Hot Fun in the Summertime
Moving and shaking this week: Zain Khalid, Alexander Chee, Elena Saavedra Buckley, Peter Blackstock, Michael Ames, Nina Mesfin, Matt Sherrill, Marella Gayla, Joanna Biggs, Dan Oshinsky, and many more…
Though the skies keep threatening to rain yet remain dry, it’s hot enough that you can break a sweat sitting still. From a book party that split off into two book parties to a pair of ragtag softball teams learning to cohere, this is some of the stuff of life that animated the city this week.
OUT AND ABOUT
On Thursday night, Zain Khalid walked into Scratcher to cheers. He was coming from an event launching his debut novel Brother Alive at The Strand’s Rare Books Room, where he’d talked with novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, who loved the book enough to travel to be there. “Part of why I agreed to do this event, even though I technically live in Vermont, is that this is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read this year,” Chee said at The Strand. When he reached the afterparty, he clarified that he’d come down from the Catskills that day. “I’m doing a progressive tour,” he said. “I’m going to Sewanee on Monday.” Khalid’s family and friends crowded the East Village bar, among them his agent Kent Wolf, Grove Atlantic assistant editor Emily Burns, novelist Lincoln Michel, Jacobin staff writer Alex Press, Harper’s associate editor Elena Saavedra Buckley, The Drift co-founder Rebecca Panovka, and Goddy Delima, a due diligence investigator who met Khalid through Drift softball.
Some of those present had watched Khalid’s journey to this book launch for over a decade. “He was a junior in a marketing department at a medical university, and I was a consultant from Philly,” said Alfred Vazquez, chief technology officer at the product workflow management platform Sweft. (After publication, Khalid corrected this account of his early career: He worked at an ad agency that was doing work for a medical university.) “I had just moved to New York and my firm put me at his company. We just badmouthed the fuck out of everything. Even 15 years ago when we were working together” — Khalid thinks it was closer to a decade ago — “he was like, ‘I want to write.’ But he wanted to write for himself. He worked in marketing and he fucking hated it, and he’s like, ‘I think I’m just gonna fucking quit, and I’ll go become a ghostwriter.’ I think he wanted to ghostwrite articles for people for some newspaper just to get his foot in the door. I was like, ‘Dude, you have this opportunity within the business, and you can make it.’ He ended up making enough money to fund his writing. From there, he did his stand-up routines, which allowed him to get into comedy writing, which got him into McSweeney’s and then TV writing.”
Khalid’s strategic sense struck Vazquez. “Just being a friend, watching him go from, ‘I’m just gonna give up, there’s no path for me to write the novel I want to write’ to ‘I’m gonna just go do open mics at comedy clubs.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ He’s like, ‘Because it’s the only way that McSweeney’s will let me write a spot,’” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re making this plan, you’re figuring out the links in the chain.’ And it was just a harrowing fucking experience for a decade navigating the literary world through comedy where he felt like he could bypass all the barriers. And he did it. And he fuckin’ did it.”
David Isenberg met Khalid on the stand-up scene about a decade ago. “People recognized early that he knew how to put words together and he moved out of the slog of stand-up very quickly,” he said. “He and I got along because he and I are both writers who were approaching stand-up comedy from a writing perspective. Most stand-up comedians are not. They’re approaching it to be a performer. They all want to be the next Chris Farley or whatever. And he and I got along because we both approached it as writers first.”
Things seemed to be going well with the novel so far. Grove Atlantic deputy publisher Peter Blackstock was thrilled by the critical response. “I was very happy about this New York Times book review. That was really good,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be like. We knew it was going to come, but you don’t know if it’s going to come in a timely way.” However, Khalid had other reviews swirling around his mind as well. “I read a Goodreads thing recently, and someone called me ‘irredeemably stupid,’ which I don’t think is possible,” he said at The Strand. “Like irredeemably stupid? That’s a lot. I don’t know. I’m redeemably stupid.”
A rocky patch arose when Scratcher staff started to bristle at the crowd. “I came in and got yelled at. I don’t really want to step through the door and get yelled at,” said McSweeney’s visiting editor James Yeh. “Somehow I’m getting yelled at a lot.” So a group split off for Fish Bar down the block. Khalid wandered over to a circle including Chee, Blackstock, and Grove Atlantic publicist John Mark Boling. “You crazy book people,” went Khalid’s impression of what happened at Scratcher. “You’re too wild!” Blackstock affirmed that that was the general tenor. “We’re known to be rabble rousers,” he said. “But none of the rabble rousers are here,” said Khalid. “It’s actually just the very lovely regular people.”
In the rare non-league media softball game where the gameplay was more notable than the dugout chatter, Harper’s played The New Yorker in Central Park’s North Meadow on Tuesday evening. It was Harper’s first game of the season. They were coming off a big upset win against The New Yorker last year, and apparently, lung capacity was not a huge concern. American Cipher co-author and Harper’s contributor Michael Ames smoked through an inning while pitching in a “Fuck the Internet” jersey. “We’ll join you soon!” shouted one New Yorker player. “We just gotta be winning by double digits, at least,” said another.
The stakes were high for some in the Harper’s dugout. “I am a former editorial assistant, future something else, to be determined. I’ll see on Thursday. I have an interview,” Jon Edelman said while introducing himself. “If we lose this, I’m not gonna show up.” Associate editor Saavedra Buckley had to make sure her team made a solid showing to not be shown up by her college roommate and New Yorker fact-checker Nina Mesfin. “I brought morale,” she said. “I’m texting, right now, one of our co-workers who did not come and shaming them.” Assistant editor Charlie Lee also found himself on the spot, having taken over managing the team this year from deputy editor, and until recently acting top editor, Matt Sherrill, who said he “figured it was time for new blood.” Lee framed his ascent as the result of an inadvertent campaign. “I’ve been the one that’s always like we should play ten games a season,” he said, “so he was like, ‘Alright, you can be in charge.’”
Harper’s contributor Sam Sussman, who buried the Bob Dylan lead when describing his contribution in a conversation with teammates, had already cleared a hurdle to play in his first game with the team. “I got onto the Harper’s softball team. Easiest try-out that I’ve ever gone through: I messaged Charlie and made up a batting average,” he’d told The Fine Print several weeks earlier. “I told him that between the ages of 6 and 16, I had a .338 batting average in Goshen Little League and I was widely considered a first-rate utility player. Within three minutes, he replied, ‘You’re on the team. Let’s go.’”
The New Yorker squad had an overwhelming turnout, as usual. As the season’s progressed, they’ve started to cohere as a team, or at least recognize each other. “You can see the chemistry out in the field,” said coach and associate editor for Talk of the Town Zach Helfand. “I know everyone by now, pretty much, but the first week, because no one had been in the office that much, there was a lot of ‘Hi, who are you?’” There were some new faces on Tuesday, though. Associate editor Marella Gayla has worked at the magazine for a couple of years, but this was her first game. “Timing-wise, it was weird for me,” she said. “I started at the end of 2019, a few months after I graduated, and then in summer 2020, no games happened, obviously. Then last year, it didn’t feel like much of a presence.” Seeing her co-workers in person helped bring her out. “I feel like us being back in the office a few days a week really helps with attendance and a feeling of thingness,” she said. “I think it helps that people go over together.”
The New Yorker kept up a healthy lead throughout the game, but Harper’s put up a good fight. At one point, senior editor Joanna Biggs dove for a ball, but Harper’s contributor Ian MacDougall sustained the only injury of the game. “I was running to first and I felt a shooting pain, it’s like a pinched nerve or something,” he said. “The numbness has been there for a while.” Still, he kept playing. When Harper’s production manager and designer Stephanie Cuenca took her turn at bat in a hot pink tiger print cap in her inaugural game, Saavedra Buckley shouted, “Good hit, best fit!” Edelman wondered at the terminology, “Do you say fit or do you say drip? I started saying drip a few months ago.” “Those feel in some ways different,” Saavedra Buckley replied. Edelman, who by then had thoroughly sweated through his shirt, probed further. “Would you say dripping?” he asked. “I think something is drip,” Saavedra Buckley pronounced.
Nobody took the game too seriously, though. Dan Oshinsky, former director of newsletters at both BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, had played with the hardcore BuzzFeed team in its early years but found that The New Yorker’s games are more his speed these days. “Playing against High Times, you’re like, ‘Focus: I’m actually playing, I’m actually trying, because they’re actually trying,’” he recalled, “and this is like someone will yell my name, and I’ll be like, ‘I guess I have to go hit now. Okay. Has anyone seen a bat?’”
The matchup ended with a 10-4 score in The New Yorker’s favor, and players took off for Tap-A-Keg, where The New Yorker sent around box after box of pizza. (Disclosure: The Fine Print ate a slice.)
➾ 8 p.m. Heavy Traffic will host a release party for their first issue at Mulberry Street Bar in Lower Manhattan.
➾ 6 p.m. Forbes will challenge defending New York Media Softball League champs BuzzFeed in East River Park. As far we can tell, Forbes has had the most active season of any media softball team this year, leaving The New Yorker smarting in a recent non-league game. “They’re a bunch of finance bro guys. They’re all eight feet tall and we’re us,” said one New Yorker player. “They were, at one point, I think, kind of surprised and impressed that we had what they called ‘girls’ on the team,” said Helfand. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re just trying to have fun.’” BuzzFeed promises to present a more serious challenge.
➾ 7 p.m. New York Times Magazine contributing writer Michael Pollan will be celebrating the launch of the paperback edition of This is Your Mind on Plants at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint. He’ll be in conversation with novelist, Spy co-founder, and former Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen.
➾ 7 p.m. Paris Review assistant editor Olivia Kan-Sperling will celebrate the launch of her debut novella Island Time with a party on a boat floating around Manhattan. The theme is Kendall Jenner x Lil Peep (but in the 1920s). “Maybe we’ll never come back,” Kan-Sperling’s boyfriend Spike’s New York editor Dean Kissick wrote in the invite.
➾ 6 p.m. Chartbeat, which is having an impressive softball season so far, will take on Forbes on McCarren Park’s fields.
➾ 7 p.m. Celebrity Book Club podcast co-hosts Steven Phillips-Horst and Lily Marotta will host a night of literary trivia at McNally Jackson Seaport. “Whether you’re a fan of Joseph Mitchell, Joseph Conrad, Lauren Conrad, or all the above, you’re in for an unforgettable evening,” the event page promises.
Correction: This story originally included incorrect information about Zain Khalid’s career before becoming a novelist as recounted by a former colleague. Khalid was never a chief marketing officer and worked for an ad agency that had a medical university as a client, not for a medical university directly.