Interview: Brad Listi
I’ve been listening to Brad Listi’s Otherppl podcast for years, very used to his voice and candor, but I didn’t pick up his fiction until he flipped the script and sat as a guest on his own show. In episode 772, he’s interviewed by Steve Almond, and the conversation is vulnerable, wide-ranging, cerebral yet emotional—as it turns out, just like Listi’s own work. His new novel, Be Brief and Tell Them Everything, delves deep into the complexities of being an artist and parent and partner in our frantic modern society.
In this autofictive novel, the writer-narrator struggles to make meaning in the aftermath of his son’s life-altering medical diagnosis. The novel’s modular structure digresses then accumulates, much like being a parent and an artist—two realities that require succumbing to the focus and flow of the moment. Listi leads us on a tough yet somehow ultimately euphoric journey toward acceptance, even with existential shadows on all sides. As Listi himself says in our interview: “How do I take all of these hard experiences, all of this loss and heartbreak and trauma, all of this delicate personal and emotional and spiritual terrain, and render it into a narrative that might be useful and edifying and even entertaining for a reader?”
In this conversation—which took place over email and has been edited for clarity and concision—Brad Listi and I talk about narrative structure, writing into speechlessness, and the essential act of failure.
April Sopkin: You’ve written two novels, including your newest, Be Brief and Tell Them Everything, and you’ve been interviewing authors on your Otherppl podcast for twelve years now. Considering all of this experience, and thinking about your own writing, what do you still not know about the process?
Brad Listi: Plenty of things. Really intricate plotting, as one example, is something that still presents challenges. But the truth is that the list is long. The writing process is endlessly difficult and multifaceted, and in my experience each project is a distinct learning curve. Every time you start a new book, you’re essentially at square one.
There’s also the issue of knowing the answer versus being able to put it into practice. While it’s true that I’ve had conversations about most aspects of craft at this point, it doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered all of them. It’s also easy, if you’re anything like me, to forget things. So I’m often making errors in writing and then correcting them later, using knowledge that I have but that I had forgotten was in my possession.
AS: You’ve talked in other interviews about this novel’s long process of taking shape. Certainly, part of what compelled you forward must have been the autofictive nature of the story. What are some questions you found yourself chasing as you wrote?
BL: This book is, among other things, about its own creation, and from the very first page it attests to the fact that it was difficult to write. There are certain life events that are so difficult and perplexing that they leave you, it seems, with no choice but to write about them. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic. It’s just the reality of what I went through. I’d suffered through a string of personal tragedies, culminating in the diagnosis of my infant son with severe disabilities. It was devastating and hard to process and I wanted very much to write about something else, anything else—but found, in the end, that I couldn’t. I would sit down at the keyboard and make my attempts, but the attempts always fell flat and my mind always returned to these deeper and more central concerns. It got to the point where it started to feel existential. Either I’d find a way to write about this stuff, or else I would never write again—and then I’d die! That may or may not be the way that it actually was, but it was certainly the way that it felt.
Ultimately I surrendered to it and wrote directly into the difficulty, and only then did the book begin to take shape. The question that was haunting me all along was pretty elemental: How do I take all of these hard experiences, all of this loss and heartbreak and trauma, all of this delicate personal and emotional and spiritual terrain, and render it into a narrative that might be useful and edifying and even entertaining for a reader? I knew that if I was going to write anything at all, I had to write about this. But I didn’t really know what I had to say. I felt speechless. So I wrote about that, and in doing so discovered that the book’s main thematic concern is creation: artistic creation, the creation of a family, and the moral and ethical implications of such creation against the backdrop of illness and death and ecological catastrophe, etc. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it took me years to get there.
AS: In answering my first question, you mentioned that you sometimes forget and then remember your own knowledge about craft. I teach my students modular structure sometimes, and each time I find it difficult to articulate the “how” of its craft and have to relearn for myself. I wonder how you found this structure for the book, and how you were able to sustain it? Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is a dynamic example of modular structure, but it’s a short story. What novel-length models did you study? And what did the revision process look like for this book’s structure?
BL: The structure of the book was, in the final drafting of it, primarily a matter of intuition. There was no outline, no formal plan. But there was a decade of failure embedded into the process, which was essential. Most all of the material in Be Brief had appeared in earlier iterations in some form. These were well-worn paths. I had a developed sense of what didn’t work. And from there I just sort of felt my way through. Everything came together pretty quickly in the end. About a five-month push. By far the best writing experience of my life.
As for modular structure, it can be tricky to execute. There’s a lot of velocity, multiple threads, a lot of moving around in time and space. It’s one of those forms that can fool you into thinking that it’ll be easy. You write in these short bursts, lots of digression, you collage it together, and it’s done—right? But it doesn’t work like that for me. To make the thing cohere, to maintain a real sense of narrative momentum and thematic resonance—it’s hard. It takes a lot of trial and error and a deep understanding of the material.
AS: You spent years on this very personal book. What does it feel like, as an artist, to have completed a project that demanded such creative stamina and personal revelation? And what comes next?
BL: I felt an epic sense of relief, knowing that it was done and that I’d written it to my satisfaction and that I would never have to write it again. I can’t overstate how good it felt.
As for what’s next: I’m working on a book about 2020. The pandemic, my domestic concerns—all of it set against the last four months of the Trump presidency. It’s a memoir. I kept a meticulous diary during that time, more than 3,000 pages, and I’m now in the process of trying to winnow it down into some kind of workable narrative.
I like working on the book, but it’s not exactly a party to have to relive all that madness in granular detail. At the same time, it’s a project about which I feel a deep sense of mission and conviction. There’s this feeling that I absolutely must write it and won’t be able to work on anything else until I do. It’s possible that this sort of feeling is a prerequisite for me to write any book at all.
That said, I’m already thinking about the next project and toying with the idea of trying to write a purely entertaining novel. Something “fun.” Maybe some kind of desert noir, a black comedy, a space opera. I don’t know. We’ll see.
AS: What in your life sustains you so that you can keep writing?
BL: I think it takes a lot of luck to write books. A lot of things have to fall into place and nobody does it alone. You certainly need support along the way. You need time and space. You need the patience of friends and family members. I think primarily of my wife and kids—especially my wife—who saw me through the decade that it took to write Be Brief. Not an easy decade for me. Certainly not an easy decade for her. She made it possible for me to get the work done, she never gave up on me, and she permitted me to write about some of our most difficult shared truths. I dedicated the novel to her and my kids for good reason.
AS: I often talk to my students about learning common writing “rules,” then learning to embrace or disregard them, to lean into what makes sense for your instincts and interests and in that way find your authority around your work. And I fully believe that. Yet, as much as I encourage my students in this way, I still find myself coming back to insecurities around what I “know” about writing at this stage in my practice. Maybe some level of insecurity will always be the case. To circle back on our opening question here: Can you say what you feel you do know about the writing process?
BL: It’s hard to speak with too much certainty. It’s art—there are no rules. And the process is individual. It involves so much failure. It’s humbling. And so maybe that’s it right there: Something I do know about writing is that failure is a central part of it. Doubt is a central part of it. You have to be willing to endure all that. Book-length projects require an ability and a willingness to live inside uncertainty for long periods of time.
Disciplined reading also feels essential. If you’re not a disciplined reader, you’re probably not going to write well—obvious stuff. But what else is there? Ultimately, it comes down to doing the work. Teaching yourself how to do it. This is as much as I can say with confidence. Craft books and academic dissections of writing can be helpful. It’s worth reading some of this stuff, taking classes, gleaning whatever you need, building your own approach. And then at a certain point, you put that stuff down and go face the blank page alone and begin failing.
BRAD LISTI was born in Milwaukee. He is the author of the novel Be Brief and Tell Them Everything (Ig Publishing, 2022). His other books include the novel Attention. Deficit. Disorder., an LA Times bestseller, and Board, a work of nonfiction collage, coauthored with Justin Benton. He is the founding editor of The Nervous Breakdown, an online literary magazine, and in 2011 he launched the Otherppl podcast, which features in-depth interviews with today’s leading writers. He lives in Los Angeles. Find Brad on Twitter @otherppl.
APRIL SOPKIN has been awarded a 2023 Elizabeth George Foundation grant to fund the completion of her first book. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Black Telephone Magazine, MIT Technology Review, Carve, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She was a 2019 Tin House Scholar and her work has won the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, the Patricia Aakhus Award, and the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize. She lives outside of Richmond, Virginia.