I was fortunate enough to read with all of the above last night up in Harrison, New York—two stops after Larchmont on the New Haven line—in a series called SPOKEN INTERLUDES created and run by DeLaune Michel.
Usually I’m asked to read my poetry, but this series is for writers of prose, so when asked what I’d be reading from, rather than naming some prose piece in my two books from Black Sparrow press (IT’S NOT NOSTALGIA and IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE), I decided to read from a memoir I’m working on, thinking that might force me to get more work done on it than otherwise.
It turned out to be a unique experience for me, which is saying a lot, since I’ve read at and attended thousands and thousands of readings all over the world since the 1950s (!). But I never encountered this format.
People paid thirty dollars for a very good dinner in a back room of a very nice restaurant (Trinity Grill & Bar) that they enjoyed from 6 to 7:30. Then Delaune stepped up onto a riser with a lectern and microphone to introduce the first reader, with no fanfare, just the name, in this case Susan Cheever.
What she did, as we were all asked to do, was make a few remarks about her latest book, AMERICAN BLOOMSBURY, then read a few pages from it, and then take a few questions.
It’s a great format, almost like watching an author at work. She talked about her interest in “genius clusters”—like “the Founding Fathers” or the “Bloomsbury group” or in the case of her book “the Concord group” which she pointed out, in response to questions from the audience, had more authors than Bloomsbury, and was the result of basically one man’s efforts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, because he provided the living quarters and in some cases the financial support for people like Thoreau and Hawthorne to do their work.
The audience was mostly middle aged and older, fifty or sixty people, almost all “white” if I noticed accurately, attentive, with smart questions that inspired terrific responses.
It worked so well for me, I couldn’t wait to read the book. And then it was my turn. Since the only recent book I had for sale there (through the local Borders, which had a table at the event) was MARCH 18, 2003, a long poem, and I was reading prose from an unpublished, unfinished, unedited manuscript, the format actually made me more at ease than I normally would be in taking such a risk.
I meant it to be risky, to make me think about what I was writing, and to be ready to test it and maybe fail at capturing and keeping the attention of such an aware crowd. But because I could explain a lot of that and then read a little and then answer questions regarding what I had read, delving even deeper into where I mean to go with this book (or books), it made me more alert and responsive to the audience even than I usually am.
It felt great, except I walked off the stage too quickly when I was finished, pulling out the lapel mic used for the recordings that will eventually be found on the web site for SPOKEN INTERLUDES.
Next was Jennifer Egan, a strikingly attractive woman. I’m not good at guessing ages, especially of women, but she was definitely the youngest in this crowd of writers.
She read from THE KEEP, a kind of updated gothic style novel, and surprised me by having her characters use the kind of foul language some (okay a lot) of my writing has often been noted for, but I was sure not to use with this crowd. But she looked beautiful reading it, so no one took offense I’m sure, if anyone even still does at that kind of thing.
She made a very interesting point in the Q&A, when asked about a remark she’d made in introducing her reading of a few pages from her novel, about how these times connect to the gothic period. She made it clear she had no theory she was pushing or she wouldn’t have written a novel, but that it occurred to her on a visit to a castle in Belgium, that particularly impacted her (she’d often visited castles elsewhere before that) that the way people walk around with “their blackberries, waiting for it” to communicate some message from the ether, so to speak (not her words exactly, but the idea) is similar to the gothic mind set, waiting for, and expecting, the unseen to communicate personally and individually.
Michael Korda was the final reader, and immediately showed himself to be the star of the evening by his forceful presentation. I was the only one of the authors who ever made a living as a professional actor, but Korda was the most actorly in his presentation, using his voice like an orator of old, rolling his well built sentences off his tongue as if proclaiming lines from Shakespeare.
Just the way he used his voice, and presence at the podium, made the importance of what he was reading plain. And it worked. I was totally impressed and enlightened, with facts I had known and not know so precisely, about Eisenhower, hitting me as if I were just learning them for the first time.
And he put them together in a way that suddenly made clear the truth of his basic premise, that Ike was a lot more than most of us remember, among the few who still do. In fact, as the subtitle of his book puts it, IKE: AN AMERICAN HERO, Korda claims for his subject a place among the greatest figures in our history, making a good case for why he was our greatest general, along with Grant, and one of our most prescient presidents, warning not only against “the military-industrial complex” which he helped create in order to win WWII, but against going to war in Viet Nam (though Korda didn’t mention that it was Ike that got us involved there in the first place, or his administration, though at first only financially) and clearly and adamantly warned against any kind of military involvement in any Arab state (even though again, not mentioned by Korda, under Ike, some forceful meddling was done in, among other areas, Iran).
In answering some questions after he read, Korda, who is also an editor (and edited Cheever’s AMERICAN BLOOMSBURY, coming up with the original title of AMERICAN PARNASSUS, but the sales department shot that title down) talked about writing and editing, with élan and clarity and frankness.
He even went so far as to state unequivocally that in his mind the two greatest books in America’s history are MOBY DICK in fiction, and Grant’s PERSONAL MEMOIRS in nonfiction.
It was a totally stimulating evening that went by too quickly, with such great food, great writing, great give and take among audience and authors. I was grateful and humbled to have been a part of it, and highly recommend all the authors and their books to you.