TNB writers on the subject of beauty. Elizabeth Collins is the editor on the project, and she’s done a fantastic job. I’m also co-editing an experimental book with Justin Benton which should be out sometime next year. The goal as we move forward is to really expand the imprint. We have so much great content on the site. I definitely want to publish a lot more books.

In what direction would you like for TNB Books to go?

I think the main focus will be on literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, much like TNB itself.  And I’d like for us to continue to be experimental. There are a lot of different ways that it could go, to be honest with you, and so much of it will be determined by resources, human and otherwise.

Do you have particular presses in mind as examples of the kind of work you have in mind for TNB Books?

Well, I’m a big fan of a lot of different presses. Some indies that come to mind include Featherpoof, Two Dollar Radio, Red Lemonade, McSweeney’s, and Muumuu House. I think Harper Perennial publishes really well. Twelve. Vintage. There are so many.

As a novelist yourself, do you think all this literary work is helpful or detrimental to your own writing output?

It’s definitely detrimental. I’m working on a novel right now and have to really fight for writing time. There are a lot of days when I’m overwhelmed with other work and can’t do it, which sucks. But the truth is that I like to work on these other things. I like to work as both an advocate and a facilitator in addition to being a writer. I wouldn’t be happy, I don’t think, if all I were doing was focusing on my own creative work.  That’s just how I am. I start to feel bogged down by that after a while. It’s a lot of time in my own brain, focused on my own pursuits, and so on. I like to get away from myself a little bit and turn my attention to other people and their work.

This past summer, you posted at The Nervous Breakdown an excerpt of a book you were working on. You’ve also mentioned it on the show. You were calling the project Possible Title, and you described it there as “a story strung together bit by bit, piece by piece, built from more than 3,000 pages of letters, notes, postcards, and journal entries” all from your actual past. Are you still working on that book?

Yeah, that was a bit of an experiment, a literary collage. It’s a memoir of my early writing years. I have several boxes of letters and journals and postcards written while I was in my twenties, and they were stored away in a closet, collecting dust. And then last winter I went in and unearthed them and started reading and was generally pretty horrified.  I was an unbelievable fool. But then a lot of the stuff was also really funny—painfully funny. So I started clipping out excerpts and stringing the thing together and soon found a narrative thread. Most of the letters were about my struggle to become a writer. Letters about how I wasn’t writing enough, or that my writing was no good, or that my writing was getting better, and so on. And then a lot of the letters were about the fact that I was single and broke and couldn’t find a girlfriend. Those were the two parallel lines. I have a manuscript completed. I showed it to my agent, and she liked it okay but felt like no traditional publisher would touch it with a ten-foot pole. She’s probably right. I don’t know. I still have it. I should probably do something with it. Part of it is up on The Nervous Breakdown.

I didn’t realize you had a completed manuscript. You should send it out to some of the small presses. I liked it.

Thanks, man. Maybe I will.

What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

Sleep. That’s a big one. I find myself looking forward to sleep a lot.  And I’m looking forward to 2012. I really enjoy the work that I’m doing, and I just want to keep going with it. I’d like for it to be successful and grow so that I can continue.

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Other People is also available for free on iTunes.

Drew Nellins lives in Austin.

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