“Authenticity is the most contagious content.” A conversation with Molly Rose Quinn
A few steps up from the cobbles of Crosby Street in SoHo, set a little way off from the rush of Houston, readers quietly browse walls of books or chat animatedly at working tables. A transgender woman is making coffees and pouring wine at the cafe in the back while more volunteers are setting up chairs to prepare for the evening’s event – a recording of the overwhelmingly popular storytelling podcast, The Moth.
This is the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe: an icon of literary excellence, liberal activism, and incredibly popular cultural events. (The queue for The Moth will wrap around the corner outside before they have to cut it off.) The bookstore is a touchstone of New York City’s quirky and powerful alternative culture, frequented by down-and-out artists, celebrities, young professionals, and writers from influential alternative blogs. And one staff position has a unique hand in shaping the signature culture at Housing Works: the Director of Public Programming.
This week one of our New York City editors, Hannah Vanbiber, sat down with Housing Works’ new Director of Public Programming–Molly Rose Quinn. Molly is a poet, essayist, feminist and unstoppable force–and she now sits at the helm of public event-planning for the Bookstore Cafe. Hannah and Molly talk Housing Works behind-the-scenes, the organization’s vision of advocacy, and Molly’s own life as a writer.
HANNAH VANBIBER: Tell me about Housing Works.
MOLLY ROSE QUINN: Housing Works is an amazing organization to work for because the advocacy, healthcare, thrift and bookstore operations are all successful and sustainable enterprises. It’s essentially two different kinds of nonprofits working together: a service organization and an arts/cultural nonprofit.
The Bookstore Cafe and catering company function as their own nonprofit, raising money directly for the programs of Housings Works–which are housing, mental health services, etc. Everyone who headlines an event or appears during an event is donating their time and gifts to us, which makes for such a unique space. Basically the objective of my job is to do two things: raise the profile of the bookstore by bringing in interesting events and personalities, and use the bookstore and its voice to amplify authors, artists, projects, and other organizations that I feel are deserving of a platform. I make it a priority to present events that are completely unique from what you might get at another venue. Our space is something truly unique to New York City: We’re an event venue, cafe, and bookstore, rather than a bookstore that has events.
HV: The first time I discovered this place was over a year ago–they were holding a panel on women in writing with Jezebel. I was floored by the big media names and truly brilliant writers who were featured. How do you cultivate those connections? Do people reach out to you?
MRQ: I would say it’s a combination. I get enough pitches that are viable and interesting that I could fill our whole calendar for the year without looking for anything else. I think that really speaks to the work that’s been done by all my predecessors, most recently Amanda Bullock and Rachel Fershleiser, and how the programming has evolved over the past almost-ten years now.
But also I think it is a reflection of the industry. Twenty-five years ago there were maybe two reading series in New York, and now you could go to five literary events every night, 365 days a year, no problem. After this indie explosion in the last decade or so, and the movement of writers online, the trend in publishing is that anyone can have a voice in the conversation. And that’s exactly the model that Housing Works thrives on. Everyone can participate, and anyone can just come and listen.
It’s also about generating effective and authentic publicity for as many talented people as we can. So many people, especially in the competitive world of New York City, feel like they shouldn’t contribute to someone else’s buzz. I think that perspective is total nonsense and it doesn’t work. Buzz is not a zero sum game. There’s this misconception that when people are talking about something, they’re not talking about another thing. But I don’t find that to be true at all. Buzz doesn’t mean one voice shouting in one direction, it means all kinds of voices talking with each other. And that’s the spirit of our events. Housing Works doesn’t have to represent one kind of voice. In fact our goal is the opposite.
HV: And that corresponds with the heart of what Housing Works is doing at a programmatic level as well, with its advocacy to fight AIDS and promote the rights and life quality of the LGBTQ community.
HV: Why do you think these two things mesh so well? I mean the intersection of the literature world and this world of advocacy and service? Or I guess I should ask: Do they work well together?
MRQ: They do! I think what works so well is that there is a similar spirit between these two industries. Writing is a difficult profession. I mean, I’m exhausted of people making themselves victims of the big industry, but it’s true that there aren’t that many literary jobs and at the end of the day, most writers write for free at least some of the time, and have struggled to come to this creative career. That energy has a ton in common with people who work in advocacy and service, which is this idea of putting your life towards something larger than yourself, and oftentimes doing so without support, reward, or gratitude.
That’s how I think of my job: as an advocacy platform for both writers and readers. We want to connect readers to writers they love and to connect writers to new readers who may not have heard of them before. This space is perfect for that level of connection because it’s right in the middle of being a big space and a small space. When we have David Sedaris or Patti Smith here, we bring someone who just did Carnegie Hall into this little nook. This feels like a living room–it feels casual, it feels intimate, it feels fun. In that way, we deliver connection for readers and consumers.
In the reverse, we’re also an established literary institution that has a good reputation and has weight in a literary conversation or a media conversation or a cultural programming conversation. So I have the opportunity to pluck lesser-known writers out of the ether that can be the publishing world and give them a meaningful platform.
HV: What are some of the hot-topic conversations going on right now that Housing Works has been a part of?
MRQ: Gender and sexuality in writing and in publishing has been a huge part of the larger dialogue in the industry for the past couple of years. And I think it’s happening in a good way right now. It’s a conversation that people want to be tapped into, because so many literary outlets are struggling to represent more women. There are so many great books coming out by women writers in general and so many books that are about the experience of being a woman–about mothering and parenting, childbirth, sexuality from a woman’s point of view. I think it’s a huge indication that there’s been a lack of conversation for such a long time and finally women writers are rewriting the story. (Which is not to say that misogyny isn’t a huge part of a writer’s experience.)
What I love about Housing Works is that it has always had a voice in this conversation–the push for recognizing women has never been a problem here. My predecessors worked really hard to bring female and female-identifying writers to Housing Works. I’m really proud of the fact that Housing Works has always been a feminist organization, it’s always been very LGBTQ friendly, it’s always been a leftist organization at its heart, and I think that’s a huge reason it’s so important to the publishing industry.
HV: Well, speaking of women writers, tell me a little bit about yourself as a writer. I know you’re from Memphis and I know you’re a poet, and I don’t want to say much else so I don’t freak you out.
MRQ: Those are two true facts! I came to New York for my MFA at Sarah Lawrence–it’s now almost three years ago that I graduated. Since then I’ve been working on a collection of poems about Memphis. Or…it occurs in Memphis, it’s not really about Memphis, it’s about me. [Laughs]. Because that’s the kind of writing I’m interested in.
It takes as its subject all of the things about Memphis, the very complicated history of violence and race and class issues and gender issues. So it tackles those things in a partially historical context and partially in reference to my own life. It also focuses on the female culture of the South. On the one hand, misogyny is a completely accepted culture, but on the other hand there’s such a strong community of women. When I think of Memphis I think of women and all the women that I knew. My life was so female oriented. It was about this sisterhood all the time and yet there were all these complicated class issues happening.
The collection is in the phase of “Almost Done.” It’s horrifying and exciting.
HV: So you have this incredible position with Housing Works that you’re clearly passionate about. And you’re also a writer. How do you balance the two? When do you find time to write?
MRQ: Good question! I write whenever I can. For a long time I wrote every Saturday morning from like eight to noon without question. But I’ve learned over the past four years that the best time to write is all the time, at least in my life. I need to be able to write a little bit every evening. I need to be able to stay inside my poems and stay inside my project as much as I can. Balancing this type of “day job” with writing is something I’m still working out in my head.
A lot of the think pieces about “How to be a writer” make me a little crazy. You hear people say, you know, “You can’t have a day job, you have to be able to write every single morning, you have to be able to sit in your bath and read a book for twelve hours, you have to live in a cabin and only answer your cell phone once a week.” I’m really exhausted by all of that–to say that you have to have a certain type of life to be a writer is like saying you have to have a certain type of life to be a person.
I think that we need to stop talking about writing as one way of being. Art is valuable because making something, writing something, is entirely specific to you and your world.
HV: Do you think this is a philosophy you can apply throughout your life–to your work at Housing Works, or what Housing Works does?
MRQ: The fact that poetry and writing are a completely free and open creative space is also the value of that career. That I can be any kind of writer I want to be any time. I do this job and I write and both are an outflow of who I am as a person. I think it’s okay that there isn’t a model. We aren’t all the same. As a poet, I am part of many cultures, not just “poetry” culture.
If you look at people who have great success as writers, there is no model.
Whenever I get really down on myself about writing–which happens all of the time–I always go back to books that have meant the most to me, things like Autobiography of Red and Bluets. Those books touch so many different kinds of readers and writers, by way of the extremely specific territory they take on. You do not have to do everything, you do not have to be good at what’s popular, you do not have to cover everything or cover the most urgent internet conversation. You just have to do what you want, but do it very well and relentlessly, and be human.
I think the most compelling thing in writing in general is radical honesty and representing yourself, and making some kind of genuine contribution to a conversation, a human exchange. If Twitter has taught us anything, it’s that authenticity is the most contagious content.
That’s the spirit behind our events. I love that I get to bring someone in to do one great thing one night. To express themselves in a unique way and then they’re off, to do something else amazing the next night some place else. It’s kind of nice to be on that side of it and see so much novelty passing through. That is what I personally love about events: it’s a live, momentary platform, and the next night, it’s something new, again.
Learn more about the mission of Housing Works and upcoming events at the Bookstore Cafe.
Molly Rose Quinn is a poet living in Brooklyn and the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Her poems appear in Black Warrior Review, Everyday Genius, No, dear, Two Serious Ladies, Coconut, Four Way Review, Underwater New York, and other places. Her essays and interviews appear in The Atlas Review, Freerange Nonfiction, The L Magazine, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is a fiction committee member for the Brooklyn Book Festival and co-organizer of the Moby-Dick Marathon NYC. She was raised in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Joshua Simpson.)
Armed with a B.A. in English, Hannah Vanbiber has been working in publishing for three years. Favorite books include Too Late the Phalarope, The Secret Garden, and East of Eden.