The cover of Bushnell's most recent poetry collectionMike Bushnell has been making Internet literature for years, and in 2007 he appeared as the force behind publishers Jaguar Uprising and Bore Parade. He also created an alter ego in the form of a professional wrestler called “The Industry,” with which he made promo videos wherein he wore his now-signature face paint and business suit as he screamed threats into the camera. Jaguar Uprising was a chapbook press as well as a sort of shock squad that challenged literary and Internet conventions, while Bore Parade specialized in parodies and tributes to the aesthetics of the publisher Bear Parade.

Adrienne Sharp reads an excerpt from her acclaimed novel THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF LITTLE K. Produced by Aaron M. Snyder and Megan DiLullo. Executive Producer, Brad Listi. Music by Goodbye Champion.

Last week, I went to my first reading in a while. It was Steve Almond, at Powell’s, with the candlestick.

(Wait. Scratch the candlestick part. It was just Steve Almond at Powell’s.)

I enjoyed myself. Steve was charming and funny and irreverent. Particularly heartening was seeing probably 100 people show up for a reading by an author who was promoting something that could be described as rock lit. As a fellow tribesman of that woefully underpopulated genre, I can now fantasize that someday 100 people might show up to Powell’s to watch me goof off for an hour.

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.

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.


JR: The following story is something I wrote for my first public reading, which took place Friday December 11th at Happy Endings Lounge in New York City.  The main character of this story works for a supermarket chain as a district manager, and this is her first visit to one of her stores during the holiday season.

OFFENDER by Jason Rice

Marlo listened to the Super Foods store manager, whose name she wouldn’t be able to remember if he wasn’t wearing a nametag, tell her that this was a good employee, someone who had been with the store for years.  Marlo didn’t nod her head; she just focused her eyes on Frank’s.  He was treading water and they both knew it.

“It was a mistake.  She just put the change in the tip jar.”

“Frank.  It was an unfortunate mistake.   She did it without asking.  Now we have someone out there in the world that thinks we employ thieves.  Do you see the perception this creates?” Marlo tried to keep her voice steady; this was Frank’s problem now.   She didn’t discipline hourly employees; she just made phone calls to store managers when complaints came into the home office.  It was a coincidence that she was dealing with this.

“She is very sorry.”

“Sorry is for old people and children.  The customer is now going to tell anyone who listens that our store ripped them off.  Would you come here if you heard that?”

Marlo stood up and tucked her cell phone into the inside pocket of her leather jacket.   She remembered standing in front of the mirror in her bedroom; she’d left before the sun came up.   She thought the white corduroy pants might be a mistake, the Versace belt certainly could have been reconsidered, but that decision was already set in stone.   The night before she laid out her outfit for a day of protocol enforcement.

Marlo had a list as long as her arm, each store manager seemingly overwhelmed by the business of keeping their stores running properly during the holiday season.  She thought about the mistakes she was going to have to correct and it made her mind wander.

“This is a learning opportunity for you, Frank.  Please.  We can’t put spilled milk back in the bottle, but we can, you know, stop it from happening again.” She patted him on the shoulder.  This poor man, she thought to herself.  The weight of this place was crushing him.  She left Frank to do his own thinking.

Standing at the last check-out counter she caught herself in the reflection of the automatic sliding doors.  As they opened and closed she knew the thoughts that were whipping through the minds of the employees of the store at the very moment they heard she was coming in for a visit.  They all thought they’d be fired, which was a good thought for them to have, kept them motivated.   She watched her reflection again; her hair was perfect, blown out and straight as an arrow.  Marlo knew that to make this work she needed to chew lemons, and never give away what she was thinking.

She watched a white haired man stumble his way towards the customer service counter, his hands shaking as he went.  Then she watched two women, one with sucked in cheeks, the other with light gray hair, they both desperately held onto the same shopping cart.   She wondered if they shared an apartment, a bed, or were just mother and daughter out food shopping.

Frank wobbled his way towards her staring at his shoes as he went.

“She’s in my office.”

“Who?”

“You know.”

“No.  I don’t.  This is your store.”

“She wants to talk to you.  It’s a girl thing.”

Marlo smiled and crossed her arms.  She followed Frank back to the office.  Earlier that day she had stood behind the observation glass in the bakery and watched two employees pick their assholes and rub shit off their noses, no one wore gloves.  The level of pain she could inflict…if she were heartless.  But she let it go.  She let it all go.  There were only so many battles that could be fought.

Marlo’s chest tightened as she breathed in and held the air down like a deep drag off a joint.  The office was now so small that she felt sick.  Frank’s coffee breath and this woman’s tears filled the tiny space.

“I’m so sorry.” This woman mumbled.

This idiot woman, asshole, fuck up, do nothing, Marlo thought all of these things and more.  She wasn’t sorry that this woman had to work in a place like this.  She wasn’t sorry for this woman’s luck.  There was only one way this could go.

Marlo let her breath out, and tried to find a smile that had as few sharp edges as possible.


 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience is back in New York City this Friday night!

Brave the cold and let the writers of The Nervous Breakdown warm your cockles with stories written expressly for you and read aloud to you (and only you) around the theme: HOLIDAZE.

Details: