The podcast is a weirdly intimate medium. Hosts and guests are almost literally in their listeners’ heads, a constant as people go about their days. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the room and part of the discussion when you’re listening to a good conversational podcast. It’s a perspective that, actually, doesn’t feel too different from “sitting in” with the characters in a good novel.
The scarcity of good bookish podcasts is a bit puzzling. There are loads of time-shifted radio pieces and author interviews, and occasional staid programs from some of the bigger periodicals, but it’s harder to find real people having critical conversations about books. And finding something that’s more interesting than listening to your local book club? Harder still.
Literary Disco fits right in my cultural sweet spot. The podcast (which launched early last year) has a comfortable balance of high and low culture, mixing discussion of classics and contemporary poetry with things like Sweet Valley High and the novelization of Jaws. It totally works, largely thanks to the chemistry between the hosts. Julia Pistell, Tod Goldberg, and Rider Strong, all talented performers and writers in their own right, formed a close friendship while at The Bennington Writing Seminars. This relationship shines through on the show, which feels like an extension of many late-night collegiate book discussions.
Julia, Tod, and Rider talked with me about the Literary Disco origin story, book criticism in the age of social media, and their upcoming live podcast.
The Rumpus: I’ll start off with the question we always answer at the top of our podcast: what are you guys reading right now?
Tod Goldberg: I’ve got fifteen books literally on my night stand right now, because I brought in a bunch of books I want to read. The book that’s on the top at this very moment is Countdown City by Ben Winters, which is the sequel to his book The Last Policeman, which I absolutely loved. Then I have a book called The Way of the Knife, about the CIA’s secret wars all over the world, that I’ve been reading in bits and pieces over the course of the last couple weeks.
Julia Pistell: I’m going to sound like the most pretentious jerk, but this is true: I was really sick this week and I had to take two days off of work, which is unheard of in my world. I decided that this was the best opportunity in the world to knock a few hundred pages out of Bleak House, which I borrowed to read.
Rider Strong: You didn’t decide to knock a couple of hundred pages out of Finnegan’s Wake? You went Bleak House?
Pistell: Well here’s the thing. Dickens is hilarious, and it’s very pulpy if you can read it in huge chunks. It’s very hard to read Dickens five or a couple of pages at a time. But you can read two or three hundred pages in a couple days. It’s like a beach read to me because it’s funny, and it’s a mystery, and there’s all these dirty orphans in it.
Goldberg: A “dirty orphan” is a sex act, isn’t it? No, that’s a Dirty Sanchez, I’m sorry. I never remember…
Strong: I have a crap-load of books just surrounding my computer right now that I’m reading. All these Finnegan’s Wake books, like annotations to Finnegan’s Wake, and then a reader’s guide, and the actual Finnegan’s Wake. Then I have a Joyce book, so I’m just flipping through a bunch of Joyce crap in preparation for that. Then I’m also—and this is also very pretentious—I have a film theory in contemporary Hollywood movies book.
Pistell: Yay, you’re more pretentious than me!
Strong: Yeah. I’m thinking about writing an article about Hollywood right now, so I’m working with a friend and I had to find an old essay in there to send to him. That’s it. Mostly I’m in Joyce hell.
Rumpus: How did you all meet each other? Your website says you all met at the Bennington Writers Seminar, but it sounds like Tod and Rider, you met before then.
Strong: Tod was teaching through UCLA Extension, and it was an online class. I took an online class from Tod, but then met him in person when he was doing a reading at Book Soup. I just came down to meet my teacher and we became best friends pretty quickly.
Strong: “Some say love … “
Rumpus: And Julia? Where did you come in?
Pistell: Well, I actually met Rider—he was the first person I met at Bennington, because we shared a van from the train from New York.
Strong: With a barfing person in the backseat.
Pistell: There was a third person and she was barfing.
Strong: Weak stomach.
Pistell: Yeah, as the two non-barfers, I’m pretty sure we immediately started talking about books, because that’s what people talk about among these things. Then, the three of us as well as a bunch of others… how would you guys describe our social circle?
Goldberg: Josh, have you ever seen the movie Heathers?
Goldberg: I think that would probably be an accurate description.
Rumpus: Oh, geez. From what point in the movie?
Goldberg: About the middle on, I guess. You know how it is when there is any large group of people; you’re going to find the people who you have shared interests with. Julia and Rider and I, and my wife Wendy, who went to Bennington with us, and a few other people, we just became a posse bent on revenge.
Pistell: The three of us in particular were unusually extroverted for book people. There was a lot of loud yelling, staying up late, arguing. This is important. This is how the podcast really came out of this. Staying up late, arguing about The Sound and the Fury or whatever.
Strong: And being bad students. Not going to the lectures.
Goldberg: The three of us ditched the first lecture that was required for us go to. It was on pastoral poetry or something, and we were like, “We should get some coffee instead.”
Pistell: We decided to live.
Goldberg: We carpe diem-ed the fuck out of that place.
Strong: We also played a lot of board games together about literature. We played a crap-load of Scrabble. There are photos of heated arguments in the middle of Scrabble games about whether or not words were legal. Josh, I’m not going to lie and say there wasn’t alcohol involved. There was alcohol involved.
Rumpus: And now you’re out of school and in different parts of the country. How did things go from a group of friends talking about books to Literary Disco?
Goldberg: Rider and I had sort of a continuing conversation about, “We should do something where we’re talking about books.”
Strong: Right. It came out of the tradition…Tod would say something that he liked and I would tell him why it was the worst thing in the history of the universe. Like Lord of the Rings films. It was an ongoing joke that even though Tod and I have very similar taste in most areas, we love to disagree and I love to ruin everything that he loves.
Goldberg: But if it’s just the two of us, it would devolve quickly into us making fart jokes. I don’t remember if I said it or if Rider said it, but we’re like, “We need to get Julia.”
Strong: We knew that there would be active disagreements that would be fun, and then Julia added the final element that we needed to actually have a proper podcast.
Pistell: How would you describe that element?
Strong: I would say you are quick—as quick as Tod is in terms of coming up with jokes and being funny. You also have a really great way of thinking about books that is different from me and Tod. I think all three of us have similar taste in some areas, but we have very different approaches in general.
Pistell: I feel like the perennial English major. I’m always going to think of books that way. I still feel very close to my academic love and my childhood love of reading.
Goldberg: I think that we each play a very specific role in the show because we each have really different approaches to books. We’re also spread apart by twelve years in age. We also look at literature culturally in a different way, because we’re experiencing it differently.
I also think one of the big reasons why it was important for Rider and I to have Julia is that Julia would not mind telling us to go fuck ourselves. That’s a key component to the podcast.
Rumpus: One of my favorite things about Literary Disco is that it’s a mix of a lot of really disparate elements. There’s criticism and cursing, games, discussion of classics and poetry mixed with pop culture. How much of that is by design for the sake of the show, and how much is just how you three talk about books in general?
Pistell: I think that’s how people actually talk and read. A lot of the pop culture stuff is stuff that we devolve into because all three of us also love pop culture. The games took elements from other podcasts that we liked. We like Filmspotting and love Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. We knew right away that we would want to do some games.
Strong: I’m a huge fan of Slate’s podcasts. They do endorsements at the end, where they talk about television shows and books and movies, and I love their discussions. I’d like to think we’d be interesting no matter what we’re discussing but…
Pistell: That’s not true.
Strong: Probably not.
Goldberg: The only thing that we plan is the actual one physical book that we’re going to talk about.
Rumpus: And how do you pick your books?
Goldberg: Sometimes we pick a book because it’s culturally relevant at that moment. Then sometimes we pick a book because one of us reading it and it’s awesome. Then sometimes we a pick a book like the Hardy Boys or Sweet Valley High, because we want to go back and see what the hell it was we read when we were twelve. Or like, Flowers in the Attic. A book that for some reason all of a sudden is back in the news which is making me apoplectic, but I don’t think we ever think necessarily about the market place, as much as we think about what will the three of us have a good time talking about, what would be fun or interesting.
I’ve always been surprised about the stuff that I might have no interest in whatsoever being the thing that we have the biggest and most interesting and funny conversation about. It’s always better when we all three hate something. That much is clear.
Pistell: The one thing that we are pretty deliberate about is switching up genres as often as we can. When we inevitably did a Cheryl Strayed book, we did Tiny Beautiful Things instead of Wild, because it’s an advice column book and that’s fun. We just did graphic novels, we’ve done poetry. We don’t want to be just fiction or just nonfiction. We’ll say, okay we just did two novels, let’s do short poetry or someone whose dead or something.
Goldberg: Or someone we wish would die.
Rumpus: I’m so glad that when you talked about your favorite books of the year, you brought up Tiny Beautiful Things instead of Wild. I really dug both those books, but Tiny Beautiful Things is such a perfect one to push on people. I’ve given away more copies of that book as gifts than any other I can think of.
Pistell: Me too, me too. I keep having to re-buy it and give it away.
Rumpus: Going from you three to the community that’s come up around Literary Disco, can you talk a little bit about your listeners and how you interact with them? I know that when Julia was on the podcasting panel at BEA, she mentioned that a lot of your listeners are high school and college students.
Goldberg: I think it’s a strange community because there are clearly a lot of younger people that are listening to the show. But then I’ll be [at] a book signing or reading, and someone at the bookstore will walk up and say, “Oh my god, I love the show,” or, “Is Julia here or is Rider here?” As though we’re constantly with one another.
Pistell: No one has ever said, “Is Julia here?” Come on guys.
Goldberg: They did! Particularly at AWP, they all wanted to see Julia. She’s the star. I think one thing that the three of us really wanted to do from the get-go is not have our show be untouchable, where you can’t speak to us and tell us about what you’re reading. We’ve been very active on Facebook and on Twitter engaging with our audiences, because we want to know what they’re interested in, we want to know what they’re reading, we want to know what that zeitgeist is.
There’s a lot of readers, there’s a lot of college students, and there’s a lot of writers listening to us, as well. Judging from the amount of mail, there’s also a lot of publicists listening.
Pistell: Rider and Tod are already public figures in their own right, so for me, the whole interacting-with-people-semi-anonymously has been a big change in my life. I’ve been surprised at how positive it is. We so rarely get someone saying, “You’re stupid idiots,” or, “Die.” It’s been really great to feel like we’re engaging in actual intellectual conversation. Especially on Twitter, it’s been very pleasant.
Strong: I think it’s a self-selecting group, too. There’s so many pop culture podcasts, where people get together to talk about a TV show or whatever. I think that when you’re talking about books, it’s a smaller group. They’re people that I think are desperate for a community. They want somebody that shares this obsession and can read and discuss reading. I’m so happy with how many people that I wouldn’t think of as listeners, [who] come up to me at a party and say, “I’ve been listening to Literary Disco,” and they’re able to talk to me about something we brought up. It’s not like, “Oh, I heard your thing.” It’s like, “You said this, and Tod said that,” and we end up having discussions. It’s really fun.
Pistell: I run a teen writing program at the Mark Twain House. This teenage girl came up to me and she said, “My friend says that someone named Julia who works at the Mark Twain House has a podcast. Is that you?” I was like, “Yeah, yes it is.” You can see her eyes get huge and it was great! It was like, oh, fifteen-year-olds are listening to this and enjoying it and bragging to their friends about it.
Goldberg: You know who doesn’t listen to the show, Josh? Our respective spouses and spouses-to-be.
Rumpus: My wife doesn’t listen to our show, either. It’s always struck me as a weird proposition. “Hey, do you want to listen to me talk with my friends for an hour?” Podcasts are a weirdly intimate medium. You’re with people as they’re commuting, and cooking, and cleaning. It’s so different than the way we consume a lot of other content. On one hand, it’s passive, but listeners are also really engaged…
Goldberg: That’s the neat thing that we get from our fans online. They tell us where they are when they’re listening. We get so many people saying, “Oh my god. I was at my terrible job, and I was laughing, and people were looking at me like I was crazy. You’re saving my life.” Or, “I live in a shitty little town where there’s not a bookstore and you guys are basically telling me what to buy.”
To find out that other people are out there and they’re really getting value from what we’re talking about is extraordinarily gratifying.
Pistell: We had one person write to us and say that she had been depressed and that we had helped her come out of her depression. We have another listener who works as a janitor at a school overnight and she listens to us while she’s cleaning out kids’ lockers. It’s really nice that we’re with people in places that we would never normally get through to them.
Rumpus: And you even had a listener that went back through your shows and listed all the titles you talked about, right?
Goldberg: Yeah, god. That woman is a saint. If she could come to my house right now, it would be great.
Strong: She could organize your bookshelf for you.
Goldberg: She could organize my life. “Could you tell me what happened in 1997?” That would be great.
Rumpus: In Episode 34, Tod mentioned that the show can be at its best when one or all of you hate a book. Have you ever had any sort of backlash from listeners? I’m thinking specifically of the discussion you had about John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. That’s a book that has some really passionate fans.
Goldberg: There’s a whole group of people—I call them “the young women of America”—who would like to kill Rider Strong.
Strong: It wasn’t that bad. We thought it was going to be bad. I remember when we finished recording, I was like, “I went too far, maybe.” My problem is when I get on a rant, I repeat myself. I just end up cutting out redundant parts.
Pistell: It must be fun for you.
Strong: We were afraid that it was going to be pretty extreme, because we knew the fans were rabid for that book. But it was fine. We got a couple of comments and I’m sure some people were angry and didn’t say anything, but we’re here to offer an opinion.
Pistell: I think what we’re good at is talking about a larger issue rather than being petty or picking apart stupid details. In the case of The Fault in Our Stars, we’ll elevate it to a question. “Why is YA in this state right now? Why do people love this book?” We’ll actually ask a question rather than just take it down. Now, I will say that if a book is not to our liking, we have no qualms about just going at the bad writing, if the writing is bad.
Goldberg: No one likes to get bad reviews. I think it helps that we’re not talking about a book in 800 words, like a written book review. We’re spending an hour talking about a book. You might not agree with us, but we’re going to lay out the scaffolding and then we’re going to build a building around our opinions. I think that creates a level of respect that an author is going to afford you. Even if they disagree with our assessment of their particular book, they’re not going to fault us for not reading closely or spending a lot of time on the text itself.
Rumpus: Have you had authors get in touch with you after you’ve talked about their work?
Pistell: Oh, god. For some reason, every time I don’t like a book, the author is alive and on Twitter. I feel that it’s only happened to me.
Strong: No, I was the one that…I was the meanest to Ron [Currie, Jr.].
Pistell: But with both Ron and Derf Backderf, they both thought it was me saying everything!
Goldberg: The problem is that Rider’s voice is pretty effeminate, so it’s difficult to tell who’s talking. “That must be Julia. No man would have that opinion.”
Pistell: Darin Strauss was really nice when we did Half A Life. That was one of our first episodes. He tweeted us, and he was nice.
Strong: These authors must find out. I mean, all you have to do is consult Google. There’s not a whole lot being written about some of these books. Especially the poetry books. I’m curious if Dorothea Lasky has listened to our latest episode.
Rumpus: We’ve had more reactions to our two poetry episodes than any of the other shows we’ve done.
Pistell: From the writers or from the listeners?
Rumpus: Mostly the listeners. Sometime friends of the poets. It came in two flavors; friends of the poets who didn’t like our opinions, or listeners that hate poetry and couldn’t understand why we were talking about it.
Goldberg: Oh, god.
Pistell: Go back to classic poetry. I want to do that. Let’s do a dead poet where the poet can’t talk back.
Goldberg: That’s a great idea. I’m tired of yappy poets talking back to me. “Tod, why did you say those words?”
Pistell: We’ll call it “The Dead Poets Society.”
Strong: Then we’ll watch the movie Dead Poets Society.
Goldberg: Yes, I love this. I’m going to stand on top of a desk and do something. I don’t remember what we do on top of the desks, but I’m going to do the shit out of it.
Strong: “My captain, my captain…”
Goldberg: Yes, that bit. Yes, I’m going to do that.
Rumpus: And now you’re going to do a live show at the end of August. How did that come about? What made you decide to do a live show, as opposed to the recorded show you’ve done so far?
Strong: Julia is coming to California, and we’d been talking about trying to incorporate it into some event or something. Then it was just like, “Well, if Julia is coming, we could just try and see if a bookstore will have us.”
Goldberg: I did a little summer stock back in the day. A little Shakespeare in the park.
Pistell: I really love a live environment. I’m very excited about it.
Goldberg: People kept asking about it, too. When I was at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, people kept asking me there, “When will you do a live show?” It’s going to be fun. There should be less highly-pretentious book events at bookstores. More events where people laugh and have a good time and there’s no one wearing tweed.
Strong: I might wear tweed.
Pistell: Yeah, hey, speak for yourself, Tod.
Goldberg: We’re having it at the Barnes and Noble at The Grove in L.A. It’s is a huge flagship Barnes and Noble store, and they’re really happy to have us in there. Nita Wiseman, who runs all their events, is a great lover of literature in L.A. She’s like the Czar of Events in Southern California. She was like, “You know what? Barnes and Noble has never done an event like this, but sounds like a good time, let’s do it. What the hell? What’s the worse that’s going to happen?”
It’s another opportunity to talk about books that we like and introduce people to authors that they might not be familiar with. Like our guest, Ivy Pochoda, whose book Visitation Street just came out. Then the book that she picked for us to discuss is Tampa by Alissa Nutting. It has a velvet cover that I’ve been rubbing on my face.
Pistell: I hate it.
Strong: The weirdest cover.
Pistell: Another book about rape. Let’s see if I like it.
Goldberg: Julia, it’s more than about rape. It’s about the velvet cover.
It’s a perfect book for us to talk about, live or not, because it’s…I can already tell it’s going to be fucking weird and be uncomfortable. And we’re in the big area inside of a Barnes and Noble within shouting distance of a bunch of small children. It’s perfect for us.
Strong: Are we going to be censored? I mean—we swear a lot.
Goldberg: I’ve done events there before, and I swore. I mean, I haven’t been invited back, but I don’t think it was because I swore.
Pistell: The event is going to be great. It’s going to have all of the elements of our podcast. We’ll talk about a book, we’ll have the guest author, and we’ll be doing a bunch of our games. That’s one of my favorite things that we do, and it sets us apart from other podcasts. And our games are just stupid.
Goldberg: Our games are dumb. They’re really dumb.
Pistell: Except for that time that I convinced you guys that I wrote Middlemarch; that was great.
Strong: That was Julia’s shining achievement in life. Going to be on her tombstone: Middlemarch.
Goldberg: You’ve been Middlemarch-ed, bitches.
Literary Disco will be hosting a live version of its podcast on Thursday, August 22nd at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles, 7:00 pm. For more information, click here.
All images courtesy of Julia Pistell, Tod Goldberg, and Rider Strong.