On a recent warm Chelsea night, the very tall Thomas Beller loped toward the stage of the Kitchen, part of "an evening of readings and music" sponsored by his literary magazine, Open City, to read from his new book, How to Be a Man (Norton). Preceding the 6'5" author were two types familiar at such events: a talented but stiff young writer reciting her own work and a trained actor effusively performing the story of another. But Beller, scheduled to read an essay called "Walking the Dog," about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his previous responsibility for inserting suppositories into the rectum of a former boss's pet, belonged to neither category. Coolly charismatic, the one-time rock drummer narrated his doggy tale in an engaging offbeat style, leaning into the podium, bouncing up, playfully pausing and encouraging the audience to laugh throughout. But Beller, who earlier in the night cheerfully walked around meeting and greeting, was simply doing what he loves. "Ever since high school, I've always been interested in the idea of magazines and newspapers," he explains later at a cafe near his West Village apartment. "That busy, bustling, kind of let's put on a show!"
Editor, publisher, journalist,
short story writer and familiar
presence on the New York scene..
Putting on a show is what Beller has been doing one way or another for more than 15 years. As a fiction writer and journalist, he is the author of the acclaimed short story collection Seduction Theory(Norton, 1995), being reissued this fall by Norton; The Sleep-Over Artist(Norton, 2000) and now, How to Be a Man, a collection of personal essays, many previously published in the New Yorkerand the New York Times. Along the way, he cofounded Open City, both the magazine and book imprint of the same name, which he now runs with co-editor Joanna Yas. In addition, he oversees a Web site, mrbellersneighborhood.com, inspired by the sort of New York grassroots reporting once practiced by Joseph Mitchell and Jimmy Breslin. And if that weren't enough, along with the periodic Open City readings at places like the Kitchen and KGB Bar, this year Beller and Yas, along with the New York City Parks Department, have initiated the Park Lit series, which coordinates the literary likes of Open City, Granta, Fence, n+1 and Cabinet, among others, to provide readings at parks all over the metropolitan area. Beller believes in the literary magazines behind such events: "They allow for a conversation to take place so it's not all fucking plastic Barnes & Noble displays from corporate sludge popping out books as part of a marketing scheme."
But as Beller is the first to admit, being a literary circus juggler isn't easy. "The thing about having so many balls in the air is that when you drop them, they all fall on your head," he says. "It's like I'm a writer, director and producer. But would I be writing more without those in my life? I wonder about that. I'm working really hard to compartmentalize my time."
A self-described handful as a child, Beller grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side before attending Vassar, where he met the writer Jerome Badanes, his professor and mentor, to whom he dedicates How to Be a Man ("risk taker, adventurer of literature, the soul, and the city"). But he says it was at Columbia University's M.F.A. program that he really became a writer. "I received some very good advice from Susan Minot," he says of the author who was his teacher at Columbia. "Her advice was, while at school, stop sending things to magazines, stop thinking about publishing my work and just write. It was an epiphany for me because I'd always been interested in magazines. But I let that go for a year, which was the biggest period of growth that I ever had as a writer."
His first break came soon after, when, while working as a bike messenger in 1991, he delivered two of his stories to Mademoiselle and the New Yorker, both of which were accepted. The New Yorker story, "A Different Kind of Imperfection," about a boy's relationship to his mother and deceased father, was also included in Best American Short Stories 1992, edited by Robert Stone. Despite his good fortune, Beller says that his life changed less than he'd anticipated, causing him to take a job as a bagel shop manager.
Beller's new book.
Frustrated with not working as a writer and having a short story of his killed by Esquire after the editors held it for close to a year, he found his agent, Mary Evans, and contacted his previous editor at the New Yorker in search of work. His first assignment, to interview the reclusive painter Vicente Esteban, was eventually killed when the iconoclastic artist refused to supply a photo of himself. But the magazine's then new editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, was impressed with Beller's work and asked to meet him. "She was, like, what do you want to do," Beller recalls. "I said that I want to write more for her. And she said, do you want to be a staff writer? And I was, like, Yes!" Although he wrote a few more pieces for the magazine, Beller, still in his 20s, froze. "I went Joe Mitchell without the body of work," he says. "And a year later, they wheeled me out of there on a gurney with my eyes wide open, clutching a lamp. But I had my own culpabilities, most appealing of which was that I choked a bit."
Beller concedes that his desire to put on a show may have contributed to his limited output. While at the New Yorker in 1992 and 1993, he and his fellow founders, writers Daniel Pinchbeck and the late Robert Bingham, were already publishing Open City.
After overcoming a difficult period in 2001, which included Pinchbeck leaving and Bingham dying from a drug overdose, Joanna Yas, then the managing editor, stepped in as co-editor with Beller. The two have been running Open City magazine and books since. Open City books was originally Bingham's idea; he suggested publishing David Berman's poetry collection, Actual Air, Beller says. "I was, like, 'Holy, shit, don't we have enough of a headache putting out a magazine, now we've got to become a book publisher?' " Yet it is Open City's role as publisher, says Beller, that keeps Open City the magazine alive. Since Berman's book, they have published seven more titles, including the essay collection My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum and the story collection Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte. "A lot of other journals pay lip service to the notion of taking chances on new writers," says Lipsyte, author most recently of the novel Home Land (Picador). "But time and again Open City follows through."
Still, Beller doesn't consider himself a publisher. "I don't read manuscripts," he explains. "I don't have lunch with agents. I don't follow the business. Every time a book works—as an artistic gesture and a commercial venture—it's a freak."
How does he manage all the demands of the magazine, publishing house, Web site, literary events and writing?
"With great difficulty and large doses of basketball," he says. (A stellar story in his new book features several New York Knicks players.) "When you think about writers that one likes, it's just amazing that they were even able to get it together. I'm not just talking about talent. There's that stupid Gatorade commercial which says something like it's what's in you,and I'm like, no. In basketball and writing, it's not what's in you, it's what you get out."
David Bahr is working on a memoir about foster care.