Interview with Tim Manley, artist, storyteller, and BookUp instructor

February 2016



Tim Manley is a BookUp instructor, longtime Moth storyteller, and multigenre artist. His first book, Alice in Tumblr-Land, was published by Penguin in 2013. His first one-person show, Feelings, is running at FringeNYC through August 29.

NBF: What drew you to BookUp originally?
TM: I used to be a high school English teacher here in New York City, and I feel like BookUp is just the most fun parts of being a teacher. From my point of view, BookUp’s real goal is just to have fun with kids with reading. What could possibly engender a love of reading more than the pure joy of being given a book and not being tested, when it’s just for fun?

NBF: Did you encounter a lot of that test-heavy style when you were teaching high school English?

TM: Thankfully, I taught at a high school that was actually exempt from state tests. It was a really progressive, really cool high school, and we got to use really creative methods. So I got to have a lot of fun with my students when I was a teacher, and I was able to access books in a way that really feels exciting and authentic.


NBF: All of the love and none of the testing standards.

TM: Exactly! Which is more authentic to why adults love to read, I think. It’s not because they’re going to have to write an essay or answer a multiple-choice test about what they’re reading.

NBF: It’s as though, in school, you’re taught how to read but not why.

TM: Yeah, exactly, a hundred percent.

What BookUp does is more aligned with what is really lovable about reading. If you’re lucky enough, as a kid, to be in a home where your parents are reading a lot, where they love to read, where they read to you, and where from a very, very young age you love holding a book in your hands, then that’s great. But if you don’t happen to have that chance, then someone giving you some free books and saying “let’s just have fun with these” is a great way to catch you at a crucial age and solidify your love of learning.


NBF: What were you like as a young reader?

TM: Oh boy, that’s a really good question. I always loved to read, since I was very, very little. When I was about six years old, I had one of those books where you have to draw a picture in the back of it – like, what are you going to be when you grow up? And I drew a picture of myself throwing books around the room that said “author.” I guess, even as a six-year-old, somehow I had this magical feeling about books.

I read all fantasy books, all genre, fun, action books. And then, when I was like sixteen, somebody introduced me to the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

When I was about six years old, I had one of those books where you have to draw a picture in the back of it – like, what are you going to be when you grow up? And I drew a picture of myself throwing books around the room that said “author.” I guess, even as a six-year-old, somehow I had this magical feeling about books.


NBF: Oh, yeah.

TM: Right? Of course. I mean, I know. I think the book came out in the late 90s, and this was like 2001 that I read it. It was the first book that ever made me feel something apart from excitement—apart from all the wonderful things that fantasy can make you feel. But this was…it felt like me. It felt like my life, like it was expanding my mind and I was learning about something, about myself. It was a totally brand-new experience and it shifted what I read for the next five or more years, really up to the present day. I still read genre and more plot-based books, but it was a revelation to read something that hit me so personally. I didn’t know that a book could do that until then.


NBF: The great thing about that particular book is that it’s written as a series of letters, so it really does feel like you’re in conversation with someone.

TM: I know, I know! When I was a teenager, YA didn’t really seem to be a thing that was happening. Maybe there were books, but I didn’t really know of them. Perks was the first thing that I encountered. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m older now, but I read a lot of YA, and I really love it—really, really love it—but there’s something about that book. Maybe again it’s just because that’s what I read when I was sixteen. But it feels so real!

I read that book because I’d, um, stalked the AOL profile of a girl I had a crush on, and she said it was her favorite book. So that night I had my mom drive me to Barnes & Noble, and I bought it, and walked through the hallways until she [the girl] saw me holding it. I mean, it was really odd reasoning that brought me to the book, but it changed my life. [laughs]


NBF: Now that you’re no longer a student – you’re older, you’re teaching – how has working with BookUp affected you?

TM: I think, especially as a writer, it’s such a nice experience to get to interact with real readers and real people, right? If you’re a writer, you spend so much of your time sitting alone, and you can kind of forget what the real world is and what real life is at moments. And then you go into a classroom that’s full of these insane ten-year-olds who are so excited about things or, if they’re not interested in something, so not interested and so bored by it. Something about that is incredibly exciting to me.


NBF: Could you tell me about an experience from BookUp that’s really stuck with you?

TM: Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise to me, but I’m amazed by how creative all the kids are and by how powerful and original their own ideas are.

Usually, in my workshops, we’ll do a little bit of reading and then I like to do some sort of creative writing or drawing activity that’s connected to the book in some way. And I’m always blown away by what kids write. We were reading American Born Chinese with one group, and we did an exercise where they drew their own graphic memoir of a moment from their life. And then maybe ten kids get up to share – you know, not everyone. But some kids get up to share.

And one girl walks up and it’s this hilarious story about, like, taking the wrong subway train. I don’t know, something really silly but so funny.

And the next girl gets up and it’s about somebody making fun of her for being gay. And it’s this really powerful, really brave little story.

And then this guy gets up and he shares a little comic that’s intimate, a very private moment with his family.

And then another boy gets up and shares a story that is very clearly not his actual life – it involves, like, monsters and superpowers, and I’m thinking, did I not make it clear? But, no, it’s cool that you did that! He did what he wanted to do, and that’s fine. It’s perpetually fascinating to me just how brave and how creative young people are if you give them a space to be it.


It’s perpetually fascinating to me just how brave and how creative young people are if you give them a space to be it.


NBF: That’s true. Maybe it’s not being unwilling so much as feeling like it’s not your place.

TM: Right!


NBF: And speaking of feelings…

TM: Every conversation I have somehow finds its way back to Feelings. I’ve already tried like ten times in this conversation to not use the word “feelings,” because now I’m hyper-aware of it.

I was trying to figure out a title for the show, and I was sitting with a friend of mine going through all these titles, trying to find one. I said to him, “I mean, really, I should just call the show Feelings if I’m being honest.” And we laughed for a second, and then I was like, “you know, it’s really not a bad idea. I’m just gonna keep it real!”


NBF: So this is your first one-man show.  What possibilities does this medium open up for you?

TM: I’ve been telling true stories onstage for a few years, very frequently with the Moth—that’s sort of my home base. With the Moth, you have between five and six minutes, and usually, with other storytelling shows around town, maybe you have eight, but really it’s a short amount of time. The constraints force you to cut out a lot of the fat, to pare your story down to what’s really fundamental, which is great.

But now, for the first time, I’m doing a full-length show. It’s an hour-long show at the Fringe Festival, and so there’s breathing room. Maybe this show is the equivalent of a novella. I’m not going from a short story to a full novel, but it’s giving me a little bit more breathing room. There’s a lot more space, obviously, to build more.

I’m basically stringing together nine different stories into one overarching narrative. One of the challenges I’m finding is that what used to be a great ending for a five-minute story on stage now, at the end of a sixty-minute, one-person show, isn’t. So much has happened and built up that the story requires a more complex, nuanced ending, because people have been along for the ride for longer.

I really think it’s the same as short stories versus a novella, or versus another longer piece. The pro of a longer piece is you have all this breathing room, and the con is then it gets so big that you’re sort of like, “Oh, God, what is the structure of this thing? What do I even have here? There are so many moving parts.” But we’re gonna see what happens! [both laugh]

NBF: In your book and in Feelings you use illustrations.  What do you find you can communicate through images that you can’t communicate through words?

TM: I write and I draw; my mind just works naturally in both of those mediums. With the fairy tales book I did, there was a little text story and then the picture would have an extra punchline, an extra something.

But with the show, I’m finding a lot more that the pictures are communicating a totally different level of the show than the words are. In many cases, the pictures just might be showing here is the location, here is the space that we’re inhabiting, you know? Here’s the bedroom we’re in, or here’s the park that we’re in. But at a lot of moments, there’s a feeling that I don’t know how to put into words. Maybe the only way that I know how to put it into words is really cliché or overly simplistic, so instead, I’ll just put a cartoon there. I might not know how to put it into words, how to interestingly describe the mess of my heart, but I can draw a cartoon.

And they’re animated; they’re .gifs, really. I can draw a cartoon where there’s this big scramble happening around my heart, and you get it, you know? I might not know how to describe a moment of feeling really sad in a way that doesn’t sound cliché, but I can draw a cartoon of me sinking through dark water. Oftentimes the cartoons can communicate a feeling that I don’t—whether it’s that I’m not a good-enough lyricist or poet or writer or whatever—that I don’t know how to figure out the words to. A picture can say it better and it is more immediate. So you don’t even need to speak the same language. You can see it and you’ll know what the person is talking about.
NBF: Can you tell me more about your “a feeling a day” project?

TM: That’s a riff on a project I did six or seven years ago, and it’s an important part of the narrative of the show, which is why I’m sort of trying it again.

I’m writing these notes or messages on my hand every day. It’s interesting because usually the language of the things that I’m writing down, whether it’s a message to myself or a message to someone else, seems overly simplistic to me, arguably a little cliché. I’m not trying to make it sound like anything other than it is. It’s very vulnerable language. But something about putting it on my hand and taking a photo makes it a safe space for such words to exist.

I don’t think I could send those words that I’ve written on my hand into The New Yorker and they’d publish them as a poem, you know? But I think that if you’re someone wandering the internet at 1 am and you come across them, you’re gonna know what I’m saying.
NBF: I have one last question for you: what is your favorite feeling?

TM: You know, nobody’s ever asked me this question, and I really enjoy it. Favorite feeling. Hmm…it’s like choosing between your children. I don’t just want to go with happy. I think it’s surprise. I don’t even know if that counts as a feeling. Preferably joyful surprise, surprise for a good reason. But I really love when something a little bit bizarre or unexpected happens. It keeps me on my toes and reminds me that I really don’t know what to expect in life. It makes me smile a little bit.