Nov 11, 2015
The Rachel Connection: Why Rachel Fershleiser Is a Wizard of New York’s Literary Community
It’s easy to find Rachel Fershleiser at a book party: cobalt blue glasses and curly black hair (either hanging down or in a braid) and A-line dresses of some bright print (horses mid-gallop, birds against a tangle of leaves and flowers, black-and-white dogs on a blue background). It’s just as easy to speak with her: Rachel is always talking to someone, and usually (at least) three people at once. Tumblr’s Director of Literary Outreach—as well as advisory committee member for The National Book Foundation, Brooklyn Book Festival, Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and Literary Hub—is very good in a crowded room. She is also very good at creating them.
“Well Rachel’s the ultimate literary advocate, isn’t she?” novelist Jami Attenberg tells me in an email. “Although sometimes I think that what she does is indefinable. She moves people and books and ideas through the air. She’s a wizard of community.”
Novelist and musician John Darnielle calls her “a celebrity.” Nicole Cliffe, cofounder of The Toast, “an avenging angel who is also very nice.” The Millions described her work as “using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology by having parties—so, the best job in the world.” Poet and Riverhead Books Associate Publisher Jynne Martin says Rachel’s work is “able to bring together the tech world, YA readers, serious literary publishers, indie bookstores and more. She is constantly generating ways for these disparate spheres to overlap… and helping on even the most granular of levels.”
“I would not have written a book and been able to get it published without the literary community Rachel has fostered on Tumblr,” novelist Katie Coyle says. “And I mean that entirely literally—I finished my first book to enter a contest promoted by Neil Gaiman on Tumblr, and won it.” Jenn Northington, Book Riot Live event and programming director, says “Rachel has definitely been instrumental in my bookish events career.”
“She’s generated the Internet equivalent of fireworks in support of every single bit of writing news I have, from stupid half-baked articles to my book deal announcement,” says Julie Buntin, Catapult’s associate editor and community manager, and author of the forthcoming novel Marlena. “She’s helped me negotiate job offers. She’s gotten me on the lists for many, many parties, and recommended me for gigs, and talked to me for hours about stupid wedding details. She’s let me stick to her side when I don’t know anyone at all.”
Rachel found novelist Adrienne Celt at an AWP party in Minneapolis in which the writer knew no one. Celt was about to leave when Rachel “grabbed my hand and started ushering me around introducing me to everyone, saying ‘You two would really like one another, you should hang out.’ Suddenly I was in a great, quiet corner full of people I wanted to know better, and I stayed for hours having actual conversations in the middle of this enormous, potentially intimidating space.”
“She’s been a proponent of minority fiction writers for as long as I’ve known her in a way that feels genuine and determined,” writer Rahawa Haile says. They also often tweet cloud photos to each other, back and forth. “She’s one of the warmest people I’ve met.”
Librarian Erin Shea met Rachel through Tumblr and their mutual interest in zines. “We finally met IRL at the Brooklyn Book Festival,” she says. “I thought I was meeting just a regular Internet friend until she started introducing me to every single person working there. That’s when I realized she is actually like, famous.”
“I think about that sometimes, where people are like ‘If you could be anything?’” Rachel says. “And like, I want to be a rich crazy lady who patronizes writers.” She laughs. It’s a perfect vision. “I can’t actually be that, so I try to do it in baby steps.”
Whenever I see Rachel across a crowded room (queue up the Rogers and Hammerstein) I am comforted and relieved and excited. Comforted that I know someone there, relieved that I have picked the right event to attend (of which Rachel’s presence is proof), and excited to talk to her, my friend. Rachel knows and cares for so many people—this is what makes her good at her job.
“Rachel, in her exuberant, inclusive, sharp-eyed way, is the like the hub at the center of a wheel,” Buntin explains. “She is my original connection, the connection upon which all of my other connections grew out of, pretty much. I think she’s like that for a lot of people in publishing—from editorial assistants to associate publishers, most of us have Rachel in common.”
“You see a lot of back-scratching on the book Internet, but Rachel really does love everything she talks about online,” says librarian Stephanie Andersen, a former bookseller at Word in Greenpoint, speaking to the genuineness of these connections, these relationships. “And she just really wants you to love it too.”
“The hardest thing is that I have no clear sense of what’s my job and what’s my life,” Fershleiser tells me in the living room of her new apartment in Park Slope. “But both personally and professionally I want creative people to get together and do great things. I want to help awesome people meet each other.”
Rachel grew up in Brooklyn Heights on Remsen Street. Her parents, a businessman (and now Teddy Roosevelt tour guide) from the Bronx and a school teacher born in Manhattan, had met in the Fire Island town of Kismet (“Yep, that’s real”) and rented a place together on the Upper West Side. They eventually bought the Brooklyn Heights apartment in the 1970s—it was cheap—and settled in. “It’s a converted one bedroom,” Rachel says. “I had my own room but it was the dining room. It had doors on each side and you had to go through it to go to the bathroom.”
“I do feel like that’s my version of the American dream,” she says, “like, you get a tiny apartment and you stay forever and you shove the baby where it fits.”
“When I told someone that I was moving to Park Slope,” the friend had asked “‘Is that a euphemism for pregnant?’ It is not,” Rachel is quick to clarify, “but I thought that was funny.”
Except for four years of college (she went to the University of Pennsylvania along with—but not yet knowing—Maris Kreizman and Doree Shafrir), Rachel has spent her entire life in New York. “I’m totally useless outside the five boroughs,” she says—but that’s mostly because she can’t drive. While Rachel was at school, the borough of her birth began to change. “Brooklyn as a contemporary code word for a certain kind of cool happened while I was away at college,” Rachel says. “So I missed it.” When she did get her own place, she moved to Manhattan.
She shows me a map of Brooklyn Heights that her mother bought when they first moved into the neighborhood. “You can see all of the historic buildings on it?” she asks. Rachel points to the hand-drawn addition of her family’s apartment building on an otherwise empty block of Remsen. “So my mom put our house here.” Rachel now keeps the map over her mantel. “Brooklyn was my parents’ place,” she says. “We were really happy in the East Village for a really long time,” speaking of her husband Nick Douglas, founding editor of Slacktory, “but we were getting older and it was a little loud. The neighbors were really gross and there was puke in the hallway, you know that whole thing.”
“Like, you know,” and then she lowers her voice, “all such clichés, but in our old place, if there was screaming outside, it was NYU kids and now if there is screaming outside it’s a five-year-old. Which is much more tolerable.”
She still sees, or feels, glimpses of the Brooklyn she grew up in. She describes taking the subway to Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood. (“But not Midwood High School,” she says, “A little confusing.”) She gave me two sets of directions for the trip: one dating from the 1990s and another other that could be used today. Back then, “we would always look out the window when we passed the 7th Avenue subway stop because the cute boys lived in Park Slope,” she says. “I still, a little bit, walking around, have, like, funny high school feelings.”
Other things have changed. Her Brooklyn Heights elementary school, which she remembers as “very very diverse, like the cast of Sesame Street,” is now at the center of a segregation battle. “It’s upsetting,” she says of the increased class and racial stratifications. She’s also skeptical of the widespread description of Brooklyn as a place of “kale and mason jar”-style cool. “Sometimes in an attempt to be savvy we also erase other people,” she says. “Don’t close your eyes to the people living all around you, or the neighborhoods you’ve never been to.”
For Rachel, her move back to Brooklyn puts her closer to the center of things. Though she’s grateful for the comparative quiet, the space, the trees—“I see people I know, I see people I sort-of-know” all over the neighborhood. “I kind of love it.”
Rachel knows a lot of people—including me!—through an amalgam of online and IRL spaces she sometimes calls “the bookternet.” “I don’t see the online and the real life parts being that separate necessarily,” she says. “Going to the bookstores I go to all the time or going to the blogs I go to all the time are very similar ways of gathering.”
She waves off the idea that social media is the work of specialists. “I think that people who make their living doing marketing and social media are often incentivized to make it seem really difficult and complicated,” she says, “something that only they can do. I certainly, in my current employment situation”—doing outreach for Tumblr—“and I hope always, am incentivized to make [social media] seem like just another way of talking about books, that anybody can do, and that you shouldn’t be scared of, and that can be totally fun. I am here to demystify.”
Rachel didn’t plan for this, her particular career path—at least, not at first. She graduated from college with a psych degree (plus a minor in theater arts) and started doing PR for Broadway shows. “When that didn’t work out and I was temping and living with my parents—all I wanted to do was poke around used bookstores. That was the only thing that got me out of the house.”
“I was always a person who liked to read,” she says, “I just didn’t think that was specific. People aren’t like, ‘Oh I like to watch television, I guess I need to go into TV production.’” But her time in bookstores got her thinking, and then applying, and soon enough she was starting her first job in publishing: as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins. “I got my first job on hotjobs.com.” She says it with a measure of pride.
“There were less avenues to do cool things,” she says of her time as a “baby book publicist” circa 2002. “You didn’t talk to readers. It just wasn’t like that. I didn’t feel like anyone wanted me to have creative ideas. You’d suggest something and they’d say, ‘Oh we don’t do that.’ Okay, but if we did, we would.”
“It’s funny,” she says. “I’m actually super passionate about talking up books now, but I choose the books—right? Opinions are not a big part of that publicity job and opinions are a big part of me.”
Book publicity led to freelance writing led to coediting with Larry Smith the “Six Word Memoirs” series led to Housing Works. “I started volunteering at Housing Works in 2005 and working there in 2006 and now I’m on the board, so it’s basically been my ten year anniversary,” she says. Rachel recalls finding a New York Review of Books in the West Village brownstone bathroom belonging to a then Housing Works board member. (At the time, all new volunteers were first interviewed by board members.) “I was like ‘What is this amazing intellectual community into which I am about to be initiated?’” She still, after all these years, sounds a little excited.
As the Housing Works’ events coordinator, Rachel had to try and fill a space that could fit 300 hundred for each of the bookstore’s annual 200 public events. By herself. “When I started working there, people would be like ‘There’s a bookstore in this neighborhood?!’” She mimics surprise. “Everything was like ‘best kept secret,’ like ‘so insidery,’ and it felt like with the web stuff we really started to be a presence that people knew about,” she says. Because the mission Housing Works is to combat both AIDS and homelessness, “awareness is a huge goal of the place, not only of the cultural events but of the mission.”
“I didn’t have a Livejournal in high school—in high school I went to the library on my lunch break,” she says. “Basically I was not webby before college.” But she found—having to handle marketing, PR, and the bookstore website—social media “was the most efficient way.”
Rachel tells a story about a young person telling her that Housing Works was their favorite bookstore. That person, who lived out west, had never been—but they also didn’t need to. They had Tumblr. It wasn’t too long before the start-up brought her on, and the partnership has been enormously successful.
“Who knows what actually catches the attention of Twitter or Facebook? They’re completely faceless, leaderless,” librarian Kate Tkacik says. “Tumblr, on the other hand, has wonderful folks like Rachel actually in the midst of it all.” This institutional support “has been one of the best and most unexpected parts of my great Tumblr adventure.”
“Her reach on Tumblr is so wide,” Katie Coyle says. She recalls signing copies of her debut novel Vivian Apple at a book fair in 2014. “At one point I looked up to see a teen girl running towards me, beaming—I genuinely thought she’d mistaken me for someone else—and when she arrived at my booth, she breathlessly said: ‘I’ve seen this book on Tumblr!!!’ That’s Rachel’s magic touch right there, and it’s legitimately thrilling for author and reader to see each other existing both online and in the real world.”
Coyle refers in part to Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club, the two-year-old official book club of the social media network: Vivian Apple was the club’s fifth pick. (It’s current selection? Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’.) “I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser said in a January 2015 interview with The Millions:
It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about?’
“So many of my friends now are people I’ve met online,” Rachel reflects, “even though I’m not shy and I live in the middle of New York City.” For her, the Internet is “such a clear place to find people with your interests. And your interest isn’t just, like, books—your interest is like women-processing-their-shit books and making soup and making zines and being super pro-abortion. (I don’t like cats, though, that’s like my real outlier quality.) People think about the internet as being this big shouty thing, and to me it’s like the total specificity.”
“I make a lot of soup,” she says. “You know this about me.” I do: Her Instagram is full of soup (and tomatoes and flowers and books). Her Tumblr has a special tag—#stocktips—for all her soup posts. She has a zine she made with Penguin Random House product manager Ami Greko—Stock Tips—that currently sits on a kitchen shelf with the rest of my cookbooks.
“If you want to make a zine about soup, you find those people,” she says. She and Greko launched a Kickstarter in January 2014 and raised 13 times its initial funding goal. “I’m not bullshitting when I say that I thought we were going to sell 50 and that would have been fine. We sold 750.”
“That’s because it turns out that 30-something women who like to cross-stitch to NPR while they simmer soup and reminisce about Riot Grrrl is not only you. This is like the same thing I’ve been saying, right? If you want to sell your Riot Grrrl soup cookbook, you don’t need to spam everybody. You find who wants it and you are providing a service,” she says. “I think a lot about how to get the right books to the right people, which I feel 100 percent morally awesome about. I want writers to make a living.”
“There’s this idea that everyone wants to be special snowflake—like who the fuck wants to be a special snowflake?” she asks. “I want to live in a world full of snowflakes who love what I love. I want to nerd out with the other snowflakes.”
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