https://open.spotify.com/episode/5srHVbawjkx0Z6SkUVeTHC?si=zH9FYZ6NRtqub0jKUpTgTQ&dl_branch=1 There are many ways that writers fight the isolation inherent in what we do. One is forging alliances with other writers, building a community that understands the creative process and comes together to celebrate the triumphs and soothe the sting of the rejections. Over the past six years and a newbie to this world, I’ve been fortunate to slowly develop a network I can count on to exchange ideas, lean on for encouragement, and cheer each other’s accomplishments.
Another connection that’s also critical, if more elusive, less reliable and sometimes more surprising, is the relationship we establish with our readers. During these Covid times, when writers have largely lost the ability to connect with readers in person, it’s worth remembering that our greatest interaction with our readers was always “virtual”–the invisible link we created when we wrote the story and someone gave the time and love to consider our words.
Occasionally, if we were very lucky, a reader would reach out and express what had resonated, going beyond the generic “I enjoyed your book” or “It wasn’t for me.” Those moments, where writer and reader get into each other’s souls, sustain us in what can otherwise be a lonely endeavor.
Looking back on the experiences with readers that I had in relation to my debut novel, I’m struck by how genuine and intense the exchanges were. Liana, the protagonist of Unreasonable Doubts, is a young attorney at a professional crossroads, flagging in her passion as a public defender representing convicted felons.
In the many presentations I made at law firms, bar associations, and law schools, I met with countless women lawyers who saw themselves in Liana, scrutinizing their professional goals and sorting out how they intersected with their responsibilities to partners, children, and aging parents. Many of these same readers also felt the pull to write more creatively and perhaps to leave the law, to start a second chapter as I’d had the good fortune to do.
Other interactions were more personal. One woman told me that a scene in the novel where a character dying of cancer gave firm instructions regarding her own funeral had given her the strength to stick to her guns with her siblings when making arrangements for the funeral of their mother. I was blown away.
The question of the role of faith in navigating through difficult points in life ran through the story, given voice by the character of Rabbi Nacht. The faith element was too much for one reader who, reviewing the book online, said that the Jewish themes in the book were a bit over the top for her. But she poignantly noted that she “wished she had a friend like that Rabbi.”
On the other side of the spectrum, one reviewer accused me of insensitivity and worse because I portrayed one character, a man convicted of a sex offense, as multi-layered, capable of not only of cruelty but also of love. The critique was piercing, so much so that I felt it must stem from personal experience, and I later learned that the reviewer was a rape survivor. The context transformed the nature of her communication from simply hostile to something more urgent. The reader needed me to understand how my character, even though fictional, could do her harm by triggering painful memories.
And then are the bonds with readers that will only be hinted at, fleeting glimpses that are never fully realized except in my mind. Such was the reader contact I envisioned recently during a Goodreads giveaway contest for review copies of my new book, a novel for children entitled My Name Is Layla about a 13-year-old girl with dyslexia.
I was sent the list of five winners, chosen randomly out of over 1450 who registered. There’s nothing like a list of names and addresses and the yearning to connect to spark the imagination. Who are these individuals, and what inspired these particular people to try to win a copy of my book?
What would they say to me if we had the chance to meet? They came from all across the country, New York, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Illinois. I was thrilled to see in the bios that one was a children’s librarian, who might pay special attention to my book, perhaps help me spread the word in some way; another was a healthcare worker, and I found myself fervently hoping for her safety during the pandemic. But the winner who really caught my attention was the one man among the group.
His Goodreads bio told me that he was 56 years old, that he read a lot. But a quick internet search revealed more, and what I learned left me feeling wistful. My winner was a recent widow, having lost his wife in her forties. How did she die? Was she a victim of this terrible plague? I thought about what she might have been like. Perhaps she had a wonderful sense of humor, and I imagined the man longing to hear the sound of her laughter in the house.
Maybe they had children just the right age to read my book. Did the man enter the giveaway hoping to win a copy for them? Would he read the novel along with them, a chance for the three of them to sit on the couch together, enjoying a moment of peace even while yearning for the one no longer with them? As I settled into the holiday season with my own husband and children, I wondered how this family was coping and whether the escape of reading eased the pain, at least for a little while.
Sometimes an imagined connection between writer and reader is all there is. Sometimes, although woefully unsatisfying, it’s enough.
MY NAME IS LAYLA eNook is available for a limited time for 99 cents at bit.ly/MyNameIsLayla.