Interview: We talk to the organisers of spoken word event Liars’ League

By April 7, 2016


Liars-League-Logo-large-w-straplineThe Liars’ League formula is simple: writers write, actors read, audience listens, everybody wins. It’s brought success – in the form of a Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Regular Event – and it’s showing no signs of wearing thin: on Tuesday, the League convenes at the Phoenix pub in London for its 100th show. That’s one a month, every month bar January, since 2007.

 No-one else does it quite like the Liars’ League.

 “There are lots of live lit events in London, and quite a few storytelling events,” says Liam Hogan, a prizewinning short-fiction writer who co-runs and hosts the show. “I do think the Liars’ League is unique in that it’s not either – though it has elements of both.”

Anyone can submit a story to the League. A different theme is advertised each month; submissions come flooding in from all over the world. Only a few are chosen by the League’s editorial panel – but those that are get VIP treatment.

Novelist Katy Darby, who was a co-founder of the League and now oversees and advises both the London event and an expanding empire of franchises, talks me through the process.

“We have to read and select the pieces, do a first-pass edit, cast the actors, arrange mutually convenient rehearsals, then do a second-pass edit at rehearsal, then we have a quick cue-to-cue run-through before the event, then finally the event itself,” she says. “As well as the writer and actor, there are two meddlesome directors involved – me and Liam. So actually there are four people in total working on the reading of any given story to make it as good, slick, entertaining and well-crafted as it can be. A lot of the editing is done at rehearsal, for example. Until you get the story on its feet you just can’t tell how certain words/phrases/passages will go down.”

Why use actors? Why not invite the writers to read their stories themselves?

“Because,” says Liam, “though some authors can read their work out, most cannot do it justice. And even those that can don’t necessarily do it actorly justice.”

Katy agrees: “Everyone does what they are good at: the actors stand in front of people pretending to be other people and the writers sit at home at 3am biting their nails and writing about imaginary people.”

“Plus, it means we can have writers from all around the world, which is nice,” Liam chips in.

“Exactly! And the writer gets to enjoy a performance of their work without actually having to give it themselves.”

If it works so well, why isn’t everybody doing what they do?

“I’d like to say it’s because we do it so well that everyone else slinks away in awe,” Katy says, “but the reason is more likely because it’s so labour intensive compared to sticking a bunch of writers in front of a mike to read their latest piece with no rehearsal.”

A track-record littered with media acclaim (the League has won praise from the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian, among others) attests to the effectiveness of the formula; so too do a series of spin-off anthologies from Arachne Press and an ever-expanding list of notable alumni, which to date includes novelists Kachi Ozumba, Callie Taylor, ML Stedman, Barry Walsh, Lucy Ribchester, David McGrath, Jennifer Steil and Cherry Potts and award-winning short-story writers Owen Booth, Samuel Wright, Uschi Gatward and EP Henderson – not to mention Liam and Katy (Katy’s first novel, The Whores’ Asylum, is published by Penguin).

I wonder which other writers – alive or dead – they would have loved to have had writing stories for the League.

Liam: “Roald Dahl, if he could have kept it to 2000 words (which I’m sure he could). Master of the surprise, creepy ending. Which I think is quite important to a short story!”

Katy: “I think Ernest Hemingway’s style rather suits. Nothing extraneous or superfluous. Carver too, for the same reason. Jane Austen would have been brilliant.”

Liam: “Vonnegut, for a bit of careful word choice weirdness.”

Katy: “And I’d actually love to read an Etgar Keret story, his are often very short but really pack a punch. FUNNY too. George Saunders. David Sedaris.”

Liam: “Did Adam Marek write for us?”

Katy: “Not yet. Add him to the list of living authors we want to put in a cage and force to write for us.”

With LL100 looming, I ask how it will differ from the League’s very first event, back in April 2007.

Katy: “It’ll be half the price. We charged £2 on the door at our first event. And it’s a bigger venue – we started in a tiny room above a pub, the Lamb in Russell Square. I think we had around 20 at our first event and counted it a packed-out success!”

Most of the original personnel are still with the League as its ninth birthday approaches. Katy ticks the ringleaders off on her fingers.

“Oddly enough a lot of the core Liars remain – me, Tom McKay, Tim Aldrich, Tessa North, Michael Caines and Andrew Lloyd-Jones, who’s now running LL New York City. But we also now benefit from Liam (writer-Liar), Paul Clarke (actor-Liar) and Gloria Sanders (actor-Liar). And Liars who’ve moved on often come back for special occasions, like David Mildon, who read last year’s Radio 4-broadcast story The Wallet.” ”

The thriving New York City franchise is one of a number of LL events to have sprung up outside London; there are now Liars’ Leagues in Hong Kong, Portland (Oregon) and Blackpool (Lancashire). Where else, I ask, would Katy and Liam like to see the LL banner flying?

Liam: “Berlin! Dublin!”

Katy: “Definitely Dublin. Berlin or Paris would be cool too, as the English-speaking community in both cities is probably large enough to support them (plus they could branch out into German or French stories too).”

Liam: “Australia!”

Katy: “LL Sydney would be nice. We’ve been approached about various locations over the years, including Johannesburg, Manchester, Nairobi, Geneva … who knows, some or all of these may yet happen!”

Do the League’s tastes vary from continent to continent? Katy, who reads practically every story that crosses the LL threshold, thinks so.

“I’d say that style is the main difference. I think in terms of the performed stories we are all excellent in our own ways: I genuinely do think that some of the pieces we’ve read at LL London are some of the best short stories I’ve read by anyone (and oh my days I read a lot of short stories).

“But NYC has a slightly more literary/MFA tone to many of the pieces they choose, and we I’d say tend more towards the stage side of the page/stage balance. Which is to say we are utter suckers for a funny story.”

“I do like the way London has both the stand out dramatic pieces, and pieces of outrageous whimsy,” says Liam. “And that’s very important. We’re doing it not just because we want more opps for short stories. We’re entertainers, dahling…”

“Seconded!” Katy laughs. “Revolutionary notion for a literary event: it should be FUN.”

So why should Londoners come in their droves to LL100 on April 12th?

Katy: “It’s definitely pitched to entice all the people (my more useless mates) who’ve been saying “Oh yeah, Liars’ League, is that still going? I keep meaning to come along,” for the last nine years…”

Liam: “Ten stories for a quid – that’s just 10p each (or £1 each PLUS an anthology if you give us a tenner). Actors, book quizes, probably even cakes. In a pub.”

Katy sums up.

“It’s the perfect gateway drug to a more serious short story habit.”

The Liars’ League’s 100th event, ‘Hundreds & Thousands’, takes place at The Phoenix, 37 Cavendish Square, London on Tuesday, April 12th. Doors 7pm; show syarts 7.30pm. £1 on the door. More information:

PLUS you can buy the Liars’ League’s award-winning story anthologies direct from Arachne Press here: