Here is the continuation of a report on some big-name fiction writers I have seen in person. It could be interesting, though probably it is not. In Part I, we saw Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz. Let’s see more.

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GARY SHTEYNGART and GEORGE SAUNDERS

I paid $35 to see the comic duo of Saunders & Shteyngart perform as part of the New Yorker Festival. This was in October 2009 at Cedar Lake Theatre in Chelsea.

They aren’t really a comic duo; I was just joking. They’re authors! Saunders has always been one of my favorites (read In Persuasion Nation) and I’ve loved both of Shteyngart’s novels. I was very excited for the event.

As everyone settled in, New Yorker arts editor Francoise Mouly made a brief introduction. She has a fancy accent and is very smart. “Oh, look, Francoise Mouly!” exclaimed a woman to her boyfriend/fiance/husband. “Yeah, it’s Francoise Mouly!” he responded with equal excitement.

At this point I should “reveal” that I attended the event wearing a George Saunders temporary tattoo. My friend, an even bigger Saunders fan, and Syracuse, NY native (like him), brought them with her. She had an In Persuasion Nation tat for each of us. Hers said “In Persuasion Nation” with a flower and vines wrapped around the lettering. She wore it on the inside of her forearm, near her wrist. My tat had a purple shape of the U.S. with the letters IPN in the center. I stuck it onto my tiny bicep. We felt cool, and I’d bet we were the only Saunders groupies in the house who had worn tattoos. But you never know.

Gary Shteyngart read first. He read a long section from his forthcoming novel, Super Sad True Love Story. He told the audience sheepishly that this would be his first time reading from the book, and that if it sucked, we should tell him. We knew that it wouldn’t suck.

The part he read from was about the main character, Lenny Abramov (destined to be another great Shteyngart Jewtagonist) bringing his Korean girlfriend Eunice Park home to meet his parents for the first time. As always with Shteyngart’s fiction, there was great dialogue.

Shteyngart did all the different voices of the characters quite well, acting out the lecturing father and over-the-top mother. People were in stitches, doubled over with laughter. Gary Shteyngart’s a funny writer. People came expecting humor, and they got some.

After Shteyngart finished, George Saunders came on to read. Shteyngart’s outfit had been pretty non-descript, but Saunders was wearing a corduroy jacket and a very “loud” tie. My friend commented that it was an ugly tie, but I wasn’t sure. It was certainly unconventional. The tie was orange and black and blue and red, with a white flower toward the bottom.

After everyone stopped noticing his tie, we were able to turn our focus to the story. Saunders was reading a short story called “Victory Lap” that had run in The New Yorker. The story was about a cross-country runner, which I liked, because I had been one of those myself. Saunders did all the voices, and performed them with even more differentiation and outrageous humor than Shteyngart did his. Saunders read very quickly, rushing through the story, making it exciting and frenzied.

If I were asked, with a gun to my head, to choose the better reading, it was the Saunders story. But both of them were great. The Q&A was uneventful, maybe because it was a New Yorker event. Most of the questions were kind of staid, except for when someone asked the authors what their favorite story was that they had done, and Shteyngart said, “Out of the two things I’ve written?” Everyone laughed at the person asking that question. Saunders said his favorite of his own stories is “Sea Oak.”

The event wrapped up and people filed out, but my friend and I lingered awkwardly because we wanted to show George Saunders our George Saunders tattoos. As we approached him, however, a woman who turned out to be Susan Sarandon slipped in front and introduced herself to Saunders. Susan Sarandon was with a guy, and she and her guy talked to Saunders for a very long time. They talked to Saunders for so long that a lot of people lingering, waiting to talk to him, gave up and disbanded. My friend and I stayed and finally, when we showed him our tattoos, he sort of vaguely smiled, though he didn’t laugh. We asked if we could get a photo with him and he invited Gary Shteyngart to be in the photo, which was fine with us. In the photo, Saunders looks pretty unamused.

This was a satisfying literary event and I’ll continue to read the work of these two funny dudes.

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RICK MOODY and PAUL AUSTER

I didn’t really hear Moody do a reading, but I met him. It’s one of those stories I no longer think is as fascinating as I believed after it first happened.

I learned online that Rick Moody, who wrote The Ice Storm, was participating in a “Twitter fiction experiment” with a Brooklyn lit mag called Electric Literature. He had written a new, unpublished short story, and Electric Lit, on their Twitter feed, would be publishing the story as a series of tweets. I somehow convinced my editor/professor that this constituted Brooklyn news, so he said I could do a story about it for our class website. First, I called and interviewed the co-editors of Electric Lit. I asked them about the project with Moody. It was not the most fascinating phone interview I have experienced.

Then I learned—lucky timing!—that Moody would be introducing Paul Auster at a reading at 92Y in Manhattan that very night.

I went to the reading with the hope of interviewing Moody one-on-one, though I doubted it would happen. When I got there, I realized the place was a huge opera-style theatre hall, with multiple levels and a giant stage, and people were filing in, and I thought, “I’ll never get access to this guy. He’s going to peace out as soon as he introduces Auster.” Just before the reading began, I had an idea. I told an usher I was “with the press” and wanted to get backstage to where the authors are waiting. To my shock, this worked. He pointed the way. I walked down a hallway to a door and knocked. A PR woman opened the door and said I could write Moody a note. I scribbled down on my business card “Rick Moody, I’d like to interview you for a brief story about the Electric Lit Twitter thing. If you’re around after the show I’ll be in a Red Sox hat,” and still felt there was no chance.

The reading began. Moody came onstage and said “I wrote all of these really thoughtful remarks, but I’m going to try and just sound like a human rather than someone reading a canned introduction.” People laughed approvingly. Moody said that when he thinks of all the best young writers in New York, “they are all people who have been lucky enough to sit at Paul’s table.” I guess Auster befriends promising writers, like Jonathan Lethem, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer. That’s nice for them. I’ve read Timbuktu and hated it, but read The Brooklyn Follies and loved it, so I guess it evens out so that I, too, would enjoy eating dinner with Paul Auster. And his daughter Sophie could come. She’s hot.

When Auster came up, he said, “I paid Rick a lot of money to say all that.” It was smart to kick off his reading with a joke. I wondered if Salman Rushdie taught him about doing that.

Auster was reading from his new novel, Invisible. As soon as he began, I was jarred by the voice, which was 2nd person (“you”). But then I was more jarred by the scene he read, which was about incest. It was a graphic night in which a brother and sister (biological, yup, no Brady Bunch stuff here!) have tons of sex while their parents are away. Penetration, blowjobs, all that. The scene is like a big sex party. They go nuts on each other, except that they’re brother and sister, so jaws were dropping in the audience. Auster read quickly, but without shame. He projected nicely, and he enunciated. He’s kind of old school, I’m not sure how, but he seems that way.

As soon as he finished, after a big sexual crescendo in the text, Auster read, “And you began your education as a human being.” He said, “Thank you,” and then quickly shut the book and walked off the stage before the applause even began.

Then the other author came on. I forgot to mention there was another author. His name was Javier Marías and is supposed to be “famous everywhere but America,” which makes sense because I hadn’t heard of him. When he stepped up to the podium, he did a facial expression that showed he felt awkward and didn’t know how to follow what Auster just did. People laughed in shared sympathy and relief. Then I fell asleep in my comfortable seat.

After the uneventful Q&A I waited in the lobby and sure enough, Rick Moody came out. I was happy about this. We interviewed for a few minutes. He struck me as pretty normal, maybe boringly normal. He seemed a little sad—his eyes are kind of weary and sad. He was a cool guy, though. He seemed to have the attitude that it was no big deal to be giving me an interview, even though I kept thinking, “This is a big deal.” I wondered how much my opinion of him was tainted by my having heard about all the drugs he used to do. Moody mentioned that he is close with Jim Shepard and Lydia Davis. I thought that was cool. After I interviewed Moody I felt good, so I bought a copy of Paul Auster’s new novel and had him autograph it for my mom. Later, I gave her the book as a gift but thought awkwardly about the moment when she would read that incest scene. Welp, what can ya do.

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These events were all fun. I like going to readings and if you are a writer or reader on TNB I bet you do, too. I’m going to keep going to readings, and maybe more semi-interesting things will happen.

The R Word

By Sung J. Woo

Writing

We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.

Writing teachers and how-to books tell you the same thing, that you are supposed to write for yourself. That you will never truly achieve literary nirvana until you free yourself of external validations. Which is true, but it’s a truth like communism: great on paper, terrible in actual execution. Because for most writers, the endgame isn’t the completed manuscript. There’s one more hurdle to leap, and usually it’s not pretty.

In order for us to share what we’ve created with the reading public, we have to offer ourselves to the few people who are willing to read and print our work: editors of journals, magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses. With the advent of self-publishing and blogging, writers no longer have to run through this literary gauntlet, but in order to get street cred (and who doesn’t want street cred?), you have to do it the old-fashioned way.

In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.” Easy to say for a guy who completed his first novel in just six months, and who shipped off his handwritten manuscript to a magazine for a contest without bothering to make a copy. “So it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever,” he says.

Murakami isn’t boasting here, he’s just telling the truth, and maybe that’s what hurts more than anything. He’s one of these lucky people born with talent, so much talent that he hardly has to try. In Paul Auster’s memoir Hand to Mouth, he refers to a mystery novel he published under a pseudonym, something he churned out even faster than Murakami’s first, in a mere three months. Or how about Stephen King, who blazed through The Running Man in a single week? In racing terms, these are the people who finish their 5Ks under 15 minutes and have so much energy left over that they run the course all over again. These are your winners.

And then there’s me. I’m what racers call a mid-packer, somebody firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. It took eleven years to get my first novel published this past April, which you’d think would wash away the feelings of inadequacy I’ve built up over the years. How wrong I was. Was it because I received a bunch of scathing reviews, the ones where the reviewer wishes he could travel back in time to murder me as a baby so he’d never have to read my novel? No, because I didn’t receive a single bad review, but apparently you can still lose in this game, because I didn’t receive enough reviews, with only one major newspaper choosing my book. Good reviews don’t automatically sell books, but the media attention certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, it’s an honor to have work critiqued by a professional. And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like what I’ve written matters a little more if somebody takes his or her time to analyze it and discuss it. Simply put, it is a sign of acceptance, and for someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of rejections, it’s a blessing.

I never thought my world would change with the publication of my novel. I didn’t expect Oprah to call me up or Ang Lee to option it for a Hollywood makeover. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a tiny, insane voice embedded in the deep crevices of my shameful brain that did whisper the possibility of all of that and then some. An in-depth interview with Charlie Rose; chatting it up with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show; President Obama holding up a copy in the Rose Garden for all to see. I really despise that voice, because it is the epitome of everything a writer, an artist, isn’t supposed to be, a materialistic, fame-sucking vampire. I wish I could be a pious, Zen master of an author who only cares about his words on the page, but I can’t.

Maybe it’s because I know my own limits. Because I know I’ll never be able to write with the quicksilver beauty of Kevin Brockmeier or pump out a bestseller like The Lost Symbol because Dan Brown, too, has gifts I don’t have. And yet here I am, turning on the laptop this morning like every morning, opening up my Word file and stare at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.

Many days I wonder why I struggle to write this second novel, trying my best (which we all know won’t be good enough) to get that next word out so I can finish this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter, this book. Often it feels like failure: the word is wrong; the scene is misplaced; the dialogue rings false. Delete, retype, repeat. I know this makes me a writer. And for better or for worse, there’s always one more story to tell.