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I’ve hosted book podcasts for more than a decade, and in that time, more than anyone, I’ve been asked the question, “Are you going to interview this writer on your show?” The answer is almost always no, and here’s why: As quiet as it is kept, author interviews are almost always boring. But with the combination of a seasoned host and an author willing to go off-road long enough to stop publishing their latest book and only talk about one person’s life, ideas, and being in the world, they can Be gold. Here are some recent conversations from podcast writer interviews that got my brain tingling.
NK Jemisin builds a world in real time
This is not the usual “where do you get your ideas from?” Author interview. Instead of asking NK Jemisin (The Broken Earth) to describe their process, Ezra Klein asks her to demonstrate it in real time, and the result is utterly fascinating. Listen as the award-winning, record-breaking writer creates a world of cloth.
Hillary Clinton talks to Louise Penny, Stacey Abrams, and Marley Dias about books
The guests and topics on Hillary Clinton’s “You and Me Both” are as diverse and interesting as you would expect from the famous former Secretary of State. In this triple blow of kindness, she talks to her dear friend Louise Penny about the birth of Penny’s beloved character Inspector Gamache, reaches out to American heroine and novelist Stacey Abrams, and celebrates the power of literary activism with Marley Dias, founder of # 1000BlackGirlBooks. This one is guaranteed to lift your literal soul.
Isabel Wilkerson is redefining Oprah’s book club
In a year that energized the work to break down white supremacy and brought numerous books on racism to the top of the bestseller lists, Isabel Wilkerson sought to uncover the hidden caste system that has an even stronger impact on human society than race or class . Caste is a unique and powerful work. When Oprah made it the first pick of their exclusive Apple Club podcast in the fall of 2020, they had nine, not one conversation. Listen as the foundations are laid below, then follow up on the remaining episodes examining Wilkerson’s eight pillars of the caste.
Pema Chodron on holding your shit together when things fall apart
Almost 25 years after it was first published, Pema Chodrons came out when things fall apart: Heart Advice for Troubled Times on bestseller lists in March and April 2020 as readers worldwide reached for wisdom, comfort, and a sense of grounding in uncertain times. This interview, conducted by newsreader turned meditation evangelist Dan Harris, is more about content than about the author or her process. Full of warmth, good humor, and enduring wisdom, this episode is perhaps nearly a year old, but its usefulness is timeless.
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George Saunders is talking to Indiana Jones, who farts in elevators and, oh, right, writes
If you’ve dipped even a toe into the world of podcasts, you’ve likely stumbled upon Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert. Shepard’s interviews are so routinely fun and original – he is quick to tell his own embarrassing, vulnerable stories, and guests often open up in unexpected ways – that I feel a bit nauseous about how sure I was I wouldn’t do it like her. Guests range from writers to actors to activists, serious academics to professional comedians, and there were several I could have featured here. But honestly, what is more fun when the accomplished writer George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) admits he once owned an Indiana Jones hat and talks about how farting makes a character human?
A rare open conversation with Mary Oliver
Sometimes you have to save the best for last. Mary Oliver’s poetry has brought me through difficult times, and I know that with this I am far from being alone. Before her death in 2019, she gave few interviews and preferred to spend her time exploring and writing about the natural world. In fact, she spent much of her “only wild and precious life” learning how to be “inactive and blessed”. (Quotes from her two most popular poems, Wild Geese and The Summer Day.) In this 2015 interview, she spoke to Krista Tippett about processes, spirituality, and her belief that poetry should be accessible to all.