Recently, Ken Valenti – a colleague from our days at the Gannett newspapers – graciously asked me if I would read at a gathering of his group For the Love of Words at R Patisserie Café & Tea Boutique in New Rochelle, N.Y., a most collegial coffeehouse. Naturally, I said yes. What writer doesn’t love the sound of her own words, her own voice?
As usual, I practiced my go-to selection from “Water Music,” the first novel in my series “The Games Men Play,” in which tennis player Alí Iskandar becomes involved in an international incident that draws him into the circle of his soon-to-be lover, tennis star Alex Vyranos. (Given the R-rated nature of the novel, there are not many easily available go-to sections.)
But something happened as I prepared to leave for the reading: I turned on the TV to learn of the Brussels bombing. The Ali arc in the novel – which is about four gay athletes, two tennis players and two swimmers and how they come together and pull apart – concerns an Iraqi-American who is racially profiled because of his Middle Eastern heritage even as he rises in the tennis rankings. The scene I was planning to read involved another player, an airplane and the TSA. Given the anxiety that the bombings immediately posed for the global community – with officers dispatched to meet trains and planes in New York City – I thought the reading was too close for comfort. So I read the opening of the book, which begins the story of Dylan, one of the swimmers, and his rivalry with and love for Daniel.
I hadn’t read the opening of the novel aloud since I workshopped it in 2013. But then I remembered that reading is a kind of performance, and when you give a performance, you always have to have Plan B – as Aristotle taught Alexander the Great about life (a lesson he would use well in warfare).
I just winged it, and I think it was well-received.
That was the first thing I learned from my latest adventure in publishing. The other was a reminder of the importance of listening. There were stories about a young woman in boarding school hell and another, Iranian born, coming of age in America. Susan Moorhead – a librarian at New Rochelle Public Library, a poet and the founder of the original group – read a darkly comic tale about a possibly suicidal woman roused to life by her anger at an incompetent suicide hotline worker. There were poems about the sea and finding yourself. All required the utmost consideration.
The evening ended with a new member, a rapper, which I thought most fitting. Rap probably comes closest to the origins of literature, with men like Homer speak-singing the deeds of Achilles around a campfire.
Minus the latte.