"You don't start doing a podcast because things are going really well for you," he says.
Listi, 39, is a writer whose debut novel, Attention. Deficit. Disorder., came out in 2006 and appeared for one shining week on the L.A. Times' best-seller list. Since then, it has been a struggle. He worked for years on a follow-up novel before shelving it and turning to screenplays. Into his mid-30s, Listi was grappling with the question of how a writer was supposed to make a living.
He decided to buy some audio equipment and interview writers to find out. Since launching his podcast in 2011, Listi has churned out two episodes a week, more than 350 in all. He has had some big-name guests — George Saunders, Cheryl Strayed, Sam Lipsyte, Susan Orlean — but most are relatively obscure.
Listi tends to home in on practical matters — not just the money but also the useful habits that keep a literary career alive. "You can learn a hell of a lot from listening to writers talk about their lives," he says.
Listi grew up in Indiana, and as a kid his hero was Kurt Vonnegut, a fellow Indianan. Listi went to film school at UC Boulder, then enrolled in USC's Master of Professional Writing program, where he produced his first book. At the suggestion of an agent, he began blogging on MySpace to support the novel. Listi, who lives in West Hollywood, had to stumble a lot to figure out the publishing business.
"I was very idealistic," he says. "I was young and naive to the realities."
From his interviews, he has distilled three basic lessons for young writers. First, he says, is that writers have to read. "I mean a lot," he says. "A big, dirty secret among writers is a lot of them don't read much." The second is that they must find a way to write every day. The third rule is they can't try to do it for a living.
"It's a small amount of people who give a shit about literary fiction," he says. "Almost everyone's working at it for the love of the game."
If the market for literature is bleak, it is a boom time for podcasts. Listi has attracted a following, and publishers inundate him with new books in hopes of getting their authors on his show.
He's not quite sure where this will lead, if anywhere. He's still pursuing screenwriting — podcasting doesn't pay the bills — and working on a novel with autobiographical themes.
Listi wrote a draft of a book about a man who decides to make money by selling a kidney. He even traveled to Israel to do research, but then set it aside. Now he's writing a novel about a writer who wrote a book about a man selling a kidney.
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Listi doesn't have much patience for writers who avoid talking about themselves. "I recoil from that impulse," he says. "People who are trying to cultivate an aura are missing the moment. People are being themselves now."
On the show, the hope is that getting authors to open up will shorten the distance between author and reader and make others feel less alone.
"That's not narcissism," Listi says. "That's the opposite of narcissism."