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Weekly Wrap: Introverts at the Microphone

by Susan Henderson on December 1, 2006

I’m going to tell you a story about the only reading I ever organized, and I think it illustrates both the absurdity and the awesomeness of bringing writers out from behind their keyboards and up to the microphone.

When I was the managing editor of a certain literary magazine, my colleague and I came up with the so-crazy-it-worked idea of funding the magazine by featuring a town on the cover of each issue. That town would get the cover photo, 10 pages inside to show off the unique qualities of their town, and a reading featuring the magazines’ award-winning authors. The cost to them: $10,000. The idea worked so well, The New York Times gave us a half-page article about it, but I’ll talk about that later.

I had never planned a reading before, but I had planned a wedding, so I went with the same principles: the guests must have fun, the attendants must be pampered, and wherever we throw this event must have booze and must be filled to capacity. I picked a small tavern in the town, rented an entire b&b for the authors, talked the bartender into serving free food, counted on the only extrovert on staff to m.c. the evening, got some open-mic friends to handle the acoustics, and talked to a band about performing after the reading.

The reading was booked for the week following the Bush v. Gore presidential election, and many of the readers – along with their appearance in this certain literary magazine – were also a part of the book, THE FUTURE DICTIONARY OF AMERICA, which had just been published that summer in an effort to turn the election in Al Gore’s favor. This will all become important later.

The night of the reading, there were over a hundred people who came to this small tavern in this small town, and the bartender who was also the owner talked to me about the possibility of turning people away at the door because of the fire code. We forged ahead. Luckily, we had changed bands at the last minute to keep the band groupies from showing up and overpopulating the tavern.

Among the readers, we had one who arrived only minutes beforehand and one who lost his piece on the train and was feverishly rewriting it from memory. These things happen. My voice shook during my reading. That happens, too. And then there was the X factor, things behind the scenes that we weren’t aware of but became aware of as the evening went on. One very interesting X factor was this: the alcoholics who normally attended this particular tavern were there, but they had been asked not to smoke that evening. Another X factor was that we were in Republican territory. Who knew?

When the editor of McSweeney’s walked toward the mic to do his piece, something about the local crowd had turned. Maybe it was because they’d not been able to smoke for so long. And the editor leaned over to me and said, “Do you really think I ought to read this piece? Here?” And foolishly, I said, “I’ve got your back.”

Now, the memory of the alcoholics heckling this reader with shouts of “Fallujah!” (seriously) is kind of funny. Another editor, who didn’t read but sat up at the bar, told me later how he worried there was going to be a brawl. But in the end, one introvert after another took the mic and read to a room filled not only with Republican alcoholic smokers who couldn’t smoke but also with other introverted writers and editors who share a passion. And then the band played.

Back at the b&b, one author cooked for the writers, and everyone stayed up telling stories and bad jokes and becoming friends in ways that couldn’t be undone.

And that’s what I try to remember as I do readings now – and later, if I ever go on book tour: the reading is not about you or the passage you choose to read or whether your voice shakes or even who is in the crowd on a particular night. It’s about this community of creative introverts who – when they are together with other like-minded introverts and the anxiety of being at the microphone has come and gone – become extroverts with their storytelling that goes on into the night until the alcohol wears off and the fatigue sets in.

When the magazine staff got back together to talk about the reading, one of our big disappointments was that we thought The New York Times would be there to cover the event. We were hoping for a mention. We didn’t know at the time that we’d get the half-page coverage a month later and that their interest would not be in the writers or in the quality of the magazine but in the funding and marketing. The article, though huge and positive, was eclipsed by a tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people. Life is like that. It flies in the face of our expectations and that’s probably the very reason we write.

*

Thanks to those of you who answered the Question of the Week: C.Dawn McCallum, who thinks book tours are a great way to travel and visit new bookstores, though her tour for her juvenile fiction book, THE CARETAKER OF TREE PALACE, has made it clear that a lot of people just drop their kids off like it’s day care; Juliet, who just started her tour for IN SPITE OF ALL THE DAMAGE and believes in starting small (local bookstores, radio stations, newspapers, libraries), and moving out from there; Gail Siegel, who toured with her anthologies, LOST ON PURPOSE and FRESH WATER, and prefers the readings where they have to find extra chairs for the audience members over the readings with a room full of chairs but not enough people to sit in them (Gail, did you see Amy made the NY Times Best 10 Books of ’06 list? And Danielle, too. Wheee!); Julie Ann Shapiro, who has not gone on tour with her newly published digital book, but loves finding how human published authors can be; Lance Reynald, who tells a story of Chuck Palahniuk’s interactive readings with props and prizes (reminds me of my high school rival, Jim Ruland!); Aimee, who tells adorable stories about being star struck at Jonathan Lethem and Gloria Steinem signings (Aimee, if you want me to link you, just let me know); Carolyn Burns Bass, who attends readings to hear how authors emphasize certain words and give life to their own characters; my O. Henry-winning webmaster, Terry Bain, who loves everything about being on tour except being away from his family – and if you’ve never heard t read, now you can by going here http://kpbx.org/ and then looking on “the bookshelf”; Mikel K Poet, who will take his book on tour when he’s good and ready; Robin Slick, who will appear at the Epicon conference with her book, ANOTHER BITE OF THE APPLE, and loves attending readings but knows many writers are discouraged from going on tour because they’re not moneymakers; Jim Tomlinson, who would like to read at KGB and The Back Room in NYC (write me because I have connections at both) and recently read with a jazz band behind him, but in general, would rather stay off the road; Amy, who will one day be touring with her book about a teacher-student affair; and Alexander Chee, who has toured at all the spots writers dream of and reminds us “It’s not really about you as the person at all, or what you want, and so you have to let go of wanting cheering throngs at every single reading. It just matters that you got there and you passed through town” – plus, all it takes is that one heartfelt compliment to make it worthwhile.

And thank you to the Harper Perennial Lit Chicks (Sarah Hall, Heather O’Neill, and Emily Maguire), for writing such amazing novels and for sharing stories from the book tour!

*

Tomorrow, stop by to meet one of the very few writers to hear me speak my elementary Chinese! Hint: He’s not one of the three I linked; he’s the other one.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Slick December 1, 2006 at 11:29 am

Oh, how well I remember the reading to which you refer…I had the best time ever and wrote it up in my blog, and Sue, you are welcome to plan my daughter’s wedding because if the reading is any indication of how you plan events, you are officially hired — though hopefully my daughter is ten years away from walking down the aisle. Okay, five years, whatever. Anyway, I no longer have the photo of the inn where we stayed in that lovely town because I changed servers and even though I just checked Google for a new photo, I can’t find it…anyway, here’s my review of the evening.

http://inherownwrite.blogspot.com/2004/11/night-train-reading.html

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PD Smith December 1, 2006 at 2:10 pm

What a wonderful story! Thanks for that. By the way, if you want to read some more like this have a look at “Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame”, ed by Robin Robertson. It’s a wonderful book! Simon Armitage crystallises his most cringe-making moments into the poetry reading from hell. He tells how the coup de grâce is finding one of his books of poetry in a charity shop afterwards: “It is a signed copy. Under the signature, in my own handwriting, are the words, ‘To mum and dad’.”

Charles Simic recalls reading his poems to an audience of thousands in Macedonia. Unfortunately the mic was dead and few spoke English. But after every poem they applauded enthusiastically. As Simic says, “how much more can one ask from life?” That’s a writer’s life for you…

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Tish Cohen December 1, 2006 at 2:57 pm

I held a mic for the first ever this past Monday, speaking to HarperCanada’s sales team. I’d really only used a hairbrush up until then. As I was speaking, all I could think of was, “this is how Barbra Streisand must feel.” It made me lose my place a few times.

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Lance Reynald December 1, 2006 at 3:31 pm

awesome story!!

like “animal house” for the lit geeks.

yet another reason I adore you!!

xo-LR

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Carolyn Burns Bass December 1, 2006 at 4:30 pm

Lance said: like “animal house” for the lit geeks.
[!] [!] [!] [!] [!]

Susan, you may have covered this in a previous post, but I’d love to know why you’re studying Chinese. I took one semester of Japanese when I lived in Japan and it was quite a challenge.

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Gail Siegel December 1, 2006 at 4:55 pm

The Night Train reading in King’s Park was a wonderful experience for me, even though I didn’t read. In truth, it was the entire weekend that was so incredible. The time spent just hanging out with you and your family, tooling around the small towns nearby, laying around the inn, was spectacular. Although the climax, the reading was, in many ways, incidental. The whole context, thanks to you, was perfection. I’m so glad you made it happen.

And the NYT…my cousin Amy and my dear friend Richard — teachers both — on the same list! My heart can hardly take it.

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Susan Henderson December 1, 2006 at 6:09 pm

Robin – How fun to read that blog entry. I completely forgot about the missing innkeepers!

Peter – Those are absolutely great stories! I remember after the AWP conference in Vancouver just seeing stacks and stacks of literary magazines and indie press books in the trash cans.

Tish – You always make me laugh! Hey, why didn’t you link your beautiful new site?

http://tishcohen.com/

Lance – If you adore me, even if it’s just for today, all’s well with the world.

Carolyn – Mr. Henderson, who is a costume designer, was working on 2 operas in Taiwan a few years ago, and all of his stitchers were local, so he had to learn how to say, “Sew this to here,” and other useful things in Mandarin. He found the language surprisingly easy – it was not like Latin or French, where he could study it for years and not use it.

When he came back from his job, he started taking Mandarin, and coincidentally, Bach-Boy’s best friend (who was Chinese) invited B-B to go to his Chinese school. We signed the boys up, and when I’m not doing hall duty (“Boo yow pow!”) I sit next to Green-Hand in his class to make sure he’s writing notes and not doodling. The boys are in their 3rd year.

I have an absolutely miserable way with language and find that I have to empty out the French portion of my brain to store the Chinese there.

Gail – I agree, it was the whole weekend. And I think my favorite part was everyone reading the Sunday paper together, and pouring through that big book of writer photos.

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Betsy December 1, 2006 at 10:21 pm

Dang, I spazzed on the touring Q – not that I have any super exciting stories about that – my ‘tours’ have usually been ‘Chicago and New York’ with occasional and random other cities thrown in here and there – for me the best part is getting to see a few places I haven’t been. Plus it’s just fun to say you were at a book festival in Las Vegas and see the puzzled looks on people’s faces.

Anyway, your story reminds me, in a completely different way (ha) of the one and only reading I ever hosted, a Chicago one-time-only evening of the NY-based Happy Ending Reading Series. I spent a lot of time rounding up writers and a band, finding the place, etc, got some great local talent all the way around (Joe Meno, Elizabeth Berg, Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Sundayrunners), and set it up as a fundraiser for Katrina. Who knew it would turn out to be on the night of the final game of the World Series in which the White Sox would win for the first time in nine hundred forty-eight years. We raised a couple hundred bucks in spite of that, but… I’m sure it did much to enhance my existing and unprecedented nervousness – usually I’m fine at readings but I felt so responsible for the whole night! I was never so awkward on a stage. As though I caused our night to be eclipsed by the Sox series. Oh well. Everyone involved was a surprisingly good sport about it.

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Julie Ann Shapiro December 2, 2006 at 4:42 am

Susan,
Thank for sharing this special reading you hosted. Like so many of your wonderful posts I feel priveldged to hear about your life and what a life it is. This place brightens the week. When I need a break during work I come over here and feel like it’s a mini writerly get together and that feels so good. Thank you!

Julie

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Frances O'Brien December 2, 2006 at 10:55 am

I’m pretty new to the business of book launches. As my first launch event loomed I decided to get creative about the format; I figured that months spent with only my dog and a laptop for company did not best qualify me for a performance piece. So I contacted a drama student and she read (in character!) – it was fantastic! I would recommend this to any writer! There are lots of actors out there who would welcome the opportunity to get involved. Let’s all work together and stick to what we’re good at!

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Susan Henderson December 3, 2006 at 12:38 pm

Betsy – Great story about the reading you hosted. I would have loved to have seen you and Amy K-Rosenthal read! Even during the World Series!

Julie – What a sweetie. Thanks, Julie!

Frances – I’m so happy to see you here! I know a writer who regularly flies an actor around with him, and the actor reads and the author sits in the audience. I don’t know who came up with the idea of getting recluses to do readings and tours, but half of the fun is that it’s such a strange mix.

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