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Unexpected and Long-Tail Gifts: You Never Know the Difference Your Book Might Make …

Barbara ProbstWhen we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?

At the most concrete level, we want our book to be bought, liked, recommended, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who’ve been touched and changed by what we wrote.

When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things, and I got many of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important outcomes are ones I never could have foreseen. They’re what I’m calling “unexpected, long-tail gifts”—responses from readers, often months later, that let me know how much my story meant to them.

My experience isn’t unique. When I reached out to other authors I knew, I found that all of them had a story (or two) about an encounter with a reader that left them humbled, honored, even moved to tears. Pondering what they told me, I’ve identified several themes that I’d like to share with you, along with some of their stories, as this year-to-end-all-years draws to a close. My hope is that these examples will help to remind us how much our writing really does matter and why it’s so deeply needed—especially now.

Finding the strength to go on

Therese Walsh tells how her novel, The Moon Sisters, found its way to a woman whose son had taken his own life. Though hesitant to read the book since she knew it was framed around a death in the family, the woman did read it and then reached out to let Therese know that it helped her to see a path forward for herself. She wrote: “What my heart appreciated the most was that the search eventually morphs into what the quest must be when answers remain elusive:  Where do we go from here?”  For Therese, “the book was written exactly for a person who needed hope after loss. That it found her, and that it resonated for her and hopefully brought some measure of comfort—helped her to find hope, despite the absurdity and sometimes even the brutality of life— well, gratified isn’t the right word for what I felt. It’s so much bigger than that.”

I’d venture to say that Therese is talking about the feeling of purpose, and of awe. There’s a sense of being of service—of playing a role in something that was meant to be—as someone picks up our book at just the moment when it’s needed most. As Caroline Leavitt, author of With You or Without You, said to me: “I got this astonishing email from a stranger who told me that she’d been going through a really hard time. She was stuck in a bad marriage and thought her life was over, but she read my book and told me, ‘I swear there was magic in that novel of yours’ because she suddenly felt that there might still be possibilities for her.”

Several authors told of equally extraordinary moments, when a reader shared how knowing that someone else—even if it was “just” a character in her book—had not only survived, but found a path forward, helped them find a freedom and a hope that had seemed unattainable. Kathryn Craft, author of The Far Side of Happy, told me: “The most touching comments I received were from people who had survived family suicides that no one ever spoke about, or had attempted suicide themselves. One young woman admitted to attempting suicide more than once—and then, after my event, she posted about our interaction on her Facebook page, amazed that I had held up the signing line to come around the table and hug her, and how this simple act had meant the world to her.”

Validating their own experience

When a reader bonds with one of our characters—feels that the character is not only credible and alive, but is someone just like me—it can bring a powerful sense of not being alone, not being the only one who’s gone through something painful and difficult. Randy Susan Meyers shared her experience after publishing her debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters. “So many people wrote that they’d never told anyone about the domestic violence in their family, the murder of their mother, sister, daughter. Wherever I went, once people heard about my novel and the story behind it, family stories that broke my heart rushed at me. I learned that the only thing required of me was listening, bearing witness, and always giving the message that they were not alone, and the shame was not theirs to bear.”

So too, Barbara Claypole White, who writes about mental illness in families, told me: “I’ve received incredible messages from readers that often start, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before, but …’  Sometimes they see family members in my characters, or they’re in a dark place themselves and find connection and hope.”

This sense of validation can also help someone take an important step. Barbara related the story of an email she received shortly after The Promise Between Us was published. “A reader stumbled on a copy of the book. Through my heroine’s journey, the reader realized that she wasn’t crazy; she was suffering from postpartum OCD. My novel led her to a therapist. That’s a pretty amazing feeling, to see that fiction can and really does make a difference.”

Similarly, Randy Susan Meyers tells of an encounter when she was a keynote speaker at an event. “Afterward, a couple asked to talk to me as I signed books. They told the story of how they lost their daughter when her husband killed her, a story they had never shared before. They wanted to know how they could help to prevent other deaths.”

This sense of validation can also come from “finding one’s tribe” in the story world—reading a novel set in a place, culture, or social environment that rings familiar and true. Author Claire Fullerton set her book Mourning Dove “on the genteel side” of Memphis in the 1970’s. As Claire told me: “I wanted to depict a particular milieu and the price one pays for living in a culture where bad things are not discussed. Because I laid bare that side of Memphis, I couldn’t help wondering about the book’s Memphis reception.” Would it feel authentic?

Her concern abated when she received an email from someone she’d known decades earlier, asking if she had time to speak with him about the book. Claire wrote to me: “We had what turned into an hour-long conversation about the Memphis we knew in our coming of age. He said that my depiction of the social and economic strata we were raised in was as accurately described as anything he’d ever read and thanked me profusely for putting it into words.”

Bringing a new understanding and appreciation

Certainly, there are books that open us to cultures and eras we know nothing about, enriching us by showing other ways of living. At their best, these books do two things at the same time: they show us something new and different, while also helping us to see and feel that these “different” people are very much like us in their struggles and joys. Ellen Notbohm’s The River by Starlight, for example, shines a light of understanding and social justice on how the human experience in another era—the American West of a century ago— both differs from and mirrors our own. Ellen told me that at nearly every reading she’s done, someone has approached her with tears in their eyes, thanking her “for telling my mother’s story, my grandmother’s story—finally.” Through Ellen’s novel, they understood, at last, what the women who came before them had gone through.

Debra Thomas also relates how this “new understanding and appreciation” can be deeply personal. The most moving response she received to her novel Luz was from a young Latina woman who saw herself and her mother in the characters of Luz and Alma. As Debra writes: “Reading Luz prompted a discussion with her mother about her crossing, and for the first time, my reader learned intimate details of her mother’s difficult journey from El Salvador, along the length of Mexico, and then through a desert crossing at the border—including being lost in the desert for ten days. She came away with a renewed respect for her mother and an appreciation for the struggle she endured so she could provide her daughter—herself—with a better life. “

Literally, saving a life

I end with my own story, which is what prompted me to reach out to these authors.

In my debut novel, Queen of the Owls, the “bookworm” protagonist reveals, sees, and comes to claim her body through studying—and re-enacting—the nude photos that Stieglitz took of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

I’ve received many messages from people who found the book to be deeply liberating, but an email from a woman I’ll call Cynthia was by far the most important. Cynthia won a copy of Queen of the Owls in a Facebook giveaway. Weeks later, she sent me an email.

“My connection to your novel is so surprising and totally unexpected … I’m uncomfortable looking at nude photos of women and reading descriptions of them. Nevertheless, I did quickly look up the photos of Georgia O’Keeffe that you mentioned in the book. The bigger deal is the book prompted me to do a breast examination of myself, which I know I’m supposed to do monthly, but don’t usually do. I found a small bluish-purple discoloration and a slight indentation. I called and had the physician’s assistant check me last week. She said it was not my imagination and scheduled me for a mammogram. They will also do a biopsy, if necessary. I am extremely grateful that I won a copy of your book and it prompted me to do this.”

Indeed, the doctors found a lump, and Cynthia was able to receive early treatment, including chemotherapy. She wrote again, later, to tell me she would never have had this early detection, and subsequent life-saving treatment, if she hadn’t read my book and been open to what it offered her.

Her story brought me to tears, reminding me that what we do through our writing has far more important consequences than how many stars, awards, reviews, or sales our books might collect. There are profound purposes we serve, as authors.

Cynthia’s is one story that I learned about. There may be other stories that I’ll never hear.

Our work as writers really matters. It might even save someone’s life.

What about you? If you’re an author, was there an unexpected gift you received from a reader? If you’re a reader, was there an unexpected gift you received from a book?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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