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Podcast spotlight: Conversations with Writers

Launched in 2017, Conversations With Writers (CWW) goes ‘beyond the press tour Q&As to discuss how their experiences and beliefs shape who they are and the tales they tell’. Produced and hosted by James Rickards, CWW has featured writers such as Will Kostakis, Gabrielle Tozer, Sami Shah, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Eileen Ormsby, among others. ‘I think people want to listen to a show where an artist can genuinely share their thoughts and experiences without being interrupted,’ Rickards says of why he thinks people are drawn to podcasting. ‘The longform podcast format relies upon my ability as a host to listen intently and lead the writer to the next story point and stay out of their way. It’s never about me.’ He spoke to Books+Publishing for our ‘podcast spotlight’ series.

For new or uninitiated listeners, describe your podcast in under 50 words.

Longform intimate conversations with writers, with a focus on discovering what has shaped their work and what drives them to tell their stories.

What makes your podcast unique?

Our interviews rely on a scary amount of research into each writer’s personal and professional life to avoid covering the same ground that writing-related shows may already have done.

We give our guests room to breathe and let them share genuine insights instead of soundbites. The mission is to achieve an ‘aha’ moment of discovery, pulling together various strands from their writing and real life.

The one rule is to never ask, ‘So tell me about your book … ‘

When and how did you get started in podcasting?

I was originally creating podcasts with the author Tony Park back in 2008, uploading regular interviews to his website via CD-ROM! Unfortunately, life happened and we stopped just as the podcast tide was rising. I picked up the mic again in 2017 when I decided I wanted to meet fascinating people and understand the ‘why’ behind their work.

Where and how is your podcast recorded (and how big is your team)?

Each interview is conducted face-to face to help ensure the type of intimacy required to dig into someone’s life story. I’ve seen the eyes of an author well with tears mid-conversation—you need to know when to push and when to back off.

Traditionally, I hire a small boardroom in Sydney or Melbourne to try and achieve near-studio quality sound.

I’m obsessed with having the podcast sound like there’s a whole team behind it, when in fact I’m a one-man band of researcher, writer, editor, sound mixer and interviewer.

What kind of listeners does your podcast reach?

It’s deeply satisfying—and slightly terrifying—to know many listeners are journalists and published authors.

As a result, I approach every interview—as well as every final edit—thinking I’m being judged by professionals who do this for a living. It’s a great motivator to work harder every time. I’m also fortunate to have a global reach thanks to rock star authors like Jay Kristoff and Michael Robotham, whose epsiodes attracted audiences from some unexpected countries.

What have been your most popular guests or most memorable episodes?

Michael Robotham challenged me to find something new for him to say, so I went and read 30 years’ worth of his work as a journalist/author to win him over. He was phenomenally gracious with his time and a joy to speak with.

I was terrified of talking to Caroline Baum, simply because her entire career was built on interviewing the world’s best writers. Caroline was superb, incredibly open and remains a very personal favourite.

Ex-Special Forces Officer Bram Connolly really connected with audiences and kids and author R A Spratt blew the doors off my download expectations.

I’d be remiss not to mention Hugh Riminton who deserves his own 12-hour podcast. But this is like trying to pick your favourite child.

What recent trends have you noticed in podcasting? (Do you have any predictions for this format in the future?)

The ever-increasing number of ABC-produced podcasts feels a little overwhelming, with their marketing and brand support chewing up a lot of the previous floor space. Similarly, celebrity-led, professionally-produced podcasts will increase triple-fold once Australia cracks the code to earning a living from podcasting.

I think the era of the ‘grab an iPhone and go’ mentality is near its end, although many of the current writing/book podcasts will survive because they have established such active social communities.

Why do you think people are drawn to this format?

I think people want to listen to a show where an artist can genuinely share their thoughts and experiences without being interrupted.

The longform podcast format relies upon my ability as a host to listen intently and lead the writer to the next story point and stay out of their way. It’s never about me.

It’s becoming increasingly rare for talented people to be given the opportunity and time required to share their stories.

How do you fund your podcast? Do you have plans to explore other funding options?

I’m fortunate I don’t have any other vices because the podcast is a money pit.

Most interviews involve hiring a venue to guarantee decent sound and can often require a lot of travel time. Skype would save me thousands, but it would also change the tone and sound quality of the show.

I’d love to secure a partnership or sponsorship arrangement for the show, but you need the time to chase it. Given that the majority of the podcast is created between the hours of 12 am and 5 am, that’s sadly a hard ask for now.

What plans do you have for your podcast going forward?

I’d love to grow the podcast into live conversation events, whether as part of established festivals or independently.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that every interview inspires the next, with each guest hanging up their headphones ready to recommend their author/journo friends to come on board.

I also need to find a way to master social media. It’s a time issue. I just don’t have enough hours to feed the social beast.

What other bookish podcasts (or podcasts for people who love reading, writing and sharing ideas) should we be listening to, Australian or otherwise?

Andrew McMillen’s Penmanship is an enjoyable longform series of quiet conversations with writing/media professionals.

Hollywood screenwriter John August’s Scriptnotes is a must for aspiring scriptwriters and anyone interested in the basics of story.

Dani at Words and Nerds is nailing her weekly run of top-shelf local and international authors via Skype.

The Garret is very well-produced and I remain ever-envious of their production team and free room hire.

And of course, the patron saints of Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski on ABC’s Conversations remain the gold standard. Their research team do an extraordinary job.