My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Anne Korkeakivi whose debut novel is An Unexpected Guest, published by Little, Brown. Korkeakivi was born in New York City and currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her short fiction and non-fiction have been published by The Atlantic, Yale Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), Gourmet, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other periodicals. She recently was made a Hawthornden Fellow. Visit her website here.
My First Time Reading In Public
Many years ago, I went to Venice Beach to see Mary Gaitskill read from her first collection of short stories. I was familiar with her work, I liked it, but my mind began to wander. The previous reader had been a new doctor-author named Ethan Canin, and while half of my brain listened to the pale stern Gaitskill read, the other half was picturing lusty Canin writing short stories while studying anatomy.
Suddenly, as her story approached its harrowing climax, Gaitskill reached up and shoved her almost-white hair off her delicate face. A brief movement, but one full of such impatience, such passion, such sudden violence, it was like a page out of her beautiful but brutal fiction. Gaitskill had become her writing. I have never forgotten it.
I put off reading my own work to an audience for years. I worked as a non-fiction writer for newspapers and magazines before publishing fiction and, as far as I was concerned, one of the perks was the ability to communicate while remaining invisible. But, as I moved increasingly into the world of fiction, I realized how instructional it is to read your work aloud: passages you thought were fine feel sticky or, if you are lucky, flow better than expected. I realized this by reading aloud alone, with the doors closed. But reading before others is a finer test and also a way of celebrating literature. Besides, participating in a reading is nearly prerequisite if you want to be taken seriously as a novelist—unless you are, say, J.D. Salinger.
I had to do it a first time, and get it over with.
I picked the opening banquet of the 2010 Geneva Writer’s Conference, attended by over 100 people. The counterbalance to the size of the crowd was that I would be one of more than ten readers. I could meld in. Then I chose a subtly erotic passage from an early draft of my novel, An Unexpected Guest, with dialogue that mingled a Boston “Southie” accent, a straightforward American accent, and a Nor’n Irish accent. (No, it was not about a ménage à trois.) This may also sound like an odd choice. But, I liked the passage; it made me laugh a little, inside myself, not least because of the unlikelihood of my having chosen it. I have a fondness for both risk and absurdity. Plus, the pages stood on their own, an important element for a successful reading.
I e-mailed the evening’s organizer. This was my first time reading in public, I confessed. May I please be slotted in early? Sure, he wrote back. Then he put me next to last on the roster.
By the time it was my turn at the podium, my hands were so slippery that the text was difficult to hold onto. I am not a person whose hands sweat normally. In fact, I often sit on them to warm them. But I hung on. I read slowly and deliberately, side-stepping the accents that I could hear so clearly in my head but hadn’t yet mastered expressing, but keeping the patois, heightening the sections with double-entendre. I felt as though I’d entered a dream in which I was merely a conduit, as on my wedding day, and found myself speaking the last line in what seemed only moments. I grinned and heard the clapping. As I walked back to my seat, people slapped me on the back, touched my arm, congratulated me. “That was brave,” my seatmate told me. “Next time, do the accents.”
Did I give up a Mary Gaitskill moment? I don’t think so. But I learned something important about reading: you give more than just your words—you give a little bit of how you fit in with them. The selection I’d chosen said more about me than I’d intended, and maybe so had the grin with which I’d ended. And, very importantly, I’d gotten over the hump. The first time was behind me; the next would be, and was, easier.