So, Ben, what the in the world possessed you to make a podcast featuring in-depth discussions about books?
I was talking a lot about books that my sister, Gabs, and I had both read. Because we’re giant nerds, we tended to get pretty in depth and talk about characters and themes and the kinds of things that you usually discuss in a classroom. After a couple of these two person book club/classroom types of discussions, we started joking that we should just record these conversations and release them as a podcast. At some point it stopped being a joke, and here we are.
How do you decide which books you’re going to talk about?
We wanted to do a blend of sci-fi/fantasy, classics/assigned reading, YA, and the occasional bestseller. Basically I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy and wanted to have a way to get Gabs to share my reading list. YA and bestseller selections are geared more towards getting a more mainstream audience (mostly without success) and analyzing what types of ideas and ethics are contained in a mass market story. I like doing classics because I have a dream that someday we will be commonly cited in high school English papers–I think we do a good job of discussing what is interesting about those books even when I don’t particularly enjoy reading them. So part of the decision is rotating through those different categories. Sometimes I choose something because I read it in the past and want Gabs to read it too. Sometimes it’s something that I’ve intended to read and haven’t gotten around to, especially with classics. Sometimes it’s something in the news and we read it in a blatant attempt to pander to a wider audience.
Have you ever learned anything about books from doing episodes that you wouldn’t have figured out on your own?
Yes. My co-host is not just a nerdy book lover, she actually has a degree in English, so she catches a lot of symbols or more subtle themes that it wouldn’t necessarily occur to me to look for. She also brings a feminist viewpoint (that I definitely agree with) that has expanded my awareness. A great example would be any “golden age” science fiction that we read and how those authors generally didn’t bother writing any women or non-white characters unless they exist as a prop or a stereotype. It’s something that I’m a lot more aware of, especially after about the first year of podcasts. And sometimes just talking through the character list in a more orderly manner helps me see thematic trends or character contrasts that I wasn’t thinking of while I was reading.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve read for Novel Ideas?
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green probably had the biggest, and least expected, emotional impact on me. This might be recency bias, but The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin was one of the better books that I’ve read in probably a couple of years. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis opened up the world of Connie Willis, a horrific in hindsight oversight by someone who claims to be a SF fan.
What books do you read on your own time? Are the same kinds of books you read for the podcast?
In my spare time I do read a lot of SF/Fantasy. I also read a fair amount of nonfiction, though not at the same rate. I tend to be into science and history in the latter category. There is some overlap with podcast reading, though the more episodes we do, the more it seems that we try to read books we wouldn’t have read anyway.
What’s your favorite book you read for the podcast you never would have read on your own?
Maybe The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky? Just reviewed the episode list and E.M. Forster’s Maurice is something that I’m really glad I read and definitely wouldn’t have read without the podcast. Also, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Some of my favorite books to have read, even when I didn’t enjoy the process of reading them, are ones that make me feel a little more well rounded as a person.
Do you ever take some things from other podcasts you like and apply it to your own podcast?
I listen to comedy, sports, and history podcasts. I would love to have hilarious improvisational segments like they have on some of my favorite comedy podcasts, but I’ve come to realize that actually being funny that way takes training and experience that I don’t have. So aside from referencing one every so often, not so much.
What’s your process look like? How long does it take you to plan for an episode, record, and get it ready to put online?
Our planning, as we reference in most episodes, is pretty minimal. We have a standard outline that we go over before recording every episode and that takes 1-2 hours, depending on how on task we are. It tends to take more time now that we live in different cities and don’t get to talk as often. The episode itself is supposed to be right around the hour mark and doesn’t take much longer than that to record. We usually talk a little before we begin and at some point I hit the record button without telling Gabs. This is kind of an unofficial warm up. Something that exists in the raw audio for every episode is two to three minutes of inane prattle followed by me saying “we’re on the air.” I always cut that part from the final episode. Before I post an episode, I listen back through it in Audacity and trim out coughs, sneezes, bathroom breaks, or other interruptions (this is also where I write my tag list). This also serves as quality control and an opportunity to make sure no one accidentally says something racist (note: this has yet to happen). There are two episodes that we’ve recorded that will probably never get posted because they’re just not that good. Editing has gotten easier with experience because there are fewer silences that need to be trimmed. I don’t know how our listeners feel, but I definitely think we’ve gotten a lot more polished with experience from listening to the raw episodes. The last part of editing is choosing music and tweaking the track with audio magic (might as well be, I don’t really know what I’m doing) to even out the sound. Because the files are big, that takes about twenty minutes of sitting and waiting. All told, it probably takes about 45-60 minutes past the episode length to finish editing a track. If the file uploads properly, I can usually get it posted in about 20-30 minutes including the post blurb, page updates, choosing an image, and probably something I’m not thinking of right now. So time spent reading the book plus 4-6 hours of work including the actual recording session sounds about right.
What are some of your favorite podcasts to listen to?
I love Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcasts. I’ve probably listened to the whole catalog for Hardcore History and Mike Duncan’s old History of Rome podcast at least three times. For sports I’ve always liked Bill Simmons and The Starters. And a couple of the Grantland podcasts, but I guess that’s off the menu now. I listen to a lot of Earwolf podcasts: Comedy Bang Bang, Sklarbro County, Nerd Poker, How Did This Get Made, Cracked. And I’ve been into The Smartest Man in the World with Greg Proops lately. I have a day job where I can listen and do my job at the same time, or I would probably cut most of those.
Do you have an episode or two of Novel Ideas that you’d recommend listeners start with?
I think most of our classics episodes are pretty good. It turns out that there’s a lot to talk about with those books, which is probably why they get studied in school even though some of them are not very interesting while you’re actually reading them. I’ve had people tell me they enjoyed my mental breakdown caused by reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Lord of the Flies and Foundation stand out as episodes that were fun to record. Or if you love Harry Potter, half of our episodes (give or take) are on those books.
What’s the last great book you read?
I’m going to stick with The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times, but I really liked it.
Ben Roman writes for Minerva Magazine. You can tune in to new episodes of Novel Ideas, co-hosted by Ben and Gabs Roman, monthly at Minerva. You can also listen to them here.
Featured image via Joel Montes de Oca.