An Interview with Amanda SternAn article titled "Literary Readings: Cancel Them" was recently published in the self-confessed penurious but elitist literary journal n + 1, in which readings were declared to be pretty boring. For the most part this assumption rings depressingly true, but Amanda Stern has managed to circumvent the ennui with her Happy Ending Music and Reading Series held in New York.
As author of the addiction-swollen debut The Long Haul (Soft Skull, 2003), esteemed reading series impresario and artistic dilettante Amanda Stern knows she’s got a good thing going. Or more accurately, many good things going. An enviable combination of talent, insight and blatant charm have made her and her Happy Ending Music and Reading Series a success. The local musicians and open-shirted rogue bartender contribute to the enigmatic ambiance of the ex-massage parlor-turned-bar in New York’s Lower East Side that houses the readings. But the true exhilaration derives, believe it or not, from authors reciting their work.
In her spare time she is working on a new book of mysterious but certainly evocative content titled The Guthrie Test. Greenwich Village born, Stern thrives on the city that has gotten her where she is today. With such extensive and varied talents, it is not entirely strange to conjecture that New York City might hover above the source of the telluric currents, and Stern is tapping into their putrid though profound power. Then again, maybe she’s just really good at multitasking.
Via Internet from my humid city dwelling, to her Cape Cod summer incubate of further Stern activity, I attempted to understand her tireless artistic compulsion and how she has managed to strike the perfect balance between writer as outgoing promoter and introspective thinker.
What do you think makes your Happy Ending Reading Series so entertaining?
The last thing I wanted was to create a traditional reading series. I have to sit through it every week and God knows I could bore myself to death via C-SPAN, and at home nonetheless. So when I started mentally constructing the events, I tried to think about what it was I wanted to see, but more importantly, what it was I was trying to say. I arrived at this: Not all writers are as boring as carcasses. Sure, some are. But I’m not interested in spending time with them. I am interested not only in how writers think and view the world, but almost more so in the other things they can do. I’m always taken by the hidden talents of my peers, and so it was this aspect that I set the guidelines for Happy Ending. And the guidelines are that the authors must do something they’ve never done before onstage. They must take a risk, outside of reading in public. It’s not that the terms are so interesting, it’s what the authors do with these terms that make the events so entertaining.
The other aspect of the show involves musicians with stories of their own to tell. The musicians are usually local--emerging or accomplished--singer-songwriters, and they play five original tunes and one cover song of their choice (the first year, the musicians had to cover '80s songs only, and it was amazingly fun, but after a year, enough.) Underneath that, there are some other things that add to what’s already a semi-lighthearted event. For one thing, the venue is outstanding. It’s this unique blend of swank and kitsch that I love. Happy Ending used to be an old "massage" parlor, hence the name "Happy Ending" so if you skulk around you’ll come across some amazing little holdovers. The penis showers are still in place downstairs. The tone of the space combined with the levity of the events makes, I think, for a fairly unpretentious evening. That was the goal.
What prompted your reading series?
The summer before my novel came out (The Long Haul) in 2003 I was trying to set myself up with some readings. So, I asked my friend Oliver, who owns Happy Ending, if I could read. Instead of answering, he asked if I wanted to run a literary series. I thought about it and realized that I did. I spent that summer corralling friends and acquaintances to perform the opening night and asked everyone else I knew to submit material. When the season opened in September, I stood onstage, in front of about 130 people and realized that the answer to my original question to Oliver, can I read?, was in fact, no.
You seemed very confident at the readings I attended. Do you still suffer from stage fright when reading your own material?
I used to have tremendously bad stage fright, like throwing-up-before-going-on-stage type of fright, but that was many years ago and began when I was in an off-Broadway play as a teenager. It continued when I was doing comedy, and although the preshow throwing up subsided, I began harboring rituals: I couldn’t speak to anyone or let anyone touch me before going up onstage. In recent years I’ve learned to deal with the anxiety and now have a great deal of fun onstage, especially when I’m not reading, but when I have a story in hand I am always, without fail, nervous on my way to the stage.
Do you choose the musicians to complement the writers or vice versa? What came first, the music or the books?
I choose the authors first, and then once the tone is set I try and match it with the proper musician.
You’ve had wonderful writers as guests at Happy Ending, like Maggie Estep, Rick Moody, Jonathan Ames, Steve Almond...the list goes on. You’ve built a solid reputation for yourself--are there other events in the city that you would recommend? Or, alternatively, other cities?
Well, thank you. I don’t really know how I got so lucky, but almost every author I have asked to read has said yes. It’s really humbling. Same goes for the musicians. And at this point, I can sell the event to other authors based on the authors who have already read; it has absolutely nothing to do with me. It’s because those authors took a risk on me and my series that I have built something that seems to have legs. I really can’t imagine James Salter or Jim Shepard saying yes to me two years ago [hey’re kicking off the third season on September 14, 2005] without the roster of talent I’ve accrued.
Now, as far as other series... I have heard tons about the Little Gray Book Series, which I can’t go to because it’s on Wednesdays. But I’ve seen John Hodgman host, and he’s truly a special performer. Cupcake was a great venue for strong female voices, but they recently stopped. One Story is great, that’s over at Arlene’s Grocery. They usually have just one author read one story. That author also chooses a cheap and often good, strong theme drink. I’m reading at Freebird in October and I like the sound of it there; it’s a used bookstore and the idea of new books being read where old books are sold appeals to me. Out of town, pretty much anything that happens in Austin is amazing. Marfa, Texas, would be an incredible place for a reading series. You could have outdoor screenings and cook up some smoky dogs. I can also see someone doing something at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, but they probably already do and I’m the last to know. I also really like Sunny’s in Red Hook. That’s on Sundays and it feels very small-town and nurturing. Gabriel gets excellent people also. I’m sure there are a ton of others.
How do you feel about the New York writing community? Do you feel it is supportive?
The world that I’m in is quite supportive. I’m amazed actually at how unbackstabby it is. I have some dear friends who are writers and a ton of acquaintances who are writers, and I truly feel we could all get together in one big dining hall and not be undermining or defensive. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I’ve managed to surround myself with some pretty extraordinary people. I try and recreate the sense of security I feel in my own writing world as much as I can at Happy Ending. There have been tons of professional, artistic, personal and even romantic connections made at my series, and I’m incredibly proud of that. I would love to continue to foster that sense of community there. I’ve wanted to do more--to host Happy Ending parties for the participants at the end of every season--but I can’t seem to get it together enough. Maybe next season...But, all in all, yes, I feel supported here.
Are you a dedicated supporter of the small presses? Do you have any opinions on how to get around the disparity between the big and the small?
I am a supporter of small presses, of course. And mom-and-pop bookstores (though you’d need to drive out of town for those) and of course, penny-candy and general stores. Soft Skull published my first book and I adore them and believe that I was completely spoiled by their attentiveness to me and my tiny little book. The disparity between big and small presses and getting around that has to do with self-esteem, I think. People are so focused on status and the lure of the name brand. It’s the same with agents. People think you’ll get more if you have a huge corporation tooting your horn instead of an independent agent who has chosen you in order to nurture your career, not just sell your book and wait for the next one. There are exceptions everywhere, and I don’t mean to make blanket statements, but overall I feel this is true, that a lot of people think this way. A book is not going to sell because a large house is the publisher or because it’s represented by an agency behemoth. A book is going to sell because it hits some collective G spot at the right time. Often, it’s luck. Or marketing. But I have witnessed Richard Nash, at Soft Skull Press, perform the impossible with one arm tied and his eyelids taped down.
You do a lot of different things: writing, drawing and literary-promoting among them. Are there different times in your life during which one of these pulls more strongly? Do you operate on many levels all active at once and mutually influential?
I am always a writer but only an artist in phases. Meaning, while I write daily, my visual artistic pursuits arrive like mini-drug addictions. I went through a painting phase for a while a few years back where I was constantly making paintings for all my friends who were getting married or moving into new homes, or just wanted one, and when I wasn’t painting I was working on these Xerox-based graphic poems (that I’ve done nothing with) layering them into paintings, or sewing them onto canvases, or starting to put together a chapbook. And when I wasn’t doing that I was very big into street photography, so I was constantly shooting. I haven’t been in one of these artistic frenzies in a while, which I’m grateful for because they came when I was quite depressed, but at the same time, I miss them. The way I’ve been expressing myself lately has been more domestic, which is strange and fun. I’ve taken to crocheting and sewing a lot. I’ll pull apart clothes in order to make new ones, or crochet clothes I want that I see in stores. But I guess the long-winded response to this question is that yes, there are different times in my life in which I get caught up in certain activities; my goal, I suppose, would be to incorporate all these activities as much into my daily life as I can. I think that would make me inherently happy.
The Long Haul is pretty harsh in terms of subject matter. Are you considering pursuing fiction that would confront similar themes like addiction?
Yes, the themes I work with are most likely going to be recurring ones in my future work. I am very interested in issues of mental health, the thin line between wellness and illness, normal and different. I am dedicated to pursuing addiction and compulsive behavior as themes. The novel I’m working on now is a lot about addictive behavior and the ways in which bad habits are handed down from one generation to the next. But, at the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of research on intelligence testing and that’s going into this book as well. I suppose when it comes down to it, the real questions I’m consumed by are ones that have to do with normalcy, or rather, difference.
The book is also very experimental and allegorical. Is opening up new modes of writing a goal in many of your projects?
Funny, I don’t view my novel as experimental in the least. But then I don’t think it’s so dark, and lots of people do. I have no conscious ideation to open up new modes of writing, but if that’s how it ends up, then I’ll take it. I think I am very visual, so I write how I see things or even conceive things. For instance, with The Long Haul, I was listening to a couple albums on a loop when I wrote the book (real albums, not CDs) and I would sometimes lift the needle and play certain parts of songs over and over again and I found that I wanted to write my stories much in the same way I was listening to these songs: move forward, repeat, move forward, repeat. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice, it just felt like that’s how the stories needed to be read, the same way I was listening to these songs. With my new novel, I think I’m doing some things that are a bit unconventional (and I’m conscious of this) but I’m not certain if it’s a new mode. If anyone ever publishes it, you can tell me.
Your website is so explanatory. First I would like to say thank you for that. But also, there are some very revealing negative things ("Rejection Letters," "Ugly Teen Photos") and although those links are funny they’re rooted in painful memories we all share. Some writers err on the side of isolationist. Is identifying with your readers very important to you?
The strange thing about me, being a writer and all the implications of solitude that comes with, is that I am very social. I always have been and being part of a community has always been a vital and essential part of my life and who I am. I think that I’m always wanting to engage in some way with other people, whether it’s light and shallow or more penetrating. So the idea with the website was to start some sort of collective conversation, to connect now, more publicly, over things that occurred privately. We are all in this together--not the writing life, necessarily--just the living part.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel called The Guthrie Test, which once again explores addiction and compulsive behavior. Right now, it’s about three generations of one family and the way that addiction is handed down. I can’t talk about it too much because it’s still taking shape and I don’t want to ruin what it might become by pretending I already know what it’s about.
Who is your favorite living versus favorite dead writer?
I don’t have just one favorite writer but I can tell you who I love...
Alive: Denis Johnson, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Gaitskill, Murakami, John Irving, Kevin Canty, Gary Lutz, James Salter, Joan Didion and Melanie Rae Thon (among many others and all those I’ve yet to discover).
Dead: Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Graham Greene, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Rilke, Primo Levi, Isaac Babel (also among many others and all those I’ve yet to discover).
Where do you go for inspiration?
Lately, I’ve been doing some of my best writing in Cape Cod. A friend of ours (my boyfriend’s and mine) has a house he very generously offers us when he’s not using it. When I arrived home from MacDowell in December I realized that I loved nature. Having been born and raised in Greenwich Village I was an avowed concrete elitist, but that’s been slipping with age, and I get a lot of perspective when I leave here. More opens up--literally-- and that makes room for the figures to emerge. I’ve just discovered the Berkshires. My new favorite word is Tangelwood.
What is your favorite literary journal?
Is In Touch magazine a literary journal?
I’ve always been a fan of Spinning Jenny. I also like Noon. Swink is excellent. Saint Ann’s Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review are also great. To be quite frank, I don’t read literary journals as much as I use to. It’s not that I love them any less, it’s that I need to read so much for Happy Ending, submissions and books and what not, so the spare reading time I have goes toward books.