Writers are not known for being outgoing. They prefer the voices in their heads to the voices in a crowd. Many work alone in libraries, coffee shops, and studios to create stories that speak for them. But sometimes, in the right venue, you can find writers who will share their stories in front of a crowd. Piccolo Fiction is just such a showcase.
The event began in 2000 as a short story contest open to anyone who wanted to participate, and according to author and Blue Bicycle Bookstore owner Jonathan Sanchez, it has morphed into an invitation event featuring local authors. This year’s Piccolo Fiction features four such individuals: Grady Hendrix, Leah Rhyne, Joseph Hasinger, and Valerie Perry. And the former two are all about creeping you out.
Lowcountry native, Grady Hendrix is the author of the hilarious Ikea-themed thriller, Horrorstör. But for his Piccolo performance, Hendrix will be reading from his latest novel, the 1980s, locally set My Best Friend’s Exorcism.
The name of the book came before the story, he says. “It just popped into my head one afternoon and I thought, what can this be? I wanted to explore the nature of friendships in high school because they are so intense. My friends got me through the horrors of high school, but then we went off to college and never saw each other again,” recalls Hendrix who graduated from Porter-Gaud in 1990.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is written from a female’s perspective, which he says was challenging, but crucial to the story. After completing his first draft, he gave the manuscript to his wife, Amanda Cohen, owner of New York City’s veg-centric restaurant Dirt Candy, who called it “hot garbage.” Hendrix realized the writing was full of John Hughes movies and clichés instead of his own voice. Cohen gave her husband her old high school journals and he began to obsessively research the 1980s. “Three weeks into the research process I had my first unfiltered memory of going to see the movie ET,” he says.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is fiction — “I’m not a female and I’ve never been possessed,” he says — but it’s Hendrix’s personal experience of high school in the ’80s. Each chapter is an ’80s song title, for example, “We Got the Beat,” “It’s the End of the World and We Know It (and I feel fine),” and “Fast Car” (Hendrix says “that was our song”), and the inside book flaps are designed to look like a high school yearbook including signatures from classmates. Readers will enjoy recognizing the familiar places scattered throughout the book that firmly ground you in the Holy City. Sanchez says Hendrix captures a contemporary, Southern voice that he has not seen before and is excited to share with Piccolo audiences. “These are four newish writers who are outgoing and will get people excited about writing.”
Hendrix approaches readings the same way he approaches karaoke. “It’s my chance to embarrass myself gleefully and shamelessly in public,” he says. “Writing a book means you’re locked up in a room all by yourself for months and it’s a very one-way kind of communication: me write book, put book in bottle, throw bottle in ocean, someone somewhere hopefully reads book. Readings are a blast because I get to actually meet the people who read these things, and have that back-and-forth with them. So I embrace readings like they’re adorable baby pandas.”
Local author Leah Rhyne also tackles the fear factor in her latest, Heartless.
“Heartless began as a dream,” she says. “I was back in my college dorm room, sitting on the bed, when there was a knock at the door. Two girls opened it. One was giggling hysterically, like she could barely support herself. The other looked … weird. Slightly wrong. She walked past me, into my room, and said, ‘I’m dead. Can you tell? Can you smell it on me?’ Or something like that. It was such an oddball dream, and the dead girl stuck with me for a long time. I kept wondering: why is she dead? How is she still talking? What could be going on? So finally I sat down to tell her story.”
Rhyne’s father introduced her to the horror genre as a child with movies like Dracula and Frankenstein, and she remembers reading Stephen King’s IT when she was 13. “IT remains, for me, a horror masterpiece. I’ve never found a book that scares me more. That clown! Yikes,” she says.
When it comes to reading in front of a live audience, Rhyne has no fear, saying, “I can’t wait to be on the Charleston Music Hall stage. I saw Neil Gaiman there a few years ago (another literary hero of mine), so to think I’ll be on the stage where he was? It’s trippy, to say the least.”