Nothing Embarrassing or Strange: Curating KGB Bars Writers Series
It’s Harvard Lampoon night at the East Village’s famed KGB bar, and Suzanne Dottino, its Sunday night reading series curator for fourteen years, has arrived early to make sure things run smoothly.
After delicately prodding the bartender to turn off the A/C on this cool May night, she touches base with each reader in turn, softly suggesting the order in which she would prefer they read. Generally, the more published writer gets second spot, preferable because by that point most of the latenicks will have arrived. Her job also involves briefly introducing the readers before their turn and calling for a break in between readings for audience members to “freshen” their drink.
Thin, slight, and often clad in distinctive vintage dresses, Suzanne’s quiet voice wields authority as she silences the raucous crowd. On this particular night, Farley Katz, New Yorker cartoonist and (like the other readers) former Lampooner, wittily describes cartoons rejected by the magazine, revealing them on his iPad to whomever is close enough to see. Other reading series may have high-tech equipment, but KGB remains old school. Readers have just themselves and their texts to rely upon.
The lead act of the evening, Adam Sachs, reads three very short stories from his recent collection, Inherited Disorders, surreal, funny, melancholic tales of chimney sweepers, philosophers, fern lovers and Nazis.
Afterwards, I sat down with Suzanne to ask her about her long-standing gig at KGB, her life, career, and family background.
The eighth of ten children from Long Island (each about a year and a half apart), Suzanne calls the household of her growing up “Lord of the Flies meets Clockwork Orange.” Along with the children, there was, “a monkey, skunk, reptiles, reptiles, reptiles, quails, pheasants, peacocks, parrots, chickens, ducks, roosters, cats, dogs, rabbits” who “were either fucking, hatching or giving birth.” “Litters,” she explained, “could be found in the linen closet, behind or inside the clothes dryer, under a staircase, in a sock drawer.”
The leaders of the pack were her father, a “charismatic OBGYN” with “movie star good looks,” and her mother, who “had a very successful career as a ballet dancer,” and later appeared on Broadway “where she worked with Agnes de Mille and traveled the world entertaining troops, ending up as a dancer on the Ed Sullivan show.”
Suzanne found peace in her chaotic childhood home by “reading books, losing myself in movies, and decorating my room,” but she wanted to “stand out from the pack of siblings.” She also “felt [her] mother’s longing for a life she might have had had she not married and had so many children: a life with choices, intellectual freedom and adventures.”
Suzanne’s own career as a performer began just where her mother’s had left off with dance. She was drawn to “the structure, routine, predictability, focus and competitive camaraderie” that came with ballet.
Commuting from Long Island to the Professional Children’s school, Suzanne began to develop a career. “Looking back,” she says, “I see how young in every way we were and how under pressure we worked because our time to shine was now.”
While still a teenager, she began to act as well as dance, an unlikely move because “of what an introvert I am.” But she had found it difficult “to express [her] feelings” in her large family and “acting offered the perfect structure within which I could do that.” She was also, “intrigued with the idea of moving from expressing [herself] in movement to that in words.” “One of my survival skills growing up was to be a chameleon,” she explained, “to blend in, or as my friend Aiden says, to shape shift. This ability made the process of delving into and immersing myself into a character’s psyche come naturally.”
Unlike many New York would-be actors and actresses, Suzanne almost immediately got agented, started auditioning and “very quickly got work in TV commercials and other ‘legit’ acting jobs.” Though she studied at Circle in the Square and worked on the Meisner technique with Phil Gushee, perhaps her biggest role was on the soap opera, Another World. While she was up against Kyra Sedgwick for a major role (“and you know how that turned out”), she was cast as a recurring character named Josie, “a teenage prostitute, where my [character’s] storyline included a twisted relationship with a pimp named Silk, getting arrested and being sent to ‘the slammer’ and wearing sparkly outfits.”
Her late adolescent and early adulthood performance career had yanked Suzanne from the traditional academic path, and she began to regret not having received a college education. She got a BA from Hunter and an MFA from Columbia. Though the MFA was in non-fiction, it was a playwriting class that really inspired her. “Needless to say,” going from acting in plays to writing them “felt incredibly liberating.”
While she was at school during “slow times in show business,” she found a dazzling array of different ways to support herself: “cook, sous-chef, waitress, tutor, sales person, personal assistant.”
Initially, she felt drawn to KGB soon after finishing graduate school because she found herself “sorely missing the feeling of community.” The bar “was the thing to do, the place to be, to meet writers […] So when an opening for a fiction curator was posted, I jumped on it.” And fourteen years and 700 plus writers later, she is still there “like clockwork every Sunday night.”
Over the years she’s witnessed “fistfights, fainting, fires, break-ups, hook-ups, make-ups and everything in between,” but “nothing embarrassing or strange” for an East Village dive bar.
She’s most enjoyed the tribute nights in which writers like Ben Marcus, Deborah Eisenberg, and Jonathan Franzen have read from the works of Kafka, Flannery O’Connor and many others. Those readings “invoked the spirit of the dead author into the room, producing a collective feeling of reverence.”
“In general,” Suzanne concludes, “the most successful readings are by those authors who recognize that a reading is its own genre, so to speak, and edit their own work accordingly.” “The presentation of oneself is almost of equal value to the content being read.”
“The most surprising aspect of doing the series,” says Suzanne, are the people that she meets—“how many scenes there are; each week the crowd is startlingly different.” She feels very lucky to encounter “talented, interesting and interested” readers, as well the audience that come to see them. “The listeners, where would we be without them?”
KGB survives in this era of gentrification and rising rent because the building that houses it along with five other buildings and two vacant lots were sold by the city to artistic tenants like Ellen Stewart, the founder of La Mama. “From there, the East 4th Street Cultural District was created. All the properties are restricted to non-profit cultural use in perpetuity.”
As for her own work, she’s writing, “a novella about a widow and her son who go missing, a web series about teen detectives investigating peculiar crimes in the West Village, and a collection of short stories with New York City as its theme.” It’s a city she knows well. From dancing and acting as a child and young woman to her fourteen years at KGB, she’s seen it from so many vantage points.
David Winner's novel, Tyler's Last, an homage to Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley, was released by Outpost19 this October. His first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Village Voice, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, Fiction, Confrontation, Joyland, Bookforum, Dream Catcher, among others, as well as being included in Novel Strategies, a Pearson/Prentice Hall anthology for college students. He is the fiction editor of the American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome.