Early in the summer, an unusual email popped up in my inbox. Sandwiched between a podcast request and an offer to speak at a South Florida chapter of Hadassah was an invitation to read an excerpt from my latest novel, “On Fire Island,” at a “Books & Burlesque” evening on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The event, as the show’s producers Fortune Cookie and Rosie Tulips explained, would feature five writers reading, each paired with a burlesque or drag artist creating an act inspired by the author’s work.
It took me a minute. Funny? Outrageous? Ill-advised? Possibly, but most of all, an intriguing change from the usual folding-chair-strewn book talk or stodgy Q. and A session. Even though the closest I’d ever gotten to burlesque was a brief stint as a young Gypsy Rose Lee at Camp Lokanda in the late ’70s, I nervously accepted.
Stormy Leather — nicknamed the Naked Girl of Burlesque — would be my performance partner, and we exchanged texts about the choice of excerpt, music, backdrop and her costume (such as it was). Typically when I give readings, I choose a selection from the prologue or first chapter. This night, I decided I’d jump right to Chapter 33, where my protagonist, a newly bereft, straight widower, attends Gay Bingo in Cherry Grove with two of his best friends.
Fortune Cookie, who chooses to be identified by her stage name, came up with the idea for the performance series last year as a way to expose new audiences to the art of burlesque, and to encourage her burlesque and drag friends who “don’t read” to find books that resonate with them.
An Ivy League-educated urban planner and gym owner who once worked for the publisher Norton, Cookie scouts new fiction by local authors who reflect the diversity of the city by reading reviews and browsing independent stores like the Long Island City outpost of Book Culture and Yu and Me Books in Chinatown. (Book Club Bar, another indie, offered all the featured titles for sale at the show.)
I still had little idea of what to expect, but on a Saturday night last month I bounded down the stairs of Caveat, the basement venue on Clinton Street, eager to meet my fellow authors. When the house manager bellowed, “10 minutes to door,” my nerves kicked in. What had I gotten myself into?
Samara Breger read from her lesbian vampire romance, “A Long Time Dead,” followed by Rosie Tulips, a former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist who performed a Victorian-style striptease. Later, Fortune Cookie, in a swimsuit, spun hula hoops to the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden,” in response to Gina Chung’s “Sea Change.”
Mine was the final reading. I cracked open my novel and began. By the time I got to “Let’s give it up for the Queen of Soul — Miss Urethra Franklin!” the room erupted in raucous laughter. I smiled with relief.
Then Stormy Leather took the stage, sitting on a beach chair with her back to the audience in a red bikini, sundress and big straw hat. A film of waves ebbing and crashing on the Fire Island shore rolled in the background as the cover of my novel came to life before my eyes. The telltale beat of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” filled the room as Stormy rose from her chair, provocatively wielding a bottle of sunscreen.
The night ended with an exuberant curtain call for all of us. (Ben Purkert and James Frankie Thomas were the other readers.) I grabbed Stormy’s hand and held it up high in the air.
Her bikini top was long gone, and my pink satin Anine Bing blazer didn’t seem quite as edgy as it did when the night began. But my three adult daughters, who’ve seen me read countless times, never seemed as proud.
The next Books & Burlesque event at Caveat is Dec. 9 at 9:30 p.m.