In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan share how they started the podcast, and offer podcasting tips with help from friends who host their own shows. Then LitHub.com editor-in-chief Jonny Diamond speaks about the launch of Lit Hub Radio and his five-year anniversary as LitHub.com’s content czar, as well as his own writing. To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.
Readings from this episode:
“The Power of Facebook: How Big is Too Big?” Alexis C. Madrigal and Alexander Chee on the Darker Side Social Media
· “What Facebook Did to American Democracy” by Alexis C. Madrigal · The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges · “Exploring What an Interruption is in Conversation,” by Katherine Hilton, Stanford University Doctoral Student · “How Luminary’s Messy Debut Ended Up Roiling the Podcast Industry” · “Lumbersexuality, a Sport and a Pastime” by Jonny Diamond · Close Talking: A Poetry Podcast Hosted by Connor Stratton and Jack Rossiter-Munley · #GoodMuslimBadMuslimHosted by Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh · Between the Covers Hosted by David Naimon · The Racist Sandwich PodcastHosted by Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed · Political Gabfest Hosted by Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson and David Plotz · 538 Politics Podcast Hosted by Nate Silver and the FiveThirtyEight team.
From the episode:
PART I: Whit, Sugi, and AWP Guests talk podcasting
Whitney Terrell: I did a panel in Portland at the AWP conference. You were not invited. You came anyway. It was a how-to session on literary podcasting. We had amazing panelists, Taz Ahmed from the Good Muslim, Bad Muslim podcast, Zahir Janmohamed from the Racist Sandwich podcast, David Naimon from the Between the Covers podcast and Connor Stratton from the Close Talking podcast.
VVG: So while Whit and I talk about our experiences putting together the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, which is now a year and a half old, we will be cutting in sound from that panel.
So, what makes for a good topic?
WT: For our show, I like it to be in the news flow in some way. For there to be what one of my editors at The Kansas City Star would have called a news peg to the events that we’re going to talk about, but also one for which we can immediately imagine a couple things. One is some writers who would be good to talk about that subject. And also some books that either you or I are familiar with, that’ll be interesting to discuss in light of that subject. For instance, we decided to do the episode on Facebook around the time of the early revelations of how Facebook had been disseminating fake news during the 2016 election. I really wanted to talk about “The Library of Babel,” that Borges story. And I really thought, oh, the way he thinks about that library will match the data sets stuff that we’re discussing that has to do with Facebook, and you knew Alexis Madrigal would be a good person to talk to because he’d written a piece in The Atlantic.
VVG: Right. And then we had Alexis and Alexander Chee on for that episode, which is called “The Power of Facebook: How Big is Too Big?”
I had eight questions. But if I get to all eight questions, I know I’ve failed, meaning that’s when I know I’m really being nervous, is if I’ve gotten past five.
WT: That’s a good topic. All three of those elements coalesced around there. We knew Alexander would be a good guest, because he has a presence on social media, but also is thinking about these issues too, and was maybe reconsidering the way that he uses social media as a writer. And so we thought that would be good. And also, the two guests have to have something different to say.
VVG: Yeah, we usually conceive of the two halves of the show differently. One half might focus more on the news, and the other might focus more on literature, or they might focus on two different craft questions related to the news. So that’s the thing that I’m always interested in, actually, is how does what’s going on in the news require us to think about the art of writing differently. So just an example of this: when we had Emily Raboteau on for a recent climate change episode—we’ve done a couple of those—she was talking about her opinion that fiction is no longer really the right genre in which to write about climate change. I’m interested in those sorts of intersections of politics and say, structure or point of view, so I’m always curious to ask our guests about that.
We have a good cut from Taz Ahmed talking about how she and her co-host Zahra Noorbakhsh prepare an episode of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. So let’s hear how a couple of other podcasters do this.
Taz Ahmed: We’re very prepared on our podcast. I don’t know if that comes across to listeners. But we work on an agenda. The plan is to have three hot topics that we talk about at the top of the show, and then we have a shorter segments after our break. And the shorter segments are “Awkward-Ask a Muslim,” “Declare Fatwas,” we have a Sharia segment, we give out a Good Muslim Award. So those are pretty consistent. And I think what’s so fun about having the short segments is that our listeners know that they always come about in the second half of our show. It helps us when we go through our month—that’s the story, that’s the experience I just had in my life that I’m going to use. I had a great “Awkward-Ask a Muslim” yesterday, so that’s gonna be my “Awkward-Ask a Muslim” this month.
WT: What was it?
TA: It was a Lyft driver that wanted to talk about Muslim menswear, and I was like, okay, this is going to be very interesting.
But as far as the news topic, I think Zahra and I have very different perspectives when it comes to what’s happening in the news. I have a very political background, so I always want to get a little bit nerdier. And she comes from a comedy background. So she wants to find the funny in a lot of things. So—
WT: Yeah, you guys argue. Do you know you’re going to argue ahead of time?
TA: We do not know that we’re going to argue! But we do argue a lot.
WT: I mean, disagreement is interesting. I like that part of the podcast.
TA: I think that’s why people want to listen to us. I think one of the things that we were really fighting back against was this perception that everyone thought Muslim women were all one thing, that we all had one opinion, so this way, you know, well, if you listen to us, you’re like, oh, these two women have very different perspectives on how they view a lot of things, that people thought otherwise. So yeah, we definitely do have an agenda. We’ll also have five different topics that we’ll go through, and then, when we do our run-through before we start recording, we talk about what we want to say about each thing.
WT: And for a bit of a contrast to our method, and to Taz’s in a way, here’s Zahir Janmohamed talking about how he and his co-host, Soleil Ho, prepare an episode of the Racist Sandwich podcast.
Zahir Janmohamed: We have some questions.
WT: Are they written down?
ZJ: Yeah, when I interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen—it was at a conference here in Portland—I think I had eight questions. But if I get to all eight questions, I know I’ve failed, meaning that’s when I know I’m really being nervous, is if I’ve gotten past five, meaning I try to only ask four questions, because the idea is to have some dialogue and conversation. And it’s always nice when they ask you questions as well. But if I’ve gotten to all eight, I know this is not really going well.
I think if you have the time, it’s always better to talk to the person in advance. Viet Thanh Nguyen is very busy, I didn’t call him, I don’t have his number, I didn’t call him in advance. But with Alexander Chee—I don’t know him personally. But he was very generous on email, where I had an idea about what we would talk about—his last book of essays isn’t directly about food. I usually prep someone before I interview them. Sometimes I take on a bit more of an adversarial position, and a little bit more to the right, because I want to press somebody, and sometimes I sound a bit more naive than I really am in real life.
It’s not a radical new format for the discussion of ideas. It’s just great that you don’t have to work your way up through the broadcast industry to make it happen.
* PART II: Jonny Diamond
VVG: Please imagine me swapping hats from guest to co-host, because now we’re excited to welcome the one and only Jonny Diamond. Jonny Diamond is a writer and editor who splits his time between New York City and the Hudson Valley. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Missouri Review, Geist, Hobart Pulp, Rolling Stone, Literary Hub and elsewhere. He’s currently working on a book-length object history of the axe. Part investigation of its symbolism in America’s westward expansion, part interrogation of contemporary tropes of masculinity and wilderness. He’s the editor-in-chief of LitHub.com and our editor. Jonny, welcome to the show!
Jonny Diamond: Thanks, Sugi. Hey, Whit! How are you guys doing?
WT: Hey! Glad to have you here! All right, so, we’re Literary Hub’s oldest podcast that’s still airing. The very first one was Phone Call From Paul, with Paul Holdengraber, which last aired almost a year ago. At the end of April, though, you launched a LitHub site redesign, and also Lit Hub Radio, of which we’re now a part. And some of the podcasts that had previously been independent joined that Lit Hub Radio group, Otherppl with Brad Listi, So Many Damn Books, and then the now just-begun Maris Review with Maris Kreizman.
JD: Sometimes it feels to me Lit Hub’s been around for a decade. And sometimes it feels like it’s only been a year. And those are both good and bad feelings, respectively. Since we launched, we’ve really expanded the depth and variety of stuff we cover, both within the book publishing world, and in terms of culture and politics, and we’ve evolved into something closer to a general interest magazine anchored to books. And so it was becoming—frustrating is too strong a word. But we were bewildered occasionally that readers didn’t know we did all kinds of nonfiction stuff. Some people still thought we just covered literary fiction, which is a core part of what we do, but a small part.
So with the redesign, we’ve made it hopefully a lot easier for people to see all the stuff we do in history and biography and memoir and science and tech and food and travel and film and TV and music. Because really, the idea of the site is that you can get at and discuss any topic through books. And so there’s no reason why a site devoted to books should be limited to the literary novel, which is my first love, I should say. So that was the idea, the redesign. And so far, that’s been successful.
And Lit Hub Radio, aka a podcast network, just seems like a very logical extension of that. There’s a particular kind of conversation around books and culture that people love to have with their friends in bookstores, in print, and also, obviously, recorded for the listening pleasure of others. So there are a ton of great literary podcasts out there. And it just made sense to put some of them together to bring to a readership that would be particularly interested in hearing those conversations.
VVG: So when you started editing Lit Hub, Slate had several podcasts, and The New York Times did… It seems like there are more and more of these podcasting networks, including Lit Hub Radio, Luminary, which I think is coming soon, and then the clusters attached to other mainstream publications. So in some ways, it’s all very cutting-edge, but in other ways, it maintains some of the great old traditions of radio, like accessibility and a kind of democratization of the production of information. You know that Whit and I did not have any background doing this before we started doing it, and now you’ve got a dozen podcasts as part of Lit Hub Radio. So did you see that coming? Or are you surprised that this is how it has evolved?
JD: I don’t think I’m particularly surprised, honestly. I do like to think about the democratization of these kinds of conversations through readily accessible tech. But I’m also wary of the dissemination of those cultural products in the context of the hyper-capitalist, massive corporate networks of Facebook and Amazon. It’s one thing to record a podcast; it’s another to see it out in the world. So I think one must be wary about the tech side of it in terms of rampant enthusiasm, and also the idea that you can monetize stuff.
WT: Luminary got $100 million in venture capital funding. I mean, I don’t think that happened for LitHub Radio–
JD: Have you seen the kinds of things that venture capitalists will give money to? And $100 million–
WT: Why not us, damnit!
VVG: It’s pocket change for them. Pocket change!
JD: You know, we’d much rather, at Lit Hub, not be rich and do the kinds of things we want to do, and grow an audience—I even hate the phraseology “grow an audience.” We want to reach people who are interested in books and ideas. And we want to be consistent, and we want to do it slowly. We’re not trying to create something that we can then sell, we’re just trying to create something that can, ideally, sustain itself. So specifically with literary podcasts, and with podcasts in general, they’re just radio shows. So it’s not a radical new format for the discussion of ideas. It’s just great that you don’t have to work your way up through the broadcast industry to make it happen.
WT: I know. Sugi and I would have had to be 70 years old by the time we got on NPR to have our own show.
Especially podcasts about books are experiencing someone else thinking through an idea, which to me is also good writing, but a podcast, it’s obviously on the fly.
JD: The idea of the blog, which had its heyday perhaps at the turn of the century in the Bush years, which on one hand seemed revolutionary and like a whole new thing, but on the other was just another place where people could write and disseminate their ideas. And so there’s no real revenue model attached to any of it. It’s just being consistent doing something you clearly love and also having a bit of talent and intelligence. Anyone who tells you that you’re going to get into this to make a lot of money is probably not entirely . . .
WT: . . . being honest?
JD: I don’t know, is this pessimistic?
WT: No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, when we talk to these people, these podcasters at AWP, they were all saying, look, we did this because we enjoy it. And they talked about the amount of money they made, but it was mostly just enough to keep the podcast going and make it functional. Nobody was getting rich off of that. And I don’t think that’s the desire for most people who are in this.
JD: I don’t also want to be one of these people who says, in terms of culture, and its—for lack of a better term—production, that you should never expect to make money on it. That’s another kind of limiting of who gets to make culture, if as it’ll only ever be a hobby—you have to love it. That is true to some extent, but I would like to think we can figure out ways where people don’t have to work two or three other jobs just so they can also read enough books to talk about them and create and add to the conversation on culture. Now we get into the degree to which, as a Canadian, I still am amazed at funding for the arts, and subsidies for the arts, and all of that, but yes, podcasting is not some boom movement that’s going to make a bunch of people rich, I think. And I think that’s how we approach it, that we’d like to figure out ways to make sure people can do it comfortably, but it has to be about the conversations, the books, the ideas, all of that, first and foremost.
VVG: So how do you maintain your identity as a writer and your pursuit of this project while processing so much information from other writers? This isn’t your first time doing it, because you were at L Magazine, and Brooklyn Magazine—what do you do to manage all that input and still create your own output?
JD: It’s very difficult. It doesn’t always work. So I think in that regard, I have to manage my own expectations, so that on the one hand, I’m kicking my own ass enough to write, but I’m also not falling into a pit of despair if I don’t manage to write for a couple of weeks. I work well really early in the morning. So I have to do that. I find a little bit of time on Sundays to make that happen. I think it’s like any writer—the fantasy of the writer’s life, the typewriter and plenty of time to write. And a lot of us don’t quite have that. We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed. So I find time where I can. With nonfiction, it’s actually been a nice change, to be able to listen to nonfiction audiobooks, to get a lot of background for this. And I do that on my commute, and I’m able to ingest more and more information. But the shorter answer is, it’s really hard. And sometimes I have a hard time maintaining my identity as a writer, and I get depressed. But it’s okay.
WT: I was wondering if being an editor at Lit Hub has changed the way that you write in any way.
JD: As any professional editor will probably tell you, you get quicker about structure, and you get quicker about flow, and you get quicker about the fat. A good editor is good at excising the unnecessary, and so I think those are the tools in writing-to-fit, writing fast, and making sure every word counts. These sound like truisms, but that’s all part of being an editor, and then being able to bring that to your own writing.
WT: You can’t possibly, given the size of the network, listen to every podcast every week. But what for you makes a good podcast episode? You guys have been very hands-off with us, but I’m sure that you think: well, this is good, and this is what I prefer not to see when it comes to podcasts.
JD: For me, honestly, a good podcast, like a good radio show, comes down to the people you want to spend time eavesdropping on. And I don’t mean the guests. I mean, to me, especially podcasts about books, are about experiencing someone else thinking through an idea, which to me is also good writing, but a podcast, it’s obviously on the fly. And so you want someone who’s going to be asking the questions that you want to be asked. There’s nothing more frustrating and probably nothing more common than yelling at the radio when an interviewer doesn’t ask the obvious question. That’s why I like you guys, because there’s a journalistic sensibility as well that’s brought to bear on a lot of these things.
WT: Zahir said—and I think we quoted him earlier—he said, sometimes I’m the person who’s supposed to ask the dumb question.
That’s my role on this podcast. Sugi gets to ask the smart questions.
JD: And that’s the journalist question. That’s the Colombo question… that’s maybe an old reference: “one more question I got, maybe it’s dumb, but…” And that can be the question that untangles or topples something. I think that’s important.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Damian Johansson. This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF.