Under 35, Under the Influence

1. Honoree Melinda Moustakis (Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories), who lives on the mainland now but goes back to Alaska for fishing season. 2. The Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, with novelist Julia Glass. Before I interrupted them, they were discussing Waters’ appearance on Dancing with the Stars.

Last night, I was fortunate enough to get past the door for “5 under 35,” the National Book Foundation’s celebration of five young authors and their outstanding work. The event was held this year at the PowerHouse Arena in DUMBO, and the honorees were Shani Boianjiu (The People of Forever Are Not Afraid), Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self), Mary Beth Keane (The Walking People), Melinda Moustakis (Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories), and John Corey Whaley (Where Things Come Back). DJ’ing the affair was Patricia Smith, who is also the author of six books of poetry including Blood Dazzler, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. The beer was courtesy Stella Artois and the wine from Brooklyn Enology. Milk Food Truck served grilled cheese sandwiches.

The night was, to use a tired pun, simply divine, and then there he was, the Pope of Trash, the man who brought you the singing anus, John Waters. You know, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to use the term “rim job” in a write-up of a literary event. But then again, I’d never met John Waters before. Through some accident of dumb luck, I’d left my cardigan on an empty chair near the front of the room when I went to stuff my face full of grilled cheese. I returned with a deviled egg, a cornichon, a grilled cheese sandwich and now, a seat directly behind Mr. Waters. I was a mere six inches away from his polka dotted socks and patent leather shoes and I have to admit, I was a little star-struck.

I don’t get that way too often, and I was feeling a little silly about wanting to reach out and touch the soft fuzz on the back of his neck, but then I didn’t feel too bad; tougher broads than I have fallen under Waters’ spell In fact, my friend Suzy Hotrod (whose bad-assness includes her position as captain of the Queens of Pain roller derby team, former front woman of a punk rock band, and food photographer at Fresh Direct. Oh, and she was the front spread of ESPN’s latest Bodies issue.) Suzy’s survived ripped ACLs, broken knee caps, full on body checks, and doesn’t even blink, but the thought of coming to the event with me made her a little weak in the knees. Such is the power of John Waters.

He pretty much had the crowd mesmerized from the moment he took the mic, but what stays with me is the following quote:

If they give you a book that you asked them for, you fuck ’em. If they give you a book by a favorite author without you asking, you blow ’em. And, if they give you a book by a favorite author that you never knew existed, you rim them.

Maybe it’s not Byron, but at least it’s fun. And what else would you expect from the author of Shock Value?

1. Gillian Kane, novelist Rene Steinke, and short story writer/comedian Jen Werner. Steinke presented in 2006 and this time brought along Kane. 2. Honorees Danielle Evans and Mary Beth Keane.

He soon passed the mic on to the writers and their selectors, and we transitioned to a saner tone. Shani Boianjiu couldn’t make the event, so Danielle Evans was first, introduced by Robert Stone. Evans’ stories were filled with descriptions that could make your skin crawl, particularly the way she described a woman’s hair part as “a fault line of polish, dividing life into before and after,” and went on to describe mattresses burning and bedbugs lined up and filing down the sidewalk.

Next up was Mary Beth Keane, introduced by Julia Glass, who started by saying she wasn’t eager to read Keane’s story when it first landed on her desk. She explained that when she saw that it was about Irish-American immigration, she’d just finished Angela’s Ashes and was pretty sure the subject had been exhausted. However, Glass clarified, Keane’s work floored her and she ended up selecting The Walking People as her choice for the 5 under 35 award.

Melinda Moustakis’ entire family was in the house (later she told me they said, “If you’re going to New York, we’re going to New York.”) and she read a few selections, ones that they liked particularly, including one that included fornication in a hunting blind. Her short story collection, Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, was full of beautiful, haunting passages, and I thought was the perfect example of that when a writer embraces their homeland, the results can be touching. Though with totally different results, I think Waters’ own love of Baltimore is one of the things that make him so endearing.

Last up was John Corey Whaley, whose YA novel Where Things Come Back impressed writer Oscar Hijuelos enough to recommend him for the honor. Whaley is from Arkansas, and it was clear there was a heavy Arkansas contingency in the house when his ascent to the stage was greeted with whoops and hollers. Whaley has a boyish face and looks a bit like Justin Bieber, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he took the podium, but his reading was wonderful, exploring the tender relationships among men. And, it must be said, the man has excellent enunciation.

At the end of the night, as I was sipping wine, chatting with Rene Steinke, over the PA system came Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” followed with “Yeah” by T.I. feat Lil’ Wayne, and then I watched John Waters mosey up the stairs towards the photo booth, I figured there were a lot worse ways to spend a Monday night.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

by Danielle Evans


The Walking People

by Mary Beth Keane


Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories (Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction)

by Melinda Moustakis


Where Things Come Back

by John Corey Whaley



— Cassie Hay is a regular contributor to The Dish.

More Like This

Predicting the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

This year’s top contenders for the most prestigious award of American literature

Apr 28 - Bradley Sides

We Partied With Padma Lakshmi, Union Supporter, at the National Book Awards

Prize-winning writers spoke out against book bans and censorship at the Oscars for books

Nov 18 - Electric Literature

I Stood in Line for the Bathroom with a National Book Awards Winner

Disappearing tables, awkward introductions, and an open bar at one of America’s biggest literary events

Nov 16 - Lucie Shelly
Thank You!