Give A Bookseller A Hug

Some authors are shy.  I’m not.

I remember a bookseller telling me some years ago about a visit to her store by an author whose work I admire.  This fellow had a fine new book, which the store owner had read in advance of his visit and was eagerly looking forward to recommending to her customers.  She arranged an appearance for the author, drew a crowd, had plenty of books available.  But she realized to her chagrin that the author was a terminal introvert.  He mumbled a few pages from his book to the assemblage, didn’t take questions or comments, barely met the eyes of people whose books he autographed, and scurried quickly away as soon as possible.  It was not a successful event.

Contrast that with another writer whose work I like a very great deal – Pat Conroy.  Pat is warm, funny, self-effacing, accessible, generous, and enormously talented.  When Pat appears at a book store, he seems to reach out and gather people to him.  Pat’s writing alone guarantees him an audience, but Pat makes the experience of meeting him in person a treat.  And it’s all completely genuine.  Booksellers love Pat Conroy.

Booksellers have a tough job – especially independent stores whose very existence has been in jeopardy for years.  The big box stores, Amazon, the e-book tsunami, have decimated their ranks.  In one good-sized city I’m familiar with, there were perhaps a dozen fine independent full-service bookstores not too many years ago.  Now there is one.  The stores that have survived are owned and run by people who combine savvy business sense with a love of books and work hard to deliver personal service to their customers.

Mid-list authors like me survive because of the independents.  We love to have our books available in any store of any size, and we have come to embrace the brave new world of the e-book.  But independents hand-sell our books.  Walk into one and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” and the bookseller will have a ready recommendation.  If independent booksellers like an author’s work and are willing to recommend it, that’s huge.

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC     

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC  

When I visit a book store of any kind or size, my attitude is that I’m there to help the bookseller.  I’m grateful for the invitation and I love meeting and talking with readers.  I really like people, and I’m thrilled when someone thinks enough of my work to want to read it and hear me talk about it.  If I enjoy myself and genuinely connect with the folks who take time to come out, it makes a successful event for the store and leaves a warm glow that will last long after I’ve left.  I try to be just like Pat Conroy.

I’m embarking on a promotional tour that will take me to a lot of bookstores of all kinds in the next couple of months.  After the years of hard labor it took to bring my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, to life, this is the payoff, and I don’t just mean in monetary terms.  It’s a time when I get to tell booksellers and readers how grateful I am for having the work to present, and the opportunity to present it.

We’d be a poor, sad society if we didn’t have booksellers.  So visit a store, give the bookseller a hug, and take home something good to read.  If you visit while I’m there, I’ll be mighty glad to see you.  Hugs are optional.

The Girl He Couldn't Do Without

They’re honeymooning at the beach – our young friend and the girl he couldn’t do without.

It’s a piece of advice my mother gave me when I was single, dating this girl and that one, occasionally bringing one home to meet the parents.  “Marry the one you can’t do without,” Mother said, and I took her advice to heart.  When things began to look a trifle serious with a young lady, I would ask myself, “Could I do without this one?” In every case but the last one, I could.  Then I met Paulette.  We’ve been married for 46 years.  I couldn’t do without her back then, and I can’t now.

I suppose it’s a tough yardstick to use when you’re considering a relationship that could become a lifetime.  But as mother said, if you choose someone you could do without, the odds are you eventually will.  Better to be tough going in than tough coming out.  Better a broken heart when a relationship is in its infancy than when it’s over.

So Paulette and I joined the crowd of friends and family in a rural Baptist church in south Alabama last weekend to see John and Candy begin a life together.  The way they looked into each other’s eyes as they stood before the preacher and said their vows told us they’ve chosen the ones they can’t do without, and that bodes well for a long life together.

There are times in any marriage when things seem to be coming apart at the seams.  It’s easy to just walk away.  But if the person on the other side of the conflict is the one you just can’t do without, you’ll make the extra effort to work things out and keep the partnership together.

I thought about my mother’s advice a lot when I was writing my new novel The Governor’s Lady which comes out in September.  There’s a marriage at the heart of it, and there a point where Cooper and Pickett have to face the essential question: can they do without each other?

Every good story needs a dilemma at its heart.  How the characters respond to the dilemma tells us who they are and how the story unfolds.  How this one unfolds will have to wait for September.