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F A Q :   T H E
F I R S T   A N N U A L
T I M O T H Y   M c S W E E N E Y ' S
F E S T I V A L   O F
L I T E R A T U R E ,   T H E A T E R ,
   A N D   M U S I C .


BY NEAL POLLACK

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Q:Why did you hold this festival in Philadelphia?

A: There are several reasons. First, Philadelphia is very well located. People can get here easily from New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and many other metropolitan areas where people like to read and drink. Second, Philadelphia is not New York City, where every other American literary event, other than the Southern ones that feature Pat Conroy as a speaker, occurs. New York is, of course, a very exciting place to read, and the audience for literature there is almost unlimited, but a New York literary festival is not exactly news. Also, hotels in New York are expensive, and while you can always crash with friends, those friends usually live in a room the size of a newspaper box. Philly, on the other hand, has a lot of inexpensive hotels and if you have a little money, you can live in a novel-length house. The other place we considered holding the festival was Chicago, but I lived in Chicago a long time and don't live there anymore. Also, the Daley Administration would have gotten their hands on the festival eventually, because they like to practice thought control. So, to summarize, Philly is cheap, close to things, and also people here are nice and supportive and open to new experiences.

Q: But why a festival?

A: Well, again, there are several reasons. The most important is that I thought it would be fun. The second most important is that nearly all events in America involving writers are irretrievably lame. They are either bland and corporate or fusty and boring. When their books come out, if they are lucky, writers are placed on a pedestal at the lowest end of the celebrity food chain, adored by autograph seekers who wait in line for an hour, and then the writers disappear, escorted by a $600-a-day paid professional, not to be seen for at least two years, until the next book, when the process resumes. This divide between writers and their readers is inexcusable, particularly since it does not seem to be what most readers, and many writers, want. Too many obstacles have been placed, and I thought it was high time to remove them. The third most important reason is that I love power.

Q: Did you receive any money for organizing the festival?

A: Other than a $500 check from McSweeney's, which went to pay the bar so we could have a guest list, the only other money that came to me during the festival was my $2 rebate check from Rite-Aid, which I had applied for after purchasing anti-fungal spray. I also sold about thirty books, through two local booksellers, though lord knows when I'll see that dough.

Q: So was it fun?

A: Oh, yes. Lots of fun.

Q: What happened?

A: Well, there were readings, both nights, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Some highlights: Zadie Smith sang "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," accompanied by Arthur Bradford on the guitar. While reading his story "Mollusks," Arthur Bradford smashed a different guitar. John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile invited the audience to give money to their "Faith-Hill-Based Initiative" program. I read a dirty poem about having sex with Republicans. Donnell Alexander wore his hair in pigtails while he read from his forthcoming novel "Ghetto Celebrity," and afterward, everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Both nights, there were ironic T-shirt contests. The first night, Sarah Vowell was the judge, and the obvious winner, to her and everyone around her, was a young man who looked like a miniature version of Andy Dick. His T-shirt depicted a math theorem that had been proven true by Bertrand Russell and some other guy, and on the back, advertised the William & Mary philosophy club. The second night was more complicated. Matthew Klam picked the winner, but I had contestants eliminate one another in the manner of reality television programs. It all played out as one might expect, and an attractive young woman, wearing a paint-splattered T-shirt depicting the television character Alf, with the phrase "No Problem" written above him, was declared the winner. However, she did not get her prize, as she claimed she was from Seattle and had purchased the shirt there at a thrift store, but it turns out she actually lives around the corner from me. Afterward, those of us with books to sign signed books, but let's face it, 90 percent of the people wanted their books signed by Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith and no one else. That was okay, because the rest of us got to go to the bar and start drinking.

Q: Ah, yes. The after-party. What happened there?

A: Some bands played bluegrass music. People ordered beer and drank it. Men wanted to have sex with Zadie Smith. Women wanted to have sex with Zadie Smith, and everyone crowded around Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith, since she is only twenty-five, probably wanted to have sex with someone, but there is no evidence that she did. One woman, who cannot be named, was very attentive to all the male writers at the festival. The married ones kept their distance, especially when, in my case at least, their wives came up to them and said, "Who was that girl with her hand on your arm?" Rebuffed, the woman instead hooked up with the kid who had won the T-shirt contest. This created an instant buzz around the bar, which went like this: "The T-shirt guy is making out with some chick!" Meanwhile, poor Ben Greenman was accosted by a young woman who was, literally, pulling down her skirt in front of him. He looked both terribly uninterested and terribly uncomfortable, and was rescued by my friend Mary, who informed me that she was having the time of her life. On the second night, some bands played rock-and-roll, and people kept drinking and wanting to have sex with one another. At this point, you can safely deduce that everyone wanted to have sex, but we all drank too much and went home to sleep instead.

Q: Did anyone come from out-of-town for this festival?

A: Yes indeed. Most of the people were from Philadelphia, but not all. On Friday, there were many attendees from New York and D.C. But I must give special props to certain people who went very far out of their way. Lisa Leone and Matthew Glarner drove all night from Chicago with Lisa's Boston Terrier, whose name I can't remember, but it was very cute and now Regina wants a Boston Terrier, so thanks a lot, Lisa. They were lots of fun. Also, Jennifer from Toronto, who drove eight hours by herself, and Susan from Boston, and the nice woman who came from Ann Arbor but was inexplicably too shy to talk to me, and Sean Carman from Seattle, who was on the East Coast anyway, but still. Of course, we also were glad to see our dear groupies Ashley and Kathleen, from Virginia, who won our hearts and crashed on our futon. There were not many of you, but there were enough, and you came to lunch and went on the tours and drank our beer.

Q: Is there anyone else you would like to thank?

A: Yes. Andy Kahan and Sarah Goddard from the library. Michael Fox and the staff of Joseph Fox Books. Patrick, Mary, and Steve at Big Jar Books. John Hampton from the North Star Bar. WXPN Radio. All the bands that played at the after parties to loud and drunken crowds. Rick Henderson, who played at Big Jar in a tent. The folks from Old City Cabs. Michael Barsanti and the staff of the Rosenbach. Poseidon, god of the sea, for the excellent weather. All the writers who had the faith and courage to read at a literary festival in Philadelphia of all places, and, again, all of you who attended, believed, and made it happen, even the guy who gave me his novel to read where he compares himself to Dostoyevsky, who he refers to as "The Big D." It was great. It was new. It will happen again. And now, I die.

Love,
Neal
Philadelphia, PA
July 29, 2001

 

 

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