Books In Conversation
Amanda Stern with Lisa Kunik
Sometimes sarcastic, sometimes slapstick, and always entertaining, Amanda Stern is a novelist, ghost writer, curator and host of the Happy Endings Reading Series. Spiked with Kurt Cobain charisma, her book The Long Haul has been compared to the writing of Denis Johnson, Rick Moody and Leslie Schwartz. I managed to catch up with Stern, somewhere in and around her hectic schedule of writing, hosting and promoting the YA novel she ghostwrote.
Lisa Kunik (Rail): As the curator and host of The Happy Ending Reading Series you require authors and musicians to take an onstage risk during their literary or musical performance. When you conceived the series, what was the motivation behind the requisite risk and how has it manifested itself over the years?
Amanda Stern: Reading your work in public is fairly terrifying, so I created a type of healthy bait and switch. The authors become so fixated on their risks that their anxiety about the actual reading dissipates. The manifestation has been pretty amusing. People now pitch themselves to me based on their risks, forgetting their work entirely. That said, it’s really rewarding to see how far people will go in the name of entertainment.
Rail: How has watching all of these performances week after week influenced you as a writer?
Stern: It hasn’t really. Because each show is so performative it has influenced my persona more than my literary habits. It’s helped me develop the muscle for being in front of people without shaking. The only way the series has influenced me as a writer is in a superficial way. I’ve been hosting this event for five years and because I am introduced to each audience as their host and not as a writer, most don’t know that I’m also an author, which for me has been a struggle.
Rail: Have any of the performances or the risks ever appalled you?
Stern: It takes a lot to appall me. There was one reading, though, where a woman invited her husband and her lover to come up on stage and then she made out with both of them.
Rail: How do blogs and networking sites inform the culture of readings and of networking? How do they affect you as a writer and as the host of a reading series?
Stern: Where audience is concerned, it has helped. I notice that when Gawker lists the series, the place is packed. When authors list their readings on Facebook or Myspace, it feels more personal than a mass email, and it allows people to see who will be going. In some ways, blogs and networking sites have created a type of culture that is conducive to the kind of reading culture I’ve been trying to establish. But I don’t think there has been much of a change where book sales are concerned. Bar readings don’t move a lot of books, and I’d be quite surprised to learn that social networking sites and blogs did.
Rail: It seems there's an increasing temptation to incorporate imagery in text; certainly, it's more and more a possibility, in terms of print costs. How have cross-genre projects manifested in your series?
Stern: Laurie Anderson, David Rees, Jonathan Katz, Alison Bechdel and others have given power point presentations in order to share their work. Leanne Shapton and Liz Swados brought in oversized Xeroxes of their images and told us stories reminiscent of the library stories you heard as a kid. I’m a huge fan of interactive, live storytelling. It’s funny though, about ten years ago I was working on a book that incorporated a lot of images and I was told repeatedly that it was too expensive to print and no publisher would take it. Maybe I should pull it out of storage.
Rail: After your first book The Long Haul was released, you began hosting the reading series and wrote two young adult novels under a pseudonym to support a writing career. How do these different roles inform your identity as a fiction writer?
Stern: I actually started hosting the series the same month my first novel came out. I don’t get anything done unless I am overwhelmed by the amount of work I have. Writing the Young Adult books was interesting because it taught me a lot about traditional three act structure, something I didn’t really know how to do, and some might argue, still don’t. It was a lesson in formula and traditional narrative and I really appreciated the opportunity to get paid to learn the rules in order to break them in my own work. I did go through an interesting period where everything I wrote for myself read like a YA novel and I thought I would never ever find my way out. But I did.
Lisa Kunik is a writer based in New York City.
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