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Billy Lombardo listened to his first episode of First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing on a Thursday afternoon in April. He kept listening the next day, as he went for a long run and cooked himself dinner. A couple of days and more than 25 episodes later, he had to admit that he was a little obsessed.
First Draft is not your typical binge-worthy serial: each episode is a calm, impassioned conversation between Colorado journalist Mitzi Rapkin and an esteemed or emerging author. But for those who care about the written word—like Lombardo, a writer, editor, and longtime Chicago educator—the podcast is ear candy of the highest order.
“Listening to the podcast feels like reading, in the best way,” Lombardo says. “Hearing all these authors talk about literature and craft, being precise in their attention to how a piece of writing behaves, is amazing.”
Rapkin sources, manages, edits, and promotes the podcast by herself from her home base, a 400-square-foot cabin in the woods outside of Basalt in Pitkin County. From this remote locale, she has crafted conversations with some of the best writers working today, accumulating hundreds of hours of reflections on how to write and how to live.
Nevertheless, the podcast is something of a well-kept secret in literary circles. Rapkin seems both proud and ever so slightly bitter of this combination of clout and obscurity—she likes to joke that her obituary will be titled, “Girl in Small Cabin Produces Largest Archive of Writer Interviews that No One Knows About.” And it’s true, you won’t find First Draft on listicles like Penguin’s “38 of the best literary and book podcasts for book lovers” or Electric Literature’s “17 Literary Podcasts to Ease Your Commute.” Episodes earn an average of 5,000 listens—some fewer than 2,000, some more than 20,000.
But whether or not you’ve heard of First Draft, you’ve likely heard of Rapkin’s guests, including George Saunders, Isabel Allende, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Such celebrated authors make time to talk with Rapkin because—as Saunders, the best-selling author of Lincoln in the Bardo, wrote in an email—she “is one of the most talented and passionate interviewers in the world. What makes her great is her precision and her genuine curiosity, which transforms the interview into an urgent conversation. The time flies by, and I always learn something new about my own work.”
Rapkin has spent the better part of a decade reading and listening closely. First Draft began airing in June 2013 as part of Aspen Public Radio’s regular schedule. Four years later, APR stopped carrying the show, and it became exclusively a podcast. Since then, the episodes have expanded from 30 minutes to about double that, sometimes more—and that’s after Rapkin pares down the many-hour discussions.
The extra time lets the episodes breathe more, she says, but besides that, not much in her interviewing approach has changed over the years. She still pores over the guest’s latest work and dog ears compelling pages, which she uses to assemble a collage of pre-prepared questions. She’s not married to the questions, though; she still tries to trust her intuition, alert to the serendipitous turn-of-phrase that will propel the conversation toward a surprising tangent.
Ultimately, she still hopes to ask questions they’ve never encountered before. Those novel inquiries, “when [the guest] will pause and say, Holy cow, I haven’t thought about that” are often the ones listeners like Lombardo most cherish.
Take her 2016 conversation with Paul Lisicky about his memoir, The Narrow Door. Two-thirds of the way through, Rapkin brought up the way he wrote about a long-time friend who died after a prolong struggle with cancer. “I found that the Denise you described in the beginning of the book and then the Denise at the end felt she had found so much grace by the end,” Rapkin notes.
You can hear Lisicky let out a small noise of admiration before responding, “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because I don’t think anyone else…has commented on that. I think that’s really central to the trajectory of the book.”
First Draft has also become a platform for emerging writers. During a recent episode with Dantiel W. Moniz, who published her debut, Milk Blood Heat, in February, Moniz spoke about how she has long been unconfident in her ability to communicate verbally as opposed to in writing. But listening to the interview back helped Moniz realize how much she’s improved.
Part of her openness stemmed from a trust in her interlocutor. “During the interview,” Moniz recalls, “[Rapkin] would describe my book in the lead-up to a question, then pause and confirm: Did I get that right? She took care to make sure she was representing the work accurately.”
It helps that Rapkin is a writer herself, of all kinds. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, moved to Colorado to teach environmental education and make documentaries, and now, on top of helming the podcast and working a full-time job with the city of Aspen, is composing a novel.
It’s hard to imagine someone more doused in writing advice than Rapkin. After hundreds of hours of dialogue, what sticks out?
“Asking 351 individuals about rejection is a really powerful lesson in persistence,” she says. “We all get it, we all face it, and we all have to get up. There’s no magic potion, there’s just ‘butt in chair’—or ‘feet on ground’ if you have a standing desk.”
Not much was constant in 2020, but First Draft was: Rapkin read 52 books and recorded 52 episodes, one every week. She’s been nearly as prolific this year.
Each episode ends with the same suite of seven questions. Rapkin asks the guest to read two passages: one from an author who influenced their writing practices and one they themselves wrote that evolved dramatically from first draft to final draft.
Then: Where do you write? (Carolyn Forché’s favorite spot is a train; Chuck Palahniak’s is the window seat on the first row of an airplane; Garth Greenwell wrote his first book in the hours of 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. at a chair under his kitchen window in Bulgaria.)
What do you do or where do you go to get away from writing? (Laila Lalami hikes; Isabel Allende beads; Carmen Maria Machado gets massages and plays video games.)
Who do you show your work to first to get feedback? (Almost always, their significant other or a writerly friend.)
How do you deal with rejection? (Susan Orlean: “I take it really to heart, very deeply, and I suffer it greatly;” Saunders: “Pouting is good;” Walter Mosley: “Dunno.”)
Finally: What is your favorite word? (Hermione Hoby: “apricity,” the warmth of the sun in winter; Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: “precisely”; Chang-rae Lee: “life.”)