#ThrowbackThursday: The NEA Big Read Meets the Art Works Podcast

By Rebecca Sutton
A photo that looks down the aisle of shelves in a bookstore

Bookshelves by flickr user Germán Poo-Caamaño 

Just a few more weeks before our newest National Endowment for the Arts Big Read programs will kick off around the nation. Until then, why not get excited by digging into a few of our recent podcasts with Big Read authors? Enjoy!

Adrian Matejka

“How do you embody someone with such a complex and wonderful history in one poem?”

Jack Johnson is an unlikely subject for a book of poetry. But that’s exactly what poet and NEA Big Read author Adrian Matejka did when he wrote The Big Smokea collection of 52 poems about Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion. In this podcast, Matejka takes us through his interest in Johnson and boxing (spoiler: it was his mother who introduced him to both!), reaching across a century to find Johnson’s voice and the music he finds in poetry.

Joy Harjo

“Every poem is a kind of a ritual.”

In this podcast, Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek), the Poet Laureate of the United States and NEA Big Read author, takes part in a far-ranging conversation about poetry and music. She reads poems from her most recent collection An American Sunrise, and she talks about her family history on the Trail of Tears, how it led to An American Sunrise, and her commitment to honoring her poetic ancestors as well as her familial ones.

Madeline Miller

“Within the six-headed monsters and within the world of gods these are very human and relatable stories.”

In Circe—Madeline Miller’s second novel and an NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. In this podcast, Miller discusses gods and mortals, 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.

Julia Alvarez

“What is the responsibility of those that survive? To remember, and to remind.”

Twenty-five years ago, Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, which was chosen as an NEA 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. Their story was very close to Alvarez's own. She spent her childhood in the Dominican Republic, but her family got out. In this podcast, 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.

Jeff VanderMeer

“In the mysterious, your imagination begins to take hold."

Jeff VanderMeer’s 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. In this podcast, 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.

David Tomas Martinez

“I believe that poetry is a tradition, and that I'm writing with people that, through time, that aren't like me, but some that are, in various ways. But the one thing that connects us is poems, and our fidelity to writing well-written poems.”

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. Martinez 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 an NEA Big Read title. In this podcast, we walk with him down the streets of Southern California, where there’s violence and meanness—but also heart-stopping moments of grace.

Emily St. John Mandel

"You hope that if there’s some cataclysmic event, then the things that come through are the things you value the most."

Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel's award-winning fourth novel. Although most of the novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, it begins with a theater production of Shakespeare's King Lear. A famous actor Arthur Leander suddenly has a fatal heart attack on stage. But the night of Arthur’s death happens to be the same night a pandemic strikes. Moving like lightning around the globe, soon 99 percent of the population is dead and civilization as we know it ceases to exist. Although the book moves back and forth between pre and post-apocalypse, Mandel doesn’t focus on the immediate aftermath of the pandemic—her interest is the civilization that emerges.

Roz Chast

“The wonderful Lynda Barry used to describe cartooning as a career. She says, ‘It's very rickety.’ And I think that's an excellent, perfect description. Even when things are going well, it's rickety.”

Roz Chast is probably best known for her funny cartoons in the “New Yorker” about neurotic people coping—or not—with the everyday anxiety that life can produce. Chast is also known for her books, including her memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? which won a raft of prizes and was chosen for the NEA’s Big Read program. The book is equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking, and combines cartoons, found documents and photographs to chronicle the conflicting emotions and practical challenges of her parents’ last years and passing. This podcast describes how going through the end-of-life process compelled her write the book.

Vaddey Ratner

"It is a continuing duty for me to speak about this story to give voice to it every chance that I have. I know that [for] a book that asks so much of a reader I will have to give a lot of myself as well." 

NEA Big Read author Vaddey Ratner talks about what went into writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, which tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime coming to power in Cambodia and a young girl’s experience moving from an idyllic childhood in Phnom Penh into four years of chaos and hardship—a story that mirrors Ratner’s own experience under the Khmer Rouge, which included four years of forced labor and starvation before she escaped along with her mother.

Kelly Link

"I do think of short stories especially as these very small containers in which the characters and the readers ,hopefully, get to experience very large emotions."

Kelly Link loves to be scared and she loves to read—so writing ghost stories and fantasy was a smart move on her part. All but one of the ten magical stories in the Big Read title Pretty Monsters were written for young adult readers. The heroes of these stories are mostly teenagers grappling with familiar adolescent angst, but add to that a brew of unexpected monsters, ghosts, pirate-magicians, and undead babysitters, and the result is unlikely and yet perfectly believable.