The past year has been difficult for independent bookstores, and for our nation as a whole. Write America, a free reading series hosted by Huntington’s Book Revue and organized by Quogue-based author and Stony Brook University professor Roger Rosenblatt, works to heal both through a weekly celebration of books.
The idea for the series, which is presented on Crowdcast Mondays at 7 p.m., occurred to Rosenblatt after watching the division and violence of the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6. "I wanted to show that writers could be useful in a time that the country really needed us," Rosenblatt said.
His hope was to bring together an audience of book lovers who can begin to learn to speak to one another again, regardless of their differences. "A conservative has no different reaction to 'King Lear' than a liberal — I wanted to create something that builds a connection between these two factions that is not a punch in the face, to begin to heal the divisions without any politics entering into it," Rosenblatt said.
FINDING A HOME
Once Rosenblatt had his mission in place, he knew he needed a home for the series. That’s where Book Revue came in.
"Bookstores are small businesses being imperiled by the pandemic," Rosenblatt said. "I knew of Book Revue because I gave readings there, pre-pandemic. They also hosted a roast and book party for me shortly after everything went virtual and I was so impressed. There wasn’t a flutter."
The partnership couldn’t come at a better time for Book Revue. "As soon as COVID-19 hit, everything had to change," explained the bookstore’s publicist Loren Limongelli. "Suddenly, we couldn’t let our customers into the store anymore."
When Book Revue first closed due to COVID-19, its website was not even set up for online purchases. "We truly had to reinvent how we did business entirely," Limongelli said. "The writers and publishers were in the same boat we were. Everyone was trying this for the first time."
Rosenblatt started by writing a letter to half a dozen of his fellow writers; within 10 days he had 60 writers signed onto the project. He achieved his goal of diversity quickly and organically. "The writers in the series are of a great variety — variety of color, age, genre, and experience. Some are former students I know are first-class writers even if they’ve only published one thing. Then I have Billy and Rita."
Billy and Rita are former U.S. Poets Laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove, who opened the series on Feb. 1 and drew 500 people, the biggest crowd Book Revue has had for a free virtual event. "We’ve always had people travel to come to our events, but with Write America, I’m seeing an amazing response from all across the country," Limongelli said. "People are joining from Japan, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Indonesia — all these places we would not be able to reach in-person, and now we can."
Books are available for sale via bookrevue.com and in some cases, the authors give sneak peeks from works in progress. National Book Award finalist Francine Prose, in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, read from her novel "The Vixen" coming out in June.
The pairings are often unconventional. Husband and wife talent teams, such as Alan and Arlene Alda or Anne Fadiman and George Howe Colt lend intimacy to the discussion series. Other weeks will feature writers and editors, such as poet Natalie Diaz and Ecco Books founder Daniel Halpern (April 19) or literary power couple Paul Auster and Siri Husvedt in conversation with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker (April 26).
There are drawbacks to virtual events, of course. "With a store event, you have the author right there signing the book to you, so we miss that person-to-person aspect," Limongelli said.
But, she added, virtual events have been a boon. "We are working with authors we wouldn’t normally because there is no travel time with virtual events, no worrying about hotels — people just sit down in their office or kitchen and they are with us right away."
The same goes for the audience. Each Write America conversation is recorded and made available on bookrevue.com, so readers can watch and share the events at any time.
The star-studded line-up is currently booked through September. "This definitely has the potential to continue, though it’s Roger’s brainchild, and we would want him involved through the end," Limongelli said.
Rosenblatt hopes these conversations can help break down the wall that has grown between people in our country. "I see myself more as a basketball coach," Rosenblatt said. "I just put a team of all-stars together and let them play."
Write America is a free virtual series hosted by Book Revue in Huntington Mondays at 7 p.m. Here are some upcoming talks (for the complete schedule and to register, visit bookrevue.com).
MARCH 15 Linda Pastan, Paul Harding and Juan Felipe Herrera
MARCH 22 George Howe Colt, Anne Fadiman and Carl Phillips
MARCH 29 Kirsten Valdez Quade and Nick Flynn
APRIL 5 Kurt Andersen and Amy Hempel