My favorite Podcast is Charlotte Readers Podcast, hosted by Landis Wade, an author himself and “a recovering trial lawyer” who encourages authors to read and talk about their award-winning, published, and emerging works. This is the show where host, Landis Wade, visits with local, regional, national and international authors who read and discuss their work. The Charlotte Readers Podcast mission is to help authors give voice to their written words for listeners who love good books.
Host Landis Wade of The Charlotte Readers Podcast
The podcast’s community blog is populated with readerly and writerly content offered by talented writers. It contains nuggets of wisdom for readers and writers.
This week, I contribute to their Community Voices Blog with a short post about how I became a writer, and the link to the blog post, titled, There Is no There to Get to, is here:
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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?
A writer’s life is a build, a constant state of becoming that begins with the secret, intuitive assumption that one must take a leap of faith and begin. There is no there to get to, only an unquenchable need that compels and drives on with inexplicable fervor. For me, it began with keeping a journal. I was young and fearful of admitting my internal mechanisms and uncertain of who would care to hear. But I felt the need to document my life in the hope that the singular act of private articulation would reveal to me who I was in the grand scheme of my self-involved adolescence. This is the prompting that leads a writer to the table; the need to explain oneself to oneself. Keeping a journal discredits all thoughts of life’s arbitrariness and puts the pendulum of cause and effect into clear perspective. One can keep current while they create a framework, then look back years later and chart the incremental construction of their personal history.
But what happens when one evolves from journal keeping to writing as a way of life? Certainly it’s an insular existence that cannot be shared. It’s like taking that running monologue we all have in our head and laying it down on purpose for no other reason than it seems the thing to do. The form of the dissertation is entirely incidental; some writers aim to inform, and others seek to enlighten or entertain. To me, it’s all the same thing: a way of communicating, and for this to happen, it takes time. And isolation. And commitment to following through no matter the length of the project.
I’ve heard it said that writers don’t write because they want to; they write because they must. What’s imperative for writers is the ability to write then throw caution to the wind. All that’s required is to say what you have to say, and then get out of the way to make room for the possibility that the devil may care after all.
I had a few magic encounters that can only be described as “Pat moments” at the 2015 “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration” in Beaufort, South Carolina. And there I was a complete stranger to Pat, but by the end of the three day festival, you wouldn’t have thought this. Sometimes in life you just flat connect with someone through mysterious forces, and when you do, it feels something like recognition. I felt this way the first time I locked eyes with Pat Conroy, and although I was decidedly star-struck, he wasn’t having any of it.
I was late to the screening of “The Great Santini.” Most everyone was seated in the auditorium, and the film was set to begin any minute. I rushed into the scantily populated lobby of the USCB’s Center for the Arts, flustered and apologetic to the nice woman behind the table, who took my name and handed me my event tickets for the following two days. As I turned to head for the auditorium, there was Pat, wearing a red t-shirt, a big smile, and walking straight towards me. His face was aglow with child-like delight and his blue eyes beamed with the kind of enthusiasm you’d jump to upon spotting a friend. Now, mind you, I’d rushed to the conference all the way from California, and in that moment I had yet to find my bearings. I’d hoped at some point during the conference I’d be lucky enough to exchange a few words with Pat, get it off my chest how much his writing affects me, tell him that he’d singlehandedly shown me what is possible with the written word, and illustrate his impact upon me by saying if I were a musician, he’d be my Mick Jagger. I didn’t expect to walk through the door and find him there like a one man welcoming committee. In that destabilizing moment that caught me off-guard, I was so startled to see my literary hero in the flesh that my text book Southern manners flew out the window and speech completely failed me. So I did what anybody would do: I looked Pat Conroy straight in his Irish eyes and said, “I love you.” To which he threw back his head and laughed.
“I flew all the way from California to see you, “I gushed, and without skipping a beat, Pat said, “You’re crazy,” to which I replied, “I know.”
“My daughter lives in California, let me go get her,” Pat said, then he walked away and returned with his daughter, Megan. As Megan and I stood talking about California, Pat sauntered off then reappeared with his brother, Tim. I couldn’t tell you now if Tim wondered who I was or why Pat found me worthy of introduction, but all three Conroy’s stood friendly and smiling, as if they were legitimately thrilled to see me.
“Let me ask you something,” Pat said. He spoke haltingly, searchingly, as if he were thinking something through, though he gave me a look that shot straight through me as if willing the power of his steady gaze to sear something into me. “Can you remember this street address? I want you to come over to the house for a drink or something.”
“When?” I said. It was all I could think to ask.
“Sometime during all this,” he said, waving his hand. “Whenever there’s downtime,” he said, as if it’d be obvious, as if I’d know when there’d be a lull in the conference and could just mosey on over to find him lounging around.
“Oh, wait, they’re telling me it’s time to go in,” Pat said, “Let’s go.” I trailed behind Pat into the auditorium, and when the room rose to its feet in reverence at the sight of him, I ducked discretely out of the way and made for the auditorium’s back row, dumbfounded and lit by the fire of Pat’s personal attention.
Another of my “Pat moments” occurred while standing in line, holding my copy of “The Prince of Tides” in the creeping queue that snaked along in slow motion. Nobody seemed to mind that it took forever to reach Pat; we were all so animated to be in his jurisdiction, we didn’t begrudge a soul their moment in his sun. The air was charged with Pat fever. We were a chatting, laughing, fraternizing assembly linked by a warm inner knowing that we were all members of a secret society, waiting our turn for a moment in Pat Conroy’s sphere of luminosity. Eventually, the line progressed, and I got within clear sight of Pat. There were only three people ahead of me when I spied a regal, chestnut haired woman rounding the banquet table to stand beside him. She held a drink in her hand as she leaned down to say something, and I saw Pat rear back in blindsided astonishment at her appearance. His face flushed adolescent pink, there was glee in his smile and joy in his eyes, which cast around excitedly as if looking for someone to say something to, and I knew in that moment Pat Conroy was bursting with story. I looked around to see if anyone else was paying attention then leaned forward to say, “What is it, Pat?” and he spilled forth with, “You’re not going to believe this story!”
Never before have I been a more willing audience than I was as Pat launched into his story, which was a humorous take on unrequited love.
“Twenty five letters I wrote to this woman when I was in college, and not once, not once did she ever respond,” he shared, as the object of this story shook her head and protested. It was then I pulled out my camera. I ran into her much later, at the catered party the festival had on the last night of the weekend. Her name was Terry, and she felt moved to straighten me out with the facts.
“Already he could write better than anyone else, how in the world could I ever respond?” she insisted.
My Pat moments didn’t end there, nowhere near it. During what turned out to be a three-day love fest in honor of Pat Conroy, it seemed every time I turned around, he was there exuberant and smiling. We were friends now and he wanted my story; he wanted to know what I thought about the poetry panel, and he told me the panel discussions by the authors of “Story River Books” would be right up my alley. And they were, and it all was. Every moment of each day during the “Pat Conroy at 70” celebration was a gift that keeps on giving for many reasons, but mostly because of my magic moments with Pat.
I understand the USC Press and the USCB Center for the Arts will hold its first annual literary conference this October in honor of Pat Conroy, where his spirit, no doubt, will be hovering. To this I have one thing to say:
I was recently asked the following question in an interview: “Where do you go to find inspiration?” The interviewer sited the habit of Charles Dickens, who would take to the streets of London every day in a five to six mile stroll while looking for source material, which left me with an appealing visual image. I just like the idea of this writer cruising the London streets, his eyes darting hither and yon as he tallied up random impressions. Because I wanted to answer the question to the best of my ability, I pondered it until it hit me: I don’t go anywhere; I simply live my life with my eyes open and allow myself to be influenced. Sometimes the most seemingly inconsequential things can affect me, and by this I mean strike an emotional cord. They typically happen in the blink of an eye yet this doesn’t make them any the less meaningful. What I do is follow the cord once it’s struck and let the impression fully in so I can feel its repercussion. I think inspiration can’t be sought out because it resides within every human being. And because it resides within, there are moments when it is triggered. Once it is, I think inspiration resonates in such a way that a writer feels compelled to put it into words. Therefore, it is not so much a question of “Where you go to find inspiration,” it’s more like “What do you do once you acknowledge you’re inspired.” As for me , when inspiration is triggered, I grab a pen.