The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Brad Listi

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Although I’ve worked with him for two years now, I have never met Brad Listi in person. We have an email-based relationship, which isn’t so uncommon nowadays, but because of the lack of time spent together, I can’t tell you the weird and interesting things about him. Like whether he hates strawberry milk or what he thinks of Nietzsche or how he wears his hair. Those things haven’t come up in our emails yet. But what I can say about him, the things that are visible to all of us whether we’re close to him or not, is that he’s fearless and motivated when it comes to publishing.

Listi founded and built The Nervous Breakdown, a massive online culture magazine that more or less functions as a literary community with contributors from all over the world. In 2010, the site also launched an imprint, TNB Books, to publish literary fiction and nonfiction. And, duh, he’s a writer. His debut novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder is a Los Angeles Times bestseller and his “brief, experimental memoir,” Possible Title nearly made me pee each time I read a new installment.

But wait! There’s more!

The whole reason you’re here reading this is because Listi’s Other People podcast, launched only a year ago, has reached it’s 100th episode. He publishes two in-depth and often hilariously inappropriate interviews with authors every single week. So read this interview and get to know a little about him and then go to Other People and listen to some awesome interviews with writers and then visit TNB to read some beautiful stuff that those writers have written and then sit in awe and wonder how the hell Brad Listi does everything that he does with only 24 hours in a day. Do those things in that order. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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The Rumpus: I read in another interview you’ve done that one of the things you want listeners to take from Other People, especially aspiring writers, is an accurate measurement of what it takes to do this type of work.

Brad Listi: That’s right. I think it’s good to be reminded of how people do this, why they do it and what it takes, regardless of where one happens to be in one’s career. For writers, so much is done in isolation. It can be easy to feel detached, or to get a little lost along the way. To know that we all share similar struggles is, I think, a source of relief.

Rumpus: Editor-in-Chief of The Nervous Breakdown, TNB Books, the Other People podcast, and of course a writer and a family man. How the hell do you have time for all of this?

Listi: It’s hard. I usually work seven days a week and rarely take vacations, which is both lame and unsustainable. I don’t mind the idea of writing seven days a week, I suppose. Getting some work done early in the morning. But ideally I would love to take one day a week off. Unplug on Sundays or something. No computers. No writing. No phone. No nothing. Just lie on my back in a completely empty room with my wife and daughter and listen to Brian Eno or something. Haven’t gotten there yet.

Rumpus: And how do you feel about being a role model for aspiring writers and people interested in publishing?

Listi: I tend to see myself as a perpetual student in search of role models, but if I’m a role model to anyone—if anyone out there is looking to me for answers on how to figure all of this out—all I can say is: You poor, sorry bastard.

Rumpus: As a writer, how does having your hands in all of these different projects affect your own work?

Listi: At times it can complicate things. But doing this other stuff also gives me energy and perspective that I might not otherwise get. The key, I think, is to keep writing as the number one priority. It has to be the first thing I do everyday. Once I get my writing done, then I can turn my attention elsewhere—and not the other way around. The writing has to be the foundation.

Rumpus: Why the podcast medium for Other People? Why not online publication? Especially when you already had an established venue to place it in with TNB?

Listi: I’m a radio nerd. That’s a big part of it. I’ve loved radio since I was a kid. I’m a huge Howard Stern fan. And Terry Gross, Michael Silverblatt, Bob Edwards, Ira Glass—I listen to all of these guys constantly. Same goes for podcasters like Marc Maron, whose WTF is phenomenal. I’ve heard every single episode. And then there are other shows out there like The Nerdist, Big Ideas, Bill Simmons and The B.S. Report. The list goes on. I’m an addict.

I also think my show was born of simple Internet frustration. Getting tired of sitting there, staring at my computer screen, day after day, where everyone is two-dimensional, reduced to an avatar photo, status updates, or maybe some carefully curated vacation photos. There’s something exhausting about that after a while. I found myself wanting to hear voices.

Rumpus: Do you think there will ever be a collection of podcasts available in the future? Like an electronic anthology or something? I’m thinking specifically of the volumes of interviews that The Paris Review came out with a while back. Even though everything’s been moving over to the Internet for a while now, there still seems to be an impermanence to it that books don’t have, like the whole system could blow up and all these records of how we are living could suddenly be lost forever. Which then begs the question: how is Other People preparing for the destruction of the Internet?

Listi: I think about that sometimes, too. I have all of my shows backed up in multiple places. Plus, they live on the web, and on iTunes, and so on. And they live on the computers and iPods and iPads and telephones of thousands of listeners. So the stuff is out there somewhere. But of course the question then becomes: what to do with the full catalog over time? Maybe someday it’ll wind up in a literary archive somewhere. That would be cool. Or possibly at some online library. Or possibly just on a microchip in your head. I really have no idea. I should probably figure that out at some point.

Rumpus: “In-depth, inappropriate interviews.” That’s how your show bills itself. It’s less a traditional interview and more like a loose conversation where anything goes.

Listi: That’s right. I want it to be a conversation rather than a traditional journalistic interrogation. I want it to be spontaneous and candid and surprising and a little messy at times. That’s my favorite kind of listening experience, something I’m trying to replicate. Plus, I’m doing two shows a week, producing them on my own, in addition to my various other responsibilities.  So I really have no choice but to do it this way.  The format is dictated by necessity.

Rumpus: You get into some pretty personal shit sometimes. Do you think that’s part of the popularity of the podcast? Are people just really nosey?

Listi: People love honesty.  Honesty is medicinal, I think.  It makes people feel less lonely in the world.  The modern media environment is so overrun with bullshit and static and people trying to sell you stupid crap.  It makes you want to bite yourself.  The idea is to work in counterpoint to that. And the podcast medium, because there are no content restrictions, is ideally suited to this kind of effort.

As the host of the show, what I try to do is follow the conversation wherever it goes, nudge it along when necessary, and to serve as the surrogate for my listeners. I have to ask the questions that I imagine my listeners might have, in the moment. I don’t ever want someone sitting there, thinking to himself:  I wish he would’ve said X. I want to say it. That’s my job. And to do my job well, I have to be a good listener. The listening is so much more important than the talking.

Rumpus: How important is it for a reader to know the personal lives of writers?

Listi: It’s not essential. I can think of plenty of writers whose work I revere and whose lives I know little about. But oftentimes, if a writer really gets her hooks into me, I’ll want to read interviews, or listen to an interview, or read a literary biography or a memoir of some kind. And doing so almost always deepens my enjoyment of the author and her work. And sometimes an interview or a biography can even surpass the work itself in some ways. That’s possible, too.

Rumpus: Do you think the type of information your podcast makes public harms or enhances the reading experience? Does that shit even matter?

Listi: I think there is such a thing as overexposure in the media, and over-sharing online and so on, but when I think of something like that, mostly I think of, like, Britney Spears flashing her labia while getting out of a limousine or something. I think of a pop star shaving his head and attacking a car with a golf club on the evening news or something. I almost never think of writers.

Here’s another way of putting it: I’ve done the show for roughly a year now, and I’ve never once had a listener tell me that the podcast ruined a book for them. But I have heard from a lot of listeners who have been moved by an author’s appearance on the show, and who have subsequently gone out and read the author’s book, to very positive effect. Hearing that sort of thing makes me feel good.

Rumpus: Happy 100th episode! That’s huge! It seems like you just launched this thing. What was it like talking with George Saunders?

Listi: A little nerve-wracking at first, because I hold him in such high regard. But he couldn’t have been kinder or more gracious. It was a great honor to have him as my 100th guest.

Rumpus: It’s common nowadays to ask writers what they think about the state of the publishing industry. I’m curious to know your take on that, because you seem to be a bridge between the old world with book publishing and the newer, hipper world with online publishing and podcasts.

Listi: I feel like it’s a good time to be a writer. I’m terminally optimistic.  It seems like the publishing industry is in the middle of a big transition, and that the rules of the game are still sorting themselves out. Certainly it’s easier than ever before to get yourself into print, and to build your own readership, and so on. But making a living remains difficult. Same as it ever was. Right now, for me, I’m trying hard to keep it simple: read good books and write as well as I can. Work hard to help other writers. And hope, in the end, that this is enough.

Rumpus: So you’ve conquered online publication, book publishing and podcasting. What’s your next move?

Listi: While I appreciate the kindness, I don’t think I’ve conquered any of those things. I feel like I’m just getting started in all three phases. My next move is to keep working. I’ve got a book coming out on the TNB Books imprint later this fall. It’s called Board, and I co-authored it with Justin Benton. It’s an experimental work of literary collage derived entirely from the comment boards at The Nervous Breakdown.  Kind of an oddball effort, rooted in the Internet. And a surprisingly emotional reading experience, I think.

I’m also wrapping up work on a novel. Heading to Israel tomorrow, actually, to do some final research. And then I’ll finish out the manuscript this fall. Very excited about that one as well. And too superstitious to say anything more.

Otherwise? The podcast will continue twice a week, on the same schedule.  New episodes every Sunday and Wednesday. Some great authors coming up. The Nervous Breakdown continues to roll along. So much great writing there. And on it goes. I have way too much going on, as usual, but fortunately it’s all good stuff. I’m not complaining.

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Leah Tallon is a Senior Editor at Other Voices Books and Assistant Editor for The Nervous Breakdown's Fiction section. Her book reviews, fiction and interviews appear in a few places such as Knee-Jerk Magazine, The Collagist and The Nervous Breakdown. She's currently wrestling with what she hopes will be her first book. More from this author →