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The Talking Trampoline 

Sheila Heti's recipe for her McSweeney's book tour: Get three people to stand up in a bar and speak on subjects they don't know about.

Book tours are boring. That's why author Sheila Heti came up with something different.

She'd been hosting a lecture series--with a twist--at Cameron House, a historic Toronto bar. In the "Trampoline Hall Lectures," people speak about arcane or silly topics they're not experts on--in front of an audience free to smoke, drink and throw out unruly questions.

When McSweeney's agreed to publish the American version of her book of short fiction, The Middle Stories, she decided to take the show on the road.

Trampoline Hall comes to Durham, Nov. 18. As in all the other dates, three local speakers will join her. Sarah Hand will talk about how people who eat pie versus cake correlate with people who like algebra versus geometry. Luis Velasco will report on the quiñceanera, the Latin cultural celebration of a girl's 15th birthday, and Shawn Marie Bryan will actually fly in to discuss the name Julia in pop songs.

Like much of the writing from McSweeney's, Heti's style is precise, absurd and caustically funny. McSweeney's decision to back an American version continues what has become a grand experiment in book publication. Recently, founder Dave Eggers made big news by making You Shall Know Our Velocity, his new novel, available only at independent bookstores and on the McSweeney's Web site.

Why are the lecturers not experts on their topic?

Part of the reason this works is that the audience feels like they can relate to the lecturer: This isn't a famous author, it isn't somebody who knows a lot and is very impressive. They're doing what you could conceivably do.

It gets people to think about things in the corner of their minds they haven't explored. What's interesting is seeing people expose themselves or their oddities, something you don't normally get when you meet somebody. The questions and answers usually end up as long as the lecture; it's when the show tends to come alive in a different way.

I read that people have spoken on the number 32, historical things and strange phenomena. But I saw that the history of the dildo was off limits. Why?

I don't want people to talk about things you might read an article about in a magazine. That's a weird thing to say because you can write an article about anything. But didn't you think [the dildo lecture] sounded like a magazine article?

I don't ask to see the lectures beforehand. I don't want to control them in any way. That's the interesting thing about theater, which this is in a lot of ways: Accidents can happen, and there's room for things that are completely unexpected.

Misha Glouberman, our host, used to throw all of these parlor game parties. He's really interested in the idea of what a party is, why people go to them, and in games. So the shows feel like a parlor game sometimes.

You've done other things with Trampoline Hall besides lectures. You had a "What Is Beauty?" Pageant in Toronto, right?

We had it in the middle of summer on this huge back patio: a dozen or so different contestants, mostly women, but four men I think. We had six judges. One woman, an image consultant, I got out of the phone book. Someone else was a professor of aesthetics from the university. They were experts on beauty in various ways.

I had the contestants leave breakup messages on my answering machine, and we played them during their initial strut. Basically they were breaking up with the audience. I like the idea that as soon as you see their beauty, they're breaking up with you.

They're unattainable.

That's right, the cruelty of beauty. And they all did their talent at the same time, because the talent competition is so tedious. One person peeled an orange, another was knitting in a corner, another played the flute, while another was reciting poetry. It was this great cacophony. It went on late into the night and we all got quite drunk.

It seems a risk to take Trampoline Hall on the road. There's a strong audience in Toronto, but you don't know what's going to happen when you get to Durham, Atlanta or Brooklyn.

We're a little bit nervous. Part of the reason this works in Toronto is because it's packed with people and it's turning into some kind of community. There's also this continuity that energizes it: It's going to happen next month and the month after, so anyone from the audience can do a lecture next time. That's not going to happen on the road, so it's a totally different thing.

Are you imaging that it might take off? That after you leave there might be another event like this?

It never occurred to me that that could happen, but it would be great if it did. It's a very easy thing to put together. EndBlock


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