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.