Podcasts

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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.

Editors: Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives

Rachel L. Swarns and Darcy Eveleigh are two of the four editors of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives. In Unseen, the editors took on the monumental task of going through millions of unpublished photos in the archives (or morgue) of The New York Times. They were looking for pictures of African Americans--both the ordinary and the famous. They then tried to get the story behind the photo centering around two major questions: why was the photo taken and why wasn't it used. The process was like unraveling a mystery taking a lot of determination. And the result is pretty extraordinary. Both Rachel and Darcy were longtime staff journalists at and are now contributors to The New York Times--Rachel is a writer and Darcy a photo editor. They talk about the book from these different perspectives and also share how putting this book together influenced their own approach to the work that they do.

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Photo © blue lily photo

Y.A. fantasy/horror author

In her novel, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, young adult author Kiersten White retells Mary Shelley’s classic. In White’s book, we get the story from Elizabeth Lavenza—the childhood companion and then wife of scientist Victor Frankenstein. Kiersten White closely follows the outline of Shelley’s Frankenstein, but by changing the point of view to Elizabeth, we get another story entirely about Victor Frankenstein, the monster, and Elizabeth herself. For this Halloween podcast, Kiersten and I talk about the original Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s singular life, and the challenges and fun of taking this well-known classic tale, telling it from a different perspective, and finding a story that hadn’t been told before.

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Photo courtesy of David Tomas Martinez

Poet and Big Read author

Poet David Tomas Martinez’s book (and new Big Read title) Hustle explodes with verbal dexterity about street life. Born in San Diego to a working class Chicano family, David Tomas Martinez found power and strength by running with a gang. A father at 17, he ended up in college as a returning student through sheer luck, and there he found strength and power through language. David became a poet and the rough side of town and the people he knew (and knows) there became his subjects. His first collection, and first publication, is Hustle which became a prize-winning book…and a new Big Read title. David’s joy in linguistic playfulness isn’t confined to the page. His honesty, exuberance, and charm comes through in this podcast as we walk with him down the streets of Southern California; there’s violence and meanness—but also heart-stopping moments of grace.

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Courtesy of Jennifer Haigh

Novelist and NEA Literature Fellow

In Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel Heat and Light, she returns to the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania: its prosperity withered with the closing of the coalmines. So when it’s learned that the area is rich in natural gas, many people are eager to sign over their mineral rights to energy companies. And the debate about fracking and all that it entails upends the community. Jennifer Haigh knows her subject well; she was raised in a former coal town that also sits on deposits of natural gas. In our conversation she talks about her hometown and how it’s become the basis for much of her writing, the pull of the past on the present and the legacy of North Appalachia’s geology.

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Photo by Nazia Abbas

Poet and essayist Seema Reza investigates loss and love with ruthless honesty and lyrical power in her book, When the World Breaks Open. In this week’s podcast, Reza discusses writing her life and her determination to reveal herself on the page through poems, essays, fragments and observations, recipes—whatever it took to tell her story precisely and thoroughly. The result is at times heartbreaking but not grim. She owns her sorrow, but she’s also fierce and joyful in her determination to be known for herself.

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