Episode 91: Ethan Watters On Longform Journalism

Ethan Watters

Ethan Watters

Journalist Ethan Watters spent the past two years working on a single magazine article. This week, in what he calls “a high point for feeling completion,” he joins BQ and Larry in the GrottoPod to discuss the challenges, triumphs and eye-opening discoveries he experienced while working on “The Love Story that Upended the Texas Prison System” for Texas Monthly.

“I have 3,500 pages of material, and it’s good, but it’s like pulling down a puzzle from your grandmother’s attic and trying to decide what fits.”

09:14: How a magazine article became a two-year journey
17:33: Finding a life/work balance in the midst of a consuming project
35:18: Facing challenges and working through a low point
45:09: How a project of this size impacts and changes its writer, and opens up new areas of career interest
53:12: How to determine when major project is “complete.”

Episode 90: Jaya Padmanabhan On Writing Displacement

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan entered boarding school when she was four, and has been a sales rep, a software engineer and now a fiction writer, journalist and editor. This week the Examiner columnist and author of the short-story collection Transactions of Belonging joins Larry and guest co-host Laurie Ann Doyle to trace her path, talk about how readers respond to “ambiguous” endings, a lifelong interest in displacement and belonging, her novel-in-progress … and toddy tappers.

“Writing is a reflex action that comes out of reading, at least for me.”

7:12: Writing across a “broad spectrum”
13:12: “The epiphany,” and learning to write short stories
20:55: Her favorite stories, and how readers responded to “His Curls”
29:48: The roots of a lifelong interest in displacement and belonging
41:30: Entering the world of journalism
49:48: New projects, toddy tappers

Episode 89: Kevin Smokler On Innovative Book Tours

Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler

We celebrate John Hughes and others this week with author Kevin Smokler, who joins Larry to talk about his book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies. Join Larry and Kevin as they touch on innovative book-tour strategies, finding your audience, re-reading the classics and respecting pop culture while name-dropping Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast ClubValley Girl and many others.

“If you’re sick of your book or your subject by the time it’s time to go talk about it, you’re in big trouble.”
8:03: Defining Kevin Smokler as a writer, marketer, speaker, and more.
10:12: Thinking outside the norm about promotions and touring.
20:28: Why it’s valuable to treat “mundane” art with respect.
27:36: Mis-reading Catcher in the Rye and asking how culture ages.
39:40: Generating and following ideas for new projects.
49:20: Pursuing new projects that may not be books.

Episode 88: BQ and Larry On Motivation’s Fickle Fortunes

BQ and Larry

BQ and Larry

Larry and BQ dig deep this week in an episode that checks in on both of their writing projects, probes the fickle fortunes of motivation, explores the ups and downs of networking with other writers and much more. 

“The process from book deal to book is the opposite of Dante’s Divine Comedy. You start out in parades, and you end up in Hell.”

1:40: Larry has an idea for a new podcast.
6:48: Are you comfortable telling someone, “this is the best book (movie, TV show, etc.) ever?”
11:54: What’s happening with BQ’s new book.
20:00: Larry’s latest attempt at a new book.
26:44: How do you get motivated?
41:42: BQ talks about the perils of networking.
53:20: Keeping Larry accountable while he’s in Switzerland.

Episode 87: Yang Huang On Writing On Your Own Terms

Yang Huang

Yang Huang

Yang Huang, author of the Juniper Prize-winning book of short stories, My Old Faithful, joins the GrottoPod this week to discuss a fascinating journey that includes her immigration to the United States as a teen, a career in engineering, an MA and an MFA, raising a family and, along the way, learning English and starting to write fiction. She also delivers, according to guest co-host Lee Kravetz (sitting in for Larry this week), “at least 15 sayings that should be tattoos.” Huang is also the author of a novel, Living Treasures.

“I always thought I would write, on my own terms. Not necessarily something perfect or commercial, but something that was raw and honest. I wanted to tell my stories.”

Episode 86: Kristin Kaye On Writing Mystical Experiences

Kristin Kaye

Kristin Kaye

Kristin Kaye didn’t set out to write a YA book, much less an award-winning YA book, but that’s exactly what happened. This week, the writer of Tree Dreams, one of Buzzfeed’s “5 Books to Read to Prep for Earth Day,” joins the GrottoPod to trace her unlikely path from avant-garde theater impresario to environmental activist and author, stopping off along the way to touch on eco-warriors, breaking our addiction to consumption, jobs that offer health benefits and the multi-dimensional world of women’s body-building. 

“The big question was: how do I write an internal conversation with a tree that sounds like a two-way conversation? How do you give language to a mostly mystical experience?”

9:24: How Tree Dreams became a YA book, and then a curriculum.
14:28: Where the idea to write Tree Dreams came from.
28:18: Kristin’s life before she began writing fiction.
43:48: Having an “environmental awakening.”
58:48: Dividing your time between activism and writing.

Episode 85: Mary Jo McConahay On Writing War

Mary Jo McConahay

Mary Jo McConahay

The Tango War author Mary Jo McConahay joins us in the studio one day after the release of this new book, which explores Latin America’s “hidden” role in World War II. The journalist, war correspondent, memoirist, sometime boat-dweller and confirmed world traveler chats about her rich and colorful life, her motivations and the challenges of tackling a book of historic nonfiction.

“Of course, danger is part of the job. There are so many people in so much more danger. The people from the countries where the wars are taking place are much bigger targets.”

11:21: How she started out in journalism and met the challenges and triumphs of an international career; the dangers of being a war correspondent.
27:18: Transforming an idea into The Tango War.
36:12: Researching events that happened almost a century ago.
41:20: Becoming an “accidental filmmaker.”
45:30: Feeling overwhelmed while writing The Tango War

Episode 84: Lillian Li On Finding Your Process

Lillian Li

Lillian Li. Photo by Margarita Corporan.

Number One Chinese Restaurant author Lillian Li joins Larry and Lee (subbing again for BQ) in the GrottoPod this week to discuss the many roads that led to her debut novel. She shares her brief-but-intense experience as a waitress, what it’s like writing a beach novel at Panera, and how family, life experience and tradition shaped her writing voice.

“In some ways (my book) is and isn’t inspired by working in a restaurant. I was just trying to get through the day without crying in the walk-in refrigerator at least once.”

10:02: How a panoply of inspirations led to Number One Chinese Restaurant
20:11: Getting into the mind of a male protagonist
24:05: Questions of plot; finding your writing process
33:55: How Li came to see writing as a career instead of a hobby
47:26: Number One Chinese Restaurant’s journey from manuscript to book

Episode 83: Crystal Hana Kim On Making Your First Novel Epic

Crystal Hana Kim

Crystal Hana Kim

For her first novel, author Crystal Hana Kim tackled an epic, multi-narrator love triangle set against the backdrop of the Korean War. She joins Larry and guest host Lee Kravetz in the GrottoPod this week to discuss the challenges of writing If You Leave Me, her love for her characters and how she balances teaching and writing.

“I wanted to write about a woman, because war narratives are so often about men in battle. I wanted to write about what happens when a woman is traumatized by war.”

12:20: Why she chose to pursue both an MFA and an advanced teaching degree, and how training for both is cross-beneficial.
23:40: The origins of If You Leave Me, and how her family — her grandmother, in particular — helped shape the book’s plot and themes.
32:30: How she wove “big issues” into a personal story; finding the balance between setting/backdrop and plot; the challenges of writing an epic story as your first novel.
44:45: Deciding to make her protagonist(s) “frustrating,” and how much stumbling and questionable decision-making is necessary for realism vs. risking alienating readers.

Episode 82: “Writer’s Writer” Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

“Writer’s writer” Fenton Johnson joins the GrottoPod this week for a far-ranging conversation that touches on some of the recurring themes in his work: place, solitude, faith and belonging. Johnson has written six books, including three novels and the memoir Geography of the Heart.

“I believe in writing as rhetoric. The challenge is to do the triple backwards somersault flip where whatever you’re writing is teaching you to convey that to the reader in a way where the reader is engaged and is participating in the process.”

8:36: How searching for “place” and finding one’s way became a theme in Johnson’s work.
17:12: Growing up gay in rural Kentucky, and how a unique background helps form a writer.
26:18: The twisting road of faith and how Catholicism (and the local Trappist monks) can inform an artistic worldview.
33:20: Carrying the weight of growing up in the South into the modern world.
40:08: Leaving Kentucky, heading to California and starting out as a writer.
50:02: “Solitaries,” the Harper’s article and the new book.