If you’ve ever wanted to listen to a deep dive into literary history, it’s currently a great time to do precisely that. The new podcast Missing Pages joins a few other notable audio productions — including Penknife and Once Upon a Time…At Bennington College — offering immersive trips into tangled narratives of literature and publishing. I spoke with host Bethanne Patrick about the making of Missing Pages and how the team behind it decided what narratives they’d focus on for the show’s inaugural season.
Where did the initial germ of the idea come from? Was it always kind of a survey of various literary scams and controversies? Or did you initially focus on one and then realize this could be more of a recurring series?
The germ of it came from the Podglomerate. They had never done a podcast from the ground up before, and they wanted to do one. They were thinking of it as being more like the Page Six of publishing. There were going to be more fiascos covered, and all that kind of thing. And certainly it’s got some of that, but when they brought me on, Jeff Umbro, the CEO,had seen some of my stuff and then heard my voice and thought, this might be a great match for this idea we’ve come up with.
I came on board and then when we hired the showrunner, Caila Litman, who is just fantastic. The two of us said, you know what, this is a great idea, but we need to go deeper. We can’t just report gossip. We’re interested in why this happened and, especially, why was this something that could happen in the publishing climate today?
Looking at the authors whose work you’re covering, it seems to be mostly within the last couple of decades. Did you set out a specific timeframe to decide on the things you did and didn’t want to cover?
No, we didn’t. And you know, we went back and forth on this. We have eight episodes total for this first season and we had dozens of ideas. We really went into what we waned to cover in this season. Everything we did, except for maybe one episode, is about identity. And even that episode, which is sort of authorial dreams versus authorial reality, you know, what really happens to someone who wants to write a book.
We have tons of ideas for the second season. I can go into that more, but to come back to what you were asking about in terms of covering the past 20 years or so, some of it much closer — that just happened. It wasn’t because we were choosing to limit ourselves by time period. Believe me, there are some wonderful literary scandals from other time periods and we are really looking forward to covering them.
You have a substantial amount of knowledge about the literary and publishing worlds. How much of the podcast was revisiting things you already knew and how much of it involved research and discovering specific angles on something that you didn’t know from the outset?
I’m in this very weird little world of being someone who knows a lot about publishing, but I have never worked full time in New York at a publishing house. I’ve never been an agent or an editor. I’m a writer. I have a book coming out next year. I’ve worked for major newspapers as a literary critic, but I still wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve been right in the mix.
But one of the things I think that I bring to this is that I’m not the ultimate insider, that I am a little on the edges. And so I can kind of push inward and say, you know, should this work this way? I don’t always know the answer.
About the research — sometimes we really need help in that realm and we can do a lot of research online and ourselves, and we have people in the industry that we can talk to. But we also knew that we were going to have a lot more interviews. Initially, the Podglomerate and I thought we were just gonna be doing more of a podcast with just my voice. And I’m so glad that we moved to what we have moved to, which is having these other interviews, especially the extended ones.
They are paywalled; they’re for subscribers. But the fact is, Imogen Binnie and Luis Alberto Urrea and Deesha Philyaw are people who really get it. They really get the modern publishing world. They’ve had very different journeys in it and they are talking to us with so much generosity and honesty. I feel like I am getting a real education in what’s relevant right now. And so that will make it tougher when we go into different eras.
One of the things I really want to do is an episode on “”La Côte Basque, 1965,” the Truman Capote short story that got him into so much trouble with his ladies who lunch, because that was a huge scandal. It was a scandal that really affected him and his work and his life. This is interesting stuff, but it’s historical stuff. I’d talk to a Capote scholar or someone who really understands that milieu in the sixties. But yeah, it was just irresistible to be able to talk to people right now who are able to say, this is what is difficult in the publishing industry.
Whether it’s the PRH/Simon & Schuster merger talks or the debate going on in terms of burnout within publishing, there’s been a lot of conversation about the industry in recent months. Where do you see this podcast fitting into that dialogue?
We’ve been working on this podcast for over a year. So the timing of it with the trial was totally unexpected. I spent a few days covering the trial for Publishers Weekly. It was really amazing to me to be doing that the week before the podcast launched and seeing these publishers and agents, and to hear all of these things that I’ve been talking about on the podcast and with interview subjects was really mind-blowing.
Look, I love publishing. You do too. We’re both in this world. It’s not that it has the only problems in the world, it’s that there are so many things people really don’t understand about it and that could be made more transparent. That’s the tension for me, it’s not that publishing is rife with problems and nowhere else is; it’s that publishing’s problems, for many reasons, aren’t always things that people know how to talk about. That’s why I see our role with the podcast as helping people.
It is sometimes more fun than it is serious, but I see it as a place where people who don’t know anything about book publishing can come and learn some and have some interest piqued on the subject, and then maybe they will go on to a more serious place than Missing Pages to find out more information.
When did you get the idea to have the extended interviews made available as a bonus for subscribers?
I know that bonus content is a big deal in podcasting these days. We started talking about what our bonus content could be a month or so after I started. When we started doing these interviews and people would give us an hour of their time — and, of course, all we could put into the actual episode was three to five minutes at the most. And we thought, we have all of this wonderful content and they were so smart. I’ve been interviewing authors for a long time and because the people who come on generally, I either know from some other venue or they know that I can be trusted as an author interviewer are very generous and very open.
In terms of the bonus content, if you’re looking for more scandals, you’re not getting it there. What you’re getting there are really smart people who are talking about their own experiences. It was just so organic and it really comes out of the show and the purpose behind the show.
What was the process like of arranging the episodes and creating an arc over the course of the season?
Part of my podcast education process was learning that you have to create some kind of story. Originally we thought that the Anna March episode was going to be the final story, because that’s the one that I am involved with; it’s got a lot of narrative for me in it because I was caught up in Anna’s world. Then we realized that bookending the season with Dan Mallory and Greg Mortenson was really interesting. I wish Dan Mallory had responded. We reached out to everyone.
One of the things I want to make sure people know is that we’ve had everything fact-checked and reviewed legally on Missing Pages. With Dan Mallory, when I say there’s not a whole lot [there] redemption-wise, I don’t just mean that from a judgment point of view as me — I mean that in terms of what we could actually find and talk about. Maybe his next book that he is writing will be fantastic and he’ll publish under his own name and things will change, but right now it just is really bad.
That’s a hook into this series, but then with Greg Mortenson, we have a story that we thought we knew. Look what John Krakauer says. Well, we found something else and it really changed that story and left things a little more open-ended.
The funny thing is on Apple Podcasts, with the reviews, the cranks always come out. One guy said something like, “I was with you on Dan Mallory until you blamed it on the lack of diversity in publishing. You really should have blamed it on just money, money, money.” And I thought, it’s both. And that’s what these episodes and the arc of the season are supposed to be about as well. Publishing is an industry that has challenges, but it’s not the only one. And so the episodes are showing that publishing’s problem is society’s problem.
You mentioned earlier that the podcast covered Anna March. Was it more difficult to cover a story in which you were yourself a participant?
It was. I think it would’ve been harder if Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg hadn’t reported on Anna for the Los Angeles Times. I knew first of all, how carefully and diligently they reported that story and how carefully that story was fact checked and reviewed by legal. I thought, I do not need to reinvent this story. I just need to tell my side of it. And Melissa and a couple of other people did speak with us. It became a catharsis for me in some ways. I wrote the episode the way I would write it if I were going to submit it somewhere. That was very cathartic. As you know, as a writer, that’s our process. We need to get this stuff down on paper and out of us.
Your memoir is scheduled to be published next year. Did working on the podcast have any effect on writing or editing that?
My book has been such a long, weird trip. It’s a memoir about my recovery from double depression, which is a form of cycling depression that is not bipolar syndrome, but is often found in family members of someone who has bipolar syndrome. Working on this galvanized me to finish the book. What helped was, I got my first residency at VCCA for 2020. Because of the pandemic I wasn’t able to go and they rescheduled me for last fall. So I spent a month at VCCA last fall finishing the book, so the podcast really made me think I’m working steadily on something here.
They’re about such different things. The book doesn’t have anything to do with my life in publishing or as a critic, except to the extent that I talk about my work and my depression. It definitely helped. And I’m getting published by Counterpoint. I feel so, so fortunate that even though it took me five years to get this book done, it’s getting done, it’s got a release date and I have my marketing and PR meeting in a couple of weeks. It is actually happening. I feel like the Podglomerate and Missing Pages are just wind for my sails. I don’t mean to say that they’re only for me, but my work with them has been helping me with everything else.