Bestselling author and prolific lit interviewer Brad Listi was named “One of LA’s most fascinating people of 2015” by the LA Weekly. He stopped by to chat with me about podcasting and the secrets of successful writers.
On his “in depth and inappropriate” podcast, Otherppl with Brad Listi, he has interviewed over 350 leading contemporary authors — including George Saunders, Cheryl Strayed, Tao Lin, Jonathan Lethem, Austin Kleon, and Susan Orlean — and his takeaways for writers are often priceless and pointed.
In addition to his street-cred as a bestselling novelist, Brad is a screenwriter, and the founder and publisher of The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community.
In this file Brad Listi and I discuss:
- Why Interviews with Beginners Can Be More Interesting Than Interviews with Superstars
- The Magic of Deadlines, Caffeine, and Word Counts
- Why First Drafts are Like Ironing a Shirt
- The Importance of Meditation for ‘Unplugging’
- How Great Writers Capture a Moment That Others Can’t
- 3 Key Takeaways from over 350 Interviews with Writers
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
The Show Notes
- The Otherppl Podcast hosted by Brad Listi
- The Otherppl App
- Books by Brad Listi
- The Nervous Breakdown — an online culture magazine and literary community
- Otherppl on Twitter
- Brad Listi on Twitter
- Kelton Reid on Twitter
How Novelist and Prolific Podcaster Brad Listi Writes
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Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.
I’m your host, Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
Bestselling author and prolific lit interviewer Brad Listi has been named as one of LA’s most fascinating people of 2015 by the LA Weekly. He stopped by to chat with me about podcasting and the secrets of successful writers.
On his in-depth and inappropriate podcast, Otherppl with Brad Listi, he’s interviewed over 350 leading contemporary authors, including George Saunders, Cheryl Strayed, Tao Lin, Jonathan Lethem, Austin Kleon, and Susan Orlean, and his takeaways for writers are often priceless and pointed.
In addition to his street-cred as a bestselling novelist, Brad is a screenwriter and the founder and publisher of The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community.
In this file, Brad Listi and I discuss why interviews with beginners can be more interesting than interviews with superstars, the magic of deadlines, caffeine and word counts, why first drafts are like ironing a shirt, the importance of meditation for unplugging, and three key takeaways from over 350 interviews with writers.
If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please do me a favor. Leave a rating or a review in iTunes to help other writers find us. Thanks for tuning in.
Mr. Listi, thank you so much for coming onto The Writer Files.
Brad Listi: It’s my pleasure, man. Thanks for having me.
Kelton Reid: I am a huge fan of not only your writing, but also your podcast, which just blows me away with the breadth and depth and number of writers that you’ve interviewed over there is fantastic.
Brad Listi: Just leveraging my mental illness into productivity.
Kelton Reid: For listeners who aren’t familiar with your podcast and what you do, what is your area of expertise as both a writer and a podcaster?
Brad Listi: None. But I’m curious. I’m curious, professionally curious, and then also professionally confused. Those two things make for, hopefully, a decent podcaster, or somebody who talks to people regularly and interviews them, or not really interviews, but has conversations. I don’t know how unusual it is to be able to do that, but I can do it. I can sit there and talk to people and be totally fascinated, genuinely fascinated. It started as kind of a lark, which is how most of the things in my life tend to go, in my professional life, and it just snowballed. I’ve had so much fun doing it that I keep doing it. Then here we are four years later.
Kelton Reid: The podcast is Otherppl on iTunes and Stitcher. I definitely would encourage writers to seek it out if they don’t know it already. You’re an intrepid interviewer, but you just get into the mind of the writer. You let them rip. You talk about process. You’ve interviewed some amazing contemporary authors, including George Saunders, Tao Lin, Austin Kleon, who I love, who was just on this show as well — just an amazing, amazing array of different types of writers, which I think is very cool.
Why Interviews with Beginners Can Be More Interesting Than Interviews with Superstars
Brad Listi: Yeah. That’s always been part of the idea for the show, is that I would talk to writers across a wide range, meaning I talk to a guy like George Saunders, or I’ll talk to Cheryl Strayed, or I’ll talk to Susan Orlean, or I’ll talk to Edwidge Danticat, Tom Perrotta, those really recognizable, at least within the realm of the literary world, names.
Then I’m also talking to people who are debut authors on indie presses. Or I’m talking to poets, and nobody knows who any poets are practically. I’m not interested in only talking to people who have somehow managed to get some kind of media traction or name recognition. I’m interested in talking to writers who are at the beginning of the process, too. I think that’s just as interesting. Sometimes it’s more interesting.
I’m mostly curious about people generally, and I happen to interview writers. I like writers as people. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who do this, who try to do this work, and feel driven to do it. Whatever that is, whatever formula that is inside of a human being, I tend to gravitate towards, and I like. It’s just fun to talk to them.
Kelton Reid: For listeners who don’t know of your writing as well, you’re also a bestselling author.
Brad Listi: Bestselling is generous, but I’ll take it.
Kelton Reid: I loved your novel. Attention Deficit Disorder spoke to me at a time in my life, actually, when I just moved away from Los Angeles. I found the connection that you had to Colorado very interesting. But it’s kind of what’s-it-all mean novel. It really connected with me. I love the format. I love the writing itself.
Anyway, where can we find more of your writing? I know that you have an online community. You’re constantly getting your hands into other projects. What are you working on presently?
Brad Listi: I don’t mean to be cryptic. I’ve got a book going that’s been going forever. I published an experimental work of nonfiction with a writer named Justin Benton a couple of years ago called Board. It’s like a literary collage, ripped from comment boards on The Nervous Breakdown. I was just interested, and Justin was interested, in comment board culture and what people say on the Internet. We made this like weird book of literary collage out of it and called it Board, so that’s out there.
Then I’ve been working on a book for a long time. I’m also working on film and TV stuff, which I can’t fully talk about. I’m trying to get something going there. It might go. It might not go. It’s that kind of thing. That’s been occupying a lot of my time. Then doing the podcast, running The Nervous Breakdown in all of its various iterations. It’s a full schedule, and being a parent. The time goes away quickly.
Kelton Reid: The Nervous Breakdown is a great stop also for writers to discover new writing. I’ll point to that in the show notes as well. Do you want to talk about your productivity a little bit as a writer?
The Magic of Deadlines, Caffeine, and Word Counts
Brad Listi: Yeah. It’s in fits and starts. I’m good with a deadline, and if I have a project and I know that has like a real shape to it time-wise, I’m able to lock in. Otherwise, when I have the free time to work on a book, the problem with me is that I feel like I need a good chunk of time to get my head into the right space to inhabit the world of the book and to really feel like I have a rhythm.
My life has not been able to accommodate that consistently. I have it in pockets. I’ll go to work on it, and then I’ll get pulled into another project that has a deadline attached to it and probably money. And I’ll have to go there. That’s the way that it’s been going. I have been struggling mightily to write the second book. I wrote an entire novel called City of Champions, which I trashed. It was 130,000 words.
Kelton Reid: Wow.
Brad Listi: Yeah. Then I wrote an entire another novel draft, trashed it. It’s been like that for me. It has not been easy. This is not something that comes easily to me at all. It’s been very frustrating. Then you compound that with trying to make a living and support a family, and it’s challenging. It’s still a work in progress in terms of trying to figure out how to make it all happen. But the good news is that there could be potentially a glimmer of light. It’s the best I can tell you.
Kelton Reid: Well that’s good to hear. When you are working on any kind of project that requires you to sit in one place, do you have any pregame rituals or practices that help you get into that mode?
Brad Listi: Yeah, caffeine. Just caffeine. It’s caffeine. I used to exercise and then work. Now, lately, I have been working and then exercising. In a perfect world, I’d get up really early and work. Actually, I don’t know. In a perfect world, I’d get up really early and go for a hike someplace beautiful, a couple of hours, then come down and work. Be unimpeded. But usually morning, drink some caffeine, get in front of the keyboard.
I had a pocket of time earlier this spring where I was really working for about six weeks. That’s the way I was doing it. I usually operate on a word count just to give myself a no BS metric. I have to see how many words I’m getting in order to actually chart my progress. I write it down so that it’s externalized. It’s not just something that I keep in my head. I actually have it on paper day by day, so I can see what I’m doing.
Because it can get really easy to sort of spin your wheels. That’s going to happen inevitably. At some point in the writing process, you’re going to have to backtrack and cut pages, or you’re going to get stuck in a certain section and just grind away and not get anywhere for a while. If I don’t write it down, I can wind up grinding away for a long time. It be like, “I feel like I’m working,” but the book has not advanced. The narrative has not advanced in six weeks or whatever. It’s just helpful for me to do it that way. It keeps me accountable.
Kelton Reid: Do you prefer silence, or do you like to listen to music while you’re typing, writing?
Brad Listi: Like ambient music. I’ve written parts of books at least where music has helped me in terms of getting an emotional tone, getting myself into the right emotional, tonal headspace to write whatever section it is or whatever project I’m working on. I don’t like to write with music that has lyrics and people are singing in my head. It’s too many voices, and I’ll start singing along. It’s just distracting. If I could ever find silence — I live in Los Angeles, there’s no such thing. I have small children, a small child with another one on the way, so silence is hard to come by. That would be pretty awesome if I could find that, but not any time soon.
Kelton Reid: When you are in that pocket of productivity, do you find yourself needing to sit down every day?
Brad Listi: Yeah. I’m very rhythmic. That’s what I mean by ‘rhythm.’ What’s frustrating is that if I could set up a schedule where I was able to do it every day at the same time. The other thing, too, some of these people, I was talking to Aimee Bender on my show. She has young twins and was talking about how she’s writing in seven-minute pockets of time, whatever’s available to her, which is the resourceful, admirable, intelligent way to go about it.
For me, I need a few hours. I need a couple of hours just to mess around before I can even get started. I don’t know why. That’s the way it’s always been for me. I have to warm up. I have to sit there and re-read it. It takes me a while to get back into it. It’s always been that way. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Four hours is a minimal pocket of time in order for me to get 500 to 1000 words, unless I’m really caffeinated.
Kelton Reid: Do you edit while you work, like as you go?
Why First Drafts Are Like Ironing a Shirt
Brad Listi: Yeah. I try to write the best possible first draft that I can. I’m not somebody who just sits there and let’s it rip. I’m always trying to write the best I can, and at the same time, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t get too nitpicky and stifle myself or let the inner critic or whatever overtake the process. I find that if you’re too permissive, then it can let you off the hook. You let yourself off the hook, and you get into lazy writing, which isn’t helpful. Then you have this huge mess to clean up.
I liken it to ironing a shirt. When you’re working on a first draft, it’s like when you iron a shirt and you’re always sliding the shirt over to go back to where you just were. I don’t know if that’s the right visual. But I’ll write, and then I’ll reread what I’ve written, usually all the way from the beginning.
This is another reason why it takes me forever. I’ll start, I could be on page 150 of a book, and every morning, I get up and I start on page one and I reread — and I’m just ironing. Then I’m getting back in, and then I’m trying to advance it 500 or 1000 words or whatever. That doesn’t mean that I’m not skimming. There’s certain sections where you know you have it or you need to come back to it later and focus time. That’s how I do it.
Kelton Reid: You’ve interviewed so many authors, and I’m sure that you’ve asked this same question of them. Do you believe in writer’s block? Do you get writer’s block or do you have a superstition about it?
Brad Listi: No. I think you just do the work, and you just write something. I can understand being blocked with respect to a particular project, or you hit some sort of impasse. There is such a thing as getting to a point where you realize a book is not going to work, or you’re just out of juice for the time being. I don’t get the whole thing where I’m too scared to say anything. You can’t let yourself have that. You just get to work. If that’s the way it is, and it’s consistent and it’s prolonged, then I think you need to consider finding other ways to occupy yourself.
Kelton Reid: If I could pick your brain a little bit about your workflow over there. What kind of hardware or typewriter are you presently clacking away on over there?
Brad Listi: Just a MacBook Pro, either Microsoft Word or Scribner. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Kelton Reid: Do you have any methods for staying organized? Do you use outlines, et cetera?
Brad Listi: No, I don’t outline. I work intuitively. The outlines that I have, it would be too generous to call them outlines. I’ll have a document where I’m keeping notes and scraps and what not, but it’s not like a great system or some sort of really ingenious method. Again, I feel like all these things could be improved upon. You know?
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Brad Listi: There’s lots of room for improvement.
Kelton Reid: Definitely. Well, I think all of us feel that way, but talking about it helps.
Brad Listi: Yeah, that’s right. I mean I’ve been doing it for the past four years.
Kelton Reid: The talking cure, so to speak. I think Austin Kleon is the one who, first at least, pointed to productive procrastination in his stuff. It sounds like what you’re doing when you do get into that mode is that you’re doing a productive procrastination prior to getting into it. Do you have any other methods for beating procrastination or is that something you wane into?
Brad Listi: Just deadlines, self-loathing. Eventually you’re just like, “What the heck am I doing? I got to get to work.” I’ll be reading something that inspires me, or I’ll reread whatever I’ve been writing to get back into the voice and to figure out what’s going to happen next. Again, because I’m not working through an outline.
It almost feels like I got to get this momentum. The rereading, you inhabit not only the voice of the book but also the world of the book, and then you get caught up in the narrative momentum of the book if you’re really concentrated. Then when you get into that leaping off point, if you’ve got the right momentum, then you can usually figure it out, or you can make some progress. I think that’s part of it.
Kelton Reid: Nice.
Brad Listi: Otherwise, in terms of prep or constructive procrastination or whatever, again, sometimes it could be more constructive. Sometimes I’m just on Facebook or whatever.
Kelton Reid: How do you unplug at the end of a session?
The Importance of Meditation for ‘Unplugging’
Brad Listi: Meditation. I mediate twice a day on a good day. Always once lately, but usually twice. The best thing I can do is sit for 20 minutes to 40 minutes and just do that — focus on breathing and try not to think so much. It really does reset me.
Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take your free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
If we could dive into creativity a little bit. Can you define creativity in your own words?
How Brad Defines Creativity
Brad Listi: Let me see here. Making stuff. God, man, that’s a tough one. You’re taking disparate elements and combining them to make something that didn’t previously exist. I’m interested in the composite nature of creativity. Any work of art, I’m always fascinated when the sourcing of it is articulated, or you can figure it out by reading, like in the context of literature, like literary biography.
That’s another reason I think that I like doing the podcast. I like getting into some of that, where you’re talking to somebody and figuring out what were these disparate elements that they pulled together to write this? What were the things that were bothering them? Who were the authors that they were turning to or leaning on when they were putting their initial ideas for their book together, when it was still in the realm of abstraction? I think that’s what it is to me.
I’m very much a fan of collage art. I’m very much a fan of odd combinations. I think my novel is a testament to that. I like the idea of digression. I like the idea of nonfiction infused with fiction. Mini biography, all that kind of stuff really appeals to me.
Kelton Reid: Those are some of the most appealing parts of your novel for sure, that infused fiction nonfiction. I love the quotes, the definitions, how it jumps.
Brad Listi: I think I could do without the definitions, or at least just a couple. I think I overdid it on those. But one thing I really like, not about my own book but that would maybe further clarify what I’m trying to say, is that I really love books that are explicit reactions to reading.
All books are in some way a reaction to what the author is reading. I really love authors that you can tell, either explicitly or implicitly or in the endnotes or whatever, that they’re really responding to a book or a set of books, or they have like a central question that they’re trying to get the answer to and have done the research around it, and that kind of thing. There’s something about the transparency of that, that appeals to me and that I find heroic.
Kelton Reid: Do you have a creative muse at the moment?
Brad Listi: I’m sure I do. I love Louis CK like everybody else. I think it’s because of the way in which he conveys how humiliating life is. I agree with that. It’s like it’s just humiliating to be alive, painful. It’s just such an awkward mess. He finds the funny in that. That sensibility really appeals to me. I mean I’m going to sound corny, but my daughter — just because when you have a four year old … you have a young child, right?
Kelton Reid: I do.
Brad Listi: Being around kids, whether they’re your own or they’re other people’s, there’s something wonderful about how free they are in terms of how they create. Just having her sit there and scribble on a piece of paper and draw something. There’s no self-consciousness. There’s no self-editing. There’s no, “This is bad,” or “This is good.” It’s all free. That is fun to be around and a good reminder.
Kelton Reid: That’s fun. Yeah, they have no filter whatsoever. It’s funny because definitely some of your monologue work on your show reminds me of Louis CK.
Brad Listi: Oh really?
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Pointing out the absurdity of everyday stuff, which is great.
Brad Listi: I appreciate it. I think that’s generous. I watch his show. I listen. I’ve taken his standup, and I listen to a lot of Howard Stern. I listen to a lot of Maron. I listen to a lot of Terry Gross, Charlie Rose. I love interview shows in addition to doing one. I have all these people who I’ve been listening to for years and who I think were inspirational when I went to start my own little podcast. I feel like, inevitably, some of the rhythms of their delivery and some of the things that they are fixated upon, they’re going to work their way into my show somehow.
Kelton Reid: II have one Louis CK standup seared into my brain, and it’s the Chewed Up special that he did. I’ll jump to what makes a writer great.
How Great Writers Capture a Moment That Others Can’t
Brad Listi: I think the ability to tap into and articulate well what everybody else is thinking but doesn’t have the words to say. There are some writers who are preternaturally good at that. I think a really terrific intellect is a big part of it as well. I always think of Don DeLillo whenever I think of somebody who’s just got a Teflon brain. I know David Foster Wallace is often thought of in that context, but DeLillo, it’s frightening to me. His brain is just so sharp.
There’s a lot of writers like that. It’s not just contemporary. It’s not just men, obviously. It runs the gamut. There are a lot of great writers, and I think they’re all just terrifically intelligent. But in addition to having brain smarts, I think having a real sense of the human heart and having a real sense of humor. To be contradictory, I don’t know if DeLillo is a super funny writer. I know nothing about him in person. But recollecting his work, I don’t think of it as like being super funny, but I love that alchemy.
I think a great writer can write tragedy and comedy in the same sentence, because that kind of sentence and that kind of work holds a mirror up to the world. There’s the old adage that the world is tragic, terrible and tragic and dark and absurd and hilarious, and often at the same time. I think that’s totally true, and really great art should reflect that.
Then, again, there are great books that are like super dramatic and not funny at all. So it’s not like it’s got to be just my way, but that’s what I look for. If I can find a writer who does that. Whenever anybody asks me that question – “What’s your favorite book?” — which is an impossible question to answer, I always say Journey to the End of the Night and Death or the Installment Plan, the two books by Louis Ferdinand Celine. I almost said Louis Ferdinand CK.
But those two books, when I read them in my early 20s, blew me away. In the aftermath, reading up on Celine and trying to figure out who he was as a guy, you find yourself conflicted because he was a Nazi sympathizer in his later years. It got a little sketchy there. But he was a soldier in World War One. He suffered head trauma. He had a hard life in a lot of respects and regardless of how he conducted himself in his personal life in his later years or what his political beliefs might have been, those two books have a ton of humanity in them, and a ton of really deep intellect, a lot of heart, and a lot of really dark humor.
I don’t know if it’s the translation. I guess the translation must be a big part of it, but those books always struck me in terms of how well they’ve aged. You read those books or I read those books at the turn of a century — they were published in like 1930s — and they didn’t seem dated at all to me, other than maybe some of the context in terms of what was happening in the books, the war or whatever. There’s just something really immediate about them and just wildly smart and funny and dark. The sense that I find myself having when I put down a book that I really admire is that it says everything. There’s just nothing left, and I got it.
Another book that I had that feeling about was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Again, at the time that I read it, again, I was probably 21 years old or whatever. I was at the Boulder Bookstore, and for whatever reason, I picked that book up in hardcover, and I bought it. I read it, and I was like, “Oh man, that’s it.” It just summed up a moment.
When you write something like that, that captures a moment, and I guess from a certain perspective, it really resonates. You obviously can’t say everything, but if you can capture a little sliver of it in a really full way, it has that feeling of saying everything. I don’t know if I articulated that well, but you know what I mean — hopefully.
Kelton Reid: I think you articulated quite well. A couple of fun ones, and you may have already answered this, but who is your favorite literally character?
Brad Listi: Hang on.
Kelton Reid: I’m going to keep the silence in.
Brad Listi: Yeah. I want the audience to feel the weight of the silence.
Kelton Reid: That’s a terrible question, I know.
Brad Listi: No. There’s the Kilgore Trout, but I don’t really feel like I grabbed on, and Bardamu in Journey to the End of the Night is not exactly somebody you lionize. You know what I’m saying? A lot of the literary characters in the books that I’ve liked best are not exactly heroic. I like the anti-hero. I always thought that Bukowski narrator was funny. There’s a guy who could write funny, like genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, at least for me, in his best stuff.
God, you know who else I really liked? I liked the narrator in the Ben Learner novel Leaving the Atocha Station. To go back to the whole thing about capturing a moment, there’s something about that book that feels it’s getting it. It’s getting its time perfectly right, or at least it did for me, a certain kind of obsessive self-consciousness coupled with the moment in terms of geopolitics and technology and how we live now. I don’t know, but that narrator actually made me laugh. I always go to writing that feels really deeply smart but also funny, and that’s rare.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely. Writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously, even though it might be.
Brad Listi: Well, I don’t want just a silly book. If it’s just a bunch of like jokes, then that’s easy, but if it’s somebody who’s really got something to say and the laughs come unexpectedly. If I laugh out loud while reading a book, I’m sold. It doesn’t happen very often.
Kelton Reid: If you could choose one author living or dead for an all-expense paid dinner to your favorite restaurants, who would you choose, and where would you go?
Brad Listi: Let’s do some more silence here. Oh, living or dead. A few years ago, I probably would’ve said Gore Vidal in his prime just because I always thought he was so funny and such a great talker. But then I watched this documentary and you read the postmortem about his later years. Then was a book, this guy — I’m already forgetting his name — just wrote a book, which I didn’t really love. It was called Sympathy for the Devil. It was a guy who knew Gore going back to his years in Rome in 70s or whatever, and it was just a mess.
Life, especially if it’s lived long, usually ends messy one way or another because old age is a massacre or whatever. It’s just tough to get old, but it’s especially tough to get old when you’re drinking a gallon of whiskey every day. There’s a part of me that really admired and just loved Vidal for being such a wit, so stinking funny and so sharp and acidic — just good company. I imagine that, at his best, he was really fun to sit at a dinner table with, but he could also be really mean and sloppy. He came unhinged at the end. I’ll say Gore Vidal, but in his prime.
Kelton Reid: Okay. Where would you take him?
Brad Listi: God, I don’t think I would take him anywhere. I think he would probably pick the restaurant. Let’s just say somewhere in Revello.
Kelton Reid: Okay, perfect. Do you have a writer’s fetish at all?
Brad Listi: No, I don’t even know what that is. Like I have to have a certain like pen or something?
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I don’t know. I know fetish has a couple of different meanings, but yeah, do you collect weird writerly paraphernalia?
Brad Listi: No. I’m the least sentimental person ever. Even baby pictures, I’m like, “Shred them. I don’t need them. It’s too much clutter. I don’t care.” I just need some space, quiet, or be in a coffee shop with some headphones on, but I’m not super nitpicky about having to have a certain kind of pen or anything like that.
Kelton Reid: Who or what has been your greatest teacher?
Brad Listi: The books and the writers that wrote them, no doubt. It starts with the work itself. If I were going to add a dimension that might differentiate me even a little bit, it would be that I almost always get into nonfiction if I like a writer’s fiction or if I like a writer’s work period. Meaning, I’ll always go in search of literary biography, which maybe makes my podcast make more sense.
To be really frank with you, I’m often more interested in the literary biography than I was in the work, even when I loved the work. I’m very fascinated with the people who make the work, why they do it, and who they were. That kind of detective work is interesting to me. I guess that might mean that I should write biography. I haven’t done it yet. I don’t know if a straight biography is exactly what I’m wired to do, but some component of that is fascinating.
I think the podcast is a form of literary biography, in the aggregate especially. That element of it has been probably the most important thing that I have done in terms of getting an education. That includes getting an MFA. It’s just got to be the case for anybody who does this. You have to read books that move you, and you have to really read them — and sometimes re-read them.
Then the other thing about it is that, when I was coming up, I went through a period of about two or three years where every morning I would print out one or two interviews with authors. I just built this huge library of author interviews that I read, and I keep them in a filing cabinet. We’re talking thousands of pages when it was all said and done. I just had this huge library of them.
We talked about earlier, rituals to get like ready to work or whatever, that’s what I was doing in my 20s. I would read author interviews and that would get me excited about working, just to hear them talking about the work, why they did the work, how they did the work, and successes they’d had or struggles that they had overcome. That can be extremely helpful and even medicinal, especially if you’re stuck, or you’re feeling down, or your energy level is low.
Part of my motivation in doing the podcast is to get some of that for myself, but also to create a place for writers to come and hear and commiserate, virtually at least, and hopefully leave with a little bit more energy or a little bit more hope about their own lives and work.
Kelton Reid: You’ve just amassed so much advice from other writers. Do you have any advice yourself, kind of sage advice for fellow scribes on just how to keep going, how to keep the cursor moving?
3 Key Takeaways from over 350 Interviews with Writers
Brad Listi: Read a lot, and read interviews with the authors that you love. Find out about their lives because it’s a great way to demystify it. It’s a great way to take them down off their pedestal. Humanizing people we admire is important. It’s often instructive because you can figure out how they did and what happened to them when they hit adversity and how they handled it and so on and so forth. It’s not always great, either. You don’t necessarily learn from the best example every time. Sometimes you learn from the worst example. You learn what to avoid. So there’s that.
Having done almost 400 interviews with writers, I think I’ve gleaned it. I try to boil it all down into the simplest possible insights into the writing life, if I can remember them. One of them was don’t do it for money. The writers that I’ve talked to who seem the most well-adjusted and often have the most success, they’re definitely having the most fun doing it. There just not thinking of it like, “Oh I got to make a living from this,” or, “I got to make a million dollars from this.” They’re doing it because they love it. They don’t care if they make money. They like to do it. It makes their life better. That’s one thing. Then if the money comes, great. But it’s not why you do it. It’s not anything you’re expecting.
The other thing is read a lot. I’ve said this many times, but one of the big dirty secrets amongst so many writers is they don’t read, or they don’t read regularly, or enough. That’s a bad formula. Don’t do it for money, read a lot, and then write every day or close to it. Those are the three things. If you can do that, you’re likely going to get books done, and you’re not going to be miserable doing it. That’s the best I can tell you. Those are three common denominators.
Obviously, it’s a little bit different for everyone, and there are always outliers and exceptions to the rule. But those are the three things, if I had to boil it down, that I’ve come away with after talking to all these writers.
Kelton Reid: That’s fantastic advice. Where can fellow writers connect with you out there?
Brad Listi: The podcast has its own website. It’s Otherppl.com. Then you can follow the show on Twitter, @Otherppl. Then you can follow me @BradListi on Twitter. Those are probably the best places to keep up with things.
The podcast also had its own app, which is free. You can get it wherever you can get apps. You get that app on your device, and then the most recent 50 episodes are available free. You get the app and the most recent 50 shows are just there waiting for you. Then if you want to get to the deeper archives, you can sign up for premium, which is as cheap as like 75 cents a month. It’s 75 cents a month, and you get access to everything. Those are the best ways. Get the app and you should be off and running.
Kelton Reid: That’s fantastic. The six degrees of Brad Listi. You probably have some connection to every great contemporary writer at this point.
Brad Listi: Fewer than six degrees I would bet. Not that I know them, but I’m sure I know somebody who knows somebody who knows them.
Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for taking the time. I do encourage writers to seek out the podcast and also your writing, and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Brad Listi: It was absolutely my pleasure, Kelton. Thanks for having me on.
Kelton Reid: Cheers.
Great advice that all writers should heed.
Cheers. See you out there.