The Longform podcast is a love letter to writing. Hosted by Aaron Lammer, Max Linsky and Evan Ratliff, the podcast is a weekly discussion with nonfiction writers and storytellers about their craft. The first episode aired in 2012, and since then Longform has recorded over 500 interviews with a range of both well-established and up-and-coming writers and podcasters. Some of the most powerful episodes uncover the story behind a particular piece by revealing how the guest pitched an idea and then navigated the twists and turns of conducting an investigation. Other episodes are more broad and meandering, giving us a glimpse into the early stages of a writer’s career, how they take notes, how they make ends meet.
When I first started drafting this list, I decided to begin at episode one. Secretly, though I didn’t tell my editor, I was determined to listen to every single episode to date so that I could make a fully informed decision about which ones I wanted to include. I quickly realized that approach was laughably unsustainable. As a result, many of these episodes I chose to listen to based on name recognition, while others I picked because I was intrigued by the pull quote. There are far more episodes to explore than what I’ve included here, though this is a great place to start. Here, unranked and in chronological order, are 15 of my favorite Longform episodes.
I first became aware of Tavi Gevinson when we were both in high school. I remember watching her on a 2013 episode of The Colbert Report and trying to process that we were the same age. Even then she seemed relatively sure of herself, a feeling that took me until late college to (somewhat) achieve. Gevinson is a writer who has been written about extensively, and she is best known for founding and editing the online magazine Rookie, geared toward teens. I was disappointed when the magazine eventually folded in 2018, but it felt right — Gevinson is no longer a teen after all. In this interview with Max Linsky, Gevinson discusses confidence, selfhood, community and, of course, writing. My favorite Tavi quote from this episode: “Writing is, like, a little bit of vomiting and then mostly editing.”
This episode of Longform is a bit more mundane than others I’ve listened to, but in the absolute best way. Alice Gregory gets down to the nuts and bolts of writing with host Aaron Lammer. We learn that she quit her desk job a year out of college after saving up just one thousand dollars (though in retrospect she doesn’t seem to think that was wise), and that she takes rigorous notes while reporting but later on will cross out unimportant observations to save time transcribing. Gregory also distinguishes between pitching stories and writing “on spec,” and explains how she structures a piece that doesn’t have an obvious narrative arc. This interview is a trove for writers who are just getting started.
Ta-Nehisi Coates warns us that journalism is not activism. He grapples with the limitations of journalism as a changemaking medium, in particular with his nearly 16,000-word, 2014 cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (if you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk). This episode is a lesson on the power of narrative storytelling, favoring in-depth coverage of people’s lives over quick, 800-word riffs on complex issues. Coates is an absolute joy to listen to, but if you don’t play this episode then he makes several other Longform appearances you can tune into.
Episode #101: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
In this episode, Max Linksy interviews journalist and essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah about her Pulitzer Prize-winning article “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof.” Ghansah recalls how American headlines spun a tale that survivors of the mass shooting and family members of the victims had magnanimously forgiven Roof. She suspected there was more to the story and decided to investigate it herself. Ghansah began by writing her piece about the victims, but at the end of Roof’s trial she realized that she wanted to report on the white supremacist and mass murderer himself. She wanted Roof to know that he couldn’t guard the details of his life while the personal lives of his victims and their families were relentlessly exposed and their grief routinely dismissed. This episode is both terrifying and thrilling to listen to.
Most Longform interviews focus on the writing process, but in this episode Dayna Tortorici talks with host Aaron Lammer about editing n+1, an online and print magazine. Listening to Tortorici talk about editorial board meetings and sorting through submissions, I felt like I was being let in on a secret. Tortorici acknowledges that the editing process can be rough — writers tend to get caught up in what they think editors want, so that the writer’s real voice ends up having to be carefully excavated — but she strives to be as generous as possible with her time and feedback. Longform interviewees continually stress the importance of finding editors you vibe with, people who will help cultivate your writing, and Tortorici mirrors that belief.
Episode #197: Nikole Hannah-Jones
You may already know Nikole Hannah-Jones as a 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner for her lead essay in The 1619 Project, which examines how the enslavement of Africans has shaped every aspect of America’s history and present. In this episode hosted by Evan Ratliff, Hannah-Jones discusses her 2016 feature for The New York Times Magazine about school segregation in New York City. We learn that in college she double-majored in history and African American studies, both of which lie at the intersection of her reporting on racial injustice. Hannah-Jones is not only an expert journalist with razor-sharp insight but also, at least in my book, a skilled and thoughtful historian.
Episode #217: Doreen St. Félix
Writer Doreen St. Félix laughs that she would rather compose an aesthetically beautiful essay than one that makes an argument, though in reality she is adept at both. While she has often been pinned as an activist, St. Félix describes herself as a stylist (of words), and she is one. In this interview hosted by Evan Ratliff, St. Félix discusses how she carved out space for herself as a critic, particularly of Black culture. After graduating from Brown University, she realized there were critical spaces that actively encouraged writing about music and television, subjects that weren’t prized in the academic spaces she encountered in college. St. Félix is an artful, painstakingly nuanced critic, and it seems there isn’t anything she can’t write about lucidly and beautifully.
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Samin Nosrat taught me everything I know about properly salting a dish. In this episode, she also reminded me why it’s important for writers to have more hands-on, physical hobbies — in her case, cooking. Chefs cannot be precious with their food (swiped from their hands upon completion and whisked out to eager diners) the way writers can with their writing. To my own surprise, of all the Longform stories I listened to, Nosrat’s account of her very first fine-dining experience and, later, first restaurant-service gig, is the one that made me cry.
You may know Jenna Wortham from @jennydeluxe, their Twitter account with over 700,000 followers. Wortham, whose pronouns are she/they, is now a culture writer for The New York Times Magazine and co-hosts the podcast Still Processing in the very same studio where this episode takes place. Longform’s Max Linsky has known Wortham for years, creating a friendly rapport while he interviews this seasoned interviewer. In this episode, Wortham remembers working 80-hour weeks in their twenties as both a restaurant server and research intern at Wired, where they became a technology reporter. They recall being optimistic about the possibilities of social media platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram before realizing that, as they put it, “Algorithms have a gaze.” Don’t miss this electric interview.
Episode #315: Elizabeth Kolbert
Being a successful writer is often, as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it, “just being there.” In this episode, Evan Ratliff uncovers how Kolbert came to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on climate change. She didn’t write about climate change right away; early in her career, she covered politics in Albany for The New York Times. Once Kolbert started covering the impact of climate change in the Arctic for The New Yorker, the issue was so complicated and unwieldy, its implications so catastrophic, that she couldn’t imagine writing about anything else. For the most part, she hasn’t. If you don’t listen to this episode then you should read Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. But probably you should do both.
In a moment when so much writing chases the 24-hour news cycle, Wesley Morris wants you to slow down. He argues that you don’t have to be the first person to write a response to any given event, and that someone else will usually beat you to it, anyhow. So take extra time, he says, and give the subject some breathing room. Don’t just react; think it through. Morris is a critic-at-large for The New York Times and Jenna Wortham’s co-host on Still Processing. In this live episode of Longform, Aaron Lammer interviews Morris about his experience as a film critic, including how the cultural landscape surrounding criticism has changed since Morris first appeared on the show in 2014. Morris is a nuanced thinker, an incisive writer and a crucial voice of cultural criticism.
Jia Tolentino’s body of work has incredible breadth — she can somehow write at length about memes and vaping and make it worth your while, and has also written with blistering clarity about high-profile cases of sexual assault, namely the Kavanaugh hearings. This is her second time on the Longform Podcast, and she recounts her whirlwind trajectory from Jezebel writer to prolific New Yorker staffer and author of a widely successful book of essays, Trick Mirror. As someone who writes at a glacial pace, content powerhouses like Tolentino are a mystery to me. But in a moment when five days can feel like five years in internet time, speedy and nuanced writers like Tolentino are essential for documenting the cultural landscape.
I first read Nicholson Baker’s 1988 novel The Mezzanine as a sophomore in college. I was mesmerized by Baker’s painstaking attention to life’s mundanities and astonished that any such book existed. The novel is a careful study of objects rather than a plot driven by characters; it is far more cerebral than emotional, so I was surprised to find that Baker himself sounds warm, easygoing and approachable. In this interview hosted by Aaron Lammer, the two discuss Baker’s eccentric writing career, his peculiar note-taking methods and the usefulness of writing that doesn’t get published. But the episode’s most stirring soundbite is at the very end: In the last minute or so, Baker softly reminds us that no matter how prolific or widely read writers are, we are going to be forgotten, and so we should simply write what we care about.
In this episode hosted by Evan Ratliff, investigative journalist and podcast host Connie Walker tells the story of how she began reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. As a Cree woman who grew up on a reserve in southern Saskatchewan, Walker is all too familiar with the trauma that settlers inflict on Indigenous communities. She started her journalism career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where she was a reporter for 20 years before deciding that podcasts were the best medium for the in-depth stories she wanted to tell. Walker explains that podcasts give her the time and space she needs to conduct trauma-informed reporting that recognizes the resilience and agency of her interview subjects, and she makes a convincing case that reporting can be actively empowering for the people she interviews.
Clint Smith, ever the multi-hyphenate, is an essayist, journalist, poet and current staff writer at The Atlantic. In this episode led by Evan Ratliff, Smith appropriately covers a wide range of terrain — from his writing on soccer, to his searing 2021 book How the Word Is Passed, to his recent Atlantic cover story for which he traveled to Germany to better understand how the country has worked to observe and remember the horrors of the Holocaust. Smith’s writing is as thoughtful as it is daring and his interview brings these same qualities to the fore.
Kat Rooney is a writer based in New York. You can reach her at [email protected]