MFA Nonfiction '11 alum Keysha Whitaker has a voice for radio. But instead of announcing slow jam dedications, Whitaker interviews writers on her podcast, Behind the Prose. Since January 2015, she has produced 29 interviews that include conversations with the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction,” Lee Gutkind; Washington Post Nonfiction book critic Carlos Lozada; and New School Creative Writing faculty member, and Whitaker’s mentor, Susan Shapiro. Whitaker’s podcast is a how-to guide for prose, poetry, and essay writing. Her most recent episode features MFA Nonfiction '13 alum Sharisse Tracey.
Sincere Brooks: How did Behind the Prose come about?
Keysha Whitaker: I was looking through a journal that Susan Shapiro gave me when I was a student at The New School. It was where I wrote down all of my ideas. In 2012, I wrote about doing something where I interviewed writers to figure out how they write—specific word choices, sentence structure, everything. The idea was there, but seeing that I had written about it way back then, I wanted to prove to myself that I could get something like that going on my own. There are different levels of success for writers. I think of this show as a way to honor writers. I understand that what they’re doing is not easy and I want to honor that.
SB: How do you get Behind the Prose going? How do you get authors?
KW: I just ask. I never had the idea that no one would talk to me. I assumed that writers want to talk about their writing. I make connections via Twitter and through the writing universe. Sometimes they reach out to me. If there is a writer that I find interesting —like recently, I just emailed Carlos Lozada (associate editor and nonfiction book editor at the Washington Post), after reading his article “The Five Worst Sentences I Read in January,” and he agreed to do my podcast. Sometimes I just stumble across people, too. If I read something that I like, I’ll reach out to the author.
SB: How did you go about building a fanbase?
KW: I’d say mostly networking through social media and having friends pass the word around. I’ve got 28 episodes up and I’m approaching 5000 downloads, which is really good.
SB: Can you offer some words of wisdom for soon-to-be graduates?
KW: Stay connected with the The New School Creative Writing community! Be around people who are still trying to write so you don’t get distracted by the "real world." Use other people as motivation. When you see other people moving you know you have to, too. It’s a race, but it’s not a race. What I mean is, I interviewed Natalie Baszille, author of Queen of Sugar, and she said she worked on her book for ten years. These things take time. Give yourself time.
SB: Which of the authors you’ve interviewed have resonated with you most?
KW: They all have so many different strengths. I talked to Jennifer Niesslein, founder of Brain, Child Magazine and editor of online literary journal, Full Grown People. I was inspired by her tenacity and her ability to take her ideas and make them successful. Aimee Baker didn’t always have time to sit and write, but she wrote when she could and ended up getting her essay in the New Delta Review. She took her time. And then there is Gwen Hernandez, who is a romance writer. She followed her passion to write romance and while doing so she used Scrivener and wrote a blog about using the software, which led to her writing Scrivener for Dummies (in the For Dummies how-to series).
SB: What are you working on currently?
KW: I recently sent five chapters of my memoir to an agent. It started out as my Master of Fine Arts thesis. If they like it, they like it. So many people believe in me and what I write. I want to do something with that. Other than that, I’m working on essays and book ideas, getting magazine and journal clips, and finding my voice and my stride.
SB: How important is it for writers to have a mentor?
KW: Susan Shapiro is my mentor. I took her weekend workshop. She liked what I was writing. That relationship is invaluable. She helps with making connections. She connected me to the agent I sent my chapters to. She’s driven and smart about what’s marketable. She’s New York City’s writer-in-residence.
Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer at Pennsylvania State University Berks where she is the adviser to Berks Beat magazine. Her work has recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brevity Magazine’s Blog, Full Grown People, and Headland Journal. Before attending The New School’s Creative Writing program, she was a NYC radio personality. Find her on Twitter @KeyshaWhitaker.
Sincere Brooks is a current MFA Nonfiction student at The New School. She is working on a collection of personal essays. She also co-hosts and produces the 2 Girls 1 Romcom podcast. Follow her on twitter @sincere_convos.