Preserving Literary Life: An Interview with Inprint Houston

Article by ben

So, Inprint, right? Anyone reading this website—in fact, anyone even casually interested in literary arts in Houston—knows all about Inprint. In a city of many hidden cultural treasures, Inprint isn’t one of them. Am I saying Inprint is bad? Of course not. I’m simply recalling something Chuck Klosterman once wrote about Kiss: that they are the most accurately rated band in the world—as in, neither underrated or overrated. In the same way, Inprint is accurately rated. I was recently on a panel with Rich Levy, executive director of Inprint, and afterward, an audience member stood up and praised Levy and Inprint—calling the organization “life-changing,” if I remember correctly, though I wasn’t taking notes—and everyone in attendance nodded and applauded. Everyone knows about Inprint, and everyone knows they’re excellent.

Of course, last week, Inprint was coming off a strong pair of events: on September 17, they hosted Mary Karr at Christ Church Cathedral, Episcopal; and on September 21, they hosted Jonathan Franzen as the first speaker in the 2015-2016 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Inprint does a lot for literary arts in Houston—they help fund the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, they offer workshops for writers, they work with nearly every cultural/literary organization in town (including Brazos Bookstore)—but the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series is really its flagship bit of programming, in which they bring in major writers (last year’s lineup included David Mitchell, Karen Russell, Michael Cunningham, Deborah Eisenberg, Kazuo Ishiguro; and coming up this year: Sandra Cisneros, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Doerr, and more) and make tickets available for $5 a pop. You get to hear a major writer read in a beautiful theater, you get to watch that writer engage in conversation with a local author, and then you get your book signed. Quite a deal. And most of the time, the writers themselves seem happy. When Franzen—famously prickly—visited, he laughed a lot, and I observed him after the reading chatting happily with the line of people waiting for his signature.

I was involved in both events: Karr and Franzen. I helped run the pre-signing lines (Karr signed 400 books before her event; Franzen, 550) and got to stand directly next to each author, passing them books to sign, one of the most artificial ways you can ever interact with another human being. As someone who also runs his own events (for Brazos), I always marvel at how much work goes into making the work seem effortless—for the audience, at least. Inprint almost always achieves this goal, but in the days leading up to the events? There is, of course, a lot of planning, a lot of organizing. Both the Karr and Franzen events went smoothly, and were happy occasions for all involved, but I sat down with Levy and Inprint marketing/outreach director Krupa Parikh a couple weeks ago, before success was a foregone conclusion, to chat about the vision of the series and the process of actually putting it together. Even if you go to all of Inprint’s events, you might not exactly understand how they work behind the scenes.

So I talked with them in the Inprint house on Main Street, a block away from the Menil Collection. We spoke underneath framed flyers on the walls—flyers advertising old reading series from the 1980s, when the readers were mostly friends of Donald Barthelme and Edward Hirsch. We spoke about this as, outside, construction crews tore up the street—the most Houston-y context ever in which to have a conversation.

What follows is a partial transcript. [Note: Some of this conversation gets pretty technical, so I’ve tried to explain things in brackets wherever necessary.] The interview begins, naturally, with the organization’s customary self-deprecation...

Krupa Parikh: I don’t know if this will be terribly interesting.

Rich Levy: [Laughs] We’ll try to be interesting!

On booking Jonathan Franzen

Levy: We go to Book Expo America [the largest publisher trade conference in the States], and a couple years ago, we had a meeting with Jeff Seroy at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG). We asked him who was on the horizon, not just for next year, but for a year from then. He told us a year ago that Franzen was coming out with a new book, and we said that we’d love to open our season with him. We did this before with FSG, with Jeffrey Eugenides [author of THE MARRIAGE PLOT]. Every year, our season subscribers get a free book from us, which is a big buy, usually about 400 books. So we told Jeff about that, and we had a good experience with Eugenides—we had a great crowd—so when PURITY was coming out—and I pester these poor men and women fairly mercilessly—I wrote Jeff a note saying, Can we be on the book tour? We would love to do [an event with Franzen] so we could give the book away. Part of our argument for years with publishers has been, if you send us somebody when the book is new and fresh, you’ll sell more copies. That’s just the way it is. Especially if the person is well-known. And if the person isn’t known at all, you’ll still sell more copies when the book is new. So we try to get people on book tour. It helps with the reading series, because we want to keep our costs to the public low, so it’s still a $5 ticket. [Publishers will pay the costs of authors travelling on book tours in the hope of selling new books, whereas non-book tour events usually have their fees—airfare, hotels, a speaking fee—covered by the organization bringing the author in.]

Benjamin Rybeck: Do you get resistance from publishers about sending authors on book tours?

Parikh: This year, it has been great. We have a lot of writers on book tour.

Levy: And we’ve had to develop this over the years. We’re not a bookstore, so we don’t get the grids. [“Grids” are an industry tool—how publishers let bookstores and other organizations know about upcoming authors going on tour.] We have to discover by happenstance when a new book is coming out. We started working with publishers to get writers on book tour with Salman Rushdie in 2001, twenty-one years into the series. [Before that], the most we’d pay a writer for a speaker’s fee was $4,000. And that was for a Nobel Prize-winner! The nature of all that changed in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Suddenly publishers weren’t sending writers out as much, first of all, and also writers started looking for ways to make a living through readings and talks, so agents got involved.

Rybeck: What kind of tone are you looking to strike with your season opener?

Levy: We want to be appealing to a wide audience, and we want to open with a book that people will be happy and excited to receive for free. Timing is a big part of it. I know this sounds dull, but we want the opener to be a book that people will enjoy. That sounds pedestrian, but it’s true.

Parikh: We focus on literary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and we try to feature people who are at the top of their career and doing their best work, or people we know are coming out with something really exciting. That’s our focus for all our readings, but in particular for the first. We want it to be an evening that people get excited about. They haven’t been to one of our readings for a few months. And Franzen’s work is pretty stellar.

Levy: Opening with a bang.

Rybeck: And you were fans of his work already, I assume? [They’ve had him here to read a couple times before this season.]

Levy: Oh yeah, I love his work. I think he’s an important writer. To be able to open the series with a big book, a new book by an important writer—that’s a big deal.

Rybeck: And how many novelists other than Franzen are able to get people talking so much?

Levy: Yeah, it becomes part of the cultural conversation. It’s nice to have that be part of the equation. It’s not always the case with our season openers, but it’s wonderful to have it be the case with this one.

On Inprint being an “old-fashioned” organization

Parikh: Growing up, I read so many books, but I never saw the face of a writer.

Levy: And it’s so great to hear their voices.

Rybeck: Inprint seems based on an old-fashioned thing, right? Meeting an author, getting a book signed, hearing him/her speak.

Parikh: It’s not a multimedia extravaganza. [Laughs]

Rybeck: Are you concerned with moving into more digital fields?

Parikh: We’re doing some of that, but the essence of our work is the actual writing.

Levy: And reading.

Parikh: The essence has to be the same. If you have a video of a writer that has read in the reading series, and you put the video on your website, the essence is still the writer reading. That hasn’t changed. It’s just the medium of how you serve the community that has changed.

On building and maintaining a literary audience

Parikh: The audience changes, and you have to stay relevant to serve that audience. The audience itself also reacts to the events that you create for them, so your audience is always attracted to your work if you’re doing the work well. Looking at a more simplistic level, we want to continue to build our younger audience while maintaining our mission by serving the people who have been with us over the years.

Levy: We are, depending on the writer, wanting to reach different audiences. For example, Sandra Cisneros will attract a lot of young people from the Latino community. We want to build as many bridges as we can to facilitate that.

On the notion of “audience” in a city as sprawling as Houston

Levy: One thing that is wonderful about Houston is that it’s really diverse, and it has always been really diverse. Entrepreneurial, too. People do start-up type things, from restaurants to bookstores to nonprofits, whatever. Also, people are pretty friendly, and they work together well. Other cities might be more balkanized.

Parikh: We can definitely benefit from doing more community programs in different parts of the city, and that’s something we want to grow. We’ve been thrilled by how much people from all parts of the city embrace our readings. People come from Sugarland, Katy, the Woodlands…

Levy: ...Galveston, Austin…

Parikh: It has been pretty inspiring to see that. It’s not every day you can see Jonathan Franzen, and the likelihood of him reading at a bookstore in Galveston is, well…

Levy: It’s pretty low.

Rybeck: Zero.

Parikh: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s an exciting event for people not just in Houston but all over.

Levy: The same is true of our writing workshops. I’m always amazed that people will drive in for our workshops from all over. But we really like being in the Menil neighborhood, because it’s a unique neighborhood in the city. There isn’t any other neighborhood quite like it. You can walk around, and there’s a feeling that the arts are living here. It’s fairly peaceful, as urban neighborhoods go, and it amazes me that we can be so close to downtown Houston yet the neighborhood feels like a small Midwestern town. Thanks to Dominique De Menil, the neighborhood has been preserved, not trashed the way other parts of Montrose have been.

Rybeck: Do you think of Inprint as preserving something?

Parikh: I do. I’m kind of “old school.” Yes, I think we’re preserving a way of living. The literary life! All through readings, workshops, and giving students money. We’re preserving that possibility of being and living as a writer and reader.

Levy: I agree. We really value giving people the opportunity to challenge themselves as readers. There’s a reason we have the writers we have in the reading series every year. There are plenty of places where you can access genre fiction—something more predictable—but if you want something more challenging, this is the place for it. In terms of the writing workshops, you see the same thing. You push people to do things they haven’t done before, and it brings them to life.

On the Inprint staff’s own work as creative writers [Levy, in 2009, published a collection of poetry called WHY ME?]

Rybeck: Do you all write?

Parikh: I’m a dabbler. I’ve taken a few workshops.

Levy: She’s a good writer!

Parikh: Creative writing is very different from writing press releases or reports. But yeah, I’ve taken some workshops taught by great writers. I wish I had the time to write and read more. That’s what happens when you work in a nonprofit literary arts organization: you have no time to read and write! When I started working at Inprint, people would ask me, “Are you a writer?” I would say, “I’m a reader, not a writer,” but now I’m kind of switching.

On being literary “pros”

Levy: Are we pros? That’s terrifying! [Laughs]

Parikh: I used to think that the endgame for writing was to publish, but I’ve learned that writing can just be something that enhances your life. That’s good enough for now.

Levy: I feel like working here hasn’t given me any entre- into the publishing world, but that might be because I’m not very Machiavellian—not good at positioning myself that way. The writing I do because it’s meaningful to me. I hope that’s why everyone does it.

Rybeck: But have you seen discouraging things in publishing now working in this field?

Levy: [Laughs] Publishing feels fairly benign compared to the rest of the world.

On being starstruck around literary celebrities

Parikh: I’ve gotten good at being professional and not just going, “Oh my God, I love you!” In the end—and poor Kristi [Beer], who deals with all the authors itineraries—you begin to realize that authors are human beings, and they just happen to have this magnificent skill that gives them superpowers.

Levy: Yeah, 99.99% have been great to work with. We won’t name the others.

Parikh: But I’ve been starstruck by Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Moshin Hamid...Their writing has really touched me.

Levy: I’m starstruck by everyone in a way. But then, when you work with them, they’re just people. I was a little starstruck by W.S. Merwin. But I got over it. He’s a good man.

Parikh: When Jhumpa Lahiri came, I was starstruck by her! But then I met her son and husband, and they were nice folks. Like a normal family.

Levy: [Laughs] How strange!

On writers that Inprint presented pre-stardom

Levy: James McBride, I think. We presented him with THE GOOD LORD BIRD on book tour, and then he won the National Book Award. He’d already published successful books, but that was ten years before, so it felt special.

Parikh: Or Marlon James [author of A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS]. We booked him long before he got all the press.

Levy: Yeah, our friend at Riverhead [James’ publisher] said, “Trust me.”

Parikh: And Saunders.

Levy: Yeah, we’re big Saunders fans. We presented him about ten years ago, with Colson Whitehead, when neither of them were that well known. And then later, George… [In 2013, after decades of publishing, he wrote a bestselling story collection, TENTH OF DECEMBER.] It’s thrilling to work with someone who’s a really great writer and has a unique voice and temperament to his work.

Rybeck: Yeah, and Saunders is interesting because he was such a late-bloomer. [He didn’t publish until his late thirties, didn’t became a bestseller until late in his career.]

Levy: And he got to it through hard work. When you hear him talk about writing his stories, the work that goes into them...He’s a monster.

On their own personal reading tastes

Levy: Honestly, most of the people we book.

Parikh: Every once in a while, though, I like an old Victorian novel.

Levy: Yeah, there are a lot of good dead people too. [Laughs] I wish we could’ve booked García Márquez. I’m glad we had Fuentes before he died. We used to feature more poetry at one time in the series, and the series had smaller audiences. That might’ve had something to do with it. [Laughs] I’m a poet, so I’m not going to say I don’t love poetry, but there are only so many poets you can book in downtown theaters.

Rybeck: I bet this year’s poets [Sharon Olds and Tony Hoagland] will pack the house.

Levy: I think so. We had Seamus Heaney, right after the BEOWULF translation came out. We needed an overflow room for him.

Rybeck: Is crowd size central to your notion of success?

Parikh: Not necessarily. We have a lot of great events with small crowds.

Levy: We had Anne Enright. Have you heard her read? I think she comes from a theatrical background. And the story she read was from YESTERDAY’S WEATHER. She wrote it for the BBC; they assigned each writer one of the seven deadly sins, and hers was pride. She wrote a story about a woman whose husband has been cheating on her for years, and this younger woman has just died. The wife knew about it for years, and never acknowledged it because of her pride, but now her husband is all mopey because his mistress died. The story is told from the point of view of the wife. It was a stunning reading.

Every now and then, there are those readings where people just knock you out. We once brought John Updike to the University of Houston campus, and he gave this great talk called “Six Things I’ve Learned About Writing.” He said his typical talk was “Nine Things I’ve Learned About Writing,” but because it had to be shorter, he’d cut three of the things out. [Laughs] He was wonderfully witty and smart and generous with everybody. He really wanted to talk to everybody. Tony Kushner was another one like that. He was just the most generous, open person. And that was a different kind of evening, where we had a couple actors from the Alley Theatre read with him. Kushner played Laura Bush in an excerpt from a one-act play he wrote [“Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy”]. Then he had a conversation with Greg Boyd, the artistic director at the Alley. Such a joy to listen to.

On people they regret never booking

Levy: We had Alice Munro in the series long before I was here, back when she traveled places.

Parikh: Toni Morrison.

Levy: Yeah, mmhmm. [He nods—he nods and says “mmhmm” a lot.]

Rybeck: [Tells a sort of lengthy story he once heard about Morrison being a little prickly with her audience at a reading]

Levy: A lot of writers are private people.

Parikh: Being a celebrity is difficult.

Levy: Yeah, and being a person who wants to be in front of your manuscript for hours a day...and then you have to pump the flesh and be perky? Some people are better at that transition than others. I don’t hold it against them. I’m just grateful when they come.

Rybeck: Well, isn’t it the work—what’s on the page—that matters in the end?

Levy: Yeah, and it’s true that the reading series pushes at that boundary a little bit. It does make the private act of reading into a performance. Yet, it’s wonderful to hear the writer’s voice. It’s always useful, and at least it’s interesting. I was shocked when I heard Walt Whitman’s voice.

Parikh: There’s a recording?

Levy: Yeah, yeah.

Rybeck: So when are you bringing Whitman for the series?

Levy: Yeah, damn it! [Laughs] It always makes a difference to hear the work aloud. Some writers read their own work terribly, I admit that, but most don’t. By hearing most writers read, you can learn something from their cadences. You can almost feel them thinking.

Later, in an email, Levy—his brain still turning all of this over—tells me the name of the author he has always wanted to get for the series but never has: Philip Roth.

Inprint will present a series of great writers throughout the 2015-2016.

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