Interviews

Brad Listi Is Bringing the Author Back From the Dead

A conversation with the host of 'Otherppl,' a literary podcast.

I was an anxious, unassuming freshman when I first learned the author was dead. My English professor explained that an influential form of literary criticism — popularized by Roland Barthes in 1967’s “La Morte de l’Auteur” — completely separates a writer’s life, background, and beliefs from interpretations of their work.

The author is dead, Barthes claimed; long live the writing itself.

Of course, there’s an inherent problem with ignoring the cultural and historical influences on an author’s work. Sure, it can lead to whitewashed, monochromatic canons, but it also obscures the meat of the creative process, the importance of community, and the fact that good writing is hard work.

Maybe that’s what first drew me to Otherppl with Brad Listi, a weekly podcast that asks writers personal questions. Even though most episodes feature a writer who is promoting a book, the conversation rarely focuses on the work itself; instead, Listi creates a space for writers to talk about their vices, their religious and personal beliefs, their families, and their processes.

Demystifying the Writing Life

Launched in 2011, Otherppl has featured diverse names like National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders, and bestselling author Roxane Gay, along with emerging writers like Will Dowd and Siel Ju. As Otherppl approaches its 500th episode, Listi told me over Skype that he feels proud of the show’s ability to make creative people feel like they have a sense of community, even in disparate locations.

“It’s very easy to feel like there is something magical and mystical and impenetrable about your favorite writers,” Listi said. “I hope the people listening do take away that these are just human beings who are doing this work and who are, in many cases, struggling more and not less than the average person. I think that’s one of the most important lessons of all: the people who wind up succeeding at pretty much anything aren’t the ones who suffer the least amount of rejection, but oftentimes are willing to suffer the most.”

My first introduction to Otherppl was a 2013 episode with Benjamin Percy. I was still a creative writing undergrad, and I remember feeling a surge of hope when Percy talked about how many times his stories were rejected from literary magazines at the beginning of his career. At the time, I had just devoured Percy’s short story collection Refresh, Refresh, and knowing that the collection survived after years of adversity was more than a source of relief — it was motivation to keep writing.

In Episode 300, Aimee Bender speaks about writing in 10-minute gaps between caring for her infant twins. “People who really are committed will do the work however they possibly can, and she’s a perfect example of that,” Listi said. “I think it’s about working with what you’ve got, even if it’s just little pockets of time.”

On Dropping the Paywall

After years of offering paid access to the episode’s archives, Otherppl recently shifted to a listener-supported model, opening the archives for free. Listi made the move following the 2016 presidential election, and the result has been heartening. “You build your community, and you hope that the community will find enough value in what you’re doing to drop a couple of bucks in the hat,” he said.

That ease of access struck a chord with me. One of the topics of conversation in Listi’s recent interview with Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties, was her short story, “The Husband Stitch,” which is freely accessible online at Granta. The story is three years old, but I recently read it, fell in love with it, and purchased her book — a series of actions that wouldn’t have happened if I’d had to jump a paywall.

“Everybody’s got enough bills,” Listi said. “So you hope that what you do is valuable enough to your audience that some of them will be willing to offer support.”

But ultimately, Listi said, “I want people to hear it. I want to get the word out about these authors and their work, and ultimately it just made the most sense to open it up and make it free.”

On Diverse Voices

Listi’s catalogue of interviewees covers the literary gamut. He has spoken with men and women of color, international writers, founders of small presses, Brooklyn authors, and more. He makes a conscious effort to feature a variety of voices because “it’s just less boring that way. If you’re talking to the same people who went to the same schools and just everybody who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and so on, then I think people are just going to tune out.”

At the same time, featuring a diverse range of writers is an effort Listi is actively working to improve. “I think everybody can do better to read writers whose experiences are different from their own — different cultures, different ethnicities, different geographies. The intimacy offered by literature is its real power. It’s a very powerful way to learn about people. You’re really getting access to a consciousness, and I can think of few experiences that come close in terms of bridging that divide. I would argue that podcasts, at their best, can offer a similar kind of connection.”

His recent conversation with Nigerian writer Ayobami Adebayo is one such example; Listi said he gets “a kick out of talking to somebody halfway around the world, still feeling that connection and getting an opportunity to learn about her life.” His interview style plays a large role in reaching that level of connection; his questions are simultaneously pointed and relaxed, spontaneous yet focused.

“So much of being good in conversation is about listening and really paying attention to what the other person is saying, anticipating what might be going through the listener’s mind and trying to ask the questions that the people at home are asking,” he said. “When that happens, the interviews tend to connect.”

To that end, Listi’s show reflects the changing relationship writers and readers share. He is asking the questions that writers want to know about the authors they admire, and by doing so, he is illustrating the importance that a writer’s background plays in forming their final work. For burgeoning writers, those conversations are essential ways to validate the idea that their stories, experiences, and voices truly matter in the larger literary canon.

On the role of these conversations, Listi said, “I get a lot out of them. That’s why I keep doing it. I’m listening to what my guests are saying as much as the person at home. And it’s a great education for me. Not only as a writer, but just as a person. I really value it. And it’s become a big part of my life over the past six years. Really smart people come over to my house every week and sit down and talk to me. It’s a very lucky thing.”

Otherppl is available for free on iTunes, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, web, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. For a good introduction to the show, listen to Listi’s conversations with Matthew Zapruder, Scott McClanahan, Siel Ju, Carmen Maria Machado, Chelsea Martin, Ayobami Adebayo, Todd Goldberg, Will Dowd. and Jarret Middleton.

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