Wednesday October 10, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- For the record, Todd Zuniga has not actually killed any authors.

But he is the one who has pitted author-against-author 243 times in what are known as Literary Death Matches.

The perfect marriage of the sublime and the ridiculous, Literary Death Matches feature four writers who read their work for a panel of judges. The two writers who pass that test are pitted against each other in a final round stunt that Zuniga says are "The most spectacular thing that ever happened ... usually literary and totally ridiculous."

For example, one LDM pitted the finalists in a round of pin-the-moustache on Ernest Hemingway. Another, pitted two food writers against each other in a contest to see who could have the most vegan silly string sprayed into his mouth.

The winner then gets to wear the Death Match crown, highly prized in the literary world, and the audience leaves enlightened about the work of rising literary stars and highly entertained, to boot.

Want proof? See for yourself.

On Friday, as part of the 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival, Zuniga will host a Literary Death Match at 8:30 p.m., at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.

Though Literary Death Matches have been held more than 240 times in more than 40 cities worldwide, Brattleboro is by far the smallest community ever to host one.

"For the first time ever, Literary Death Match is slamming down and picking up in the Green Mountain State of Vermont. For reals. Brattleboro? More like Battle-boro. And the lineup is outrageously good," extols www.literarydeathmatch.com.

Zuniga expects a big, lively Brattleboro crowd -- one which won’t leave disappointed.

"It’s going to be the night of pretty much everyone’s life," said Zuniga.

Brattleboro’s Literary Death Match will be judged by Jane Yolen ("Owl Moon," "The Devil’s Arithmetic," "Things to Say to a Dead Man"), Stewart O’Nan ("Snow Angels," "A Prayer for the Dying," "The Odds") and Major Jackson ("Holding Company," "Hoops," "Leaving Saturn").

They will be judging four writers, who will read their own work -- Deni Y. Béchard ("Vandal Love," "Cures for Hunger"), Tayari Jones ("Leaving Atlanta," "The Untelling," "Silver Sparrow"), Victor LaValle ("Slapboxing with Jesus," "The Ecstatic," "The Machine," "Devil in Silver") and Matthew Dicks ("Something Missing," "Unexpectedly Milo," "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend").

The event starts with the authors reading selections of their best work for seven minutes or less. The time limit is strictly enforced.

"They got shot in the leg with a Nerf dart if they go over," said Zuniga.

From the reading rounds, the judges -- focused on literary merit, performance and intangibles -- take turns spouting hilarious, off-the-wall commentary about each story, then select their favorite to advance to the finals. The two finalists then compete in the Literary Death Match finale.

"There’s always something at every show that’s never happened before," said Zuniga.

With obvious roots in the gladiatorial contests of the Roman Empire, Literary Death Match’s more recent origins date back six or seven years ago, when Zuniga and some other Los Angeles-based writer friends were sitting around lamenting about how uninteresting and poorly attended most readings were.

"Unless someone’s a total home run hitter, most people get bored," he said.

Writers in other cities, sensing this, had begun mixing stand-up comedians in with readers. Zuniga and his pals cooked up the Literary Death Match format. Audiences caught on quickly.

"Probably the greatest thing that happens is (writers) show up and they’re like ‘Where did you get all these people?’" Zuniga recounted.

Literary Death Matches consistently draw at least 100 people, far more than the polite handful at most readings. Some LDMs have pulled up to 700 people and created considerable buzz ahead of time.

"In Dublin, there was actually a betting line ... and the favorite actually did win," said Zuniga. "What a flattering thing."

Amid all the sizzle, LDMs offer quite a bit of steak. Because the readers are limited to seven minutes, they are forced to choose their most compelling work. That gives listeners a taste of the authors at their best and serves as a valuable way to introduce people to their work.

"At its core, this is 100 percent literary, but we dress it up," said Zuniga, who is the founding editor of Opium Magazine and the co-creator and host of Literary Death Match. He was named an LA Times Face to Watch in 2012 and is also a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer for his short fiction and an award-winning journalist. He has just finished a novel which he is peddling around to publishers.

The Brattleboro Literary Festival and related events run from Wednesday through Sunday and feature more than 40 authors, both established and emerging, in all genres and for all age groups. For more information, visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.