Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bikes, Books, Broads: Skyhorse, Aciman, Rushdie

Date: February 9, 2012
Authors: Granta "Exit Strategy" issue launch with Judy Chicurel, Vanessa Manko, Alexsander Hermon and Susan Minot
Venue: 192 Books
Neighborhood: Chelsea
Free Drinks -- yes
Lit Celebs Sighted: Brando Skyhorse, Andre Aciman, Salman Rushdie
Q & A -- no
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- 1245673

Poor Andre Aciman, I'm always accosting him at these things. I went to his panel discussion on long-form journalism two nights ago and it was deadly boring. When I talked to him after tonight's reading, he said he thought the long-form thing had gone well and I didn't have the heart to contradict him.

If my skills as a pedestrian suck-up are good, I'm even better when  armed with a bike. This is a problem for the object of my attention as Andre learned.

Having successfully dislodged himself from me inside the bookstore, he must have thought he was home-free. Andre was at the reading in his capacity as head of the CUNY Writers Institute, their non-MFA program, so I'm sure there were other people he was fleeing as well.

Whatever its academic merits, the CUNY program did put Andre in the position of having the director of his publishing house, FSG's Jonathan Galassi, on his payroll. Plus, Andre told me that Galassi and the other notable editors that work in the Writer's Institute make significantly more than the city's average creative writing professors. Eat your heart out, all you novelists at Columbia and NYU, the big paychecks are at the Writers Institute.

Anyway, Andre, a small man carrying a big backpack finally freed himself from the throng inside the store. He must have thought he was safe when he hit the sidewalk. He was walking quickly, but the heavy backpack made him sway a bit as he strode uptown. He didn't have a chance.

I was unlocking my bike from the pole in front of the store when I spotted him. Seeing my prey about 10 strides away from me and heading north on 10th Avenue, I pushed off with one foot while the other was on the pedal. I didn't even have to actually ride the bike to catch him.

I was by his side in a flash and telling about the nice rejection letter his friend Sven Bikerts at the journal Agni had sent me. Bikerts wrote me a note saying that although my story wasn't right for the magazine, he had enjoyed reading it. Even though Bikerts' note was just two or three sentences, I don't think I'm spinning it optimistically to myself when I interpret his few words as saying, in effect, "We're both writers. As a reader, your work gave me pleasure. What fits in this magazine I edit, that's a lesser consideration."

But Andre was lucky in a way because if there's one thing that trumps a bike pursuit and entrapment by one's groupie, it's the arrival of a bus. In this case, the crosstown bus on 23rd Street, which screeched into the stop just around the corner from where I was walking my bike and expounding on various topics to my poor, harried hero. 

I've always wanted to go into one of those snotty bike stores and announce to the tattooed employees, "Hi,, boys, there's two things I've never done, rode a fix and had it in the ass. Guess which one I want you to help me with?

But with the loss of Brando as an audience member, I had to make the best of the people who'd gotten seats. So after the reading ended, I said hello to Salman Rushdie who had been sitting just in front of me. During the reading I thought about some consequences of sitting so close to the Indian writer.
While its true the fatwa has been largely forgotten, I looked at things from the Iranians point of view for a moment and wondered if it was safe to be sitting practically next to Rushdie. The world is giving Iran all this grief about its nuclear program. They are always threatening to block the Straits of Hormuz, but according to some reports, the U.S. Navy could put an end to that with like a rubber dinghy and seven or eight Seals. Maybe in Tehran, some ayatollah is giving the order, let's take out Rushdie.

So just as we were standing up to leave, although you really couldn't go anywhere, Vanessa Manko, one of the writers who read, said to Rushdie that she had some people she wanted to introduce him to. When I heard that, I said to him, "Well, you might as well start with me. I'm writing a book about a guy who goes to readings so you're on my turf here, I hope you're having a good time."

Rushdie said, "Yeah, I am. Thanks."

"You don't have to worry about me interviewing you or anything. I overheard what you said about the Beatles being a band that started out doing Motown songs aimed at girls. This, compared to the way the Rolling Stones when they started out at least, were doing blues songs for boys. Not a bad theory, though there are exceptions." I said.

"Yeah, I know. It's just a lark, really." Rushdie said.

"Anyway, I can use that for some Rushdie material." I said. Then Rushdie moved on to meet other people.

If you have to settle for an quick interview with somebody when Brando Skyhorse doesn't quite make it into the store, Rushdie was an adequate fill-in, I suppose.

As for the reading itself, it was conducted by Granta assistant editor Patrick Ryan to celebrate the launch of Granta 118: Exit Strategies. Vanessa Manko and Andre's student , Judy Chicurel, read from their Granta stories. Vanessa Manko was Rushie's assistant and is, I think, the reason he was there. Both woman's stories were instantly forgettable so I can't say much about them.
Susan Minot went on third and read a short story about the Ugandan genocide that was quite gripping. Rounding out the bill, Alexsander Hermon did his slice of life from Bosnia during their war. Well, to be fair, he also does stories about being a Bosnian immigrant in Chicago. The best story of his that I've read or heard, which I took the opportunity to repeat to him after reading, was something he said at a PEN conference event.

During the that war , a group of six people were trapped in their apartment with nothing to eat. All they had was one potato. You really can't split one potato six ways. So all they could do was put the potato on the table and everybody just sat around looking at it.

So, anyway, after Andre bolted to catch the bus, I got on my boring mountain bike and rode home, still not having had it in the ass, still not having rode fix, and still not having bagged Skyhorse for this column.