Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Chronicle: Out of the Book Report

John Freeman asked me to write up my impressions of the Friday night Out of the Book event; you can see an abbreviated version on the NBCC blog Critical Mass.

Friday night, June 15, McNally Robinson hosted one of many incarnations of Out of the Book. You can check out the project website for details about the other events that took place all around the country, and the project's mission and future; this is just one event coordinator's take on how our evening came together.

Ever since I realized that being a bookseller was my calling, my passion has been the various ways of creating space – for readers to discover books, for authors to present their work, and for literary conversations to take place. When Dave Weich of Powell's first sketched out for me the idea of the Out of the Book project when we were both in Portland for the ABA Winter Institute, I was on board even before I entirely understood what he was talking about. It seemed obvious to me that this project – a film about (not adapted from) a book and an author, with the potential for a larger event surrounding it, was going to be a new way of creating the space for discovery and conversation, and I wanted in on it.

When the details did fall into place, I realized that this was going to be a lot more work than the events I normally run in the store. We needed a unique venue to show the film. We needed interesting voices to talk about the book. We needed extra publicity. We needed some elements of drama to make the event special. As I've said before, the genius of the Out of the Book project is that it allows bookstores all over the country (not just in New York, L.A. or other major cities) to create an exciting and wonderful event. But seeing as how we are in New York City, it seemed our event ought to be extra special. Luckily, the elements needed were all around me, and I had a tremendous amount of help in bringing it all together.

We found two actors – one of whom works in the receiving room at the bookstore, and another who is the sibling of an employee – who were willing to create a dramatic reading or scene from the book. I first suggested to them that they use the last chapter, which consists largely of dialogue between the just-married, sexually stymied main characters. But they read the book and found a better way in: they would use the first chapter of the book, a description of the characters' state of mind as they begin their honeymoon, and speak the lines from the book as they acted out the scene. Though I was skeptical at first of whether this tack would work, it soon became clear that it was a perfect way to highlight McEwan's triumph in this novel: the limning of the disconnect between the dialogue and what is happening beneath the surface. His deft characterizations make clear to the reader, though not to the couple, exactly why their efforts at connection and communication fail, and that dramatic irony was exactly what the actors were working to capture.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to pin down a theater – it was April by the time I started looking, and since our events calendar in the bookstore was booked through July I could hardly expect an independent theater to have room in its schedule – Dave Weich hooked me up with a theater promoter who connected me with Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village. This had been my first choice, and I was delighted that we could find a way to work with them. Graciously fitting us between their regular lineup, they tolerated and accommodated this unusual film event with only a mild degree of bewilderment about our insistence that people were going to pay money for tickets to a book event. (There were definitely moments when I shared their uncertainty, though the final count from Friday was a welcome vindication.)

Finally, the element we were most uniquely suited to host: a panel discussion. Authors, critics, experts, and other literary types are easy to find in New York; we just had to find those who were most suited to talk about this book, and who were available on relatively short notice. We were especially lucky that John Freeman agreed to moderate the panel right off the bat; as someone who has interviewed McEwan, who appeared in the film, and who knows scores of writers and publishing types, John was central to making the event a success. After some disappointments – Peter Carey was unavailable, Claire Messud and Patrick McGrath were traveling on the event date – we were able to secure the participation of a wonderfully appropriate, balanced, and richly literary set of speakers. Colum McCann, author of Zoli, is a friend of McEwan and appears in the film (as does Freeman); Kathryn Harrison, a past master of the literature of sexual intensity and anguish, added a necessary female voice to the discussion; and Doug Biro, the film's director, came on at the last minute to add his perspective as a creator of the film and a long time reader of McEwan's work.

What pleased me most about the event was how well one part of the evening flowed into another. After the audience filed in (many of them having purchased discounted copies of the book and merchandise provided by Powell's in the lobby), we began with the actors, Darrell and Jessica. Their intense small scene provided an emotional "in" to the novel, and if the "wow" I heard afterward was any indication, many in the audience shared my shaken-up response to their almost painfully intimate rendition of McEwan. Then the film opened, taking the audience through a wide-angle view of the novel, both emotional and intellectual, with many of the places named in the book beautifully filmed, and McEwan himself commenting on everything from development of the story to his thoughts on human nature and climate change. The humorous filmic epilogue, about the kerfuffle over McEwan's "theft" of pebbles from Chesil Beach and the film crew's heroic efforts to return them, lightened the mood to a more conversational one. Then the panel discussion – right there at the front of the theater – allowed another step back, to an analysis of book, film, author and project that were like witnessing a great bar conversation between extremely literate friends. John Freeman (for whom this was, I think, the third panel discussion in a week) expertly drew out the panelists' insights and kept the conversation compelling for a solid hour. (The sound recording of the discussion should be available on the Powell's website within the next couple of weeks.)

Then, just as we couldn't sit still anymore, the event was over, and we retired to a nearby bar for the afterparty. There, just as I had hoped, the conversation continued. All over the room book people were processing the experience they'd just had and the ideas it sparked on any number of topics. We had successfully created a new space that didn't exist before that night. My hope is that as the Out of the Book project continues, we will be able to do so again and again, and grow that space to the benefit of America's literary culture.