What I’m Learning From My Book Events

My novel The Songs We Hide came out May 1, and since then I’ve done eleven book events. I’m using the term “events” loosely, because these gatherings have come in different sizes and taken different forms. I’ve presented at bookstores, with one gathering consisting of over 70 people and another consisting of four. I’ve spoken to a small writing group, a church women’s book club, and a whoever-wants-to-come group in a retirement facility. I’ve spoken in homes and in a business conference room. My largest number of sales was 44; my smallest, I think, was three.

Claire Gebben, a writer friend who’s been doing this longer than I have, wisely told me that book events usually aren’t money-makers, but they’re good opportunities to connect with people. That’s what I’m finding out. After these events, what I tend to remember is the dialog, the stories people tell me afterward, the questions they ask. I’ve talked with aspiring writers who feel confused and overwhelmed, and I’ve talked with Hungarians who still carry painful memories 60 years after leaving their homeland.

At times the conversation is more rushed and interrupted than I’d like: a few nights ago a man was trying to tell me about his Hungarian grandparents while someone else wanted me to sign the book she’d just bought. But I try to listen whenever I can. People need to know that their concerns matter to someone, and in situations like this, I am that someone.

Another thing Claire and other writers told me is, “People don’t just want to hear you read from your book. They want to hear your own story.” At first I didn’t know what to do with this. My story? What’s interesting about that? But I’m finding that the advice is true. People want to know what this process has been like. They want to know what has motivated and frustrated me. Recently one perceptive audience member asked how the writing process has changed me. What a question.

So I talked about learning to deal with criticism of my work. I spoke of putting myself into the mind and heart of my protagonists, which meant thinking like someone else, not just now and then but almost daily for a number of years. This has been a long season of setting myself aside–telling my ego to leave me alone so I can work, quieting my own self-talk so the voices of my characters could emerge.

This self-emptying was hard to put into words at the book event. But afterward a writer and an artist in the audience came up to me and told me they felt inspired. They wanted to go home and write or paint. My friend Claire was right: my inner story matters more than I know, not just to me, but to others as well.

Heart and Understanding: Adopting a Foreign Culture as a Writer

My son Brendan is a missionary in Peru. He and his wife and children live high in the Andes among the Quechua people. He uses the Quechua language daily, as well as Spanish. Brendan and his family eat the foods of the region (including guinea pig) and are observant of Quechua cultural expectations, which may or may not make sense to Americans. He has adjusted to this life out of love and respect for the Quechua people and his calling among them. Although he knows that to some extent he will always be regarded as a foreigner, he also knows that the people trust him.

Hungarian peasant house

Although I am not living in a foreign culture as Brendan is, in my work as a historical fiction writer, I had to learn similar adjustments in my mindset and heart. My novel The Songs We Hide is set in Hungary in 1951. As I wrote the novel, I had to “become” as Hungarian as I could, which was a greater challege than I could have known. It was also a greater reward. Here are some thoughts on both the struggle and the discovery, as described in my author’s statement  for the book:

I didn’t know at the outset how hard it would be to write about a time, place and culture not my own. As I spent endless hours reading, interviewing, listening to Hungarian music, negotiating the streets of Budapest, and especially writing draft after draft, I struggled not only with understanding it all but also with setting aside my modern American assumptions. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are optimistic and entrepreneurial, counting on opportunity. We take pride in speaking our minds and making our own choices. But what if, as in Cold War Europe, opportunity barely existed? What if speaking up meant endangering not only ourselves but others as well? What if social constraints were so tight that every choice carried a high cost?

As I wrote The Songs We Hide, I had to think with the guardedness, and sometimes bitterness, of post-war Europe.  The mental adjustment wasn’t easy. Still, at some point my frustration turned to understanding. I learned to appreciate dark Hungarian humor. I’ve come to love Hungary’s beautiful folk heritage and especially its rich musical tradition. This culture that is not my own has nonetheless become part of me, and that’s been my greatest reward in this project.