Tuesday, March 27, 2012

John Wray Reading on the "L" Train Parody

Date: March 13, 2009
Author: John Wray
Venue: "L" Train
Free Drinks: yes, later a a bar in Williamsburg
Q & A: informally, yes
Book signed: NA
UE check number: 0864388

Clear Out to Canarsie – The taking of Canarsie Seven Zero Fiver –

I put my knife to the motorman’s throat and forced him, first out of the cab and then off the train. Then I pushed down on the lever and headed for 6th Avenue.

By the time I was two paragraphs into reading my new novel, I’d gotten the hang of handling the bullhorn I was reading into and working the train’s controls so I could speed up and slow down following the green and red lights in the tunnel.

The sixty or so people who had boarded the first car of the “L” train with me were listening intently. A lot of them were taking pictures with their phones. This thing was working!

As we approached 6th Avenue, the first stop, I managed to slow down and stop the train at the markers on the platform. Looking down the train, I saw that my editor, Eric Chinski, had overpowered the conductor in the back of the train. The conductor should have been in the last car where we expected him to be, but I saw Eric toss him out onto the platform, battered, bloody, not resisting, from the second- to-last car instead. There’s no sense even trying to launch a novel by taking over a train and giving a reading if your team can’t improvise. Way to go, Eric.

After we left 6th Avenue, I continued reading, segueing into the section where my book switches from first person to close third person. I also remembered to check the indicator lights to make sure the doors were closed before we left the station. By now, there were some people in the car who weren’t there for my reading. But menacing stares from my posse and the slight indication that some of the publicists from my house, FSG, were packing seemed to keep them quiet. Or maybe they were getting off in Manhattan and figured it wasn’t worth it to start bitching.

I knew one of the most demanding stations as well as one of the trickier passages to not lose the audience at was going to come when I had to simultaneously pull into Union Square and give readers a taste of my main character’s disordered thoughts. The platform at Union Square has always posed a lot of challenges for novelists because if you don’t line up at the marks right, you are going to have the last car or two back in the tunnel when the doors open. But I hit the marks smoothly and gave readers a sense of the tormented thoughts of my schizophrenic teenager.

I know that what happened after we got to Brooklyn has gotten a lot of notice. Note how nobody talks about how smooth my stop and take-off from First Avenue was. I felt as bad as anyone because it was my publisher who paid for the free beer at the bar right near the first stop in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg.

It isn’t true that I was sucking up to my editor when I decided to keep going. Yes, Eric always disparages the scene in Williamsburg, saying it’s like “Lord of the Flies,” but the real reason I didn’t stop at Bedford was I didn’t think the short excerpt I’d been able to read up till then was enough to give readers a full idea of what I was trying to accomplish. Plus, I felt I had an obligation to the passengers who didn’t get on for my reading. What was I going to do, strand them at Bedford Avenue?

Sure, maybe going clear out to Canarsie was an overload, but for the listeners who stuck with me, I think they’d say it was worth it.

There have been some questions about reading techniques while commandeering public transport vehicles at recent Authors’ Guild meetings. I just like to just start at the beginning of the book because then you don’t have to explain much about what’s going on, you don’t have to set up the scene while making sure the train is actually in the station when you open the doors.

The novelist who took over the flight from JFK to London said it was really dicey landing the plane while reading his third most important character’s stream of consciousness riffs on cricket. He said the next time he does a take-over reading on a plane it’s going to be a Boeing not an Airbus because the Boeing’s auto-pilot is better.

That raises the question of whether using a plane’s auto pilot while giving your reading is cheating or not. All I can say is that during my take-over of the “L” train for my current book’s launch or during the temporary capture of the captain’s deck on the Staten Island Ferry that I did for my second book, I was totally in command of the train and the boat all the time I was reading even during the sotto voce (SOTTO VOE CHAY) passages.

The novelists that are coping my style, my so-called competitors, I have to laugh. Lethem taking over that cruise ship to read the imaginary letters from the chick scientist who’s trapped in outer space to her boyfriend back on earth. Even if it was a real takeover and the crew wasn’t in it with him and his publisher, how lame was that? What are you going to hit in the middle of the ocean? You could read half of ‘Infinite Jest” without having to steer around anything. For his next take-over reading, I’d like to see Mr. Motherless Brooklyn try it in the Panama Canal or while he’s docking at one of the West Side piers.

Then there’s the gal novelist, what’s her name, who took over the Roosevelt Island tram for a reading. Sounds lame already, right? Roosevelt Island tram, total capacity, what, twelve passengers? Nobody wants to discourage rookies, but come on. Maybe the Roosevelt Island tram is OK for somebody’s first book of stories, but nothing more. Because if you lower your standards that much, what’s next? You’re going to get some beginner novelist, right out of Breadloaf, wresting the controls from one of those hobbyists at the pond in Central Park with the radio-controlled sailboats and calling that a take-over reading. I don’t think so. Not when I’ve taken my listeners clear out to Canarsie.

Seward Park Library Shocker !

Date: February 12, 2011
Author: Said Sayrafiezadeh
Venue: Parsons Institute
Neighborhood: Ft. Greene
Free Drinks -- no
Q & A -- yes
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- 1245673

Open Letter to the Prominent Writer (Said Sayrafiezadeh) I Saw Working at the Seward Park Public Library at 3pm, on Monday, August 23, 2011 after having attended his reading earlier that year.

Dear I Won't Out You (Until Now),

Oh, the shame, the humiliation. For this, I bought your award-winning memoir in hard cover.

Fine, it wasn't a National Book Award or a Pulitzer, but earning a spot on NY Times critic Dwight Garner's top ten list is pretty good, too. And the Whiting, that's not chopped liver, nor are the short stories in the New Yorker.

Betrayed isn't putting it too strongly. For this, I went to so many of your readings that you apologized to me the fifth time I sat through your story about flying to Paris right after 9/11 and not looking very All-American.

And to have to see you like that, in town during the dog days of August, working in a public library where due to cutbacks they have the reference librarians working the checkout desk? Maybe you're not all that? Could that "gifted, young American voice, sure to fulfill its early promise" stuff be hyperbole?

You can see how it calls my whole career as a reader of yours into doubt. What is the point of winning a Whiting, if you are going to work at the Seward Park Public Library, barely clinging to a computer terminal while about 150 Chinese kids wearing their orange day camp T-shirts jostle you?

It was like finding Keith Richards playing in the house band in a Holiday Inn at the airport in Indianapolis.

Is there really no summer writing institute that might have had you for these last two weeks of August? No, Hamptons or Berkshires, intensive memoir program or even one of those NYU summer in New York fiction programs with the wading pools in Washington Square Park?

I mean, in a more just world, the writers one admires should spend August in Tuscany? OK, you missed out on Italy or the Dalmatian coast, with that, I could deal. But do you mean to say you don't have a single friend with a house upstate who could put you up till Labor Day. Don't you want to spare me the spectacle I saw today?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why Daphene Merkin No Longer Teaches the Memoir Class at the 92nd St. Y

Date: April 11, 2008
Author: should have been me
Venue: 92nd St. Y
Free Drinks: no
Q & A: no
Book signed: NA
UE check number: 987378

Philip Roth, Daphne Merkin and Me :
What I Learned in Memoir Writing Class at the 92nd St.

These are some of the things I learned last March and April when I was a student in Daphne Merkin’s class at New York’s 92nd St. Y.

Merkin said “Philip Roth is no longer a good writer,” and “Most men are incapable of emotional intimacy.”

Grace Paley got off easier. “I have mixed feelings about Grace Paley,” while poet Mark Strand got a left- handed compliment. Merkin said he was a “dull poet, but a handsome man.” She didn’t temporize about Seymour Hersh. “One of my least favorite journalists.”

Merkin, who gained notoriety for her 1996 New Yorker essay about the pleasures of getting spanked, has taught the memoir writing class at the 92nd St. Y for several years. She is the author of a novel, a collection of essays and frequently writes for the New York Times magazine, where she is a contributing editor. She also writes for the New Yorker, Slate and the Bergdorf Goodman catalogue.

If the last outlet seems out of place in the list, Merkin thinks so too.

“A friend told me the Bergdorf Goodman catalogue was below me,” Merkin excitedly told our class. Merkin said she’d changed a lot of details in her story for the catalogue story, which is about the death of the dinner party, so that the person she was talking about wouldn’t recognize herself in the piece. “I didn’t think she would read it, but maybe her mother would.”

Merkin’s memoir writing course, “Through a Writerly Eye,” met six times in March and April from 6:30 to 8:30 on Thursday nights. It is one of the 92 St. Y’s “master” classes, which means that students must qualify for admission by submitting manuscripts, which are presumably read by the instructor. At $375 for the 12- hour class, each of us paid about $30 an hour to be instructed by Merkin. There were 12 students, three men and nine women.

The following observations grow out of my attendance at five of the six class sessions. All quotes are from Merkin unless otherwise identified.

Taking Merkin’s class was like being allowed to look in on a gruesome scientific experiment in which the instructor’s ego, freed from any of the customary restraints of a superego or some controlling administration, was free to thrash around the room. Naomi Campbell or any other free-to-act-out diva would be one comparison, but it was a class and we were paying for it.

It is doubtful that Merkin’s approach to teaching, blending a logorrheic stream of name-dropping and references to her career, her likes and dislikes, and her travel plans with what can be at best described as a casual approach to things like showing up on time would play for long at most colleges. If we weren’t treated to at least one name-drop or self-referential aside every 15 minutes, it was rare. Usually, they flew fast and furiously.

Nor would her laissez-faire approach to scheduling the consideration of student work fly in other settings. After all, one basic tenet of most writing classes is that student work is read and commented on by the instructor and the students. Thus, if one person gets twenty minutes of class time and another, two hours, there is a problem. Merkin couldn’t be bothered to allocate class time equally. Note: You don’t want to be the last one to go on the last night of a Merkin class. That was the woman who got twenty minutes.

“I don’t wear a watch.”

But the 92nd St. “Y” isn’t a college. Nor are all its classes like Merkin’s. April Reynolds’ advanced fiction workshop was sublime.

It’s OK to hold strong opinions. It was the self-absorption that was off-putting, the “as I said to my friend Kathryn Harrison,” or “ Roy Blount whom I sat next to at a dinner last night,” combined with the blatant lack of interest in teaching the class that gives a memorist of Merkin as instructor such rich material.

Merkin let us know that her important social interactions were elsewhere.

“I just spoke on a panel on Virginia Wolf with Peter Gay.”

“Brian Grazer, a director I know . . .” Actually, Wikipedia said he is a producer.

Merkin had trouble remembering student’s names and couldn’t recall who had presented their work and who hadn’t.

But one student said, as the class complained about Merkin’s late arrivals and lack of focus, that it’s always like this when you take a class with a “star.” She said film class at NYU with Martin Scorsese had been similar.

The Fifth class

Our second to last class was the best, or worst, example of Merkin’s approach. On Monday, emails were sent out notifying students that Thursday’s class was cancelled. On Thursday morning, emails were sent out saying it was on. I wasn’t confused because I didn’t get any of the emails.

In any event, most of us showed up. By now, we knew the one sure thing was that Merkin would not arrive for the class on time. To her credit, Merkin never missed a class this year. A former student in this same 92nd St memoir class told me that she just didn’t show up for classes that year. So even as I paint this picture of Merkin as a dysfunctional, uncaring, self-absorbed instructor, I have to say she didn’t blow off the class altogether this year.

At 6:45, Merkin’s assistant Lila arrived. She told us that Merkin missed her plane in London and was running late. But she was here in New York and was at her apartment reading the second of the two student manuscripts we were to consider.
Lila told us Merkin said she’d be there in 15 minutes, but added that meant at least a half-hour in Merkin time. She had instructions to read us an essay of Merkin’s from a collection called “The Reading Room” to occupy us.

But while most of the class members rarely objected to Merkin’s approach, this was a little much. The woman whose memoir was getting a quick read from Merkin said we should reschedule the class. The other student whose turn it was agreed with her.

In light of this rebellion, Lila called Merkin, moving into the hallway for privacy. They talked for about ten minutes. Lila returned to the classroom to say that Merkin was alright with cancelling, but if we did that, there wouldn’t be any rescheduling because she was going to Israel for Passover. That would exclude what would have been the seventh week of the class. Merkin was too tightly scheduled to squeeze in a make-up session any time after that.

That the chance of escaping from teaching one of the classes appealed to Merkin wasn’t a big surprise since she had said it be great if she could somehow get out of the last class during an earlier session. Lila’s news left the two writers undecided about what the best course of action would be. The rest of us were confused about what to do also.

At this point, the student who presented the memoir that among other bits contained some Ariana Huffington stories said we should just go through with it tonight. She might have had a point, but since the luck of Merkin’s chaotic approach to scheduling had given her nearly two hours of Merkin’s and our time in a previous class, I thought she should leave the decision up to the two writers whose night it was.

Minutes later the unlucky two whose turn it was that night caved. They asked Lila to tell Merkin we’d have the class that night.

At 7:30, Merkin arrived, made an apology and was about to start the class. But first, she told Lila to call an editor again and find out whether a reference in a story of hers he was working on had been cleared up. At that, Lila, said, “Are you kidding?” Presumably she meant that at 7:30, the guy wouldn’t be in the office or maybe it was the thirteenth time she’d been asked to contact him.

Merkin then joined the ongoing discussion of the first memoir we were looking at. She stayed until 9:10 that night, so while we didn’t get the two hours we paid for, we got more than one. Incidentally, the writer whose initial impulse was to reschedule got Merkin’s and our attention from 8:30 to 9:10. Would she have done better another night? Hard to say.

One mystery about the class is whether Merkin actually read our submissions in the application stage. As I mentioned, the deal with these 92nd St. Y Master classes was that getting into the class was a selective process. Presumably, the teacher picked the twelve best memoirs for the class. I don’t know whether Merkin read our manuscripts, skimmed them or how she selected us.

Merkin often had little recall of student work when as a class we reviewed stories that the writer said were either the same or a reworked version of their application piece. The former Merkin student who told me about Merkin’s no-shows the year she was in the class doubted that Merkin would take the time to read the submissions. She said that when she took the class, a few years ago, it wasn’t a Master Class. Given her exposure to Merkin’s teaching methods, she doubted that Merkin changed her approach when it became a “competitive entry” class.

If the class was less of a meritocracy that it was supposed to be, it would explain Merkin’s concentration on things that might have been taken for granted in an advanced class. More than once, Merkin went on at great length about M dashes, information we could have easily gotten from a style book. She also pointed out the linkage between reading and writing and said we should read a lot.

It wasn’t just me who felt like Merkin’s commitment to teaching wasn’t all-engaging. On the train ride home from a class, I suggested to a fellow classmate that we should invite Merkin out for a drink after the last class. This writer, a bit quicker than me in picking up on the Merkin style, said, “Oh, I don’t think that will happen. I think that would be a nightmare for Daphne.” I came to see how right he was.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Row, Dole Apologizes to Galassi"

Date: March 16, 2012
Authors: Cuny Writers’ Institute students -- Caroline Seklir, Destanie McAllister, Thomas Lin, Sultana Banulescu
Venue: KGB
Free Drinks: Depends On Lou’s mood
Q & A: no
Book signed: NA
UE check number: benefits ended

Just because a stupid idea works, doesn't make it a smart idea. The intersection of this blog, whose purpose is to get me a book deal, and Jonathan Galassi, presented me with a situation that I mishandled.
I should not have let somebody's title obscure the person. I just opened Alice McDermott's "At Weddings and Wakes" and saw on its dedication page "to Jonathan Galassi, as ever."
Odd that Alice McDermott didn't feel the need to trick Galassi into sitting down at her table and then hyperventilate about it for 1,200 words. She wrote a book; he worked on it with her. That's his job. The fact that he has administrative skills in addition is no reason to, well, you get the idea. I apologize.
I didn't want to not describe the other readers at last Friday's Cuny Writers' Institute. Destanie McAllister followed opening act, Caroline Seklir, with solid piece. The third reader was Sultana Banulescu who read from her story about a French teacher. It captured the feel of provincial town in Eastern Europe and the conflicts the title character faced after landing there.
The final reader, Thomas Lin, delivered a virtuoso account of Thomas Edison as a young man.
It's not quite true that Galassi didn't utter a single sentence to me. At one point, I told him that I knew some of the students in the Writers' Institute program. I pointed out one of them, Kelly Aronowitz, and said I knew her a little from going to a lot of the same readings. Galassi said, "She's from Mexico."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

His Kingdom For a Chair? My Date With Jonathan Galassi

Calamari Press Edges Ahead of FSG for "Row, Dole" rights as NYC readings Pepys Blows Galassi Pitch

Date: March 16, 2012
Authors: Cuny Writers’ Institute students -- Caroline Seklir, Destanie McAllister, Thomas Lin, Sultana Banulescu
Venue: KGB
Free Drinks: Depends On Lou’s mood
Q & A: no
Book signed: NA
UE check number: benefits ended

Andre Aciman holds the Chair of CUNY’s doctoral program in comp lit. Irish poet Paul Muldoon holds the Chair of the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton.

I held the chair of the second table to the left of the podium in the hope that FSG president Jonathan Galassi would sit in it. He did. Although a small press, Calamari has decent distribution.

I got to the reading early and took a seat with my back to the wall so I could see the bar’s entrance.

I threw my sweatshirt over the opposite seat. I was saving it for Jonathan Galassi so I could pitch him. Amazingly, it worked, at least insofar as he showed up, took the seat and I did pitch him.

Possibly, I sounded like a jerk and the coincidence of my seating coup was wasted. Still, I prefer to look at it as the struggle to get your work in front of an audience is like dating. It only has to work once. In the acknowledgments section of his book, Brando Skyhorse, this blog’s spiritual advisor, refers to the “yes” he got from his agent Susan Golomb. I don’t think Brando cares about all the “nos” that preceded it.

So here’s how I pitched the most powerful man in publishing whose name isn’t Newhouse or Murdoch, and probably, if you quality it by saying literary publishing, Galassi is the equal of the two owners.

I’ll let my reader, if such creature exists, be the judge of whether I made an ass of myself again. The fact that Galassi didn’t say, or have a chance to say, as much as complete sentence to me might be an indication that I did blow it.

In my defense, what’s more New York than controlling a bit of valuable real estate and using it to say, “let me join the club.” Anyway, here’s a rough, but accurate transcript of my date with Galassi. If I had any readers and if I could use FB or Twitter, everybody could vote on whether I screwed up my moment of access, if that’s what it was. But before I master social media I have to learn how to download James Marcus’ brilliant Old Jewish Man Shouting Mix starring Philip Roth’s MP3 as a ring tone. Only then will I worry about hashtags.

I knew there was a 50-50 chance that Galassi would show because some semesters, but not all, he teaches at the Writers’ Institute. Andre Aciman is the director of the institute. For both Andre and me, holding a chair isn’t our only gig.

I threw my sweatshirt over the seat opposite me. If anybody had asked if the seat was available, I would have said yes, but between the shirt hanging on it and my decrepit visage, nobody wanted it even as the room grew crowded.

The reading started and most of the seats, both at the bar and the tables were taken. Late arriviers were crowded at the room’s entry and the far end of the bar.

I saw Galassi in the doorway. He was looking for a seat. He started to take a few steps into the room while the first reader, Caroline Seklir, performed.

Seklir’s story took a while to get going, but it ended with a beautiful image of the wife and the mistress-au pair folding a sheet upon which the mistress and the husband had recently had sex.

I think what singer Patti Smith said about rock concerts, that the only thing that matters, like in prizefight, is that it end with a knockout, can be applied to stories. Seklir did this.

As Galassi started to look for a seat, there was an older lady doing the same thing and like a gentleman he signaled for her to go ahead. She found a seat against the wall to her right. I was now in Galassi’s sight line and he hadn’t found an empty seat.

I pointed to the seat across from me, moved my sweatshirt and indicated he should take it. He did. When Seklir finished, I introduced myself to him and said,” There’s a tradition in this bar that if somebody saves you a seat, you have to publish their book.”

Galassi nodded and smiled. I went on.

“It’s probably not enforceable in the courts. It’s more of a gentleman’s agreement, but I saw how polite you were in letting the older lady go ahead , so I think a gentleman’s agreement will work.”

Again, I got a nod and a smile.

During the intermission, Galassi got up to buy a drink and stopped to chat with the students and faculty members present.

After the third reader ended, I said to him, “My book, “In the Front Row, On the Dole” is about a financial reporter, me, who gets fired in the ‘08 recession and assigns himself a new beat, going to readings. Nobody has told the story of the older workers who lost their assets and their jobs. Now, I’m working as security guard.

“In the Front Row, On The Dole,” is a story of a boomer following his bliss, yes, but I’m also tiptoeing on a thin rope across the precipice of financial ruin. Nobody wants to hire a geezer trade press hack and if I tumble off the tightrope, my family will take the plunge with me.”

Again, Galassi nodded and then the fourth reader started. The FSG president might have been worried I was going to try to borrow money from him. As the last reader was getting going, Galassi got up, said goodbye to a few people and left. He didn’t say anything to me.

Nobody else took the seat. When the reading ended, I went to the bar and told Lou about what had happened. On the plus side, I’d spoken my piece. On the other hand, I’m not signed up with FSG and my seatmate didn’t respond even with a platitude. Maybe what I did violates some social norm that I don’t know about.

The first time I covered a tennis match I knew much more about tennis than about journalism. When a player hit a good shot, I was the only one to clap in the press box. You’re not supposed to. The other sportswriters looked at me like I’d farted. I hope pitching to Galassi like I did wasn’t an equivalent faux pas.

Then too, my friend Chiara Barzini, the Italian author and movie star, publishes with Calamari and I’d be honored to be at the same house as her.
(end Writers Institute: part one)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jennophilia Trumps Linsanity

Jennophila Trumps Linsanity
As Word Events Heroine Crosses River

Manhattan readings enthusiasts flocked to Housing Works last night to hear a panel
of authors read and take questions as a prelude to the honor of buying books from
Greenpoint's renowned events coordinator Jenn.

Authors of fantasy and science fiction, Myke Cole, Hillary Jordan and Naomi Novik held a discussion overseen by Tor.com editor Ryan Britt, while a restive crowd waited to thrust money into Jenn's hands for hard-copy books. The event was a co-production of Housing Works and Jenn's customary perch in the city's arts scene, Greenpoint's Word Bookstore.

The only trouble was Jenn was so busy that some of her Manhattan groupies, like me, didn't get a chance to talk to her on her rare author-event excursion into the city. I would have been thrilled to invite her for a drink at the nearby KGB bar, but she was too busy selling books. Simply put, she runs the best readings at the best bookstore.

To have been able to entertain Jenn at my customary watering hole would be a thrill on the order of Jeremy Lin calling me up and asking me if I wanted to play "21."

But, swallowing my disappointment, I walked over to the KGB bar where I met agent John McElwee, who had just finished conducting the bar's Tuesday Night Nonfiction reading with author Jamal Joseph. I immediately got into an argument with him over who admired Jenn more. John tried to outdo me by mentioning that he lives in Greenpoint and sometimes
contributes books to the store's stock. Not bad. I ride my bike in the rain across the bridge for Jenn's events like the time she presented Irish novelist Emma Donaghue to perhaps an audience of ten. It was Super Tuesday, let the voters decide who admires Jenn more.