Debut author Kristen Arnett recently told the New York Times, “One of the things I really like about 7-Eleven is all the different kinds of people I meet there…I like that it’s such a community space.” So she asked her local store if they’d be interested in hosting her book launch reading. They said yes. Absolutely yes.
The atmosphere and setting of a literary reading can be one of the most important decisions an organizer makes. What can be done to help an audience be both at ease and engaged, comfortable but not bored? We’ve long been interested in literary citizens who choose to push the boundaries of what makes a ‘literary’ environment, so naturally we were thrilled to hear that the book launch for Kristen’s new story collection, Felt in the Jaw (Split Lip Press) was going down at a convenience store. We emailed Kristen and she answered some of our questions about how, why, and where to put on lit events.
What’s the best literary event you’ve ever been to? What set it apart?
Probably the best reading I’ve ever been to was a joint performance by Bhanu Kapil and Ronaldo Wilson at a college where I used to work. They presented at the art museum on campus. Much of it was performative, including dance and audience participation. There were a lot of visual aids and props. So the work that was showcased included new and older work, but also work that felt completely immersive. I think those are the best kinds of literary events – where you almost forget you’re in the audience; you feel like you’re part of what’s happening.
What’s the worst lit event you’ve ever been to?
There’s not any one event I’ve been to that was terrible – but I can say that there are several I’ve been to where they just aren’t considering the audience. Something I say constantly is that whatever you’re reading or doing has to be more interesting than someone’s iphone. That’s not really gonna happen, nobody is that interesting, but you need to think in that capacity. Readings that go on for too long (longer than 10 minutes apiece, usually), introductions that are actual paragraphs of information, no alcohol, too many readers, etc. So I think it’s probably really easy to have an event go south. Much harder to do an interesting event, for sure.
Have you organized readings before this 7 – 11 book launch? If so, which common lit-reading trappings did you resist? Which did you embrace?
I used to run a local reading series with my best friend, Cathleen Bota. It was called LITEROCALYPSE. It started off as just something we wanted to try out after I got back from my fellowship at Lambda Literary Foundation in 2013. There weren’t a ton of diverse reading series in Orlando at the time – definitely not anything that catered to queer writers, or work that was anything outside of the traditional reading scope. So we threw something together that attempted to open up what a reading series could do. We had people present work in PowerPoint, via puppet shows, some in Drag. People read poetry or fiction, but others showed off performance art or critical work. It was great – a lot of people felt empowered to begin their own reading series. Cathleen and I decided ours had done the work it needed to do (cultivating new communities) so we closed up shop.
Are they letting you bring your freaking dog in the store? Is she opening for you?
I’ve brought my dog to 7-eleven before! I’m bringing her to the reading, but probably just for the last part of it – meet and greet outside, I think, which will be better for her and probably make the store a little happier with me. She’s pretty lumpy and quiet. I could probably carry her in a backpack if I really wanted! I figured I’ll let people chat with her and pet her and then they can take pix with her if they like. She’s really friendly and loves people. Everyone is going to love her; it’ll probably be the highlight of the evening!
In what ways are you promoting this event?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t really been promoting this 7-Eleven reading at all! I made a Facebook invite and kept it private. This was for a few reasons. First all, the 7-Eleven is pretty small. Only a few people can actually fit in the store! The other reason for keeping it intimate is that I feel like it’s my family space. Sincerely, I visit my 7-Eleven every other day. I want it to feel comfortable, for it to be something that feels like a community event and like a little party. Wanted there to be people I cared about there, for sure, but also people who would understand the vibe and be interested in it for what it is.
Orlando has a pretty vibrant literary community. When you see many events taking place within a month, what draws you to one over the other? Line-up? Location? Novelty? Who’s hosting?
I think the arts community in Orlando has really picked up over the last several years! I know that Burrow Press has a reading series. that has really done some great work. Functionally Literate. They generally have really fantastic featured readers and try really hard to work in community spaces. I would say I am like most people; I’m drawn to an event where I know who the reader is and I’m excited about their work. I also know that I am looking for events where I’ve attended in the past and had a good time.
Are readings important?
I do think that readings are important. It’s an opportunity to show off your work in a way that people might not expect. From an audience point of view, I like the idea that even as adults we can all still participate in Storytime. I used to run that program when I worked at the public library – it’s definitely what has influenced my ideas about reading series and how we should look at art outside the traditional box when considering what a reading should showcase. I like sitting and listening; I like hearing about the process that an author goes through to create that work. Generally, I would say I enjoy hearing about that process almost as much as I like listening to them read.
Where do you want to see a reading happen next?
I’d love to see more readings happen in spaces that aren’t considered traditional “art” spaces. I like readings at people’s houses, in their living rooms, at dining room tables over pizza. Readings at restaurants and parks. I really like readings at bars. I also think it’s a fun idea to consider readings as part of social get togethers. Ways to make them less of a presenter/audience dynamic. Ways to make them more immersive, so that it’s a community experience.