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Reading #7: Dire Literary Series (Cambridge, Mass.)

When I read at the KGB Bar earlier this year, one of the other featured readers, Tim Gager, invited me to his literary series up in Cambridge. He’s been curating the Dire readings for almost 12 years, holding them every month at a small arts gallery on Prospect St. There is an open mic hour, followed by brief readings by the featured authors.

I was a little anxious to travel all that way, knowing that I would not be reading for long, & would probably not sell any (or many) books, but it seemed like a good opportunity to get myself out there beyond the Connecticut/NYC neighborhood. My in-laws live outside Providence, so I had a place to crash that night, & it had been about 35 years since I’d visited the Boston area (two of my brothers went to Boston College), so I thought it might be fun to check the place out.

I arrived early to give myself time to walk around. I visited some bookstores (including the excellent Harvard Books) & the Harvard campus, which was populated by thousands of young, attractive, smart, wealthy-looking kids. The weather was hot & muggy. At about 6 pm it started raining, & the skies opened up, lightning flashed, thunder boomed. But by the time the reading started, the storm had passed.

I was thrilled to see two of my MFA colleagues at the reading, Linsey Jayne (who lives near Providence) & Cisco Covino (who just moved to Boston). It’s aways great to have support from friends, especially at an out of town event. They both read during the open mic session, & did a great job.

I was first up during the featured writer portion of the night. I read the opening pages of Carry-on, and it was difficult to tell how it went over. A few people laughed here & there, but there was no obvious sign that I was making any kind of impression, good or bad. The other two readers read from a short story & a personal essay, respectively. Each of the three featured pieces was wildly different, not just in genre but in tone & style, which makes for an interesting reading.

This is probably my final Carry-on reading. There’s always more one can do, but I’m not motivated that way. I can’t stand sending out all those emails & queries about readings, reviews, etc. I’m proud of the book & I’m thrilled it’s out there in the world. Right now I have to move on & find a home for the next one.

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Reading #6: Westport Library

The Westport Public Library is an impressive facility on the banks of the “mighty” Naugatuck River. On the lower level is the MacManus Room, where readings and other events take place. There is a raised stage, seats, a podium, a screen for video projection. On the walls are drawings by Westport artists. It’s a nice room for a reading.

Some of my MFA peeps showed up–Elizabeth, Christine (who was instrumental in landing me this gig), Jane, Chris and Cisco. There were a couple of folks from the creative writing course I teach here in Ridgefield, and several locals who showed up to see what the author had to say. Among these was a retired police officer and former Westport police chief, a voluble gentleman who warned me beforehand that he asks a lot of questions and, as a former cop with 35 years on the job, he always got confessions.

I read for about 20 minutes, having chosen 3 sections from the novel that revolve around the mysterious carry-on bag. My hope is to get listeners interested in the mystery–what’s in that bag?–so they’ll buy a book. I sold three copies.

Although I’ve done dozens of readings over the years, and no longer get very anxious beforehand, I always feel a little awkward at the podium, a little bit like a fake. While reading from the book I constantly wonder how it’s going over–it can be so hard to tell–and am almost always sure that people are bored, restless, annoyed, offended. There’s a fair amount of profanity and sexual content in CARRY-ON, and I think twice about reading that material, especially in front of an elderly audience. Last night I tried to lighten the mood by recounting the story of my mother’s horrified reaction to the sex and profanity in the novel. I’m not sure it worked, but no one ran out of the room in a huff.

The library staff seemed quite pleased with the reading, thank goodness, despite what seemed to me to be a low attendance. They have a lot of events at the Westport Library, so perhaps they’re accustomed to small turnouts.

Reading #5 — Scribes & Troubadours

On Saturday, March 31, I participated in the annual “Scribes & Troubadours” event at the Ridgefield Library. S & T is organized by the local writers guild, & features authors and musicians sharing their work for an evening. Every year they have a theme, and this year’s was loosely tied to the idea of travel, so my friend and fellow MFAer Adele Anessi invited me to read the opening section of CARRY-ON, which takes place on board an airplane.

I was scheduled as the final reader/performer of the evening, which was quite a privilege, but also daunting after so many talented people had done their thing. These included a winner of the “Bad Hemingway” contest sharing a fall-down funny parody of Papa’s style, a moving memoir piece about traveling in Chile in the 80s, and an excerpt from Adele’s wonderful novel-in-progress.

I felt quite comfortable, despite all this, because I’ve read so often at the library, and it feels like home to me. Plus the crowd was warm and generous. I only read 3 pages, but it worked out perfectly, and I ended up selling 5 books to complete strangers–always a joy.

Earlier that same day I had a very different but equally great experience. I’d been recruited to teach a playwriting workshop to 3rd, 4th and 5th graders from the local public schools. There were 3 workshop sessions, with 3 different groups of 13-15 kids, each session lasting just 75 minutes. I went in there completely unsure of myself, never having taught kids that young, & never having taught playwriting. But the children were excited and motivated, and we had a great–if exhausting–time. We discussed the elements of plays–character, plot, setting, conflict, etc–then I broke them into small groups and each group wrote a short play about bullying. When they were done, each group performed its play. Fantastic!

Reading #4 – KGB Bar, New York City

The KGB Bar is a literary hangout in the East Village, a small, dimly lit bar with blood-red walls where writers both well-known & unknown are invited to share their work while standing at an oddly formal podium jammed into the corner beside the bar. After trying for weeks (months?) to land a reading gig there on my own, my publisher stepped in &, through a contact, arranged for me to read at their regular “Fizz” night, along with 3 other readers. It was great to be able to tell people I was reading at KGB & to get that reaction: “Ooh, that’s a very cool place!” I’d been to KGB when I still lived in the city, so I knew the venue, but it had been many years. Walking the streets of the East Village on an anxiously warm March evening–past the old landmarks (tenement apartment buildings, dingy restaurants, hole-in-the-wall boutiques) and the sparkly new architecture near Cooper Union & Astor Place–I felt both old & young. Old because I am old, especially compared to the hip young kids walking the streets around me; young because the city quickens the blood, sharpens the senses.

The bar was packed for the reading, which sounds great until you realize how few people it takes to pack KGB Bar. Still, the room has a great, friendly vibe, & I’m excited to read here. I’m up second, after Sally McElwaine, an old friend from our Writers Studio days. Sally read a funny story set in 1977, when the city was on the edge of financial collapse, & it freaked me out a little that 1977 is now 35 years away. It’s great to see Sally after many years, & to see some of our mutual friends from the old days.

I have 15 minutes to read. It can be difficult to choose the 8 or so pages to read. I don’t like to read the same scenes that I’ve read before, but have chosen to read a brief section from the opening scene, which people seem to like, & which has an energy that works well for readings. I then skip to a scene well into the novel, a section I have not read from before, & which gives an indication of how dark the book is, & also foregrounds the mystery of the carry-on bag. It seems to work.

Stephanie Dickinson & Rob Cook,publishers of Rain Mountain Press, are there with books to sell. Eight copies are bought, which makes them happy. Me too, though I wish some strangers had bought the book rather than just my friends. I can never tell if people are buying books simply out of loyalty, which is not a question when a stranger puts down his or her money for a copy.

The whole thing is over very fast. People mill about, many pass by & tell me they liked what I read. One of the other readers, Timothy Gager, who read a funny section of a novel about a therapist, invites me to read at a reading series he curates in Cambridge, Mass. We eventually slate the reading for September. It’ll be great to read somewhere new & foreign, & I really look forward to it.

Reading #3 – AWP conference, Chicago

Blackie’s, an old Chicago saloon, lots of wood and noise. A private room off to the side, with a long bar and a table with cheese, bruschetta, and meatballs in a scary-looking red sauce. A podium with a microphone masking-taped to a mic stand. Six readers in all, two published by White Wine Press, two by New Rivers Press, and two representing the Fairfield U. MFA program–Nalini Jones and myself. We’ve all been asked to read for five minutes each. How to choose three pages from a 230 page novel? I start at the beginning, cutting and pasting, and finish in five minutes flat. I don’t feel nervous, having done my conference panel earlier that day, which was my main source of anxiety. Still, I find myself reading in a strange monotone. Maybe it’s because I’m tired. But it seems to go okay. Nalini goes next and reads briefly, her usual professional self. Next is a novelist from New Rivers. She has decided to read form the middle of her novel, and so delivers a “set-up,” which lasts five minutes on its own. (I’m not using a stopwatch, or minding the clock–but I can tell what five minutes feels like.) She goes on to read a section that lasts several more minutes, then provides another minute or so of set-up for yet another section of her book. Then she reads another section. I’m not paying attention to the work. I’m pissed off that she’s monopolizing so much time. Does she realize she’s taking so long? Did she bother to practice? Did she decide, “Screw it, I’m gonna read for fifteen minutes”? Or is she just clueless? I don’t know which is worse. It’s a question I often ask: how can people be so unaware? I leave after the clueless woman, partly because I want to see Margaret Atwood’s keynote address, but also because I’m so annoyed. Anyway, people seemed to enjoy my reading, which is the important thing.  I wish now I’d pushed the book. I should have had flyers or something. I’m so clueless about this stuff!

Stuff Coming Up

Here are some upcoming events:

Two events at the upcoming AWP conference in Chicago:

First, I’ve organized & am on a panel discussing the ins & outs & ups & downs of teaching writing in prison. My co-panelists are Mark Powell, Chris Hazlett & former inmate Dave Winfield. The panel is called PROS AND CONS and runs from 3 to 4:15 in the Lake Erie Room, on the 8th floor of the Chicago Hilton.

Later that day I’ll be reading at Blackie’s, 755 South Clark St., starting at 7 PM. Also reading are authors published by two venerable presses, New Rivers Press & White Wine Press, as well as my friend & colleague Nalini Jones.

Later in March, I’ll be reading at KGB Bar as part of their FIZZ series, Thursday March 22 at 7 pm.

On March 31, I’ll be reading as part of an evening called “Scribes & Troubadours: Festival Provencal,” at the Ridgefield Library, at 7 PM. For details, click HERE and scroll down to March 31.

On Monday, June 11, I’ll be reading at the Westport Library at 7:30 PM. A book signing will follow.

Also, watch for a reading to be held at the Fairfield University Bookstore, perhaps sometime in March.

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Reading #2 – Ridgefield Library

I love libraries. I fondly recall the Canton (Ohio) 25th Street branch library, which I used to ride to on my blue Schwinn. I would leave my bike outside (unlocked) & enter the large, open room, usually headed straight for the “Film” section, where I read books about Kubrick, Eisenstein, Bergman & other heroes. In the basement they showed weekly films projected in 16mm on a wrinkled pull-down screen. That’s where I first saw DUCK SOUP, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, & many others.

The Ridgefield Library is an even more amazing resource. In addition to the usual library offerings–you know the books–they also show films, not to mention the tons of children’s activities, concerts, & readings. They are very open to helping local authors & musicians promote their work. I’ve done a couple music events at the library, & my writing workshop (I teach in the local continuing ed program) has held several readings there. So it made sense for me to approach them with a request to hold a reading of my new novel. Our local independent bookstore, Books on the Common, was kind enough to pitch in & handle book sales before & after the reading.

I was a little anxious about the event. I wasn’t sure how many people would show up. I’d done a pretty good job of getting the word out–there were flyers all around town, I’d sent out a million email alerts, & the local newspaper had published a long profile of me the week before, but one never knows if folks will trek out on a January Wednesday night to see some guy–another writer–read his work. Fortunately, a whole bunch of friends & friends of friends showed up to listen & buy books. Included were current & former students of mine, neighbors, & several colleagues from the Fairfield University MFA program.

Having recently read the novel’s opening pages at the MFA program’s residency in Mystic, I wanted to choose a different section of the book–not only because some audience members might come to both readings, but also because it’s dull for me to read the same thing twice. So I chose two sections that, while separated by many pages, work well when read together. They had actually been published together, years ago, in the literary magazine Skidrow Penthouse.

It’s a weird thing, these readings. Though I’ve done dozens of them, I am never absolutely sure how things are going over. Sure, people might laugh where they’re supposed to laugh, but that doesn’t mean the piece as a while is working. Even afterwards, when the audience applauds & people shake my hand saying complimentary things, I remain skeptical. Also, I’m always a little disappointed by my writing: “Why did I chose that word?” I think as I’m reading. And “Oh–I should have gone in that direction; why didn’t I think of that???” This, combined with my discomfort with attention & praise–in turn combined with my child-like need for attention & praise–make for a strange experience.

Which is probably why I look so dazed when people ask me to sign their books. We sold 16 copies, plus those copies audience members brought with them (all bought at Books on the Common)–a success! Thanks to all those who came.

Next up–a brief reading in Chicago at the AWP conference, followed by an evening at the hipster KGB Bar in NYC on March 22.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately

Like I tell my writing students (& as was told to me), you have to be a good reader to be a good writer. Here are some of the books/stories I’ve been reading lately.

Dana Spiotta’s great novel EAT THE DOCUMENT. The title refers to the never-seen documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of England with the Hawks (the tour where he was called a “Judas” during a performance because he had “gone electric”). While EAT THE DOCUMENT (the novel) features a fair amount of music references (one of the characters is obsessed with the Beach Boys’ doomed “Smile” project), the main plot concerns two fugitives from justice who, years later, are living separate, seemingly normal lives in Washington State. Spiotta elegantly shifts back & forth in time, from the early ’70s to the near-present day, using multiple narrators to chart the incognito lives of these two former Weather Underground-type activists who have not seen one another since they went on the run nearly 30 years earlier. Most interesting to me is how Spiotta withholds certain information (e.g., the exact details of the crime that sent the characters underground) for most of the novel, & also how she allows the reader to make links between the various sections without telling us where to look. I can’t wait to read her newest book, STONE ARABIA, which has gotten rave reviews.

Nicole Krauss’s novel GREAT HOUSE shares a lot of qualities with EAT THE DOCUMENT, especially its fluid exploration of time. Like Spiotta’s novel, GREAT HOUSE uses different narrators & leaps back & forth in time, but it’s even more ambitious in some ways because, while Spiotta clearly delineates the time changes (with chapter breaks), Krauss seamlessly wanders through the years within the same sections, often within the same paragraph, so that a character may start with a scene that happened today &, almost without our noticing, moves on to a deep flashback for several pages. It’s quite a performance. My only beef with the novel is that one section toward the end seems almost perversely slow to get to the climactic scene in which an elderly widower learns his late wife’s most deeply kept secret. Like EAT THE DOCUMENT, GREAT HOUSE would easily inspire, in a reader more anal than I, the creation of a chart on which all the far-flung characters’ relationships are linked, complete with a time line. That the reader never actually needs this sort of chart is a testament to Krauss’s clarity.

Another recent novel with multiple narrators that leaps around in time is Colum McCann’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, a kaleidoscopic love letter to New York that revolves around Phillipe Petit’s stupendous tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Chapters move back in forth between characters who directly observe the walk (including Petit himself) to those who only hear about it on the news as their own chaotic lives play out. Of course any novel that concerns itself with this particular feat is actually, in some way, about 9/11, & how the city’s diverse citizens go about their lives during times of crisis & beauty. It’s a life-affirming novel that, again, deftly weaves its various strands in a way that is not at all confusing. Also check out MAN ON WIRE, the fabulous documentary about Petit’s death-defying walk.

On the nonfiction front, I’ve been reading John Lanchester’s illuminating book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone & No One Can Pay, a sort of layman’s examination of the financial crisis that blew up in our faces in 2008. Lanchester makes the debacle as comprehensible as is humanly possible, which is to say that I now understand the crisis about 50% more than I did before. His outrage is infectious, & his humor necessary–otherwise my head might explode. Interestingly, just as I’m reading this book, Lanchester has published a short story in this week’s New Yorker. The story, “Expectations,” which actually appears to be an excerpt from his forthcoming novel (why do they do that at the New Yorker? Why do they publish novel excerpts when there are so many good, legit short stories out there?), is about a London “bankster’s” anticipation of, & reaction to, his yearly bonus. The story seems to take place in late 2007, just as the financial world started to boil over, & it makes for fascinating reading in tandem with I.O.U.

Reading #1: Enders Island

On the afternoon of January 2, one day shy of the first anniversary of my graduation from Fairfield University’s MFA program, I stood at the same podium where I gave the student graduation address, & read from my new novel Carry-on. I’d been graciously invited to read by the MFA program’s director, Michael White, & the reading was made an official event of the winter residency. What an honor to be the first of many FU-MFA alumni to share his/her work at the place where we learned so much about the craft of writing.

CB reads at Enders Island, 1/2/12

Enders Island is a small island off the coast of Mystic, CT, connected to the larger Mason’s Island by a 50-yard causeway, but miles away from the mainland in spirit. It is the home of the Fairfield MFA program’s twice-yearly residencies, two intensive 10-day immersions in workshops, readings, & seminars, punctuated by 3 (generous) meals per day & plenty of extracurricular activities. It’s a spectacular setting for learning, & I’ve missed being there.

As familiar as the surroundings were, I was anxious about this reading. I hadn’t expected to read in the Chapel, a large venue with a notoriously boomy sound system & lots of wooden pews that could, potentially, remain empty. And while a very good crowd showed up, I remained nervous before, during & even after the reading. Should I have chosen a different section of the novel to share? Was I reading too fast? Too slow? Did the book suck? I’ve given dozens & dozens of readings, in all kinds of situations & venues, & I remain a nervous wreck each time, but this one was especially tense. These were my peers, not to mention my teachers. I felt a certain responsibility to them: this needed to be good. I was so anxious that I forgot to say several things I’d intended to say before reading from the book. I wrote it all down, then proceeded to ignore most of it, convinced that it would be self-indulgent. In retrospect, I should have ignored my written intro & instead spoken about how special it was to be there, in that room, with those people. I wish I had.

After the reading, Mystic’s famous independent bookseller Bank Square Books sold copies of Carry-on, which I was happy to sign. I was also thrilled that we sold 40 copies–all those that I brought!

Special shout-out to Travis Baker for his thoughtful, hilarious introduction.

 

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Links

To purchase CARRY-ON, please go HERE, or HERE.

If you must order from Amazon (though I will receive less of a royalty, & I’m not fond of some of their business practices), go HERE.

For the Kindle version, go HERE.

To purchase CB’s first book, Squirt, please go HERE.

To read CB’s novel Shriver–a sort of unofficial companion piece to Carry-on–go HERE (it’s FREE!).

To purchase either of Chris’s CDs, please go HERE.

To purchase a somewhat bowdlerized version of the film CB co-wrote, go HERE.

To read a nice profile of CB, go HERE.

To hear CB interviewed on NPR, go HERE.

To see CB’s music videos, go HERE.

CB’s official website.

Thinking of dating a writer? Go HERE first.