A Conversation With Boston Literary District Director Alysia Abbott
Spearheaded in part by GrubStreet's Eve Bridburg, the Boston Literary Cultural District was founded in 2014 to provide a window into Boston's literary history through tours and events. Now the LCD has a new Director: Grub Instructor Alysia Abbott. This week, Eve and Alysia got together to talk writing communities, Alysia's award-winning book, Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, and historic literary sites that might surprise the modern Bostonian.
EB: Alysia, I’m so excited to have you on board as the new Director of Boston’s Literary Cultural District. You’ve been with us about a month now and we love having you around the office. Can you say a few words about what drew you to this project?
AA: Thank you, I love being in the office and around so many young writers and thinkers.
I moved to the Boston area from NYC about six years ago. At the time, I was concerned that, though my standard of living would improve, my writing career would suffer. I’d been in New York for over two decades and my roots inside the city’s writing community were deep. But within a few years in Boston I published my first book and started teaching at GrubStreet, and I soon plugged into this very warm and tight knit scene, which was really unlike anything I’d known in New York. There are these wonderful independent bookstores hosting readings all over the Boston area—from Porter Square Books to Newtonville Books to Papercuts in JP. But there are also many writers who are organizing their own literary evenings—from Four Stories to the Back Porch Collective.
I was attracted to this position, in part, because I wanted to dig further into the community—to meet more writers and learn how and where they are finding inspiration, to learn more about the institutions supporting and showcasing these writers, and then to work to bring these forces together in a way that would benefit readers across greater Boston. Part of my role at the District is to work collaboratively with local writers and institutions to showcase Boston’s vibrant scene, which just happens to be bolstered by this incredible literary past. Newspaper Row, The Atlantic Monthly, the former homes of Sylvia Plath and Louisa May Alcott, the Omni Parker Hotel where Malcolm X worked as a busboy and Ho Chi Min was a baker. The neighborhood is a wellspring of fantastic historical moments and sites from history.
EB: Fans of your terrific book, Fairyland: A Memoir of my Father, might not know that in addition to being a writer, you have track record in community building, public art, and communications. Can you say a few words about those other hats you’ve worn and how they prepared you for this role? I had to use “hats” here given your incredible hat collection.
AA: Years ago, I used to work in development and special events marketing at the New York Public Library, so I have experience looking at the literary arts from the perspective of writer and also the perspective of non-profit administrator. And a couple of years before starting at the Literary District I founded a nonprofit storytelling project tapping these skills called the Recollectors. For those who don’t know, my memoir Fairyland is about my father who died of AIDS in 1992. In the thumb-twiddling period between when I finished the book and when it was published, a good friend and I were talking. She and I both lost dads to the same disease in 1992. That year, AIDS was the leading cause of death for men age 18-45. Many of those men we knew must have been fathers. Yet these stories weren’t part of the historical AIDS narrative, which was broadcast as something that afflicted “others,” not “mainstream” America. The stigma around AIDS in the 80s and 90s, which continues today, meant that a lot of these parents died within a culture of secrecy and lies. So we decided to put together a community and storytelling forum where people could come together to remember these parents and share their stories, through original essays, oral histories, interviews and book excerpts. After running a successful kickstarter campaign, we launched TheRecollectors.com in 2015 and planned a series of events in New York, in collaboration with StoryCorps and the Housing Works Bookstore. I realized how valuable it is not just for people to share stories with readers, but to share them in a public setting, which, in bringing people together, could open up a larger conversation. Working on The Recollectors has been incredibly rewarding.
EB: How do these various roles and coming to the LCD as a local author and teacher shape your vision for the future of the LCD?
AA: Although I’ve lived in Boston for six years, I still feel like a newcomer in many ways. But I think that works to my advantage because I’m so excited by all that’s happening and what can happen by bringing people together people with energy and ideas. John Updike once said, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” I’d come to Boston with this received idea tucked into my subconscious. I really thought Boston would feel like a step down but in fact, the more time I spend here the more I see how many truly great writers live in the area—from David McCullough to Jill Lepore to Jennifer Haigh to Junot Diaz. And there are so many literary non-profits on the vanguard of programming, and teaching, and publishing. And I get to call on these writers and the institutions in the Literary District and think about ways to work together! What a job!
My vision is to make the literary arts in the Boston area truly accessible, to bring it out of the towers of academia and into the street—into the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, where we are hosting Get Lit After Work series this summer, or in the storefronts along Newbury Street where we are planning a nine-event, three-hour Lit Crawl this fall; to make Shakespeare feel fun and relevant, as we are doing with slam poet Regie Gibson in the Shakespeare Character Smackdown we’re planning at the Boston Public Library this October. Through this programming and strategic partnerships, I plan to build an audience for local authors, convene interesting timely conversations, and celebrate the incredible publishing and intellectual legacy of Boston.
EB: The LCD has a map. Can you tell us a bit about it? Where can people find it, and what plans are in the works for helping people navigate all of the interesting places?
AA: If you go to BostonLiteraryDistrict.org you’ll find a map highlighting eighty-eight historical sites, stretching from the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, through the Boston Public Garden and Beacon Hill, to what was once the Globe Corner Bookstore. We’re currently building a virtual walking tours based around these sites, starting with an African American History tour we’re launching this fall, which will be followed up with a Women in the Literary Arts tour, a tour of Theatrical Boston, and the Transcendentalist tour.
EB: What on the LCD map might surprise the modern Bostonian?
AA: Bostonians may know the District includes the original homes of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. But how many people know about Colored American Magazine? Thirty-five years after slavery ended, there were over fifty African-American newspapers and magazines published across the country. Among the most influential of these magazines was “Colored American,” founded in 1900 and located at 5 Park Square. The magazine, which one critic called “the colored American’s Atlantic Monthly,” published political essays, and cultural criticism by African-Americans across the country, long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) and Ta-NaHesi Coates’ writings of race and masculinity. The magazine was also founded by Boston native Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, an established performer and writer, whose 1879 play, Peculiar Sam, was the first stage play written and performed by an African-American woman.
When she’s not working on programming and collaborations for the Boston Literary District, Alysia is teaching and writing. A graduate of the New School’s Writing Program, she instructs memoir and essay at GrubStreet. She’s also the author of Fairyland, named an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times, awarded the Prix de Madame Figaro, and now being made into a movie produced by Sofia Coppola. Alysia’s work has appeared in Vogue, Real Simple, Salon, Slate, Out, TriQuarterly, and The Boston Globe, among other venues. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.
Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston and securing chapter 91 space in the Seaport to build a creative writing center. The Barr Foundation recently named her a 2019 Barr Fellow in recognition of her leadership. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation in the Media Arts. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.See other articles by Eve Bridburg