Book People—teachers, librarians, book club attenders, just simply people who love to READ—are the most wonderful people on earth.
Tonight was my first experience as the “guest of honor” for a book club. Invited by Gail Satterfield, fellow teacher at Calhoun High School a few years back and knowing it would be held at the home of Dr. Bob Linn, I “assumed” this was an impromptu meeting of English teachers who’d retired but still yearned for papers to grade. Other than a slight worry over being in the presence of those might chastise my love of passive verbs, I’d looked forward to the occasion, anxious to see old friends and talk with people who’d actually READ my book.
Finding the address, where cars were parked halfway down the street, I first thought I was mistaken.
“Surely all these people aren’t here to see ME,” I said aloud to no one. But I was wrong, on so many levels.
Dr. Linn and I taught in the same school for his last few years before his retiring, and his wife, Lee, taught my daughter Meredith in kindergarten, so many years ago. I had heard through teacher’s lounge voices that Dr. Linn had been a personal friend of folk artist Rev. Howard Finster and had in fact brought him to classes for lectures and q&a. I would not have been surprised to see a painting or two in the Linn’s home, yet I was not expecting a virtual museum of folk art!
Stepping inside, I totally forgot why I was there and, after asking permission, began to walk all over the house snapping photos of all the amazing art on the walls, on shelves, even serving as tables and chairs. Lee walked beside me, explaining where many of the pieces were made and for what occasion, where others were collected, how others (such as several artsy caricatures of Dr. Linn himself!) were either commissioned or given as gifts. I had no idea I was in for such a treat.
I saw several old friends and was introduced to many readers I’d never met—including local clergymen as well as Georgia author/mystery writer Mignon Ballard of the “Miss Dimple” series! What would I say to these people? Why had I not prepared a speech, or brought visual aids, or—why had I not realized this was really a BIG DEAL?
Even the food was served with an artsy flair—sandwiches rolled as fingers with almond nails and dribbles of “blood” sat beside fresh dips, cheeses, meatballs, and a variety of sweets. I poured a healthy helping of fruit-filled sangria into a cup, hoping to arouse my courage to try and sound halfway intelligent in this sanctuary of creativity. I felt so honored to be there, yet so unworthy. What could I say or do that might keep me from being “a colossal mistake” to be discussed and laughed at in their next meeting?
Plates were filled and the crowd gathered in the Linn’s cozy den. After a few jokes about the possibility of my offering a “song and dance” (many of them knew me as a director of choirs and dramatic musicals) they began to ask questions—interesting, thought-provoking questions that I not only COULD answer but also LOVED to answer:
- Obvious ones about the setting and the part of Georgia where I grew up
- Which character(s) are based on reality
- Which sections required the most research
- Did I know anyone with a “hook” for an arm
- Differences in the terms “farm” and “plantation”
- Had I lived in the area during flood times? How did this affect my writing?
- What was my beef with The Little White House
- Did bias from my former school employment help with my treatment of the schools featured in the story
- Did I KNOW how things would turn out before I wrote it all down
- How did I find an agent/publisher
- How many drafts did this take
- How much of my original story was cut in the end
- Which was the most challenging section to write/why
- What did I as a writer WANT readers to take with them from this story
The questions went on for more than an hour; some were easy, while others posed ideas I’d never considered before. They laughed, and listened, and made me feel like my words were a tasty treat-like meal—I can honestly say I have never felt that way while speaking aloud before.
“I’m a lot better on paper than I am in person,” I’ve said so many times, and I believe it to be so. Yet tonight I felt pretty good about being “live and unplugged,” and that’s something new for me.
Looking back now, I remember sort of semi-rehearsing in the car, imagining what people would ask and how I would answer, steering into ideas I’m more comfortable talking about: My favorite authors, what I’m reading now, well-loved but pre-planned ideas like southern sense of place, there’s only one Harper Lee/William Faulkner/Lee Smith, or five-days-‘til-release-of-the-new-Pat Conroy book.
These people were SHARP—I never even got NEAR any of those topics, and I didn’t notice or care at the time.
Time flew, and one person asked if I could read something before time to go. My take-to-signings copy is dog-eared with things to read aloud for perspective readers, but I wasn’t sure about what to read here.
“Read YOUR favorite passage,” someone said, so I did—a section I had not read from since the official “graduate reading” for my MFA.
A poignant portrayal of a southern funeral, the words seemed even more meaningful as I read them tonight. In the final draft of my book, an editor had wanted me to shorten or even delete this particularly tear-jerky section, yet it was one area in which I totally stood my ground. Sure it was repetitive, and drawn out, and a little too descriptive; I didn’t care. It was my favorite two pages and I wasn’t changing a word. Eventually, I wore her down. Secretly, I always wondered if maybe she was right—she WAS an editor and all. Maybe people WOULD skip over it.
Tonight, as I read those words, it was like remembering childbirth—you only remember the wonder of it all, and it’s like touching the hand of God all over again. I did this. This is mine. I matter—because of this.
We’d been talking and laughing all night, but for those few minutes, the room became dead still. Every eye was on me, they were all listening so intensely that I could the see picture I described in the reflections of their eyes.
I stopped and made a joke about the origin of one sentence, thinking I needed to break the ice for some reason. They smiled, but I felt the “teacher’s glare” that tells us to get serious and stop being the class clown. I did.
I felt myself slowing down, then building momentum, speaking in the character’s voice that I knew was dead-on though I hadn’t planned to deliver my reading this way. I didn’t hesitate to pause as long as necessary, or to raise my voice, or to slow down to a mumbling whisper.
I reached the end, where the preacher declared “Amen” and the crowd of mourners followed.
The room was still silent.
And then they cheered.
I never expected to feel so wonderful.
Tonight I say thank you to this wonderful group of readers, and to readers everywhere who continue to honor me with your thoughts on A Southern Place.
I’m probably NOT worthy, but I sure do love it….
I also know Bob and Lee Linn from their collection of hard to find, out of print, used and rare books and ephemera. I have loved browsing their collections at book festivals for years, and had planned to take a peak upstairs tonight, but—I left on cloud nine and totally forgot. Please visit their website at http://www.theridgebooks.com/