Step into an independent bookstore in New York City on any given night and it’s likely the scene will be some variation of the following: editors and agents gesticulating with cubes of cheese stuck on a toothpick, shy readers attempting to grease their wheels with plastic cups of free wine, a harried-looking author stress-eating brownie bites, and generally, a bunch of people in Warby Parkers making small talk.
Someone else you’re very likely to see? Kate Gavino, the artist and writer behind Last Night’s Reading: Illustrated Encounters with Extraordinary Authors. Originally started as a Tumblr blog in 2013, Gavino’s drawings of authors paired with quotes from their readings became such a hit with readers across the country that Penguin Books published her collected work as a book last October. Getting the Gavino treatment has since became a huge honor among authors, and Brooklyn Magazine declared her the “unofficial chronicler of the New York literary scene.”
Kate recently chatted with Girlboss about making good on your doodling habit, IRL vs. the Internet, and what it’s like to get a shoutout from Oprah’s empire.
How did the idea for Last Night’s Reading come about?
I've attended book readings ever since I moved to New York about eight years ago. While I'm there, I tend to doodle, which, oddly, helps me pay attention. I would often sketch the author as he or she spoke, along with quotes I found smart, funny, or simply interesting. It was at a Junot Díaz reading where the idea for LNR sprouted. He talked about the importance of bearing witness to your own story, and this made the act of observation seem less passive and much more active. This inspired me to start posting my author portraits online; it was my small way of sharing my experience at that reading with others.
Do you consider yourself an introvert? How do you motivate yourself to get out to readings on nights you really just want to stay in your pajamas and read?
I am introverted, but I don't think that can be a defining feature of anyone since there are so many different ways you can be an introvert. I like spending time alone and I also like being in a group, whether it's with friends or strangers. In both instances, I find ways to make myself comfortable. I don't often force myself to go to readings—that would take the joy out of them. I go to about two readings a week, and that seems to be the perfect amount for me. I like to stay busy, so even on nights I stay in, I'm usually working on an assignment.
The Internet has changed the idea of community so much, but your work makes it clear that there’s something special about the in-person experience, that sometimes an unscripted moment yields something singular and beautiful. Your work really seems to bridge those two spheres of experience. Where do you see the intersection of online vs. IRL headed in the near future?
The online literary community is great for sharing: sharing ideas, sharing books and authors you love, and sharing opinions. I find the "IRL" side of things much more proactive in the sense that it's offline where I actually go out and read those books and form those opinions. In the daytime I work in the marketing department for the Brooklyn Public Library, so much of my day is spent in front of a computer, and I keep up with all the articles and books people are talking about on social media. But by 5 pm, I'm ready to go out and create. So in terms of the two spheres intersecting, I think a healthy balance of the two is ideal. As an artist, I like to see what other people are doing and thinking, but it's important for me to make time to create my own work.
So, you go out to all these readings and hear brilliant authors speak all the time; how do you navigate that abundance of inspiration when it comes to choosing what you read next? Or to put it more simply, how do you organize your workload and stay focused?
I see lots of patterns in my reading taste—I like immigrant stories, stories about young girls moving to big cities, love stories, and stories about mother-daughter relationships. I gravitate to those books, but I do make a concerted effort to read outside of my comfort zone, too. Also, I work in a public library, so any time I hear about a book I like, I put it on my ever-growing hold list. I relish having an overabundance of reading material.
As for organizing my workload, I think realizing that I wanted to be both a writer and an artist helped cultivate my work ethic when it comes to creating. Most of my nights and weekends are dedicated to writing and drawing. When it's beautiful outside and everyone on Instagram is posting photos of brunch, this can get depressing, but I'm happy knowing I'm working towards a tangible goal. This keeps me focused.
Take us back to the moment you found out your big passion project was getting turned into a book. What was that feeling like?
I was thrilled! I didn't start LNR with the intention of turning it into a book—I just wanted to share some of the amazing things I was hearing every night at these readings. I used to work in book publishing, so when I heard about interest in turning LNR into a book, I think I put on my cynic's cap and assumed it wouldn't lead anywhere. But lo and behold, it happened, and I couldn't be happier with the experience.
What were the months surrounding your book release like? And getting a shoutout from the Oprah empire? What has it meant for the blog since?
Leading up to the book release, I was most nervous about the book release party. My book is very visual, so I was going to give a presentation on its contents and background. It was a short presentation—15 minutes at the most—but I practiced for months. Every night, I would rehearse for my boyfriend, and I went from someone who could barely string together a sentence to someone who could be somewhat tolerable on stage. There were a lot of other things going on at the time (marketing plans, cover design approval, etc.) but for me, that presentation took up all my energy. Looking back now, I think it's funny that such a tiny aspect of the book was the cause of so much anxiety.
Getting a shoutout from O Magazine was icing on the cake. Both of my parents are immigrants, and they are somewhat mystified by a lot of what I do. But they know Oprah, so that was something I could share with them.
interview by Deena Drewis