Book Fight!

Tough love for literature

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Writers Ask: TGIT

This week we’re answering questions about low-residency MFA programs, revisiting your old work, and whether writers should attend AWP. Also, Mike tries to alienate as many listeners as possible, while Tom tries to keep things on track.

Got questions for future episodes of Writers Ask? You can submit them by clicking on the ‘Fight Back’ link at the top of the page, or you can tweet them at us. We’re @Book_Fight on your Twitter dial. Use the hashtag #WritersAsk and we’ll answer your query on the show. Remember: There are no stupid questions, just stupid people who don’t listen to our podcast.

You can stream the episode here:

Or download the mp3 file here (right-click, save-as).

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Finally, please support our sponsor, Powell’s Books, which gives you the best of both book-buying worlds: the ability to order books online and have them shipped right to your home, while also supporting a hard-working brick-and-mortar, independent book shop. Click on any of the Powell’s links on our site, and for every purchase you make, a percentage will come back to support the show, at no extra cost to you.

Thanks for listening!


A Mission Statement of Sorts, and a Plea for Your Support

When Tom and I started this show, several months ago, we weren’t entirely sure what we were doing. I’d become a fan of podcasts generally, and in my search for book-related ones I found a few that I liked, but none that I loved. Most seemed to be cast in the NPR mold, with serious, respectful, intelligent reviews I just couldn’t get excited about. A few others were entertaining, but they weren’t covering the kinds of books I cared about. Most were interview shows, or writers reading their work–both of which I like, but they weren’t exactly what I had in mind.

Point is, I had this idea in my head of the book podcast I wanted to listen to. I was thinking about the conversations I had with my writer-friends at the bar, when we talked about the books we loved or hated or felt ambivalent towards. Those conversations were beer-soaked and funny and passionate and gossipy and deeply personal and sometimes contentious. Above all else, they were honest.

I went looking for that show and couldn’t find it, so I decided I’d try to make it myself. Since the conversations I had with my writer-friends were the model, I figured I’d recruit one of those writer-friends as a partner.

Tom and I have known each other for several years, ever since we were grad students at the Iowa Writers Workshop. We became friends in part by proximity: we both taught rhetoric, and we lived near each other, so we often found ourselves walking home together after a night out with our classmates. We had similar senses of humor, and similarly low tolerances for pretentiousness. It didn’t hurt that I was willing to watch Eagles games with him on Sundays. After we graduated, Tom and I both moved to Philly, and we both wound up teaching at Temple, where we still share an office. We’re both editors for Barrelhouse Magazine. An ex-girlfriend of mine once described our friendship as a “bromance.” When Tom told his wife about the podcast, she said, “Did you really need to find a reason to spend more time with each other?”

Actually, Tom was a bit skeptical about doing a podcast, but I managed to convince him it was a good idea, or at least not a terrible idea. I promised him there would be beer, and that I’d take care of the technical stuff. Besides, we’d both recently finished novels, and selling them, we knew, would likely be a long road littered with rejections. A new hobby seemed like a good way to hang on to our sanity.

We recorded the first two episodes using the built-in mic on my laptop. That’s a little embarrassing to admit now, but we wanted to make sure we could do this thing before we invested any real money in it. We weren’t radio people, and we worried about whether we could fill a show. Did we have enough to say? (People who know us, incidentally, think it’s incredibly funny that this was an actual concern.) After a couple episodes, we realized doing the show was fun, and that people might actually like listening to it. So I ponied up for a Blue Snowball mic, which made the show less painful to listen to (at least from an audio-quality standpoint). We set up a card table in Tom’s basement, and a couple folding chairs. We purchased beer.

Now it’s several months and nearly thirty episodes later, and we feel like we’ve hit a pretty good groove. The show is still a work-in-progress, but we have a clearer sense of what we’re doing and how to do it. We’ll pick the books we want to read, and we won’t bullshit our listeners about them. If we love something we’ll tell you we love it, and try to convince you to love it, too. If we hate something we’ll tell you why. If we disagree, we’ll argue about which of us is right. Of course we’re aware that unbridled honesty about books could result in some publishing-industry bridge burning, but the world has enough sycophants already. You might disagree with some of our opinions, but at least you’ll know we have no hidden agenda: this isn’t about promoting our friends’ books or settling scores. We just like books, and we like talking about them, and we think those conversations are important and should happen more often.

In the last several months we’ve done stuff we’re really proud of. If you’d told me, back in March, that Stewart O’Nan would come drink beers with us and convince us to love an out-of-print crime novel from the mid-80s, I wouldn’t have believed you. Ditto Owen King, who recently joined us via Skype to talk about Thomas Bernhard. Or Paul Lisicky, whose episode we’ll have ready for you soon. We convinced our friend Katherine Hill to revisit Judy Blume’s Forever and talk about penis-naming and teenage sex-ed, We then convinced her to come back so we could gripe about Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? (actually, Katherine kinda liked it, but we maintain that she was and continues to be wrong about that).

We’ve gotten all kinds of rewarding feedback, and according to our download stats we have listeners in nearly every U.S. state (Note to South Dakota: it’s time to step up your book game). We even have listeners in foreign countries. It’s all pretty awesome, and hard not to gush about.

But here’s the thing: we think it’s time to take the next step, which is to invest in some more professional gear. We get okay sound from the trusty Blue Snowball (and would heartily recommend it to people starting out in the world of podcasting) but with dedicated dynamic mics the sound quality should really ratchet up, allowing us to rival what you’d hear from a professionally produced show. This will be especially true when we have guests in the basement, as we won’t have to gather around a single mic like we’re hobos around a trashcan fire. Better mics will also reduce background noise; right now we’re essentially “recording the room,” which means we’re recording everything that happens in or near the room, including the pitter patter of tiny dog feet, weird basementy echoes, and sometimes Tom’s neighbor doing yard work.

Getting new mics also means getting new peripheral equipment: mic stands, cords, decent headphones, and a multiple-input mixer.

This is why we’re asking for donations from you, the listener. The show itself is free–and will always be free–but we’d like to at least recoup our costs, both the necessary audio upgrades and our ongoing site- and file-hosting fees. We need about a thousand bucks to break even on all that stuff. We are not rich people. Like most of you, we’re writers, and struggling ones at that.

So if you like the show, and you want to help us continue making it, please consider throwing us a few bucks. Every little bit helps. We’re not gonna lay an NPR-style guilt trip on you about free content and paying your share. You’re under no obligation to give us anything. But it would be wonderful if you did. We’ll take it as a vote of confidence that we’re on the right track, or at least somewhere near the track, or at least not veering wildly, drunkenly, into the stands (that’s a reasonable metaphor, right?)

Also: we’ve got gifts!

If you kick in $5, we’ll mention your name on the show, and you can feel all warm and fuzzy about your generous nature.

If you kick in $10, we’ll “blurb” you on the show, i.e. we will write and then read a blurb-style review of you, based on absolutely zero information (which, let’s be honest, will make it just as truthful as an actual blurb).

If you kick in $15, you’ll get the blurb treatment, plus a special gift from our Gift Bag of Mystery and Wonder. What could it be? Only one way to find out! (We’re also calling this the Narrative Magazine Donation Level, because it’s the same amount of money you’d have to pay Narrative Magazine just to read your fiction submission, which is … well, don’t get us started on that particular pyramid scheme.)

If you kick in $20, you’ll get the brand-new issue of Barrelhouse, which is right this moment at the printer’s, and is filled to the brim with smart, funny, engaging and maybe even heartbreaking stories, poems, and essays.

If you kick in $35, we will read your writing–a short story or an essay–and give it the workshop treatment (in writing, not on the show itself). We do this for a living, after all, as teachers and editors, so we think we’re pretty good at it. Need a gift idea for a writer-friend or student (well, not your student, who you probably shouldn’t be buying gifts for)? How about the gift of detailed feedback from real editors?

If you kick in $50, you can sponsor an episode of the show. We’ll advertise your product, service, or just … you. Do you have a book coming out? Do you run a small press or a magazine or a website? Have you invented some awesome product that every writer or reader should own? We’ll give you some inexpensive advertising on an episode that will stay “live” on the Internet forever and ever, or at least until we all get Raptured/Left Behind, depending on our life choices, at which point this whole deal basically becomes moot, so let’s just not think about it right now.

Finally–and, look, we realize this is unlikely, but the very idea of it fills me with joy and keeps Tom up at night–if you give us $1,000, or gather together a bunch of friends to give us a collective donation of $1,000, Tom will write a NaNoWriMo novel and post it on the Internet. If you’re unfamiliar with Tom’s feelings about NaNoWriMo, I would suggest this episode, and also this one.

Note: Since we’re part of Barrelhouse Magazine, an official 501(c)3 nonprofit arts organization, all donations are tax deductible.

Note #2: If you’re actually going to give us $1,000, maybe send us an email so we can discuss the transfer of money. I mean I trust PayPal, basically, but it might be a good idea to touch base on that one.

Note #3: If you’re feeling particularly generous, but would prefer one of the lower-level gifts, just tell us in the comments section on the PayPal form.

You can donate right now by clicking on this PayPal link:

If you have any questions, or problems with the PayPal thing, or suggestions for future shows, shoot us an email.

Thanks so much for your support! And for listening to the show, and helping us spread the word about it. Tom and I both see this podcast as a way to foster a community: of writers, of readers, of people who continue to care about books enough to fight about them, and for them.


Mike Ingram

One-Half of Team Book Fight