Roving Literary Death Match Aims To Breathe Life Into Literature

Imagine writers on stage, squared off in a fight to the death. That's the idea behind Literary Death Match –- kind of. It's a performance series that pits authors against each other in live readings.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Picture this, a group of writers - quiet, bookish, solitary - duking it out in a fight to the death. That's the idea behind Literary Death Match, a performance series that pits authors against each other - not physically but through readings from their own books. The show travels all over the country. Reporter Alex Schmidt was at a recent performance in Los Angeles and has the story.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: The mood among the contestants in the warm-up room is not so much Muhammad Ali boastful. It's more urbane and self deprecating - one matchup, poet Brendan Constantine against New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.

BRENDAN CONSTANTINE: Pretty much everyone else will be hip or more intelligent, more attractive, younger.

SUSAN ORLEAN: I never want to be the favorite. I always want to be third in the pack.

SCHMIDT: Match-up number two is TV writer Kristin Newman against author Chris L. Terry.

KRISTIN NEWMAN: I'm just going to try to not blush. I'm a big blusher, which is a problem for a dirty talker.

CHRIS L. TERRY: I still am not entirely sure what I'm going to read. I've got two things in my pocket, and I'm going to decide when I'm on stage.

SCHMIDT: See, it's not the contestants' jaws or even their egos that are at stake here. The goal of Literary Death Match is to pop-culturalize literature and change the world's perception of it, says founder and host Adrian Todd Zuniga. He was backstage wearing a red velvet blazer befitting Don King.

ADRIAN TODD ZUNIGA: We can bring it to the masses in a way that's really cool and really fun and use celebrity to bring people to literature. And you see each reader for seven minutes, and it's enough to be like, oh, man, that person is doing that. That's what writing is?

SCHMIDT: Soon enough, it was time to start the match.


SCHMIDT: Screenwriter Diablo Cody and actors Molly Shannon and Stephen Tobolowsky took their seats on stage to judge the writers. And then, round one: Susan Orlean with a story about an unexpected hobby versus Brendan Constantine with a heart-breaking poem about Alzheimer's.

ORLEAN: (Reading) But shooting enchanted me. This is my sport, I thought. I wonder where in Manhattan I can go to fire a gun.


ORLEAN: (Reading) The next morning, the day of the wedding, I woke up nearly unable to lift my arm.


CONSTANTINE: (Reading) If my talking nightgown finds the road in me and someone on barefoot or I'm throwing my money to the cars, or I'm throwing my money to the cars convinced I'm just feeding the ducks.

SCHMIDT: The judges went down the line hilariously analyzing the performances. And in the end...

ZUNIGA: Give it up for Brendan Constantine. He was amazing.


ZUNIGA: And put your hands together one more time for the incredible Susan Orlean.

SCHMIDT: Next up, Chris L. Terry versus Kristin Newman, a story about a teenage boy getting his ear pierced against a post-breakup trip to Europe.

TERRY: (Reading) I pick the small gold stud that maybe momma wouldn't see if I kept her to my right and slept with my left ear down so it wouldn't glint in the streetlight. Does momma still check on me at night? I had a baby.

NEWMAN: (Reading) We started our trip in Paris where Mike peppered us with scintillating commentary during our cultural tour of the city's landmarks like Notre Dame. So this place is so famous they named a school after it?


SCHMIDT: It was a tough decision between two funny stories.

ZUNIGA: Give it up for Kristin Newman.


ZUNIGA: And one more time for Chris L. Terry. He was so good.

SCHMIDT: After a final round between the winners from the first and the second match, the writer left standing was again Kristin Newman.


SCHMIDT: Afterwards, everyone streamed outside.


SCHMIDT: Contestants, judges and audience mingled. The authors' books were for sale and people crowded in to purchase them. The Literary Death Match may be getting folks more interested in books, but winning doesn't always equal sales. In fact, winner Kristin Newman's book doesn't come out till May. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt in Los Angeles.

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