The Secret Library Podcast

The truth about writing books. By speaking to authors and other book lovers, I'm diving into the mystery that is the book world today. From writing to editing to publishing and all that goes into the creation of a book – all of it is open for discussion on the show.
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Oct 25, 2018
When Alexandra Franzen first wrote her novel, So This is the End, she wasn't ready to publish it with the wide world.
She released it as a gift - a free download she gave to her mailing list. She was terrified it really wasn't that good.
A torrent of replies came in, sharing how much the book had moved them. She got braver and put it up for sale on her site. Then, over a year later, she thought it might be ok to think about publishing it wide.
Here is the story of how her book went from something that could have hidden in a drawer forever to a book that's been optioned for a series and is coming out in hardcover. If you ever doubt the importance of trying, this is your episode. Warning: you may write like the wind without holding back after listening to this. I know I did.
Oct 18, 2018

When I found out Susan Orlean's latest was called The Library Book it took me exactly 2 minutes to invite her on the show to discuss it. Bless her, she said yes less than 5 minutes later.

This book is SO GOOD.

Granted, I am an easy sell with a podcast called The Secret Library. But this book has arson, crazy characters, scandal, history, and everything a book nerd could ever want. We discuss the process of researching and writing this book over 5 years and what it took to write it, even after Susan thought she'd never write another book again.

She's pure gold, as always.

Oct 11, 2018

When I did 100 readings a few years ago, a friend asked if I could read for her writing project instead of her life.

We tried it out and were amazed at the results. After exploring a bit, I discovered that the very brilliant Jessa Crispin had been reading tarot for writers for years. Her book, The Creative Tarot has been a favorite ever since and I was thrilled she was open to coming on and discussing how tarot can support the writing process.

If you’ve been wondering about bringing tarot into your writing or even if you’ve never played with tarot at all, this episode is going to be such a treat! Happy listening...

Oct 4, 2018
This conversation was absolute and total heaven.
Much like Simon Van Booy's latest book, the story collection "The Sadness of beautiful Things," this episode covers a wide variety of topics. However, even as we moved from beginnings, to endings, to the thought and work it took to get various stories right, we kept coming back to one central theme" what does it take to write a good story?
Simon is a brilliant guide in this arena, and shared the circumstances of the stories he's been told while traveling that lead, over time, to the ones that made up this collection. We talk about the trickiness of happy endings, how to deal with the tough stuff, and so much more. I've been counting the days until this book came out because I'm so excited for you to read it, and to get to hear this chat. Happy listening.
Aug 30, 2018

When Allie Rowbottom lost her mother to cancer, she dove headfirst into writing.

Having already completed an MFA and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, Allie was no stranger to writing but something changed after her mother died. She felt an increased urgency to tell the story her mother had invested many years of her own life writing: the story of the women and generations impacted by the money made from an icon of mid-century America: Jell-O.

The story that is ultimately told in Rowbottom's book is multifaceted: it's her grandmother's story, her mother's, and her own, but it's also the story of Jell-O and how this product came to represent a particular kind of femininity that all these women felt pressured to mold themselves into, much like Jell-O itself. We dive in deep to what it felt like to write this story so soon after losing her mother and what it's like now as the book comes out and so many more people are reading and reacting to the book.

This was such an inspiring interview, both because Allie was so open about her feelings and experience, but also because we haven't touched on writing and grief with this kind of depth, and it's a topic I think deserves much attention. I'm very grateful to have had this conversation and look forward to discussing this topic more in the future.

Aug 23, 2018
  • How to Write Non-Fiction

Non-fiction books are a different animal than fiction, with as many reasons to write them as there are categories. With more people than ever wanting to reach a wider audience, the appeal for writing nonfiction is clear. 

Show favorite Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn was the perfect guest to speak about how to write nonfiction well, and all the steps to take to make your book a success. With more people than ever looking to read nonfiction, it's a great time to write based on the knowledge and expertise you have to share. Joanna is, as always, a delight to speak with and I was very sad when our chat came to an end. Enjoy listening- may this inspire you to get working on your nonfiction book!

Aug 16, 2018
  1. I saw Amy Alkon speak at the LA Times Festival of Books and was delighted with her talk on her book, Unf*ckology, which breaks down the science of building up courage. Here, I thought, was a person who can address this fear so many people have of calling themselves writers.

I was right in guessing she'd have a lot to say on the topic, but we went so much further into how to trick your brain into being brave, what routines help jump-start Amy's writing day (one of my favorite writing routines EVER). Plus Amy is very funny. I adored her and this conversation, and I know you will too. Happy listening!

Aug 9, 2018

Confession: I am intimidated by poetry.

If you look over the back catalog of the show, you will find a dearth of poetry represented. partly this is because I have such an abundance of novelists, essayists, and other more mainstream-length books to discuss with people.

But, to be fair, I haven't gone digging for poetry. I feel vastly uneducated in that realm and I suspect many people out there feel the same way.

For this reason, I was delighted to read Trickster Feminist and to have the opportunity to speak to Anne Waldman about poetry and the role this collection, and the genre as a whole has played in her life.

If you think poetry is a remote Ivory Tower activity or something limited to something your inner 15-year-old anguished self could write, this episode is going to turn that notion on its ear. We talk about these poems but also the process of writing a poem and building a relationship with poetic language.

I love Anne Waldman, and I know you will too.

Aug 2, 2018

Reading and Writing History

When the Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta was announced for a reprint from Penguin, I was so excited to see that Diana Gabaldon wrote the foreword.

In speaking with Diana both about this novel from history as well as her experience writing fiction set in a historical setting, I was hit with a variation on the classic real estate slogan: Context! Context! Context!

Just like location is everything for a home purchase, context is everything when reading and writing history. We had a juicy conversation about her writing process - one of the most unique I have heard about so far- her research methods, and what it meant to her to read The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta today in a time when there is still so much work to be done on cultural awareness and literacy for the world as a whole.

Diana's take on writing and history is refreshing, candid, and straightforward. She cuts to the chase and provides thoughts and advice you can act on immediately. This is a jolt of motivation for anyone looking to write about history or who needs to research another era for their book. Such a delight to share this one - happy listening and may it spur you into action like it did for me.

Jul 26, 2018

Donal Ryan is the best argument for staying hopeful about writing.

In this conversation, we discuss how Donal Ryan stayed optimistic as his first few books were rejected nearly 50 times before he broke in to get one published.

Once he did, he was long listed for the Booker Prize.

We have all heard these stories: of Stephen King impaling rejection letters on a nail driven into the wall by his desk, and writers who just kept sending in their work dozens – and sometimes hundreds– of times.

While these stories are meant to motivate, they rarely explore the heartbreak that is experienced along the way. In this conversation, Donal Ryan shares what kept him going, as well as his thoughts on structure and craft related to his latest book, From a Low and Quiet Sea.

Spoiler Alert: it's a knockout. You won't want to miss this episode! I predict repeat listening...

Jul 26, 2018

Donal Ryan is the best argument for staying hopeful about writing.

In this conversation, we discuss how Donal Ryan stayed optimistic as his first few books were rejected nearly 50 times before he broke in to get one published.

Once he did, he was long listed for the Booker Prize.

We have all heard these stories: of Stephen King impaling rejection letters on a nail driven into the wall by his desk, and writers who just kept sending in their work dozens – and sometimes hundreds– of times.

While these stories are meant to motivate, they rarely explore the heartbreak that is experienced along the way. In this conversation, Donal Ryan shares what kept him going, as well as his thoughts on structure and craft related to his latest book, From a Low and Quiet Sea.

Spoiler Alert: it's a knockout. You won't want to miss this episode! I predict repeat listening...

Jul 19, 2018
How I love speaking to writers who also teach writing!
Lucy Tan is that delightful hybrid: a novelist who also knows how to speak about the process of writing so clearly you can follow along in her footsteps. She is so smart, both in her writing and her advice about how to get it done.
Lucy began her novel, What We Were Promised, inside the safety of her MFA program, and was relieved to be protected from thinking about agents, publishing, and the outside world as she spent time on what was most important: learning how to finish the book and get it how she wanted it to be.
In this episode, we get to follow along in the path that she took to find the story that is the novel today. Learn how a personal experience formed a kernel for one of the main characters of her book, why she chose to use multiple points of view, and which parts of her novel were the most challenging to write. It's a thought-provoking episode that dives into culture, memory, and where stories come from. I know you will love it as much as we loved creating it for you. Enjoy!
Jul 17, 2018

We're going steady on a podcast! 

So... we've had Mary-Laura Philpott (or MLP as we like to call her around here) on recommending books seasonally for the past few seasons and we decided it was time to give her a bonus episode slot. We know you are all busy and want a quick listen, so here it is!

All your July reading recommendations in one convenient in-between-isode. That's a word now - I just decided. Also coming this week: the video version! We know you want to see the covers.

Full show notes with links to the books we discussed here.

Jul 12, 2018

Sometimes the line between memoir and novel is thinner than others.

Keith Gessen came on the show this week to discuss his latest novel, A Terrible Country. Drawing on his own experience caring for his grandmother in Russia after graduating from college, Keith originally set out to write a much bigger book than the one he ended up with. He had fantasies of covering aspects of Russian culture in between the narrative sections, and coming up with – essentially – the Russian equivalent of A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

He won a fellowship to work out of the New York Public Library and had access to every book in the system and wrote with this vision of a large book in mind for the year he was in residence there.

And then he sat down and read the result and was horrified to find that it bored him. In our conversation, we discuss how he pared it down into the final manuscript and the things that scared him along the way to a final novel. Keith is very open about his experience in a way that will make everyone listening remember that, even though you write a novel by yourself, you aren't alone in how scary it can feel to do it. This will be a great comfort if you feel any doubt about reaching the end. Let Keith be the voice from the light at the end of the tunnel.

Jul 5, 2018

The best books don't center around perfect characters doing easy things.

I am so excited to share this week's episode as each of these conversations was so much fun to record. Edan has been on the show before, but I wanted to have her back to talk about her love of writing difficult characters within the framework of her latest novel, Woman No. 17. Edan delights in creating tension by revealing her character's flaws for the reader's view and puts these characters in situations sure to highlight these flaws and bring them to a head. So many books create tension through plot and action, but the suspense in Edan's books is just as much about pushing flawed characters to their edge, all the while leaving us asking "Oh my god, what will they do now??"

Jim Butcher has written so many novels that I wouldn't be shocked to learn that he doesn't sleep at all. He admitted that he has trouble keeping track of the exact details of former books after having revised them numerous times, so he relies on his fanbase Wiki to keep track, a detail I found both charming and extremely practical. In addition, we dove into the beauty of throwing your characters into sticky situations and the necessity to write scenes so things go from bad to worse. This chat helped me feel much braver about putting my character into tough spots to see how she will navigate rocky territory.

I hope both these conversations inspire you to investigate the less savory corners of your story and take your books into riskier places. May we all send our characters down a dark alley, metaphorically, after taking both of these writers' advice!

Sponsored by the SLP Patreon | Show notes with links

Jun 28, 2018

Rebecca Makkai didn't set out to write about the AIDS Crisis in Chicago.

This is what I love about writing. There is the saying, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." I would say that it's just as true that "Books are what happen when you're busy making outlines."

In speaking with Rebecca Makkai this week about her latest novel, The Great Believers, a book I absolutely loved, I was most struck that the plot line all the press and critical acclaim is centered around is not the one Makkai started with.

She started with a story about a character and then, as she wrote, the story grew. She stayed curious and followed where the story led. And it led her somewhere big, so a big period of research followed. Makkai was devoted to doing the right thing by her book, and that's really what we all need to do in the end. Trust that the story is worth writing, and follow its lead. Here's hoping you listen in close to your own story this week... I can't wait to find out where you end up following it to. May this episode inspire you in the process of getting there.

Happy listening, and happy writing.

Jun 21, 2018
Michelle Kuo got a call one day, telling her that her favorite student had been arrested.
After college, Michelle Kuo joined Teach for America and moved to the Arkansas Delta. She taught in a school that focused on teaching underserved youth who had been expelled from other schools. Her time there was transformative, both for Michelle and her students. But at the end of her term at Teach for America, she moved away to attend Harvard. Several years later, she got the call that Patrick, one of her most transformed students, had gotten in a fight outside his home and someone had been killed in the fray.
Michelle set aside a new job to return to Arkansas and spend time with Patrick during visitation hours and continue teaching him as he awaited trial. She wrote Reading With Patrick about this experience.
This book is moving, riveting, and essential all at once. It kept me up at night and I'm still thinking about it months after reading Michelle and Patrick's story. There is still so much work to be done in the American South to improve the lives of so many who live there. Writing about big issues takes courage and integrity, qualities Michelle exemplifies. But beyond these issues that need to be top of mind for everyone, there is the process of writing about issues, writing about real people, and writing about actual lives. We grapple with these topics in this conversation and, while I know there is so much more to say on these topics, anyone who is considering writing a book relating to social justice or about people in their lives will get a healthy primer on both topics in this episode. It's one I know I will return to again for inspiration and guidance from Michelle, who is a total rock star and a philosopher all wrapped up in one.
You're going to love her. Happy listening!
Jun 14, 2018
Sometimes you just want to write a lot of characters.
Chibundu Onuzo wrote her first novel surrounding two characters, so when it came time to writer her second novel, she wanted a lot of people in there to play with. In addition, she shifted into third person, a process she compared to Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew trying to figure out how to open a secret bookcase in a mystery story.
Ultimately, she unlocked the code and I was able to follow along as she shared where her latest book, Welcome to Lagos, came from. I adored this interview, not only because of her gorgeous voice, but because of the wisdom she has gathered through her twenties as she's collected both degrees and publication credits.
I know you'll fall in love with Chibundu, her writing, and the ability she has with language. Her tips on how to make a sentence more beautiful alone make this well worth the listen.
Jun 7, 2018

There is very little I love more than getting away.

For anyone who loves to escape, this is your episode. Stephanie Rosenbloom and I talk about Alone Time, her book on solo travel. Through the four seasons, she travels to four cities (including her hometown for a staycation) and shares what she finds by traveling alone. As a fan of solo travel as much as I am of exploring with others, I was enchanted. Anyone who wants to travel to write must listen. And then, Lauren Weisberger talks about the wild and crazy world of the uber wealthy in Connecticut that she explored in When Life Gives You Lululemons, the third book in the Devil Wears Prada world, where we follow the first assistant to Miranda Priestly, Emily Charlton ten years after the end of DWP. It's such a fun book, and our conversation was a total delight.

Enjoy a diverting listen this week and then have some fun writing about the world away from your doorstep.

Show Notes with Links | Sponsored by the SLP Patreon

May 31, 2018
Sometimes you just have to dive into an idea and get it done.
A little over a year ago, many of you will remember that Scott Carney came on the show to talk about his book What Doesn't Kill Us. Toward the end of that conversation, he dropped a little bit of knowledge that made a light go on in my brain. "If you write 500 words a day 5 days a week, in a year you'll have a book." Boom. When Barry was editing the episode, he mentioned how bummed he was that we hadn't gotten to continue that part of the conversation a lot longer. This, my friends, is that moment expanded into a full episode.
Scott has recently created a course called The Fine Print, that's much in the same vein. He let me have a sneak peek and we had a long chat about my favorite tips and guidance that he shares. What I loved is that we cover really practical things like how to promote your book whether or not you have a traditional publishing publicity team supporting you, the ins and outs of contracts and going from a magazine article to a book to an ongoing project that can live at the center of a writing business. There's a nice discount code in the episode for anyone who wants to check out the course.
In addition, I spoke with Harmon Leon + Ted Rall about their book, Meet the Deplorables, which had Harmon Leon embedding in fringe communities leading up to the Trump election. We spoke about his interest in extremist communities and how he has built his own career around gonzo-style journalism, an interesting case study based on what Scott and I discussed in part one. Ted Rall joins as well to talk about his contribution of political cartoons and how he worked to expand and bring the material to life in his work.
This week promises to be an epic listen, especially for those writing nonfiction, so enjoy!
May 24, 2018
I LOVE this pairing. I just have to say that at the outset.
Speaking with Amber Rae and Madeline Miller was an incredible privilege. I think you'll find this week's episode filled with Wonder, which is no surprise given the title of Amber Rae's book, Choose Wonder Over Worry. But this theme is woven through both conversations, from Amber's process surrendering to the way her book wanted to be written despite the outline she had carefully planned before starting. And Madeline Miller talks about the 5 year process she has learned it takes her to try everything out, hit the "trench of despair" and then let go to find the true voice. This became the book that is Circe.
I doubt either of these guests would be disappointed to hear that I found them to be sorceresses like Circe in their own right, spinning gold onto paper, with Amber revealing dark parts of her life and how she came out the other side and Madeline going inside one of the most misunderstood characters in modern mythology and finding a heroine in the exiled goddess most famous for turning Odysseus's men into pigs. (Spoiler alert: they TOTALLY deserved it.)
This episode is a knockout. Cannot wait for you to hear it. Happy listening!
May 17, 2018
It's funny how themes emerge when guests get paired together.
Most often, the date I schedule a guest appearance is based on their book pub date and so we get these funny coincidences when I sit down to write the show notes. Both Catherine Isaac and Tom Rachman have written books that have a troubled father-son relationship at the center, and both of them write novels that allowed them to explore topics that were very deep and personal.
For Catherine Isaac, who had written for years in the UK as Jane Costello, the shift in topic and tone that lead to You, Me, Everything was significant enough that she had to change the name she wrote under in order to make the switch. Her book, one that deals with deeper and more challenging themes than her previous series, was one she felt she needed to write, even if she had to set aside an author brand she'd been building for years. In our chat, we talk about the desire to go further in her writing as well as the politics of pseudonyms. SO much to learn from this one!
I've adored Tom Rachman ever since The Imperfectionists, so it was a special treat to get to talk to him about his latest novel, The Italian Teacher. His challenge in writing it was the desire to cover a character's full life from beginning to end. We discuss the powerful father-son relationship that lives at the center of the book, his own existential concerns about becoming a parent and how writing this book helped him open up to being a father, and finally what good fiction strives to convey about what being human is really about.
We do really deep in this episode, which is something I enjoy so much. I hope you have a great time listening. As always, share your thoughts with me on twitter @carodonahue or on our FB page. I love hearing from you!
May 10, 2018
Have you ever been told you can't expect to make money writing books? Me, too.
Having heard the refrain that books don't make money over and over, it was my distinct pleasure to speak with two writers who have built careers with books and writing at the center: Chris Guillebeau + Tom Hodgkinson.
I have been reading each of their work for years and was long inspired by books like The $100 Startup and How to Be Idle. These books found me at a particular period in my life when it hadn't occurred to me that I could make choices in life that allowed me to build a career in writing that was not one based on poverty.
So when I had the chance to speak to both of them for one magical episode, I knew it was meant to be. In this essential pair of conversations, we talk about how books can create a larger body of work that you're proud of, and can help you create community, a movement, and create work your proud of. We'll also dive into mistakes both Tom and Chris made in the early parts of their careers and what skills they have found essential to living a successful creative life.
Never has a practical talk been more fun. I can't wait for you to listen to two renegades who have inspired me to ask "who says?" about so many aspects of what a successful life looks like. I hope you get fired up and motivated to take your writing dream further after listening - I know I did.
May 3, 2018
A writer is faced with so many dilemmas when creating a book.
Two of the most common that I encounter in my coaching practice? "Do I go for traditional publishing OR publish as an indie author?" And "How can I write about the people in my life without damaging those relationships?" Writing is not for the faint of heart, not only because you have to tell the truth on the page, but also because it requires so many decisions that force you to look very closely at who you are and what values you stand for.
I was delighted, therefore, to realize that this week's pairing of authors is all about staying strong through a book's dilemmas: Ezzie Spencer, who you'll remember from Episode 42, talks about how traditional publishing took her by surprise and all the choices she had to make beginning with her Australian book release all the way up to being distributed in the UK, the US and beyond. She is open and honest about how her relationship to the book has changed, both from needing to replenish after the first book launch and how she now feels the book has a life of its own, which allows her to start writing something new. I adore chatting with Ezzie, and know you'll love hearing from her again.
Our second guest, Meaghan O'Connell, recently published her first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, to wide acclaim. (Many of you will have heard Mary Laura Philpott raving about it on last week's episode and then saw me freaking out about how much I loved it all over the internet). Meaghan talked with me about the process of writing such a vulnerable story, how it impacted her marriage to write so frankly about postpartum depression, and the irony of wanting to escape your baby to write about that same baby. If you were once a baby or know anyone who's had one, this book is a must read. I'm delighted she was able to join us and share more about writing this incredible book.
Happy listening everyone!
Apr 26, 2018

I don't know how else to say it. This episode is long. 

But it's so good that we couldn't stand to cut anything out of it. As soon as I knew that Sarah Selecky's book, Radiant Shimmering Light, was coming out in Canada this week, I knew she was episode 100. And then I had to talk about the amazing books coming out this spring with Mary Laura Philpott. And I love talking to both of them, so we didn't cut it short. We went all out talking about everything we're excited about. 

I know going over an hour asks a lot of people listening, but my hope is that these conversations are worth the time. I left talking to Sarah and Mary Laura buzzing with excitement and I expect you will, too. As always, it's a joy creating this show and it's an even bigger joy showing it off in its new home!

Show Notes with Links 

Sponsored by Audible and The Secret Library Podcast Patreon

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