The Reading Series That Wants Writers to Feel like Rock Stars
Vermin on the Mount Does Things a Little Differently
A dominatrix-cum-memoirist. A PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. An ex-junkie rock star. A bestselling novelist. When you walk into a Vermin on the Mount reading, you never quite know what you’re in for.
If you’re lucky, you might get treated to a strip tease! Earlier this summer, Dave Fromm took the stage at the Los Angeles Vermin event and—in lieu of reading from his just published novel—told the story of how his writing career had been pushed and shaped by Vermin and its host Jim Ruland—all while peeling off Vermin T-shirt after T-shirt accrued over the reading series’ 12-year existence.
“It seemed like a better use of my time,” Fromm said of his decision to spend his reading slot thanking Ruland. The two originally met through a Zoetrope online writing course in the early aughts, when Fromm was a lawyer making “very tentative forays” into writing. “I started coming to Vermin readings and seeing the vibrant literary scene.” Soon after, Fromm got a chance to read from his essay collection—which gave him the confidence to pursue his craft, as well as a creative community to support his work. That collection came out in 2008. Then earlier this year, Fromm published his first novel with Tyrus Books, thanks to an introduction to the press by Ruland.
At the end of Fromm’s performance at Vermin, Ruland came up and the two hugged while the audience laughed and clapped. For the record, Fromm kept his last shirt on.
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In many ways, Vermin events are like rock concerts. There’s the unpredictable line-up, irreverent vibe, and eclectic crowd. There are the punk-y T-shirts, offered for sale but often given out free as raffle prizes to rally the audience. Then there are the event posters—each one with a rat incorporated into the design, each one uniquely designed by an artist.
Why go through the effort (and pay the money) to commission one-of-a-kind posters for each reading? “That’s part of letting the readers feel like rock stars for a bit,” Ruland said. “When my first book came out, I went to a reading in Portland. It was a dismal reading—Three people showed up, one who wandered in from the street. But there was this amazing poster for the event that reflected that the person who’d made the poster had read the books, liked the books, and made this beautiful image. I was so moved!”
Ruland wants his readers to have this experience too. In the early days of Vermin, when he had access to free printing, he made copies to hang up around town. “I liked putting them up because people would take them, and readers would like them too. They’d sign them.”
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The Vermin on the Mount series began in 2004, when Ruland’s friends at punk rock fanzine Razorcake asked him to organize a reading for Joe Meno, who’d just published Hairstyles of the Damned. “I thought, instead of doing the usual thing of gathering the same 25 or so punk rockers, why don’t I widen the readership to get more people to come to see Joe?” Ruland said.
That event at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown became the first Vermin reading, which quickly turned into a series. “Back then, a reading series for fiction wasn’t that common,” Ruland said. “It was mostly poets.” From the start, Vermin attracted a diverse crowd of “anywhere between 20 to 50, 60 people,” according to Scott O’Connor, who read at the second event. “You’d get this mix of people who were either friends with the writers, or liked the writers’ work, or were becoming fans of the series, and you’d get people who were coming literally off the street, who would come in to get a drink and see this thing going on, and maybe decide to stay and start talking to people.”
The Mountain Bar venue exuded “that mystery of Chinatown,” Fromm said. “You walked in this alley, and there was this wishing well outside, and there was a bar called Hop Louie with a big neon sign. It felt like old Hollywood. Then you were in this smoky, noir bar.”
The series did move eventually, first to 826 LA in Echo Park, then to an independent bookstore called Book Show that popped up in Frogtown before relocating to Highland Park two years ago, taking Vermin with it. Vermin expanded too, when Ruland moved to San Diego in 2006. The series in that city moved around a number of temporary spaces, before settling at a coworking spot called 3rd Space. Now events at the two locations usually happen on the same weekend, letting traveling authors piggyback from one reading to the other.
From the beginning, Vermin readings had a strong performative aspect. “I like people who own their work and bring it, instead of a jet-lagged novelist on a six-stop tour,” Ruland said. O’Connor picked up on this quickly. Back then, he was a brand new, self-published author—and Vermin gave him a “good and fast education.”
“Writers were going up, and they were taking this seriously, and they had a connection with the audience,” O’Connor said. “It wasn’t just a connection with the writing, which is sort of how I saw it originally… But I realized, watching the readers at Vermin, that there was more to it, that that was a pretty selfish way of looking at things. It was more about the people in the room and trying to connect with the people in the room. And I think from that night, that’s how I’ve seen readings.”
Along with the changes in venues, small details of the reading series have changed. At Mountain Bar, Ruland usually brought a cake from a Chinatown bakery, and “alcohol was a much bigger aspect.” The readings were longer too, each author going for ten to twelve minutes. Now at Book Show, the audience drinks responsibly from a couple shared bottles of wine, and authors are given a five- to seven-minute limit (“People don’t have the attention spans they had years ago,” Ruland says).
But much has remained consistent: the free admission, the raffle prizes, the post-reading book signing and sales. Ruland handles the transactions personally with the help of a phone credit card swiper. He never takes a cut.
Through it all, Vermin has retained its diverse, inclusive spirit, one that goes out of its way to support independent presses and emerging writers. This is no easy feat, according to Amelia Gray, a Vermin veteran. “Writers are like wood trolls hiding under rocks and things,” Gray said. “It’s hard to find us sometimes… [Ruland] really is great at having new writers, new voices.”
This effort on Ruland’s part is what “makes Vermin valuable to the small press writer,” said Wendy C. Ortiz, an LA-based writer with two books from indie presses. “His curation shows attention and respect to the small press writing world, and that cannot be overvalued.”
Ruland says he gives a lot of thought to each individual lineup. “The emphasis has changed over the years, in the sense that in the very beginning, I thought first and foremost about genres and media,” he said. “I think about those things now as well, but I’m also very aware of other things—where are the readers are coming from, what is their cultural experience—to ensure that Vermin is diverse.”
“I’ve noticed the people who are most enthusiastic about reaching out and being part of the series tend to be young white men. So if I want to have a diverse experience—and I do, I feel it’s very important—it means not just taking the readers that come to me, but also seeking people out… I never want it to be about five white dudes reading from debut novels. Or a half-dozen slam poets.”
Ruland’s effort to be inclusive has sometimes edged on controversy. “There are plenty of times when I’m not a hundred percent comfortable with what I’m hearing, and that’s how it should be,” Ruland said. “A great example would be just the last reading in San Diego. We had Scot Sothern, who takes what can only be called transgressive photographs of sex workers and street people… Another woman (Shawna Kenney) was reading her memoir of being a teenage dominatrix. Then Jeff Alulis read just some absolutely disgusting punk rock stories about drinking urine and hepatitis and sharing needles—just absolutely horrendous stuff. We’re talking about things that are often ugly or brutal or weird.”
Ruland said plenty of people have gotten offended and walked out of his shows, or railed against them online. He’s fine with it. “Yeah, you can’t please everyone,” he said. “But we’re not even trying.”
Despite his controversial work, Scot Sothern said his two Vermin experiences have been overwhelmingly positive—especially compared to the nasty online comments he got during the two years he wrote a column for VICE. “I think people who come out to see you, they’re going to like it or they’re going to leave,” Sothern said.
The opportunity to connect with people in person has been an artistically fulfilling experience, Sothern said. “One of the reasons I write is because there’s all these writers and artists I love—and I didn’t know how the hell to meet them! And now I do. And that’s been the difference for me. You’re not there alone, you’re there with other writers.”
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Many of the better-known names on Vermin’s roster of participants first read for the series when they were virtual unknowns. Gray—then a Texas resident—was one of these. Her first Vermin reading was in San Diego in 2010, on a DIY book tour she’d pulled together with Lindsay Hunter and Aaron Burch, who knew Ruland “through the internet.”
For this event, Ruland came up with a book bundle deal: $15 for a book and a drink. “I sold more books than I’d ever sold in my life!” Gray said. “And because of that, I had more readers in San Diego than I did in New York for a long time.”
Jami Attenberg also traveled for the chance to read at Vermin early in her career, driving out from Brooklyn to Los Angeles multiple times. “I didn’t get an MFA, and came up more in the indie scene, and I took bands as a career model at that time more than other writers, so I was all about hitting the road and touring hard, reading anywhere that would have me,” Attenberg said. “The great thing about Jim is that he’s willing to give all kinds of people a shot… As with any series it can be a mixed bag, but it’s just always given off this extremely welcoming vibe to both the participants and the audience.”
Many Vermin participants credit Ruland and the reading series with bringing the Los Angeles literary community together. “To have sustained a reading series for as long as Jim has in any city in the world would be impressive,” Attenberg said. “Add to that it is housed in sprawling Los Angeles—where there are great readers and writers but it is sometimes hard to gather those people together—and it is doubly impressive.”
“Now that I think about it, it’s probably Jim’s fault I’m in LA,” Gray said. “LA’s got a big reputation for not being a literary town, but I came out here [for the Vermin reading] and I thought, this is fun, this is my kind of scene.” She moved to Los Angeles a year later.
That said, word of Vermin has spread far beyond LA’s borders. “It has such a good rep around the country, and it has so many writers that come in and visit just because of Jim Ruland’s reputation as host and promoter,” Gray said.
How has Vermin managed to stay alive and vibrant for so long? Ruland says he’s motivated partly by stubbornness, partly by pride. He doesn’t want Vermin to disappear the way some of the literary zines that published his early short pieces did. “It was always not a good feeling to see those magazines go away. Your work goes with it,” he said. “So I just don’t want to quit.”
His advice for would-be reading series hosts: “Know why you’re doing it. I think that the whole, ‘it would be cool to do blank,’ would be a terrible reason to do something. Because when you run into adversity, or when people criticize what you do, or when you have a dud event—and you will—then you don’t have strong enough reason for wanting to continue.”
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Will Vermin change in the future? Ruland said he needs to get better about asking for help—and taking it when offered. The website needs updating, for one. He’d like for past Vermin readers to be able to use the site as a tool to connect with each other. Recently, Ruland found out the website contact form wasn’t sending him submitted messages—and was troubled about the people who must think he ignored them.
Plus, Ruland wants Vermin to keep its edge. “I’m 48 years old, and if Vermin is to stay relevant for a wide range of artists, it’s going to need a fresh infusion of new talent.”
The new talent will have big shoes to fill. “To create something like Vermin, you have to have all these good qualities— ambition, generosity, energy, follow-through,” Fromm said. “This guy decided he was going to do it, and he did it, and he’s kept doing it for twelve years, and through it he’s enriched a whole lot of people.”