Subterranean SF: Hard-boiled Writing with an Edge Turns Five

The Subterranean SF “speakeasy style” reading series turn 5 years old this year – City Lights interviewed Peter Maravelis, City Lights events director and founder of the series, about its mysterious origins.

City Lights: Subterranean SF is one of those “best kept secrets” of the literary world. But you’ve been at it for a while now. Keeping a low profile, but featuring some of the greatest names in hard-boiled fiction in the most exotic settings. How did all this get started?

sf noir

Peter Maravelis: Well, the trouble all began with an anthology I edited a few years ago called San Francisco Noir that was published by Akashic Books in Brooklyn. We had been touring and staging gigs to publicize it for a while. Some of the events were really great. We had staged some at the now defunct Ha-Ra Club in the Tenderloin on the behest of its legendary bartender, Carl. Carl was one of the most literary bartenders in the City and his generosity at letting us have free rein over the space was a beautiful thing. We mixed music with spoken word. Carl’s “no nonsense” demeanor added to the evenings. One night he yelled for the festivities to stop because he had run out of glasses and had to collect the empties, wrestling half-finished drinks out of peoples hands. He’d hate serving fancy cocktails. You had to order something straight forward, else he’d give you a “look” and maybe commentary to go with it. But the guy had a heart of gold. We had some great events there. The events continued at other venues around town. We even had a tour that ran up the Pacific Northwest. The Powell’s reading was especially fun as a couple of the authors nearly got into fisticuffs during the Q&A over the merit of Joan Didion‘s literary ouvre. Our publisher sure loved hearing about that from Powell’s.

Nearly all the authors in the anthology had read at some point. After a few years, I was getting sick of the old routine. Dominic Stansberry (one of the contributors to SF Noir) had a new book coming out and I thought it might be fun to try pushing the envelope a little. Dominic and I had bounced around the idea of dramatizing parts of his novel in lieu of a straight-ahead reading. I had also been thinking about holding a speakeasy for a group of friends. The two ideas came together beautifully and “Subterranean SF: Hard-boiled Writing with an Edge” was born. The San Francisco-based performance company Word for Word produced the adaptation from Dominic’s work for that event. They specialize in adapting literature to the stage. We’ve had some great collaborations with them.

CL: So where did that first event take place? How did people find out about it?

PM: The fabulous Lipo Lounge. The exterior (and interior) is like a set from Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture. People LOVED it. As has now become customary, we insisted in the scant publicity that people pick up a “black envelope” from the front counter at City Lights to learn about the venue. The invitation contained a map and a password. Once everyone arrived at the destination, they bought a drink and would present the bartender with the password and would be directed to a back door that took them down a dark stairwell into a subterranean space. What’s really significant is that nearly all of our events have literally taken place underground. The events are never widely publicized. Word of mouth does the job. The events have taken place at different location each time. There has been a strong historic component to many of the events. We try and work SF history into the mix, making references to notorious happenings, many of which relate to the venues and neighborhoods they occupy.

shanghai_gesture_xlgCL: How do you pick authors for the events? Who are some of the authors who have read and performed for the series?

PM: Working as a bookseller gives you a great window into new releases. One couldn’t be in a better position to locate new material and create relationships with authors. I am always on the lookout for upcoming work. Having free access to new seasonal catalogs makes a huge difference.  Love of the material also matters. Sometimes you find the greatest stuff in the most obscure of places.

We average one or two events a year. We insist on quality over quantity. Each event is hand-tailored to the author. Some are minimalist, some are full-scale productions. We’ve featured tributes to an entire series of works. A case in point is the Femme Fatale Series from Feminist Press. We staged a fabulous event with Cara Black, Daphne Gottlieb, Monica Nelson, Monica Nolan, Kelley Stanley, and Alia Volz all reading excerpts from Vera Caspary, Dorothy Hughes, Valerie Taylor, and Tereska Torres. There was swanky musical accompaniment. We’ve staged a Noir Talk Show with Eddie Muller, David Talbot, and Ben Tarnoff talking about San Francisco historic underbelly. Mr. Lucky and his Cocktail Party performed. I played the role of Johnny Carson while Mr. Lucky became Ed McMahon. We’ve also done events with Robert Mailer Anderson, Craig Clevenger, David Corbett, Christa Faust, Katie Gilmartin, Barry Gifford, Don Herron, Jim Nisbet, Peter Plate, Sin Soracco, Ariel Winter, and a bunch more. We aim to create environments that will capture people’s imaginations and highlight the author’s work in a complementary way. Subterranean SF is an attempt at Noir-Burlesque.

City Lights: Are there any events coming up in the series? Where can people find out about them?

PM: Indeed. Vu Tran is our next featured writer. He has an excellent new book out called Dragonfish. We’re holding a party for him this week. Black envelopes are already available at the front counter of City Lights. Get ’em while you can!

Keep an eye on the City Lights online event calendar for future Subterranean SF listings. We’re twittering, too.

City Lights: One last question, who is the mysterious smoking women who appears in many of the Subterranean SF flyers and on the cover of San Francisco Noir?


PM: Ah, yes! Our noir poster-girl is none-other than the awesome local poet and editor Daphne Gottlieb. She can swirl cigarette smoke and belt out poetry like no one else.

Black envelopes for the Vu Tran reading are available at the front desk of City Lights Bookstore, which reveal the secret location of the reading taking place this Thursday, September 10.

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