This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001


(Covy Moore/

Rising PBR star Daylon Swearingen is looking forward to the Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden (photo by Covy Moore/

Madison Square Garden
31st - 33rd Sts. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
January 3-5, $28-$221

Professional bull rider Daylon Swearingen may be only twenty, but he’s already amassed an impressive resume. The 2019 PBR Canada champ, ranked #13 in the world last season, was raised in a rodeo family and has been taking home major trophies since he was sixteen. His parents, Sam and Carrie, run the Rawhide Rodeo Company; Sam was a bareback rider, while Carrie was a barrel racer and trick rider. Daylon’s younger brother, Colton, is a champion steer wrestler and calf roper competing for the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savage Storm, and their uncles Mike Swearingen and Ken Phillips are rodeo vets as well.

The 5'6", 150-pound Daylon, who goes by the nickname Day, will be in New York City January 3–5 for the annual Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, where PBR will Unleash the Beast to a rabid fan base here in the Big Apple. Daylon, who lives in Piffard, New York, spends his busy time shuttling between PBR and college tournaments; he is studying for an associate’s degree in land and ranch management at Panola College in Texas, where he met his girlfriend, fellow rodeo teammate McKynzie Bush, a barrel racer and breakaway roper. Twi-ny continues its tradition of profiling PBR participants — past years have featured interviews with Sean Willingham, Flint Rasmussen, Tanner and Jesse Byrne, and Cooper Davis — with an inside look at Day, who talks about family, studying, setting high goals, and domestic violence awareness; as young children, he and Colton witnessed terrible violence before his mother left their birth father and married Sam Swearingen, who brought the boys up.

twi-ny: You come from a rodeo family. Growing up, was there ever anything else you wanted to do?

daylon swearingen: Not really. I just wanted to ride bulls and be around rodeo, produce rodeos and stuff like that. I think it was just we always had chaps on and had a belt buckle and cowboy boots. I remember always being around it.

twi-ny: You’ve been winning competitions since you were sixteen. When did you realize that you were good enough to make a career out of it?

ds: Probably when I was sixteen and I started entering the bull riding at the rodeos. Just going to my dad’s rodeos I made a pretty good amount of money, and that made me believe I could make a living doing it.

twi-ny: You’re currently ranked #2 in the world and recently won the PBR Canadian Championship and the National Collegiate Rodeo Association Bull Riding Championship. Is it scary having so much success so quickly?

ds: I wouldn’t say it’s scary. I set my standards high, and if you have high goals you should be able to achieve high goals.

twi-ny: You’re only twenty years old, but you’ve already ridden more than two hundred bulls and just this summer logged thirty thousand miles going back and forth between college rodeo and professional tournaments. How’s your body holding up?

ds: My body is holding up good. I took some time after the NFR [National Finals Rodeo, which concluded December 14] just to feel good.

twi-ny: Do you have a different mind-set whether you’re competing in college rodeo or PBR, facing some of your heroes?

ds: I just have to ride the bull for eight seconds. It doesn’t matter the caliber, you just have to make the eight seconds. You have to ride like you want to be where you want to get to. My mind-set is the same every time I get on a bull.

twi-ny: Your girlfriend, McKynzie Bush, is also on the Panola College team. Since you’re on the road so much, how difficult is it to maintain the relationship?

ds: It’s a little difficult, especially over the summer. I went to see her, and she came to see me. I don’t like long-distance relationships, but we made it work.

twi-ny: You’re on course for graduating next May with an associate degree in land and ranch management. When do you find the time to study?

ds: I can study when I am sitting in the car, not doing a whole bunch, sometimes in hotel rooms, when I get real bored and have that idle time and should be doing something.

twi-ny: What are your ultimate plans with the degree?

ds: Just to have it in case something happens, I can fall back on that associate’s degree and what I have learned both in school and out.

Jeff Collins – my coach at school who is the 2000 World Champion bareback rider – has helped me out a lot. Going to school gave me the opportunity to live in Texas a little bit. I enjoy Texas, and also the stuff I have learned about electricity, hydraulics, all these systems, grazing cattle, and all of that. I have seen it on the ranch side, but I have never seen it as someone who studies it and gets all the facts behind everything.

Daylon Swearingen

Daylon Swearingen has been winning major tournaments since he was sixteen

twi-ny: You have said that Cochise is the fiercest bull you’ve ridden, yet you’ve had your best score on him, a 92 in Tulsa in August. What’s the secret to lasting eight seconds on this particular beast?

ds: I just kept moving, get around there. I was just riding loose. I didn’t think about it a whole bunch, and it just kind of happened.

twi-ny: Do you have any other favorite bulls?

ds: I have tons of favorite bulls. I breed some cows myself at home in New York. I have Bruiser calves, a couple Pearl Harbor calves. [Ed Note: Bruiser is a three-time PBR World Champion bull, while the late Pearl Harbor was a beloved world champion contender.] I enjoy a lot of bulls.

twi-ny: On your vest, you wear a symbol that supports domestic violence awareness, inspired by a terrible family situation. What do you think is most misunderstood about domestic violence in America?

ds: I think it is overlooked as a problem because so many people have a family together, or they are in a comfort zone and feel like they can’t get out. With the family part, so many people don’t want their kids growing up without a dad, so they give second and third chances. But in reality it affects those kids. They don’t think the kids see, but the kids see way more than they let on. Just getting out and not feeling stuck, kids can change if they want to. You can’t change another person, but you can change what you’re doing and your actions.

twi-ny: You’ve lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Piffard, New York. Next week, you’ll be competing at Madison Square Garden. Does that hold any special meaning for you since you’re now a New Yorker, or is it just another bull riding event?

ds: I feel like it is kind of special. Madison Square Garden is the first place we took bucking bulls to – this major event. It is kind of cool PBR’s season starts in New York, and it’s definitely one I have always wanted to get on tour by. So now that I am there, it is very exciting.

twi-ny: When you’re in New York City, what else do you plan on doing?

ds: Try not to get hit by a taxi.

Seriously, ride some bulls.



Docks All-Canadian Oyster Festival features lots of bivalves and a heated shucking competition

Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill
633 Third Ave. at Fortieth St.
Saturday, November 23, $65-$125, 12:00 - 3:00

“Before the twentieth century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” award-winning author Mark Kurlansky writes in the preface to his 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “This is what New York was to the world — a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. . . . Oysters were true New Yorkers.” So what is Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill, a Murray Hill institution for four decades, doing hosting an All-Canadian Oyster Festival?

For more than fifteen years, Docks has been home to a fall and spring oyster festival, but last November, for the first time, it featured Canadian oysters exclusively, eighteen different varieties, in addition to holding a hotly contested shucking competition (with a $1,000 cash prize). The Canadian fest, which will also serve chowders and shrimp and includes live music by People vs. Larsen, returns November 23, with master Montreal-based oyster-shucking champion Daniel Notkin as MC and celebrity shucking judges Julie Qiu, oyster sommelier and founder of In a Half Shell, and chef Andrew Gruel, founder of Slapfish restaurants. Below is an edited, combined transcript of separate interviews I conducted with Notkin, Qiu, and Gruel as well as Docks executive chef Freda Sugarman and one of the event’s chief organizers, Emmy winner Michael-Ann Rowe, the Fishionista behind such shows as Off the Beaten Palate and Put Your Best Fish Forward.

twi-ny: When did you shuck your first oyster?

julie qiu: January 13, 2010 — my birthday, by chef Lawrence Edelman! I blogged about it before In a Half Shell existed. 😀

andrew gruel: Seventeen years old, working at Cook’s Lobster House on the lobster docks in Bailey’s Island, Maine. I shucked oysters and cherry stones all summer, suffering shellfish infection one after another from stabbing myself so many times.

twi-ny: What is the key to shucking an oyster?

ag: Don’t use muscle, take your time, breathe.

jq: It’s easy to learn, difficult to master. The key to shucking a good oyster is to use as little force as possible and to leave as little of a trace of blade as possible.

dn: We all shuck a bit differently depending on the area of North America and around the world. There are lots of ways to get into an oyster, but the key to opening an oyster is to get into that shell so that you’re not breaking it or causing it to crumble, separate that adductor muscle from the top of the shell, and that same adductor from the bottom and leave nothing behind. The oyster should be presented and opened as if it didn’t even know we were there — just like it was four seconds earlier locked in that shell.

twi-ny: What is the Shuckinhell list?

jq: Shuckinhell is a special category (and Instagram handle . . . not me) dedicated to the worst of the worst shucks that are paraded around as “good oysters.”

twi-ny: What’s the most common problem nonprofessionals have?

dn: There are a few! Getting into the hinge or into the shell I think is the hardest part. It can be very slight or very “tight” depending where you enter: If you go in through the “lip” (the slight opening where the top and bottom shells meet around the oyster) and that’s very tight, that can be tough. If you go in through the hinge (at the back where the shells are connected), that can be very small or very tight . . . and not having the right knife or one that’s too dull — that leads to a lot of problems and danger.

twi-ny: What is the greatest misconception New Yorkers have about oysters?

dn: Well, I actually think New Yorkers are doing great! New York was founded on oysters, and the resurgence and interest that New York and many cities have shown gives great joy and hope to all of us who care about ocean health and the preservation of our environment. Our good friends at the Billion Oyster Project in New York are just doing phenomenal work on educating young people about marine life and are making great strides with their efforts to repopulate the harbor and making it livable again for all species. No small task!

I think moreover that there’s just so much for them to learn about oysters that is fascinating. We addressed a lot of them in our documentary, Shuckers (that we hope to bring out on a platform soon), but they’re just amazing: Each single oyster filters fifty gallons of water a day (1M oysters = 50M gallons filtered!); that they don’t filter garbage or waste but rather algae and phytoplankton, which cloud up the waterways and if allowed to overpopulate cause red tide and death to all species; that they live in estuaries where the rivers meet the sea for just that reason; that they’re 650 million years old; that they’re one of the healthiest things you can eat on the planet; and that the more you eat them (these days) the more you’re saving the world!

Oysters used to be mostly wild but now they’re all farmed but have to be grown in natural waterways, so the more you eat oysters, the more money goes back to the farmers, the more we filter the water and replace the oysters that were once there, the more they have a greater appreciation and presence, and a greater voice to improve our oceans and water systems.

I think the only misconception is for those who choose not to eat oysters because they’re concerned about harming animals (i.e., vegans). Oysters have no central nervous system, no motility, no cognition, and likely the same bioreactionary traits we are now finding in lettuce and all plants and trees and all aspects of nature. All told, if you eat lettuce, you can feel okay, and even better eating an oyster.

twi-ny: Do New Yorkers really get into watching the competition, or are they too busy eating and drinking?

dn: Boy, can they get into it! When you get really good shuckers, it’s a great show. And you don’t have to sacrifice eating and drinking. Each round lasts about a minute and a half, so grab a drink, grab a lobster roll and a plate of oysters, and watch the show!

twi-ny: Why the switch to Canadian oysters from local fare?

freda sugarman: We felt that it was super important to showcase areas in Canada that produce incredible shellfish. I enjoy having a close connection with the farmers and love seeing their passion for their product.

twi-ny: What are some of the primary differences between Canadian oysters and oysters from, for example, the East Coast, the West Coast, and Japan?

jq: Wow, that’s a big question. Primary difference: Species. Environment. Growing methodologies. But that’s generally the differences between all oysters. Canadian oysters take a bit longer to mature than other oysters grown around the world. For that reason, some of them are petite in nature but have very complex and layered flavors.

(photo courtesy Michael-Ann Rowe)

Michael-Ann Rowe brings out the next tray of delectable bivalves at Docks oyster fest (photo courtesy Michael-Ann Rowe)

twi-ny: What’s so special about Canadian oysters?

dn: Well! First off, all oysters are special. To say one was more special than the other would be like choosing a favorite child — ideally not possible. But what distinguishes our maritime Canadian oysters is their perseverance in the face of long winters and harsh conditions. That means each of these beautiful oysters in the small but perfect size of ~2.5-3" is that they take three to five years to get to that point. Which means they’ve weathered a number of storms, and the best and most hearty survive.

Compare this to a New England oyster, which takes one to one and a half years to grow to 2.5/3", and a Gulf oyster, which takes one year to grow to four inches. Well . . . these little guys put in the work. You get a beautifully clean taste and fresh, crisp character — cold butter and the fresh, clean salt of remaining ocean water with hints of a rich vegetal stock indicative of the algae they ingest. Beautiful oysters all.

twi-ny: What are your personal favorite oysters?

jq: I’m an equal opportunity international oyster lover. Can we make this question about favorite Canadian oysters? If that’s the case, I’m a fan of Village Bays from New Brunswick, Kusshi from Deep Bay, BC, and Raspberry Points from PEI.

ag: I will happily indulge in every type of Canadian oyster.

twi-ny: Freda, you prepare oysters several ways at Docks. How do you prefer to eat them?

fs: A simple touch of lemon.

twi-ny: And to drink?

fs: Everything goes well with tequila!

twi-ny: Michael-Ann, you’ve traveled all around North and South America writing about food. Where have you had the best oysters?

michael-ann rowe: Atlantic Canada. Seriously. Second to that is the US: Wellfleet (East Coast), and a surprise in Alabama were Murder Point Oysters.

twi-ny: You were born in Canada and live both there and in New York. Are there differences in how New Yorkers and Canadians eat oysters?

m-ar: Not really. They either douse them with a blast of pickled horseradish or eat them the right way. . . .

twi-ny: Which would be?

m-ar: Naked.


(photo courtesy Rick Crandall)

Rick Crandall lifts Emme at a 14er summit (photo courtesy Rick Crandall)

The AKC Museum of the Dog
101 Park Ave. between Fortieth & Forty-First Sts.
Friday, November 8, free with RSVP, 2:00

In 2001, Rick Crandall was looking for something different. The New York-born Michigan grad had experienced tremendous success in early tech, cofounding the computer timeshare business Comshare. “But after our talented team defied long odds to keep the company relevant, innovative, and (mostly) profitable for over twenty-five years, I found myself in my mid fifties and burned out mentally, physically, and spiritually,” he explains in The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain: How Emme the Australian Terrier Changed My Life When I Needed It Most (HCI, September 2019, $15.95), which he cowrote with Joseph Cosgriff. He went through “the emotional lows and anxieties that were the fallout of a sad and difficult divorce” but found love with Pamela Levy after moving to Colorado. They were married and the next year added to their family on April 5, 2001, by getting a tiny Australian terrier they named Emme. “There were pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Deli that were larger and weighed more than this puppy,” he writes.

Crandall, once named one of the Five Leading Pioneers of the Computer Industry, started going on hikes with the dog, and together they were soon climbing Colorado’s fourteeners, peaks of at least fourteen thousand feet in altitude. He blogged about their adventures and was then teamed with Hasbrouck Heights native, raconteur, and sports and jazz aficionado Cosgriff, a former star athlete dedicated to the New York Rangers and Boston Red Sox and who wrote the song “I Like Jersey Best” for his close pal John Pizzarelli. Cosgriff, a friend of mine, had previously collaborated with Pizzarelli on the latter’s memoir World on a String and with publishing scion Richard Press on Rebel without a Suit: The Not-So-Casual Road to Casual Friday. In his book, Crandall, now seventy-six, tells his compelling, irresistible story in such chapters as “Pint-Sized Pup, Giant Personality”; “Take Me Higher”; and “Everybody’s Got a Mountain to Climb.” On November 8, he and Cosgriff will be at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog on Park Ave. to talk more about The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain in an Author’s Corner event, followed the next afternoon by a talk and signing at Bookends Bookstore in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Below is an edited, combined transcript of separate interviews I conducted with them.

twi-ny: Rick, what was your single favorite moment with Emme? When did you realize she was special?

rick crandall: It was when I first realized how strong was her will to push forward and upward on a hike or climb regardless of the challenges. She had a drive to get to the highest place wherever we ventured. On a hike near Aspen, we were on a trail that had high grass on both sides; we saw two massive bulls headbutting right across our trail. I was debating whether to turn around or fight through sidetracking in the bush.

Then I noticed Emme continuing a steady march right towards the bulls. She let out a single low-pitched “rrrruff,” and both bulls turned their head to see what the noise was. Emme stared them down as she continued straight towards them without a single hesitation. Astonishingly, the bulls each backed up about ten feet like two semi-trucks in reverse. Emme proceeded to march right through that temporary truce as if saying, “Make way, I’m coming through, and I’m bringing my human with me.”

I saw no option but to follow her, nervously. She got through and so did I right behind her. Soon after we passed, the bulls went right back to headbutting across the path — I have the photo. It was then I saw how unstoppable was her spirit, which served us so well afterwards going for the high peaks. She was undeterred by high wind, hail, boulders, or slippery rocks and it motivated me to adopt the same will, which then transformed into a passion.

twi-ny: What do you think it was about her that made her such an extraordinary outdoor companion?

rc: Two things: First is that she never backed down, never quit; second is that she watched out for me. For example, the mountains get increasingly rocky as you go higher, and after the freeze/thaw of winter, many rockslides often make some rocks unstable underfoot. She was always ahead of me, and when she got on a rock that teetered she would stop and teeter while turning her head to me as if to say, “Dad, this one moves, don’t come here.”

Also, when climbing I was always with friends who were younger and faster than me. When they would get far enough above me to be out of sight, she would climb up quickly, spot them, and then come back down just far enough so I could see her like a sentinel and I would know where they went. She was a connector and she knew it.

twi-ny: As a child, you had Jiggs, a Boston terrier, which was a great experience, and much later you had Simba, Pamela’s cat, which didn’t go so well, and more recently Tucker, who ended up getting along famously with Emme. Have any other animals prior to or after Emme played an important part in your life?

rc: Emme just passed a few years ago at age fifteen. Pamela and I have been looking for the next Emme. Pamela has been breeding some of Emme’s descendants and we currently have a young Aussie similarly named Ella, who is behaving like she may be my next climbing buddy. She is irrepressible with an alpha personality, just like Emme. Even fresh out of the womb, while the smallest in the litter, she climbed on top of the other pups and right out of the whelping box. Now we see her seeking the highest point around, just like Emme. She is fearless and adventurous. That would be so cool, because while I have finished climbing all fifty-eight fourteeners in the Rockies, I have a lot of great thirteeners to enjoy and would love to have a dog buddy with me.

twi-ny: Joe, have you had any pets that had an impact on your life? Do you consider yourself a dog or cat person?

joseph cosgriff: Working backwards, I’m definitely a dog person, especially after bonding with Emme through Rick’s stories. Also from reading the works of Alexandra Horowitz, most notably Being a Dog. I missed the four years of our family’s dog experiment while in college and away playing baseball, although I seem to recall that the dog (or a hungry sibling) ate one of my baseball gloves.

(photo courtesy Rick Crandall)

Rick Crandall and Joseph Cosgriff talk about The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain: How Emme the Australian Terrier Changed My Life When I Needed It Most at a special event (photo courtesy Rick Crandall)

twi-ny: Rick, in addition to Ella, what’s your pet situation now?

rc: Currently we have six Aussies, some of which are there to carry on Emme’s line with more litters, and one, Ralfie, is a record-setting show dog in the breed. Pamela has been having about one litter every eighteen to twenty-four months. She loves everything dog and the Australian terrier meets all her checkboxes.

twi-ny: As a native New Yorker, what do you miss most about the city?

rc: NYC has the most intense and densely located feast of stimuli for anyone searching for a new passion in life. Colorado has mountains that became such an important real part of my life, but the mountains in my story in the book also serve as a metaphor for any passion that can raise the quality of life for any New Yorker, especially with so many choices.

twi-ny: What do you miss the least?

rc: Everything worth climbing has an elevator!

twi-ny: Joe, have you had any experience climbing mountains or going on long hikes?

jc: Rick has promised to take me up into the mountains, so I’m hoping to mix some hiking and jazz in Aspen this summer.

twi-ny: Have you climbed any metaphorical mountains in your life?

jc: Sure, we all have mountains to climb every day. The lesson of Rick and Emme is that allowing one’s senses to enjoy every aspect of a hike is as important as reaching the summit.

twi-ny: Have you ever been to Colorado and, if so, how did you like it?

jc: I have been to Colorado for business a few times, which included “team building” via white water rafting and a few novice hikes with office colleagues. I look forward to a summer trip that lets me explore firsthand several of the climbs we wrote about.

twi-ny: Rick, what was the best part of collaborating with Joe?

rc: The best part is that we quickly developed a relationship due to the intense interaction that only longtime friends get to know about each other. The older I get, the more I cherish a friendship like that.

twi-ny: What was the most challenging part?

rc: The most challenging part wasn’t very challenging. Joe is passionate and highly knowledgeable about MLB — baseball — and he is prone to introduce baseball quotes here and there. He would throw some in and I would go, Huh? But we had no trouble getting to a balance closer to my world — i.e., more mountain and dog quotes. 😊

twi-ny: Joe, what was the best part of collaborating with Rick?

jc: The best part was that Rick came to the book armed with a central, overarching theme — the importance of finding a passion for the final third of one’s life. But those words would have fallen flat like bromides without the stories that put the reader on the mountain trails with Rick and Emme.

Cover Final - Soft Cover
twi-ny: What was the most challenging?

jc: As you’d expect from someone who has been a business founder, a management consultant, and a chairman of the board of several corporations, Rick has strong opinions. No surprises there.

twi-ny: You’ve also collaborated with John Pizzarelli and Richard Press. How did those collaborations compare with the one with Rick?

jc: Those collaborations were different in that I had known both men for a while, and the published book was at least our third or fourth project together. In the case of Pizzarelli, we had known one another for over thirty years and had already cowritten songs and worked out material for Red Sox luncheons both in New York and in Boston.

The highest compliment I would hear about the Pizzarelli and Press books was “Why did they need you?” I know both voices well and tried to tell those stories using each one’s style. Not being as familiar with Rick’s voice, I worked extra hard to describe the world as he does and not as, say, Jean Shepherd would have.

twi-ny: Rick, you climbed all fifty-eight fourteeners in the Rockies with Emme, beginning when you were sixty-four, and thirteeners might be in your immediate future with Ella. Do you have any other grand adventures coming up, with or without an animal companion?

rc: Yes, this is an often-asked question, especially by people trying to figure out how to discover what their next passion should be and from where that idea might come. Mine came from the unlikely source of following my irrepressible dog who had already discovered her passion.

Now, even though she is gone from this earth, the impact on my life continues as I work to get the inspirational message underlying this book in front of as many eyeballs and hearts as I can.

Increasingly I am hearing that my talks at author events, like the one coming up at the Museum of the Dog on November 8, is inspiring to others. That is as much a gift to me and I am all over it, treating this book as my next adventure. I do still climb and I will continue until I can’t, but I don’t have a goal to reach a number; rather, I want to smell the different roses all the way up to each summit.

twi-ny: Joe, next up for you are a music documentary and a children’s book. Anything you can talk about yet?

jc: Yes, I am working on a music documentary that will likely air on public television in early 2021. The director is Jim Burns, who also directed the terrific PBS pledge-week doc a few years ago about the great songwriter and WWII test pilot Jimmy Van Heusen [Swingin’ with Frank & Bing]. My next book will be about the 1904 baseball season and the first pennant race ever between the New York and Boston teams that became the Yankees and the Red Sox. And the children’s book Pizzarelli and I are planning is built around a song near and dear to our hearts — “I Like Jersey Best.” It will be a trip to the Jersey Shore and other Garden State landmarks as seen through the wondering eyes of two eight-year-olds.

twi-ny: Rick, how did the Museum of the Dog event come about?

rc: They schedule a monthly series called the Author’s Corner. When Joe heard that after thirty-two years the AKC had moved the museum back to New York City, he brought a copy of the book over. They called the next day, excited to have us. I am also doing an article for the AKC community, which is impressively large.

twi-ny: How would you say your book is different from the many other dog-related books out there?

rc: On the surface it is an easy flowing mix of humor, adventure, and uncanny stories about an improbably older guy following his small dog up the highest mountains in the continental US in pursuit of their new passion in life. Underlying is the joy and inspiration that takes the reader away from all the negatives bombarding us daily and gives us something important to think about.

twi-ny: Speaking of being bombarded, while you’re in New York, what else do you plan to do for fun?

rc: Hunt around for a jazz club; too many are shutting down, but still some of the best jazz in the country is right here in the city.


John Kelly takes on the persona of Samuel Steward in Underneath the Skin (photo by Josef Astor)

John Kelly takes on the persona of Samuel Steward in Underneath the Skin (photo by Josef Astor)

NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30

“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.

“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.

twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?

John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.

The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.

(photo by Paula Court)

John Kelly traced his own life and career in the autobiographical Time No Line (photo by Paula Court)

twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?

jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.

I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.

It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.

twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.

jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.

twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?

jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.

twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.

jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.

Samuel Steward is subject of John Kelly’s latest performance piece

Samuel Steward is subject of John Kelly’s latest performance piece

twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?

jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.

twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?

jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.

He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.

twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.

jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.

twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?

jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.


(photo by Helena Boskovic)

Jim Allen launches his first solo album in sixteen years, Where the Sunshine Bit You, at a release party at the treehouse at 2A on June 2 (photo by Helena Bošković)

The Treehouse at 2A
25 Ave. A (upstairs)
Sunday, June 2, 8:30

Nearly twenty years ago, I worked a day job with singer-songwriter and freelance journalist Jim Allen, a gracious and friendly man who has a never-ending thirst for music old and new, obscure and popular, with a vast knowledge of his chosen discipline. Allen is a solo artist in addition to being leader of the country band the Ramblin’ Kind and the rock outfit Lazy Lions; this month he has released his first solo record in sixteen years, Where the Sunshine Bit You, a tasty confection of eleven tunes that showcase Allen’s sweet-sounding acoustic guitar and trademark turns of phrases.

Recorded live, the album opens with the swampy folk-blues instant classic “All the Way Down the Line,” in which he sings in his deep baritone, “Yeah, the sign said stop, it was only a suggestion / The dead end sign was really meant to be a question / Where’s that map when we need it most? / Are we christening a country or following a ghost? / Well, the train’s on time all the way down the line.” Jerry Garcia would be proud of “The Day After Tomorrow” (“When the worst of all your dreams decides to call your house a home / Then the arctic freeze is just a breeze compared to where you roam”), while Leonard Cohen would get a kick out of “Wedding of the Dead” (“Here comes the groom all dressed in doom / He’s got a bloodstain on his tie”), Richard Thompson would be honored by “Going Under” (“This hole has got a boat in it, it’s all that I can do / To find a way to float in it till something else comes through”), and Hank Williams is smiling somewhere at “What I Deserve” (“Oh, I was high and dry but now I’m low and drowning / I only hope God’s grading on a curve / When the cotton meets the clay underneath the milky way / And the time arrives to get what I deserve”). Among Allen’s other influences are Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Johnny Cash. It all concludes with the foot-stompin’ “High.”

A DIY effort, Where the Sunshine Bit You was recorded live in the studio and mixed by Magic Mike Jung; it features Matt Applebaum on guitars, Joanna Sternberg on bass, Steve Goulding on drums, and Libby Johnson and Jung on vocals. On June 2, Allen will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse at 2A with a litany of special guests. Below he explains some of his process, his collaboration with his son, and his love of LPs.

twi-ny: What made you decide to do a solo album at this time? Your last one was 2003’s Wild Card.

jim allen: After that album I concentrated more on being in bands than doing the solo singer/songwriter thing, but I would never abandon it. Maybe the singer/songwriter-type material eventually reached — or more accurately, surpassed — critical mass and I felt like I had to do something more concrete with it. Also I began to realize how alarmingly long it had been since I’d last put out a solo album! So I started to envision a predominantly acoustic album of these songs. I think hearing Joanna Sternberg playing standup bass helped spark my imagination of how the songs could work in that setting. Fortunately, Joanna was available for the session.

twi-ny: You are also a singer/songwriter for the Ramblin’ Kind and Lazy Lions. What is your songwriting process like? Do you set out to write songs specifically for one of the bands or yourself, or does the song just come to you and then you figure out where it belongs?

ja: I never start out with any particular direction in mind; it just goes where it goes, not to get all hippie mystic on you or anything. There’s some overlap between my solo stuff and the Ramblin’ Kind, but a lot of the songs will obviously not fit in a country-oriented band. And the Lazy Lions stuff is much more separate; it’s an entirely different set of blocks we’re playing with, so there’s rarely any confusion about which belongs where with them. Occasionally I’ve tried out songs with them that we determined were more Jim Allen songs than Lazy Lions songs.

twi-ny: You have two kids who look like they’re a lot of fun. Are they into music? What do they think of Dad’s albums?

ja: Yeah, they’re possessed of an almost unnatural amount of joie de vivre. They like to hear music, and they love to have ad hoc dance parties at home, with me or my wife playing DJ. But they haven’t made a lot of their own specific preferences known yet. They love to hear my music, though. When I first got copies of this album, my son, who’s seven, wanted to hear it right away and just sat in rapt attention staring at the speaker for the entire thing, which was pretty damn adorable. Actually one of the songs, “The Day After Tomorrow,” began from something he said to me one day, that’s why you’ll see his name co-credited on it. Not that I’d necessarily be so magnanimous as to extend that same courtesy to a non-relative in the same situation.

where the sunshine bit you

twi-ny: You recently wrote that you have a “strategic approach” to the WFMU Record Fair. What does that entail?

ja: I’ve been a crate-digger since my teens, but I’ve always taken an open-ended approach to it. I figure if you’re only looking for a specific set of things, you’re gonna have a hard time finding what you want and you’re gonna miss out on a lot of other stuff in the meantime. So I just gravitate to whatever looks good, and inexpensive.

twi-ny: Is there a specific LP you’ve been on the hunt for and have been unable to find?

ja: If I ever encountered the first couple of Butch Hancock albums in the wild for a reasonable amount, I might begin to weep.

twi-ny: We often see each other at shows, by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, and others. Who have you seen live lately that you love, and what’s coming up for you as a spectator?

ja: Let’s see. Well, most recently I saw my buddy Wes Houston play; he’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive and he sounds better than ever, so I find that inspiring. The last thing before that was Chick Corea in an all-star trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, which was blindingly good. I’m never sure exactly what I’ll wind up making it to see, but the next few shows on my docket are Barre Phillips, the jazz bassist, and the Masqueraders, an old-school R&B group that’s performing again, and my old friend Simon Joyner, a great singer/songwriter from Omaha who’s playing at Alphaville in Brooklyn. That’ll be five dollars for the plug, Simon.

twi-ny: In addition to being interviewed about your own records, you have been writing about music for several decades. Who are some of your favorite subjects?

ja: I always say the nicest person I ever interviewed was Jimmie Dale Gilmore; the guy just oozes genuine sweetness and conviviality, even over the phone. Recently I got to talk to Jon Anderson, which was huge for me because I’m an enormous Yes fan, and it was all the more enjoyable because he turned out to be a super-nice guy; he really is the sort of twinkle-eyed hippie prince you might imagine him to be.

twi-ny: If you could choose to write the liner notes for any album or artist, new or old, what/who would it be?

ja: Very interesting question. I got to write notes for some great records. I guess the ultimate would be Leonard Cohen, because he’s had the biggest effect on me.

twi-ny: Who would you most want to write the liner notes for your next record? Feel free to choose a writer no longer with us.

ja: As far as someone to write notes for my album, let’s see. This is a dangerous question because I have a lot of great music journalist friends, you know. So I’ll play it safe and go with someone I’ve never met instead, the British writer Allan Jones, just because he’s so howlingly funny.

twi-ny: On June 2, you will be hosting a record release party at the Treehouse, with such guests as Mike Fornatale, Emily Duff, Libby Johnson, Wes Houston, and Pete Galub. What can you tell us about the show?

ja: I’m taking over the joint for the night. We’ll be playing two sets, from 8:30 to 11. The first set will be the new album in full. And the second set will be some of my old songs plus a bunch of surprise covers and special guests, including the people you mentioned. Matt Applebaum, Paul Foglino, and Steve Goulding, who also happen to be in the Ramblin’ Kind with me, will be playing with me. The Treehouse is above the bar 2A on the corner of Second St. and Ave. A, where Tom Clark, who’s a great musician himself, has been running a great Sunday series for a good while now.

twi-ny: You were born and raised in the Bronx. What did that instill in you?

ja: I guess on one hand, growing up as a weird, arty kid in the midst of the very blue-collar, kind of conservative neighborhood where I lived, I developed a sense of otherness pretty early on. But at the same time, growing up in one of what Manhattanites charmingly refer to as the “outer boroughs,” I also developed an inclination towards lurking around on the periphery of things and sort of observing the hullabaloo from a safe distance. Unfortunately, it did not instill in me the ability to smoothly segue from that into the shameless hucksterism of reminding people that my album, Where the Sunshine Bit You, can be found in both download and CD format at Alas.


the Rant Band

Paul Page, Ian Hunter, James Mastro, Steve Holley, Mark Bosch, and Dennis DiBrizzi will celebrate the Golden One’s eightieth birthday May 31 – June 3 at City Winery (photo by Trudi Patterson)

City Winery
155 Varick St.
May 31 - June 3, $45-$65

I first saw Ian Hunter perform on July 5, 1980, at the famed Malibu nightclub in Lido Beach, a memorable show and a formative part of my teenage existence. Last month, nearly forty years later, I was in awe as Hunter, who I’ve seen play many times over the decades, led Mott the Hoople ’74 through a blistering set at the Beacon. Sinewy and lithe, he was as active as ever, making his way all over the stage, posing at the mic, playing electric and acoustic six-string razors, and teasing the crowd, ever the glam rock star in his trademark shades and curly golden locks. During the show, original Mott guitarist Ariel Bender made joking comments about age — “I’m happy to be here. . . . I’m happy to be anywhere,” he declared more than once — but with Hunter, it was as if time had stood still. He has never rested on his laurels, relentlessly touring while carving out a prolific career as a solo artist in addition to his time with Mott.

On June 3, he’ll be turning eighty — he’s also been married to his wife, Trudi, for nearly fifty years — and he’s celebrating the occasion with a four-night residency at City Winery, joined by his longtime backing group the Rant Band. On May 31 and June 2, they will be performing Mott the Hoople tunes; on June 1, the focus will be on Hunter’s solo work, which includes such outstanding albums as 1979’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, 1983’s All of the Good Ones Are Taken, 2009’s Man Overboard, and 2016’s Fingers Crossed. And on June 3, there will be a gala party where anything can happen. In honor of the milestone, I asked the members of the Rant Band what impressed them most about Hunter’s remarkable youthfulness.

Paul Page, Bass
“I always love seeing Ian at the baggage carousels after a long flight. While the rest of us are scattered, maybe a couple of us are in the restroom, or someone’s on the phone or out getting some fresh air. There’s Ian, right up front, picking bags and guitar cases off the belt, lining them up and nodding ‘Is this yours?’ ‘Here’s another.’ He puts us all to shame.”

ian hunter city winery

Steve Holley, Drummer
“I have had the distinct pleasure of playing drums with Ian Hunter for over thirty years and can say in all honesty that everything he does at the moment is beyond the reach of most people his age. However, age really has nothing to do with it; he just continues to write and perform at a level that we can only dream of.

“Happy birthday, Ian! And here’s to many more!”

Dennis DiBrizzi, Keyboards
“What continues to amaze me is Ian’s integrity and dedication to rock and roll. He’s still relevant because he’s still passionate about singing, songwriting, and performing. Age is no issue when you still have that.”

James Mastro, Guitar, Saxophone, Mandolin
“Centuries from now scientists will be studying the genetic makeup of an anomaly that straddled the twentieth and twenty-first centuries known as Ian Hunter and try to figure out what made him rock so well for so long. I wish I knew. Put him in the category of the Grand Canyon, the Nile, the Acropolis, the Cyclone at Coney Island: all wonders of the world that never cease to amaze or disappoint. I’m just glad I’ve gotten to witness this force of nature up close.”


Ben Dreyer

Ben Dreyer records the audio version of his debut book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

Barnes & Noble
150 East 86th St. at Lexington Ave.
Thursday, January 31, free, 7:00

When Random House vice president, copy chief and executive managing editor Benjamin Dreyer agreed to do a twi-ny talk in conjunction with the publication of his phenomenal new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Random House, January 29, 2019, $25) I knew the interview had to be done via e-mail and not over the phone or in person, since Dreyer makes his living with the written word. (Yes, there is at least one error in the previous sentence; please see the paragraph below in bold to find out why.) Just like Ben, Dreyer’s English is a thoroughly engrossing read, both funny and expertly knowledgable. In the book, he covers such general matters of style as grammar, spelling, and punctuation along with more specific looks at what he calls “peeves and crotchets,” “confusables,” and “trimmables.” He lends insight to plural possessives, the serial comma, initialisms, parentheses, common mispellings, capitalization, and the “hoi polloi,” exploring certain items farther, more in depth, begging the question, “Do I need more than just autocorrect and spellcheck to write well”?

In the main text and detailed footnotes, Dreyer references such literary giants as Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hans Christian Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce; an avid theatregoer and old movie fan, the book also includes examples involving Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Noel Coward, Joan Crawford, Abbot and Costello, Zoe Caldwell, Lon Chaney Jr., and Ingrid Bergman, among many others. The fact that Dreyer reserves his most deepest admiration for Shirley Jackson, the 20th century author of such novels as the Haunting of Hill House and such short stories as “The Lottery” is not surprising. Dreyer actually got a chance to copy edit previously-unpublished pieces by Jackson; in one of the best footnotes in his book, he admits to typing out the complete Jackson short story, “The Renegade” — “to see whether doing so might make me better appreciate how beautifully constructed the story was. It did.” I’m considering typing out some of Dreyer’s paragraphs to remind me of some of the style elements he espouses so entertainingly in the book, especially “lie/lay/laid/lain.”

A legend in the industry, I’ve known Dreyer since 1995, when I was a managing editor at Random House imprint Ballantine Books. He really sums up the primary responsibilities of a copy editor at the very start of Dreyer’s English (which has received praise from such literary stalwarts as Elizabeth Stout, George Saunders, Jon Meacham, Amy Bloom, and Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon): “I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely, through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better.” He also recorded the audiobook, joined by his good friend and two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser. (You can listen to a clip here.)

Dreyer will be at the Barnes & Noble at Eighty-Sixth & Lexington on January 31 at 7:00, signing copies of the book and speaking with award-winning Random House author Peter (Ghost Story) Straub. Its a great opportunity to join the Dreyer cult we’ve all been apart of for decades. He’ll also be taking copyediting questions on Twitter on February 1 from 12:30-1:30.

SIGNED BOOK GIVEAWAY: In the paragraphs above are at least a dozen grammatical errors that Dreyer deals directly with in his book; whoever correctly identifies the most will win a signed copy for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and list of mistakes to by Friday, February 1, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; in case of a tie, one winner will be selected at random.

twi-ny: How long has this book been percolating inside you? Was there a final impetus that helped you go ahead with it?

benjamin dreyer: Back in the 1980s I’d written a bit of short fiction and was a regular contributor to Chicago’s then premier gay newspaper, Windy City Times, writing mostly on film and theater. Those writing aspirations fell by the wayside — I developed awful writer’s block, particularly insofar as writing fiction was concerned — and as I fell into freelance proofreading and then copyediting, I, happily, felt deeply satisfied that I was making a contribution to writing, even if I wasn’t writing myself, and I let the writing thing go. (As a friend said, “It’s too painful to be in a constantly anxious state of Not Writing. Better to let it go than to make yourself miserable on a daily basis.”) After I joined Random House as a production editor in 1993 and eventually became copy chief and managing editor, I pretty much stopped copyediting — there are only so many hours in the day, after all, and I have a lot of job. But: About six years ago I found myself invited to copyedit a novel — Elizabeth Strout’s excellent, to say the least, The Burgess Boys — and simply setting green pencil to paper again filled me with real joy; I’d forgotten how much I like to copyedit. And that sense of joy somehow rekindled my desire to write. I guess I was having a moment. So one afternoon I rather barged into the office of Random House publisher Susan Kamil and began to, well, burble at her about my desire to write a book about copyediting. She interrupted my burbling, suggested that if I wanted to write and particularly publish a book I might do well to have an agent, and — to make a longish story shortish — a few months later there I was, under contract to write the book that’s just now going on sale.

dreyers english

twi-ny: You have spent your entire career working on other people’s books, but now you’re the one whose words are being line edited, copyedited, proofread, and designed. What was that experience like? Did you enjoy being copyedited, or was it painful?

bd: That thing about “I hate writing, I love having written”? Well, if I didn’t quite hate writing, except when I did, I loved being edited. I’ve had the support of three great editors at Random House, plus my agent’s keen oversight, and they were all wonderful at encouraging me and challenging me — with of course a healthy dose of “Could you just finish it, please?” The funny thing is, it took me an awfully long time to find my voice, but once I found it, once I really let my writer freak flag fly, they were all “Yes, yes, yes, go, go, go.” Of course they asked me to expand on things they thought I wasn’t addressing fully enough, and occasionally I was asked to dial it down a bit. (If you’ve read the book, your response to that might be “And apparently you didn’t.” But truly, I did.) As to the copyediting, well, that was just amazing. I did request a particular freelance copy editor I used to hire constantly back in my production editorial days — I conceal her name here only to discourage people poaching her from RH, but she’s honored in the back of the book if you care to look in the acknowledgments — and she was superb, as I knew she would be. She called me out on any number of my bad habits, including a tendency to insert massive amounts of digression into the middle of a sentence, laughed at my jokes (in the margins, that is), and periodically would offer helpful/necessary rephrasings of text in such a precise imitation of my voice that I’d just pick up her suggestions and stuff them into the manuscript. In short, she did everything for me that I have always tried, as a copy editor, to do for the writers I was copyediting. I felt honored and protected and looked after and properly prodded, and she certainly substantively improved the book. (To answer a question you didn’t ask: A copy editor cannot turn a bad book into a good one, but a copy editor can certainly take a competent or better manuscript and make that thing shine. I think she polished me quite nicely.)

I’d also like to add that the book’s text designer — a colleague of mine for as long as I’ve been at Random House — absolutely, I think, nailed it. Writers often have lots of quibbles over and requests about their text design, but the first time I saw the proposed text design I almost cried, it was simply everything I had envisioned it might be. As a physical object, I think that the book is freaking gorgeous.

twi-ny: Your longtime colleague, Dennis Ambrose, who works for you, served as the production editor on your book. Did that make the process easier or more difficult, being so close to it, as opposed to it being handled by a different publishing company?

bd: Once we established departmentally that a lot of things I do for all our books as managing editor and copy chief I obviously couldn’t do for my own book, it was mighty smooth sailing. Dennis is an absolute pro and managed it all beautifully, and between the two of us we kept me in my lane. Of course it was easy to relax and know I was being taken proper care of because I’ve worked with Dennis for decades watching him take care of the likes of Edmund Morris and Jon Meacham, among others. He knows what he’s doing. And though indeed it’s a bit peculiar to be published by your own house, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’ve gotten a lot of love, from all departments, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

twi-ny: Was there a specific item that you really wanted in the book but either your editor editor, the production editor, or the copy editor convinced you otherwise?

bd: Everything’s basically as I set out to write it, and I never felt strong-armed to cut anything (or to add anything, for that matter). Maybe my agent and editors encouraged me to trim some of the book’s voluminous lists, and they were usually right, though every now and then my response to “Can we cut this?” was “Nah,” and there was no brawling about it. Though in typeset pages I did cut some things that even I was bored reading, and I’m glad I did.

twi-ny: In the book, you point out numerous cases in which you don’t follow such publishing bibles as the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster 11, and Words into Type. You also noted in a 2012 Random House video that your department does not have a house style. As the copy chief, do you have one favorite choice that goes against generally accepted book publishing style?

bd: We really truly really truly don’t have a house style — except for the silent, don’t-query-it-just-do-it mandating of what some people call the Oxford comma, some people call the serial comma, and I call the series comma. And that doesn’t come from me; that was in place when I arrived at Random House. And that’s scarcely unusual: Almost everyone in book publishing favors that comma, even as many/most journalist types detest it. Maybe once a year, if that, an author objects post-copyediting to the comma, and you just grit your teeth and defer. But otherwise — and again, this is good copyediting practice as it was taught to me — every book gets the copyedit it specifically and uniquely needs, in support of what the author is attempting to do, not in support of what the copy editor or the house thinks is Good Writing. The thing I’m pleased to say about Random House books is that you can never tell by the copyediting that they’re Random House books — except that they’re well copyedited. To perhaps slightly misuse cardplaying terminology: We don’t have any house tells.

twi-ny: The book teaches the reader about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style, and you often boldly, and with humor, defend your preferences. However, in the acknowledgments, you thank the copy editor for “calling out my worst habits.” Can you share one or two of them here?

bd: Aside from the aforementioned habit of overstuffing the middles of sentences so that on occasion by the time you get to the end of a sentence you can’t recall the beginning, I also violently overuse parentheses. And OK, their overuse reflects the way my brain works — constant digressions and by-the-ways — but after a while, enough is enough. All my editors encouraged me to take things out of parentheses; similarly, there’s a lot of stuff I’d initially relegated to the book’s ocean of footnotes that got moved up into the main text.

twi-ny: In the late 1990s, Random House had an in-house chat room called the Water Cooler on the company intranet, and, in retrospect, it was like an early iteration of social media, complete with controversies over language and political correctness. Since the forum was in a publishing house, the posts tended to be fairly well written, but in today’s world, grammar, punctuation, and style have taken quite a hit on social media. You are an avid user of Facebook and especially Twitter; what are your thoughts on social media’s impact on written language?

bd: Facebook is . . . well, it is what it is, to use a phrase that as a copy editor I’d throttle a writer for using. But I find the language of Twitter — and truly, it speaks its own language — endlessly amusing, and when I’m there I like to speak it. Questions without question marks (or, often, any terminal punctuation at all) make me chuckle, ditto all-cap shouting to express manic enthusiasm or mock alarm. To be quite honest — or, if you prefer, TBQH — as I worked on the book, and for a long time I couldn’t quite figure out what my writerly voice was supposed to sound like, I eventually realized that the voice I was cultivating on Twitter in my self-appointed role as Your Pal the Copy Chief was precisely the voice I wanted to bring to the page: succinct (ish), joshing in the service of making valid points, and mocking my own sense of seriousness, all in an attempt to, simply, try to get people to listen to what I was trying to say, and perhaps to appreciate it and learn something from it without their feeling they were being nagged or hectored.

Ben Dreyer

Ben Dreyer and his husband, Robert, pose with their pooch, Sallie

twi-ny: With that in mind, you also aren’t shy about including your thoughts about our current spelling-challenged, Twitter-happy president in many examples in the book. Are you afraid that such references will date the book or anger readers who lean more to the right than you do?

bd: I think that there are so many things to despise about the current administration — everything, now that I think of it — and its degradation of the English language is, I suppose, scarcely the worst of it, but of course the English language is what I do for a living, and I take personally his (you know, that person whose name I’d just as soon not type) subliteracy and, worse, the endless lying and base distortion of the very meanings of words to suit his poisonous agenda. He has dishonored everything I hold dear as an American and as a human being, and I see no reason to dissemble to avoid angering his cult. Perhaps if we all live long enough and I’m given the opportunity a few years down the pike to revise the book for a second edition I’ll change things up a bit, but for the moment, here in the winter of 2019, I’m quite happy with what the book says, and about whom.

twi-ny: You’re a theater aficionado, and the book is filled with theatrical references, particularly regarding musicals. What have you seen lately that you’ve loved or hated?

bd: I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery a few months ago and was riveted. For one thing, it’s a first-rate script, as one expects from Lonergan, and as a person of a certain age whose parents are of a certain age plus a few decades, I found it harrowing, and I like theater that’s harrowing. For another thing, Elaine May gave a titanically good performance. She’s so good at portraying a woman who’s losing her mental moorings that in the opening scene I found myself anxious for her as an actress; soon enough, to be sure, you realize that she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing: She’s acting. (I was told afterward by people who were highly familiar with the play that she’s line-perfect down to the very commas.) Looking forward, I’m pleased that Lincoln Center Theater is about to mount a new John Guare play. I think that his Six Degrees of Separation is one of the greatest plays of my lifetime, and I’m always keen to see what he has on his mind.

twi-ny: The other night I saw a show called Say Something Bunny!, the title of which desperately needed a comma, especially since the script, which was given out to everyone as part of the show, has a comma when those words appear in dialogue. What theatrical grammatical error makes you the most crotchety?

bd: Everyone likes to make fun of Alan Jay Lerner’s inability to distinguish between “hanged” and “hung” in My Fair Lady, so let’s not do that one again. OK, the other day I was listening to the original cast recording of Hairspray — and of course we all know never to refer to theatrical cast recordings as soundtracks, right? — and as happens every time I listen to “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” (did I just google it to make sure that it’s not “Momma”? yes I certainly did), when Tracy sings that she “could barely walk and talk so much as dance and sing,” I mutter “No, not ‘so much as’; it’s ‘let alone.’” I mutter a lot. As my husband says — lovingly, I’m reasonably certain — “It must hurt sometimes to live in your brain.” Well, yeah.

twi-ny: At your book launch on January 31, you will be in conversation with one of Random House’s most successful authors, Peter Straub. How did that come about? What are your thoughts on his writing?

bd: When Ghost Story was published in 1979, I remember reading the review in the New York Times Book Review and literally — and by literally, I mean literally — running to my local bookstore to get a copy. And I think that it’s one of the great horror novels of our time. Cut to the mid-1990s, and I’m Peter’s production editor at Random House, first on The Hellfire Club, then on four subsequent books, including Black House, his second collaboration, after The Talisman, with Stephen King. And he’s simply the loveliest man, and a delight to work with and for, and very sharp and funny, so when I was asked with whom I’d like to be In Conversation, he immediately leapt to my mind. And he graciously agreed to support me for the evening. I’m looking forward to it hugely; I haven’t seen Peter in a few years, so it’ll be lovely. And I’m rereading Ghost Story right now, and good Lord I’d forgotten how scary it is.