The Last Estate

HORROR VACUI: an interview with Joe Bielecki – The Last Estate

HORROR VACUI: an interview with Joe Bielecki

I don’t care what anybody tells you or what impressions you’ve gotten, but there’s only one computer in the Last Estate HQ. And to use it you need to book time weeks in advance. It’s a major pain in the ass.


I’m not a computer person. There’s people here who can make magic with them and know all about them. But this one we use is in the top floor of the cupola with black lights and bats flying around and disorganized electrical cables shaking across the floor like tentacles coming out of mutant dogs in The Thing. In the summertime, on really hot days, the humidity in this room upstairs is like being teabagged by a Sasquatch. And the computer looks like if you cracked it open it would have coked-up hamsters running on wheels inside it.


I need the computer to conduct an interview with Joe Bielecki who is a podcaster who interviews people himself, writers from a certain subset of indie lit. I booked a few hours using the computer a while back, but using the community computer in the attic creeps me out. It probably has something to do with the two shrunken heads sitting on the desk.


No one will tell me where they came from. They’re each about the size of a softball, with greasy long black hair, and what’s fucked up is that somebody has taken a small pair of scissors and cut the threads some witch doctor had long ago used to see their lips closed. This was a major mistake because now they speak all the time. I wish they would keep their mouths shut. I’ve tried to throw them away, put them in a plastic bag and thrown it into the swamp, but somebody here is very attached to them and keeps retrieving them. I’ve asked everybody and no one knows where they came from and no one seems to be in a hurry to remove the cursed objects.


“What are you doing,” the one on the left asks me as I sit down to conduct the interview. It’s named Boko and the other one is called Wontu, I have discovered over my short time here.


“Nothing, Boko,” I say. “I’m just conducting an interview via Google docs.”


“Who are you interviewing?”


“Joe Bielecki. He has a podcast on Apple Podcasts called Writing the Rapids. I thought it might be good to interview the interviewer, turn the tables.”


Boko licks his lips, then spits out the loose strands of dangling thread piercing his lips. “Who has he interviewed?”


“Oh, Mike Corrao, John Trefry, Grant Maierhofer,” I say. “Pretty big people.”


“Never heard of them,” Boko says. “Sounds pretty niche and uninteresting.”


“Well they might be obscure to you, Boko,” I say, “but I think they’re worth hearing from because they are doing some cutting edge things with publishing.”


“Have you heard of Sam Pink? Zac Smith?” Wontu interjects. His voice is more bubbly like he has a toad in his throat, which is weird because his throat isn’t there.


“Oh I love them!” Boko says, changing his tune. “That sounds gnarly.”


“He’s also talked to Graham Irvin and Cavin Bryce Gonzalez,” I add. “B.R. Yeager.”


Boko is excited. “That sounds dope, I’m interested in those people. I’d like to hear this. How does this Joe Bielecki lock down these guests?”


Wontu pipes up. “I listened a few times. I guess Bielecki will only have a guest writer on if a prior guest has recommended them. It’s sort of exclusive, a little like a speakeasy where you need to know a secret knock.”


“Yeah,” I say, “from what I hear Joe has to turn people away who send him DMs and emails asking to be on the show to sling their new book. It lends a certain integrity of sorts.”


Wontu, ever helpful, adds, “He’s had about seventy episodes to date. It’s been going since 2018 I think. That’s pretty robust for a podcast of this type.”


Boko looks confused. “How have you heard it?”


“I listen when you’re catching z’s.”


“I never knew that about you, Wontu.”


“You never ask. You only think about yourself.”


“Ok, pipe down, you two,” I say. “I need to concentrate to do this interview with Joe.”


“Could we watch a movie on your phone?” Boko asks.


“We’ll put it on mute, so you won’t hear a thing.”


“Ok,” I say, using a manila folder to push the two disembodied heads so they’re looking in the same direction. Then I prop my phone up against a thick phone book for Mobile, Alabama. “What do you want to watch?”


“Let’s watch Xanadu,” Wontu says. “I love Olivia Newton John. She’s so fierce and real. RIP.”


“That’s pretty gay,” Boko says.


“Tell you what, you can watch Xanadu for a while, then I’ll switch it to Mad Max: Fury Road when I take a break. But please don’t talk.”


“Alright,” Boko says.



Joe, how did you come to start your podcast, and did you know the type of person you’d be interviewing before you started? Like how well did you know John Trefry, Mike Corrao, Grant Maierhofer? The method you describe on your podcast is you talk to people who were mentioned by previous guests. How does one start that chain?


The initial idea came from being somewhat dissatisfied with the writing podcasts I had listened to in the past. I’d been into podcasts since I was in late middle school/early high school thanks to typing “world of warcraft” into the itunes store to see what would come up. Eventually I found a group of podcasts called PodCastle, EscapePod, and PseudoPod which are genre lit mags in audio form. I eventually followed some of the people associated with those shows and began listening to their writing podcasts. One I enjoyed was called something like I Should Be Writing. It was by a woman who is successful in the fantasy/sci-fi writing genres and was largely about her being a mother and a writer and finding time to do both adequately. And while it was good, and I wish I had internalized more of the ideas she shared now that I’m a work from home dad of a small child, it was largely what I considered to be introductory. As I branched out to find other writing podcasts I felt like most writing podcasts were of the same type. Answering the questions of “how do I start,” “how do I beat writer’s block,” “how do I quiet my editor voice so I can actually complete a draft,” and so on. I do think that kind of thing is needed, but when I found myself wanting to do a podcast about writing, I knew I wanted to do something different.


I’ve always loved interviews. When I was a kid in the early days of YouTube I used to type in “[band I like] interview” and exhaust the offerings. It was part idol worship, but mostly it was trying to understand how they made their music. In college the David Foster Wallace bug bit me (thanks depression) and I watched lots of his interviews as well. But it wasn’t until I watched the Ed Harris movie Pollock that I got the idea for Writing the Rapids. 


As a side bar: the name Writing the Rapids comes from a segment I did on the local NPR affiliate I work for (I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan). I was working as the producer of the morning show at the time, and the host said I could do a segment every now and again, so I set to finding local people to talk to about writing. It was fun, but I wanted to do something else with it.


Pollock has a scene pretty early on with a handful of artists sitting in a smoky bar arguing about Picasso. I can’t easily explain what about it that I found so inspiring, maybe the looseness of the conversation, the friendly argument, the energy. Something like that. I tweeted that I wanted to do an interview podcast where I talk to writers about writing as if it was a capital A art. B.R. Yeager was following me on twitter and liked the tweet, so I figured he would be down, and emailed him shortly after.


I had been writing and publishing flash fiction a lot around that time, so I had amassed a handful of writer followers from that, which is probably how he came to follow me, or maybe it was because I had said something nice about Amygdalatropolis, which is still one of my favorite books. 


I found this corner of the writing world by way of Blake Butler’s There Is No Year. I read it late in college and in a way mirroring my childhood YouTube usage googled every interview he gave and all the Vice articles he wrote. I think that’s how I found Schism press. 


So after I had B.R. Yeager on the show I asked him for a handful of names, which is how I found out about Mike Kleine. To answer your question directly, I did not know him or really anyone else at all before emailing them. I’m pretty sure I’d been aware of Inside the Castle before talking to John, but I’d never heard of Mike before getting his name from B.R. It’s a bit different now that I’ve been around and paying attention for a few years, but I still often get names of people I’ve never heard of.


Which, if I’m being honest, was the Quiet Part of starting the show. I wanted to meet and learn about writers doing things similar to what I thought I was doing with my own writing. Everything you read about finding a publisher or agent for your book says to start by looking at the books you like, but at that time I was completely new to indie writing. Most of the books on my shelf were fantasy novels or classics I hadn’t read, or stuff from college. It was clear nothing I was reading was anything like what I was writing. I still don’t feel that I write like what I read, but at least that gives me comfort when I get rejection letters.


JH: You mentioned B.R. Yeager, and I just want to get into this idea of genre. It seems like two things are happening: 1) that a lot of the writing you discuss on your podcast seems to take place at this sweet spot where genre, specifically horror, meets with experimental literary writing, and 2) we’ve just heard that Apocalypse Party divulged that B.R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space has sold 10,000 copies, which is a phenomenal volume of book sales in indie lit land. Is horror something that is jumping off right now? Recently Jeff Schneider of Pig Roast Publishing, who is a Gen X guy like me, was talking about how there was a very specific moment in the early 1990s where people were into Guns ‘n’ Roses and hair metal and that kind of thing, then over a weekend it all shifted to Nirvana and grunge, and you could almost compare what people were wearing on a Friday to how they were dressing that next Monday to see the massive rapid change. This signaled a transformation that got a lot of people’s attention because it demonstrated this perhaps in terms of dollars and cents. And Jeff talked about how he felt the same kind of thing could be imminent in indie “outsider” lit. Is B.R. Yeager’s Negative Space the “Nirvana moment” for this kind of writing? And conversely, do you feel like the more important developments are happening at these smaller more niche presses like Schism and Inside the Castle who were here before the trend arrived? 


I have wrestled with the “why is experimental writing so dark?” question on the podcast a few times. And I think part of it is having guys like Butler and Yeager as my entry point. As I spiral out from them, I find a lot of dark stuff, which is easily morphed into more traditional horror. The specter of House of Leaves haunts both me and the show as well. I think in a genre like horror, it’s easier to morph the text into something unusual because the audience is already expecting something strange and unsettling. Keep in mind, I only barely knew what concrete poetry was when the show started, and only then because we talked about it in a graphic design class I took in high school. 


I think a lot of people who are readers experience experimentation like is seen in ItC type books through books like House of Leaves and S. Right now M.J. Gette’s book Majority Reef comes to mind as an “experimental” work that isn’t horror. But, still, I feel like that book is a mix of creative nonfiction/essay, poetics, and collage. It’s not a prose forward type of book. Same thing with Douglas Luman’s The F Text, which is essentially erasure poetry, but more. So coming at experimentation through prose rather than poetics, or more academic backed avant garde just leaves horror, dark, and transgressive prose as the doorway.


As for a Nirvana Moment, I can’t say. I’m definitely not tuned into the market or anything. I remember going on reddit all the time during the height of the pandemic lockdowns and recommending Negative Space on every relevant r/suggestmeabook type thread I could find. I see BookTubers like CriminOlly or Plagued By Visions, who cover darker lit stuff doing pretty good BookTube numbers as far as I can tell. There seems to be a big split in readers right now between people who want just the most wretched book they can stand to read, and people who want the most cozy thing ever. Makes sense when you think about the rise of zombie media in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. 


I think Negative Space is so successful because it’s simply that good. I love indie books, obviously, but I can tell when I’m reading something that has been put out through an indie and something that went through a more traditional publishing process. Yeager mentioned at one point on twitter that Elle Nash worked as an editor for Negative Space, and I think her influence on the book probably did a lot to set it apart from everything else that came out that year. Looking at her website, she worked on Maggie Siebert’s Bonding, and Elizabeth Aldrich’s Ruthless Little Things, two other books that have received a lot of really high praise from what I can tell. It seems silly to posit that the difference between a good indie book and a great indie book is a good editor, but when so many indie presses are one or two people trying their best to just stay afloat, that one change can make all the difference. 


For the last part of your question, I think so. Innovation in art seems like a really difficult thing to cultivate sustainably. So the fact that Schism and ItC have been around as long as they have without imploding says something about the people running those presses, the way they work with their writers, and the work that they’re putting out. I know reading work from those presses has influenced how and what I write quite a lot. 


I forget who I was talking to about Inside the Castle at the time, but near the beginning of the podcast I was talking to a writer about ItC and wondering how he found so many writers to publish such weird stuff with the press, and whoever I was talking to said something along the lines of “well those people have always been writing like that.” And I think that is what makes some of these more niche presses successful, is not that they’re trying to make something new, but rather bringing to light something that’s always been there and hasn’t been given the chance to be seen by enough, or the right people yet.


Two questions: 1) how do you make a successful podcast, about any subject, and get it on a paying basis? And 2) what books or writers are you excited to see in 2023 and beyond? Is there some new direction or press that you feel like is going somewhere different that what you’ve seen in 2021 and 2022? I’m trying to be careful not to try to bait you into some kind of fake poppy “trend-watcher” angle in spite of what I was just saying about “Nirvana moments” and whatever above. I’m not that craven or shallow, I’m just genuinely curious about what else is out there. That’s part of why I have really liked your show, learning about some other facets of writing communities that exist beyond the normal-strength radar I’m capable of on Twitter. Another thing is, I like to listen to the voices of podcast interviewees and ask myself, “Am I into this writer just based on their voice alone, do I trust them to do what they do? Do I feel like I hear artistry and intelligence in their voice, and respect where they’re coming from, and would they hypothetically respect me as a reader? Or do they sound like doofuses and jerks?” That’s a lot of things to talk about, sorry.


I think having a strong concept helps a lot. I’ve made different attempts at podcasts in the past and the ones that last the longest always have some sort of gimmick or hook. Writing the Rapids’ limitation of having a set pool of potential guests based on previous guests is interesting for the listener (I think) and useful for me. It’s a bummer to have someone DM or email me and ask to be on the show and have to be like “sorry that’s not how this works and you’re not on my list,” but it keeps me from being beholden to people who are better at self marketing than others. I think it helps keep the show fresh because I’m forced to read outside what I might normally read. 


Consistency is important too. You have to just keep pumping out shows on a schedule as best you can so people can make you part of their routine. 


Also, something I heard a long time ago that I think about often is a quote about doing streaming and dealing with trolls, “you get the Chatroom you deserve.” There’s common advice that you should know who your audience is when you make something. In TV and radio they make a sort of D&D style character sheet about who their target consumer looks like. That’s mostly for advertising, but it helps drive the content. The advice I mentioned goes beyond that, though. What type of person do you want? So many Internet personalities flame out because they attract an adversarial audience. There’s no one to stand up for them when the inevitable trolls show up. It also helps with the kinds of conversations you want to have. If you have an audience that wants to explore your topic, is curious and open, your show will go in a way different direction than if you have one that wants hot takes and dunking or whatever. I’m not making a value judgment by the way, my preference is to build a space like a library, not a colosseum, but both have their place. 


As for why people subscribe to my patreon, or how to encourage people to do so, I’m not sure. The getting money part of this process is something I haven’t spent enough time or effort working out yet. I started the patreon pretty quick after I started Writing the Rapids because I knew if I waited until I felt like it was warranted, I’d never do it at all. So far it’s been nice to get some book money every month, and even better it’s nice to know people value the show enough to throw cash at me. 


As a final point, I’m not sure if I’d consider Writing the Rapids successful. It certainly has done good things for my life, I’ve made good friends, read good books, exposed people to books they might never have even heard of and so on. But I don’t know how much being on my show moves the needle sales/fans wise for my guests. I’d love for it to be a big deal. I’d love to have a sizeable group of listeners who aren’t already writers. There are more things to do. I’m pleased that I’ve made a space where people can talk about the craft of writing in a way even an untrained, and not super well read guy like me can understand and take something away from. There’s a lot more work to do. 


This year I’m excited to do some exploration of indie lit outside of the show. I’ll admit I feel very intimidated by the amount of unread books my wife and I have piled up in our bedroom at the moment, and doing more than catching up to my level of purchasing feels impossible, especially with an infant at home. But I also want to make an effort to read at least one book a month from a press I’ve not previously read from. I know that’s not a direct answer to the question, but that’s where I’m at. Thanks to Writing the Rapids, I’m pretty close to all my favorite writers who are working today. If anyone has a book coming out this year, they’ll probably let me know. I really want to dig into the world of indie horror. I want to read more indie poetry. Penteract Press has been on my radar lately as they’ve been so transparent about how tough it is to run a press right now. I have many small presses that I follow on Twitter that I’ve never read, I really want to change that. 


Your comment about listening to writers and trying to figure them out is interesting. It might be hypocritical of me, but I rarely listen to an interview with someone who’s work I’m not at least a little familiar with. I think that’s partly why I try to do a more conversational style of show. Trying to get people to come for the writer they know, and then stay for me. It feels gross to say that, I’m really not that egocentric, but it was a barrier to long term listening that I anticipated based on my own experience. 


I’m curious to know if you’ve found yourself surprised by what you’ve heard versus what you’ve read.


I guess to clarify I will just say, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on exploring new writers but discovering a vast, unknown body of podcast interviews with writers out there was, to me, a good first step in learning about writers that was free, to put it bluntly. And the theory is that from that knowledge base of listening to interviews I will have more information about who to maybe go ahead and spend money on reading. A good example is Logan Berry. I’d been really interested in trying to read him but then after your interview with him, I liked his voice and the sorts of things he talked about enough to take the plunge and buy Run-Off Sugar Crystal Lake. Coincidentally 11:11 Press said they only had seven copies left just as this was happening so I felt like I got there just at the right time. That’s an example of how it kind of worked. Maybe it’s wrong to judge interviewees like this. I treat their interviews a little like I might see interviews with celebrities on late night talk shows and feel like “Huh, that person seems cool, maybe I’ll check out their movie.” As opposed to having seen all their movies, then seeing the interview and having my prior favorable or unfavorable feelings confirmed. Two more questions: 1) do you get hooked up with books from this group of authors for free? And 2) do you see your podcast as being a sort of “craft of writing show” and not just a place for people to plug their latest book? I see it that way, in a way, in spite of what I might have just been implying. I’m thinking specifically of a kind of panel discussion episode you had a while back with John Trefry from Inside the Castle, Mike Kleine, I can’t remember who else was there, but you all were talking about the moniker “experimental writing,” and the limitations of that kind of terminology perhaps. Your show often goes way beyond people just hyping their new books and into some more theoretical directions that are interesting on a cerebral level, maybe just because many of the writers you speak to are doing stuff in that kind of alternative, unique mental space. And it truly is underground type shit that is so valuable to expose, even if we’re hating on the term “experimental.” 


That makes total sense to me, I’m of the mind that it’s easier to get people into a book if it’s first presented in a non-text medium. At least that’s how it works for me. 


I do sometimes. I feel pretty weird about asking people for free physical books and have to stop myself from declining offers sometimes. Sometimes if my recent spending has been a little much, or if time requires me to move quickly I’ll ask for a pdf. The patreon money helps offset the costs and keeps me from having to overcome my social anxiety so it all works out. 


Yes I definitely see the show as a craft of writing show, first. Reading your question helps bring into focus what I mean when I say I want to talk about writing like it’s a capital A art. I don’t often pick people just because they’re having a book coming out around time of episode release. I kind of scope them out and see if they can help continue whatever thought threads I’ve been having, or if they’ll be a left turn to keep the show from getting mired in the same themes. I do have the mini “rejoinder” episodes for guests to come back on the show to plug something new. So I guess the show does both, or has room for both. I think they’re intertwined in a way. 


I think it goes back to what you’re talking about, how the show can act as a sort of try it before you buy it space. Guests often do read from their most recent book at the end of an episode. In these types of spaces I think it’s helpful to know where people are coming from with regard to their writing. It can help to know how seriously to take their writing, or if it’s supposed to be just funny, or ethereal, or something else. 


That roundtable episode is one of the higher points of the show because of what you’re talking about. The type of stuff I get exposed to through the show is exciting, but it’s all so diverse and most of these writers are so outside the system that they’ve created their own genre or practice or method, and getting an inside look into how they think about things is similarly exciting. Especially considering we all tend to use the same vocabulary. Having a group of us together defining terms and doing that work makes everything feel more Real to me.


Ok, Joe, I think I should start bringing this to a close. But before we go, I just wanted to quickly expand what we’re talking about or transfer it to another context so that perhaps readers of this interview can have another means of locating these ideas and these aesthetic concepts. I’m also just really curious what kinds of music you listen to or movies you watch that could replicate or mirror the kinds of writing we’ve been talking about. I don’t know where exactly I’ve picked up this strange notion that there is a lot of heavy metal being played; maybe I’ve been aware of John Trefry’s thing for black metal as he has tried to straighten me out by recommending some really arcane bands to me. Are you into that too? A bigger, more organized question: do the horror vibes I am picking up in the writing, rightly or wrongly, manifest to you in other media?  


I do watch a lot of movies, but I’m not sure how I’d link what I like to watch to what’s covered on the show. I like David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, and Terry Gilliam movies a lot. I did talk with David Leo Rice and Chris Kelso about the David Cronenberg book they put together. I know there’s a lot more experimental film out there that I’m not acquainted with, so I’d be interested to see what connections other people make. 


Lately I’ve been on a nearly constant Horror Punk tear when it comes to music listening. Bands like Blitzkid, The Rosedales, The Misfits, and so on. In that same vein I love Pyschobilly as well, the Cramps, Batmobile, The Meteors, Deadbolt. That kind of thing. 


I’ve also been digging into the prog rock revival that happened in the 00s with bands like Coheed and Cambria (a lifetime favorite of mine), The Dear Hunter and so on. 


As far as metal, I do like some black metal, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, Feminazgul. I like the spacey and ethereal “black gaze” stuff too. Lately I’ve been poking around into what Spotify calls “blackened deathcore” which has an element of fetishism around the different types of screams the human voice can sustainably do that I find really fascinating.  I tend to listen to metal only when I’m in a certain mood. 


So I think you’re definitely picking up on something that’s there. The horror vibes I like are filled with a lot of camp. I love really disturbing shit, but it’s not a constant thing for me. After my kid was born I told my wife I wanted to be Goth Mr. Rogers. I think that kind of sums up how I’ve been approaching things lately, both in terms of production and consumption.


A Goth Mr. Rogers. Well, thanks for chatting with me, neighbor.




When I end the interview, I look up to see the two shrunken heads have somehow gotten themselves turned around and are looking directly at me. Behind them, Mad Max: Fury Road is playing on mute on the little theater I set up with my phone.


“That was funny, about a Goth Mr. Rogers,” Boko says. It’s skin-crawling to hear his voice after all that silence. Rudy Johnson needs the computer in fifteen minutes to make some animation for the Last Estate about being trapped in hell. Of all the people here, Rudy is the one you want to cross the least.


Boko smiles at me, the skin around his eyes crinkling. “Jesse, I like you just the way you are.”

Jesse Hilson

Jesse Hilson is a trespasser on Last Estate grounds. He’s like that deranged fan who showed up unannounced at John Lennon’s house to grill him about Helter Skelter. He is a writer and a cartoonist.