I’ve been hosting bookish podcasts for more than a decade, and in that time, the question I’ve been asked more than any other is, “Will you interview this author on your show?” The answer is almost always no, and here’s why: quiet as it’s kept, author interviews are almost always boring. But with the combination of a skilled host and an author who’s willing to go off-road long enough to stop publicizing their newest book and just talk about life, ideas, and being a person in the world, they can be gold. Here are a few recent conversations from podcast author interviews that made my brain tingle.
N.K. Jemisin Builds a World in Real-Time
This isn’t the usual “where do you get your ideas?” author interview. Instead of asking N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth) to describe her process, Ezra Klein asks her to demonstrate it in real-time, and the result is utterly fascinating. Listen along as the record-making, award-winning author creates a world out of whole cloth.
Hillary Clinton Talks Books with Louise Penny, Stacey Abrams, and Marley Dias
The guests and subject matter on Hillary Clinton’s “You and Me Both” are as varied and interesting as you’d expect from the famously bookish former Secretary of State. In this triple-whammy of goodness, she talks with her dear friend Louise Penny about the birth of Penny’s beloved character Inspector Gamache, checks in with American hero and romance author Stacey Abrams, and celebrates the power of literary activism with Marley Dias, founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks. This one is guaranteed to lift your bookish soul.
Isabel Wilkerson Redefines Oprah’s Book Club
In a year that brought increased energy to the work of dismantling white supremacy and sent numerous books about racism to the top of bestseller lists, Isabel Wilkerson sought to reveal the hidden caste system that has an even more powerful impact on human society than race or class. Caste is a singular and powerful work, so when Oprah made it the inaugural selection of her Apple-exclusive book club podcast in the fall of 2020, they had not one conversation, but nine. Listen below as the lay the groundwork, then follow along to the remaining episodes that explore Wilkerson’s eight pillars of caste.
Pema Chodron on How to Keep Your Sh*t Together When Things Fall Apart
Nearly 25 years after its initial publication, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times appeared on bestseller lists in March and April of 2020 as readers worldwide reached for wisdom, comfort, and a sense of grounding in uncertain times. This interview, conducted by news anchor turned meditation evangelist Dan Harris, is more about the content than the author or her process. Filled with warmth, good humor, and perennial wisdom, this episode may be almost a year old, but its utility is timeless.
George Saunders Talks Indiana Jones, Farting in Elevators, and, Oh, Right, Writing
If you’ve dipped even one toe into the world of podcasts, you’ve likely encountered Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert. Shepard’s interviews are so routinely fun and original-feeling — he’s quick to share his own embarrassing, vulnerable stories, and guests often find themselves opening up in unexpected ways — that I feel a little bit bad about how sure I was that I wouldn’t like them. Guests run the gamut from authors to actors to activists, serious academics to professional comedians, and there were several I could have featured here. But honestly, what’s more fun that consummate writer’s writer George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) confessing that he once owned an Indiana Jones hat and talking about how farting makes a character human?
A Rare, Candid Conversation with Mary Oliver
Sometimes you’ve gotta save the best for last. Mary Oliver’s poetry has gotten me through some difficult times, and I know I’m far from alone in that. Before her death in 2019, she granted few interviews, preferring to spend her time exploring and writing about the natural world — indeed, she spent much of her “one wild and precious life” learning how to “be idle and blessed.” (Quotes from her two most popular poems, “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” respectively.) In this interview from 2015, she spoke with Krista Tippett about process, spirituality, and her belief that poetry should be accessible to all.