Monday, December 6, 2010

The God-Awful Truth About Readings.

Warning: This blog's gets name-droppy in places. But seriously, how else do you write about readings but by dropping some names? Is it also cranky? Yes. I've sat through a hell of a lot of readings in my life. I've earned the right to cranky.

Let's admit it as a collective culture: Readings can be deadly -- not literal deaths, no, because that would be interesting, morbid but gripping. I mean readings can be deathly dull. I mean held-hostage, no-end-in-sight cage of dullness. And usually the chairs are hard, the acoustics poor, the highway noise and/or ambient espresso chugging doggedly away in the background, the heating and/or AC busted -- rarely is boozed served before and during.

(Booze should always be served before and during.)

Here's the thing that anyone who's been to a few readings knows: Writers can't be trusted with a mic. There's something about the solitude of writing, of that voice bouncing lonesomely around in the head, that makes them love a mic -- the voice let loose and amplified in the world, finally others! As a result, they lose their faculties -- in particular the ability to gauge the passage of time.

Let me be clear -- a minute a page is not true. For a screenplay, maybe. For a tiny poem, not read in the labored utterance of an extremely old pope with NO intro on its inspiration and/or nostalgia for your childhood rickshaw business -- maybe. For prose, double-spaced, courier even, no. No. It's NOT one minute. Time it, I beg you.

So here are three stories. They involve: William Giraldi, Steve Almond, Jonathan Ames, an Irish poet, and Lewis Nordan.

Story #1. I arrive for a reading at Sanibel Writers Conference with William Giraldi, Steve Almond, and me. Three people, one reading, all prose writers = too many writers to be trusted with a mic.
Almond says, "Julianna, look, Giraldi's showed up with 20 pages to read."
I say, "What?"
He says, "20 pages. He's going to read forever."
I say, "I'll talk to him."
I find Giraldi -- now Giraldi is a genius, nickname of Closey because he talks too close to your face, but he wears scarves sometimes and eats apples and flirts ridiculously with the local NPR people etc ... If you're going to a conference and Giraldi's on the ticket, you're all good. He's part Julie Macoy part James Dean part I dunno Faulkner or something ... (His first novel is coming out and I already linked to it above BUSY MONSTERS -- and Giraldi is a very busy monster, whom I love with all my heart.)
So I walk up to Giraldi and I say, "Don't be the asshole." I don't really know him at this point, I should mention that. We've only just met that afternoon, briefly.
He's like, "What?"
I say, "Almond says you've got like 20 pages to read. Don't be the asshole."
So we negotiate a proper amount and it's all good.
See, sometimes you've just got to be straight up. And Giraldi doesn't hate me, I don't think. At least not publicly. He still takes my calls.

Story #1 and a half
Jonathan Ames (aka Jonathan Ames, the lead character in BORED TO DEATH) also read at that conference. I believe you can tell Ames an exact 29 minutes and 47 seconds and he'd hit it on the dot. Upon getting to know Ames, this isn't the impression you'd naturally get -- you know, exactitude, but he's a pro. And extremely fit. We have a picture of him topless.

Story #2. In grad school I went to a reading by Lewis Nordan. He choked up at the end of the story. It shocked me. I can still remember that there was snow in the story and a teacher and maybe a blow to the head. I loved him for choking up. Afterward, he said that it surprised him. He knew the story well, had never choked up about it before, and then there he was. I go to each reading -- henceforthtowith -- awaiting the reader to cry. He ruined me.

Story #3. There was this Irish poet and if Dave was here, I'd say, "Dave, what's the name of that tic-y Irish poet who read here a while back?" And he'd say, "Blah blah." But look he's not here and I don't have time to go sifting through my stacks ... the guy's uber famous and Irish and not Seamus Heaney. (Dave has all of the Heaney stories -- and they are holy. There's is much worshipful talk here...)

So this Irish poet up there and reading and always looking over his shoulder. There's nothing back there. Only a wall. Not a curtain, no backstage. This is a bar with a riser, the end. But he keeps looking back. And this tick made the reading really cool. Because ... well, it made you think, and then in Ireland this summer, we heard all about all of the Troubles again, in vivid detail, and we thought Irish poets should always read that way. Earned it.

Okay ... Tomorrow I'm going to tell a story about the best reading I ever went to because the woman was super foul-mouthed and had a slight stutter...

Plus a list of people NEVER to sit next to in a reading -- types and specifics ...

More to come ...