You Are Not Alone: Postcard From New York City

Suzanne Pettypiece

On a warm, breezy Saturday evening, hundreds of people who had spent the past three days in New York City’s Javits Center for the annual BookExpo America (BEA) took a break from the hubbub to attend You Are Not Alone, an event that, at a time when the publishing industry could use a little cheering up, promised to combat the BEA blues with comedy, music, and, of course, some top-notch literature.

You Are Not Alone was organized by Stephen Elliott, editor of the online magazine The Rumpus, along with representatives from McSweeney’s Books and SMITH magazine, to celebrate the wealth of new literature being given exposure by like-minded journals and small presses.

A line had already formed by the time my husband and I arrived at the Highline Ballroom—a sizable club more accustomed to music acts such as Mandy Moore and Martha Wainwright than authors. The venue is located near the Hudson River, about a block from its namesake, the defunct elevated railway currently under development as a public park running thirty feet above street level.

Bouncers dressed in black, each of them wearing a headset, instructed the crowd to begin a second line on the other side of the Western Beef supermarket next door. About ten minutes late, the doors finally opened and we were ushered into an air-conditioned, cavernous space and directed by a greeter to one of the two-top tables situated in front of the stage, which was fixed with a sign reminding us of the ten-dollar minimum.

People of all ages, many arriving from a day spent at BEA, streamed in during the happy hour. Just before the house lights dimmed to all but a few concert-caliber red and blue lights, I spied Neil Gaiman, the British author probably best known for his graphic novel series The Sandman, the novel American Gods, and the novella Coraline, which was recently adapted into a film of the same name. Though not performing, Gaiman Twittered from his seat in the green room about how much he was enjoying the evening.

Humorist Eugene Mirman, who plays the landlord character on the HBO series Flight of the Concords, was the first to take the stage. No doubt keeping his audience in mind, he warmed us up with jokes about grammatically ambiguous anti-abortion signs and oddball audience members who often show up at his book readings. One such story involved a woman who had previously been banned from a particular bookstore for having scalped tickets to a free Stephen King reading. Permitted to attend Mirman’s event, she proceeded to slurp Cup Noodles as he read.

Next, Anthony Swofford, author of the Marine memoir Jarhead (Scribner, 2003), sheepishly made his way to center stage. Dismayed for having to follow a comedian, he apologized for the fact that he wouldn’t be reading anything funny. No apologies were necessary: The passage Swofford read from his memoir-in-progress, “Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails,” left the audience riveted.

Before first-time novelist James Hannaham began to read from his book, God Says No, published last month by McSweeney’s Books, he demanded a change in lighting. He quoted Dionne Warwick, who said at a concert that Hannaham attended when he was twelve, “You do not put blue lights on a dark person.” To the cheers of the audience, the lights seamlessly switched from blue to red. Hannaham began reading from the novel, about a man named Gary Gray, who, with his female counterpart, Gay, runs group sessions called Resurrection for “people struggling with same-sex attractions.”

While the novelists were surely part of the event’s draw, Amanda Palmer—one of two members of the self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” band Dresden Dolls—held her own with the crowd. She took the stage wearing pink thigh highs, matching pink eye shadow, and tennis shoes. The audience whooped and cheered as she strummed on a ukulele, singing “Dear Old House I Grew Up In”—a song about the childhood home her parents sold due to the market conditions—and an excellent cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

Debut novelist Jessica Anthony kept up the momentum as she read from her novel, The Convalescent, forthcoming from McSweeney’s Books this month. The book follows the story of Rovar Ákos Pfliegman, a sickly tiny Hungarian man who sells meat out of a bus in northern Virginia and makes regular appointments with Dr. Monica, a pediatrician he lusts after.

Comedian Todd Barry of Flight of the Conchords—perhaps inspired by Gaiman’s busy thumbs backstage—began his short set by badgering the crowd about not Twittering during his performance. He proceeded to tell jokes about how the Swedish speak better English than Americans do and Californians’ claim to the best Mexican food.

During the intermission, forty of SMITH magazine’s Six-Word Memoirists made their way to the stage, a sight that at most literary events would result in a mass exodus. But the audience remained engaged as the readers were introduced by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, cocreators of SMITH’s Six-Word Memoirs—an ongoing project inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s legendary six-word story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The memoirists clipped off their distilled stories: “More sex than my looks deserve”; “My sluggish laptop, his archived porn”; “Do as say, not as did”; "Parents: ‘mentioning homosexuality upsets your brother’”; and, from Ron Hogan of Mediabistro’s GalleyCat, “Internet famous for what that’s worth.”

The last two performers were Matthew Caws of the alternative rock band Nada Surf and author Amy Tan, who reminded us of her musical inclinations as the “rhythm dominatrix” for the all-author band Rock Bottom Remainders. Tan went on to educate us about her preference for e-mail signoffs—“the sort of thing a writer thinks about instead of writing a novel,” she said.  

After the two-hour event, the crowd reluctantly filed out the doors—perhaps to a BEA party or to hotels to rest up for the final day of the conference—but spirits were high. Judging by the vibe in the venue that night, the event succeeded in reminding us that there are enough great literary magazines, small presses, and other champions of innovative writing out there to keep quality literature alive.