Author William Styron once said, “There’s only one person a writer should pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader.”
It’s easy to forget, sitting at your desk for hours and hours and hours every day, just why you ever wanted to write a book in the first place. There are many times a week when I wish I worked at the mall or at the drugstore on the corner, someplace with a very clear and firm beginning time and quitting time that hopefully wouldn’t leave me so mentally/emotionally/physically drained at the end of each day. (Which is not to say, of course, that this can’t happen when working at the mall or the drugstore.)
Earlier this summer, I dragged myself away from my desk and my computer and my piles of spy research and maps and binders and index cards and the general bubble of 1944 France (the setting of my latest book project) in which I seem to live these days, and flew off to New Orleans, where I was scheduled to appear at the ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference and Exhibit. Now, I say “dragged,” but don’t get me wrong: it was an honor to be invited, and I was thrilled to be included. But when I left, I was at that grueling, brain-deadening, veins open, bleeding onto the table, I haven’t changed my outfit in three days, who are you, who am I, when did I last eat/sleep/wash my hair, what happened to my life period in the book, and I was worried about being any good to anyone at ALA since I could barely remember my own name. I mean I have been right there beside Velva Jean, living in this book.
But of all the many, many book events I’ve been to since I started writing professionally thirteen years ago, ALA ended up being one of favorites and, on countless levels, it was well worth washing my hair and changing my outfit for. First of all, it was in New Orleans, a city I love. Actually, make that LOVE. And second of all, I got to appear on a Southern Writers Panel with five amazing authors—John Hart (The King of Lies, Iron House), Kathleen Kent (The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife), Pat MacEnulty (Wait Until Tomorrow), Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), and Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang). We rocked that panel, if I say so myself, and afterward we just signed and signed and signed those books.
I also did a signing beforehand, and this was the very best part of the entire weekend. Better than beignets at Café de Monde or a stroll through Jackson Square (one of my favorite places on this earth), better than the sounds of jazz playing throughout the Quarter on a lively Friday afternoon, better than the two-story Anthropologie that was literally a block from my hotel. Signing books for librarians and educators is a dream because they love to read! And they love books! And they are doing so much for so many people to encourage them to read and love books (in spite of libraries everywhere being forced to close their doors, but more on that in a later blog)! In my travels as a writer, I hear too often how people “just don’t read” or “just don’t have time to read,” as if this is something to be proud of. But being at ALA is a writer’s dream.
The very, very best thing about the signing, though, was meeting a young woman who came all the way from Georgia and stood in line for half an hour before I arrived, just so she could be first to meet me. She told me that Velva Jean changed her life. She said she was in an abusive marriage for several years (even though she’s nearly as young as Velva Jean was when she left Harley), and that her mother gave her a copy of Velva Jean Learns to Drive and told her she needed to read it. She not only read it, she took it to heart, and she said that Velva Jean and I gave her the courage and strength to get out of that marriage and into her own yellow truck, headed to her own Nashville. Now she, like Velva Jean, is in her “flying” stage. She said, “I just had to come here to tell you what you and Velva Jean have done for me. Velva Jean is my hero.”
John Updike once said, “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on the library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenage boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”
I can’t tell you what that young woman’s words meant to me. That particular meeting and moment were probably the most meaningful of all the meaningful meetings and moments I’ve experienced with the book, and there have been many. I will never forget it or her. That was a great and important thing to take away with me as I settled back in to my desk and my work and my regular writing outfit and the long, long hours of writing and rewriting and editing that lay ahead. And it's a great and important thing to remember now in the midst of my book tour for my latest published book, Velva Jean Learns to Fly. Moments like those, and readers like her, are one of the reasons I write. They are, perhaps, the best reason. And it is so good to be reminded of that.
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society