Dear Reader, Live: A Night of Bedside Letters Shared with an Audience
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Unconventional writers’ residencies seem to be proliferating, with programs offering unusual workspaces such as Amtrak trains and the homes of famous writers. Joining the mix is Dear Reader, a series of overnight stays in New York’s Ace Hotel curated by writer Alexander Chee (who also helped start the aforementioned Amtrak residency).
While writing residencies in hotels isn’t an entirely new concept (The Standard in the East Village has paired up with The Paris Review to offer a three-week stay to a writer), the Dear Reader program is unique in that it gives the writer-in-residence a task: write a letter to hotel guests, to be placed in each of the hotel’s 300 rooms for one unannounced night the following month. The only restriction on the writer is that the letter can be no more than 400 words. The results vary wildly in content and style, as was made evident in a reading by the first six writers-in-residence in the Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall last night.
Atticus Lish, Saeed Jones, Chelsea Hodson, Dale Peck, Sigrid Nunez, and Lucas Mann read from recent work and shared their Ace Hotel letters with a packed audience. Each writer had spent (or was about to spend, in the case of Lucas Mann, whose residency was that very evening) one night at the hotel. Six more writers have been chosen for the residency for the second half of 2015, one per month.
The mood of the letters ranged from contemplative to humorous. Atticus Lish wrote a letter to animal lovers based on a nature video about sloths he had watched, while Chelsea Hodson penned a series of “Dear John” letters (“I loved the idea of someone named John finding this letter in his hotel room,” she explained). All of the writers I spoke with said that they had no idea what they were going to write until they arrived at the hotel, letting the environment speak to them.
An Ace Hotel staff member talked with me about how the letters have been received by hotel guests. “Some people have written to us and really loved the letters, and some people have called the front desk confused, thinking someone has left it behind,” he said. “The hope is that it jars people out of what they’re expecting, but in a way that is not confrontationally transgressive. Like, yes, it’s a hotel room, but it’s also a place to encounter art.”
I asked Atticus Lish how he approached writing a letter that was going to be placed in a hotel room, for guests he would never meet, and he said, “I think with the hotel room, you gotta assume people are reading it in their underwear.” This is a fair point and made me wonder, how does our clothing choice affect our reading experience?
Lish had never been to the Ace Hotel before, and neither had audience member Nick Mancusi, who referred to the décor affectionately as “A hipster ate a beard and barfed all over the place — but it’s cool!” He added, “I’m actually a fan, no bullshit, of every one of these writers — how could I miss this?”
Indeed, the consensus in the room seemed to be that the writing, and the reading, was stellar, with every single one of the participants hitting it out of the ballpark. Alexander Chee said he had two criteria when he selected the writers: “they told me a story I couldn’t forget” and “it came out of some kind of New York City situation.” Chee is a “big fan of the Ace Hotel”, which he believes encapsulates a certain New York City spirit. He has been involved in events there before, including co-hosting informal “Meet Your Twitter Feed” parties, “basically reminding people it’s good to hang out with people and not just be alone in front of your device.”
In that spirit, the Liberty Hall stayed open after the reading, and most of the large crowd stayed to do some face-to-face mingling. I chatted with Saeed Jones for a bit, who had stayed at the Ace Hotel when he interviewed for his position at BuzzFeed, and asked him how staying in the hotel for the Dear Reader residency was a different experience than staying for an interview. He replied, “The space is transformed. When I was here for Dear Reader and the task was ‘just write,’ it was the gift to calm down and pay attention to the space. Whereas when you are using a hotel room for work, the space is much more transient.”
Jones was also inspired by the inhabitants of the hotel. “You get curious [about the guests]…part of it is you wonder what’s going on in all these different rooms. Are they here for business, for an affair, to visit family? It mirrors the city, this hotel that encases all these stories at once. It was a moment to contemplate all of the New York we miss when we’re running from task to task.”
The event was inspiring to several writers who were in attendance as listeners, including Mark Doten, who said, “I don’t think I’ve ever written in any hotels, but I’d love to!” The Dear Reader series continues for the rest of 2015, and there will be another reading by the next six writers sometime in December.
Photos by Catherine Lasota