Amazing podcasts with amazing writers
J Michael Straczynski, Kieron Gillen, Greg Kasavin & more!
In 2016 I joined the National Centre for Writing as their digital guy and it’s proven to be a wonderful experience from start to finish. A personal highlight has been producing the weekly podcast, The Writing Life. Each week the show talks to a writer and unpicks techniques and insights, so it’s absolutely on-point for readers of this newsletter.
Now that I’m moving on to work with the team at One Further it seemed a good time to pick out some of my favourite episodes. Note that I’ve picked ones in which I was doing the interviewing - there are plenty of amazing episodes with my co-presenters taking the lead, but to include those as well would make this newsletter infinitely long.
There’s only one place to begin, really.
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J. Michael Straczynski
Around 1984, when I was four years old, I watched He-Man And The Masters of the Universe and loved it. In 1985 I watched She-Ra Princess of Power and loved it.
In 1986, when I was six years old, I watched The Real Ghostbusters and loved it.
Both benefited from the writing talent of J. Michael Straczynski, though I didn’t know it at the time.
In 1994, when I was 14 years old, I watched an episode of Babylon 5. It rapidly became my favourite television show - and still is, more-or-less - and transformed my approach to writing, reading, and storytelling in general. The moral core of the shore impacted heavily on teenage me, embedding a sense of tolerance and multiculturalism into my bones.
In the 2000s I read Straczynski’s run on the Spider-Man comic. Later, Sense8 came along on Netflix. It’s an understatement to say that JMS has had a big influence on me.
In the back of my mind I’d always wondered if I could get JMS on the podcast. Then in 2021 he published a book called Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer and I suddenly had a legitimate excuse to pester him about guesting. To my surprise and terror he agreed, and the result was this perfect hour:
Neill Cameron & comics for kids
Much as JMS was a big influence on me growing up, I now get to see similar influences impacting on my son, who is now 9. One such influence is comics writer-illustrator Neill Cameron, who has done a bunch of great work but is probably best known for his long-running MEGA ROBO BROS series.
I encountered the series with my son in the pages of The Phoenix, a weekly magazine in the UK that is cover-to-cover original comics, with no hint of plastic tat glued to the front. It’s a remarkable, special thing which I recommend to anyone with kids between 6 and 12-ish.
MEGA ROBO BROS is a sneaky comic which on the surface is about two robot brothers having punchy fights with other robots. That’s really an excuse to tell stories about identity, gender, racism, multiculturalism, responsibility, Brexit, prejudice….you get the idea. The artwork is wonderfully slick and kinetic and it’s that rare comic which is fun to read aloud with a child.
Greg Kasavin and HADES
This was a big deal at the times, as the game HADES was already doing extremely well at the time of recording. Subsequently to the episode going out in March 2021, Supergiant’s game has gone on to win even MORE awards, including becoming the first game to win a Hugo.
At this point it’s hard to gauge the game’s success, critically and financially, and given that Greg was struggling at the time of the interview to comprehend the reception I can’t imagine he’s finding it any easier now.
Greg is incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, as has been the case with everyone I’ve spoken to on the podcast. This is a masterclass in games writing:
Kieron Gillen on comics
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that I started the podcast project at NCW as a not-so-sneaky excuse to talk to my favourite writers. Here’s another good example. Kieron Gillen I first encountered through PC Gamer magazine, then on the Rock, Paper, Shotgun website. His unique journalistic style was thought-provoking, stylish, funny and often Serious with a capital S.
At some point, almost without me noticing, he segued into writing comics. At first it was small indie things, and then he was doing Marvel, and Star Wars, and then BIG indie things. Everything I’ve read by him, whether journalism or fiction, has been excellent. Other than maybe Brian K Vaughan (alas, I have run out of time to ask Brian on to talk about the return of SAGA) I can’t think of anyone else who is quite this consistent.
For the interview we focused it especially on world building, which when you’re talking with Kieron Gillen makes for an amazing conversation.
Kelsey Beachum on Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds was the best game of 2019 and its DLC, Echoes of the Eye, might have been the best game of 2021. At least as far as games that I’ve actually played in that time.
There’s a lot of text in Outer Wilds, and Kelsey Beachum had a hand in a lot of it. Their first project, Outer Wilds is complex and ambitious in its storytelling structure, functioning as a semi-detective story in which the player can ‘discover’ the story in almost any order. I still find it difficult to comprehend the actual process of piecing it together, especially given how the story and dialogue is so tightly interwoven with the core mechanics of the game.
Fortunately, Kelsey was very happy to share a ton of insights.
Jon Ingold on 80 Days & Heaven’s Vault
The National Centre for Writing hasn’t done a huge amount of games writing coverage over the years, so getting to have three of the best narrative designers in the business come on the pod was a real privilege. Jon was the first, opening up his head and unspooling his brain into the mic. There’s an analytic, academic detail to Jon’s analysis of the form which turns this episode into a focused masterclass on writing interactive fiction. My main job was to shut up and let him speak.
A curious fact: this was the first podcast I recorded online, using Zencastr. That was in February 2019 - little did I know that little over a year later I’d be doing every episode of the podcast that way, as Covid-19 hit the planet.
Elle Griffin on Substack & creator economy
Elle is a fascinating person - journalist by trade with a bold entrepreneurial streak, and the person responsible for me being here on Substack writing this newsletter. I was only vaguely aware of Substack as a tool before Elle began evangelising it and attracting a huge number of eyes. Here’s her newsletter:
I believe she also formed the rather excellent Substack Writers Unite Discord, which has been an incredible resource of knowledge and experimentation and has enabled me to meet a range of fascinating and talented people.
Anyway, if you want to try new ways of writing and publishing, give this one a listen:
Richard Lambert and Covid-19’s impact on publishing
Everyone I interviewed for The Writing Life over the years has been remarkably lovely, but Richard is especially lovely. I spoke to him just before his first book was about to come out, only for its publishing date to be nuked by the arrival of Covid-19.
Given that writers all over the world were experiencing the same disruption, I asked Richard to come back on to talk about how it had affected him, the book and what he was working on next. It’s a great chat and I also got the chance to do an exciting, Netflix-style intro. This is the one and only time I allowed Boris Johnson to guest on the pod.
Antony Johnston on being organised
Antony’s publisher pitched this one, as he was about to publish The Organised Writer. It’s a hyper-practical, no-nonsense guide to being A Writer, focusing on the business and productivity rather than the craft. As such, it’s a hugely useful book, and Antony made for a great podcast guest.
However. I have a confession to make: at the time of the interview, I was largely unfamiliar with Antony’s fiction. I always aim to be informed about who I’m interviewing, ideally either having previously read their work, or doing prep reading in advance. Because this interview was specifically about The Organised Writer I did of course read that particular book, and the conversation focuses around it.
Afterwards, I read some of his fiction. The entire Wasteland saga, for example. And I immediately felt like a complete idiot. Wasteland is a remarkable, epic achievement in post-apocalyptic storytelling and is largely unlike anything else I’ve read in comics. It’s stylistically and narratively daring and endlessly exciting to read. And I didn’t get to talk to Antony about any of it during our chat for the pod.
I always wanted to get him back on for a follow-up episode focusing on his fiction, but alas the time never quite aligned. Still, despite my failings as an interviewer it doesn’t stop this being full of good stuff:
Ian Nettleton on world building in sci-fi
This was one of the very first podcasts I recorded, back in 2018. It was an excuse to talk about world building in science fiction, a topic I returned to with Kieron Gillen much later. Talking to Ian was a critical moment for me, though, as it convinced me that I was able to talk intelligently on mic about writing without sounding like an idiot.
Figuring out the tone for a podcast is tricky, and in the early days I wasn’t sure whether to present myself as being a writer. I could have stayed largely anonymous, or been specifically an employee of NCW. This chat is what gave me the confidence to out myself as a writer on the work podcast, despite the fact I’d be interviewing far more talented and experienced writers as the show progressed.
The Writing Life podcast will of course continue and I look forward to listening to it from the stalls. As it stands, the 170+ episodes I produced make for an archive of amazing insights from amazing writers, so do go have a listen after you’ve checked out the tiny selection above.
Producing the show was a remarkable opportunity that doesn’t come round every day, and I remain hugely grateful to my colleagues at the National Centre for Writing. They do good work; go say hi.