In Which Bruce Eric Kaplan Talks About his Memoir and Career, But Would be Equally Happy to Discuss 1970s TV Show Plots Instead
Bruce Eric Kaplan’s talk at AADL on Wednesday, November 11, could have been titled “How I Accidentally Sold a Publisher a Book About my Childhood” or “I Love TV.” But his talk really didn’t have or need a title, in keeping with his low-key, off-the-cuff, c’mon-let’s-just-keep-it-casual approach to the event. This left lots of room for audience questions and comments, resulting in an easy, back-and-forth conversation between the room and Kaplan, whose pithy single-panel cartoons have appeared in the New Yorker for 20+ years, and whose television work has included scripts for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under and a producer role with the HBO show Girls.
Kaplan came to Ann Arbor as part of the 28th Annual Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival and he offered a short reading from his latest book, an illustrated memoir called I Was A Child. Kaplan's mother passed away several years ago, and then a couple of months after his father passed on as well, Kaplan found himself in a pitch meeting with a publisher, talking on and on about his parents and growing up in New Jersey. Afterward, he was so surprised to learn that the publisher wanted to buy this story, he made his agent call back to double check.
Kaplan says that working on this memoir was like spending day after day with his parents when they were young and healthy, and closing up his work each afternoon felt like losing them all over again. “We need a word for something that is both healthy and unhealthy for us,” he said, explaining that spending so much time thinking about his parents might have been unhealthy for him, but in the end, the closure he got from the process, was very positive. The process of writing the book also made him rethink parenting his own children, ages 8 and 10. “I realized they’re watching me,” he said.
The topic that really lit up the room, however, was television. Kaplan grew up watching TV, McMillan and Wife, I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Perry Mason, and countless old and semi-forgotten movies. (June Bride, anyone?) Even memories formed later in life are informed by his early love of television. For instance, after moving to Los Angeles as an adult, hoping to work in TV, he saw Mary Tyler Moore performing a scene on a soundstage. This was the breakthrough moment when Kaplan realized he could write television scripts, but in recounting it, he lovingly detailed watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a kid, when it was on in syndication, airing from 4-5 pm, EST, on Channel 4.
It was while writing spec script after spec script (he always thought he had a good Golden Girls episode in him, but he never managed to sell one), that he began submitting single panel cartoons to The New Yorker. At the time, artists could submit 10 ideas per week with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. He sent them in for years, his enclosed cover letters getting terser and terser, until finally, they bought one. He continues to submit cartoons monthly, and has been a regular contributor for more than 20 years. For people curious about the “labor of love” that is single-panel cartooning, Kaplan recommended an documentary, forthcoming from HBO, on New Yorker cartoonists called Very Semi-Serious.
Kaplan eventually sold several scripts to Seinfeld, which was the show that taught him that “you could incorporate your own existence into the half hour world.” In keeping with that lesson, he wrote the episode where George Costanza runs over some pigeons, an occurrence borrowed straight from the life of Bruce Eric Kaplan.
His experience working on Six Feet Under was a little different - while he wasn’t borrowing instances directly from his own life, he still felt an immediate connection to the characters on the show. “I read the pilot and I felt like I understood the family that doesn't talk and wants to connect but can't connect,” he said.
Because Kaplan was such a casual and conversational speaker, the event didn’t feel like a traditional lecture or a literary reading. It felt much more like sitting in someone’s living room, and chatting with a fellow guest who’s telling good stories about their interesting career. Then you remember you’re at AADL listening to the guy who drew this cartoon:
and you think, I’m really glad I came tonight.
Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and was a real I Dream of Jeannie fan herself, back in the day.
Current Magazine presents the 2015 Poetry and Fiction Contest Party on Wednesday, November 18 at 6:30 pm at the Arbor Brewing Company. The event is an evening of celebrating local writers with food and friends. The winners of the contest, hosted annually by Current, had their work published in the November issue of the magazine, available all over the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area now.
Winners will be reading from their published work in an informal, relaxed atmosphere. Come for an evening of beer and food and help to support our local writers!
Contributor Saul Jacobs is Digital Media Manager for Adams Street Publishing, publisher of Current Magazine.
We don’t know who told the first story. Was it a cavewoman telling her cavechildren a ghost story? Was it a hunter telling others of the one that got away? Was it two people around a lonely campfire trying to pass the time? We will never know how it began, but we do know that storytelling as an art has existed for millennia. People from all over the world love a good story, and luckily for us, there is plenty of storytelling right here in Ann Arbor!
The Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild is presenting its 24th annual Tellabration on Friday, November 13th and Sunday, November 15th. The Friday event is geared towards adults (ages 14+), while the Sunday event is especially for children and families. Tellabration is an international event celebrating the art of storytelling. Forty states and nine countries will participate in this event. The goal is to build community support for storytelling. According to local teller Lyn Davidge, expect to hear some history, some mystery, some legend, some comic relief, and even some social commentary at the event.
Davidge adds, “I love Tellabration and the Guild, with their emphasis on keeping the ancient art of traditional storytelling alive, relevant, and entertaining in the 21st century. The audience is an integral part of the storytelling experience, each person relating to the teller and the story according to his or her own unique life experiences. In a seemingly disconnected world, we find connection and common ground through story.”
In addition to Tellabration, the local guild also hosts a monthly storytelling event at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room on the second Thursday of the month. You may hear a story about chivalrous knights from medieval times, a turtle’s journey in a sunny backyard, or how a teacher grew to love being “most improved”. The guild’s monthly meetings are open to the public and are held at Nicola’s Books on the fourth Sunday of most months. Guild members are also invited to attend member-only events such as story swaps and house concerts.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, she wrote, “stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.” Events like Tellabration guarantee that our words will stay alive for a long, long time.
Patti Smith is a teacher, writer, and lover of all things Ann Arbor. She can talk and tell stories at any hour of the day or night. She has been a part of the Storytellers' Guild for two years.
Tellabration will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1400 W Stadium Blvd on November 13 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15. The Family Storytelling concert will be held on November 15 at 2 pm. The event is free and co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor District Library and will be held at the Pittsfield Branch, 2359 Oak Valley Drive.
Author David Mitchell will be giving a reading from his newest novel Slade House this Saturday, November 7, in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, followed by a conversation with author and UM faculty member Peter Ho Davies. Fans of speculative fiction may be familiar with Mitchell through his previous novels including The Bone Clocks, number9dream, and, most famously, Cloud Atlas. This event is sponsored by Literati and University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program.
Slade House is an outgrowth of Mitchell's last novel, The Bone Clocks, set in the same universe. It started as a short story that Mitchell published on Twitter. This story, revised and added to, is now the first chapter of Slade House. It might be this that we have to thank for the fact that this novel is by far Mitchell's shortest and by all accounts his most accessible.
As with several of Mitchell's books, Slade House makes use of multiple narrators and crosses through time, each section set nine years later than the previous. Every 40 pages or so we get a new narrator and the degree to which we are pulled into the life of each protagonist is astounding. A fully imagined character with a complete backstory and well-drawn secondary characters emerges in the first dozen pages every time. Each of these stories has a definite ending before a new narrator takes over, so Mitchell doesn't fall into the trap of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler of leaving the reader hanging before moving on, never to return (though perhaps this is only a trap for those of us who want those books-within-the-book to keep going). In Slade House, you understand very quickly where each of these stories is going, and the inevitable ending of each.
To some extent it begins to feel like a procedural, a backwards Law & Order where you know the culprit, you know the crime, you know the ending, and it is the main character/detective (one time a literal detective) and the situation that switches out. The result of this is that by the second story you start reading it like a mystery, looking for patterns and clues (was that jogger there the last time? what's the significance of the grandfather clock? why the portraits?).
Slade House is difficult to classify; at first it seems to be a ghost story. But it isn't quite horror, as it isn't horrifying. And though it starts off with the trappings of a classic ghost story, by the end of the first section, it becomes something else, and by 2/3 through the novel, it is apparent that what you are reading is no less than high fantasy. There is a haunted house, sure, and there are ghosts, yes. But the ghosts aren't the thing to be scared of, and what does the haunting is far less malicious than the house being haunted. The final section of the novel and its ending did not appeal to me, but that's a matter of taste, not a failing on Mitchell's part. A high fantasy ending felt a bit like a bait-and-switch to me, but that's because I want my ghost stories to be ghost stories. Those more in sync with epic battles between forces of light and darkness will be more sympathetic to it.
The biggest failing of this novel may actually be how well thought-out its world is; Mitchell has so much to explain about what is happening that at times it starts to feel like the latest Bond villain laying out his whole plan. But this exposition is necessary as Mitchell needs you to understand what is happening for it all to come together. And it never gets bad enough that all of the magic is stripped out (no midi-chorians here), just enough that you get pulled out of the world by it. But the fact that new worlds are created again and again in the span of 240 pages is in itself an achievement that makes Slade House well worth the read.
Andrew MacLaren is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and the only parlors he haunts are pizza parlors.
David Mitchell's reading takes place this Saturday, November 7, at 6 pm (doors open at 5:15 pm) in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church. A copy of Slade House is included in the $30 admission price (this price also includes entry for either one or two people). Tickets are available online.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Dreary gray clouds dragged themselves across a dreary gray sky. It was cold. It was raining.
Inside there was a shuffle of feet. The scrape of a door. A slight sense of…apprehension? And a sound. A peculiar sound. A murmur of hundreds of voices. A whisper of a thousand turning pages. A low hum. What was that peculiar, whispering, humming sound?
Oh. It was the sound of 500 podcast-obsessed book nerds vibrating in their seats waiting for the Welcome to Night Vale book tour to start.
On October 24th, the city of Ann Arbor opened wide its many sets of alien arms to welcome Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, creators of the popularly creepy and creepily popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast to town. The show is about a fictitious desert town where werewolves, ghosts, and mysterious lights in the night sky are familiar and routine, the weather is music, and the sleepy town’s supernatural goings-on are all calmly broadcast over the radio for everyone to hear.
Hosted by Literati Bookstore, Fink and Cranor came to Ann Arbor for an hour of questions, answers, and a brief reading as part of a nation-wide tour for their newly released novel Welcome to Night Vale.
Included in the price of the ticket were the following essential items:
-One seat (mostly for sitting, but possible for use as a shield against wild beasts, unknown hooded figures, or existential crises)
-One copy of the new book to take home and read to yourself, to your family, or loudly to strangers at the bus stop
-Human contact (optional)
In the auditorium of Emerson School, the authors took their seats on stage and faced the terrifying horde: hundreds of Night Vale fans wearing their most intricate costumes, their most supportive Night Vale T-shirts, screaming their sincerest screams of excitement.
For a fandom that prizes the mysterious, eerie, and monstrous so highly, it was probably the friendliest event I’ve ever been to.
Singer, rapper, and host Dessa Darling provided most of the questions and all of the enthusiasm allowed by law. She opened the event with a simple question for creator Joseph Fink: “If I were to corner your grandmother in an elevator, what would she have to say about Night Vale’s success?”
From there, it was pretty much a delightfully wacky journey from hilarious anecdotes about Welcome to Night Vale's narrator doing podcasts in his underwear to some Super Heavy Serious Metaphysical Stuff.
This was what impressed me most about the event. The questions, the authors' answers, and the brief reading of the book itself all proved the depth of feeling and philosophical thought that the Night Vale universe both creates for and evokes in its listeners.
I don’t know if you knew this, guys, but despite being pretty funny, Welcome to Night Vale is some deep shit.
Sure, the Q & A included questions as simple as “Do you think this book is going to be banned?” (to which Fink replied, “I hope so!”). But there were also questions as complex as asking the authors what it means to have a body, a physical form as a catalyst for all of your interactions with the world, and if our bodies ultimately determine our destinies.
Yeah. See? Deep.
As an occasional Night Vale podcast listener at an event that seemed to consist entirely of fans who had already heard all 80-or-so episodes and devoured half the book in the fifteen minutes between the hardback hitting their palms and the two creators appearing onstage, I realized one thing pretty quickly: the Night Vale fandom is one that makes you want to be pulled down into its gaping maw. The fans at this event cheered at everything. They clapped at everything. They laughed at everything. They told the guy who took to the microphone before the event had even started—the dude who was only up there to tell them the boring rules of safety and not to trample each other on the way out—that they loved him.
They screamed this. Repeatedly. And they meant it.
Between the positively-charged atmosphere of the event, the clearly devoted and downright pleasant fans, and the creators who have put way more thought into their writing than you might imagine, it was enough to make you wonder: Can I please take a bus to this Night Vale place, or do I need to be dropped from a mother ship into their town square?
Based on the brief 3-page reading done by Jeffrey Cranor and the 20 pages I got through while waiting for the show to start, readers of Welcome to Night Vale can expect the usual dark humor, a cast of strange and mysterious characters, an equally mysterious double-mystery, shape-shifters, sentient houses, and a lot of made-up quotes from famous people.
But, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “This is the end of the article.”
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library. She prefers her meat rare and has never been seen at work on a full moon.
Every month crowds gather at Circus for The Moth StorySLAM, Ann Arbor's live, local version of the hugely popular NPR radio show The Moth Radio Hour. Just like the show, Ann Arbor's StorySLAM features true, personal stories told by people of all ages, backgrounds, and storytelling skill-levels--as long as they've got the guts to get up on stage and tell.
At this past Tuesday’s Ann Arbor StorySLAM, storytellers had to bring twice the guts--because “Guts” was also this month's theme. Satori Shakoor, creator, producer, and host of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, was StorySLAM's enthusiastic host, welcoming storytellers to the stage and reading brief “times I chickened out” anecdotes submitted by the audience in between stories. Storytellers displayed a wide range of abilities as they shared a diversity of "gutsy" stories. Opener Karin Lindstrom told a dramatic tale of having to kill a beloved horse, while eventual winner Lauren Trimble shared a tearful story of having to identify the body of her dead brother. Other storytellers interpreted “guts” more literally; KT Doud told a story of offending international hosts by refusing to eat intestine soup… and then accidentally furthering the offense with too many tequila shots.
Circus makes a great venue for the event, with its raised stage and combination of tables, chairs, and standing room. It’s fun to see the different abilities of the storytellers and their individual interpretations of each monthly theme. For those who don't faint dead away at the thought of public speaking, it's actually pretty easy to join in on one of these StorySLAMs. Those who wish to tell a story submit their name and 10 random storytellers are chosen to share their 5-minute story with the crowd and with a panel of judges. The StorySLAM winner continues on to compete in a larger GrandSLAM, a storytelling event with winners from StorySLAMs around the country.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Ann Arbor's StorySLAM is sponsored by Michigan Radio and is held on the third Tuesday of every month at Circus. The event will be back on November 17, with the theme “Gifted,” and on December 15, with the theme “Joy.” Tickets are $9 each for nonparticipants, and you can buy them online in advance or at the door. For more information and Detroit dates, visit the Moth events website.
When Piper Kerman, New York Times bestselling author of Orange is the New Black, gave the biennial Vivian R. Shaw Lecture last week at the University of Michigan, she drew a crowd which filled Rackham Auditorium and required live-stream video and overflow seating. Kerman’s memoir of her experience serving time in a women’s prison was adapted into a wildly popular, award-winning Netflix series by executive producer Jenji Kohan in 2013.
Kerman’s presence throughout the lecture was relaxed, yet pointed and, at times, refreshingly irreverent. She opened the lecture by describing life prior to her 13-month incarceration at the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, CT. As she chronicled her time behind bars, the themes of her lecture were clear: sisterhood and empathy, gender, power, and racial inequality. Her presentation raised awareness about some damaging stereotypes and stigmas of incarcerated women, as well as challenges that occur upon re-entry to society. Kerman encouraged the audience to use the show as a lens into the greater institutional and systematic oppressions of mass incarceration and how they impact women prisoners – specifically women of color. The Q&A session that followed touched on a variety of topics including popular culture and identity, the importance of arts within prisons, and how to donate books to incarcerated women.
While Kerman currently serves as a consultant for the show, she’s also adamant about supporting nonprofits and other organizations working to advocate for female prisoners, their families, and overall prison reform. Additionally, she teaches creative writing courses to female inmates and serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. She has been called as a witness by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners. She has spoken at the White House on re-entry and employment to help honor Champions of Change in the field. In 2014, Kerman was awarded the Justice Trailblazer Award from John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime & Justice and the Constitutional Commentary Award from The Constitution Project.
In this talk, Kerman offered incredible insight and compassion as she both humanized female prisoners and advocated for thoughtful, intentional, and long-term policy changes.
The 2015 Vivian R. Shaw lecture was co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Women Studies Department, Michigan Law School, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the School of Social Work, the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, the Department of Sociology, and the Screen Arts and Cultures Screenwriting Program.
Community contributor CristiEllen Heos Zarvas is the Meetings and Special Events Assistant for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.
Here's a great article by Santi Elijah Holley in Tin House about Ann Arbor's own Literati Bookstore, which opened in 2013 and has been busy bringing indie bookstore culture back to downtown ever since.
From the article:
"Literati is not only a tribute to Ann Arbor’s rich history of art and literature; they have taken inspiration from the city’s past, in order that they might contribute to its future."
At Claire Vaye Watkins’ reading on Wednesday, Sept. 30th at Literati Bookstore, the author summarized her book, Gold Fame Citrus, as being, “about the California drought, more or less." It also ties into what she classified as “two of her fascinations: nuclear waste repositories and mole people.” To be fair though, it’s more about environmental destruction, hope, and survival than it is about mole people.
In the book, a damaged couple who are eking out an existence in a wasted dystopian landscape take in a lost child, forming a little family. This is the catalyst for their decision to venture East into the shifting expanses of sand, where they will encounter more unknowns than they could possibly have anticipated.
This surreal and incredibly original book also comes with a drinking game! The official rules, as laid out by the author at the reading, are as follows:
Read the book.
Drink when you are thirsty.
This is the most sensible drinking game I have ever encountered.
For the Literati reading, Watkins selected “a deep cut” from within the novel, and shared that although the chapter is unnamed in the book, she originally titled it “Wasteland Wasteland Wasteland.”
Two things about her reading selection:
1) It held the entire standing room-only crowd completely captivated; I cannot remember a single cough or shuffle of feet.
2) It had a mole person.
Watkins is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Gold Fame Citrus has received many positive reviews, including ones from the New York Times and the Washington Post. If you missed the chance to see Watkins in person at Literati, you can check out her NPR interview and appreciate the story of her inspiration in her own words, and you really should. You can borrow Gold Fame Citrus, or Watkins’ 2012 story collection, Battleborn, at AADL.
Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian and fiction selector at the Ann Arbor District Library.