For Wyn Morgan Bomar
I start up the red velvet cake of a staircase at The Alley Theater in Houston for what is already a sold out reading. I didn’t have a ticket to George Saunders—I wasn’t quick enough—but my friend Wyn miraculously had an extra ticket, and before I knew it, I was seated in her subscriber section seat with my freshly bought copy of The Tenth of December at the ready. Today, a few weeks later, I am super grateful that I got to see him read in person as Poets and Writers Magazine reports this week that the 2014 Story Prize, with its TWENTY THOUSAND dollar award, went to George Saunders and The Tenth of December. It is an astonishing collection that is both funny and sad, familiar and shocking, indebted to writers such as Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce, yet still original in striking and memorable ways. He was already “big time,” and now even more so. It is a thrill to have had such a writer come to Houston.
How can I see such a rock star writer, one who was featured on the front page of The New York Times no less, right in my own backyard? This evening was made possible through the magic of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, one of my favorite things about living in H-town.
Called “Inprint” by the locals, this reading series started in 1980. Rich Levy, the Executive Director, tells the audience that over 300 writers have been represented in this series, and the list is stunning. According to their slick brochure that anyone can take away, Houstonians have been able to experience readings by “winners of six Nobel Prizes, 55 Pulitzer Prizes, 51 National Book Awards, 42 National book Critics Circle Awards, and 12 Man Booker Prizes as well as 16 U.S. Poet Laureates.” This is non-profit arts support at its finest, and it still astonishes me that they have charged such modest admission prices—often only 5 dollars, sometimes even free for students—from the inception of the series. Even subscribers are only paying a little more than ten dollars per author when you crunch the numbers.
Sometimes it is at The Alley, as it has been with George Saunders, where he reads from the California-modern living room which is the set for their political drama “Other Desert Cities,” which seems a perfect backdrop for the living-room style conversation of the question and answer session that usually follows each reading. This time, it was a creative writer asking Saunders how he “does it,” which is perfect as that is what we all want to know. It was in this theater that I was able to hear the poet Mary Oliver read from her poems, and how she had a sense of humor that I hadn’t seen just on the page. It was also here that I heard Louise Erdrich, who had also brought her daughter with her, talk about her work working with Native Americans in community writing groups, as well as give a reading from her novel The Painted Drum that was so haunting in its delivery, you could hear a pin drop.
Sometimes the readings are at The Hobby Theater for the Performing Arts, sometimes at The Wortham Center, the beautiful theater for opera and ballet, which is a stone’s throw from The Alley and The Houston Symphony’s Jones Hall. This is perfect that these readings, so often full of the musicality of language and the drama of thought, are delivered right here in the theater district, as the literary reading is its own kind of performance. Here I was able to hear Richard Ford, one of my favorite American novelists, talk about politics, dramatizing what people do after things go terribly wrong, and stressing how you should “get your work done first,” something he repeated twice. At the time, I was teaching senior English majors a course in contemporary short fiction, and he patiently signed all of our copies of his wonderful collection, A Multitude of Sins. It was nice seeing college students swoon over a writer instead of a pop star.
The people responsible for the line up know what they are doing: in August, when the reading series begins, right off the bat they had James McBride, who conveniently confirmed their excellent taste by winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird. Jhumpa Lahiri is so big-time now that she had to cancel this year, but they knew to book her before the huge success she has enjoyed with her novel, The Lowland. The series is also adept at having a mix of genres: even this year, with so many exciting novels and the heightened interest in short story collections, they have the Canadian poet Anne Carson rounding out the 2013-2014 series.
I listen to George Saunders read from his opening short story “Victory Lap,” which I have just finished in a restaurant before the reading begins. He explains his technique is that of “third person ventriloquism, “ and then he performs his own story in the voices of a fifteen-year-old girl, a teenage boy, and a hardened criminal. Saunders is none of those people, but it all rings true, all falls into place, and you believe him when he explains that he revised it over and over to reach the final, perfect, fit-for-The New Yorker result. I have read the story, but now I can wrap my mind around it a little tighter, a little more securely, because I have had the best reader and critic possible: the author himself. He was so funny and down-to-earth, that it made you happy that you were listening to someone who seemed so personally authentic be able to fabricate such memorable, if not dark, fiction. He tells us he had to get comfortable with his default mode of humor as a writer and a person, and you are so glad he did. Dark humor is the hardest to handle: it cuts closer to the bone.
If you are lucky, you can also catch some of the past readings online at inprinthouston.org, where some of them are archived. And that jewel on Bissonnet, The Brazos Bookstore, always has books you can purchase for the signings. When I left The Alley that Monday, the line was already half way down the velvet cake carpet of the curved staircase, but it wasn’t just students waiting in line. It was everyone you could imagine.
The last two readings for the 2013-2014 series are Daniel Alarcon and Mohsin Hamid on 24 March 2014, and Anne Carson on 28 April 2014. See inprinthouston.org for details.