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DimeStories

by Susan Henderson on August 6, 2008

For all you NPR junkies and short story lovers, get ready for DimeStories! To tell you what it’s about and how it began, please meet my friends and the hosts of the show: Amy Wallen, a bestselling author who has been described as “Eudora Welty on speed,” and James Spring, who has, among other talents, the ability to laugh me out of every bad mood. (Including when I’m on-the-air!)

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Amy Wallen: Susan has given us this space to chat about our national public radio feature, DimeStories, which will premier the end of this hot month of August. I’m Amy Wallen, co-host with James Spring. And, DimeStories are compelling narratives that measure just three-minutes long. Whether fiction or factual, the best DimeStories are visceral – they incline the listener to laugh, or to cry, or to think.

James Spring: And it all began with my motorcycle.

Amy Wallen: Motorcycle? There were no motorcycles, James.

James Spring: I distinctly remember my KTM 525 EXC being the whole reason this gig got going. It was all me.

Amy: Maybe you’re referring to the sound of your voice reading prose. It is somewhat reminiscent of a glass muffler. But really, it was all me. DimeStories had a different beginning than what you seem to recall. Here’s the true story of my life before you and your microphone showed up:

James: [eye rolling gesture]

Amy: Four years ago, an organization called San Diego Writers, Ink asked me to host an open mic. Prose only. They’d heard me grumble about the open mic readings where anything goes. You know the ones—where there’s inevitably a reader who gets up on stage and reads for close to 45 minutes and you want to drink roach piss they are so bad, but you have to wait it out because your friend is reading next, that is, if this narcissistic memoirist will ever give up the mic.

James: I’m a memoirist.

Amy: Sorry about that. I mean, sorry about what I just said. Anyway, I told San Diego Writers, Ink yes, I’d host an open mic under one condition: a time-limit. Only 3 minutes.

James: Tell how you came up with that idea of 3 minutes, so we can get to the part about my motorcycle.

Amy: I’m a writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute

James: William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaantje, Marilynne Robinson? You hang with those big time folks? Pulitzer Prize winners and National book award fellows? Are you sure they don’t have you confused with another more literary Amy? Maybe they think you’re Amy Hempel.

Amy: No, she’s there too. I think it’s a diversity thing—

James: You’re their token redneck.

Amy: Anyway…they do a student reading every summer where each student has only 3 minutes. I thought it was brilliant, so I stole the idea.

James: Don’t you steal all your ideas? You’re like a writer pickpocket.

Amy: Whatever. This isn’t about my life of crime.

James: Apparently it is all about you though.

Amy: This is about how I became known as the Time Dominatrix.

James: Please don’t torture us with that visual of you in your leathers.

Amy: Everyone balked at the 3 minutes.

James: I didn’t balk at the 3 minutes. I have always kept my readings under three minutes at all the DimeStories Live events.

Amy: That’s right, you figured out a better way to get more than your fair share of the spotlight. You showed up with your fancy microphone that no one’s allowed to touch, along with that roll of hunter-vest orange tape to keep the cords in place. You told everyone something about how you were going to do an NPR show about us. You thought you were becoming a radio star.

James: I was already a radio star. At least I had all the equipment, but I got my break on This American Life, and I got friendly with Jay Allison producer of This I Believe, and that’s where my motorcycle comes in.

Amy: No motorcycle yet. But for the last 4 years, every month in San Diego I’ve been hosting the prose-only Open Mic on the first Friday of the month—DimeStories Live. In the beginning, probably for the first year, maybe even two, I had to inflict several lashings with my cat-o-nine tails before folks believed that I meant it about the 3 minutes. Or maybe writers are just sadists. But soon everyone came to realize it benefited us all.

James: You mean, you had everyone scared into submission.

Amy: Whatever it takes. The pieces were tight, the evening fast paced, strong writers found their voices. And a special bonus, the bad readers are off the stage in 3 minutes.

James: Maybe you should have an even shorter time limit for bad writers.

Amy: Now that you’re a radio star, you’re such a writing snob. Three minutes is just enough time to get a complete story in. Don’t believe it? It happens every month over and over in San Diego.

James: I’m going to talk about my motorcycle now.

Amy: No. I have more. DimeStories Open Mic became so popular that last year we produced a compilation Best of CD.

James: That’s when my motorcycle showed up!

Amy: Jay Allison, This I Believe host and producer from Atlantic Public Media, heard a few pieces off the CD and he suggested we do a radio show.

James: That’s supposed to be my line. This isn’t all about you, you know.

Amy: Okay, you’d had a few pieces on NPR and had been schmoozing with the likes of Jay Allison and Ira Glass. You were always sending out some email about some NPR show you were going to be on. “Listen on this day…” Blah, blah, blah.

James: This is why nobody likes you. You’re lucky I offered to let you be famous with me.

Amy: If it weren’t for my timer and my disciplined hostessing of the open mic, DimeStories would never exist. You’d be limping around asking folks if they’d like a free copy of your memoir about being a stripper in Guatemala. Or was it a gaucho in Bolivia?

James: You talk big for someone with so little to say. One little LA Times bestseller and suddenly you’re like… Truman Capote. But with a more grating voice. That book ruined you.

Amy: MoonPies and Movie Stars, which just came out in paperback in June, by the way. But none of that matters, we’re radio stars now. We never have to write another word.

James: I’ve been doing public radio for three years now, which is, of course, very, very sexy, And it’s as decadent as you’d imagine. I think it was Robert Siegel who summed up the whole NPR party vibe in two words. “hookers” and “heroin.”

Amy: You’ve done This American Life, Stories from The Heart of the Land—little shows like that. You’re like a rap star.

James: I’m like MC NPR.

Amy: Give ‘em the motorcycle story…

James: Finally. Last winter I rode motorcycles in Baja with Jay Allison and he heard the CD compilation from our live events in San Diego, and he said, “this would make a great radio show.”

Amy: That was it? You were excited to tell THAT story.

James: What?

Amy: That’s the least compelling story I’ve ever heard.

James: What do you want? It’s the story of how you got invited to be on the radio. You weren’t going to be invited any other way.

Amy: I’m certain that it’s because of my deep resonating voice that I’m co-hosting. Or maybe it’s just the way I look on radio.

James: You can wear your leathers on radio. It’s safe for our eyes.

Amy: Well, I will definitely bring my timer and whip and make sure the pieces we select for the radio show don’t go over 3 minute limit. That’s why I like what we are doing—inspired by This I Believe pieces, DimeStories will be 3-minute stories inside a 1-minute candy-coated co-hosting.

James: These capsules of story will be used in various ways—when a program manger needs to fill a small time slot after All Things Considered, say, or MarketPlace.

Amy: Maybe This American Life is working on a show with the theme Eyebrow Threading, and we just happen to have the perfect piece.

James: What are you going to buy with all the money from the public radio gig? I’d like to buy a hyena.

Amy: Hyenas are good pets—if you don’t like upholstery. Me, I’m going to pay someone to write another novel for me so that I can quit thinking the first one was fluke.

James: People inside my head have been asking about the Oscars, for public radio, and what I would wear, and if I would have to attend with you, or my wife, or if, maybe I could bring hookers. What will you wear?

Amy: I’m going to wear my leathers, of course.

James: Where will you put your Public Radio Oscar trophy?

Amy: I believe on public radio it’s NOT an Oscar, James. It’s called an Elmo.

James: Speaking of… I hold in my left hand an envelope from Mr. Jay Allison. I bet it’s our first check.

Amy: Or a signing bonus.

James: It’s a letter. And it says, “James & Amy, we were able to get enough funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to greenlight the first two shows. We’ll have just enough money to pay writers, and for some studio time and production…”

Amy:

James:

Amy: What does that mean?

James: I think it means that we don’t get paid.

Amy: Wow.

James: I heard they treated the Muppets the same way.

Amy: Figures. You’re just like Kermit.

James: And you’re like Miss-

Amy: -Don’t even think it.

The first season of DimeStories is in production, with stories by Lydia Davis, Jack Handey, Susan Henderson, Elizabeth Crane, Richard Rodriguez, Emil Wilson, Meredith Resnick, Katharine Weber, and more… For info about submission guidelines, the radio show, and the live traveling showcase events, visit www.DimeStories.org.

*

P.S. A shout out to Denis, owner of the KGB Bar, for hosting the NYC DimeStories reading!

*

BIOS:

JAMES R. SPRING has lived much of his adult life in Latin America. From slumming as a charter boat captain, to running contraband across borders, his careers have taken him to some of the most remote pockets on the planet. He has contributed to This American Life, heard on National Public Radio, and has been featured in radio expeditions for Atlantic Public Media on NPR. His radio assignments have ranged from ‘embedding’ with the Minutemen at the border, to covering the Baja 1000 off-road race – to motorcycling solo through Mexico’s Sierra Madre where he recorded his experiences with Tarahumara drug traffickers. He previously served as a foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers. He resides in San Diego.

AMY WALLEN has received rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times for her best-selling novel, MoonPies and Movie Stars, which reached #10 on the bestseller list. Amy is a writer-in-residence at NYSTate Summer Writers Institute, and she also lectures and teaches creative writing across the country, including the University of California, San Diego Extension, as well as private workshops. In addition to writing book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, Amy is the host of DimeStories Live, a popular monthly prose open-mic night and showcase reading series. Her third novel will be published by Hyperion.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

amylizwrites August 6, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Susan, Thanks for making my thighs and hips look so thin by posting that anonymous dominatrix photo beneath my headshot. How much do I owe you for that???

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aimeepalooza August 6, 2008 at 6:30 pm

You guys are like an old married couple. I cannot wait to listen to the show and find out if there will be a reading in Ann Arbor.

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amylizwrites August 6, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Ann Arbor is a great literary town! Do you connect in any way with the MFA program there? You get us a venue, a microphone, and a whole pile of an audience and we just might show up on your doorstep. Oh, and I’ll need one or two of those beers that I hear you sling. James just drinks turpentine–it helps with his radio voice.

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aimeepalooza August 6, 2008 at 8:00 pm

Sadly, my only connection to the MFA program is that I made out with a guy
who graduated from it. However, I might be able to arrange for a venue. I
will supply you with all the beer you can handle and I’m pretty sure I have
some turpentine for James! If not, I bet a lot of bourbon and smoking would
do the trick. Let me get to work on the venue thing.

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amylizwrites August 6, 2008 at 8:15 pm

It might be a good test of your making out abilities to see if the guy might be able to hook you up with the right people. Someone who skydives must be a good kisser.

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SusanHenderson August 6, 2008 at 9:01 pm

That’s James with the whip. He was thrilled to get out from behind the boom mic and dress up!

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SusanHenderson August 6, 2008 at 9:04 pm

Aimee, I agree they have great chemistry. Amy, I know you guys are planning to hit Chicago. Anything else on your schedule?

I know tons of folks are en route to the Backspace conference right now, and I’ll be there tomorrow if I can get my voice back in time. Have had a killer sore throat for over a week now. Anyway, if you’re wondering where lots of regulars are, I think that might explain things.

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waterbucks August 7, 2008 at 2:27 am

I’m a huge fan of Firs… I mean DimeStories and will be tuning in to here you two crack that whip, rev that engine and get us to that sweet spot in three minutes… again and again!

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Aurelio August 7, 2008 at 9:49 am

Wow, it’s like a literary “Short Attention Span Theater.” Warhol said we’d get 15 minutes, but he’s like, so yesterday, kinda creepy (apologies to Lance), and apparently never met Amy. 3 is better in this age of texting and multi-tasking, I suppose.

If that really is James in the leather, he’s got pretty good gams, but it must be hard to ride his motorcycle in those kinky boots.

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aimeepalooza August 7, 2008 at 5:11 pm

I am totally a good kisser but he’s not emailing back? Maybe he’s gay???? If he is, not my fault the making out didn’t work.

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Heather_Fowler August 8, 2008 at 10:08 am

As a local San Diegan who goes to their monthly live reading and LOVES it, (Sorry I missed last time, Amy! Don’t beat me. I’ll bring the doctor’s note to the next one ) I can tell you from experience that Amy does not joke with that 3 minute rule. Seriously, she is the golden queen of timer-land. If you are too careless to prune your piece, from direct experience, here’s how it goes:

You stand before the mic. You’re reading. Your 180 seconds are up. The timer starts to go off. Oh [random expletive], you think. You look at the audience, but they know they can’t save you… You hear her footsteps getting closer, ever closer… Your palms sweat. You scan your lines. The last sentence of your piece either hangs in mid-air or becomes the fastest chipmunk-esque record playing version of what it was that you can imagine. Click, click, click (her shoes)–beee-eeep, beeee-eep, beee—eeep (the timer). You stare out at the audience, wondering what to do–but they know. Sit down, you fool, their eyes beseech. Hurry! Do right thing quickly please, seem to say—make a graceful exit– don’t you see her behind you, or at your right, or wherever she may be this night, but getting rapidly getting nearer??

And so you sit, just after you say, “Thank you,” into the mic and flee. But if you did things right, or at least did not screw up too badly, you feel quite smug that you got to your seat before she got to you–as if her having reached you and touched you would have made real your unforgiveable use of 5 or 10 (Oh my GOD, did you go 34 seconds over?! No way? And lived?) extra seconds, but because you managed to get your booty down before inspiring true ire, it would all be okay… You could live a long life. You could then breathe easy. Amy still loved you. Maybe. You hoped. I hope you know I am cracking up as I write this. But folks, really, I love to watch how new people handle any lack of completion (though the regulars are trained). Here are the top 5 ways I’ve seen people end their readings that demonstrate Amy’s excellent control of the time. Amy, this is for you. Hope it amuses:

1. BEST OPTION: They finish their sentence, look around at those gathered with a mournful look because they brought too much, and then say, “Thank you,” very humbly, and sit down.

2. SECOND BEST: They peruse the last half a page they brought that there is no way they will get into the slot, then mention under their breath how they screwed up or how they’ll read the rest next time. Then they sit down.

3. A BIT TORTUROUS, especially if there are more than two sentences to go: They read really, really fast to get to the end. I have never heard a forest on fast-forward until attending this reading.

4. OKAY: They sit down immediately, but look so sad it’s almost heartbreaking. Were they out on their first little reading excursion into the cruel world? Oh, broken doves! Oh, the sad crrooo-coo of your untimely conclusion.

or

5. THE TRAINWRECK–they keep reading and reading, trying to pretend that Amy is not coming. They don’t even speed up since they are either arrogant or stubbornly insistent– and there is clearly at least a paragraph to go so they are in abject denial that there even is a timer. Timer? What timer? But what they don’t realize is: The audience does not care about that last paragraph. The audience salivates, awaiting the entry of the gladiator, far more interested in Amy’s approach on the reader than in the rest of whatever they so obstinately read. What will happen next?

Amy nears. Amy hovers. We all sit in delicious mock fear. With the greatest aplomb of the terminally rude reader, this person finally concludes. The audience waits. What will Amy say? It is actually a delicious sort of moment when we wonder what she will come out with because she must berate them in some way, for they were rude. They need that punishment! But, she must provide it in a way that is both regal and fair.

She regains control through a nice triple verbal flip with a sassy twist, stuck landing, followed by smirk, “Okay, next time when you read…” she might say. “You need to remember that three minutes is always three minutes here. It is a finite measure of time.”

She is adorable. Still, must they make her work so hard? Must they? *grins* Awww, we love it. We love her. Truly, it’s really quite hot how she cuts you off, punishes, and demeans you. All this, and then, as abovementioned, a witty transition and distracting joke to focus your attention elsewhere. LOL!

(As an aside: People pay big money for that, you know? She should charge.)

Ha. And James, well, what a doll. And a joy to hear read, of course. Anyway, I just had to chime in here. That is a fun reading. Nothin’ but love, Amy and James,
xo,
H

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Betsy August 8, 2008 at 10:24 am

Super fun, guys!

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SusanHenderson August 8, 2008 at 11:31 am

Ha!! I would go just for the drama! I’ll definitely be at one of those San Diego reading some day.

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SusanHenderson August 8, 2008 at 11:32 am

Hey, Betsy!

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SusanHenderson August 8, 2008 at 11:32 am

Any mention of Andy Warhol, good or bad, is a great plug for Lance’s book.

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SusanHenderson August 8, 2008 at 11:33 am

Welcome! And let me link your MySpace page here so everyone can come and pester you.

http://www.myspace.com/waterbucks

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Betsy August 8, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Hi Sue!

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Heather_Fowler August 8, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Sweet! Let me know if you’re ever about to blow into town. ;) I’d love to get together. You going to AWP this year? I will be there and am hoping to meet many writer friends in person! xo, H

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass August 11, 2008 at 8:33 am

That does it. I’ve been wanting to join the San Diego writing scene ever since I read James and Amy’s first interview here at LitPark. Will you guys bust me from the place because I’m not from the Big Sandie? (I am a not-so-hipster from the Inland Empire’s 951.)

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