We’re All In This Together: The Continuing Saga of Inprint

Ten or so chapbooks, laid out across a conference-style table: this is what I see when I walk into the Inprint bungalow on Thursday afternoon to speak with Rich Levy (Executive Director) and Krupa Parikh (Marketing and Outreach Director). I like catching up with our partners at Inprint because it always feels like visiting an interesting friend who has something new to show you. Once, over the holidays, they showed me their holiday tree, decorated with ornament-sized book covers—all the authors they’ve had read in their illustrious Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

This time, it’s the chapbooks, made by members of Houston’s CORE Design Studio, and often hand-bound by Inprint staffers. These chapbooks commemorate at least a decade of the Inprint Poets and Writers Ball, a gala event at which each year Inprint brings in a major writer to speak, and distributes a specially-made chapbook to everyone in attendance. Accordingly, the writers on the table include Salman Rushdie, Mary Karr, Richard Russo—basically the caliber of talent you’d expect.

This year, they’ll add Curtis Sittenfeld, author of PREP and, most recently, ELIGIBLE. She’s headlining the 2017 gala. When I ask what drew Inprint to Sittenfeld, Levy and Parikh speak of a new era that echoes the past. “We have young gala chairs,” Levy says, “so we wanted to have a young writer whom they would enjoy. Our gala chairs are the children of some of our longest board members.”

About Sittenfeld’s newest novel, Parikh adds, “[It’s] a take on Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, so we thought it was sweet to have the old and the new.”

When conceiving of the gala, Inprint is proud of how the event, although a fancy fundraiser that brings in somewhere between a third and a quarter of their annual budget, is an extension of what the organization does, with a clear focus on books, right down to the table decorations (one year, somebody honored HARRY POTTER with a train that circled the diners. Another year, somebody wanted to bring in live doves for a table dedicated to Henry James, but the venue nixed that idea). This year, the food itself is literary, with a menu designed by James Beard Award-winner Robert Del Grande of Café Annie, himself an avid reader who is planning book-themed meals, a way for attendees to explore literary history through food. Levy insists the gala isn’t “just a dance or a fancy meal. It really is tied in with what we do. I’ve been to certain balls by some major organizations in town, and sometimes what the organization does is never mentioned.”

Of course, what Inprint does seems like such a well-recognized accomplishment in Houston that you almost wonder why they still put in the effort. In its greatness and ubiquity, Inprint perhaps runs the risk of being taken for granted. As a manager at Brazos Bookstore, one of Inprint’s longest partners, I confess that I’m occasionally guilty of this. They’ve become such a steady part of my work life that sometimes I forget just how much they do. When Levy rattles off a quick list of their programs—the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, their regular workshops (including ones for seniors), their Cool Brains series aimed at kids, the Inprint Poetry Buskers, the fellowship support they provide to the University of Houston Creative Writing Program—I am staggered anew. And the gala is what helps fund so much of this.

Inprint’s support of the creative writing program is especially important, so much so that this too gets woven into the fabric of the gala. Each year, they have three pre-dinner readers, all former UH students who’ve received Inprint fellowships and have gone on to publish successfully. And each year, Inprint prints the names of recent fellowship and prize-winners in their gala program so that people in attendance can see exactly where their money is going.

“Our fundraising at the Poets and Writers Ball—” Levy says, before Parikh interrupts him with a correction: “Inprint Poets and Writers Ball.”

“Yes,” Levy says, smiling. “The fundraising is much different.”

In Parikh’s sly correction, I’m reminded of another of Inprint’s best qualities: its meticulous branding all over the city, a way of weaving itself into Houston’s literary life in ways you might not quite notice unless you’re paying close attention. As a pretentious MFA student, I once thought that branding was a dirty word, but in Inprint’s hands, it has allowed them to have their name out there, but always somewhat behind the scenes, in support of other writers.

The one time Inprint regularly steps into the spotlight is for the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Glancing back through this article, I see that I’ve mentioned this reading series by name three times already without quite explaining what it is. Here’s that ubiquity again: I simply assume you know what I’m talking about. But in case you don’t, each month (except in the summer) Inprint throws a huge event for, usually, 1000 people. The writers who read in this series include Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Groff, David Mitchell, Helen Oyeyemi, Ann Patchett, Salman Rushie—and that’s just a handful I’m naming off the top of my head from the last two years. The most recent reader was Annie Proulx.

Next up: George Saunders, reading from his first novel, LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. Will it surprise you if I say it’s a masterpiece? Probably it won’t; Saunders is as good as they come. Known for his stories—humane and dexterous in voice—his novel synthesizes all his greatest qualities into the story of Abraham Lincoln burying his son during his presidency, and the numerous voices in the cemetery, the dead who cling to life, refusing to accept death.

Because of the numerous voices in LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, Inprint is working with Saunders and actors at the Alley Theatre to produce a choral reading, one of only two Saunders has scheduled. This speaks to Inprint’s collaborative spirit. “We’re all in this together,” Levy says, speaking of Houston’s arts scene. He recalls one time, when playwright Tony Kushner came for an event and requested at the last minute two actors for an impromptu on-stage performance. Inprint arranged help from the Alley. How many other literary organizations across the country have that kind of resource at their fingertips? The Saunders reading will be an innovative event that echoes the innovation of the novel itself. “It becomes a kind of symphony of voices,” Levy says. “There’s heart in [LINCOLN IN THE BARDO], but it’s also innovative. It’s rare to find a novel that innovative in structure while being so deeply moving.”

This will be Saunders’ third visit to Inprint, which means they’ve seen him at different points in his career. When he first came, it was for CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE (reading with Colson Whitehead), when Saunders was a respected short story writer. A few years later, he returned for TENTH OF DECEMBER, right after he’d reached international fame. Now, with LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, he seems like a genuine legend (“often credited with changing the course of contemporary fiction,” Parikh says). Inprint does this often, mixing household names with soon-to-be ones. A couple years ago, for instance, they booked Marlon James simply because they liked his novel A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS; by the time he came to Houston, he’d won the Booker Prize.

“Just having a big audience is not success,” Parikh says. “It’s also the quality of the experience.”

“‘That was great! I loved it!’” Levy gets animated, hands lifting from the table. “That’s my favorite thing to hear somebody say after a reading.”

Inprint, then, seems like a purveyor of literary warm feelings all over Houston, and this happens on scales large and small, visible and invisible, but always meaningful. In fact, at one point in our conversation, we’re interrupted by a UH grad student and recent Inprint prize-winner, coming into the office to pick up her check. She seems a little nervous, a little shy, but Levy stands right up and makes her feel welcome. “Congratulations,” he says, and tells her he’s looking forward to her upcoming reading. To hear that from a man, and an organization, who will soon bring George Saunders to the stage must mean a lot, and the student seems to leave happy, not only with the money, but also with the validation. Maybe she’ll come back one day and read at the gala? Like Levy said, we’re all in this together.

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812995343
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Random House - February 14th, 2017

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