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‘The Reader’ director Sharon D. Mertins: “It’s like a playground for writers”

We spoke to Sharon D. Mertins, the Guatemalan 'Wahlberlinerin' and fiction writer who has been director of The Reader since 2021.

Photo: Makar Artemev

The Reader has been at the centre of Berlin’s English-language literary life since 2011, hosting a variety of workshops and courses in addition to book launches, readings, and more. After a hiatus on in-person programming during the pandemic, the organisation is back in action with a renewed focus on collaboration, accessibility, and events.

For those who don’t know The Reader, how would you summarise what you do?

We are a platform for creative writers. We do offer writing workshops and courses, but we’re also basically an open group of writers who collaborate and share everything that we know. It’s like a playground for writers. There are one- and two-day weekend workshops, which are more specific and are often taught by visiting writers, and then we have longer courses of seven to nine weeks for people who are working towards a particular goal: short stories, screenwriting, poetry, the essay. We also offer literary events, which used to mostly be book launches, but now we are adding in interactive things like an open mic and book swaps and group readings. 

And it’s all in English? 

Yes, but something I’ve always liked about The Reader was that it is super accessible to people who are not native English speakers. In my writing classes, there are always a lot of people from the UK or the US, but there are also so many people from Turkey or Italy, say, who at the beginning would say, “Sorry for my English, but I have an idea for a story” – but once you start sharing your ideas, forget the grammar, forget the spelling, the creativity is there! We really encourage people to join the classes and the events, because there’s always all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of stories. 

How would you describe the mission of The Reader?

Our mission is to make writing more accessible – to make it clear that writing is something for everyone, not something you have to have an academic degree to do. When Victoria Gosling founded the Reader in 2011, we had a wave of artists and aspiring writers move here who wanted to write, but didn’t have an MFA and maybe hadn’t even written anything before. And now so many of those people are publishing books and being really successful. And it’s not to say that their success is because of The Reader, but it definitely provided that space to let creativity loose and just say, “Yeah, I’m gonna give this a go!” 

What developments have there been since you took over?

The pandemic threw us off a little bit. Things changed so much. Beforehand, we had been able to hold everything in person – and then during the lockdowns, this whole other world opened up with new platforms online, and other people offering creative writing classes here. Berlin also got so much more expensive. So to keep The Reader alive, we’ve had to reassess things. Once Johanna da Rocha Abreu – who has always been part of The Reader community – came on board, we thought together with the tutors about what The Reader is, what we want it to be, and how we want to work. It’s more collaborative now, and our tutors are more involved. We’ve been experimenting a lot. And it’s actually been working very well.

Can you give an example?

We collaborated with a group of artists, who had the idea to put on a book swap, and we started an open mic, which the writer and Reader tutor Michael Jeffrey Lee has been emceeing. It’s magical. It is such a creative, lovely space to meet other writers and say, “I don’t know, maybe this is shit, maybe it’s not, what do you guys think?” It feels like going back to how things were before – having fun. Just come in, and bring your ideas. Let’s play around together. 

The Reader’s full event and course schedule is online. But what are you personally looking forward to for 2024?

The open mic is getting bigger and bigger – I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens with that, because there are definitely ideas brewing there [laughs]. We also have some books from the original circle launching. One of them is Jane Flett, who has been involved with – and teaching at – The Reader from the very beginning. Her book is coming out this year and it’s incredible queer literature. We’re super excited. And there will be events for Jessica J. Lee and for Ishi Robinson, another The Reader original, whose novel is coming out in April.