Stories Keep Us Warm: How an innovative reading series is firing up the Seattle literary scene

I was recently chosen to perform my story “Trigger” for The Furnace, a Seattle series where one prose writer is invited to read a single piece to completion. The writer performs their piece in front of a live audience, which is simultaneously broadcast over Hollow Earth Radio. By focusing on one writer (rather than several brief readings by multiple people), the series takes a risk in that it really relies on that single person to create a compelling performance and single-handedly drive attendance. What results from that risk is an always interesting, kinda weird, and truly unique listening experience. It also provides a beautiful showcase for the writer and their work, giving them a chance to explore alternative presentation styles—using actors, live musicians, sound effects and other elements to enrich the reading. With its radio broadcast, the series taps into older forms of storytelling by bringing people together to listen, either online or in person (herding us literary cats, in a way). From The Furnace mission statement: “Stories were told around a fire. They kept us warm and created a sense of connection and community.”

It’s really a kind of magical experience to both listen and perform at The Furnace. The Hollow Earth Space is small, but reads as warm and intimate, rather than cramped. And, as a reader, it was cool to know people were listening over the airwaves—friends of mine texted after the reading was done, congratulating me. There have only been five performances so far (which you can listen to on Soundcloud and The Furnace website), but the series has already gained a big following, and been a featured event in the local alternative weekly The Stranger many times. It’s been cool to see a relatively small, but pretty original idea build its audience and reputation in such a short amount of time.

To learn more about how the series got started, and what goes into putting it together, I had a little Q&A with the founder, Corinne Manning. Here’s our conversation:

***

The furnace

LJH: So can you tell me more about what inspired you to start the series?

CM: As a prose writer it’s often tricky to participate in readings because I’ll have about ten minutes and that means usually cutting a story down, or just reading the first bit–where as ten minutes for a poet means something very different. I wanted to create a series that gave a prose writer the opportunity to read a piece all of the way through, and even get to explore presenting it in innovative ways. The chapbook that’s made for each event and the fact that its broadcast on Hollow Earth Radio is all part of trying to make a disparate literary community feel more cohesive, create a holistic listening experience for the audience member, and also give a writer a real chance to be showcased beyond the ephemeral reading.

LJH: How happy have you been with it so far? Have there been any challenges?

CM: I ran a series with multiple readers before (Other Means in Brooklyn, NY), and though I loved the format of that series and the intention, I’m much happier with the Furnace. There are some really obvious ways in which it’s easier than what I was doing before: it’s quarterly, there’s only one writer to schedule, and because that writer gets showcased in a really special way they take it seriously in a way that I hadn’t witnessed before. My co-coordinator Anca Szilagyi and I have always been lucky to get a really good crowd, which is really exciting because we purposefully try to showcase people who are emerging or who aren’t one of the same eight or so people featuring again and again.

LJH: Thinking more about readings, I’m wondering if you could describe the qualities that you think makes for a great listener experience. Like what makes you go: “Wow, I’m really glad I went to that.”

CM: This is like defining the mystery of the universe! There’s an essay by Frank Conroy where he talks about the relationship between the writer and the reader in a piece of fiction as this collaboration, where both the writer and the reader are putting a certain kind of energy in to make the story happen. The writer, he says, has to put in a little extra work to create space for the reader’s energy to fill the story. Esoteric, I know but I think the same thing happens at a reading. The writer who is performing is engaged in the act of telling the story—and is in a sense performing it. The listeners then too, should want to be there, are more engaged in receiving than just waiting for their friend to be the one who comes up on stage.

LJH: Do you feel like Seattle is a good place to be a writer?

CM: Seattle has a really active literary scene, which is very fun and it’s nice to feel like you have colleagues within a scene where everyone is attending and supporting one another’s events. I think it’s amazing that a new series can launch and people will get really excited about it and go to check it out.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn and in the south east and they both had really great literary scenes as well, but Seattle seems to have a mix of the elements of the glitz of a bigger city with the intimacy of a smaller town.

LJH: Who would be your dream reader for the Furnace?

CM: God, this probably sounds cheesy but every reader we have had has been a dream reader for The Furnace. I’m always so stunned by what the writers do with this opportunity. I really love that with the Furnace we get to be like “Hey—your work is really special and we’d like you to feel that and get to show everyone else how special it is too.” Lacey, I’m still totally riding high on what a beautiful performance you created and I can’t wait to see what our next reader Catherine Smyka will come up with.

LJH: What are you working on right now? Do you think running a series has had any effect on your writing (negative or positive)?

CM: I’m writing a collection of stories right now called We had No Rules that have a really strong, driven, first person voice. This work is some of the most exciting work I’ve done even though I haven’t really tried to publish the stories yet— it’s like this private party still in my office where I create these characters that I love. I think this series has given me some renewed faith in my own work. Kinda like what I said about how amazing it is that people will come out for a writer who isn’t already famous or hasn’t necessarily even published that extensively, but they get to be acknowledged for the work their doing. In many ways, my work is still so private but I have faith that it will get recognized some day and that until then I can trust it is still great work and worth believing in even in this period before recognition.

***

Lacey Jane Henson moved to Seattle to get her MFA from the University of Washington and never left. In 2009, her story “Trigger” won first-prize in the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction given by Nimrod International. Her writing has since appeared in Third Coast, MAKE: A Chicago Magazine, Monkeybicycle, among others. Last year, as part of Seattle’s Jack Straw program, she gave multiple readings from her now-complete first novel, Nobody Told Me.

Corinne Manning’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alice Blue Review’s chapbook series Shot Gun Wedding, Drunken Boat, Arts & Letters, Qarrtsiluni, The Oxford American, and The Nervous Breakdown. She co-runs the Furnace Reading Series in Seattle, WA and is the founder and instructor for The Living Room Workshops, a teaching project. She was the 2010/2011 Writer in Residence for the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, SC. She is at work on a novel and a new collection of stories.