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We’re excited to share this excellent interview about the art of running a reading series from Index for Continuance, which is produced by the CSU Poetry Center and hosted by Hilary Plum and Zach Peckham. In this conversation, Hilary Plum speaks with novelist Sarah Rose Etter about reading series and their place in the literary landscape. From practical tips surrounding running a series—gleaned from Etter’s time hosting TireFire in Philadelphia—to advice for writers stepping up to the microphone to give readings of their own, this episode offers a crash course in literary community, performance, and citizenship.
Index for Continuance is a podcast focusing on small press publishing, politics, and practice by engaging editors, writers, publishers, critics, booksellers, and organizers involved in independent, small press, DIY, and community literary work in conversation. Index for Continuance aims to build an archive of grassroots knowledge that can serve the future of publishing. Learn more about the CSU Poetry Center, which produces Index for Continuance.
Sarah Rose Etter the author of the novels Ripe (Scribner, 2023), a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Time Must-Read Book of 2023, and The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), winner of the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award. Her short fiction collection, Tongue Party, was selected by Deb Olin Unferth as the winner of the 2011 Caketrain Award.
On a related note, listen to Unicorn-Level Books with Two Dollar Radio, Page Count’s interview with Two Dollar Radio editors Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf.
Page Count returns with a new episode on January 2: the recording of an in-person conversation with Ross Gay and Alison Stine at the Youngstown Fall Literary Festival.
Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Laura Maylene Walter: Today we're sharing an interview from another Cleveland literary podcast: Index for Continuance, which is produced by the CSU Poetry Center. Hosted by Hilary Plum and Zach Peckham, Index for Continuance is a podcast about small press publishing, politics, and practice. This episode that we're sharing today focuses on reading series: hosting them, running them, and why they matter in the literary landscape, but also on the art of giving a reading as an author and the act of performance for writers. Hilary Plum interviews novelist, Sarah Rose Etter, author of the delightfully and darkly surreal THE BOOK OF X, published by Two Dollar Radio, and more recently RIPE. I really love this conversation, which offers wide-ranging insight into what makes a successful reading series and how writers can best present their work to the world when giving readings. Check our show notes for links to the Index for Continuance podcast, the CSU Poetry Center, Sarah's books, and more. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count will return on January 2 with an original episode, my interview with Ross Gay and Alison Stine that took place in October at the Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. But for now, enjoy this conversation with Sarah Rose Etter. Hilary Plum: Hi, this is Hilary. Welcome to Index for Continuance, a podcast on small press publishing, politics and practice. Today we're talking to the writer Sarah Rose Etter, who used to host a reading series...co-host a reading series in Philadelphia called TireFire. And we're gonna get into the history of that and other folks who were involved. But we wanted to use this conversation as an occasion to talk about reading series in general, like what it's like to host one, how to do it, give some tips for people who are interested to do that work. Basically, one goal we have with this podcastis to give some information on how to do this work of literary editing, publishing and programming. For those of you who have ever like, tried to start a new project or maybe teach editing and publishing, it can be a little surprisingand disorienting how little formal information there is out there. Hilary Plum: Like if you want to find out like how to be a good editor or how to run a good literary program, it's not as though there's going to be like a lot of books or essays talking about that work from the inside. And talking about people's experiences in doing it, kind of welcoming new people into that work or giving you some company, if you're trying to do it, you're solving some problems that you're like, or trying to solve some problems that you're like, I know people have, other people have worked on this. Other people have faced issues like this, or have tried to figure out how money should work or what this program should be like, et cetera, or how to kind of balance X and Y. There aren't like textbooks or there aren'tnecessarily accounts from the inside of that work. The information tends to flow kind of informally or through conversation or through things you can pick up by knowing people, but that's not necessarilytotally like welcoming or accessible. Hilary Plum: And we've talked about that before. So I wanted to have at least one conversation that was about readings and about like what it's like to host a reading series and how you figure out what you want to do with your series and accomplish those goals. How you think about like, what are reading series good for? Like, what are readings good for? What are the different goals they can achieve? How do you want yours to feel and be and what audience and purpose do you want it to serve? And also for writers like to think about like, how to give a good reading, why do we give readings? How to find your kind of voice and approach to performance. I feel like we're often left to sort of figure those things out on our own, and you can, I mean, going to like one million readings helpsyou understand what they can be like and what they're up to. Hilary Plum: But at least for me, when I started, you know, being invited to give readings, I felt like I had no idea what to do. And just had to spend some time figuring out what was a relationship to the work that I could share publicly and kind of perform and offer in a room. So we're gonna try to talk about some things like that, which I hope might be helpful for people at all, different kinds of stages and thinking about these things. And also because our relationship to them changes over time and project to project and with different things we're trying to do. And the other thing I wanted to do with this conversation was talk to someone who worked really, really hard on a literary project for a few years and, and is looking back on it. I like to talk to people who are in different stages of like their relationship to some work. Hilary Plum: People who are like, have been doing it for 20, 25 years and are maybe stepping away. They're handing it off. People who are in the thick of it who are picking up a project, a press, or a series, or whatever it is. A journal that belonged to someone else for a long time and now they are making it their own while also honoring everything that, that it's done. And people who, you know, kind of intensely did something and now they're up to something else. I think these are all like important stages in, in the lives of people doing cultural work, particularly when it's a mixture of paid and unpaid work. So you kind of are figuring out how to make a life out of those things. So, let's hear from Sarah. Sarah Rose Etter: Hello. Hilary Plum: Hello. Sarah. Thanks so much for talking to me today. And congrats... Sarah Rose Etter: Hilary Plum. Hilary Plum: It is I. Hilary Plum: Congratulations on your new novel RIPE, which I want to tell everyone will be out in July. Is that right? Sarah Rose Etter: Yes it is. Hilary Plum: From Scribner. Sarah Rose Etter: Thank you so much. Yes. Hilary Plum: Awesome. Sarah Rose Etter: I'm so excited. Hilary Plum: We're excited. I can't, I haven't gotten to read it yet, as we just discussed. I have to wait. So I was thinking as I wrote these questions that there's like, not any subjects, I don't want to talk to you about, but for the sake of this podcast, I wanted to talk to you about a reading series that you used to co-host in Philadelphia called TireFire. And I'll give what I think is a chronology, and you can correct me, which is that you and the writer Christian TeBordo co-founded the series. Hilary Plum: And then eventually you and Annie Liontas hosted it after Christian moved, and now it is with Jamie Fountaine and Mike Ingram. And it took place in this great bar called Tattooed Moms, which people might remember if they've been there, for it's graffiti and for the bumper cars you could sit in. So for this, this podcast is about like kind of small press politics, publishing practice, community, you know, beyond small presses too. And so I was thinking, I wanted to do an episode about readings, which are such a like vital and lively site of community and a place where like writers meet each other, kind of writers meet readerspeople get to like go to new cities and encounter their like scene and what's happening there. And also where like the work has this life that's embodied and that's in the writers voice and that's performed and ephemeral and it's, it's special. Hilary Plum: It's like happening just that night and just that room, right? It's like different from the life of the book. And even though this is like such a big part of what, you know, we all go to a lot of readings for working writers. We like give a lot of readings, but like, how do you find out how to do one? Like, it's not like there's like books out there or like theories on how to run a good reading series. And I host one now at the CSU Poetry Centerwhich is like kind of for the university and it's like based in the poetry center. And even though it's like each event only lasts a few hours, I think about it like so much, you know, and try to think about like what makes, what will make this good? And like, what is the definition of a good reading for this series? Like, what am I trying to achieve here and like, who's it for and how do I get them here? And all of those things. So I wanted to talk to you because I think of TireFire as just like one of the best,ike overall reading series I've ever gotten to attend. And I've said this to you before and I think it probably seems like I was exaggerating, but I think of you as the best reading series host in America. Sarah Rose Etter: Okay. Hilary Plum: Like, I just like miss seeing you. Hilary Plum: <Laugh>. Hilary Plum: No, that's what we're sticking with. That's it. I'll say more about kind of why, butif it won't embarrass you too muchor even if it does I guess. But like, so first I just wanted to ask you kind of like how TireFire came to behow you would describe kind of its mission and what it was up to, like what you guys were trying to do with that series at that time? Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah, I think maybe Christian had a friend in town and invited me to read with his friend and then after that night we were like, why don't we just make this a thing? And we both had a lot of friends who were writers and I think, you know, we never started out with any kind of real mission. We just started piecing things together and you know, it's kind of like, I don't know, I didn't, I don't think I've ever seen this movie, but what's that movie where they say if you build it, they will come. Hilary Plum: Oh, Field of Dreams. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. Hilary Plum: Some classic Kevin Costner. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: It was exactly, it was exactly like that <laugh>. You know, we were just messing around and I think there was no real, you know, I do feel like there was no real rule book, so we just kind of built it as it happened and that followed with a bunch of mishaps. I mean, one thing I thought about all the time is it's very similar to curation. So what did I think would fit well together? How could I make sure there were people who were going to be different from each other? Right? Like, you don't wanna have a night of all people doing sad people fiction, right? I just, I won't name where I was, but I just went to a reading a couple months ago or maybe a year ago and it was just all sad all the way through. And it's like, what a downer, man. Sarah Rose Etter: I didn't, I didn't wanna leave my house to come be this sad. Like one sad person is fine. Five sad people over the course of an evening is like way too much for anybody. We also gave pretty good parameters because we know like writers will always read more than you tell them to. So we were always like, five to seven minutes, it's all you get. And that helped a lot because it really helped us avoid that one person going to 45 minutes. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: When you're all just sitting there like, please come on. You know, and I think one thing I learned that from running that series is you need to create a situation where no one's reaching for their phone. Hilary Plum: Yup, yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And I think that's even more true today. The minute, the minute somebody is bored enough to pick up their phone other than to take a photo of you reading, you're kind of screwed, you know? But so we started by just inviting friends at first who had books coming out and they were starting to patch east coast tours together. So we had Penina Roth runs Franklin Park Reading Series in New York. And then I had a friendwho had a reading series down in DC and we were kind of shuttling people, you know, all the way down the eastern seaboard. I don't know if that's the eastern seaboard. I don't know what the eastern seaboard is. Hilary Plum: I believed you. Sarah Rose Etter: That's what it is to me, eastern seaboard is really DC. But I mean, when I say that it was really DIY like, you know, we were, most of the people were sleeping at our houses. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: You know, that was, that was the level ofyou know, most of the time you were going to be on our couch and the bar would give you like free food and free drinks and that was kind of the deal. And I think, you know, in kind of the best way, because we weren't trying to do anything, we ended up doing something. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Does that answer your question? Hilary Plum: Yeah. Yeah. So I wanted to ask you about andlike getting an audience out. Well, first of all, you've already given one great tip, which is to always tell writers a shorter amount of time. You cannot be truthful with people. Like, if you want them to read for ten minutes, tell them like seven or eight. Sarah Rose Etter: Five. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Five, Yeah. Because they, they can't do it. They just can't. Like so I wanted to ask about, you know, building an audience or how to like sustain an audiencewhich is something of course every series thinks a lot about and kind of sometimes changes over time. You know, like you, you're not totally in control of it, right? It's something that's also happening and out there on its own. And so, you know, one question is like, how do both like reliably reach audiences that you kind of know who they are and you're connected to them, and then also audiences you may not know about yet or you're not connected to yet, but you want to like both do a good job serving whatever the kind of core audience is. Hilary Plum: And also not just serve them, right? So that like new people and strangers or people from kind of like other artistic communities can hear about it and do, and could walk in and like, feel welcome and that kind of thing. And also like, I think even when, you know, we as the people like curating a series or events like that, like we know a lot about the people in the room or like the aesthetics that we're interested in. We also don't want to just do that, right? Like, we want to like challenge our own expectations or theirs sometimes, or do something that's a little different. SoI wanted to ask just about how you went about like kind of establishing and sustaining an audience. And maybe that has to do with like what writers you choose or also like how you outreach or like what factors did you find yourself thinking about or kind of working on? Sarah Rose Etter: Well there's one thing that I think is more important now than it was then, which is making a cool looking flyer. Like, especially because of like Instagram. I would download, if I was doing this now, I would download thisdesign program called canva.com. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: Which is why I to like lay out all my blurbs and stuff. It needs to be just an eye-catching flyer is the first thing. And that has a couple different things. One, any kind of really cool branding makes the people who are coming more excited to share it, right? So that you wanna make people feel like they're coming to something that's really awesome. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: And really thought out. And so part of that is like your presentation, make a little logo, have a have a point of view on like how you're gonna lay out that information so that people get excited to see it every time is one thing to think about. Sarah Rose Etter: The second thing is we always had what I would call the hometown hero, which is we had to make sure that since we had people coming from out of town, there was going to be like a local anchor that would always bring somebody in. You know, because every city has their like writers that everybody loves and will show up for. And if you don't have a couple of those on the lineup and you just bring all out of towners. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: The odds that people are gonna come out for that. Unless you've got a big, big name and even if you do have a big name, you still wanna nod to your community and like help raise those people up. So having a really close connection with the up and comers and giving your young writers a chance to read with big names is huge. Sarah Rose Etter: And that also helps you expand your audience because your younger writers, your newer writers, they're going to bring a whole different generation of people who might not even be writers, who might just be their friends and they find out about you. Like some of the biggest fans of TireFire were probably friends of people who read there and then just got really into it and wanted to come back. You know, and the thing, the other thing about audiences, you can't really predict a lot of things, but there's a couple things you can keep a look out for. Take a look at the calendar of events and don't have the reading when there's a big person in town or the, you know, the local college is having a reading, right? Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: This doesn't sound like a big deal, but I'll never forget, I think we threw a reading like the same night that like some band was playing and nobody showed up because it was like everybody was at that show. Sarah Rose Etter: And it's like, you know, you just don't want to bother putting that much effort into something if you're going to do it the same night that like, you know, the hottest band in the world is playing in your town or, you knowsome giant writer has shown up for a college event down the street. So just keep an eye on the calendar and try to find, you know, those kind of dates and times that aren't going to like, set you up to fail. I forget who it was. I want to say it was like somebody, like, I don't want to know if it was like Jay-Z or something. I, I don't know, somebody was playing and like no one came and I was like, God, like foiled again by Jay-Z. But anywayso that's one thing. The other thing is definitely get people from different colleges that are nearby to read for you. Sarah Rose Etter: That's another really cool way to bring in community, especially if you're in a place where, like you might be on a state border and there might be like a school that's in a different state nearby. Like, we would always have people from Jersey come down and from Rutgers, Camden, right? Like, that was a good university for us to have people come from. Yeah. Just kind of looking for work that you're really excited about. I mean, it really gave you a reason to keep an eye on like new writers who you could get excited about. And then you start going, the other good tip is to go to other writing series, right? Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And like, see people read. You have, there's no other way to decide who you want on your lineup than to see them read. And so you definitely are kind of scouting a little, like you want to do a little bit of that. For sure. Yeah. Hilary Plum: I was thinking as I was like getting ready for this, I was trying to come up with a sort of taxonomy of reading series, like literary reading series. And here's what I came up with and you can see what you think and if it's useful, which is like, I was like, okay. There's like bookstore serieswhich are like part of a book tour. You get a new book out, you hit the bookstores. It's a hugely important way to sell books and like connect with readers and book sellers, you know, do so much publicity, right. They spread the word about a book. So, big source of sales. But it's also like, not all writers can get in a bookstore in a way, right? Like, bookstores tend to be a little bit more selective or they're hooked into some national tours. They're doing a balance of national and local events. Hilary Plum: And so maybe like smaller press writers are less likely to be able to do that all the time. Or, you know, speaking to those of us, those who've had this experience, sometimes we do it, but like five people are there because, you know, like, which is generous of the bookstore to be like, just like, okay, you can come read here. And you're like, oh, I thought maybe there was more of a built in like audience. You know, so it's like they have to balance what sort of event is worth it for them to be open and run the event, et cetera. Which totally makes sense. But it means like maybe some writers need some different options. So bookstores...then the next type is like the colleges and universitieswhich you mentioned, where people come as a visiting writer and they, you know, give often a craft talk or lecture and they speak there. Hilary Plum: And that's like, I would say that plays in a special role as a source of income for writers. You know? Because you get paid by college or university. You know, it might range from a few hundred bucks to, you know, some writers are getting paid $10,000, $30,000, $50,000 for those events. And it's like they play a kind of educational role. You're connecting with emerging writers and students, which is exciting. It's probably less about selling books, but it is about like being out thereconnecting with people. And then the last category was more like terrifying. It was like bar series or community series or ones that might be in someone's house. Like we hold readings in our house sometimes, like that are just, they're more DIY or they're like not connected necessarily to an institution exactly. So maybe you're figuring out more who your audience is or what they're doing. So I don't know. I was curious like what you thought of as the role of like, kind of like a bar series or plays, you know, like, It's at night, it's, it's maybe like fun, it's not hooked into anything else. And you have a lot of freedom as a curator in that space. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: I will say this, like, as probably kind of leads to another tip. We did get to a point where when people came to Philly for the college reading, for the bookstore reading, they would come to TireFire after. Hilary Plum: Cool. Sarah Rose Etter: Like, I think I remember Kelly Link came and did a reading at like Temple and then made it just in time to be like the final reader at TireFire. Hilary Plum: Oh yeah. I was there for that. Yeah. Okay. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah, so we did get to a point where they realized it was giving them a chance to reach like a packed room of people who were passionate. And by that point we had, in the beginning we just had people selling their own books. And then we got to a point where we did have a local bookseller that would come in and handle all the sales and have like a square account and just, you could buy the books that way. And you know, so people were, you know, moving copies for sure. And so I think there's something different. You can let your hair down, you can curse, you can be a little less perfect and you don't need to be so buttoned up and academic. You know, it really, I did feel like what we were trying to do was like almost indirect opposition to what happens at a college where you need to present this very professional, very cleaned up kind of like your blouse is buttoned all the way up vibe. And then like, just here's a chance to just be a person. Sarah Rose Etter: And like read and have fun and engage with a room of people and there's no signing line. You're probably going to sign books, but you're gonna sign them at the bar and people are gonna want to talk to you after. And it was just a different energy than, you know, that idea of like, I don't know, it did feel like people were there less to network and more to just get to know each other. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: Even when the big writers came, it didn't feel likeas...I don't want say ladder climb-y, but it, you know, it just, people weren't there for that necessarily. They were there to see a really good reading and maybe say hi afterwards, and do a shot. Hilary Plum: Yeah. And I feel people really did stick around after and really did chat. You know, like it had that energy. Like people weren't like going like go sign books to chorus lay at a table or...It doesn't have that same deference or deferential energy where like you are the special person that people are sort of differing to. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. There was something, there was something about not having them sit behind a table. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: At the end. You know, I mean it just, I think there was something that made them more like human and made it less like...I'm the writer, you are the audience. Right? Sarah Rose Etter: And so I think that maybe led to more like actual friendships versus like. You know, and, and again, like I understand the function of the college reading and the bookstore reading, but we did kind of have that energy of like, writers after dark <laugh>. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: We're, we're going to have so much, it felt like a, like a salon in the old days sometimes, you know? Hilary Plum: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's like, I mean, obviously not everyone has to want exactly. But you know, like, but just speaking for myself, but I think also some others. It's like a lot, it's really nice for the writer because it's a, you know, it's a lot of like pressure. Like, it's nice to be in a setting where you're like a visiting expert in a way or you're, but you're more in a persona. And so there's something really freeing about being in like a space that's loose that has some energy in it, and where you get to really talk to people and it doesn't, you can say whatever, like, you don't need to worry about like, oh, what did I just say to that person's student? Oh my God. You know, Sarah Rose Etter: You know, there's this other thing that is kind of another tip is like, we were always looking for someone whowe would sometimes have this motto of putting the best reader first in the lineup, which is the opposite of what you would think. Usually you have the quote unquote, like lesser writers kick things off. But there are something about putting a great reader first that makes everyone else step their game up. And I do think this is something else that the writers were getting that they might not get at a college. They were getting kind of challenged, because you don't go up after some ballsy 25-year-old with a 90 page poetry chapbook just got up and completely crushed it and did a reading that like floored everybody in 10 minutes and then be like...hey, it's me. Hi. Hilary Plum: Yeah. <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: Right? You, you could see that the rest of the people reading you, they started getting more energetic. They started pulling out tricks from the hat. Right. SoI think that's another reason it was easier to attract writers is it was inspiring to them, I hope, too, on some level. Yeah. Hilary Plum: I think that's true. And that's what I was gonna ask you about was like, just like the concept of energy, which I think is like, it's, I don't know, I find it hard to talk about without just being like, we're talking about like vibes or something <laugh>. And then I was like, you know, when I was, like, like how do you curate the vibes? But you, but people do. And like you were, and like people are, whenever they're in a space like that, they're, whether they're doing it actively or just passively. And I was thinking aboutyou know, I just like, I was very impressed with how you did it. And I was like, I don't even think, I was like, I don't think Sarah, like you write about visual art, but I don't know if you'd write about like performance arts, you know, and I was like, but it really is a kind of performance. Hilary Plum: And I was thinking like, one, if there's energy in the room, it it, it's not just that it's there and people are experiencing it, but also it allows for more, more energy. Like, it allows for more responsiveness and it lets the room go from one thing to another so that you can have like a funny, you know, piece. You can have something that's really intense and something that's really experimental or language focused that asks a little bit of a different kind of listening. And you can, you can have all those in a row, but it kind of requires a certain level of energy that lets things feel mobile and like, like they're happening and we can like change and respond. And I was, I liked what you said about like, challenging. Like I felt like, you know, times I read at TireFire, I was like, you got to do a good job, <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. You better. I always say that it was my best training as a writer. I think when I was doing TireFire, I don't think I was really sure I wanted to be a writer or keep writing. I think maybe I had a chapbook out, but I was at a point in my relationship with writing that I knew I loved it, but I wasn't really...sure what I was trying to do. And that actually made the reading series easier. Cause I genuinely didn't have an angle. I just loved, I just loved the work of the people we were bringing in. And I, you know, I don't even think I had, I think I maybe had graduated with my master's, but I had come out of a program where I didn't really fit in. And so I really was in a point of my writing where I just was like, I don't think I really want to do this anymore because I'm making such weird work and nobody gets what I'm trying to do. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And in a way, like TireFire actually became like my MFA cohort because if I had gone somewhere that was like a stronger program. If I could have afforded to go somewhere that was a stronger program, then maybe I would've been pushed in that way. And so I think there was a way where I kind of had one foot out of the door and writing. And by continuing to do that series, it was like making me continue to read, continue to engage with the community, continue to like, you know, it made me not let go all the way. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And I, you know, and I learned a lot. I mean, I learned a lot about, you could see the writers who came and sat in the corner and read really quietly versus the writers like a Scott McClanahan or a Tommy Pico or a Roxanne, or a Carmen Maria Machado who would show up and throw down. Sarah Rose Etter: And they would sell like five times as many copies. And it made me realize that like, you know, whenever I teach a class, I only, I only do like little, you know, four month classes online when I teach right nowor four weeks, whatever. But I, the last one, I always do it on how to give a reading because no one talks about it. And the reality is no one is going to show up and sell your book for you. It does not matter if you get to the biggest press in the world. If you get $1.7 million in a book deal, you are still going to be the person that has to get up and present your work to the world. And if you cannot do this convincingly, if you cannot believe in your work enough to stand up and read it in a passionate way to people, then you're really kind of dead in the water. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: Because nobody can do that. It doesn't matter how much money you get, how many book deals you sell. If you cannot convincingly stand next to your work in a room of people and really believe in what you're writing, I would wonder one, if you were writing the right thing and two, you know, then I would say it's time to go to a public speaking class. It's time to build out that skillset. Because if you don't, this is going to be miserable. Like, I don't know if you're like this, but I'm at a point now where I don't even have time to get nervous before reading, because I do so many of them. And if I was going to get nervous every time I would be collapsed on the floor because I have to do it constantly. So it's like, I wish we would talk about it more because it is, if you're a working writer, it's what you're gonna do all the time. Hilary Plum: Yeah. And it's like, you know, I liked what you said, like the, I think you said used the word challenging and I was like, what I, the word I was thinking was like that it almost felt a little bit dangerous, like the energy in the room. And I mean that in a good way. Like, it meant like you needed to, you needed to like, in some way, and it didn't have to be one set way, but like, share or be in your relationship with the work or like show that the work is meaningful. You know, like be like, this work matters. It needs to matter, like right now. And you need to somehow convey that and people are gonna do that in really different ways. And I liked, like, the word I would sometimes use for your hosting is that it was kind of like anarchic, like, it was like a little bit, it was more like an anarchy. Where it wasn't like, like your important writer has come and you know, one will give like a bio for them and then they will giveand I do this all the time, so I'm saying this in a certain tone, but I do it and I believe, you know, there's reasons Hilary Plum: We have more formal series and reasons we have other kind, you know, like, like there are purposes to these different settings. So, but in that, like, in that setting, like the writers in a...They're kind of in a weirdly passive, you know, it's like, and they're in a very kind of protected position. Like it is vulnerable to share your work, but like, you're kind of like going to be okay. Like you're going to fly there and then you're going to like fly home and, and you know, maybe someone will say a weird thing to you, but probably it's just going to, you know, like you are kind of protected by status or something. Whereas like in a place like, like a TireFire, or in that more anarchic space, you're kind of being asked as like, someone's like, we're making a thing. Do you want to come do the thing? You know, like you have to bring something. And it meant like the first time I read thereI, you know, I used to get very nervous before readings and I wasn't nervous to read from the book. Because I did feel like I knew my voice. Hilary Plum: And I knew...Like I had a relationship to the voice of the book and it, and I, and it was something that was like kind of alive and special to me. So I didn't feel nervous about sharing that. Because I was like, I know how to read the ****ing sentence. But I hate, I didn't have anything to say right before that. Do you know what I mean? To just be like, what is this book? Like, why did she write it? Why is it like that. You know, like, just like a little teeny thing that you should say before you start like banter or even an introduction or just like, you know, I I that really, like, I struggled with that quite a lot and it took a long time for me to figure out just like, you know, a few things to say and a way to say them or something. Hilary Plum: Because as you noted, there's not, like, how do you learn? You just learn by watching people. But there was something about reading at TireFire that I was like, you need to find that voice. You know, like, you need to be in the voice of this novel and make it happen. And I remember like right afterward or something you said that was like a ****ed up ballet. And and I was so happy <laugh> because I was like, I was like, oh God, that's, I didn't, I wouldn't have known to use that phrase <laugh>, but that's what I was aiming for. You know what I mean? So it was like, but it's also the place helps you do it. You know what I mean? Because you need, you need to like, you need to, you need to be part of things that are happening and show why they matter and that they're alive and that you're there, you're there to show that literature is kind of a living, a living thing. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And I think, I think there's a way that it could have gone horribly snotty when you say it out loud. But I do think that was one thing that was really underscoring. It was like, we're all just people and we're all just here to like, enjoy work. And like, it's not a challenge in the sense of like, you're not good enough, step it up. It, it was more like when you see other people engaging with the work that they were, the way they were, you started to want to be able to do that with your own work and figure out like, why am I doing this reading? Why does this matter? And that, that is something that still guides me now when I go on book tour, is that I know every night I have to just get up and believe in what I'm doing. That that's it, you know? That's it. I have to believe and I just have to care. Hilary Plum: Yeah. And I think if I made anything sound snotty that I did it do a good job. Because definitely it wasn't, the challenge is also like an invitation, right? It's like, and it's sort of an, an invitation is generous. It's like, we want to hear your, we want to hear your thing. Like we want to hear the real thing...that you want to do. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: It wasn't making it. It wasn't you making it sound snotty. I just mean on its face. Hilary Plum: Yeah. <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: I, I, if you said it out loud to me what it was, I might be like, Ugh, <laugh> you sound like snots <laugh> you know? So I can see it, right? Like, oh, who do you think you are? Like challenging readers and writers and whatever. But again, it was really, really organic and you know, I think it is kind of crazy how big it got because we really, there was no goal in mind, you know what I mean? There was no goal. Hilary Plum: I mean, I love things with no goal because it means they're open, you know, and they like end up kind of taking the shape of the thing that happened. I don't know. It means they're responsive, but that's me. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: I remember...I remember it was stressful. Like, we would have people drop out two days before, get the flu, quote unquote, and you would kind of know they were lying and you'd have to like, figure out what to do with the lineup. And trying to get five people in one city at the same time was just always a juggling act. But, you know, you just kind of rolled with it the best that you could. And there were definitely times where we had bad nights. I mean, I remember quite a few nights that I felt like I was like failing and that it was terrible. But then you also had these like giant beautiful nights that were just like, you know, everybody was on. And it was, it was so worth it. So I think that's the other thing in, in terms of tips is just like knowing that if you're building something that doesn't exist, like there's going to be nights where it feels so pointless and like you mess everything up and, you know, and then there's going to be great nights where you feel like all the art that you've ever wanted to see in one place is like there together and you know, it's worth it then. Hilary Plum: Yeah. And you leave, you're like, I want to go home and write, like, I want to like <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: Or I want to go home and have all these writers sleep on my living room floor and make them <laugh> and then hope they leave in time for me to go to work. Hilary Plum: I mean, that's the other thing I wanted to ask you about. You know, like, because we're talking to a lot of people who've done like DIY projects or small presses or things that, you know, I, I think the phrase labor of love brings a lot of problems with it. But it's like something someone does that's part of more like their writing practice or they're doing it like they write or like they do their art. It's not exact, it's not a job. Right. Or it might sometimes be a little bit of a part of a job, but you still wouldn't, wouldn't do it if you didn't want to do it. And it's not really being supportedother than maybe like by some other humans or like by a communityor like by your own doggedness or something. You know, likeso I, you know, you guys were, were making these things happen and like helping support a whole bunch of writers. Hilary Plum: Right. And you know, I think probably like in particular, maybe some more experimental writers and, and smaller press writers, indie writers, like, you know, also other folks. But like that's...a lot of who is there and that's very generous, right. It's like you're kind of like volunteering to do that. And you're hosting people in your house and you're, you're a host. Likeso I guess like, yeah, I was just curious to hear your thoughts on the kind of labor that goes into things like that. And I think in my own experienceand I, you know, the series I host is definitely part of my job. So I am doing it as a worker with a paycheck. But at the same time it's like you can encounter, there's a lot of really beautiful experiences we had and people are excited to be there and they feel grateful to like, be in a city and be meeting new city, be meeting people, be having their work, be appreciated and listened to. And other people who sometimes feel like, well that the world like owes them this so they, it's not as, I don't know, like, it's not, not as much energy there or something. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: I think we got a little bit less of that because we didn't pay. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: You know, we all, we could offer and we were so upfront, all we could offer was a free meal at Tattoo Mom and some drinks. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And that really weeds out anyone who is expecting that they're gonna get $3,000 for coming to read for 45 minutes like that immediately. And, and I think that also lent itself to the indie thing, right? Because those are the writers who aren't getting $25,000 to go to a college. But the thing is, that's an investment in them because ultimately that could be the person who becomes the $25,000 per visit writer in three years. When their next book comes out. You know? But again, I, I think it was a combination of one who were our friends and it's like we were both publishing on indie presses, so all of our friends were on indie presses. Sarah Rose Etter: Right. And then two, like who would come and not need $40,000 to show up? And a crazy thing happened. I mean, I think towards the end, I, I knew that I was gonna step out of it pretty soon because I realized that it was enough work that I wasn't going to be able to write a novel if I did. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: And I knew I had to stop becauselike anything, I was all in, I was spending so much time on it and I cared so much about it. And I, I, you knowbut I knew, I'm like, I'm never going to finish any work if I keep being in this bar with these people drinking. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Like, I just, I got, I can't do this because I think it was like, I mean, God, was it six years I did it? I mean, it was a really long time. It was a, it was a really long, and then towards the end it had gotten to the point where like we were selling enough copies that publicists were starting to contact me and send people. And it was like, you know, we hadlike Roxanne Gay came one night and I remember we had to like, send so many people home cause they couldn't fit in the bar. And it just got to a point where I was like, this is so much work. And I like, not that I needed to be paid for it, but just that it had gotten so big and it had also gotten further away fromI don't say it further away from where we wanted to be because, you know, Roxanne came because she was my friend, is my friend. But when, when the New York publicist started getting in my inbox. Trying to send the big press writersthat's when I knew it had gone a little bit in a different direction than maybe where we had started out. Hilary Plum: Yeah and then it enters a different...I mean like, there could be lots of people in, in that mix that you would be excited to host, but you're also entering into kind of a different economy or something where like it doesn't make as much sense to like, then you're the only one not getting paid. Like. Sarah Rose Etter: I mean right. So that, that kind of gets to it. And then also there is a different power dynamic when it's a publicist from a major press that you might want to submit a book to someday asking to send something, send someone, and then the decision to host them starts looking really different. I mean, the other thing is, we had very, we definitely had individuals who were super pushy about wanting to read there. And in most of the cases we said no because they were just so demanding. It will not surprise anyone listening that this was mostly like straight white dudes who were just like, adamant that they should be able to read and constantly emailing. And, you know, I, I think there was one person I said no to who then like went on Twitter to announced they were reading. And I was like, well you're not, you're not actually reading here. Sarah Rose Etter: No, you're not. Unbelievable. Right. But it is a different dynamic when it's like a major press. And I was, you know, I mean, I hadn't even had my first novel out and so I did feel ill-equipped to push back. It, it just put me in a place that I didn't, I didn't really understand. And a bunch of great writers came through that way. Right. Like, I don't want to demean that because there were definitely people, you know, who came through that channel. But it was definitely a different, it marked to me that we had crossed some kind of a threshold. Hilary Plum: Yeah. It's so interesting. I mean, we, because just like thinking about so many projects that start small and like what happens, you know, what happens when they're really thriving and succeeding? Like it, that's a success. But it also changes things or introduces the set of new questions or also like often a set of new like labor problems where you're like. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. Hilary Plum: People can't necessarily keep working, can't scale up their own like project. Sarah Rose Etter: Or I felt, yeah. Or I felt like some of the undergroundness and like the freedom to just do whatever we wanted. I mean, I don't know if I was reading too much into those requests, but it felt like more to navigate than I was like, I already felt stretched thin and then adding that layer to it, I was just like, ah, I don't, you know. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. Hilary Plum: I have just like two more questions. Sarah Rose Etter: Of course. Hilary Plum: One is about, I mean, we talked about this a little bit, but like about like what the reading adds or does, you know,. Because sometimes it's like when you're a writer and going to readings, you're like, is this just like, is this church? Am I like, I'm just like supposed to go and be seen and you know, like or is this like church, like I'm going to go and be really like, transformed, you know, like, is this part of the art or something? And I do I mean obviously I really believe in them, but sometimes we're like, it feels like a form that's kind of invented around the book tour or something. Or like, how do we think of it about, you know, contemporary literature or something is, has something that can be performed or should be performed or like what happens at the reading? I don't know. Like, I don't know if you have thoughts on like, what is the magic of the reading or what role it's played for you in your relationship to writing, you know, like to hearing someone read work and if that changes how you read it or makes you think in new ways about like what's possible or like what people are doing like with their voice or with narrator...you know, like, I don't know. Sarah Rose Etter: I, there's a couple things that come to mind. The first is that there are certain people when they read that you can feel they're just like holding the room in the palm of their hand. They can just do it. And I remember for the first half of book tour for the BOOK OF X met Tommy Pico at TireFire. Jamie was hosting, I had just been in the city and I went and Tommy and I met and it was like, we were like instantly best friends. And so I asked him to book tour with me for BOOK OF X for a couple dates on the west coast. And he opened for me and he is a consummate performer. He's a poet, but when he gets up he has like a singing voice he can project. He's got ups and downs. He's like, you know, and so to follow that every night, I, I invited him for a reason and it was because I knew that I would have to learn from him. Sarah Rose Etter: And I had would watch him as a performer and understand how we held the room. And again, I want to underscore like you can hold the room with like a big booming theatrical voice or being really quiet and pulling people in and you know, there's all sorts of ways you can do it. But all of them require you to be extremely present with the work and extremely thoughtful about it. And, you know, obviously practice reading out loud a bunch beforehand because there's always something you're gonna trip over. But I do remember this night, you know, aside from Tommy, who I think is a really great, you know, person to like watch a YouTube of reading poetry, because that can give you an idea of like what it can do if you bring it to life. I remember one of the nights that Scott McClanahan camehe pulled his cellphone out of his pocket while he was reading and started playing this like old song, like old slow song and like pulled somebody out of the audience and started slow dancing with them while he was like reading from memory his story. Sarah Rose Etter: And then I think he kept screaming over and over and he was in a all white suit, like dressed like a southern preacher this night. And I think he started screaming like, when was the last time you felt joy? When was the last time you really felt joy? And then he had his pockets full of fake engagement rings and he started getting on one knee and proposing to women in the audience. And if you say that out loud, it sounds so corny and it could go so wrong, but when he did it, it felt like a magic moment where the text went from being just a story to being a moment that we were all involved in. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: And it really could have like, brought you to tears and made you really ask questions of like, when was the last time I felt joy? Sarah Rose Etter: And like, why am I tearing up watching this madman slow dance with a woman, you know? And so I, you know, when I think about reading as performance, he's easy for me to think of because of things like that. Because he would pull in these elements that forced the audience to engage and there was like no way to look away from the spectacle of the work, of him. So there's many different ways you can do it. And I think it is performance art to some extent, and maybe to a large extentif you, when you read the text out loud as the writer, it's the moment that you become the work. And so it is going to be a performance piece, you know? Hilary Plum: Yeah, yeah. I was thinking too about way like, sometimes you get to see people be so vulnerable, right? Like people really show you what it took for them to write this or like how much it mattered in their life. And that it doesn't have to be about like events, you know, it could, could be about like the effort of art or like emotion or just like that to them it connects to the things that are like most difficult and most dear. You know, like, and you're like, it's really hard to be that. Like, so some of the ones I remember too, it's like I wouldn't even say that someone had a style. Exactly. They were just in a public state of like profound vulnerability while also like in art, like sharing an artwork that they've made very carefully. Sarah Rose Etter: I'll never forget, the first time I ever did a reading was in grad school and I had to read a short story that I had written, and it, it was so close to real life, the thing I had written that I was like kind of crying when I read it and like shaking. And I had never said any of the words out loud. And it was very, I don't want to say traumatic for me, but it kind of was, you know, because I wasn't expecting to get up and humiliate myself. I felt humiliated. And everyone came up to me after like, that was the best reading I've ever seen in my life. And I'm like...uh and I, I, you know, I probably didn't... Hilary Plum: Just like eviscerate yourself in public. Sarah Rose Etter: I was like, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. I kept saying to myself like, oh, okay, so all I have to do is get up and have a complete mental snap in front of you about something that's really personal to me. And then I'm going to be a great artist. And I've realized I had to find a balance between, and this is a good piece of advice for anyone who's listening that is going to go on book tour or whatever...Find your boundary and hold it because you're not, we're not requiring you to get up and completely re-traumatize yourself in front of an audience. Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Sarah Rose Etter: That's not the ask. Right. And especially when you're dealing with work that might be about trauma. Or past history. Pick something that you can read that isn't going to destroy you because that's not what anyone wants to see. Right. It, it might get you a couple pats on the back in that reading room, but you're gonna be the one that has to live with the aftermath of it. So being really, really careful about picking something that might be emotionally resonant for you but isn't going to be your, all of your trauma just dumped out on a room, you know? Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. Or yeah, that there might be some pieces that are like farther from the really hard stuff, but which like, give you a way to be in it. I don't know. Sarah Rose Etter: You wanna be emotionally tied, but still in control, right? Hilary Plum: Yeah. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Because you know. And you get to decide that, like you really are the architect of the what, what you read and how you read it. You get to decide. And so just not forgetting that, you know? Hilary Plum: Yeah. That's good advice. You've had a lot of good advice. Sarah Rose Etter: Oh, thanks. Hilary Plum: I'm going pat myself on the back for a <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: I try not to curse too much. It was really hard because it's like, you know. Hilary Plum: Oh, that's okay. Sarah Rose Etter: Okay. Hilary Plum: No oneuh... Sarah Rose Etter: I don't think I, no, I think I didn't curse this time. I've been working really hard on my cursing. Hilary Plum: Well, I respect that. I respect whatever people do that, but... Hilary Plum: But we don't require it. I mean, my last question, and we chatted a little bit about this before we hit, smashed the record button, butit's just like, I'm, you know, I'm really excited that you have a new novel coming out and you've had, like, you've sort of had a really, you know, cool tour of maybe every stop in, in US publishing. You know, your first book was out on like a, like a micro-press, right? Like a small press and the classic small press sense. It's a couple people and then you're on Two Dollar Radio, which is also like a small team, but it's, you know, a little bit of larger indie, you know, hasa little more reach and like staff and things like that. And they do just an awesome job. Right. They reallythey have a fantastic list and I felt like they, I mean, at least from the outside, I was like, they did such a great job with your book, and it like, got to people and it was like yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah. Hilary Plum: Celebrated. Andit's really exciting. And now you have a book coming out on Scribner. So you've kind of had this whole range of publishing experiences. I know that this one's still like, very much underway, since the bookisn't out yet. But I just was curious, I don't know of any reflections you had or thoughts you had on those different, what those different types of publishers are kind of up to, you know, ways that they're complimentary and like ways that they've housed, you know, your like really feminist, kind of experimental, like work that you're doing. Yeah, I don't know. Sarah Rose Etter: I, I feel like I've gotten really lucky because in every case I have found a publisher that like rose up to meet the work. I've gotten very lucky with like, cover art that I love in all three cases and like in a way that like, I can stand next to it and feel like it still represents me even after like years go by. I think there's a real disservice that can happen when we all want the seven figure book deal outright. And of course that's what every writer wants. Everybody wants to be the six figure advance, the darling, you know, all that stuff. But I do say there's something really good about a slow burn where you're making art that you actually believe in and in none of these cases did. I think that's the publisher I want in every single one of these cases. Sarah Rose Etter: I thought, this is the art I want to make. And whoever took it and all that other stuff just came later. And so if you can release control a little and just let things happen. And, and don't get me wrong, there were times, I meanthis is a different interview, but actually going to sell to major publishers is extremely stressful and terrifying and was probably one of the hardest experiences I've ever gone through. And luckily I'm on the other side of it with a great book deal. Butif, if each one of these books is a chunk of my heart, which it is, what's the price on that? Hilary Plum: Mm-Hmm. <laugh>. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: How, how much should someone give me for that? Right. That's the first time I've ever had to ask that question. Yeah. And it's a hard one. But I just feel super lucky because there are people who have followed me every step of the way. Sarah Rose Etter: And I think one really great thing about coming up through independent presses is that you find readers who stick with you. And I, I feel super lucky because I know with this book coming out, it's on the, it's from the hard work of booksellers, of readers, of people who like really believe in the work. And so, you know, I'm very lucky that I can come out at a time where there's already people who care and like, are excited about it. So I, I guess my best advice would be make great work. And then the people who should publish it will find you and you'll live a very charmed life except for the times that you're not charmed. Hilary Plum: That's so good. Yeah. That's like when you're like, how much do people pay for a chunk of your heart? You're like, well, either nothing or, or everything. Or like how, however much they've got <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: I mean, I guess, I guess what I mean is if, if I think about it like you're, and this actually does tie back to the reading thing. You're making the work in an introverted bubble that's very safe and precious and it's a beautiful space to be in. But when the book gets printed, you get flipped inside out and you need to be able to be extroverted to sell the work. And, you know, how much is anyone's art worth? That's so arbitrary. It's always, it's always never enough and it's always also too much money. Hilary Plum: <laugh>. Sarah Rose Etter: You know. But the, the part of me that makes the work and the part of me that sells the work are two totally different things. And thinking about it that way, helps me when it's time to like flip the switch and go from private yoga pants wearing, I'm just scrolling on pages and I've got outlines everywhere to, I have to get up in front of a room of people and read this out loud. Like those, those are two different people. Hilary Plum: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Sarah Rose Etter: I don't know if that helps <laugh>. Hilary Plum: I, I love it. Thank you so much. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah, of course. Hilary Plum: I just really appreciate getting to talk with you about all of these things. And also I think it's super helpful for folks thinking about a reading series, or even me, someone who runs one but is still thinking about how to, like how to do it. Sarah Rose Etter: If you're out there, start one, we need more! Hilary Plum: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do it! Thank you so much. Sarah Rose Etter: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me. It's so good to catch up.
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