Occupying an interesting place, between a reading, a gig, a book club and a stand up show, Book Slam – Patrick Neate’s literary club night – turns an activity normally conducted in solitude – the reading of a book – into an interactive experience. Here reader is audience and writer is performer; both must respond to one another in real time.
In November they hosted three launch nights across London to celebrate the publication of Too Much Too Young, a collection of short stories written by some of 2012’s Book Slam alumni. The Grand in Clapham is where the monthly Book Slam night usually happens and it is a perfect space for such an event: part posh wine bar, part old music hall, it has ornate ceilings and theatre boxes for the VIPs. The crowd is mixed and energetic – similar to the kind one might find at a comedy gig in Soho – only here, they are interspersed with networking publishers and people using the pre-show lull to catch up on their reading. Here in south London the performers are Diana Evans, David Nicholls, Dan Antopolski and Marquez Toliver, while to the East (at Rough Trade) and to the West (at The Tabernacle ), Jackie Kay, Luke Wright, Salena Godden and Basement Orchestra are among the many others performing.
As with Book Slam’s first short story collection in 2011, the authors have been given a brief: use the title of a favourite song as a starting point. The musical choices, like the list of contributors, is eclectic: Craig Taylor goes for Metallica, Jackie Kay uses Ella Fitzgerald and Patrick Neate opts for a Netsayi song. Inspired by soundtracks of our lives, the stories are much like the songs themselves; short and sometimes slight, but containing a powerful resonance that is hard to pin down.
I spoke to contributors Nikesh Shukla (the author of Coconut Unlimited and Generation Vexed) and Diana Evans (author of 26a and The Wonder) to find out how they got involved with Book Slam and how performing their work live affects their writing.
NS: “I started off as a fanboy. It was the place to go to see some of the best writers and musicians come together. I used to fantasise about one day sharing a bill myself with Zadie Smith or Dave Eggers. I used to hassle Patrick all the time to let me perform but I’m glad they waited until my novel Coconut Unlimited was out, because when I finally got to do Book Slam, it felt like a massive triumph. They’re a great set of people. They’re family. And their taste is impeccable.”
DE: “I met Patrick Neate a few years ago at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and he asked me whether I’d be interested in reading at Book Slam some time. I was already a fan of it so I did, while eight months pregnant might I add!”
Do you write differently for work that is to be performed and work that is to be read?
NS: “No. I think there’s an oral storytelling tradition to most things I write and I edit by reading aloud. By hearing the way the words sound, by speaking the dialogue like it would be said, by trying to find the rhythms in the sentences. So anything I write tends to have that ‘aloud’ tradition to it.”
DE: “I never write something mindful of reading it aloud, I always just write in the same way I always have, as if I were writing an essay. It’s all in my head, don’t really know what it sounds like or whether it will ‘project’ well until it’s finished. I try and use the perfect words in the right places to express the precise meaning and that’s what pleases me.”
Nikesh’s story Safe from Harm is based on the Massive Attack song- I ask him why he chose the song.
NS: “Well, choosing a song was difficult because you think, should I go obscure or cool or whatever. But I’d just moved to Bristol, where Massive Attack are from, and I was thinking a lot about my entire life in London, specifically my very formative twenties. This Massive Attack line always stuck with me ‘Whatever happened to the niceties of my childhood days?’ so I started thinking about friendship groups and what had happened to us all. Once I’d settled on Safe From Harm and I had that rolling bassline going round and round in my head, I had to work out who was safe from harm and what protected them. Maybe it’s just a story about getting old. ”
It is very winding in form and it feels like it is being told out loud to a friend – full of non-linear anecdotes and sudden remembering. Is this style a way to bridge the gap between page and stage, writer and ‘storyteller’?
NS: “I wanted it to be a series of fragments. I like happy endings, unfashionable as they are, which is why it ends at the beginning. It works its way backwards through time showing a group growing apart. I wanted them to tell you everything you needed to know about this group of friends through anecdotal glimpses of a stage in their lives. I hadn’t thought about the oral tradition until I read it out aloud for the first time at Peckham Literature Festival. I appreciated for the first time how hypnotic the rhythm is. It definitely does feel, now you mention it, like whispered remembrances in the middle of the night with the lights off. Kinda like a the song, if that makes sense.”
You work across many mediums- comedy, performance, novels, short stories, film- do you feel like you have a different persona/ process for each?
NS: “I don’t feel like I’m that different. Mostly because I’m usually telling the same old sorts of stories – they seem to be about a version of me. What I most enjoy about being a writer, rather than being an author is the freedom to tell stories in a variety of ways.”
At the launch, Diana reads her short story Another Saturday Night (from the Sam Cooke song). It is dense, fascinating and all the more powerful for being read to us in person. She combines history and politics with fiction and personal experience, leaving the listener not only desperate to re-read the story themselves to try to absorb all the subtleties, but also wanting her voice to continue all night, so convincing and evocative is the world it can take us to. Her latest book The Wonder is inspired by the history of Les Ballets Negres and uses her back ground as a dancer to intertwine narratives from past and present.
I ask her whether it was her background as a performer that drew her to Live literature.
DE: “I used to dance in an African-Caribbean troupe based in Brighton. I’ve always been shy so it took a lot for me to get on that stage in the first place. It still does sometimes, but I think having been a dancer prepared me for it, to an extent, but using your voice is very different from using your body. Reading to audience is a strange but necessary counter-balance to the solitude of writing – they make each other more difficult somehow but they also compliment each other.”
Your stories often focus on issues around dual identities- Do you find complexities such as these easier to express via performance?
DE: “My big ongoing project is to tell heartfelt stories about people, who usually happen to be of dual identities, psychologically, racially, culturally, or whatever. I like the feeling of portraying complex ambiguities to audiences who might not relate to them literally, but still gain a sense of understanding and connection to them through simply listening.”
Later in the evening David Nicholls’ reads his story A Little Soul. It is a great example of performed text. His words have the rhythm of those written to be spoken aloud, making it obvious why his writing for the screen is so successful. Music is provided by Marquez Toliver, a soul violisnist who sings as he plays. The inclusion of his poetic, semi-improvised jazz compositions works very well, even if his between-song talk was jarringly promotional rather than literary. Comedian Dan Antopolski’s builds a level of interaction between performer and audience that is very different to the connection the authors established by reading; accustomed to using audience reactions to create humour, he brings a spontaneity and improvisation that the pre-planned stories lacked- yet never reaches their peaks of emotional engagement.
I ask Nikesh and Diana whether they think a more performative, interactive approach to literature is important.
NS: “It’s amazing. Book readings used to be so boring. Seriously, people gathered round a soporific red-faced bore reading slowly in ‘Autumnal Poetry Voice’. Book Slam kickstarted the idea that books have as much cultural capital and cool as clubbing, music, gigs… And now, because of Book Slam and its legacy, we have amazing nights like The Book Stops Here, Literary Death Match, The Special Relationship – nights that celebrate that people want to go out and have a laugh and be read to and that reading can be fun and full of funk. “
DE: “It’s absolutely crucial. I know people who feel they don’t have time to read books but will go to something like Book Slam, and it will make them read. It’s an avenue towards keeping literature healthy as a whole. Book Slam’s a great place- always a warm and receptive audience composed of people who just love books and like to funk it up a bit too.”