You seem nervous. Are you worried about something? Unsettled maybe?
I usually am—worried about something—so yeah. I guess probably.
Just relax. You have nothing to worry about.
You seem nervous. Are you worried about something? Unsettled maybe?
I usually am—worried about something—so yeah. I guess probably.
Just relax. You have nothing to worry about.
A laundromat/coffee shop hybrid establishment.
We hear the sounds of a busy coffee house:
The hissing of an espresso machine, the clattering of ceramic dishes, conversations being carried on at low, and not-so-low, murmurs.
There is a smattering of applause—not the most enthusiastic.
An open mic is in progress.
The HOST of the open mic is at the microphone.
And our next comic is new to the room, and she looks a little nervous. So please give a warm welcome to our first female comic of the night, Lydia Clark-Lin, everyone. Come on, make some noise.
If you haven’t read part one, it’s here.
Now, the obvious question is: Why am I suddenly so twitchy about live audience behaviour? Apart from my stuffy middle-aged Britishness, there’s a specific reason: I’ve been invited to enter the Literary Death Match, and I’m fucking bricking it (that’s English slang, it means “I am extremely apprehensive”).
Something is spoiling live performance: The audience. I blame the internet.
When I think of runners, I don’t think of myself. I think of the elite athletes I see at races sporting just their sports bras and spandex shorts, muscles galore. These women run a marathon in the time it takes me to run a half marathon. They have sponsors and trainers. They have people cheering for them! I don’t have that. I’ve been running for five years, but I’m 5’2″ and weigh 155 lbs. I wear a size 10. “Elite Athlete” is not in my genes.
It all started in 2005 when a friend asked me to join a 5K with her. The feeling I had at that first race – the energy of the other runners, the rush of crossing the finish line, and the knowledge that I hadn’t walked any of those 3.1 miles – was enough to hook me on running for the past five years.
In the beginning I was only running about 15 miles a week, while signing up for at least one 5K or 10K every month. But when people asked me if I was a runner, I’d say, “No. I’m more of a jogger, really. I’m not a very fast runner.”
Recently though, I’ve been wondering: What exactly makes one a runner?
I mean, aside from the awesome body, I’ve got pretty much all it takes to be a runner. I’m a devout user of body glide, which I learned to use after an awful case of sports bra chafing that led to cuts all the way around my rib cage and prevented me from wearing a real bra for more than a week while the scabs healed. I’ve got the always flattering spandex capris, of which I own more pairs than jeans. I wear the ever-so-cool water fanny pack. I suck down those awful carbohydrate gels for long runs. I own more sports bras than any person should probably admit to owning. I subscribe to Runner’s World. I even read books about running.
And it’s not just the gear. Like the hypochondriac I am, I self-diagnose with any number of running disorders from shin splints to plantar fasciitis. I know what plantar fasciitis is. I regulate my pace depending on the number of miles I’m running. I talk about pace. I go to seminars about running. I worry about the amount of water I drink in a day for fear of getting leg cramps after a long run (and limit my alcohol intake, which, admittedly, was a bit out of control before I started running). I eagerly seek out the advice of other runners, with whom I could talk about pace and shoe fit for hours.
Then there’s the actual running, which has gotten into absurd numbers of miles since I started training for my first marathon in May (500 miles in 4 months!). I mean, really, who goes home early on a Friday night because they have to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to run 20 miles? Not normal people!
So why do I still, after more than five years of running, feel like I’m not a real runner? According to Claire Kowalchik, author of The Complete Book of Running for Women, this is a common problem among women, who are more likely to downplay their roles as runners, whether because of body image, speed, lack of experience, or fear of what other people think. But Kowalchik asserts that if you run then you are a runner. The key is to tell yourself that you’re a runner and see yourself as one. She goes on to say that one’s running will improve greatly with the belief that they are a runner – encouraging one to increase speed and performance to become an even better runner. In her book, she quotes Tim Gallwey, “I know of no single factor that more greatly affects our ability to perform than the image we have of ourselves.”
With that said, my name is Rebecca Adler and I am a runner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a factual, but overly cynical report about some well-known writers I have seen or met in person. It might interest you.
I saw Salman Rushdie read in Boston in summer 2008.
At that time I had limited experience with Rushdie. The only book of his I had read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It was assigned my freshman year of high school by a teacher everyone hated. She seemed pretty humorless and thus surprised us by assigning (and obviously liking) this “fun” book. But we didn’t end up liking Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The book involved a tap in a child’s sink from which teardrops of stories flowed. Conversations took place on magic carpet rides, and central characters included a pair of rhyming fish. The book seemed to be an inappropriate choice for seventeen-year-olds.
The Harvard bookstore sold out the church for Rushdie, and then allowed even more worshipers to stand in back. It was a hot, sweaty July afternoon. People were hot and sweaty.
Rushdie began by telling us about his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which is a fantastical story about—what else?—the magic of storytelling and the moving love affair of some royal princess and prince (or whatever).
“Much of the weirder stuff in this book is true, and the kind of ordinary stuff is the stuff that I’ve made up,” he said. Big laughs for that. As it turns out, people really like Salman Rushdie. People think he’s very funny. He busted out another snazzy one-liner when he told us, “I discovered to my intense delight that the Ottomans were fighting a war against Dracula. I mean actual Dracula himself, Vlad the Impaler. And the moment I realized that I could have Dracula in my novel, you know, without cheating, I thought that I’d gone to Heaven, really.” This, too, raised the roof. Rushdie cracked himself up.
Rushdie read a long section about the dashing male hero and the princess who loved him. I think. My dad fell asleep on my shoulder for part of it, and then that cute thing happened where I then fell asleep on him, my head on his head, which was on my shoulder. You know, that cute thing that happens?
I wasn’t out long. A description involving a tattoo (of a tulip) that the princely figure had on the shaft of his penis (!!) prompted me to wonder if Rushdie might be sharing an autobiographical detail. I wouldn’t be surprised; a penis tat might explain how this 62-year-old intellectual had managed to lure the objectively ‘hawt’ 37-year-old model/chef Padma Lakshmi into his bedchamber. But looks aren’t everything, and as we have learned already, Rushdie is a very funny guy. That can help.
In the Q&A, when asked to compare writing novels to a “9-5 job,” Rushdie said he has never been a writer who can get up early in the morning. “Martin Amis does that, Martin Amis gets up real early. He finishes his work by twelve noon, and spends the rest of the day playing tennis and drinking.” But who is Martin Amis?
One audience member/supplicant asked the Booker Prize Guru what he’s reading for pleasure right now. He began his reply by imitating the Italian accent of Umberto Eco (his good friend) who apparently said, “If it’s like my writing, I hate it. If it’s not like my writing, I hate it.” More snickers for the impersonation, with the biggest laughs coming from Rushdie himself again.
His first mention was of Junot Diaz (see below!). He called Oscar Wao a “wonderful book.” Then, to everyone’s delight, he said: “I just re-read Gatsby. I hadn’t read Gatsby since I was 21, and I just couldn’t believe how good it was. Really, there isn’t a bad paragraph.”
Audience members nodded their heads vigorously, like ‘Yes, yes. Oh, so true. He’s right!’ It was funny. But I liked Gatsby too. So Salman and I could probably be friends, hang out, have a good time. Right?
The final question came from a timid young female student who asked him if he had any advice for aspiring writers. He said the best writers that he knows all began careers in their twenties and were immediately successful. All had a certain drive. “If you don’t have that real thing burning in you that makes it possible to spend twelve years trying to learn to do something without any guarantee that you’ll ever learn how to do it, um, then, it’s a problem.” Everyone laughed here, though I couldn’t quite see why. I felt this comment was very serious. He continued: “The great writers have always known why they wanted to be a writer. They’ve always known what was burning inside them that had to get said. So, if you don’t have that fire, don’t write.” There was silence. “I’m sorry, it’s brutal, but it’s a real truth. There are, you know, enough books in the world. None of us in this room could ever read all the great books that there already are to read. If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing. And then it has a chance of adding something interesting to the mountain.”
After Salman Rushdie said this, I began to really like him. Rushdie has some good yarns to spin.
Salman Rushdie’s appearance in July encouraged me to go to another reading sponsored by the Harvard Bookstore. This time it was in September 2008, and the writer was Junot Diaz.
The same starry-eyed bookstore employee who introduced Rushdie marched onto the stage to deliver a chain of Diaz ass-kissing that was rife with strange phrases and mispronunciations. First she told us that Oscar Wao “met, exceeded, and exploded all expectations.” The thought of “exploding expectations” made me think of those YouTube videos in which people drop a Mentos into a big 2-liter of cola and watch it explode. Would Mr. Diaz be doing that on stage today?
She went on to note that the book won the Pulitzer, which she pronounced “pew-litzer.” No matter. She hurried off and Diaz began with some jokes about being from New Jersey and therefore hating Boston. I’m from Boston. Just get to the reading, buddy!
After only a little more stalling, Diaz revealed that he would be reading from a work-in-progress, a short story entitled “Flaca,” which is a Spanish word for “skinny.”
Diaz is a great writer, but as it turns out, a poor speaker. This will sound cruel, but I’m describing these readings in a factual way, and it’s a fact that his jilted reading voice was distracting. He read the first line of the story: “I’m not going to stay… [awkward pause] …long.” There was also some stuttering and visible nervousness. Surprising from an MIT professor who probably addresses giant lecture halls every day. Is Diaz the real Oscar Wao? Of course, you’ll only get that if you’ve read the book.
In addition to the problem of his reading each sentence with the same cadence, there were some verbal stumbles, like “You stood besides me.” (Incorrect, right?) Later, he read the city’s name as “News Jersey.” That could have been a joke, though, that was over my head. Maybe New Jersey makes a lot of news
But none of that mattered; the story was terrific. It involved a guy reciting to a former lover a numbered list that recounts his memories of their relationship. One moving line that prompted sighs from the audience came when the characters have a sad, serious chat in which they agree that they could never marry each other, and then: “we fucked so we could pretend that nothing hurtful had just transpired.” The sentence was blunt and beautiful. At the same time!
Once the Q&A began, it became apparent that the author only has problems when reading aloud. Fielding questions, he was unfaltering. He was also more charming. He acknowledged his public reading problems when he joked, “I know I suffer from this utter lack of affect that makes me sound like I’m trying to be funny, but usually I’m not!” He was right in his self-analysis; he did read with a lack of affect.
The vast majority of the questions asked were about the influence and presence of Spanish in the text. These questions started to get really old.
When one cool guy in the audience (it was me) asked Diaz what books he’s currently reading for pleasure, he delivered some cloudy references, mentioning “A Book of Memories,” a novel few had heard of (evident by the dead silence when he said the title). He called it “super-duper dynamite.” People smiled and liked him for his geeky enthusiasm. Diaz is an adult comic book geek. It’s cute.
Junot Diaz is not great at reading his own work aloud, but he’s great at writing. He seems like a cool, nerdy guy.
There are some other “big” writers I have seen, and you can read about the vaguely interesting things that happened at those readings in Part II. The readings in Part II are also more recent. Also, Part II has a photo, so that’s exciting.
This piece would have been too long if I had not broken it into two parts. Even broken up, I am aware that each part is already too long. Oops, sorry.