By Guest Contributor Anjali Mitter Duva
In September 2015, I finally had the experience most authors dread. I was surprised that it took a full year post-launch, and to be honest I’d been hoping it would come earlier so I could just get it over with. I’d done over two dozen events before it happened: the bookstore reading where only one person shows up. But that reading turned out to be a very enjoyable and meaningful experience, as have a number of other unanticipated experiences I’ve had this year, all thanks to social media.
Many of my writer friends bemoan the necessity of having a social media presence. They are weary of hearing other writers, publicists and agents harp on the imperative to be “a part of the conversation” through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. They balk at the time spent away from their writing projects, the need to be witty and wise, the effort of wading through so much chatter. And let’s face it: a lot of the conversation online is asinine or irrelevant. Just as a lot of IRL (in real life) conversation is asinine or irrelevant. Social media are incredible places where jerks can spread their jerkiness without limit. But: they are also places where it is incredibly easy and efficient to find like-minded people, one’s writerly tribe, and to create a global network of human friendship and support and, yes, opportunity.
My one-person-audience reading took place in Houston, TX, during a six-day trip I’d pulled together myself and crammed with events around my historical novel, Faint Promise of Rain, which takes place in the world of temple dancers in 16th century India. The bookstore itself, River Oaks Books, was lovely. The owner greeted me with a glass of wine and homemade lemon squares, which he handed me over a table piled high with copies of my book. We chatted for a while, and as the start time of the event drew near, it became apparent that no one was showing up. I made some wry comment. The owner gave me a warm smile and suggested I not worry about it. Ten minutes past the ostensible start time, a woman walked in with the flustered look of someone who knows she’s late. And I immediately knew I would have a good evening.
I first “met” her on Twitter after an exchange with my brother, whom she’d been following for a while, led her to follow me. Her Twitter profile gave no hint of her real identity, but she replied to my occasional Tweets, and we often had thought-provoking exchanges of ideas on language, culture, books, India. I developed an affinity, even affection, for this person who could have been anyone, anywhere. The only thing I knew was that she was Bengali, as is my father. And I trusted that she was actually a she.
After some weeks, I received a message via Facebook:
Anjali – hello! I’m @——– on Twitter. So pleased to know you. Looking forward to starting your book this weekend! Best wishes. And she signed with her real name. There was even a profile picture of an Indian woman about my age.
From there we continued our conversation via Facebook messages, then moved on to the more intimate realm of email. It turned out she lives in Houston and has a background in public relations. She started helping me plan out my trip, suggesting venues and possible places to stay, including with some of her friends. (As a woman traveling alone I didn’t accept the offer, but I certainly appreciated it.)
So when she walked in to the bookstore, I felt I was reuniting with an old friend. We sat at the table with all my books, drank wine, and discussed my journey to becoming a writer, my cultural background as an Indian American raised in France, the historical context of my book, and much more. The bookstore owner and staff joined us. A few random folks who’d wandered in to the store started paying attention. I went ahead and did a reading enhanced with dance movement, as I do, and everyone bought a copy of my book. The store had me sign a few, and sold me back, for a deep discount, a stack that I could bring to the conference at which I was speaking at the end of the week. My friend and I went out for dinner and instead of a gloomy night on my own in an unfamiliar city I had a fabulous meal during which the two of us realized we see eye to eye on many topics. We parted with hugs and a promise to keep in touch.
Later that week, I spoke at the Houston Writers’ Guild’s first ever Indiepalooza conference which I only found out about—and was invited to—thanks to another social media connection. I’d gone to the Facebook page of the fabulous Writer Unboxed group, and opened the file in which members have the option to post where they are geographically located. I zeroed in on those who said they were in Houston. This, to me, is an essential step to discovering a new city. I am an urban planner by training, and my explorations of a new city always begin with a close look at maps and transportation networks, then move on to learning about the social fabric, including where writers congregate. I messaged the ones I found, and without exception received warm, helpful responses. At the Indiepalooza conference I met one Kathy Murphy, originator of the Pulpwood Queens, a 550-chapter book club. She asked for a copy of my book, and three days later added me to the roster of books for her club in 2016. I’m headed back to Texas in January to be a part of her annual Girlfriend Weekend, what looks like a rollicking weekend of author panels, book signings, and parties. Never would I—or my literary historical novel—have had this opportunity without the intervention of social media.
In the past year, I’ve made many enriching connections, and have received repeated help and support, via social media. There’s the librarian from Skokie, IL who introduced herself as a Twitter follower with whom I’d also had wonderful exchanges, and who put me at ease at my first ever public speaking appearance for my book. There’s the woman in a Facebook group of historical novelists to took my query/complaint about my struggle to portray a nineteenth century 12 year old boy to a listserv of historians and came back to me with a six paragraph compilation of all the responses she received from colleagues, including URLs of primary sources such as collections of writings and journals not ordinarily available to the public. There’s a Los Angeles based dance teacher in a Facebook group of writers trying to do a version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) with whom I had an exchange about kathak (Indian classical) dance and who will help spread the word of my spring events in LA. There’s the writer with whom I had a conversation about the challenges of raising a “strong-willed” child who turns out to live in my very town and to do her writing at the same café that serves at my office. We are to meet up for coffee and conversation. And the list goes on. Ironically, I have less and less time to be on social media in part because of the connections and opportunities I’ve gained through being on them in the first place.
Social media have enriched my life as a writer, and that’s not something I ever expected to say, but it’s the honest truth. I’m only really active on two platforms—Facebook and Twitter—but that’s enough. I don’t have the time or inclination to be elsewhere. While I do mention my book events, I’m not on there for book sales. I have no idea how my social media activity affects my sales. I’m on there for actual, real connection, and for the daily reminder that for all the horrors that human beings wreak upon each other and the planet, the world is nonetheless full of amazing, creative, thoughtful, helpful and kind people going through their own struggles yet trying to do good. I recommend you seek them out, too.
Anjali Mitter Duva is an Indian-American writer raised in France. She is the author of Faint Promise Rain (She Writes Press, 2014) and a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization dedicated to the Indian classical dance form called kathak. She is a frequent speaker at literary conferences, libraries and cultural institutions. Educated at Brown University and MIT, Anjali lives near Boston where she is working on her next book and where she also runs a children’s book club and the Arlington Author Salon. Visit her at www.anjalimitterduva.com and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva