Reza Aslan, host of The Writer's Room -- a newly launched literary salon series at DBA nightclub in West Hollywood -- is not necessarily known for throwing a party. Which is a shame, because he's really good at it. But based on the overwhelming enthusiasm for the series' first installment in June, that's about to change. Aslan is familiar to many as the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," which has been translated into 17 languages. He's also the founder of a social media network (AslanMedia) and an entertainment brand (BoomGen Studios), focused on producing, promoting, and disseminating new creative and journalistic content from and about the Middle East.
On top of everything else, he's currently a writing consultant on the upcoming television show, DIG, an archeological reality-TV thriller for a fall debut on the USA Network. And of course he's perennially a favorite guest on "The Daily Show," "Real Time," and "The Colbert Report." Plus there was his appearance on Fox News promoting his latest work of historical non-fiction, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." It went beyond viral, as the anchor's attempt to faith-shame him ironically probably did more to propel the book to the top of all the best-seller lists than anything he could have done on his own.
Aslan's first guest was BJ Novak, a writer and actor best known for his work on The Office as an actor, writer, and executive producer. He's also a standup comedian and you might also remember him from "Inglourious Basterds." His first book (which was both the topic and the merch at the event) "One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories" has made an impressive run up the New York Times best-seller list, to No. 4 at least. And Reza's choice of Novak for the debut session set the tone for the whole series -- in that at no point whatsoever was the experience anything like what you expect when you hear "writer's talk." The show's tagline is: "Love books but hate literary events?" and that's pretty much the deal. Maybe it was the enthusiasm for the launch event, maybe it was the easy rapport, obvious friendship, and mutual respect between Aslan and Novak. Maybe it was the two-drink minimum, or the groovy house band playing people in. But whatever the reason, it was zippy, funny, smart, candid, and insightful. The audience asked engaged questions, and there was an unmistakable buzz from start to finish. You can get a sense of the energy in the full video on the series' YouTube channel, where all the talks will eventually live.
Aslan's guest on July 2nd is screenwriter, show-runner, producer, writer and playwright Liz Meriwether, best known as the creator and writer of quirky-lifestyle juggernaut "New Girl." Audiences can expect enlightened, salient conversation on the hard-labor of being funny, and what it means for popular culture that so many women are flourishing in television writing rooms.
Artbound caught up with Aslan to discuss his new literary salon.
The breadth of writing genres you plan to have represented in this series goes far beyond the scholarly journalism for which you are best known, to include not only non-fiction, but also screenplays, novels, poems, song lyrics... Where does that diversity register in your personal comfort zone? Obviously you are a culturally engaged and probably voracious reader; but in terms of being the interviewer, how are you preparing for the array?
Reza Aslan: Well, I guess I've been interviewed enough times in my career to know how to do it badly. Plus, the thing about writers is that they love talking about writing. They never shut about it. So I just have to get them going and they take it from there. As to the genres, I myself write fiction, screenplays, journalism, and non-fiction. I used to write really bad poetry. So I feel pretty well versed in a host of different genres. My writing teacher at Iowa, the legendary Frank Conroy, used to say there are only two genres of writing: good writing and bad writing.
The inclusive definition of "writer" speaks, I think, to the under-acknowledged depth of the literary community in L.A. What does that even mean, "literary community," and what has it meant to you personally being a part of it?
RA: I define literary community as people who either love words or who make their living from words. That's why we include songwriters in our category. We are planning on bringing in some fairly prominent performers to the Writer's Room, but not to talk about performing. We don't care about that. We care about the process of writing a song, not singing it. You can go see Jimmy Kimmel for that. I want to celebrate the writers who fuel this city, and what better way to do it than in a nightclub with a drink in hand!
At the debut night, it was great to see you so loose and really able to be yourself -- not being attacked on Fox, not on a press junket, but being the normal hilarious you. Do you think people who know you mainly from "The Daily Show" or etc are surprised that you are so funny?
RA: I think people were surprised. To be honest when I am on TV I am not myself. I am playing the role of Reza Aslan, Public Intellectual. But friends who know me know that is not me. I'm the guy you see on stage at DBA.
At the end of the talk, you asked BJ Novak "The Five Questions," which are going to be the same for all the guests. Would you mind answering your own Five Questions for me real quick please?
RA: Oh boy. OK.
Who were your biggest influences?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fyodor Dostoyevski, and Salman Rushdie (and I'm not just saying that to sound cool and sophisticated.)
What are you reading now?
I am reading Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein (my friend Josh Radnor suggested it) and it is BLOWING MY MIND!
Best advice you ever got?
Writing happens at the level of the sentence. Focus on your sentences and the rest will happen on its own.
Best advice you could give?
Never forget that stories are about people, not events.
What is your writing routine?
Wake up. Drink coffee. Check email. Drink Coffee. Surf Internet. Drink Coffee. Read what I wrote yesterday. Throw it away. Start again. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat.
Top Image: Reza Aslan | Photo: Luke Lovell.
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