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.