Monday, January 16, 2017

My First Time: Kris D’Agostino

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 Kris D’Agostino, author of the novels The Antiques (now out from Simon and Schuster) and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac. Kris holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and lives in Brooklyn. On a purely personal note, I had the privilege of reading an early copy of The Antiques and had this to say about the novel: “In The Antiques, Kris D’Agostino introduces us to a messy, delinquent, outrageous family plunged into mourning when the patriarch dies. While other writers might see this as an opportunity to throw ashes of grief on their characters’ heads, D’Agostino comes at us briskly, shaking our hand with a joy buzzer. This book also reminds us that life and laughter still continue even after our loved ones have left us. The Antiques is an exuberant, lusty novel that had me laughing in the most inappropriate places. I loved it!”

My First Reading

I tend to seek out humor in any situation where I can find it. To that end, author readings have served me well. They can be strange affairs, and not always in good ways. I’m not sure how much of that statement reflects my own personal idiosyncrasies and how much is a fair assessment of what it’s like to watch an author read their work. If I can be honest and hopefully not terribly offensive: they’re often dull, lackluster affairs. It’s not rare for me to leave a reading feeling as though I’ve actually lost something. To be fair: It’s quite a difficult task to bring words alive by simply reading them off a page and in actuality, contrary to what people seem to think, the person who wrote those words, is not always the best equipped person to read them aloud.

Now at the same time, I’m fully aware that readings serve a crucial function for both writer and publisher, for promotion and exposure, as cultural locus—I’m not suggesting they’re unnecessary or irrelevant in any way. I’m merely saying they can be, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Also, to make a small caveat here, I’m limiting this to fiction readings, as I think non-fiction and poetry lend themselves a little more to the group setting.

In my experience, and from talking to other authors, it can be a challenge to make a reading engaging, even when reading the most engaging of prose. This doesn’t even factor in the potential for how the sound, timbre and cadence of an author’s voice, their inflection and intonation—the way they read—coupled with the particular passage they’ve chosen to read can cut so hard against the way the reader interprets and “hears” those words. It can certainly take away a lot of the mystique surrounding a work or an author, if you’re the kind of person who assigns mystique to authors and their work.

I’ve seen quite a few authors (some that I really like) read from novels (some that I really like) and in most cases the experience didn’t even come close to mimicking the way the words resonated and felt, the way the characters acted or spoke, the way the scene played out, in my own head. Maybe this is more a reflection of the power of novels and the breadth of the human imagination at work. Not much can compare to how potent and influential our own minds can be. But still: readings. They are an interesting and baffling animal.

In my estimation the best parts of readings, when it comes to comedy, are always the author Q&As. And by “best” I mean most cringe worthy. I once saw a clearly unhinged and jittery young man ask Don DeLillo if he thought the United States government was responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th. You know, because he wrote Libra. Another time I watched as Denis Johnson tried to field a question about whether his drug abuse had made him a better writer. Listen to any Q&A and I guarantee you’ll be more amazed by the “questions” people come up with than any answer the author might articulate.

Where am I going with this? Well. When my first novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, published in 2012, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. Or at least in my mind it was an interesting dilemma. How was I going to make my reading (particularly my first reading) good? How was I not going to just show up at the bookstore and bore everyone by getting up at the podium and reading, with my not-particularly-exciting voice.

I thought for a long time about how to proceed and what I came up with was this: I decided to let other people do the reading for me. Brilliant! I thought. My idea cleverly got around me having to read my own work and possibly ruining it.

The novel focuses around a family—specifically a 24-year-old guy, his parents and his two siblings. The family in the novel is based on my actual family. It’s ostensibly a Roman à clef inspired by a couple of supremely strange years in my early 20s. One notable straying from the facts is that I turned my youngest brother, Tom, into a sister for plot purposes.

The third chapter of the novel centers around a dinner table scene and this particular dinner table scene happened in real life and involved my middle brother, Chase (Chip in the book) attempting to convince us all that he had been, in his words, “reverse discriminated” against on a Metro-North commuter train while on his way to work. So I thought, why not just ask my real family, who would essentially be playing themselves, to get up on stage and read from a script and re-enact this dinner table episode. I would read the narrative parts and they would read their corresponding lines of dialogue. The more awkward things got up there, the better—the more interesting and weird the whole performance would be.

I had no clue as to whether they’d be up for this and to complicate matters my father, who was battling advanced-stage blood cancer at the time, had been hospitalized and most likely would be there still when this first reading—the “launch” of the book—happened.

To my surprise, not only did my mother and my brothers (I had decided to make a joke about how I turned Tom into a girl and have him read the part anyway) agree to my little experiment, they seemed genuinely excited about it. As for my father, I had another great idea. I went to the hospital to see him and brought along some recording equipment and made audio clips of him reading his lines. I then sampled the clips. The night of the reading, my plan was to hook the sampler up to the sound system and Skype my dad in on a laptop. When it came time for him to read one of his lines, I would simply trigger the appropriate sample and his voice would come through the speakers. I didn’t want to add any more stress to his life by asking him to “perform” live. He did a hilarious job recording his lines. He wanted to “nail” them and so we did several takes of each, me sitting there at his hospital bed holding a microphone up to his face and him trying different tones and approaches to the line readings. It remains one of the better memories I have of him from that period, which was not always the most fun of times.

As Kris D’Agostino narrates The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, brother Chase, mother Kathleen, and brother Tom supply the voices at the WORD bookstore reading.

I’m fortunate enough to live a few blocks from one of my favorite bookstores in the world, WORD, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the reading took place in the basement space there, which is an awesome, cozy little room. On the night of the reading there was a packed house, filled almost entirely with friends and family and co-workers who generously came out to support me. I arrived with photocopied pages I had typed up for each of the “players” in the scene. I had laid the whole thing out in screenplay format to make it easier and highlighted the lines for each character in a corresponding color. My mother was purple, Chase yellow and Tom (reading the sister’s lines) was pink. We hooked up the sampler and I ended up using my iPhone to call my father via FaceTime so he could see the whole thing and be there, remotely, from his hospital room. The sampler volume was ludicrously too high so his voice boomed out like some omniscient god-figure overhead every time I played one of his lines. I was of course the most nervous out of everyone and did my best to contain my self-diagnosed sweating problem. The reading went off really well. I got laughs in the places I wanted to get laughs, and, in my mind at least, people were into it. I had successfully, to my satisfaction, circumnavigated the problem of giving a normal, forgettable reading, the kind that I’m always mocking. It felt nice.

The question now is: What the hell am I going to do when I have to read from my second novel?

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