Donna Tartt’s College Years (and 6 More Podcasts Worth Trying)

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Hey, everyone! This week, Tartt and tort.

As always, tell me what you’re listening to. You can reach me at nicholas.quah@vulture.com or find me on Twitter.

A “society” podcast, sweetened by meta-legal drama. 
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

Photo: C13 Originals

Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College didn’t make a particularly strong first impression.

The second C13Originals audio series led by Lili Anolik is an expanded adaptation of the writer’s oral history for Esquire, originally published in 2019, that traces the interwoven personal and intellectual histories of three literary stars — Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, and Bret Easton Ellis — against the backdrop of the vaunted Vermont college, where the three had met in their youth. It follows up the also-just-okay Once Upon a Time … in the Valley, co-hosted by Anolik, about the … let’s say “complicated rise” of porn star Traci Lords in the ’80s.

Bennington is said to have held a certain fascination for those enamored by literary fame and the cultural elite (among other things, it was the subject of a Nora Ephron magazine feature in the mid-’70s, also for Esquire), with the former women’s college depicted as the kind of liberal-arts institution that would put Reed, Oberlin, and Wesleyan to shame: gradeless, purely oriented around the creative life, and wildly unequal between the haves and the have-nots.

Which, you know, sure! There’s something that feels a little old-fashioned about maintaining a not particularly critical interest in that kind of thing these days, but if that’s in your wheelhouse as a cultural consumer, this is most definitely the show for you. I checked out the first two of the four episodes dropped as a batch when the podcast debuted last month but bounced off, as the show’s insistent evocation of an OG Gossip Girl–esque aesthetic and constant drumbeat of nostalgia for an older, Gen-X world left me a little cold.

… Well, until the “Page Six” report last week, which claims that Tartt’s lawyers had fired off a warning letter to Anolik and her team for infringing upon the Pulitzer-winning author’s rights and privacy. This move is presumably a response to the series’ explicit promise that it was going to dive into Tartt’s “wild” and “secret” history, previously untold, which will apparently include details of a “gender-bending relationship” with Paul McGloin, a fellow student. (McGloin is also said to be preparing legal action.) Unlike Lethem and Ellis, who feature prominently in interviews throughout the episodes, the famously private Tartt had apparently declined to be on the show. “All I know is that Donna gave a polite decline when asked to participate in the podcast,” Anolik told “Page Six” in a statement. “Then my producer started hearing from her lawyer and from her publisher’s lawyers.”

The Streisand Effect is a thing that exists, and this legal meta-story has added a much more interesting layer to this podcast. It’s back on my listen list, if only because I’m intrigued to see what happens.

Al Letson takes on a story from a past life, and the system. 
Available on all platforms. Listen here

Photo: Reveal

The ongoing exploits of Reveal, the public radio show and podcast hybrid from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, are always worth tracking, especially when they take on a longer-form serialized project, as they did with last year’s stellar American Rehab series that took listeners inside the awful labyrinthine world of “work therapy,” which subjects hundreds of thousands of people suffering from addiction to unpaid labor under the guise of remedy.

This fall, Reveal returns with another grand longer-form project. In Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe, the team, led by longtime host Al Letson and co-reporter Jonathan Jones, take on the case of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a Black high-school student and football star who reportedly died of a “self-inflicted shotgun wound” in 2008 after being pulled over by a white police officer in Lucedale, Mississippi. There remain questions around Johnson’s death, which sit in the shadow of a flawed investigation by local law enforcement. Letson first encountered the story a decade ago on a reporting trip for another show on a whole different subject matter. The details stuck with him, and over the past few years, Letson and his team have been digging into it.

Though Mississippi Goddam has what feels like the typical makeup of a true-crime podcast, the show cautions you to expect anything but. The first episode, released over the weekend, closes with the following narration from Letson, setting up the events to come:

“Before we start, you and I, dear listener, need to have a covenant between us. There are a ton of true-crime podcasts out there — some are really great — and if that’s what you’re looking for, I encourage you to find those. Because this is not that show.

I’m not asking the Johnsons or anyone else to relive the worst thing that’s ever happened to them for your listening pleasure. I am not interested in commodifying Black death. I’m interested in looking at the system and understanding  it so that change may be implemented. I’m asking you to go on that journey with us, but always remember: Billey Joe Johnson is not a character in a podcast you love, but he was a human being whose life mattered. And that’s why we want to understand his death.”

Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe is structured as a seven-part series, with new episodes dropping every week through December.

Hello From the Magic Tavern, the extremely longform improv fantasy epic whose premise revolves around a Chicago dude who falls into a portal behind a Burger King that spits him out into a magical land called Foon, where he (naturally) decides to start a podcast, returns with its fourth season, complete with a new era and a new tavern.

Also returning — and this is within the family — is Avery Trufelman’s Nice Try!, now out with its second season. Personally speaking, I really admired the first show’s debut run, Utopian, which focused its attention on various human endeavors to design the perfect society and how our many imperfections often led to their failures. This time around, with Interior, Trufelman goes a little smaller, paying attention to the private utopia of home and the many instruments and products created with the promise of improving one’s life.

Over at Spotify, Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel is also returning, with its fifth season, later this week. Not that anybody’s asking, but I’m pretty convinced the therapist on You is modeled after Perel.

ICYMI: I interviewed Rory Farrell and Jamil “Mal” Clay about their post–Joe Budden show, New Rory & Mal, and the new deal with Stitcher’s More Sauce podcast label they announced recently.

It’s Been a Minute since we all had some Good Christian Fun.

It’s official: Melissa Harris-Perry is the new permanent host of The Takeaway, WNYC and PRX’s nationally…

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