After turning 40, what he refers to "the bucket list age," writer Panio Gianopoulos decided to see a vocal coach.
He wasn't able to project, he said into a microphone at Skylight Books on Friday night, where he was warming up the small crowd who'd arrived to hear him read from "How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money," his debut collection of short stories.
"'Physiologically, you're fine,'" he recalled the coach telling him. "You're just trailing off." The coach advised him to "commit to the entire sentence" or else say nothing.
"Now, I barely talk to anyone," joked Gianopoulos. "It's like the Tom Hanks movie 'Cast Away.' " He does, however, commit to his sentences on the page.
A former editor at Bloomsbury, Gianopoulos spoke quite clearly throughout the event. A table held the standard offerings of wine and water crackers, plus a little something extra. "At the risk of turning this into dinner theater," Gianopoulos said, "we did bring pie." Those there settled into their seats with slices of banana cream, apple crumb and cherry pie.
Gianopoulos read from his story "Venus in Furs," a fresh take on the love triangle trope, revolving around what he considers a uniting theme of the book: envy.
"He recognized her instantly as an adversary," Gianopoulos began, priming the audience from the first sentence for a romantic rivalry. The conflict in "Venus in Furs," however, turns out not to be man versus man, but man versus beast. The adversary in question is a Pomeranian named Millie, the true object of the woman's affection and a thorn in the narrator's side.
The story nails the infantilizing speech of a doting dog owner — "Who took a bath!...Who smells like oranges!" — as well as a man's increasing jealousy. Gianopoulos' story turned on small revelations and got a number of laughs. "I'm just going to write stories that I would tell a friend," he said.
Gianopoulos admitted transforming personal experience for his fiction: his wife, actress and writer Molly Ringwald, once owned a Pomeranian so adorable that it was constantly stopped and fawned over like a celebrity.
"Everyone would stare at the dog," ignoring his famous wife entirely, an amusing reversal that in some oblique way entered the writing of "Venus in Furs." In 2017, Gianopoulos joked, "this dog would have an Instagram account and I would have a therapist."
Although "How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money" has only two stories with female protagonists, Gianopoulos was sensitive to the construction of his female characters — "I didn't want to get it wrong." He sought feedback from his wife, who is his first reader. "Very often, she'll have a great insight," he said, or at the very least offer, "You didn't do anything too embarrassing."