Book Fight

This is the last week for our Fall of Failure. We're reading a short, unconventional essay by Brian Oliu called "As Is," in which the author attempts to sell his torso via ebay. We're also talking about the psychology of failure. Why do we feel the need to attach a narrative to our personal and collective failures, and what can we learn from the particular narrative we choose? 

For more, visit us online at

Direct download: Failure8_Oliu.mp3
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Pour yourself some eggnog, light a fire, and curl up with a couple Christmas books of questionable quality. As we have the last two years, we're taking a break from our usual reading list to check out some mass-market Christmas tales. This year's selections: Janet Evanovich's Visions of Sugar Plums, and Jennifer Bernard's It's A Wonderful Fireman.


Direct download: ChristmasSpectacular_2014a.mp3
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This week's story is Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game," which he sent off to his publisher along with the manuscript of his memoir and also his suicide note. We also talk about a variety of failed comebacks, including the rather remarkable story of America's late-19th-century King of Gum.

For more, check us out online at

Direct download: FailureEp7_Zweig.mp3
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In keeping with our fall theme, this week we're reading a memoir about failure: personal, professional, artistic ... basically all the failures. Greg Baxter moved to Dublin after failing to sell his first novel, got divorced, and wrote a memoir while essentially attempting to destroy his own life. 

In addition to the book discussion, we've got a new installment of Raccoon News, and we once again delve into the NaNoWriMo forums.

For more, visit us at

Direct download: Ep74_Baxter_PreparationForDeath.mp3
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Our short story this week is called "Here I Am," about a man who goes on living after his head is separated from his body. We also talk about artistic failures: in particular, the story of Poe's vengeful nemesis, and why those treacly lists of "famous failures" bug us so much. For more, visit our website at

Direct download: FailureEp6_Hoyt.mp3
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We're joined this week by Gina Myers (poet, reviewer, recent transplant to Philadelphia) to discuss Mark Binelli's examination of Detroit. Binelli grew up in and around the city, and returned to live in its Eastern Market neighborhood, meet some locals, and investigate what was going right, and wrong, in the city that's become America's favorite allegory. 

Direct download: Ep_73-Binelli_DetroitCityIsPlaceToBe.mp3
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This week we're reading Kevin Sampsell's essay "I'm Jumping Off The Bridge" and talking about failed utopias: shakers, fruit-lovers, dangerous cults, and more.

For more, visit us at

Direct download: FailureEp5_Sampsell.mp3
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This week's book is a Tom pick, and was also the runner-up in last year's listener poll, narrowly losing out to The Silver Linings Playbook. Also: it's November, so we're once again talking about National Novel Writing Month, delving into the NaNoWriMo forums to see what this year's participants are struggling with.

Direct download: Ep72_Mangla.mp3
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This week's essay is a Tom pick, an essay by Eula Biss called "Time and Distance Overcome," which is about, among other things, early telephone technology, resistance to telephone poles, and the widespread lynching of black men in early 20th century America.

We're also talking about failed amusement parks this week: parks that were proposed but never built, and some that probably shouldn't have been built, including a wild-animal safari in New Jersey and Dickens World in the UK.

For more, visit us online at

Direct download: FailureEp4_Biss.mp3
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This week we're discussing a novel that hit an awful lot of Best of 2013 lists, about a man who puts his young daughter into a Mini Cooper and runs away from his wife and--in a certain sense--himself. Also: Another installment of Raccoon News, plus Sticks & Stones. For more, check out our website,

Direct download: Ep71-Gaige_Schroder.mp3
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This week we're talking about the story "Strawberry Lipstick" from Kseniya Melnik's debut collection, Snow in May, published this spring by Macmillan. We're also, in keeping with our Fall of Failure theme, talking about failed dog breeds, including the "turnspit," a dog people used to put in the oven, because humans are garbage monsters. Talking points include: long stories, post-Stalin Russia, class warfare, eugenics, and why The Melting Pot is a ripoff. Find more at our website,

Direct download: FailureEp3_Melnick.mp3
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This week we're reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. We talk about stream-of-consciousness narration, and whether the book should be considered a comedy. Also lots of other stuff. For more, including links to our weekly recommendations, check out our website at

Direct download: Ep70-Faulkner_AsILayDying.mp3
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Our first-ever live episode, recorded at The Spiral Bookcase in Manayunk, just outside Center City Philadelphia and a few blocks from Tom's ancestral home. We're joined by Ann Tetreault (owner of the bookstore in question), Joey Sweeney (writer, musician, founder of, Katherine Hill (fan favorite, author of The Violet Hour) and Lee Klein (author of Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, and The Shimmering Go-Between). 

We talk publishing, book-selling, offensive mascots, Philadelphia's culture of protest, Kickstarter annoyances, street fights, rejection, and rebounding from failure. Plus there's live music, audience interaction, and a cat (spoiler: you can't hear the cat).

For more, visit us online at

Direct download: Live_In_Manayunk.mp3
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This week we're talking about an excerpt from Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home. We discuss the ethical issues raised by writing about one's family, and what makes a memoir compelling. We're also talking about the VCR format wars of the late '70s and early '80s. What can we learn from the failure of Betamax?

Direct download: FailureEp2_Bechdel.mp3
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We talk about the younger Dubus's 2011 memoir of growing up in a series of rough neighborhoods, learning to fight, and making his peace with a mostly absent father. Also: raccoon news!

Direct download: Ep69-AndreDubusIII_Townie.mp3
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This week we're kicking off our new fall series, in which we read short stories and essays and also talk about various kinds of failure. In today's episode we're talking about J.D. Daniels' essay "Letter from Majorca," from the Paris Review. We also consider why failure is more interesting than success, and why Americans have such a difficult time with it.

Direct download: FailureEp1_Daniels.mp3
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This 1964 novel is one of the best-known by Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. The book follows Bird, a new father deciding whether to save his newborn son, whose seemingly severe birth defect might keep him from ever living a full life. 

Direct download: Ep_68_Oe_APersonalMatter.mp3
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The summer is over, and so is our Summer of Shorts. In this final installment, we talk about Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are The Only People Here" and--for those who've fallen in love with the shorts lifestyle--jobs for which you don't need to wear pants (or dresses/skirts). 

Direct download: ShortsEp8-Moore_Jobs.mp3
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This week's book is a Mike pick: an essay collection about travel, displacement, love, loss and occasional psychedelic drugs. We talk about the necessary artifice of narration, and why readers so often fail to acknowledge it; how travel experience is often more about the traveler than the place itself; dark humor and bad habits. We also bring back our Sticks and Stones segment, make an important announcement, and get lost in a Groundhog Day-style feedback loop.

Direct download: Ep67-Dyer_YogaForPeopleWhoCantBeBotheredToDoIt.mp3
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This week on Summer of Shorts we're talking about Donald Barthelme's "Me and Miss Mandible" and also swim trunks. Tom is headed out on a beach vacation, despite pretty much hating the beach, whereas Mike grew up near the beach and thinks he needs to get over his irrational fears of the ocean. Also, the story is pretty good, and you should check it out, either in the collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari, or in the collected Sixty Stories.

Direct download: ShortsEp7-Barthelme_and_SwimTrunks.mp3
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This week's story is "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," by Sherman Alexie. This week's shorts are boxers. Trigger warning: We're gonna talk about our underpants.

Direct download: ShortsEp6-Alexie_and_Boxers.mp3
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We're joined this week by Matt Jakubowski--writer, critic, and interviews editor for the international journal Asymptote--to discuss the English translation of Aglaja Veteranyi's Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta. Veteranyi was originally from Romania but lived most of her life in Switzerland, after growing up with a family of circus performers, an experience which certainly informs the novel. We also talk about Matt's ongoing project to read only women for 2014.

Direct download: Ep_66-Aglala_Veteranyi_Why_the_Child_Is_Cooking_in_the_Polenta.mp3
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This week we're discussing Mary Gaitskill's "The Girl on the Plane," and also gym shorts. What more could you possibly need to know?

Direct download: ShortsEp5_Gaitskill_Gym_Shorts.mp3
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This week we read two long stories (novellas, maybe?) by some guy named J.D. Salinger. Maybe you've heard of him. Kind of a recluse? Didn't like phonies? Both stories are about Seymour Glass, and the Glass family more generally, who make appearances in a number of other Salinger stories, like A Perfect Day for Bananafish and Franny and Zooey. 

Direct download: Ep65-Salinger.mp3
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We welcome special guest Dave Housley (Barrelhouse editor, author of the forthcoming If I Knew The Way, I Would Take You Home) to discuss Edward Porter's "The White Guy's Guide to Marrying a Black Woman" and also cargo shorts. Talking points include: second-person narratives, writing honestly about race, goatees, Phish tour, Tyler Perry, and buying things only because they're on sale.

Direct download: Shorts4-PorterAndCargos.mp3
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This week Tom continues his year-long exploration of books outside his usual reading patterns, with Finnish writer's Anita Konkka's A Fool's Paradise, published by Dalkey Archive Press. And Mike continues his exploration of fan fiction, quizzing Tom on a variety of tropes and terms, some of which might actually be useful if they were adopted by writers of non-fan fiction, too. 

Direct download: Ep64-Konkka_AFoolsErrand.mp3
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This week is all about genre-bending. We talk about Jo Ann Beard's essay "Werner," which was included in the 2007 edition of Best American Nonfiction, edited by David Foster Wallace, and which makes use of fictional techniques to tell a story that is (more or less) true. We also talk about skorts, against which Mike has a long-standing grudge. 

Direct download: ShortsEp3-Beard_and_Skorts.mp3
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We welcome guest Leslie Jamson (The Empathy Exams) to discuss Michael W. Clune's memoir White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. Clune was a PhD student in literature at John Hopkins in Baltimore and also a daily heroin user. We also talk about addiction memoirs more generally, Leslie's own forays into writing creative nonfiction, pie shakes, Iowa City, and Haley Joel Osment. 

You can preorder Issue 13 of Barrelhouse (the comedy issue) at the Barrelhouse website. You can learn more about us, and the show, at

Direct download: Ep_63-MichaelClune_WhiteOut.mp3
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Welcome back to the Summer of Shorts! This week we're talking about an Andre Dubus story, "The Fat Girl," which follows its protagonist, Louise, from childhood through marriage and pregnancy as she struggles with body image issues and her relationship with food. We're also talking about jorts, the much-maligned (and possibly misunderstood?) garment of choice for construction workers, heavy-metal fans and, more recently, hipsters with scissors.

Direct download: Shorts2-Dubus_and_Jorts.mp3
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Our last donor pick of the year, this book by Peter Sotos is pretty disturbing. We talk about trigger warnings, both in general and in relation to this particular book, which delves into pedophilia, child pornography, and several real-life child abductions and murders. We discuss Sotos's career as a transgressive, button-pushing author, and debate the relative merits of this book. Is Sotos seeking to shine a critical eye on the psychology of pedophilia? Or is he just wallowing around in the filth?

We've also got our first official listener rebuttal: Joshua Isard, author of Conquistador of the Useless, took issue with our panning of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question in Episode 58. So we gave him a forum to fight back. That happens at around the 30 minute mark, if you'd like to hear Josh but want to abstain from our possibly triggering discussion of Sotos.

Direct download: Ep62-PeterSotos_Mine.mp3
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Today we're kicking off the Summer of Shorts by talking about the Kate Braverman story "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" and also bermuda shorts. Is the story meant to be read literally or allegorically? What is the proper length for men's shorts? Is this one of the best American short stories of the twentieth century, as its inclusion in a Vintage anthology would suggest? Why did Tom stop wearing shorts entirely for several years? 

You can read the story (for free) at the link above. You can get a pair of bermudas wherever fine shorts are sold.

For more, visit us online at

Direct download: ShortsEp1__Braverman_and_Bermudas.mp3
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We're joined this week by Philadelphia native Dan McQuade to discuss the novelisation of Rocky II, which pretty much sticks to the plot of the film, but is narrated by Rocky himself, who turns out to be an even bigger dolt in prose. We talk about the story's possibly racist overtones, and why montage sequences don't work that well in a novel. We also ask Dan about life as a freelance writer, and some of Philadelphia's weirder traditions, like the Mummers. 

Direct download: Ep61-SylvesterStallone_Rocky3.mp3
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On this week's Writers Ask, we counsel someone who's been rejected from all the MFA programs to which he's applied. Should he simply give up? Choose a different path? Or put his head down, keep working, and apply again next year? We also tell someone whether they should self-publish, and we share a few of the writing prompts we use in our creative writing classes that have proven particularly useful.

After this week, we're taking a little break from our Writers Ask episodes so we can embark on a special summer project. We share some details of that project this week, and also workshop potential names for it. (Not to worry: there will still be an episode every week; but these alternate-week episodes will be a little different for the next 2-3 months).

Find out more at

Direct download: WritersAsk-WormCans.mp3
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This week's book, Canty's first novel, is one of Mike's favorites, while Tom is reading it for the first time. We talk about doomed teenage romance, small moments carefully observed, and what makes you want to return to a book. We also examine the free Wattpad app, and check out some Adam Levine/The Voice fan fic. 

Direct download: Ep60-KevinCanty_IntoTheGreatWideOpen.mp3
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We revisit the topic of writers conferences, and offer advice on how to choose a good one. Also: do writers need to be well-versed in the literary canon (however that might be defined), or is it ok to mostly read contemporary work? And how can you add conflict and tension to a book without much plot? 

Direct download: WritersAsk-HeavenIsReal.mp3
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A dystopian Russian novel that explores life after a mysterious "blast" has turned back history, leaving a barely-literate population toiling in mind-numbing jobs and trapping rodents for currency. We try to put the book into some context, talk about Tolstaya's other work, and Tom mulls a new segment that involves him watching terrible daytime television. 

Direct download: Ep_59-TheSlynx.mp3
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We recorded this episode pretty late at night. I am posting this episode recap pretty late at night. We talked about some things, like how much MFAs cost, whether grad student pay rates are fair, and why Tom is so anal retentive about organizing books on his super fancy bookshelves. We also talked about Baywatch. And now you can download our conversation and put it in your ears. Isn't modern life wonderful?

Direct download: WritersAsk-Book_Fight_After_Dark.mp3
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This book won the Man Booker prize, though at least one of us might have thrown it across his living room. We talk about funny novels versus "comic novels," middle-aged male novelists who can't stop writing about their penises, and when it's okay to quit on a book. Also, Mike's got another edition of Fan Fiction Corner, featuring some alternate-universe TV fan fic, and ... well, spanking. 

You can buy Mike's recommended album here. You can find out more about the podcast here

Direct download: Ep_58-Howard_Jacobson_Finkler_Question.mp3
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Finally, listeners, it's here. We're reading the best-selling novel by Tom's nemesis and America's sweetheart, Q. Will Mike be won over by Pat Peoples' struggle to overcome a traumatic brain injury? Will Tom punch Mike in the face?

We talk about the book's treatment of race and mental illness, whether its details about football fandom are accurate, and how it might serve as a "playbook," if you will, for how to write a commercially successful novel.

Direct download: Bonus-SilverLiningsPlaybook.mp3
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First up this week, Tom checks out several apps promising to provide writing prompts and creative inspiration. In our second segment we're joined by Lucas Mann, author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, to discuss "unlikeable" narrators in nonfiction, and how to turn yourself into a character.

Direct download: WritersAsk-WritingAppsAndUnlikeableNarrators.mp3
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Well, it's the end of March, and finally Mike gets a pick: Ben Lerner's much-celebrated 2011 novel about a poet on a Fullbright in Spain struggling with a series of major and minor existential crises. We talk about poetry and "poetry," people having "profound experiences of art," and what makes writers' identity crises interesting or not. Mike's also got a new installment of Fan Fiction Corner, much to Tom's chagrin. This week we're checking out fan fiction about characters from the literary canon.

For more, visit us online at

And check out Barrelhouse's various offerings at

Also, there's still time to register for our D.C. writers' conference, Conversations and Connections, happening this weekend (April 5th).

Direct download: Ep_57-Ben_Lerner_Atocha_Station.mp3
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This week we're answering questions about how to best make use of your limited writing time, and how to jolt yourself into action when you're between projects. How do you pick your next project? How do you generate material when you're not sure what you want to write? How do you choose between a bunch of potential writing projects when you've only got so many hours in the day?

We also revisit the 2010 dust-up over the (apparent) increase of present-tense narration in novels, and whether there's a cultural significance to the rise of the present tense.

For more, visit us online at

Direct download: WritersAsk-BabyDetective.mp3
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We're joined by musician and novelist Wesley Stace (who you may also know as John Wesley Harding) to discuss the first book in Anthony Powell's 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. Mike geeks out over meeting one of his favorite musicians, then we talk about Powell's book, Stace's career, and people's general distrust of actors and musicians who write novels. Plus a lightning round featuring cricket, apple pie beds, and Mr. Bean.

Direct download: Ep56-AnthonyPowell_AQuestionofUpbringing.mp3
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Lots of websites and conferences claim they'll help you hone your "elevator pitch," but is this a useful skill for a writer? This week we're taking writing conferences, the agent querying process, and potential scams writers should look out for. We also answer a listener question about how to create confident protagonists who don't come off as parodies of confidence. For more--including links to the story of Melanie Mills--visit us at

Direct download: WritersAsk-ElevatorPitchesandCaviarDreams.mp3
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This modernist classic was a listener pick, and also kind of gross. We talk about unlikeable narrators, depravity, stabbing women with forks, and the Spanish Revolution. In our second segment we consider how a writing instructor should respond to unsettling student work, and how to give students creative freedom while respecting the sensitivities of others in the workshop. 

Direct download: Ep_55-G_Bataille_Blue_of_Noon.mp3
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Tom talks to fan favorite Katherine Hill, author of The Violet Hour, about AWP burnout, getting old, kissing, dogs, creepy dudes, and confrontational panels.

Direct download: AWPUpdate5.mp3
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Mike gives updates from Philly on what he's doing while not attending AWP, and talks to Lee Klein, author of Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, about Austrian authors and The Silver Linings Playbook. 

Direct download: NonAWPUpdate1.mp3
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Tom talks with writer (and longtime friend of Barrelhouse) Erin Fitzgerald about flash fiction, fanfic, and unlikeable characters. 

Direct download: AWPUpdate4.mp3
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Tom talks with Hobart editor Aaron Burch, for some reason.

Direct download: AWP_Update_3.mp3
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Tom reports from the floor of the AWP conference in Seattle. He talks to Tom Williams, author of Don't Start Me Talkin', about conference-goers' book buying habits, and his favorite parts of AWP. Also, Barrelhouse editor Dave Housley joins in to talk slam poetry vs. spoken word, and attending panels vs not attending panels. 

Direct download: AWP_Special_Report_2.mp3
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Welcome to the first of our AWP 2014 special reports. Well, not "our," since Mike is still in Philly. Tom chats with Barrelhouse editor Joe Killiany about the best and worst parts of AWP, travel woes, Sherman Alexie, William Faulkner, and beard maintenance. 

Direct download: AWPUpdate0227.mp3
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On this week's episode we discuss a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education--"How Iowa Flattened Literature," by Workshop grad Eric Bennet--and whether we agree with the various charges it levels against Iowa specifically and the project of teaching creative writing more generally. We also answer a listener question about how to select the journals to which you submit your work, and whether there are special considerations for as-yet-unpublished writers.

Direct download: WritersAsk-SpiesLikeUs.mp3
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Another listener pick: the 1958 novel that would become the first James Bond movie only four years later. We discuss the book's imperialist politics, Fleming's choice to employ dialect for the Jamaican characters, and "the mound of Venus." In the second half of the show we debut a new feature, Fan Fiction Corner, in which we delve deeply into the world of James Bond slash-fic and Tom gets kinda grossed out.

Direct download: Ep54-IanFleming_DrNo.mp3
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This week we're tackling another question about copyright, piracy, and digital publishing. Specifically: How do libraries fit into the mix? We also talk about the effects both self-publishing and indie publishing are having on the major publishers, we read a couple more Lee Klein rejections, and Mike is asked to explain his love of the movie Pitch Perfect. 

Direct download: WritersAsk-DontInviteTheSpite.mp3
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Ward's memoir recounts the deaths of five young black men in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, including the car accident that killed her younger brother. We talk about de facto segregation in the American South, writing about family members, and amateur sociology. We also bring back our Sticks and Stones segment, read a couple more donor rejections, and try to figure out what happens in the 4th dimension.

Direct download: Ep53-Jesmyn_Ward_Men_We_Reaped.mp3
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At the suggestion of a listener, in this special bonus episode we're discussing self-publishing, copyright, and how evolving digital technologies might influence both writers and publishers. Should writers and publishers embrace Creative Commons licenses and post their work online for free? Is copyright an outmoded idea? How can writers balance the desire to make a living with the desire to reach a wide reading audience? 

Direct download: BonusEpisode-Copyright.mp3
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This week we've got questions about getting an MA, submitting to magazines that already published you, and finding a writing group. Also: Chubby Checker's less popular dance crazes, Tom's brief theater career, and Philadelphia's cheesiest pervert. 

Direct download: WritersAsk-WhoMovedMyCheese_2.mp3
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This week's book is a story collection from Foxhead Books, and features small-town characters whose lives have fallen short of their dreams. We talk about the difference between generous and stereotypical portrayals of small-town Southern characters, how to put together a story collection, and why Americans keep shooting each other. For more, visit

Direct download: Ep52-MichaelWayneHampton.mp3
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We're joined by Joshua Isard (author of Conquistador of the Useless, and director of Arcadia University's low-residency MFA program), who answers questions about reading your own reviews, and what to do with an MFA in creative writing. Josh shares some details about Arcadia's program, we talk a little smack about Jennifer Weiner, and we speculate about Babe Ruth's junk. 

Direct download: WritersAsk-LongLiveBeaverCollege.mp3
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We welcome guest Joshua Isard (author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless) to discuss Roth's 2004 novel, which imagines a midcentury America in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president on an "America First" platform of non-interventionism. We talk about the believability of the book's conceit, the idea of a "false memoir," and the continued presence of anti-semitism in the United States. We also bring back our Sticks and Stones segment, now with a special theme song. 

This episode is sponsored by Five Chapters, an online journal and press, which has recently begun publishing story collections, including Everyone's Irish by friend-of-the-show Ian Stansel. Check out everything they have to offer at

Direct download: Ep51-Roth_Plot_Against_America.mp3
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