Susan Orlean's innate curiosity has made her a writer's writer, the kind who inspires a sort of wild fanaticism typically reserved for kittens and pop stars. She got her start at a tiny, now-defunct monthly in Portland and in 1992 landed her current gig as a staff writer at the New Yorker, where she's earned a reputation for her oddball sense of humor and remarkable knack for finding stories in the most unlikeliest of places.
It's this same curiosity that has taken her beyond the written page. Orlean, who will appear tonight at a belated National Puppy Day celebration at Sixth & I, has become a proponent for digital media. The acclaimed magazine writer has a podcast about crying, an online video class about creative nonfiction, and nearly 300,000 Twitter followers who legitimately love seeing pictures of her cat. "I've always been really curious about different ways of telling stories," Orlean says. "I'm somebody who's really comfortable in the digital world."
Her podcast, Crybabies, is just one example of that. Hosted by Orlean and actress Sarah Thyre, the podcast is all about what makes people cry. The premise is simple: Talking about crying encourages guests, which in the past have included comedian Jenny Slate and parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic, to open up about their lives. Much like Orlean's book, Saturday Night, which focuses on how Americans spend that one night off each week, Crybabies serves as a portal to tell a greater tale.
"It's an entirely unexplored idea," Orlean says. "I've always liked taking a single notion and applying it to a real variety of settings or individuals to see the similarities and differences in them."
Podcasting's cool factor has grown exponentially, with promising upstarts like Invisibilia hoping to piggyback off the success of Serial. To Orlean, this rapid rise resembles what happened to blogging, a once-personal format that, like podcasting, can have lax editorial oversight and unlimited space constraints.
It helps that podcasting is convenient for a writer with a busy travel schedule. The same can be said about Orlean's venture with Skillshare, an online video school. For $10 a month, Skillshare students get access to more than 1,000 classes, including Orlean's. Her class--a video lecture series with nearly two hours of instruction time--has already been viewed by more than 2,000 pupils. Budding journalists get easy access to a famous writer, and instructors get a convenient way to teach without sacrificing too much time.
Though the online course doesn't encourage student-instructor interaction, she's comfortable communicating with them--and the rest of her fans--through Twitter. The way Orlean, a Twitter user since 2007, talks about the platform makes her sound just like a social media editor, except she uses words like "storytelling" and "craft" instead of "engagement" and "strategy." She says she uses the platform to "think out loud" and connect with readers. For her, it's just another way to practice her craft; much like she would for a magazine story, she considers things like persona, voice, and narrative. "I tell stories. I write them. I see them printed on the page. But there's another side of me that enjoys learning about what this other stuff is," she says.
That means tweeting out advice to young writers and sharing quirky tidbits about her personal life. Orlean spoke to Washingtonian during her trip to the airport, and within two minutes of hanging up, a fresh tweet had materialized on her account.
On my way to DC. Time to play What Did I Forget To Pack This Time! Bonus round!!— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) March 25, 2015
Check out Susan Orlean's event at Sixth & I alongside author Alexandra Horowitz, as they share stories about their canine companions. Bonus: The Washington Humane Society is bringing dogs. 7 PM, $15.
Amanda Palmer is the first to admit she’s had a career many would call bizarre.
She got her start as a living statue called the Eight-Foot Bride in Boston. She created the “punk cabaret” band Dresden Dolls and its follow-up, Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra. She has a penchant for crowd-surfing naked and sometimes employs the F-word as a middle name. And she’s known to contact fans via social media for practice space or a couch to crash on when touring.
That DIY ethos came back to bite her in 2012 when she briefly became the internet’s most hated artist after raising $1.2 million through Kickstarter to fund a new album, then asking musicians to back her on tour—for free. Palmer defended her decision on her blog and broke down exactly how she’d spent the money; she also announced later that year that she would begin paying her “volunteer musicians.”
The 38-year-old has condensed the lessons gleaned from these experiences into her first book, The Art of Asking—a “memoir slash manifesto,” she calls it—that she discusses November 12 at Sixth & I. The kernel of the book began during a TED Talk Palmer gave last year, ostensibly to tell how she launched the most successful music crowd-funding project in history but also to explain her philosophy of requesting help without shame.
“Everybody at some point finds themselves in the position of needing to ask for a certain kind of help, and everybody finds themselves in the position of offering help,” she says. “Friends, time, energy, love, space, listening, talent—there are so many levels of asking for help that I think we just block off from our reality.”
A book had been in the back of her mind for some time, but the TED Talk—and a “dominatrix editor”—pushed her to commit words to page. The result is part autobiography, part business manual, part feminist statement, with an exploration of her marriage to fantasy author Neil Gaiman thrown in, all filtered through the idea that learning to trust and lean on others is a welcome necessity and an inescapable part of the human experience.
How Palmer’s hippie-ish theory plays in hyper-competent, type-A Washington remains to be seen, though she insists the “ask and ye shall receive” concept is universal. “Human beings like to help each other, and to feel connected and useful,” she says. “Sometimes they just need a way in.”
Purchase tickets ($15 to $18) at sixthandi.org.
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Alice McDermott, one of Washington's most acclaimed writers, is one of ten writers longlisted for a National Book Award for fiction. The judges have selected Someone, McDermott's novel about a woman living in Brooklyn around the time of World War II, for this year's group, along with books by Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, James McBride, Rachel Kushner, and more.
McDermott was first selected as a finalist for the award in 1987 for her novel That Night, which was also a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy, the tale of an Irish-American community mourning a lovable but melancholy rogue.
Someone, says Washingtonian reviewer John Wilwol, "unfolds through a series of snapshots capturing the life of a woman living in Brooklyn before, during, and after the Second World War. The stories are lean and deliberate, and they appear to be randomly assembled, like snapshots pulled from an old shoebox. But as the exquisite images and poignant truths add up, we're reminded that nothing happens in a McDermott novel by accident. This is a writer in complete control."Read the full review. The finalists for the award will be announced October 16, and the winner November 20.
Washington is often cited as one of the most literate cities in the world, but it’s a lesser-known fact that the city also serves as the setting for countless novels. DC Public Library’s Tony Ross and Kim Zablud have set out to expose the vast world of local fiction by creating a new interactive literary website called DC by the Book.
The site provides a database of fiction books that are set in the District, and is based around an interactive map that shows the exact locations described in books that take place within city limits. Readers can enter addresses or ZIP codes to see which books have passages set nearby, and can also submit parts from books to be included on the map. The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded Ross and Zablud a Technology Act Grant for the project last April, and the two began working on it in October.
The launch party for DC by the Book was at the Chinatown location of Busboys and Poets Wednesday, March 27. Librarians, historians, and avid readers walked through the bustling restaurant into a small room in the back corner of the building at Fifth and K streets, Northwest. The room was only supposed to hold 90 people, but a few more squeezed into the intimate space for a chance to hear about the new website and to see the local authors who had come to support the project.
Ross, who grew up in the area and was wearing a Cool “Disco” Dan shirt, began the program by talking about his initial idea for the map.
“I started to discover there’s this bigger world of DC authors,” he said. “This is a tool that’ll help people learn about their neighborhoods in a different way.”
Natasha Trethewey has been named the 19th US poet laureate, succeeding Phillip Levine. Trethewey, 46, joins a distinguished line of poets who’ve held the coveted post at the Library of Congress over the years, including W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, and Rita Dove. Her duties will begin in the fall.
In a statement released today, the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, says, “Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first poet laureate consultant in poetry. Her poems dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face.”
Imagine cozying up with a copy of Joyce's Dubliners in the heart of Dublin. Or finding yourself in the very same hotel on the French Riviera as the one Fitzgerald mentions in Tender Is the Night. These kinds of literary experiences are the goal behind Politics & Prose Travel, a new travel program to be launched in October by one of Washington's great independent bookstores.
"People think of the store as a community center. It seemed like a natural venture for the store to take that sense of community on the road," says Susan Coll, the programs director at Politics & Prose.
Monday, March 19
BOOKS: The author of a couple of works in the hipster canon, including Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer recently undertook a very different project--editing a new translation of the Haggadah, the Jewish story of the Exodus. Foer and the translator, Nathan Englander, will be speaking and signing copies of the book at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue at 7 PM. Tickets ($12) are available online.
Tuesday, March 20
POLITICS: A week before the DC primary elections, learn more about city council candidates Sekou Biddle, E. Gail Anderson Holness, Vincent Orange, and Peter Shapiro at the Black Cat with Drink, Vote, and Be Merry!, a boozy debate being moderated by Alan Suderman, Tom Sherwood, and WPFW radio's politics host Chuck Thies. 8 PM. Free.
Wednesday, March 21
MUSIC: Vetusta Morla, one of the most famous Spanish rock bands, will be playing at U Street Music Hall--an interesting development, considering their visit was orchestrated by the cultural office at the Embassy of Spain, hopefully a sign of more collaboration to come. Tickets ($15) are available through Ticketfly. 7 PM.
Thursday, March 22
DODGEBALL: You probably didn't know it was a dream of yours to play dodgeball at the Verizon Center, but just as you're adding it to your bucket list, you'll get to cross it off. Come watch John Wall dazzle and JaVale McGee do something ridiculous and lazy, and then head to the Wizards' practice courts to take out your pent-up anger over another lost Wizards season. No word on whether you'll finally get to (legally) throw things at the real Andray Blatche, not just his image on the TV. $25 (includes tickets to Wizards game), 7 PM.
The Washington National Opera stages Così Fan Tutte. Photograph by Richard H. Smith for Royal Opera House.
Thursday, February 23
ART: “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” opens tonight at the Artisphere. The first and only showing in the US will feature more than 250 intimate photographs from the artist’s personal collection. There will be a public opening reception tonight from 7 to 10. Free. The show runs through March 25.
FUNDRAISER: Rock band Farewell Republic and alt-rock group Head on Sticks perform at DC9. Proceeds will benefit DC Vote, an organization dedicated to securing full voting representation for DC residents. Tickets ($10) can be purchased at the door or through the venue’s website. Doors open at 8 PM.
BOOKS: Elizabeth Dowling Taylor signs copies of her new book, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, at the Woman’s National Democratic Club. Taylor served as the director of interpretation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and as a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The signing includes a lunch, a presentation, and a Q&A session. Tickets ($30) can be purchased through the event’s website. 2 PM.
KID-FRIENDLY: The Kennedy Center’s production of The Wings of Ikarus Jackson ends today. Adapted from the children’s book Wings, the uplifting story is about a young boy who can fly. Tickets ($18) can be purchased through the KenCen’s website. 12:30 PM.
Folk-rock singer William Fitzsimmons. Photograph courtesy of the artist’s Facebook page.
Monday, February 20
BOOKS: Sticky Fingers founder Doron Petersan will sign copies of her new book, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets: 100 Super-Secret Vegan Recipes, at the U Street Busboys and Poets. Petersan recently won Food Network’s Cupcake Wars All-Stars with her animal-product-free treats. Free. 6:30 PM.
Tuesday, February 21
MARDI GRAS: Rumors’ 11th annual Bourbon Street Bash returns with drink specials, New Orleans–inspired food, a live performance by Lethal Peanut, dancing, a wing-eating contest, and beads galore. Drink specials include $2 Coors Light, $3 Blue Moon, $4 Bacardi drinks, and $5 Bacardi Hurricanes. 4 PM to close.
Wednesday, February 22
DANCE: Japanese movement duo Eiko and Koma join the Kronos Quartet at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The performance, titled Fragile, is modeled after a museum installation, where dancers and musicians draw inspiration from one another’s works. Free; for mature audiences only. 5 PM.
Thursday, February 23
MUSIC: Folk-rock musician William Fitzsimmons performs at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. His captivating songs have been featured in Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Army Wives. Tickets can be purchased online for $20 or at the door for $23. 8 PM.
Baltimore native Ellen Cherry takes the stage tonight at Strathmore. Photograph courtesy of the artist’s website.
Wednesday, February 1
ART: Don’t miss opening night of Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas’s new exhibition, “Progeny.” The mother-son duo’s show explores motherhood, memory, and family through photographs. “Progeny” runs through February 29 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.
MUSIC: Singer-songwriter Ellen Cherry performs at Strathmore tonight. The Emmy-nominated musician released her newest album, (New) Years, in 2010. You can listen to some of her songs here. Tickets ($12) can be purchased through Strathmore’s website. 7:30 PM.
If you’re in the mood for something edgier, Machine Head are dropping by the Rams Head. The Grammy-nominated band toured with Metallica in 2009. The group will be joined by Suicide Silence and Darkest Hour. Tickets ($20) can be purchased through the venue’s website. Doors open at 6 PM.
BOOKS: Barney’s New York creative ambassador Simon Doonan will sign copies of his new book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, at the W Hotel. Guests can enjoy drink specials and door prizes. E-mail email@example.com to RSVP. 7 to 9 PM.