No matter what your interests are –- surreal Japanese novelists, classic television, art house cinema, or finding the right podcast to get you through your data entry job -– Colin Marshall can probably meet you halfway. Aside from hosting a truly excellent radio show, The Marketplace of Ideas (which interviews guests ranging from Princeton philosophers to entrepreneurial cartoonists), Colin also writes wonderful primers on his favorite authors for The Millions, muses about film for 3 Quarks Daily, as well as makes his own short films. You can find the full range of his online empire at colinmarshall.org.
We spoke with Colin via email how he came to develop such an impressive array of projects, what artists we should be paying attention to today, and how to stave off a job raking leaves.
For those who are unfamiliar with The Marketplace of Ideas and your associated ventures, could you talk about how you came to assemble the stable of projects that we find at colinmarshall.org?
Everything I put in that stable reflects interests whose roots, not to get too deterministic about it, go back to childhood. Learning to read early gave me a head start on books and writing. A little later, stumbling on cassettes of old-time radio dramas — The Shadow, Suspense, Amos & Andy — and more modern stuff like what ZBS puts out (see also my interview with ZBS president Tom Lopez), hinted at radio’s not-much-tapped possibilities. Growing up during the nineties’ U.S. indie cinema boom and the advent of Laserdisc and DVD directors’ commentaries all but demanded I get into filmmaking.
As I keep discovering, nobody’s really laid out an educational pathway for broadcaster-writer-filmmakers, (which I now consider a good sign). My educational pathway involved a shapeless mixture of interning at radio stations, pondering film school, rejecting film school, and ultimately hanging out at UC Santa Barbara until the administration told me I had too many units to stay.
How did your various projects develop? Did the podcast attract a community of people who saw potential in its form? And how did you come to be involved in online literary culture (The Millions; 3 Quarks Daily)?
I started podcasting The Marketplace of Ideas as soon as I started broadcasting it in 2007. Watching Charlie Rose, enraptured with the shows’s aesthetics and the fact that Charlie seemed to have a lot of cool friends, I began to see interviewing as the way forward. I doubted I could take it very far in a city like Santa Barbara, but when I got wind that Jesse Thorn found a worldwide audience for his initially Santa Cruz-based public radio interview program by podcasting, I just copied him.
3 Quarks Daily, which I read, sends out periodic calls for new columnists. (They don’t pay, so their group of writers needs semi-frequent replenishment.) They picked me to be one in 2008, and I felt myself at least semi-equipped to write a film column. With The Millions, I e-mailed its editor, C. Max Magee, out of the blue, pitching a primer on Kobo Abe, my favorite Japanese novelist. When they put that up, I realized a few dozen of my other favorite novelists could use a primering as well.
In a recent interview with C. Max McGee you both acknowledged working from a position outside of the academy (versus, for example, pursuing your interests within an MFA program or school of journalism). Many of your interviewees come from inside the academy, or are able to develop their work in some sort of productive relationship with universities. How you see your work in relation to the university?
I don’t see my work in relation to the university at all; if I’m lucky, I will continue not to see it that way. Some thrive in academia, but I find it brings out the worst of my slothful, autistic, obscurantist tendencies. I care strongly about how people engage with film, literature, and conversation in — forgive me for this term — the “real” world. How people engage with them in some department? Not so much.
Your show is called “The Marketplace of Ideas,” but it is decidedly not a commercial venture (e.g. the archives being free). If you are operating at a distance from market imperatives, is your show not closer to something like “The Republic of Letters” (which I admit is a less catchy name)?
The name doesn’t quite fit. I originally wanted a title that would allow interviews with both “ideas” types and “marketplace” types, as many novelists as entrepreneurs, as many directors as producers.
But entrepreneurs and such turn out to be unreliable. They act all weird about scheduling and usually bail for flaky reasons (or get their assistants to do it for them). This feels like a shame, since I still want to get inside their heads somehow, but I’ve realized that many of them seem afflicted by a tunnel vision that keeps them from contextualizing their work in the grand mosaic of human endeavor. Ask them why they want to make their business successful and they respond like you’ve asked them why they want to inhale and exhale.
Just as I don’t want to take refuge in academia, I’d rather not operate “at a distance from market imperatives” — but I don’t know how not to do that. I want to engage with the market, and vigorously, but there must be a way other than telling my listeners they should buy unrelated products (the standard commercial radio model) or passing the hat and guilting them into putting money into it (the standard public radio model).
What have you learned from looking in-depth at a diverse set of podcasts over the past several years? Do you see any in particular pushing the medium?
I’ve learned that most podcasts consist of two twenty- or thirty-something white guys (or sometimes) bullshitting about “pop culture.” Some podcasters make an art of this — Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier on SModcast, Vernon Reid and W. Kamau Bell on The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture, or, again, Jesse and Jordan Morris on Jordan, Jesse, Go! — but most don’t. The best come from backgrounds other than “podcaster who’s seen some movies and television lately.” They’re comedians, broadcasters, musicians, filmmakers — not just podcasters, in other words, but three-dimensional people with accomplishments outside podcasting.
Above and beyond that, I’ve come to understand the deep personality-drivenness of the medium. Experience tempts me to claim that in podcasting, formal creativity and sound quality and (especially) regularity mean something, but personality means nearly everything. For example, Tyler Smith and David Bax of Battleship Pretension have become friends now (and, yes, I interviewed them), but I’d listen to them talk about movies — or whatever — even if I’d never gotten to know them for real. I mentioned Kevin Smith above; even though I’ve never quite gotten down with his films, damned if I haven’t grown addicted to the sound of his voice. And when a show can translate its host’s personality into a form, as Keith McNally’s XO does, then you’ve got icing on that podcake.
(All this puts aside the fact that, in terms of raw listening minutes, I spend the most time with language-learning podcasts. I’ve come to consider it an under-appreciated genre.)
One of your many projects is the resident podcast authority for Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun Empire. How did your relationship with Jesse Thorn come about?
Jesse got started in radio interviewing before I did, went at it with more focus, and thus has found much more success than I have. After discovering his work, I e-mailed with him about recording gear and such. When he put out the call that he needed someone to take the Podthoughts column over from Ian Brill (who’s now a comic book writer in L.A., I think), I jumped at it.
I’ve written for Jesse for three years now and he’s been on my show twice, but the term “relationship” overstates our relationship. I’ll get an e-mail from him every few months about a podcast I should review or suggestions about where to live in L.A. — I’m moving there in August — and I’ll be like, “Woah, an e-mail from Jesse?” We’ve met, but I don’t think he’s convinced I exist.
You playfully characterized one of your rules for a good interview as “It’s the curiosity, stupid!” — in other words, an interviewer should only ask questions in an interview that he or she is genuinely curious to hear answered. Do you consider this rule essential to capturing the nature of a conversation?
I’d call the process less capturing the nature of a conversation than… having a conversation. When talking to someone, I don’t know how to handle it any other way than just following my curiosity about them. Just as you don’t quite know what you want to ask the person sitting next to you at a dinner party until a back-and-forth gets going, I don’t quite know what I want to ask a guest until we get a back-and-forth going. I wouldn’t want to treat radio conversations differently than “regular” conversations; to me, that would defeat the whole purpose.
Are there any interviewers who you see modeling this practice, or are there any contemporaries you look to?
Besides Jesse Thorn and Robert Harrison, Michael Silverblatt (whom I’ve also interviewed) does this better than anybody on his KCRW show Bookworm. He fires off not questions but interesting-reaction-provoking verbal Rorschach blots. The film critic Elvis Mitchell does The Treatment, also on KCRW, and he engages his guests in such human conversations. You can feel them connecting on the level of pure cinephilia.
Edward Champion, host of The Bat Segundo Show, also does an admirable, long-form job, but you can tell he approaches the craft from different premises. (He’s also been on my show.) He believes in old-school journalism, asking the hard questions, confronting your interviewees with uncomfortable facts, all that. He’s not in it to make friends, whereas… I’m in it to make friends. Might as well, absent a paycheck.
In your show, you ask for guest suggestions from listeners. What kinds of suggestions do you receive, and how much are you able to follow up on them? How do you generally go about choosing your guests?
[Guest suggestions] rarely come in, but I like how they mix the guest list up. I interviewed The Philadelphia Lawyer on the suggestion of a friend, and that conversation turned out pretty damned wild — by my standards, anyway. (Pasting in all those beeps slowed the editing way down.) Sometimes I’ll sit on the fence about a potential guest, but a listener suggestion will spur me on to pursue that guest. Just when I assumed the window to interview Gabriel Josipovici about “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” had closed, a listener told me he’d like to hear him on the show. The conversation turned out to be one of the audience’s favorites in the past year.
I usually pull guests from my personal zeitgeist of creators: those on the horizon and those whom I’ve admired for a long time. When I started hearing about and getting an idea of the aesthetics of young filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and Aaron Katz, for instance, I “sensed” that I had to learn more about them through conversation. On the other side, I’ve been listening to Wang Chung and reading Peter Bagge since my early teenage years, so of course I’m going to ask them to be on by show. Fulfillment of long-held dreams and all that.
Who are the figures in film and literature that particularly excite you these days, and who inspired you 10 years ago, when you began writing and broadcasting about these topics?
I hate to rattle off names, but I draw most of my inspiration in film right now from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who won the last Palme d’Or; Sangsoo Hong, from Korea, who makes these structurally inventive comedies; Werner Herzog, who needs no introduction but who draws no line between his work and his life; Hirokazu Kore-eda, director of Maborosi, my favorite film; and Peter Greenaway, who understands cinema is too important to leave to the storytellers.
So much happens in literature these days that the loci of excitement change moment-to-moment, don’t they? My recent infatuation with Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s merging of the preposterously cosmic with the ludicrously mundane (about which I wrote a primer) continues. I can’t quit going back to the wells of essayists like Geoff Dyer and adventurous novelists like the aforementioned Kobo Abe. And at times, I still don’t know if I find anyone as exciting, sentence by character-humiliating sentence, as good old Richard Yates.
You’ll notice the members of the suite of creators I’ve just laid out come from all over the place — and, for that matter, they go all over the place. As Yoko Tawada, a writer I’m now exploring, once wisely said, “The interesting lies in the in-between.” Over the last ten years, the figures inspiring me have moved into geographical, cultural, and aesthetic borderlands. A decade ago, I was still sitting around hoping that my countrymen, the Robert Rodriguezes, Quentin Tarantinos, and Kevin Smiths — the guys who sparked my cinema-creation flame — would start making more interesting movies any day now.
What lies ahead for the show, given your push to reach 10,000 subscribers?
If it reaches 10,000 subscribers, many more conversations and much deeper ones lay in its future. I have some seriously wide-scope plans for future guests, topics, locations, and even series of guests, topics, and locations. If, on the other hand, it doesn’t reach 10,000 subscribers, I’ll end it and go get as job raking leaves or something. The pay’s better.