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Podcasts, Empathy and Good Books


Podcast Fun

Is there anything more flattering and fun than having someone interview you about your work? Especially when you’re talking with someone good at asking questions?


I’ve had the pleasant experience of being interviewed by podcasters twice recently, and I have another podcast appointment coming this week. I talked about The Candlemaker’s Woman (find it here) with Steve on his podcast, Page Chewing, a couple of weeks ago. We also talked about researching historical fiction and meandering career paths. You can listen to it at And I talked with Joe on the podcast, Neon Jazz, on Saturday. You can hear it (and see it, if you can look at my face that long) at Joe asks great questions, not all about books. I had a third podcast guest appearance with Sam Hale at Author Preface that will air sometime in the next month or so, and I will record another podcast interview with Apollo Papyrus in August.


I found these opportunities through “Podmatch,” a service that matches artists, musicians and authors with podcasters who are looking for people to interview. It carries a modest subscription fee, but it can be cancelled at any time. If you know any writers – or musicians or other creative types – who are looking for some publicity, you might suggest they try it.


A thought about writers’ empathy


My friend and I were having lunch last week when the editor of a local newspaper and his family were seated next to us. My friend had worked briefly for him, and I had met him once, twenty-five or thirty years ago. He commiserated with us about his new reporters (surprise! jobs in journalism!) who weren't good writers. He hired a writing coach to move them along. I shared that I see a lot of raw manuscripts from people who want my feedback, and that I find the best writers are the biggest readers. They've learned how to write by experiencing prose from the reader's perspective. They've gained empathy for the reader. 


As you might guess, I think a lot about writing. What makes it succeed. What makes it fail. What makes it shine, and what barely gets by. To me, the difference between good writing and bad is in part (in practical terms) how long it takes the reader to figure out what the hell is going on and enjoy the story. If the writer lacks the empathy needed to take a reader's hand and lead them through a story in such a way that the reader doesn't have to struggle to understand what is happening, my belief is that’s bad writing. And I believe that many beginners fail because they don’t read enough. 


But it’s not just beginners. Among those who lack empathy for their readers are many writers who are

so famous and revered by the critics that they can play with their prose and plot progressions without any concern for whether anyone can enjoy what they write. They don't care because they're successful and don't have to cater to pedestrian intellects (or punctuation conventions—one of my pet peeves). If you believe, like I do, that fiction is in  part entertainment and a bit of an escape, then these writers fail.


Empathetic writers immediately engage readers and then take them on a journey that isn't a struggle to follow, but that is logical, interesting and at least a bit suspenseful. Their books tend to be denigrated as "commercial," or ignored altogether, even if they sell well. The only time you see "commercial" books reviewed by the NYT is if they focus on race or gender issues.


If I were that editor at lunch who has a passel of bad-writer newbies, I'd do this: I'd require my new reporters to read at least six articles from the front pages of one of the nation's major newspapers (NYT, WSJ, WaPo) each day. I'd ask them to read at least one adult novel or non-fiction book every two weeks.  Even if they don’t know it, they will learn something about pacing, rhythm, sentence structure, and plot. I would watch to see if it improves their writing. If it doesn't, perhaps a writing coach will help. But perhaps they just lack empathy. And perhaps they should take up accounting.


Books of the month:

I've been reading book-club books recently, but the one I really enjoyed (you won’t be surprised) was This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. I met him at the South Dakota Writers Festival a couple of years ago. You won’t find a friendlier, more empathetic person or writer. The story is about four young people who run away from a torturous (literally) school for boys and head for St. Louis by canoe in a saga that will remind you a little of Huckleberry Finn. Each of the kids ends up going their own way in the end, which honors their different personalities and backgrounds. It is satisfying, adventurous, and superbly written.


My Historical Novel Society Colorado Chapter meeting was graced last month with the presence of

Shelley Read, author of Go As a River, a novel set at the time of the damming of the Gunnison River. The novel is about so much more than that, and rightfully, it has been selected by the Pikes Peak Library District as book of the year. Shelley shared with us where the story started in her imagination, and her decades-long process of bringing it to fruition. She couldn’t have been nicer or more generous with her time. I highly recommend her book.







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