PENINA ROTH with Nicolle Elizabeth
The Franklin Park Reading Series, headed by Ms. Penina Roth of the New York Times and many other outlets, is one of the places to be for sure. Roth agreed to e-mail with me about the reading series and to offer advice for those who are looking to start their own series.
Nicolle Elizabeth (Rail): How and why was the Franklin Park Reading Series started?
Penina Roth: I’m a longtime neighborhood resident, aspiring writer, and avid reader, but until 2008, when droves of recent college grads started moving into the neighborhood, there weren’t many people around who shared my love for writing and literature. At that time, I was a freelance journalist focused on community news and obsessed with the neighborhood’s changing demographics and gentrification. I used to walk around, talking to all the new merchants, and that summer, when Franklin Park first opened, I sat in the courtyard for hours interviewing patrons. It turned out that many of the new residents were teachers or grad students and fellow lit enthusiasts. Then I did an article about the bar for the New York Times, ingratiating myself with the owners. I was also a reading junkie, attending lots of events, and had a few friends who were published authors (David Goodwillie, Liza Monroy, and Matthue Roth) and thought it would be fun to organize a reading at the bar to showcase my friends’ work and create a community event. I thought it would be a one-off, but we had a nice turnout and sold a lot of drinks, so the owners asked me to make it a monthly event.
Rail: How long has it been running and how many writers have read?
Roth: The series was launched in March 2009, so it’s been over three years. So far 146 writers have read, including some returnees, and we’ve hosted 16 storytellers, comedians, and musicians. We’re not really featuring performers now, unless they’re comic memoirists like Michael Showalter.
Rail: Do you host poets and essayists in addition to fiction writers?
Roth: We’re primarily a fiction series and unfortunately have only been hosting 3-4 poets a year. I’d like to add more in 2013. In terms of nonfiction, we’re most likely to host authors of literary memoirs (Deb Olin Unferth, Blake Butler) or humorous ones (Michael Showalter) and, occasionally, essayists.
Rail: How are the writers chosen?
Roth: Writers are chosen in a variety of ways. We accept submissions from emerging writers, but give preference—especially if they’ve never published a book—to residents of Crown Heights and adjacent areas (Prospect Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens). There’s a fantastic Crown Heights series for emerging writers, the Renegade Reading Series. We’ve been very fortunate—many well-established and celebrated authors have been extremely gracious and supportive of the series, making appearances and talking it up to their friends.
Rail: What are three memorable moments from the readings over the years?
Roth: There have been so many memorable moments—hard to narrow it down to three, but here goes (just listing ones over the past year):
1) October 2011, when Scott McClanahan read and freaked out the audience by speaking in his characteristic, mesmerizing, evangelical cadence, playing a bagpipe song on his iPod, then walking into the crowd. I’ve heard from some attendees that he shocked them in a good way, while some more staid, conservative audience members said they were terrified and thought he was demonically possessed. (Video here).
2) November 2011, at a joint event with Electric Literature, when a virtually unknown short fiction writer, Matt Sumell, whose piece in Electric Literature had been selected from the slush pile, read a story he said no one would publish. He was supposed to stop after 12 minutes, but when he tried to end his reading, the captivated audience begged him to finish. (The coda: that story, “Toast,” had been rejected by numerous places, including the Paris Review, but after the media reported on the event and praised his work and performance, Matt resubmitted to PR and his story was published in their special 200th issue.)
3) January 2012: Sam Lipsyte read an abridged version of one of his recent stories to an awestruck, silent, and completely attentive audience for 45 (!) minutes. And he was the 5th writer of the evening—it was the end of a long night.
Rail: I hate readings. I think they make a spectacle and commodity of writing and are corny and cheap as well as annoying and hideously self-congratulatory. Penina, I’m asking you to change my mind here. How are readings a part of literature?
Roth: I think live readings are essential for writers of language-driven books and can also motivate listeners to explore writers they might not have been drawn to otherwise.
Personally, I’d never fully appreciate writers like Robert Lopez and Diane Williams if I hadn’t heard them live. For example, I’d read excerpts of Robert’s work but couldn’t connect with it until I heard him reading some of his stories at Unnameable Books. His work is so voice-driven and his expressive readings really bring his off-kilter characters to life for me. Similarly, Diane Williams is such a precise writer—each word and syllable is so carefully chosen and arranged—and I’d read some of her stories and had been intrigued, but I really became a huge fan at her amazing live reading at Franklin Park last month. Her crisp enunciation really enhanced the stories and added new shades of meaning for me.
Setting is also important. At Unnameable Books during warm weather months they hold poetry readings in their graveled courtyard under the trees. I’m not a poetry person, unfortunately, but when poets stand there under the trees and wind rustles through the branches it’s really an evocative experience. And at Franklin Park, as I mentioned, the interaction between audience and reader encourages authors to read expressively—they feed off the audience and inject new energy into their writing (which also motivates formerly indifferent readers to seek out their work).
Readings also introduce editors to new writers they might have otherwise overlooked (as does mixing unknowns with celebs). For example, in February when we hosted Chiara Barzini and Ben Marcus, Tim Small, the VICE fiction and Milan Review editor, was in the audience and really enjoyed a story read by a young local writer, Will Snider. Will had been an award-winning playwright at Columbia but had never published a story and was confused about the whole submission process. Tim loved the story and is publishing it in the next Milan Review issue!
As far as changing your mind—you’ll have to attend one of our readings to see what I mean! I think you’ll really like our October 15 lineup—Scott, Michael Kimball, A.M. Homes, Emma Straub, and Marie-Helene Bertino (used to be a One Story editor). It would be so great if you could make it!
Rail: When you say lovers of language, do you feel that the syntax, the tactileness of words can be better digested if they are heard versus if one is reading them?
Roth: I definitely feel that, when read by a talented reader, words (sounds, sentence rhythm, dialogue, etc.) can be better appreciated when heard. Have you ever read passages of a book out loud to yourself to fully appreciate the musicality of the language, the strong voice, assonance, etc.? I do that sometimes. However, a poor reader (mumbling, monotone) can detract from appreciation of his/her language. Sometimes I’ll love a book, but if the author flubs the reading I’m disappointed.
Rail: Is humor better read aloud or read to oneself?
Roth: As far as humor, a talented comic writer can make readers laugh, and, if that author is also a skilled performer, a live reading makes the piece even funnier. I’m thinking of Michael Showalter, William Giraldi, Mark Leyner, and Rick Moody here. Also, sometimes—this is maybe my problem—I don’t get that a piece is funny, but when I hear it read I find it humorous. It happened with Elizabeth Ellen.
Rail: Why you leavin’ out Greenpoint? (Our Brooklyn Rail Head Quarters is in Greenpoint and we represent proudly!)
Roth: I’m not ignoring Greenpoint—in fact I Iove the neighborhood (especially WORD). I just feel like I have a mission to support local writers since there are so many emerging, talented ones and central Brooklyn doesn't have many forums for them, compared to northern Brooklyn. But you can send a talented Greenpoint writer my way anytime!
Rail: What are some suggestions you have for those who want to start their own reading series?
Roth: Some suggestions to those wishing to start a reading series:
Read a wide range of books and discover the type of writing that appeals to you.
Attend many different types of literary events, held in all kinds of venues—bookstores, colleges, arts centers, and bars. Observe (lineups, authors’ performances, hosts and their intros and segues, production, audience response, use of physical space, etc.).
Keep up with new releases and literary trends. Follow authors (by reading their books, interviews and reviews) whose work you admire.
Market research—figure out a neighborhood where the literary community is underserved (hopefully in close proximity to your home), then find an accommodating and interesting venue.
Publicize: Figure out the most influential entertainment and culture media in your area and submit listings information to them. Talk to literary bloggers. Distribute flyers to your local coffee shops and other writer hangouts.
Use social media (I know Facebook and Twitter work well, and I’m learning about Tumblr) to expand your fan base.
Take photos, and record podcasts and videos of your events, and post them online (on a Facebook page and/or Tumblr).
Find mentors (other curators and writers).
Circulate—get out there in the literary world, get involved in your local literary community by connecting with other event organizers and authors. Support your fellow curators and favorite authors (unknowns and stars) by attending their events.
Rail: Are there any good books on running a reading series? Are you going to write one?
Roth: No books that I know of. Find mentors (more experienced curators) and ask them a lot of questions. Talk to your fellow curators and exchange information about what works and what doesn’t. Attend events and watch and listen.
I don't plan on writing a reading series manual—I’m not even sure it’s possible to codify things. How to run a successful reading series is something, I think, that is best learned through experience.