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Episode LI: "Word play, innovative syntax, good acoustics, and a poetic sensibility"

Published 2/10/16
In this installment, I speak with Penina RothTopics include the FPRS origin story, mixing emerging writers with established, the kind of writing gets chosen, growing a crowd & more.

 Credit:  Brooklyn Magazine

Credit: Brooklyn Magazine

Today I’m with Penina Roth, a writer, an editor, and the curator/host of the Franklin Park Reading Series. To put it simply, the series has featured everyone: Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, Mary Gaitskill, Amy Hempel, Teju Cole. In your own words, how did it start and what, exactly, is FPRS?

Hi Andrew, thanks so much for your interest in the Franklin Park Reading Series!

In 2008, as a longtime Crown Heights resident and a local news reporter, I was writing pieces about my transitioning neighborhood. In addition to the well-established Caribbean-American and Lubavitch Hasidic communities, Crown Heights was seeing an influx of recent college grads from across the country. Businesses were opening to service this new community, and our host venue, the Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden, was one of the first on the scene. For some articles I was working on, I interviewed the owners of Franklin Park, other local merchants, and new and old residents. After discovering there were many lit enthusiasts in the area (I used to meet people on subway platforms and at the beer garden who were reading books and strike up conversations with them), I came up with the idea of hosting a community-wide event that would bridge the neighborhood's different constituencies (Caribbean-American, Hasidic, and the new transplants) and be both entertaining and enlightening. As a writer and avid reader, I was going to fun readings at KGB and was inspired to try a bar reading. After I published an article about Franklin Park in the NY Times that brought them a lot of attention, the owners agreed to let me host a one-off event. The reading was a success (we drew a decent crowd and sold a lot of beer), and the owners asked me to make it a monthly event.

At the time, I only knew three published writers -- my friends David Goodwillie, Liza Monroy, and Matthue Roth -- so they were my first readers. Then I started meeting other published authors, so for the first 9 months of the series I booked those writers, their friends, and their friends" friends. This way, I was lucky to book major writers like Jami Attenberg and Teju Cole (who was still relatively unknown) from the beginning.

The idea behind the series is to mix established, well-known authors with emerging or debut ones to give locals an enjoyable night listening to talented pros and give exposure to up-and-comers. My goal was to attract a broad audience, including barflies and people who were more interested in comedy, music, and other forms of entertainment.

That origin story is the most replete I've ever gotten. Thank you. The mix of 'well-known' and 'emerging' is something you hear a lot, not just from reading series but publications, websites, publishers—though reality sometimes doesn't match what's advertised. In the case of FPRS, it does. What's your optimal breakdown in that regard? How do you find your emerging writers? Have you found it easier, as you've gained in popularity, to get big names on board?

To start with your last question -- I feel that reading series, bookstores, conferences, and other lit venues across the US have proliferated in recent years -- which is a good thing -- but that makes it harder to book celebrities than when I began the series. There are so many organizations, universities, and events competing for high-profile authors, and many of them are remunerative opportunities, so the accessibility of marquee authors has really decreased in the last three or four years.

As far as lineup breakdown -- I now host five authors each month (on rare occasions, six, if an out-of-town author I've had my eye comes to town), and, ideally, I'll have a headliner who is recognizable not only to the lit community, but to mainstream crowds as well. Then I tend to host 2-3 debut authors (often ones on indie or small presses), and, maybe, an emerging writer who's published online or in print journals but hasn't released a book yet. Due to the popularity of the series, though, I get requests from publishers and authors across the country, which means I have fewer slots open for emerging writers, a situation which disturbed me, so now I've launched a second series to showcase emerging writers, the Manhattanville Reading Series, which is held at a local coffee shop.

And thanks for appreciating our attempt to balance well-known and up-and-coming authors -- that's a priority for us.

Most of our emerging readers come through recommendations from authors and editors I respect, who understand our particular sensibility -- which is innovative, voice-driven lit that deals with subjects relatable to young audiences. So since we have an audience that favors risk-taking authors, domestic realism, that is, conventionally structured stories about middle-aged people struggling to balance their family and professional lives, doesn't work for us, but coming-of-age stories and genre-bending work does.

That's one of the most well-carved and explicit niches I've heard, and I appreciate it, and so I'd like to push even further. When you're looking at two stories, and they're both the sort of realism you appreciate, and let's say they're both about leaving experience-ladled youth for the duty and responsibility of adulthood, and maybe they're both using some absurdism or surreality that's working, what then makes you say, let's go with this one?

I'd say it's the language -- sentences are more important to me than plot.

What is it about a sentence that grabs you?

Word play, innovative syntax, good acoustics, and a poetic sensibility.

From my few experiences at FPRS, the crowd cuts the right balance of respect during a reading, and vitality in the gaps and after. Has this always been the case? What part does the venue play in this? in your eye, what makes a good crowd?

Yes, you've really hit on one (if not the) key factors in the series's success -- our super enthusiastic, dedicated audience!

I think the laid-back atmosphere of the venue plays a huge part -- that and the cheap beer (we have a $4 draft drink special). I feel like there's a great symbiosis between our straight reading format and the bar's relaxed vibe. Authors feel comfortable sharing risky material -- they have no need to censor themselves for propriety's sake or out of fear of offending anyone's sensibility. And the audience is very supportive and attentive, cheering and laughing, a reaction authors play off of.

To me, a large crowd -- 75 or more -- is crucial. Attentiveness is as well. Sam Lipsyte read part of a New Yorker story for 45 minutes straight (and he was the last reader of the evening), and during the serious parts you could, as they say, hear a pin drop.

Is there a tangible difference in either the presentation or reception of emerging writers (versus established)?

Established writers are less likely to exceed their time allotment (many go shorter), and since they're more experienced, tend to read off the page more and accompany their readings with expressive gestures. Poets, emerging or established, are often the best readers, since they tend to be more comfortable with performance. I've had some bad experiences where emerging writers read for double the time they were allotted.

In your experience, is there a certain type of writing (by genre, style, economy, plot) that comes off the page better live?

Comedic writing works best in performance, and our audience really enjoys dark, subversive humor. And scenes with dialogue and action almost always work better than exposition or monologues (Hannah Tinti, founder of One Story, taught me this). To pull off a successful monologue reading, you have to have a really expressive voice and demeanor -- Colson Whitehead is someone who does this brilliantly and hilariously, but few writers have that mastery of timing and delivery.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, pros know that it's better to go short than long, leaving your audience hungering for more (which, I believe, leads to book sales).

What does the future hold for FPRS?

As the series has grown, we're receiving numerous requests for bookings from authors with new books, especially NYC-based writers and Franklin Park alumni. So our lineups are filling up with published authors -- we like to showcase small press and debut writers, especially -- leaving little room for emerging writers who haven't yet released books. So we've just launched a new series at a local coffee shop, the Manhattanville Reading Series, for emerging writers. Each event will feature three up-and-coming prose writers and one established author who's an FP alum. Writers who are interested in appearing at the series should submit 3-5 pages of prose and a short bio to manhattanvillereadingseries at gmail dot com.

Thanks for your time Penina, and your words.