by Nancy King
Photo by Linda Dickson.
I’m an author, Nancy King—no relation to Stephen King—but if I were, this story might be different. As it is, I travel to independent bookstores in nearby cities, each time hoping I will find a room full of people waiting to hear what I have to say about my new novel, Changing Spaces, and wanting to buy my books.
In one bookstore, a few people wander up to the display, pick up copies of my books and thumb through the pages. This is promising, I think. There aren't many people, but at least looking and thumbing are a prelude to buying. I grin broadly when a petite, well-dressed woman approaches me. “Are you the author?”
“Yes," I reply expectantly.
“I don’t read,” she announces.
Stunned, I say the first thing that comes to mind. “What do you do?”
“I write novels,” she says, looking pleased with herself.
“What do you write about?” I ask, not really interested, but grateful that someone is talking with me.
“Well, I don’t really know.” She looks at me, as if expecting me to tell her what she writes.
I have no idea where this conversation is going but she’s staring at me with too much intensity for me to excuse myself. Besides, where would I go? I’m standing by myself, next to a pile of my books. “What interests you?”
Without missing a beat she responds, “I like to be read to. Would you read me something from your novel?”
I look around the room. I imagine a crowd of people waiting for me to begin my presentation, but the fantasy is quickly dissolved by the reality of empty chairs and feelings of discouragement. I dutifully pick up a copy of my novel, and ask my interlocutor to sit. I sit next to her and read a page and a half of my book.
When I stop, she says, “You’re a good writer. What happens at the end of the novel?”
The imp in me answers. “Well, you have to buy the book and read it to find out.”
She sighs, asks me to sign a book from one writer to another, pays and leaves.
The only other person sitting in the row of empty chairs picks up a copy of A Woman Walking, tells me he loves folk tales and asks if the tales in my novel are real or made up. When I tell him that I invented the tales in the book, he smiles. “Well, somebody must have made up the first folk tales so I guess you have a right to make up your own.” He reads a bit of the book while I watch, wishing I were besieged by throngs of people waiting for me to sign their books. At least he makes the purchase. The hour and a half that I drove to the store is not a total waste of time, gas, and hopes.
On another occasion, a friend persuades a bookstore owner to have me talk even though no one in the city knows me except my friend. On our way to the bookstore I tell myself, it’s no shame if no one comes, nor is it a reflection of the quality of my writing. But nothing I say to myself makes me feel better. We walk into the store. A few people are looking at books. No one is sitting. The owner smiles and says, “Let’s wait for a few minutes. Sometimes people straggle in.” I nod, wanting to crawl into the nearest nonexistent hole. Then, miraculously, a few people actually do sit down. They look at me expectantly. I wonder what I can say that will keep them in their seats. While the bookstore owner introduces me, I tell myself what I used to tell students in my storytelling classes: “Don’t think of storytelling as a performance; focus on sharing stories you love.”
My pep talk actually inspires me. Soon I’m talking about what’s most alive in me, about the novel, about what I’ve learned while writing it, and they’re listening, laughing, nodding their heads. Shame disappears. Tension dissolves. Joy fills my heart. They ask questions. A few books are sold. This is what happens on a good day.
At another bookstore, the three rows of empty chairs stare at me in rebuke. How dare I imagine anyone would be interested in my books or what I have to say? The display of my work goes unnoticed. I am embarrassed, preparing to leave with a heavy heart, when a woman rushes in, notices the empty chairs and says, “I don’t usually leave the house on a Tuesday night but I need to hear what you have to say about reconnecting with one’s disconnected self.” She looks at the empty chairs. I look at her and see her tired, lined, grief-filled face.
I forget about the empty chairs. “Let’s sit down.” We do not know each other, yet for the next forty minutes we talk with the depth and intimacy usually reserved for close friends. Only one person, yet I leave with a heart full of gratitude. And two books sold.
The next time I drive to a local bookstore, the thought of nobody coming is strong enough to make my stomach hurt. I steel myself for another event where I wish I were leaving, not arriving. I park the car and walk inside slowly, wanting it to be over before it begins.
I’m early and yet some people have already gathered. People I don’t know. People I do know. My spirits lift. At least some of the chairs are filled. More people come. Friends say hello, welcome me. Soon, not only are all the chairs filled, but a back row is added. The proprietor introduces me with such caring that my eyes fill with tears.
I begin to talk, my novel perched on a music stand in front of me. Suddenly, although I have not touched the stand, the book is moving down. Sliding away from me, beyond my grasp, out of sight. What do I do? I decide to keep talking but everyone’s eyes are on the moving music stand. A man from the bookstore tries to lift it back up and lock it into place. I’m amazingly calm, watching him struggle as if it were a movie. He can’t fix it. He apologizes. I nod, laugh, say I’ll just hold the book in my hands.
“How did you remain so unflappable?” one audience member asks me.
I shrug. What I don't say is that it is such an enormous relief to have a responsive audience and sell books that nothing short of an earthquake, flood or cyclone could dampen my experience of living the novelist's dream.
“If you can't come to her book signings, the author invites you to visit her website to learn more about her and her books.”
Nancy King is the author of the new book, Changing Spaces, coincidentally about a woman who wakes up one morning with her husband in the life she knew, and by the end of the day, she is alone, on her own, and in a different life