Literary Boroughs #15: Indianapolis, IN

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fifteenth post on Indianapolis, Indiana by Allison Lynn. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Moving from New York City to Indianapolis two years ago, I was struck by the contrast: Indy has few bookstores, a diffuse arts culture, a mind-bending lack of respect for traffic laws, and pretty much nothing in the way of lobster rolls. Eight out of ten bars have flat-screen TVs playing Colts games on repeat. When it snows (and we’ve seen a few big dumps), the city doesn’t plow most of the streets. Yet bookish types in Indy have discovered the holy grail of any artist’s existence: easy living and cheap real estate. If Virginia Woolf had lived here, she’d have had a whole Arts and Crafts cottage to herself. With a detached garage.

And where the living is cheap, art blooms.

City: Indianapolis, Indiana

What the city is best known for: Pork tenderloin, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Colts, the Indy 500, the 2012 Superbowl. The NCAA is based in Indy — it’s a sports town. It’s also the state capital.

Literary pedigree: Kurt Vonnegut and Booth Tarkington are the city’s literary patron saints. Both were born and raised in Indy, and both graduated from the city’s Shortridge High School. In 2011, the Kurt Vonnegut Library opened up in a downtown storefront. It’s the kind of grassroots labor-of-love that may as well symbolize the whole heartfelt enterprise that is Literary Indianapolis.

Today the city’s resident writers include Dan Barden, Michael Dahlie, Chris Forhan, Hilene Flanzbaum, Brian Furuness, John Green, Lou Harry, Karen Kovacik, Andy Levy, Alessandra Lynch, Susan Neville, Andrew Scott, Barbara Shoup, Dan Wakefield, and Ben Winters.

Where to learn: I’m biased here, since my husband and I moved to Indianapolis to teach at Butler University. Butler launched the city’s first MFA program five years ago and has become the city’s go-to destination for the study of creative writing – in an academic environment, at least. Thanks to a generous donation, the department recently opened the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing – a house where you’ll find readings, workshops and book talks for Butler students and the community at large. The building’s a beauty: wood paneling, funky upholstery, coffee in the kitchen, and a guest-writer apartment that’s recently hosted Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Maud Newton and Mark Kurlansky. To boot, Butler is home to the Delbrook Reading Series, which brings writers like Margaret Atwood, Yi-Yun Li, Yusef Komunyakaa, Major Jackson, Jennifer Egan, and Chuck Klosterman to campus.

Outside the campus setting, the Indiana Writers Center offers a wide array of classes for writers of all levels working in all genres. Each fall, the center’s Gathering of Writers brings together the state’s most accomplished authors for a day of craft classes and panel discussions.

Where to write: In addition to affordable rents, Indy excels in the coffee and beer departments. Head to either of the main branches of Hubbard and Cravens — a coffee chain that roasts its beans locally — and you’ll find novelists, poets, English profs, marketing writers, and freelance editors hunched over their computers. As for beer, there’s nothing like a lonely night at home, in the basement, despairing over your clear lack of talent, crying into your keyboard with a freshly filled growler of Sun King’s local cream ale at your side.

Where to publish: Engine Books, a small press run by writer Victoria Barrett, put Indianapolis publishing on the map in the past year with the release of Patricia Henley’s story collection Other Heartbreaks and Myfanwy Collins’s novel Echolocation. Victoria’s an old-school editor/publisher, wading through the revision muck with her authors and calling up bookstores across the country to plug her list.

Pressgang, also a small book publisher, launched out of Butler’s Efroymson Center this spring with the release of Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (edited by BJ Hollers, with contributions by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ben Percy and Aimee Bender). The press is headed by Bryan Furuness, whose own first novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, comes out from Dznac’s Black Lawrence Press later this year. Publishing may be dying (or may not be), but in Indianapolis, it’s also being born.

Events: In addition to the literary events held at Butler and IUPUI (Indianapolis’s joint campus of Indiana University and Purdue), you’ll find readings scattered around town in places like defunct theaters, usually with food trucks parked outside.

Indianapolis’s writers have a firm commitment to the city, as evidenced by Big Car, an organization that started as an art gallery and morphed into a group that’s all things community/creativity. In collaboration with their youth-writing initiative, Second Story, this past spring Big Car put up a show of neighborhood narratives (told in words, pictures and video) at their Service Station, a one-time tire dealership turned arts center/community garden.

Where to find reading material: This is where things get tough. There’s one traditional bookstore left in the city. Big Hat Books, in the Broad Ripple arts district, is run by Elizabeth Houghton Barden – a fierce local advocate making a go of it in a city that hasn’t been kind to bookstores. Barden is a hand-selling pro and keeps the front counter stocked with NYRB Classics. Recent in-store events have included a talk with Nancy Pelosi and a book party for The Next Right Thing, the latest novel by Barden’s husband, fiction writer Dan Barden.

You’ll also find a couple of Barnes and Nobles in the malls on the outskirts of the city, but ever since Borders closed its doors, there hasn’t been a general interest bookstore in the heart of downtown. This may not be a problem – plenty of locals will tell you they never shop downtown anyway – but to some of us it’s an issue. The situation may be changing, though: this summer, Indy Reads Books, a bright and modern storefront selling used books opened on the up-and-coming north end of downtown’s Mass Ave. All sales from the store benefit adult literacy, and in addition to selling books, they’ve been hosting local author events and writing workshops.

There is an excellent library downtown. A splashy 2007 renovation merged the original 1917 limestone Greek Doric structure with an eye-popping glass-and-steel addition. The government here doesn’t like to spend money, and any talk with Hoosiers about the project will leave you with the clear understanding that post-recession this massive renovation would never have happened. So let’s all toast the boom years. The new Central Library is a marvel. It’d make anyone want to read.

Next post: September 7 | Atlanta, GA …

BIO: Allison Lynn is the author of the novels Now You See It (2004) and The Exiles (forthcoming in 2013). Her articles and reviews have appeared in publications ranging from PEOPLE magazine to the New York Times Book Review. She’s taught writing at New York University, Lehigh, and currently Butler. Allison lived in NYC for nearly two decades before relocating to Indianapolis, a Midwestern city with miraculously good bagels.


(Image of city is a creative commons photo from here. All other photos are by the author.)

Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section!


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