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Episode XLVIII: "They become more of a person, more of a presence"

Published 1/20/16
In this installment, I speak with Jaime GreenTopics include creative nonfiction vs. journalism, The Catapult vs. live readings, readerly imaginations, bad readers & more.

Today I’m with Jaime Green, a writer and teacher, though I originally heard of her because she hosts The Catapult, “a podcast of new work read aloud.” I want to talk about the state of lit podcasting, but first let’s get an idea of how you got here. What’s the hyper-linearized narrative of your career?

Majored in theatre and creative writing in college, got a theatre job after school. Worked in new play development for a few years, got laid off when the global economy collapsed in 2008/2009. I'd been writing on the side, anyway - keeping a theatre blog - so I decided to get back to writing more. I worked as a receptionist for a while, wrote, and then, after a year or two, applied to grad school. That led to teaching and—I hope!—to more writing.

In terms of the podcast, I've listened to podcasts for a long time—since probably 2007 or 2008? And so after grad school ended, I had a teaching fellowship, but my writing work felt very at-the-whims-of-others. In theatre, I'd always had side-projects, places where I could make my own work, since my day job was in service of other people's work. (I mean the artistic directors of the theatre I worked at, not the playwrights I was working with.) The podcast was a way to make something of my own.

Before we jump into the podcast, I had a question regarding your education. Unless you've used LinkedIn to create a fictionalized persona, you went to Columbia to get your MFA in Creative Nonfiction. For the uninitiated (or even those that know but have a hard time explaining), what's the difference between creative nonfiction and journalism?

Oh boy. (And yes, that's me and not a false persona.) I think there's a spectrum between the genres, rather than a clear defining line. I could say that creative nonfiction is "creative writing" and journalism isn't, but what does that even mean? I also don't know a ton about journalism—I really regret not writing for the school paper in college—so it's hard for me to answer well. I was going to say that I think of the goal of journalism as "to find and tell a story," but that's 1000% what I do in my writing, too. Maybe it's a different calibration of story vs. language? Or maybe a different calibration of goals—journalism reports on stories, but creative nonfiction places more weight on artistic goals? Which isn't to say that journalism isn't artful! But creative nonfiction takes a broader grab into the artistic toolbox, in terms of language, structure, style...I feel like I'm answering this badly.

The subject matter is also different, too. Journalism reports on stories from the world. Creative nonfiction does that but other things, too: memoir, and other nonfiction work where the writer is a greater presence, as a character or a mind.

That vacillating alacrity is what usually comes (I've found) from any suitable answer the question—and it seems the difference is becoming murkier. Though the existence of an "I" in the story seems to be pretty black and white, creative nonfiction can exist without it, no? Would an easier answer have to do with the publication it exists in, or is that dangerous?

I think it's dangerous because it implies that a work isn't fully realized until it's published. But a work can be journalism or creative nonfiction and never be published. And there are journalistic pieces with an "I" and nonfiction pieces with none. And publications that blur the line as well. I'd say The Believer publishes some really line-straddling work of reported creative nonfictiony journalism. The New York Times Magazine does, too.

I don't know how a journalist conceives of their work—to tell a true story, to unearth injustice? But in creative nonfiction there's at least more/some of a focus on "to create a piece of art" or an aesthetic experience for the reader. Or: in creative nonfiction, reporting is optional.

That's articulate and I like it. Onto the podcast. Flavorwire included The Catapult in their 20 Best Cultural Podcasts, a list that includes some of my other personal favorites, like Song Exploder and Longform. They note that The Catapult makes “the reading accessible to those who can’t make it to New York bookstores several times a week.” In your mind, how much of The Catapult experience is that of an actual reading?

Hmm. That's a good question. It depends on how a person engages with an actual reading. If you're going to a bookstore, sitting there, hearing a writer read, maybe buying a book, it's pretty close. You're getting the experience of hearing a writer's work in their own voice, which I think is really interesting—you learn about the work and the writer that way, and they become more of a person, more of a presence. (For example, Paul Lisicky read for the latest episode of the podcast. I invited him on the show because I'd heard him read before and knew his work, but I hadn't yet read his new book, The Narrow Door, which he read from. I started the book yesterday, and even when I got beyond the part he read for the podcast, I still heard it a little bit in his voice. The same happened with Catherine Lacey's book, Nobody Is Ever Missing. I think it's weird and cool and lovely to read a book in the writer's voice.) But of course, there's another aspect to readings, which is that they're social. For many writers and people who work in publishing, readings are a networking event. You run into friends, you chat with people, you eyeball your Twitter nemesis from across the room, you meet cool people you only know from Twitter. That's not something that can be fully reproduced in a podcast. But I do hope that, through the magic of the internet, that social/interactive/personal component could be something that people find, to a certain extent, in The Catapult. (But also, removing the social component can be a huge relief, too!)

I like the idea of understanding the author's purpose or mindset a bit better by hearing their sentences in their own cadence. Do you think anything is lost in hearing them read their own piece?

Well, you lose your readerly imagination, a little. You're being told where the pauses are, where the weight is, something about the emotional meaning. It also slows you down and, at the same time, stops you from rereading or circling back. Also, some readers are bad. Then you lose a lot.

What makes a reader bad? What makes them singular?

Bad readers read flatly, too quickly, without inflection or any performance. They also might not breathe enough, which makes me feel, as I'm listening, like I can't breathe, either. They don't carry the meaning of their words. Great readers infuse their reading with meaning—emotion, rhythm, a sense of performance. You don't need to embody it like an actor, but a little bit of that helps.

Can bad readers ever be bad in the other direction? Overperformative, etc?

OH YES. Poets who read like they're Maya Angelou. But I don't think I've ever seen a prose writer overperform their work. It's so hard to do. Just like it's almost impossible to read too slowly. Like, you could do it, but it would take SUCH overperformance that it's statistically impossible.

Some of the best readers I've seen are former theatre people: Marie-Helene Bertino, Isaac Butler. Mira Jacob, though I don't know for sure if she has a theatre background.

If she doesn't, she could've. But you can be great without acting. You just have to be sensitive to the meaning of the work.

The idea of performance—and faltering in the way people sometimes falter as people, being indulgent, lacking confidence—brings up the idea of a reader's likability. When you read anything, specifically fiction, the idea is to really ignore the author as their own person. Do you think that divorce is useful, separating the author from the text, or is it a double-edged sword?

Hmm. I think, in terms of character, it's pretty crucial. Imagining a character as a stand-in for the author, unless the book is really signaling that, is limiting and unfair. But—and this is probably colored by being friends with writers—I think there's something lovely about reading a novel and thinking of the person who wrote it, the awesome, generous act that brought this story into your life. But honestly, my thoughts on this are probably pretty underdeveloped since I don't write fiction. I bet fiction writers have much stronger feelings about this!

And then what of nonfiction, where objectivity is certainly one of the highest virtues, even in pieces that bring in the "I". Is there a risk of hearing subjectivity in the author's voice?

Oh I disagree, I think subjectivity is the heart of creative nonfiction. Maybe this circles back to the journalism question! Creative nonfiction communicates subjectivity. It's often about sharing a personal, subjective experience or view of the world. That's the heart of my writing: "Here, I found something cool. Let me show it to you, here's why it's meaningful. Here, feel some feelings."

Hm, I see that. Maybe the objectivity/subjectivity dichotomy wasn't the best way to put it. Perhaps it's more of a matter of purpose or intent. If I'm reading a piece sans voice, and in my head I hear curiosity, some expression, searching—all that is great. But there are cases (and this might be unfair on my part), when I hear an author and there's some indulgence there, or pride, even spite or venom, and that takes me out of it a bit. Or at least it distorts the words.

Maybe that's a problem of self-awareness? Like, the writer doesn't realize what's seeping in?

That could be it. How do you select guests?

Lots of different ways. They're writers I've read, writers I know, writers I've heard at readings. I also take recommendations from past readers and friends I trust, and I get pitches from publicists, too.

You've got a great, eclectic mix. Some names more recognized than others, obviously a wide array of genre. Have you found any trends in reading style or performance as far as these categories go?

Hmm. I haven't thought about that before. I don't think so.

We're nearly out of time, so I'll send you out with a softball. What does the future hold for The Catapult, and for you?

Aah, that's not a softball at all! That's the hardest question! I have literally no idea. (This is the amused panic of an adjunct/freelancer.) For The Catapult, we're having a live show in New York, at Housing Works, to celebrate two years of the podcast. That'll be March 9th, and of course those readings will be released on the podcast, so that everyone can enjoy them. In terms of me, Jesus, I wish I knew!

Thanks for your time, Jaime, and your words.

My pleasure! Thank you for these amazing questions!