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Sunday, January 26, 2014

10 Years of Eating, Drinking & Being Literary

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
by David Hsieh

Any good host knows the secret to a great dinner party is to invite guests who can bring intelligent conversation, often the most hard-to-find gift. No wonder BAM’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series has been such a success. With professionally prepared food, unlimited wine, and authors as renowned and diverse as Joyce Carol Oates, Edmund White, Gary Shteyngart, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ha Jin discussing their inspirations with lively moderators, all ingredients point to an enriching evening.

But when it started nine years ago, neither BAM nor the National Book Foundation, BAM's partner in this program, was entirely sure the format would work, as Suzanne Youngerman, former director of BAM Education & Humanities, recalled in a recent conversation. “We wanted to utilize the café space we had, and also to take advantage of the burgeoning Brooklyn literary scene. But we didn’t know what to expect.”

BAM found a willing and capable partner in NBF. As the presenter of the country’s foremost book award, the National Book Award, it had always conducted literary events, including the “Gold Medal Tour” in which all four award winners go on a national tour. But “we were looking to reinvent the book reading format,” said Leslie Shipman, its director of programs. “The picture of going out for a nice dinner, with a glass of wine in hand, and listening to authors discuss their work just seemed to be a lovely idea,” she said recently.

On January 13, 2005, the first EDBL was born, with The Ice Storm author Rick Moody and playwright Wendy Wasserstein serving as the moderator. Authors participating in that inaugural year also include Paul Auster, Walter Mosley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates, and Edward P. Jones. And it was “an immediate success,” said Youngerman.

Over the years, the series has hosted 71 literary luminaries, including two Booker Prize winners, 25 PEN Awards recipients, seven National Book Award winners, 12 MacArthur Fellows, and one Tony Award winner. Writers as diverse and as fascinating as Edward Albee, Peter Carey, Ann Patchett, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Franzen, Sapphire, Cynthia Ozick, Richard Russo, and Art Spiegelman have talked about their writing inspirations over poached salmon and sautéed string beans, and have shared anecdotes through glasses and glasses of pinot noir and chardonnay. The series is so popular that many events have sold out quickly.

The all-star lineup for 2014, clockwise from top left: Alarcón, Bechdel, Lee, Eugenides, Wolitzer, Rushdie, Bulawayo, McDermott
Illustrations by Nate Gelgud
BAM didn’t invent the combination of food and literature. So what has made EDBL so popular, when book lovers have a wide range of free events in New York City? “I think it’s the quality of authors and the feeling of intimacy with authors sitting among you,” Shipman said. “The setting of the BAMcafé is also a big point. It has this high ceiling and arches with big windows. It creates a very dramatic effect.” She said that the series is now firmly established as one of city’s top literary events. Moreover, it’s equally appealing to writers. “I have often received a thank you note from writers or their agents or publishers the next day, telling me how much they enjoyed the experience.”

To make sure that audiences get the most for their money, BAM and NBF select authors judiciously. Every year, Shipman and the BAM Humanities Department, under current director Violaine Huisman, discuss their wish list. Unlike most other book events, EDBL is not necessarily tied to an author’s new book promotion. “We want to look at his or her entire body of work,” said Shipman. “And we want them to be writing serious literature—unquestionably challenging, interesting, inspiring literary works.” She added, “we also try to include both established and emerging writers.”

The 10th installment of EDBL starts with a flourish. Booker winner and former PEN president Salman Rushdie is the guest on January 29. “He has been on our wish list perennially,” Shipman said. “Every year we tried to get him. And for one reason or another, he was always unavailable. Finally we have him this year.”

The series continues with another stellar lineup: Alice McDermott (February 12), Jeffrey Eugenides (February 26), NoViolet Bulawayo (March 19), Chang-rae Lee (April 9), Daniel Alarcón (April 23), Alison Bechdel (May 14), and Meg Wolitzer (May 28). Ben Greenman and Deborah Treisman will alternate as moderators. What can we say except, “Bottoms up!”

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