Forrest Gander is a poet, translator and novelist, whose 2018 poetry collection, "Be With," won the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent collection of poems is, "Twice Alive."
I don’t know quite what I expected when I started a podcast, but, after dabbling in and out for the first year, I decided in 2020 to release a new episode every week, and I’ve rapidly closed in a hundred episodes since then. Without further ado, and in no particular order, please enjoy a list of my personal ten favorite guests I’ve had.
Derrick is one of those guys who starts from a premise—that industrial civilization is a crime, and is going to be our undoing—that you may or may not agree with, but, if you want to dig into all the really interesting things he has to say, then I think it’s something you just have to suspend judgement on, an initial hurdle you have to get over to get to the good stuff. I wanted to have on my show for a long time someone who could give a good argument for why industrial civilization is in and of itself a bad thing, because I’m an active participant in it, and it’s useful to question the foundations of everything around you now and then. He’s a compassionate guy, and has the courage to take a radical idea to its final argument, and for that reason alone I think he’s worth a listen.
I have to say, I didn’t do as good of a job interviewing Glenn as I would have liked to. He was a guest very early on in the program, when for the most part I was just reading questions off of a list rather than having a true conversation. That being said, he’s still the guy who broke the Snowden story and other stories on Brazilian corruption, and he was kind enough to take a half hour to talk to a stranger who had I think less than ten episodes under his belt at that point. One of the things I’ve learned, as I send out emails asking people to be on the show, is that it’s often the people who have accomplished the most who seem to be the most generous with their time—whatever people might say about him on Twitter, I think him doing an interview with someone like me says a lot more about his character than any of his tweets.
I first heard of James because of his Ted Talk, where he spoke of how, as a neuroscientist, he discovered that he has the brain of a psychopath. But after talking to him a number of times, I’ve come to see that he has so much more to offer than just that—as someone who’s lived a lot of life, he’s a guy who’s comfortable talking about almost everything: he used to jack cars as a kid, and now he owns a stem cell research company, and helped developed the design of what was ultimately refined and adopted by Neuralink. He’s a hilarious, brilliant, insightful guy.
Noam is a legend at this point, a man whose most common introduction at speaking engagements is, “A man who needs no introduction.” I had to go back and forth over email with him for almost two years to make this interview happen, but I’m so glad it did. There was a moment during the podcast when I asked him about Jeffrey Epstein, and this is right after we’d been talking about climate change and nuclear war, so his response was almost a bit miffed. That’s classic Chomsky: he is relentlessly rational, and has a great way of putting things in their proper context—in other words, I get now why he might have been a little irritated that, in the midst of a discussion about the end of the human race, I brought up a somewhat sensational (if sincere) question about a single dead criminal. Who knows how much the longer this guy will be with us, but I’m sure his ideas will live on.
I got to know Sam through his website, https://samvak.tripod.com/, where he talks about narcissistic personality disorder. He reminds me in a way of Sigmund Freud, drawing on ideas and metaphors from a huge array of disciplines to formulate hiis own notion of human behavior, often expressed in a deep, even literary way. He’s a person whose perspective can jar someone (I’m thinking in particular of our second episode together, where he talked about humans not being true social animals), but for that very reason I think he’s a valuable perspective to have.
Quite the turn of events in this man’s life since we last talked! He’s gone from running for President to running from the law, from a boat in uncharted territories to behind bars in Spain. He’s a madman, but a lovable one. Whether or not he’s guilty of the crimes he’s accused of (securities fraud, etc.), he was always an entertaining guy to talk to, whether it was about his escape from murder charges in Belize, or that one night in Bangkok with Joe Rogan. His wife Janice emailed me before he got arrested to tell me that he had put me on a list of his favorite interviews, so even though he graced the show with his presence twice, we can only guess what might have been. Whatever his fate may be with the law, I trust that God is on his side.
A former producer of Russian reality TV, Peter’s written a couple books now about the hall of mirrors of propaganda that they produce. He had the twisted fortune of being on the inside to see how the sausage was made, and I think the fact that he’s moved to England and is now working for the BBC can give you a good idea of how he felt about it. I went down a rabbit hole for a while of learning about ideas of post-truth and post-modernism, and the surreal landscape of Russian reality TV (with shows that teach women how to be the gold-digger to an oligarch, among other things) was the perfect way to get my fill of this subject.
Steven was lost adrift at sea for seventy-six days, and, among all the people who might get caught in such catastrophic circumstances, he seemed almost perfectly poised to be able to articulate the spiritual and existential angst that that experience brought to the surface. He talked about how, as he depended on fish coming close enough to his boat to shoot with his spear gun, he felt this deep, raw connection to the natural world. Most people don’t have to fight to survive, but he did. He saw visions of the night sky, the stars totally unblemished by light pollution, that most of us will never get a chance to see. He did yoga on the raft he was on to stay flexible, and he spoke of how this experience, if anything, reaffirmed some of his deepest spiritual beliefs. It was a honor to talk to him.
The first I heard of Richard, he was doing a documentary for the BBC about American nomads. He went all across the Southwest, talking to people from Slab City (this anarchist town in the middle of the desert), kids hopping trains, and retirees in RVs, and it was all such a captivating ode to American wanderlust that I knew I had to read his books. He’s been chased by drug lords in the Sierra Madre and chopped it up with the blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta; he’s one of a handful of people who influenced my desire to travel, and I’m grateful I got to talk to him directly and hear his earthy philosophy of travel and nomadism.
I met Bart when he was the secular chaplain at my alma mater, the University of Southern California. He’s now gone from the school, and he’s busy getting his degree to become a professional counselor, which was the kind of work he’s been doing all his life, unofficially. A former evangelical preacher turned non-believer, Bart is just a wonderful soul. He’s a rare bird these days: life-affirming without being naive, spiritual without being religious, and intelligent while remaining deeply human. I encourage you to give a listen to his own podcast, called Humanize Me, which you can find on any podcast platform.
That’s it! Those are my top ten guests—although there were plenty more who I wanted to include. Here’s to hoping the next hundred episodes are as fun as the last.