Listen to This: How Was Your Week?

How Was Your Week?For a while now, I’ve been meaning to talk about one of my favorite podcasts, Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week? and how it’s helped me sort out my own approach to podcasting. I’ve been a big fan of Julie’s since we met a few years back, shortly before she sold her memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band, and it’s been kind of cool to see her become increasingly visible in the last year or so—with the podcast, I think, being a significant turning point for her. It’s entirely possible, for example, that you’ve already heard about Julie from the interviews she’s given to outlets like NPR or The New York Times.

How Was Your Week? has two primary components: Julie’s monologues are a showcase for what the Times called “her literate sensibility and affection for showmanship,” an opportunity for her to sit in front of the microphone and riff about whatever’s on her mind. Then, in her interviews, she gets to dig deep into other people’s creative lives. In an article for The A.V. Club, Julie picked some of her favorite episodes; in the context of her conversation with Sharon Needles, she mentions how “there are over-the-top types that are attractive to me, and to be able to connect with them the way that you’d ideally want to be able to connect to any person once they stop performing for you…is something I definitely aspire to.”

That ability to break through public personas is definitely one of Julie’s strengths, but I’m also particularly impressed by episodes where she interviews writers like Alex Stone (Fooling Houdini) or Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test), because those segments spotlight her intense curiosity and her ability to drill down into a topic, making her presence felt but allowing the interviewee’s expertise to be the focus of our attention.

Because I’ve spent the last year developing my own podcast interview series, I tend to listen to How Was Your Week? with an ear towards what it can teach me about the craft, and I’ve learned a great deal from Julie about becoming more comfortable with yourself “on the air”—there really is a difference between having a one-on-one conversation with another person, and having that same conversation knowing that untold others are going to be listening in. But I’ve also been inspired by the ways the podcast has grown to a point where Julie can do live tapings in performance venues in Brooklyn and San Francisco, and has also put her on the radar of people who can offer her other creative projects. As she told NPR, “I don’t make money doing my podcast. I’ve learned that people want to hire creative people who are already doing something when they approach them.” That’s why one of my goals for 2013 is to raise Life Stories (and the Beatrice ebooks) to a level that will create a space where other creative projects can flourish.

19 January 2013 | listen to this |

Did the National Book Awards Need Fixing?

In recent years, the National Book Awards have come under a heavy amount of public criticism for the books they’ve proposed as the most outstanding in American letters in a given year. The criticism is almost exclusively aimed at the fiction selections, with the general thrust being that the writers who are appointed to the selection jury have some sort of elitist writerly criteria for picking precious, obscure books rather than books that ordinary people might have heard of. I’ve never gone in for that reasoning, and I’ve always value the perspective of the NBA juries—I may be fairly well-read by most statistical standards, but I know I’m barely skimming the surface of what’s available, so as far as I’m concerned calling my attention to excellent books I might have missed is a fine thing.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I’m friendly with several folks at the National Book Foundation as well as outspokenly sympathetic to their aims, to the point where I’ve contributed to their website.)

Now, there have been some changes in the NBA selection process, which in and of themselves are not so remarkable or unsettling. In fact, putting literary critics on the selection juries is actually a return to the way things used to be, as Foundation director Harold Augenbraum notes in the press release—in an ideal world, his prediction that “by enlarging the judging pool new and exciting voices will again deepen and enrich the process” is absolutely on target. Likewise, announcing preliminary ten-book “longlists” for each of the NBA categories a month before the traditional five-book finalist announcements, could well be an opportunity to expand the conversation around those books.

It’s when the rationale for these changes is elaborated to the media that I start to feel less enthusiastic; specifically, the remarks by Foundation board member Morgan Entrekin (who’s also the publisher of Grove/Atlantic and—again, full disclosure—somebody I’ve always respected and been delighted to run into as one does in the not-so-large world of mainstream book publishing) essentially conceding that the fiction shortlists have been “very eccentric” and affirming that the goal of a wider slate of candidates is to make the lists “a little more mainstream,” reducing the possibility that the award would go to what he seems to dismissively refer to as “a collection of stories from a university press.” (Two such books have actually been nominated in recent years, with Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.) As far as he’s concerned, there’s plenty of prizes for books like that; the National Book Awards, he seems to suggest, should be about something bigger.


15 January 2013 | theory |

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