Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Literary Death Match: Toronto: Julie Wilson Talks to LDM Creator, Todd Zuniga

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Literary Death Match

On Thursday, June 9th, four writers go head-to-head (and pen-to-pen) for Literary Death Match (LDM): Toronto. In this punchy interview, Julie Wilson, producer of Toronto's LDM, talks to Todd Zuniga, the creator of the LDM and Thursday night's host, about the history and highlights of the "feel-good event with a scary title." See Open Book's Events Page for full LDM details.

Julie Wilson:

It's not easy to come up with entertaining ways to gather readers in one room with the express purpose of getting them excited about a public reading. It's even harder to then facilitate the idea of doing this on regular basis across an international stage. And yet with Literary Death Match you've succeeded on both fronts. What was the a-ha! moment and how did you know it could travel? It's only the idea that travels, along with its host, not the show itself, which is curated on the local front in each city with local personalities acting as judges.

Todd Zuniga:

The a-ha! moment was when we were invited to bring Literary Death Match to Beijing as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival. Once that happened, I thought: Hmm, what about Chicago? Chicago's great. But it's hard to imagine how we got here — 36 cities — from there.

Too, you've tapped into what is the most fascinating part of the show for me, that it's an empty shell that gets filled in by the local literary community. There is so much talent out there, and we just draw from the different aspects of a city and create something that I really do think is magical.


Do you think you have to have an inherently healthy ego to walk into someone else's living room and throw a party? Or do you believe, as I do, that every community is looking for new ways to express itself, that it might take a bit of distance to recognize what it has to offer? I say this, in part, because my first experience with Literary Death Match last winter at The Drake was eye-opening. Save for a handful of people, I had no clue who the patrons were. Yet they were being introduced to authors I felt I knew quite intimately. And they all fell in love.


Around November of 2009, some switch flipped in writer's heads. When we first started, lots of people said no, because they didn't want to be judged or cutting through their excuses: they didn't want to be embarrassed. I hated hearing that, but I've always been a long-term thinker. And in late-2009, when I was in a sort of exhausted state of is-this-worth-it?, we basically hit some lit-nerd tipping point and all of a sudden people had heard about LDM, people's friends had done it, the different literary communities discovered that there was nothing dickish about it! It's fun! Instead of reading to 20 people, you read to 100!

Beyond that, I'm the last of eight kids, and my mother taught me to be as nice as possible. She had this skill to light up a room and make people feel good. When I go into any city, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that writers and judges took a chance and decided to be part of LDM (plus, as the last of eight kids, I love when people say yes to me). Writers get the crapped kicked out of them from Day One, and the last thing I want is to exacerbate that feeling. I want writers to leave the room and feel like, Yes, there are people out there willing to read and care. There are these six other people that were part of the show that really believe in literature and storytelling. LDM, at its base, is a feel-good event with a scary title.

Lastly, I strongly believe that people leave the house for two reasons: to be surprised or to make out with someone. And I always hear my co-producers and lit community types ask afterwards, "Where did all these people come from? I've never seen any of them before!" I love that we break out of that small circle.

I don't think I answered your question. So, I'll say this very cuttable next thing: I think my ego is healthy-ish, but mostly, I just get excited by the fact that every show is different and I have no idea what's going to happen next.


Let's talk about the "nice" part of LDM because it's front and centre of an event with "death match" in its title. Does the nice factor differ culturally from one city to the next? Amsterdam. Paris. London. Chicago. NYC. Toronto. Vancouver. These are just a few of the places you've taken the show lately. And what other cultural differences have you noted from one audience to the next?


Okay, so Philadelphia has a reputation for being, let's say, prickly, as an audience. We just did our debut event there and holy crap! The crowd was amazing, by far the loudest, most boisterous from the word go, but not jerk-y at all. It was insane.

Anyway, as for the "niceness": everything about the show, I think, is a huge ruse. The most important aspect of the entire show is to showcase literature. We build all this stuff around it — the judges, the title wins people's attention, but at its very core we've masterminded a way to make people sit down, shut the fuck up, leave their smartphones in their pockets and really see four writers storytell. It's amazing! Last night in Minneapolis, the crowd was rowdy, then Lightsey Darst started and it went silent after word one. I love that.

As for the differences, that's a huge thing that I love discovering. Vancouver: there's not a lot of crossover in the lit/art community. Chicago: we didn't do it here for 14 months because the city has a ton of reading series (we didn't feel like we were needed). Dublin: we get more no's there than any other city. San Francisco: everyone is lovely and up for the best possible time. Cardiff: people still have emails like "mrpoetface@hotmail" instead of "yourname@gmail." DC: 70 percent of the crowd were outside the lit world. London: easiest place to have a diverse lineup. I could go on and on.


I'm happy to hear about Darst. I'd say something similar happened in Toronto last winter with both Susan Holbrook and Andrew Kaufman. In the case of Susan, people were crying with laughter at her word play poetry, tickled because it's so unexpected, smart and cheeky. This year, one of the (unnamed) contenders wrote to ask if it would be a problem to read something sad. I replied, "You're not a sad person, so it won't be a sad reading." What would you say has been the most memorable of-the-night evolution so far as an audience's honest and heartfelt reaction to a reader?


People are always nervous about reading sad, but I love when people take that chance. And the judges and audience always appreciate it. That's one of the best parts of the event. Okay, I'm going to tell you my two favorite LDM moments. Totally different.

1. October 16, 2010. LDM100: Austin. 12:30 p.m. Texas Book Festival. 500 people (!). Judging panel is headlined by Jennifer Egan — want to win a Pulitzer famous writers? Judge a LDM! — and Rick Meyerowitz. There were kids in the crowd to see Bob Shea, author of Dinosaur Vs. The Potty. First reader is Mark Haskell Smith who reads a story about woman who is getting raped, then turns the tables and rapes her rapist, then shoots him in the head, before she gets shot in the head. So well written, too! Jaws dropped, parents racing for the door with kids in tow. In the second round, Bob Shea steals the show with this. There have been nearly 600 readers do LDM. This is top three. Afterwards, at the after party, people were talking about it, and they asked: what did you think!? It all felt sort of scandalous. And my reaction was: I love that I put together an event where those people are reading to the same audience twenty minutes apart.

2. October 6, 2010. LDM100: SF. Litquake Festival, huge crowd, and after the first reader reads about liking a boy in high school, David Corbett starts off his story about how he was teaching inmates a writing course and had to read something to introduce himself, and he knew that if he read something false, they'd sniff him out and distrust him. Then he takes a breath, starts his story by raising a fist and shouts out, "Who the fuck do I have to kill to get my wife out of pain!?" I do a lot of these (Toronto's event will be our 153rd overall) and no story has ever stopped me cold. I usually have to worry about making sure everything's going well, but here I was hearing this guy belt out a true story about his wife dying of cancer, and I just mouthed, "Wow." I was nearly in tears! It was incredible.

And I love both of these instances, because I didn't see either of them coming.


This Thursday, Holly Luhning (Quiver), Iain Reid (One Bird's Choice), Brian Francis (Fruit) and Nathaniel G Moore (Wrong Bar/Pastels are Pretty Much the Polar Opposite of Chalk) will go toe-to-toe at The Gladstone judged by Bianca "Fresh" Spence, Stephen Marche and Natalie Zed. Do you anticipate any shenanigans? Personally, I'm thinking of doing a costume change — one pair of pajamas after another.


I expect brilliance, followed by surprise, followed by non-sequiturisms, followed by an intermission in which 7/10ths of the people say: "Man, everyone here is so good-looking!", followed by ridiculousness, followed by some brief lamenting that the Toronto Maple Leafs will never be above .500, followed by cheers, followed by hugging, followed by laughter, followed by drinks.


Wait. So no one makes out??? You said . . . .



Visit Literary Death Match at

See it all go down in Toronto!
Where: Gladstone Hotel's North Ballroom, 1214 Queen Street West, Toronto (map)
When: Doors at 7, Show at 8:15 (sharp); afterdrinks after.
Cost: $5 preorder (for first 25 people). $8 at the door.

Julie Wilson (@BookMadam) is the founder of Seen Reading (@SeenReading, co-founder of the Advent Book Blog @AdventBookBlog, podcaster for Brick Books (@BrickBooks), host of Canadian Bookshelf (@cdnbookshelf) and author of Truly, Madly, Deadly (as Becca Wilcott, @BeccaWilcott). She lives in Toronto.

Todd Zuniga (@toddzuniga) is the creator of the Literary Death Match, the founding editor of Opium Magazine, the president of Opium for the Arts, a fiction writer and the host of the 4th String podcast. He lives in Paris, France.

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