Sticking together while staying apart.
When Alex Segura, equal parts wonderful writer and supportive voice in the crime fiction community, held the first Virtual Noir at the Bar (an evening of short readings by established writers) on behalf of Kew and Willow Books in New York, we were all only a couple of weeks into self-quarantining.
The novelty of being reunited with friends — particularly, seeing their faces and smiles, and their smiles at seeing yours — was fresh. His event was well run, and the writers and viewers clearly enjoyed the warmth of something familiar.
It was an easy decision to do the same for DC.
I’ve run the DC Noir at the Bar series for years now, typically held in Columbia Height’s Wonderland Ballroom, and organizing the series is a pleasure, but an exhausting one. And because it’s an infrequent event, I can’t nearly include all the writers I’d like.
I’ve talked before about the DMV’s luxury of talent, but it’s not acknowledged enough: This area has enough strength and creativity in its crime fiction to stand with any city or region in the world. For the events at Wonderland, I pull nine writers out of a pool of over a hundred.
After seeing what Alex had done, I realized there was a chance to do more.
But it’s not entirely about the writers.
There is no question that businesses, both large and small, are facing unimagined difficulties. And even in good times, small bookstores have to trade punches with giants. In this area, especially, those bookstores have remained both nimble and elegant, but the future is in peril.
And that’s why, again following Alex’s lead, I decided to turn the Virtual Noir at the Bar into a series, with each event in support of a different DMV bookstore. Like this area’s writers, the DMV has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to independent bookstores. I only planned seven events, so I couldn’t feature every store I wanted — if the virus is reduced in summer months and businesses reopen, this rush of virtual events will surely dwindle, so the last is June 5th.
But you can always support these stores in other ways — order books from them, contribute to their Patreons or employee funds, encourage friends to buy from them. Like any initiative, your contribution will be small, but it helps. From seeds spring gardens.
This is a story I’ve told before, but never in print. I was wandering through the Baltimore Book Fair in the early 2000s, unpublished and hopeful, watching the authors’ interviews and readings, longing to be on the other side of the stage.
And then I heard someone singing, and her voice stopped me.
It was Sara Jones, who had just taken first place in the Billie Holiday Jazz Competition and was singing at the festival. I was immersed in jazz at the time, Parker and Holliday and Hines and Reinhardt and so many others, and Jones had (and has) something I recognized — a studied awareness of the music, but also a fire. She belonged on that stage.
We became good friends, and I remain a devoted fan. And I’ve since written stories that incorporate music, so we’ve had the chance to perform together — her singing between my passages — on various stages: at One More Page, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, even at the National Book Festival.
Sara Jones is taking part in these virtual events, providing two musical interludes each night and, as always, I’m so happy to have the chance to work with her. And the response from viewers is, again, so warm. It’s easy to forget the importance of music in our lives until music stops us in our tracks. And reminds us of something more.
Of course, it couldn’t be a Noir at the Bar without drinking! And, also of course, bars and restaurants and their employees have been crippled during this pandemic. That’s why I’m so happy that, starting with our event tomorrow, DC’s most innovative mixologist, Chantal Tseng, will be joining us.
Chantal has built a reputation in both drinking and literary circles (the Venn diagram for that is one circle) with her custom cocktails tailored to a book. For each event, Chantal is going to create a custom cocktail, paired to one of the books that evening, and give a short demonstration of how to make it.
When I talk about the ingenuity of this region, it’s people like Chantal who come to mind. Smart, sharp students of a craft who become experts.
Let’s support them.
You can see the entire lineup of DC’s Virtual Noir at the Bar events here. We started in April and will end in June, in support of seven different bookstores and featuring close to 60 writers.
The next one is tomorrow night, in support of Politics and Prose, and features Louis Bayard, Matthew Fitzsimmons, John Copenhaver, Alan Orloff, Eliza Nellums, Tara Campbell, Allison Leotta, and Donna Andrews.
I’ll be hosting and reading (I read a story at every other event, because this still has to be about me), Sara will be singing songs, and Chantal will be slinging drinks. I hope you’ll join us. For all of us, this is what we do best, and when people are at their best, it tends to help everyone out.
It won’t solve anything or provide a long-term remedy. But it will, as a stranger told me in an email after the first event, “offer a wonderful moment of reprieve.”
We hope it helps, a little.
E.A. Aymar’s next novel, They’re Gone (written under his pseudonym, E.A. Barres), is available for pre-order now.