Our Reading Lives

How Books Change Lives: An Interview with Will Schwalbe

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Mary Kay McBrayer

Staff Writer

Mary Kay is a belly-dancer, horror enthusiast, sideshow lover, prose writer, Christian, and literature professor from south of Atlanta. Her true crime novel, America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster is available for pre-order, and you can hear her analysis (and jokes) about scary movies on the podcast she co-founded, Everything Trying to Kill You. She can be reached at mary.kay.mcbrayer@gmail.com.

Will Schwalbe is the author of the books The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living. As the titles suggest, Will focuses on the relationship and impact that books have on their readers’ lives. In his podcast But That’s Another Story, he interviews people about those life-changing reads to give his listeners new stories and new books for living. In this interview, we talk about the creative process and how books, podcasts, and living all go together. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

MKM: Hi, Will! So, when I was listening to your podcast, But That’s Another Story, I noticed that you always ask your guests what they’re reading, so it makes sense that my first question to you should be what are you reading right now?

WS: Well, there are several levels to that question. I love to tell you what I’ve recently finished, and then I’ll tell you what I’m reading. A book that I recently finished that I’m just obsessed with is Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls. It’s about a suburban woman who suffers loss and tragedy, and whose marriage is falling apart, and this “sea monster” escapes from a research lab, and it’s about the relationship between them—and it’s unbelievably like The Shape of Water, and it precedes it by several decades, but that’s not the reason to read the book! The reason to read the book is that it is really an almost-perfect novella. It is so rich and magical and haunting and real and sad, and everyone I’ve recommended it to has gone nuts for it. What I’m reading right now is for a young adult book group, and I’m just about to finish Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, set in Nigeria, and it is really a heck of a book. It’s torture that I didn’t get to finish it this morning.

MKM: I love it when I get hooked on a book that way.

WS: I call it—and this is not the most polite term for it—but I call it a Shut-Up-I’m-Reading Book.

MKM: I love that term! When you’re reading, do you look for anything in particular that stands out to you? Or do you just wait for it to happen?

WS: What I look for most is voice. I want to hear an author or a character, a voice that I haven’t heard before. That’s one reason why podcasting is such a fun thing for me, because I get to hear a voice on a page, whether it’s the author or a character, and then I get to literally hear the author’s voice. Oh, and I should mention that I’m also a plot reader. I do like a plot.

MKM: So do I. In your podcast, you interview authors about books that have had a significant impact in their lives, and I know that you have listed your 26 in Books for Living, but has anything else made the cut since that was published?

WS: So many books! Part of the thing I wanted to get across in Books for Living was that it wasn’t a canon. It wasn’t my 26 greatest books, but 26 books that found me. So, to name one, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. She was actually my first guest on the podcast. That was such a book for living. But I also feel like any book can be a book for living if there’s something wise that strikes you or even that you react against.

MKM: How do you go about choosing the guests on your podcast?

WS: Our goal is  to interview all different kinds of people with diverse perspectives.  Sam Sanders, the guest on our second episode, is an NPR journalist, and we had Josh Gondelman, a comedian and writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, as a guest, and eventually we will have a wide variety of guests.

I’m on this crusade to ask everyone, “What are you reading?” It’s a question that we naturally ask of writers, but we should ask of everybody. So often, people are really excited to tell you about that, and then you ask, “What’s a book that changed your life?” and you just cut through everything, and you never know where that will go. Also, sometimes books are how we escape, but very often books are how we know how to engage more fully. This podcast, I hope, will be about books that helped people escape, but it’s already proven to be a podcast about books that inspired people to take part in the national conversation among the most important and pressing issues that we are all facing right now.

MKM: What was the creative process that went into conceptualizing the podcast?

WS: Macmillan’s podcast team and I developed this idea about books and life, and that’s the pursuit that we’re all in. Everyone who works in this building and works in this industry believes in the transformative power of books. The way that I write about books was part of the formula because one of the things I try to do in The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living is write about books the way that people talk about books. I love literary criticism, and I read literary criticism, but that’s not the way most people talk about books. The show was to get people to talk about books the way that they talk about books when they tell each other, “I’ve read a book that changed my life. You should read it.” We wanted to bring that along with, “How did you find that book? What was going on in your life? Who gave it to you? What does your copy look like? Do you still have that copy?” Those questions, I think, are capable of sparking incredible stories. I also want to mention Katie Ferguson. Part of the reason that I’m enjoying it so much is that while she does a fair bit of pre-interviewing with guests, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. So, I’m discovering along with the listener of the podcast.

MKM: I wanted to ask, too, because But That’s Another Story is a podcast about books, if you have any favorite podcasts or podcasts that inspired your format? It is sort of an interview when you talk to your guests, but it’s also narrative, which I thought was an interesting combination.

WS: Just to name one, Death, Sex, and Money. Anna Sale is the host. And one that had me on as a guest, The One You Feed is more of a conversation, less narrative, but it goes places. The monologue-y part at the start is really inspired by Larry Wilmore and his podcast. We wanted me to start, before we talk to the guest, about something that thematically relates to what follows. I write that after we’ve done the interview.

MKM: Sort of like you write the introduction to an essay last, because then you know what you’re going to say. Or…well, I do.

WS: Exactly. Yep.

MKM: So, do you think that podcasts can affect you similarly to books, or is that a different experience?

WS: I actually think they can affect you similarly, but with one major difference. When I’m on book tour, sometimes people tell me, “Oh, I read your book…well, actually, I listened to it on audio.” And I say, “That means you read my book!” If someone heard the audio of my book, then they read my book. Reading and listening are not identical twins, but they’re twins. That said, the major difference is that a podcast has an element of spontaneity in it where the person talking surprises themselves in what they say. The listener can tell when someone says something that isn’t the answer they’ve given a million times to that question. A book is a thoughtful construction that is purposefully gone over again and again to prepare it to last the test of time. Or, one hopes.

MKM: I never made that distinction before, but you’re definitely right.

WS: It’s somewhere between reading a play and seeing a play. Reading a play is a book. Seeing a play is live, and a podcast is somewhere in the middle.

MKM: Right. Like a cold reading.

WS: Yes, only it’s not scripted. A podcast is sibling to a reading or an author event at a local indie bookstore. To some degree you’re getting something prepared, probably, but there is that excitement about the spontaneity.

MKM: What’s the biggest thing that you hope your listeners take away from your podcast, But That’s Another Story?

WS: I hope they’ll take away, every episode, another story of a way a book can change someone’s life or trajectory. I also hope they’ll pick up some really fabulous books for their To-Be-Read pile. And one other thing that was really important to us in the podcast is that you never have to have read the book we’re talking about.

MKM: That’s a really cool distinction, too, because when you ask someone what they love, you’re kind of asking them to pitch it to you, a little, to hustle it.

WS: That’s exactly right, and in my books, too, I try to talk about a book in a way that makes it interesting to someone who hasn’t read the book. I’m very conscious of that. And another thing I can guarantee on our podcast: no spoilers!

MKM: That definitely helps us plot readers…which most people are because we like the nature of narrative.

WS: It’s human! To tell me a story is one of the fundamental human impulses.

MKM: I totally agree. So, what advice do you have for authors like me who might be interested in starting or developing our own podcasts?

WS: If you’re going to do a podcast, you have to listen to podcasts, and there’s an extraordinary Toni Morrison quote about writing, but it applies to just about anything: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That applies to any creative endeavor.

MKM: Thank you! What else should I ask about?

WS: One thing that’s just started to happen that I’m so excited about is that we’ve started to hear from listeners, who they want to hear from and books they love, and that’s really important to me, that it’s two-way, not one-way. Sometimes it takes me a few months to get back, but I always answer everybody. The other thing I should make sure to mention is I’m so excited about this partnership we have with LitHub, and that we’re publishing transcriptions of every episode. It’s important to me because I love the LitHub community and because I’m hard of hearing. I wear hearing aids in both ears, and I think it’s really important to make things accessible whenever we can, and LitHub, in addition to being wonderful records of the conversations, also makes them available to people who have difficulty hearing, so I’m really excited about that partnership.

MKM: Thank you so much for talking to me today. This was so fun and inspiring!

What are you reading, Book Riot? What’s a book that changed your life?