The Power of Story: Author Experience

Unexpected and Long-Tail Gifts: You Never Know the Difference Your Book Might Make …

December 9, 2020 By Barbara Linn Probst 1 Comment

Barbara Probst

When we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?

At the most concrete level, we want our book to be bought, liked, recommended, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who’ve been touched and changed by what we wrote.

When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things, and I got many of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important outcomes are ones I never could have foreseen. They’re what I’m calling “unexpected, long-tail gifts”—responses from readers, often months later, that let me know how much my story meant to them.

My experience isn’t unique. When I reached out to other authors I knew, I found that all of them had a story (or two) about an encounter with a reader that left them humbled, honored, even moved to tears. Pondering what they told me, I’ve identified several themes that I’d like to share with you, along with some of their stories, as this year-to-end-all-years draws to a close. My hope is that these examples will help to remind us how much our writing really does matter and why it’s so deeply needed—especially now.

Finding the strength to go on

Therese Walsh tells how her novel, The Moon Sisters, found its way to a woman whose son had taken his own life. Though hesitant to read the book since she knew it was framed around a death in the family, the woman did read it and then reached out to let Therese know that it helped her to see a path forward for herself. She wrote: “What my heart appreciated the most was that the search eventually morphs into what the quest must be when answers remain elusive:  Where do we go from here?”  For Therese, “the book was written exactly for a person who needed hope after loss. That it found her, and that it resonated for her and hopefully brought some measure of comfort—helped her to find hope, despite the absurdity and sometimes even the brutality of life— well, gratified isn’t the right word for what I felt. It’s so much bigger than that.”

I’d venture to say that Therese is talking about the feeling of purpose, and of awe. There’s a sense of being of service—of playing a role in something that was meant to be—as someone picks up our book at just the moment when it’s needed most. As Caroline Leavitt, author of With You or Without You, said to me: “I got this astonishing email from a stranger who told me that she’d been going through a really hard time. She was stuck in a bad marriage and thought her life was over, but she read my book and told me, ‘I swear there was magic in that novel of yours’ because she suddenly felt that there might still be possibilities for her.”

Several authors told of equally extraordinary moments, when a reader shared how knowing that someone else—even if it was “just” a character in her book—had not only survived, but found a path forward, helped them find a freedom and a hope that had seemed unattainable. Kathryn Craft, author of The Far Side of Happy, told me“The most touching comments I received were from people who had survived family suicides that no one ever spoke about, or had attempted suicide themselves. One young woman admitted to attempting suicide more than once—and then, after my event, she posted about our interaction on her Facebook page, amazed that I had held up the signing line to come around the table and hug her, and how this simple act had meant the world to her.”

Validating their own experience

When a reader bonds with one of our characters—feels that the character is not only credible and alive, but is someone just like me—it can bring a powerful sense of not being alone, not being the only one who’s gone through something painful and difficult. Randy Susan Meyers shared her experience after publishing her debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters. “So many people wrote that they’d never told anyone about the domestic violence in their family, the murder of their mother, sister, daughter. Wherever I went, once people heard about my novel and the story behind it, family stories that broke my heart rushed at me. I learned that the only thing required of me was listening, bearing witness, and always giving the message that they were not alone, and the shame was not theirs to bear.”

So too, Barbara Claypole White, who writes about mental illness in families, told me: “I’ve received incredible messages from readers that often start, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before, but …’  Sometimes they see family members in my characters, or they’re in a dark place themselves and find connection and hope.”

This sense of validation can also help someone take an important step. Barbara related the story of an email she received shortly after The Promise Between Us was published. “A reader stumbled on a copy of the book. Through my heroine’s journey, the reader realized that she wasn’t crazy; she was suffering from postpartum OCD. My novel led her to a therapist. That’s a pretty amazing feeling, to see that fiction can and really does make a difference.”

Similarly, Randy Susan Meyers tells of an encounter when she was a keynote speaker at an event. “Afterward, a couple asked to talk to me as I signed books. They told the story of how they lost their daughter when her husband killed her, a story they had never shared before. They wanted to know how they could help to prevent other deaths.”

This sense of validation can also come from “finding one’s tribe” in the story world—reading a novel set in a place, culture, or social environment that rings familiar and true. Author Claire Fullerton set her book Mourning Dove “on the genteel side” of Memphis in the 1970’s. As Claire told me: “I wanted to depict a particular milieu and the price one pays for living in a culture where bad things are not discussed. Because I laid bare that side of Memphis, I couldn’t help wondering about the book’s Memphis reception.” Would it feel authentic?

Her concern abated when she received an email from someone she’d known decades earlier, asking if she had time to speak with him about the book. Claire wrote to me: “We had what turned into an hour-long conversation about the Memphis we knew in our coming of age. He said that my depiction of the social and economic strata we were raised in was as accurately described as anything he’d ever read and thanked me profusely for putting it into words.”

Bringing a new understanding and appreciation

Certainly, there are books that open us to cultures and eras we know nothing about, enriching us by showing other ways of living. At their best, these books do two things at the same time: they show us something new and different, while also helping us to see and feel that these “different” people are very much like us in their struggles and joys. Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight, for example, shines a light of understanding and social justice on how the human experience in another era—the American West of a century ago— both differs from and mirrors our own. Ellen told me that at nearly every reading she’s done, someone has approached her with tears in their eyes, thanking her “for telling my mother’s story, my grandmother’s story—finally.” Through Ellen’s novel, they understood, at last, what the women who came before them had gone through.

Debra Thomas also relates how this “new understanding and appreciation” can be deeply personal. The most moving response she received to her novel Luz was from a young Latina woman who saw herself and her mother in the characters of Luz and Alma. As Debra writes: “Reading Luz prompted a discussion with her mother about her crossing, and for the first time, my reader learned intimate details of her mother’s difficult journey from El Salvador, along the length of Mexico, and then through a desert crossing at the border—including being lost in the desert for ten days. She came away with a renewed respect for her mother and an appreciation for the struggle she endured so she could provide her daughter—herself—with a better life. “

Literally, saving a life

I end with my own story, which is what prompted me to reach out to these authors.

In my debut novel, Queen of the Owls, the “bookworm” protagonist reveals, sees, and comes to claim her body through studying—and re-enacting—the nude photos that Stieglitz took of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

I’ve received many messages from people who found the book to be deeply liberating, but an email from a woman I’ll call Cynthia was by far the most important. Cynthia won a copy of Queen of the Owls in a Facebook giveaway. Weeks later, she sent me an email.

“My connection to your novel is so surprising and totally unexpected … I’m uncomfortable looking at nude photos of women and reading descriptions of them. Nevertheless, I did quickly look up the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe that you mentioned in the book. The bigger deal is the book prompted me to do a breast examination of myself, which I know I’m supposed to do monthly, but don’t usually do. I found a small bluish-purple discoloration and a slight indentation. I called and had the physician’s assistant check me last week. She said it was not my imagination and scheduled me for a mammogram. They will also do a biopsy, if necessary. I am extremely grateful that I won a copy of your book and it prompted me to do this.”

Indeed, the doctors found a lump, and Cynthia was able to receive early treatment, including chemotherapy. She wrote again, later, to tell me she would never have had this early detection, and subsequent life-saving treatment, if she hadn’t read my book and been open to what it offered her.

Her story brought me to tears, reminding me that what we do through our writing has far more important consequences than how many stars, awards, reviews, or sales our books might collect. There are profound purposes we serve, as authors.

Cynthia’s is one story that I learned about. There may be other stories that I’ll never hear.

Our work as writers really matters. It might even save someone’s life.

What about you? If you’re an author, was there an unexpected gift you received from a reader? If you’re a reader, was there an unexpected gift you received from a book?

Mourning Dove
https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

Paying it Forward

I have a newly released novel titled, Little Tea, but that’s not my focus here.  My focus is on sharing an incredible experience I had on Facebook because it’s a case in point of what can transpire through the magnanimous efforts of one fellow author during these unusual times.

Those of us who released a book during the pandemic were blindsided as to how to proceed with promotion. In my case, I had a book tour of the South scheduled to promote Little Tea, only to discover each event was canceled. The good news is most of my events were rescheduled virtually, though in many ways, I swam in smaller waters. I stayed tethered to my desk bereft of the gift of personal contact and although I’m not taking the merit out of it, in most ways I preached to a Zoom choir. But an uncanny domino effect ensued that came through the power of connections, and although it’s not a complete surprise, I have Facebook to thank for a great time promoting Little Tea.

My good fortune began with the moderator of a Facebook book group who interviews authors via StreamYard on a nightly basis. I was a guest on her live show and was grateful beyond measure to answer questions about Little Tea. In thanking my hostess profusely, I said, “If there’s anything I can do for you, it would be my great pleasure.”

The first step along the chain of events came when the aforementioned moderator asked me to talk to a debut author she admires, who had questions about the publishing business. I issued the caveat that I’m no expert, but I’ve been in the business long enough to have an opinion. I’ll say here that my policy as an author has always been to pay it forward. Authors work in a common arena, and few of us would get very far were it not for the opportunity to compare notes. And so, I got on the phone with a complete stranger and talked about navigating the book world and am happy to report that by the time we hung up, I’d made a new friend. An hour later, my new friend messaged me via Facebook messaging and invited me to come to her Facebook group page to do an “author takeover.” I said yes before I fully understood the set-up, so, I’ll explain it now that I understand. This debut author had the foresight to create a private book launch group on Facebook. She issued a call-out six months before her book release and created a Facebook “street team” by offering incentives that simply boiled down to the joy of being involved. This street team was gifted with insider information about her debut novel. She gave her private group book swag, played games, and shared pictures pertaining to her life and her book that the general public wasn’t privy to, so by the time her book was released, roughly a thousand readers were ready to shout from the rooftops because suffice it to say, they felt personally tied to the book’s launch.

My invitation to come to her private Facebook group and do an all-day take over essentially sounded like this: “I know of a thousand people who’ve never heard of you, so come on over, I’ll introduce you, and you can post as much about your book as you want to.”

You better believe I came ready! I prepared with photographs of Little Tea’s setting in the Deep South (Como, Mississippi; Greer’s Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas; and my home town, Memphis) two book trailers, a dozen memes, Little Tea reviews, and, knowing that a picture tells a thousand words about an author’s life, photographs of ocean waves taken where I now live in Malibu, California and endless un-staged photographs of my three photogenic dogs. It was my dogs that got the ball rolling. It’s astounding how many people have “a German shepherd story.” The sharing of dog stories led to an enthusiastic kind of bonding. Soon enough, there was a vibrant thread in the private group of dog pictures that dovetailed to include the posting of pet cats.

Ceili Little Tea

Little Tea’s premise is built on the power of female friendships—the anchoring, long-lasting kind that see a woman through a lifetime. These friendships tend to have their own language, often times there’s a shared sense of humor spawned from shared history, and what comes from shared history is an arsenal of stories. In Little Tea’s case, much of the bi-racial relationship story is due to the setting, which is to say the story wouldn’t have happened as it did were it not set in the South with its attendant social mores set amidst the roiling cauldron of the cultural racial divide. There’s a line from Little Tea, when narrator Celia Wakefield describes her Southern upbringing by saying, “The thing about being a Southern girl is they let you run loose until the time comes to shape you.” I posted a meme with this quote during my author take over and it led to a riotous discussion about the South and the power of female friendships, which is part and parcel to the story of Little Tea—Little Tea being the nickname of the main character, who is Celia Wakefield’s childhood best friend.

Little Tea without preorder

I have to say I’ve always known that readers are discerning people. They’re interested in learning about a book, but they’re equally interested in learning about the author. The beauty of my all-day, author take-over was that it afforded the latitude of an unfolding. One subject led to another with regard to Little Tea, but what warmed my heart the most was the participants who shared their own stories in what became a delightful, even exchange. I came away from the event knowing I’d represented Little Tea and introduced myself as accurately as I could, but the real gift to me came from getting to know those who love reading as much as I do. I went into the author take-over hoping to reach readers, but as I learned about them, it turned into the thrill of finding common ground.

I’m still marveling at the fun I had in the midst of a fortuitous opportunity. It’s not every author who invites another to take over their page and meet their followers. When you’re lucky enough to meet the kind of author who realizes we’re all in this together, it serves as an exemplary reminder of the impact of paying it forward.

 

Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis, TN. and now lives in Malibu, CA. with her husband and 3 German shepherds. She is the author of 7- time award winner, Mourning Dove, a coming of age, Southern family saga set in 1970’s Memphis. Claire is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, a 2-time award winner set on the west coast of Ireland, where she once lived. Claire’s first novel is a paranormal mystery set in two, time periods titled, A Portal in Time, set in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. She is a contributor to the book, A Southern Season, with her novella, Through an Autumn Window, set at a Memphis funeral ( because something always goes wrong at a Southern funeral.) Little Tea is Claire’s 4th novel. Little Tea is a Faulkner Society William Wisdom Competition finalist, a finalist for the Chanticleer Review’s Somerset Awards, and the August selection of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club. She is represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency.

https: //www.clairefullerton.com and/or https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

From SWM

Gratitude to the WordPress Book Bloggers

I’d like to adequately express how much the WordPress book blogging community means to me, so suffer me while I warm up to it. I readily admit I’m the long-winded sort, even when I have an important point.

In this day and age of social media at the center of an author’s career, there is much to reconcile, and there are times I wrestle with keeping a proper perspective. On the one hand–and you’d think this to meet me in person–I  am ridiculously extroverted; I have what author, Pat Conroy, labeled the “Southern sickness” of assuming everyone I meet is my best friend, yet on the other, I am intensely private. I don’t like showcasing myself because it feels like grandstanding, and quite frankly I’m not impressed with myself to the point that I think I have anything of significance going over any other writer. We are all of us playing a long-game, making our own way in our chosen field. But sometimes it seems that one has to have an elevated sense of oneself in order to promote one’s work as an author. There’s a fine line these days, and it’s the one thing I didn’t realize going into “being” a writer. I’m probably like many people in their 50’s. We were the generation who woke up one day to discover the entire world was online and all over social media. When that realization dawned on me, it was a major hustle to catch up.

Then there is the concern of reconciling novel-writing as art and publishing a novel as a business. Once upon a time–as little as twenty years ago–authors wrote books and turned them over to their publishing house to promote. If they had an audience to justify a book tour, the publisher paid for an author to travel from book store to library to book club to meet readers in person. This is still done, but on a small, discerning scale primarily intended for authors who have wide name recognition. As for authors with a small or independent press, when it comes to a book tour, it’s all out of pocket because they’re essentially on their own.  Because book publishing options have opened up and there are now thousands upon thousands of authors in the race, the effort is geared toward keeping abreast of the tide and waving one’s hand above the noise. What’s more, in this day and age, the lion’s share of promotion falls to the author and is not only about promoting a book; authors have to promote themselves.

I’ve been torn over this for a while, now. I’ve limited myself in self-promotion by only going so far. I’ll take the opportunity here to add to Conroy’s definition of Southern sickness: friendly as we are, Southerners are an unflashy lot given to personal discretion. Too much going on about oneself is succinctly considered bad form.

I see it all on social media. People post all sorts of personal information from their family to their lifestyle to their political views. I’m not passing judgment, just making an observation, but I do know that too much online, personal information can put one in a vulnerable position and lead to an unintended consequence. It’s the downside of social media and it’s a struggle to strike a manageable balance.

So, how does an author effectively promote their book while striking a healthy balance? And whom should an author trust?

Which brings me to another consideration: There are the legions of online, profiteering book promotion businesses that have cropped up as a result of the book publishing boom. It’s staggering to me and hard to wade through the miasma to discern who is and is not reputable, while an author is hustling for literary recognition and book reviews. Authors need exposure for their releases, but who to choose within a reasonable budget?

Which brings me around to the WordPress book blogging community ( I told you I’d work my way to my point.)

I am humbled and proud to have aligned with the book bloggers here. I believe the book bloggers I’ve met on WordPress are as fine as they come. I stand in awe of Sally Cronin of Smorgasbord. Through Sally, I’ve met Olga Nunez, Michelle James, Robbie Cheadle, Teagan Geneviene, Rosie Amber,  DG Kaye, and Chris the Story Reading Ape to name but a few. I stand in awe of each bloggers’ deft handling of content, organizational skills, dedication, professionalism, and magnanimous spirit. I recognize you all as passionate people involved in the book world for all the right reasons. Your impact upon many authors’ careers is nothing short of significant.

At long last, here is my point:

I thank each of you who has featured my books on your blog for including me in your esteemed fold. Your support of my career is a force that sustains me, and I remain so very grateful.

https:www.clairefullerton.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Independent Book Stores

There’s nothing like times of disconnection to get you thinking about connections.

With worldwide activity essentially on pause, you’d think it’d be optimistic to take advantage of downtime. Typically, in the middle of the day, I’m at my desk working on something. Right now, I could be investing in my own long game, using time productively, filling in this unscheduled time with my self-appointed curriculum geared toward my May book release, or something along those lines.

Instead, I’m sitting outside holding Taylor Brown’s new book, Pride of Eden and thinking about connections. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon in Malibu, California. 75 degrees and the sun is shining through cirrus clouds with the ocean breeze just enough to make sitting outside pleasurable.

I can’t recall the last time I sat outside reading a book in the middle of the day. There’s a shade of guilt involved, but rather than calling it playing hooky, I’ll call it a guilty pleasure. I’ve never met Taylor Brown. I haven’t read the four books he wrote before Pride of Eden came out five days ago, but I got on board because of connections—the first being that this author posted a video of himself on Instagram, standing before pink, flowering shrubbery wearing a black mustache and beard, his baseball cap shading his black-framed glasses, his blue jean vest unbuttoned over his black t-shirt. When I pressed play, his Southern accent sprang like music to my ears, for I’ve been long in the wilds of California, and whenever I hear my own tongue, it sings like a siren call. I next did what any Southern author would do, upon realizing they’re egregiously unfamiliar with one of their own: I went straight to Taylor Brown’s website, unsurprised to learn we have people in common, authors Michael Farris Smith and Patti Callahan Henry to name just two.

The beginning of Pride of Eden’s book description reads: “Retired racehorse jockey and Vietnam veteran Anse Caulfield rescues exotic big cats, elephants, and other creatures for Little Eden, a wildlife sanctuary near the abandoned ruins of a failed development on the Georgia coast. But when Anse’s prized lion escapes, he becomes obsessed with replacing her—even if the means of rescue aren’t exactly legal.” Here’s what grabbed me about the back cover of Pride of Eden: Author Ron Rash writes: “Pride of Eden is a beautifully written, visionary novel of scarred souls seeking redemption not only for themselves but, in their limited way, for us all. Taylor Brown is clearly one of the best American writers of his generation.”

Let’s just say when Ron Rash speaks, I listen.

But back to connections during this disconnected downtime, and here’s where I show my true colors as a transplanted Memphian living in Southern California ( which natives call SoCal, but I digress.) Because the most salient characteristic of all Southerners is loyalty, I picked up the phone and called Novel Book Store in Memphis and ordered Taylor Brown’s book to be shipped to me “out here.” Believe me, if I’m going to buy a book, hometown girl is going to give hometown the business. But then I started thinking about Memphis’s other independent bookstore, Burke’s Books, and that fine figure of an erudite man, Corey Mesler, who not only owns Burke’s Book Store but recently had his novel, Camel’s Bastard Son, published by Cabal Books, which I’m itching to read. Two beats after calling Novel Book Store, I called Burke’s Book Store and ordered Camel’s Bastard Son, with the latest from John Grisham for good measure. Now, I’m thinking the good thing about Southern loyalty is that it’s not divided.

In this time of disconnection, I think it’s only reasonable to honor one’s connections, and the connections I’m thinking of now are those I have with independent bookstores. At the moment, they may not be immediately accessible, but I want to do my part in helping them thrive. Because the first thing I’m going to do once the worst is behind us is head to Memphis. And the second thing I’m going to do is visit both of Memphis’s independent book stores.

https://www.burkesbooks.com/

https://www.novelmemphis.com/

A Funny Thing Happened at a Bookstore

Typically, I let a stranger’s rude behavior slide, but in this case, I’m thinking of options. I’m generally thinking of those bullying type personalities you find positioned before the public, and specifically, a certain independent bookstore owner I happened across yesterday. The question I’m turning over concerns calling this bookstore owner on his behavior, lest, in my negligence, he persists in his unseemly rapport with other authors. I’ll set the stage first then tell what transpired:

Because I am twenty-one days into evacuation, due to the fires in Malibu ( currently all power is off in my side of town), I have been staying in Santa Barbara, California. Never one to be completely deterred by unanticipated circumstances, and seeing as how it is a scant six months after the release of my 4X, award-winning novel, Mourning Dove, I decided to use my time wisely by visiting the Santa Barbara Public Library and all area bookstores in what was basically a cold call to introduce Mourning Dove. Authors do well in introducing themselves to bookstore owners if they’re prepared with their one-sheet; ISBN; book description; and distribution information. I’m happy to report I’ve had great luck in so doing. It’s led to scheduled events and my book on the shelves. After all, one hand shakes the other in the book business. We are nothing without each other. This is what I was thinking as I entered this particular bookstore, and discovered the owner standing behind the counter.

It was raining in Santa Barbara, which, in Southern California, is always a conversation starter, and which explained why my one-sheet was a bit damp. I told the owner I am a local, traditionally published author of three books, represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency. Having researched his bookstore online to discover he carries “new, used, and out-of-print books,” and that they carry books by local authors, I told him I wanted to introduce myself and Mourning Dove. For a few minutes, we discussed the weather, the fires in Malibu, the potential threat of mud-slides, then he cast his eyes on my one-sheet. “This book just won the Literary Classics Words on Wings Award for Book of the Year,” I added, to which he abruptly turned, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “I’ll stop you right here,” he barked. “I’m not going to buy your book.”

Now then, I’ll digress by mentioning I am a Southerner. We’re big on manners. To a Southerner, there is no more egregious sin than bad manners. And for some reason, I was so startled I reverted to my Southern upbringing and perfunctorily cushioned his blow, in an effort at not leaving on a bad note. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear on your bookstore’s policy,” I offered. “What kind of books do you carry?” His answer–and I’m paraphrasing, was along the lines of you better be Faulkner of a current NY Times bestseller. “You’ve explained yourself clearly,” I said. His reply? “I’ve been DEALING with authors for 40 years.”

I’m going to share a quote by Mya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve been thinking about this episode since it happened yesterday, wondering if I have the right take on it; if I’m too sensitive, judgemental, egoistic, and on and on, though I’m not one to second-guess myself. Plain and simple, when I left the bookstore, I felt diminished. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, had he not issued the closing remark of “… dealing with authors for 40 years.”  What this tells me is this bookstore owner thinks its okay to treat authors with such a sorry case of bed-side manners. So much for one hand shaking the other in the book business… In weighing all this, I’ve examined a list of what he could have said, and the whole thing would have happened differently: “Thank you for coming in, this doesn’t sound like something I carry,” this kind of thing.

Now I’m wondering how many authors this man has similarly treated. I’m wondering if any author has ” called him on his stuff,” and concluding probably not.” What occurs to me is that, when in such a quandary, we always have options. In this case, is it better to leave the man to his own devices, or ” call him on his stuff?”