A Roomful of Half-Bagged, Semi-Literate Knuckle-Draggers
By Jen ConleyJune 15, 2015
WRITERS FIND READERS differently today. Bestselling authors can replace national book tours with Facebook status updates, and one re-tweet can help a new writer step out of the shadows. That doesn’t mean writing is getting any easier, but maybe it’s becoming less isolated. As bookstores diminish, social media is finding new places for writers and readers to meet — unhindered by geography.
But the internet cannot replace the value of the reading event, not yet. Finding likeminded others to connect with, to help boost your confidence or empathize with recent rejection, is best done in real life, preferably with a beverage. Enter a recent trend popping up around the country: Noir at the Bar, a reading series dedicated to crime fiction. For a crime writer, it’s a place to bond with your people. Sort of like the greats did in Paris. Only your Paris might be Boston. Queens. St. Louis. Los Angeles. Or New Jersey.
The concept is simple: about six to 10 writers come together at night in a bar and read their work. They get in front of a mic, read for a few, sit down, finish their drink. It’s like all the other readings you’ve been to, right? Not exactly. We’re talking crime. Noir. Pulp. Hardboiled. Violent. Twisted. Bukowski, Cain, O’Connor are revered. If you go to a reading, you’re going to hear bad words. There’s going to be blood. Things are going to get dark. You might be offended.
I can’t talk about Noir at the Bar without talking about my own entry into crime writing. The first major crime story I wrote was about a 19-year-old boy who robs a house and finds the owner at home, who, by a twist of fate, happens to be his former seventh grade teacher. (I am a seventh grade teacher in real life.) Finding a place for this story seemed daunting until I realized I was looking in all the wrong places — literary fiction it was not. Then I came upon an online crime fiction magazine called Thuglit, edited by Todd Robinson. The stories in this zine were good. Real good. Well-written. They had punch. They stayed with me. I wanted to be a part of it. After my first story was accepted, I wrote more crime stories and sent them off to other online crime fiction venues: Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, and Yellow Mama. Many of the crime editors and writers knew each other, and I was welcomed into their virtual community of blogs and social media. Then something intriguing popped up on Facebook: NOIR AT THE BAR, New York City.
Todd Robinson and another crime writer, Glenn Gray, had organized a reading. As both an editor and writer, Robinson is a prominent figure in the crime fiction world, with many publications under his belt including his novel, The Hard Bounce. I didn’t know Todd or Glenn. I didn’t know anyone in real life because I live about an hour south of New York City, but I wanted to check it out. I took the train up and walked into Shade, a small bar on Sullivan Street in the Village. I introduced myself to people, met Todd Robinson and Glenn Gray. They even let me read an unpublished story I had in my bag. My hands were shaking and I could feel my voice rattling. It wasn’t a great performance — story was too long, I couldn’t look up, I read too fast — but everyone clapped and I felt good. The writers and editors in the bar were upbeat, funny, relaxed, insightful, encouraging, down to earth. Many of them had been published in the same online magazines as me. Nobody took themselves too seriously; there’s no pretension in this corner of the crime fiction world, I would learn later. It’s a humble affair, a community. “Noir at the Bar is a reading, but it’s also a gathering of likeminded night creatures who come crawling out to reenergize with people who love hearing, and love writing, a damn good story,” says writer and editor Thomas Pluck, the current host of the Manhattan event.
Noir at the Bar is full of writers who have made it, are in the processing of making it, or maybe aren’t there yet. The event can be raw or polished; the stories can be gritty or smooth. But overall, it has a punk sensibility, the stripped-down version of the craft, like seeing a band in a dive bar. For the writers, you get to throw your work out there in front of people who love crime fiction and then get together afterward to talk shop:
“Did that agent like your book?”
“Rejection city. Said my main character was unlikable.”
“Me too … You want another beer?”
You can find Noir at the Bar in many cities across the country. Sometimes, like New York, they’re regular events, every couple of months. Other times, they just pop up when you least expect it. They’ve been known to appear in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Austin, Portland, New Orleans, Chicago, San Diego. Even smaller towns have hosted Noir at the Bar: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Durham, North Carolina; Oxford, Mississippi; and Asbury Park, New Jersey. They’ve popped up in Canada — Toronto and Vancouver — and it’s about to go overseas to Glasgow, Scotland this June.
Noir at the Bar originated in Philadelphia in 2008, when writer Peter Rozovsky organized a regular reading event to showcase local writers. Initially, it was one writer per session, followed by questions about the work. Fast forward to St. Louis, where writers Jedidiah Ayres and Scott Phillips liked the concept so much they ran with Rozovsky’s idea, expanding it and laying down the template for what all Noir at the Bar events are today: several writers reading their work over the course of an evening, interspersed with beer, cigarette breaks for smokers, and talk talk talk.
Those first events weren’t easy. Despite its casual feel, Noir at the Bar isn’t thrown together. It takes legwork to find a willing bar and gather up writers who are free and in the area. Depending on the logistics, the outcome can be highly successful r a quiet affair. Ayres and Phillips’ first events were a labor of love: Noir at the Bar was “the most raggediest production you ever saw,” according to Ayres. The lights were too low, the bar band struck up in the middle of someone’s reading, and there weren’t enough seats. However, despite these mishaps, Ayres and Phillips were on to something. The writers had a blast and word got out.
In New York, Todd Robinson and Glenn Gray began holding Noir at the Bar every couple of months, eventually passing the torch to Thomas Pluck. Chris Irvin, author of Federales and Burn Cards, started hosting Noir at the Bar in Boston. Alex Segura, author of Silent City, runs the event in Kew Gardens, Queens. Nik Korpon, author of Stay God, Sweet Angel, is planning a third installment of Noir at the Bar in Baltimore on June 21st.
One of the most regular and popular of the Noir events is the one in Los Angeles, hosted by Eric Beetner and Stephen Blackmoore. Beetner, author of the recently published The Year I Died Seven Times, began running Noir at the Bar in Los Angeles after the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood closed down. The bookstore had been a hub for crime writers, and Beetner found that he missed the community. After hearing about Ayres and Phillips’ readings, he teamed up with writer Stephen Blackmoore and started a similar reading series in his city. Four years and over 70 readers later, Noir at the Bar L.A. has been a consistent success.
In many ways, the increasing popularity of Noir at the Bar is related to the vanishing bookstore. The decline of the traditional stops for authors, for instance, made it possible for Beetner to recruit big name authors from out of town looking to promote their work and having fewer venues in which to do so. Soon Noir at the Bar was drawing bigger crowds than the bookstores had. “We’ve really enjoyed hosting touring writers,” Beetner says. “We usually get 40–50 people. We’ve been standing room only for the past few years.”
Outside the formal setting of a bookstore, Beetner and Blackmoore’s Noir at the Bar L.A. is also free to play around. They’ve done screenings of short films. (The bar used for the events, Mandrake in Culver City, is uniquely set up for video.) They’ve had Megan Abbott do a dramatic reading using actors. They had a local theater company come in to preview their night of Noir themed plays. Steph Cha read a tiny bit from her novel and then read some fake Yelp! reviews she wrote. Charlie Huston read a piece of a Breaking Bad script. Eric Beetner himself changed it up by not reading a particular section of his book, but reading the opening lines of each chapter. “We’ll take anything that comes along,” he says. “It keeps it exciting and fresh for the regulars, of which we have many.”
They’ve hosted several writers doing their first public reading as well as veterans like Joe Lansdale. “We want to be a place where people can come and see a familiar face and get a book signed, then also discover someone new and go away with more names to be on the lookout for,” Beetner explains. “And it’s really satisfying when we host a new reader and then can invite them back when they publish a novel.” And like most Noir at the Bar events, the Los Angeles reading series is free and open to anyone who wants to attend.
For me, Noir at the Bar has been a fortunate stroke of luck. I’ve gotten my name out, met great writers, and learned how to read a story properly: keep it short, fluctuate the voice, make sure the piece has punch. I go to Noir at the Bar events as often as I can, and I’ve even run a couple of my own. Because that’s what is so wonderful about Noir at the Bar: the accessibility of it. Everyone is welcomed, whether you’re just starting out, you’re a bestselling author, or you’d simply like to spend an evening listening to great crime fiction.
In 2011, Jedidiah Ayres and Scott Phillips were so impressed with the stories that were read at Noir at the Bar St. Louis, they put together an anthology of crime stories called aptly, Noir at the Bar (published by New Pulp Press). In the preface, Ayres delightfully captures the scene: “What you’ve got here are stories by folks who bled and sweat it onto the page, then hauled their asses to our tawdry event and read them aloud before a roomful of half-bagged, semi-literate, knuckle-draggers for nothing more than the pleasure of doing so.”
Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in many crime fiction publications, including Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, and Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. She is one of the editors of Shotgun Honey and lives in Brick, New Jersey.
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