When you want to read your fiction after just publishing a book, but there just doesn’t seem to be a good fit for you in your state, what do you do?
Well, Nicole Haroutunian, an English Kills Review contributor, joined forces with Apryl Lee to create their own series in Montclair, New Jersey. Now, four times a year, The Halfway There Reading Series combines community and the arts to give both emerging and well-established authors a platform for their work without a hike into the city.
Lee and Haroutunian first met in an MFA workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, so when Haroutunian wanted to promote her newly released short story collection, Speed Dreaming, she reached out to her fellow writer and New Jersey resident.
Discussing the motivation for this creation, Lee expressed, “When Nicole asked for help in finding a venue to read at and when we came up with nothing, we said there really should be a series in Montclair—a vibrant, artistic community. I had always thought it would be great to have a reading series like this close by, so I wouldn’t have to trek into the city. There are some great reading events here at Watchung and at the library, but it wasn’t everything I was looking for: a recurring series that had some established voices and exciting new voices.”
Their first reading in September took place in Montclair’s best brunch spot, Red Eye Café, located on Walnut Street. Matthew Thomas and Abby Sher shared the stage with Haroutunian. The event ran between 6-8pm. During the first hour, guests purchased some of that famous Red Eye coffee and a pastry while perusing the authors’ books, sold by Watchung Booksellers. Lee proclaimed that “Red Eye was a natural fit. Their commitment to supporting community artists makes it the perfect place. The same can be said for Watchung Booksellers. Both places have been so supportive and enthusiastic about the series.”
This sense of enthusiam and support was in full force at Red Eye again on December 14th , for their second installment, where Tobias Carroll, Claudia Cortese, Hillary Frank, and Naomi J. Williams read—all either New Jersey natives or New Jersey residents. This list of authors reveals the series’ construction and intent: “The first two events (and actually the rest of the season),” informs Lee, “were curated by way of people we know, author submission, and just a friendly, introductory email. A good mix of all methods. I think we will always pull from all these ways to put together future readings. We also did some brainstorming and research about authors with NJ connections.”
Such a mix of methods resulted in a packed café. In fact, some guests were standing by the door. The rainy, dreary night did not deter people from coming out to support Halfway There. After people mingled and ate, purchased books and Halfway There swag, Lee welcomed the crowd and introduced the first reader.
Tobias Carroll, the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn and author of upcoming collection Transitory, grew up in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. On this night, he read one of his upcoming stories from that collection. Originally published in Necessary Fiction, Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata examined an “obsession with old, weird movies” as the narrator searched for A Hoax Cantata, a grainy, off-colored horror film, well into his adulthood. Audiences laughed and nodded along as Carroll performed his imaginative story. The narrator confessed, “The right film can colonize you.”
The second reader, Claudia Cortese, currently resides in Montclair and excitedly shared the fact that her commute to the reading was a mere five minutes. Cortese, author of two chapbooks, read from her latest: The Red Essay & Other Histories, a collection of lyric essays. Her poems blurred Greek mythology with the speaker’s suburban archetypes, illustrating a type of pastiche. Cortese described her work as collage: parts of poems, quotes from readings, anecdotes of daily life. “Towards an Essay on Love” referenced the likes of Edward Cullen as well as famous poets. She writes, “5) Adrienne Rich said, beauty lies./ I say, beauty distracts.” Wasp Queen, her first full-length collection by Black Lawrence Press, will be out in 2017.
Another Montclair resident read next. Hillary Frank, host and creator of the award-winning podcast The Longest Shortest Time, is also the author and illustrator of three YA novels. She first read from one, Better Than Running at Night, an “anti-love story” and “satire of art school.” In it, characters’ confessions of parental hallucinations off acid and teens hooking up with partners dubbed Elvis and The Devil had the audience chuckling. Frank also read from a newer blog piece: “When I say child birth, you say…” She even asked the audience to call out their answer before sharing her work; “ow” resounded. The story began with the same fill-in-the blank prompt to which many characters replied with happy adjectives or answers like “miracle,” while the narrator only felt fear. The story ended with a twist on the cliché of miracle; the audience’s emotional reaction was palpable.
Haroutunian and Lee’s goals for this series seem pretty achievable since the reading was so entertaining and moving for the crowd. Lee remarked, “We just want to keep packing the house with this engaged and excited audience that we’ve drawn in thus far. It would be great to see familiar faces at each event, establish a community. We will continue to support local authors, emerging authors, and authors with New Jersey connections. It would be an honor if Halfway There became known as an established NJ reading series and a regular stop on book tours!”
This was actually the case with the final reader of the night, Naomi J. Williams, who was traveling from California to the East coast for a reading in Brooklyn. When researching series in New Jersey to continue press for her book, she came across Halfway There. What’s more, it was one particularly close by her old stomping grounds of Verona High School.
Williams read from her debut novel, Landfalls, long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, that fictionalizes the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition. She joked that because she went last, she knew she had to keep the audience awake, so she decided to read a weird sex scene. Her lively reading focused on Sophie, a woman who came with a rented house for the men on the expedition—a real occurrence throughout history that left audiences uncomfortable as they listened about her “opium pinched eyes.” Williams’ work featured beautiful lines that informed audiences as much as entertained them. She is currently working on her second book, a novel about the early 20th-century Japanese poet, Yosano Akiko.
The night ended with a Q&A, where a few audience members asked particular authors questions about inspiration for the works, which revealed that Carroll made up the film for Necessary Fiction’s writing prompt on a real or imagined film; Williams wrote about such a far removed expedition due to her love of maps and Melville, not to mention the fact that men in French uniforms is quite the turn on.
Some questions were more general, topics for each author to address. Who is your intended audience or when discussing risk in writing, what is difficult for you? These questions and answers felt more like a casual conversation rather than an interview segment. The writers all seemed comfortable as they shared information on publishers and readers, or as Frank confessed, “For every one thing I share, there are three things I don’t” and Williams admitted, “I find every damn sentence hard.” Such honesty and passion helped to further create this warm, inviting environment.
When asked what surprised Lee and Haroutunian most about putting a series together in New Jersey, they replied, “Just how responsive and positive and excited people are about what’s happening. How many writers live and/or work in Montclair and New Jersey. I know that New Jersey has a very rich literary history, but its present literary community is incredible, too! But I don’t think we are surprised by that. I think we are excited by it.”
Join in the excitement and visit the Halfway There website to submit your own work for a pop-up reading in May where Lee hopes to “discover some great new authors via submission.” Be sure to also check out their next regular installment on March 14th to hear john Keene, Ed Park, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Boris Tsessarsky.
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