Riverhead Table: Janis Cooke Newman
Paperback releases are tricky: You’ve already done a tour for the hardcover, your friends and family and neighbors and their friends came out to see you read and field a few questions, and then everyone went to a bar together — it was great! But round two is a harder sell: They’ve all heard you read, they’ve purchased the book, and they didn’t even have that many questions the first time.
So when Janis Cooke Newman recently celebrated the paperback release of her novel A Master Plan for Rescue with a salon-style dinner party, with no readings and no real discussion about the book, author Lee Kravetz (Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, 2014) spoke for the room when he said: “I can’t believe it took this long to figure this out.”
The event was called a Riverhead Table. The publisher, Riverhead Books, gives its authors a stipend to organize a dinner that in some way relates to their books. Together with her actor and caterer friend Kurt Reinhardt, and with the help of Kravetz and novelist Shana Mahaffey (Sounds Like Crazy, 2009), Newman prepared a 1930s-era Paris bistro menu.
Newman’s novel is set in World War II, during a time of food rationing, but she decided not to theme the dinner around the cookbook it references, “Victory Meat Extenders,” which includes such delicacies as Codfish Casserole and the vegetarian dish English Monkey. Instead, the dinner was inspired by a Jewish character’s longing to escape from Nazi Germany and live among French artists.
That character, Rebecca, would have been very pleased in this company. The guest list of authors, booksellers, journalists and their significant others included two-time Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles (The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America), Guggenheim Fellow Cristina García (Dreaming in Cuban, A Handbook to Luck), KQED’s Michael Krasny (Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest) and New York Times best-seller Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog).
Naturally, the wine was copious and well paired to each course, and as the two dozen or so guests arrived in the newly renovated, and not-yet-reoccupied, three-floor Castro home of author Scott James and his husband, Jerry Cain, Newman was all smiles.
“Isn’t it cool?” she said, offering up a platter of crostini with green olive tapenade; or with goat cheese, olive oil and lemon rind; or with chicken liver mousse, currants and Calvados. “They come up with this idea, and then I let it get out of hand.”
Riverhead Table authors have complete creative control over their dinner, and Newman put together the guest list in part as a thank-you to those who have shown their support for the novel: Books Inc. owners Michael and Margie Scott Tucker; Book Passage owners Elaine and Bill Petrocelli; vice president of the National Book Critics Circle Jane Ciabattari (Stealing the Fire) and her husband, Mark Ciabattari (Dreams of an Imaginary New Yorker Named Rizzoli); Publishers Weekly editor Bridgett Kinsella (Visiting Time: Women Doing Time on the Outside); Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel (Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California); directors of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Calvin Crosby and Ann Seaton; the novelist Susanne Pari (The Fortune Catcher); and Krasny, who hosted Newman on “Forum” when the hardback came out.
Some of these pillars of the Bay Area literary community have known one another for a long time, and everyone knows almost everyone else professionally, but there were certainly people dining together for the first time. Conversation was animated and ranged from the Warriors and the primaries to industry gossip and personal histories; by the time the Dijon chicken was plated with asparagus and herbed garlic noodles and served with a Côtes du Rhône, conversation had become the main course.
James, who has hosted book parties at the house before, said the point is to “facilitate a relationship between the people in the room and the author.” Copies of “A Master Plan for Rescue” served as table ornaments; some of the guests no doubt had read early versions of the novel, while others who had not yet read it got to take one home. Maybe they’ll read it, maybe they won’t, but the dinner experience is an innovative way to bring people together around the book without simply trying to sell it.
“There’s no guarantee anything will happen,” James said. “But anything could happen.”
Photo by Michael Noble Jr.