15 August 2012

Anatomy of a successful reading

Last night I went to see Robert Anasi read from his new memoir/ oral history THE LAST BOHEMIA: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint.

Anasi lives in southern California now, but he lived in Williamsburg, a part of north Brooklyn parallel to 14th Street in Manhattan, from 1993 to 2008, observing the neighborhood's transformation from an artist's paradise, squatterville and industrial remainder to the hipster epicenter it is now. Reflecting on the place after he left, Anasi interviewed people he knew "back then" to chronicle a now-vanished city -- in his reading, he compared it to Atlantis.

Of all the readings I have been to this year, and there have been a lot, this was the most successful reading in terms of converting me from a curious listener to someone who needed to buy it, now. (And that's just what I did.) I don't mean that cynically -- I was happy that that's what happened. Normally, when I go to readings like Anasi's, I already have my mind made up as to whether I will buy the book or not, and what happens there doesn't sway me either way. (Well, I can't think of a reading where I went prepared to buy and didn't, anyway, but maybe it happened to you.)

In that sense I'm defining "successful" a bit narrowly -- after all, readings can surely pay other dividends beyond cash in hand book sales -- but publishers (in this case, FSG with its new to me "Originals" paperback line) would definitely consider it a metric. So why do I think it was so successful, and what can other authors learn from it?

  • He read crowd-pleasing passages, instead of just starting at the beginning of the book. Anasi read a section about a now-defunct Williamsburg bar called Kokie's Lounge, a place I had never heard of (though judging from the knowing laughs around me, some people had) where you could openly buy and do really, really poor-quality cocaine. The two connecting passages Anasi read were funny, unbelievable, detailed and formed a small story in themselves. (Side note: The people who brought their 8- or 9-year-old kid to this reading probably would not agree that reading this passage was a great idea.) 
  • He engaged with audience questions, instead of just answering them. Some authors just don't look comfortable doing Q&As, and really, who can blame them? But Anasi welcomed other people in the room to tell their stories of old Williamsburg, and ask the questions that will probably come up at every reading he holds, notably: How did this [the gentrification of Williamsburg] happen? and Can we keep it from happening again? It reminded me a little of the Christopher Bram reading I went to earlier this summer when I heard about the pre-"Stonewall" Stonewall. 
  • He added something to the reading that you can't get from the book. Anasi opened his reading with footage from (if I recall correctly) a friend's documentary about Williamsburg, about a five-minute clip. Some of the places were hard to identify, particularly for someone like me who doesn't know the neighborhood extremely well, but the scenes with voiceover about how the neighborhood used to be set the tone for the whole reading -- nostalgic, painful, mystical. Not every author will have access to something like that, but something like reading new work or speaking off-the-cuff before the reading can give it that "something extra" without demanding too much of the author. (Some local reading series have built that "something extra" in, like how Literary Death Match has every reader "compete" for a meaningless title, or how Happy Endings forces every author to "take a risk"onstage.) Sounds paradoxical -- especially if you're selling the book itself, but it was like Anasi invited us into the book before he even started reading it. 
My Williamsburg is a place where, in some muddled moment in 2008, I went from "too young and naive to belong" to "too old and staid to belong." Hearing about the neighborhood long before I was first exposed to it (2004? I think?) still isn't old to me, and I'm looking forward to reading THE LAST BOHEMIA. 


8yearoldsdude said...

I now get to feel vaguely pleased with myself that I knew about the coke bar called Kokie's (but not from personal experience).

Also, can you elaborate on how this author managed to skirt the obvious concern of how the author navigated the concept of cool (especially his own). It seems that writing a memoir of "I was a ground zero of a place that is totally over now" is a very fraught and difficult endeavor.

Ellen said...

I think the broadest way the author avoided sounding like he was too cool was that he presented himself as someone who participated in the old Williamsburg but wasn't a trend-setter. And in a sense, he wasn't; he moved to Williamsburg not knowing much about it except that it was 1 stop away from the (already pricey) East Village and he had friends there.

In the case of Kokie's he described what it was like to go there, and also to go to the location's short-lived successor the Antique Lounge (it closed after a year, although there's still a bar on the same spot). He said he wanted to approach the subject more anthropologically (although stuck to interviewing only people he knew, in part for deadlines and in part to capture his own experience) and that showed in his presentation.

I'm sure he was aware that the "I was in Williamsburg before it was cool" angle was not only tired, but that in the audience he was speaking to (in the neighborhood next to Williamsburg) there would probably be people who predated him in the neighborhood anyway.

8yearoldsdude said...

That is fair. I guess my bullshit alarms are going bananas on "I interviewed my friends about our "historical" experience of being cool 5-10 years ago." But if he has managed to pull it off in an engaging and enlightening way, more power to him.