Podcasts

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Madeline Miller

Photo by Nina Subin

Novelist and NEA Big Read author

In Circe --Madeline Miller’s second novel and our newest NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. Miller knows and loves the classics and Circe is an imaginative response to questions Miller had about the exiled goddess. She doesn’t change the story so much as expand it and give us Circe's back story. For example, Circe still turns men into pigs, as she does in Homer’s telling, but in Miller’s book she gives us the context behind this piece of magic. Miller and I talk about gods and mortals, the fine distinctions between witches and goddesses, what shifts when you put a woman’s story in an epic frame, the timelessness and timeliness of these myths, and why every woman should have a lion. She is engaging, fun and funny—in other words, she’s a great addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and a super podcast guest.

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Photo courtesy of Pam
Muñoz Ryan

Award-winning children’s and young adult writer

For young adult novelist Pam Muñoz Ryan, a multi-cultural perspective comes naturally. She grew up in Bakersfield, California, with her grandmother who was an Oklahoma pioneer woman moving in as she grew older, and a big extended family nearby anchored by her other grandmother, Esperanza, who was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Muñoz Ryan based her novel Esperanza Rising on her Mexican grandmother’s life, and it’s become a classic of young people’s literature—taught in schools and beloved in homes throughout the country. She has written over 40 books, and she casts a wide net in terms of subjects: from the childhood of Pablo Neruda in The Dreamer, to a young kid living in a trailer in Oklahoma in Becoming Naomi Leon, to the magical realism of Echo in which three young people in pre-World War II Germany and post-Pearl Harbor America are connected by an enchanted harmonica. But whatever the topic, Muñoz Ryan knows how to write for young people; her respect for them and the way they move in the world is enormous, and it’s reflected in her writing. (She has the awards to prove it; it’s a staggering list!) In this episode of the podcast, Muñoz Ryan talks about her upbringing, learning the histories of both her grandmothers, her writing in general and writing for young readers in particular. She’s fun, thoughtful, and full of stories.

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Photo by Smeeta Mahanti

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon's first novel, The Incendiaries, was ten years in the making. But that persistence and hard work paid off: the debut novel was named a best book of the year by over 40 publications. It’s a vivid, dark story that deals with faith, loss, a fractured love, and fanaticism. But Kwon herself is anything but dark. Talking about that ten-year journey of writing The Incendiaries, she told me she would wonder, ”Why didn’t I become a dermatologist? I would have been a good dermatologist. I love thinking about skincare.” It’s one of the funny asides that pepper this conversation in which she is also thoughtful about herself and about writing. We find out about the genesis of the book—the loss of her deep Christian faith and her grief over that loss, her deep love for fiction, and her sadness that when she was growing up there were so few Asian-American writers for her to model a career on. Kwon also shares how her love of language tripped up her writing in the novel's early drafts and some of the strategies she used to keep going. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with an engaging, thoughtful, and smart author.

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Photo courtesy of Algonquin Books

NEA Literature Fellow, Big Read author, 2013 National Medal of Arts recipient

Twenty-five years ago, Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, which was chosen as a Big Read title in 2010. Set in the Dominican Republic, In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were murdered by henchmen of dictator Rafael Trujillo for their resistance to his regime. The girls were known in the underground by their codename “Las Mariposas,” or butterflies. Their story was very close to Avarez's own. She spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, but her family got out. In this podcast, Julia Alvarez discusses how In the Time of the Butterflies came to be, the rich source material she finds in her family's immigrant experience, and how her life as a reader led to her life as a writer.

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Photo Courtesy of Victor Lodato

Author, playwright, former NEA Solo Artist Fellow

Author Victor Lodato has written two highly acclaimed novels Matilda Savitch and Edgar and Lucy. Nearly a decade in the making, Victor calls Edgar and Lucy “my New Jersey gothic.” And he’s not wrong. It’s an epic novel that’s part mystery, part love story, part ghost story, part family drama. It is both unexpected and perfectly believable. It’s set in Victor’s native New Jersey, in a working class Polish/Italian family much like Victor’s own. But that’s where the similarity ends. Edgar and Lucy are a son and mother; and, while the book concentrates on one very difficult year in their lives, it actually examines their relationship over the course of their lifetimes. It has its comic moments and heartbreaking ones—both with an attention to character and language. Happily, Victor Lodato is as thoughtful and compelling as his book. In this podcast, we talk about his very complicated characters, his childhood in New Jersey, why he was attracted to theater, and his move to novels.

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Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Author of NEA Big Read title Borne

Jeff VanderMeer writes fiction that defies classification—it has elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and eco-fiction, with an attention to language that literary fiction would envy and a voice that is utterly distinctive. VanderMeer’s novel Borne, which is a recent addition to the national community reading program NEA Big Read, is a case in point. Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a woman and the mysterious creature she finds in a city broken by a biotechnical company and terrorized by a five-story-tall flying bear. It sounds crazy, but it is a compelling, moving page turner that looks at the connections creatures make, or try to make, with one another. It’s an unpredictable cautionary tale—quite an unlikely combination. But so is VanderMeer. He spent a good part of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, immersed in the natural world with his parents, an entomologist and a biological illustrator. He was enraptured by the biodiversity of the islands and became an avid birder, which led him to writing. He remains immersed in the natural world and entranced by life in all its forms while living in Northern Florida, where he spends a great deal of time hiking through swamps and parks. In this podcast episode, we hear about it all—from Fiji to Florida. VanderMeer talks about his singular creative process, the themes he returns to in his work, his interactions with readers, and his excitement about Borne and the NEA Big Read program.

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Photo by Janie Airey

Translator and NEA Grantee

Literary translator and National Endowment for the Arts fellow Jennifer Croft was passionate about Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights—so much so that she spent ten years trying to persuade a literary house to publish an English translation. Croft would translate excerpts of the book and send them to journals trying to gin up interest in Tokarczuk’s distinctive work—a compilation of 116 chapters or fragments that travel through centuries and countries, ranging from single-page ruminations on airports or hotels to 30-page-long stories about a man searching for his wife and child who disappear as they are all vacationing or Chopin’s sister smuggling the composer’s heart back into Poland. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Croft was able to complete the translation. She also persuaded an independent English publisher to take a chance on the novel. The result: Flights was awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded to the best work of fiction translated from any language into English, and it was also a finalist for the National Book Award. In this episode of the podcast, Croft talks about Flights, the strange alchemy that goes into translation, the importance of grants and the Arts Endowment to translators, and how her own interest in Slavic languages began (Hint: figure skating played a central role).

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Photo: Courtesy of Mary Rand Hess

Poet, Writer,and Multi-Media Artist

In this week's podcast, poet, writer and multi-media artist Mary Rand Hess takes us into the heart of her collaborations with Newbery medalist Kwame Alexander. Together MAry and Kwame have written two best-selling YA titles Solo, a book that has rock and roll weaving through it and Swing, a book that centers around jazz and baseball. Both tell rich and complex stories of teenage boys trying to grow up in a world they didn't create--and both do it entirely in verse. Mary talks about writing for young adults and kids, what draws her to poetry (she started out wanting to be a rock star!), and making a life as a working writer.

Poet, Playwright, Broadcaster

Meet Maryland’s new poet laureate Grace Cavalieri. Grace is a language maven: she’s a poet (24 published books and chapbooks), a playwright (26 produced plays), and a broadcaster (creator and host of The Poet and the Poem, a public radio series now in its 42nd year). Her range of subject is matched by the depth of her observations. Her poems about old age can break your heart and make you laugh; she sometimes channels other women’s voices writing a series of poems as Anna Nicole Smith and another as Mary Wollstonecraft. She’s a poetic force to be reckoned to be reckoned with. Now, at the age of 86, Grace Cavalieri has been named Maryland’s new poet laureate. In this podcast, you’ll learn about where she’s been and where she’s going, how she made time for writing as a Navy wife with four kids, her long marriage to the boy she met when she was in junior high school, her loss at his passing, and her plans as poet laureate.

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Photo credit: NAACP

Prize-winning YA author

Author Renée Watson talks about her prize-winning YA title, Piecing Me Together and her most recent book, Watch Us Rise (co-written with Ellen Hagan). Both look at the lived experiences of black girls as they grapple with identity right at the intersection of race, class and gender. But Renée tells stories--she's not preaching...and, as in life, her characters can respond in unexpected ways. In the podcast, we talk about what goes into writing for young adults and Renée's own trajectory as a writer, educator and performer.

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