By Nick Fuller Googins
Brooklyn, NY, Sept. 6, 2014
It’s Saturday night at powerHouse Arena (a bookstore/events space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood) and the free beer has run out. What’s striking is that this doesn’t seem to faze anyone. Okay, a few people complain, but they’re probably the ones who arrived late. The rest of us mingling beneath the chandelier glow are taking the beer shortage in stride.
|In the House: an appreciative audience|
Earlier that day, we’d heard Tin House editor Rob Spillman, speaking at a panel entitled “The Secret Lives of Literary Magazines,” warn against what he called “Doogie Howser Syndrome,” or the predilection of some beginning writers to tack on an ending that tells the reader everything the previous fifteen pages of the story have already shown. At another panel, “It’s About Me…But It’s Also About You: Writing Nonfiction that Connects with Readers,” Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, told us, “Memory is an act of imagination.” During a session on revision, Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, had this to say: “Anyone who says they write without editing is either full of shit or not a writer…or a genius.”
The “Writers on Tap” reading that evening showcased the work of five writers handpicked by editors from Slice, A Public Space, One Teen Story, and Henry Holt & Co. Included in this bunch were authors Kseniya Melnik and Justin Taylor, both of whom released story collections this year, Melnik with her debut collection, Snow in May (Henry Holt & Co.) and Taylor with Flings (Harper), his second book of stories.
|Busy man: Justin Taylor reads from Flings|
Celia Johnson, co-founder of Slice, introduced Taylor, describing Flings as “a wonderful ensemble of matters of the heart,” a collection filled with “grief, lust, and falling in-and-out-of-love” that “takes you everywhere, from Oregon to Hong Kong.” Taylor, who later confided that he’d done five Flings readings in the past couple of weeks, took to the podium and said he needed a break from the collection. Instead he read from a thick sheaf of papers, a section of his novel-in-progress about a former child actor who’s leveraged his faded glory into part ownership of a bar—one that he himself patronizes often, especially if a certain female bartender is on duty. Of the former actor: “He liked to sit at the bar and let his longing run away with itself,” and he “assumed that all girls knew all things and modified his behavior accordingly.” If the audience’s reaction offered Taylor some focus-group-like insight as to the response his completed novel may elicit, he can anticipate having to include plenty of pauses for laughter at future readings. But that assumes he’ll have time for pauses.
Justin Taylor is a busy man. In addition to being on tour for his third book, working on his fourth, and teaching at more than one university, he is currently writing a review for Bookforum on Denis Johnson’s new novel, The Laughing Monsters. In preparation, Taylor explained that he’d been reading much of Johnson’s backlist, including his plays.
“Denis Johnson writes plays?” I asked.
Taylor reached into his bag, pulled out Soul of a Whore and Purvis and flipped through, exclaiming with no small degree of admiration that Denis Johnson not only writes plays but he writes them in verse.
|Not so La-Z: Kseniya Melnik reads from Snow in May|
Melnik admitted she enjoys writing stories about snowy places. It comes as little surprise because she grew up in Russia, moved to Alaska at age fifteen, and went to school in upstate New York. Currently she resides and writes in El Paso where it does in fact snow on occasion, though not often and not in recent memory. A word Melnik uses to describe the place is “sweltering.” The incongruity of writing much of Snow in May while living a few football fields from the Mexican border is so delicious that Melnik must be sick of people mentioning it. So I didn’t. But I had to wonder how she coped with such contrast. What was her secret?
The next day, Melnick answered my unasked question while participating in a panel entitled, “Literary Quirks,” when she said, “I cannot write at a desk. I write in a La-Z-Boy. I trick myself to think I’m relaxed.” If that helped her write so sharply about life in snowy Russia while living in El Paso, then that must be one hell of a La-Z-Boy.
Photos courtesy of Slice magazine and © Maria Gagliano