The dreams authors secretly dream about the journey to publication can be outsized, even grandiose. In our imaginations, top agents clamor to be The One. We dream of the auction, of the money raining down, the praise and starred reviews, long and short lists, prizes and prestige. We imagine buying new sunglasses, cool boots, an overcoat that says, “That woman knows how to shop.” We’ll waltz into our favorite Independent Bookstore in our Favorite City, in our Hometown, see our books faced out, prominently displayed. (We shall leave dreams dashed for other posts…)
But does any writer dream of stepping up to the podium, sinking into the comfy chair, perching on the wobbling stool, and killing that reading? Do we imagine standing in front of a crowd of unfamiliar faces, in front of rows upon rows of empty chairs? Or is that when dream turns to nightmare, when the gnawing beast of self-doubt appears? Our fraud will be exposed. We’ll stutter, stumble over simple words. We will look ugly; we will be poorly dressed. How the neck will flush, the crimson spreading from chin to cheek to hairline. “Oh, what an amateur!” they’ll say. “Oh, (with a roll of the eyes) what hubris to cry real tears over her own writing!”
And so it is that we enter the promotion stage of being a debut author.
My novel Winter Loon was published in December of 2018. I had two separate launch readings—one at my local library, one in a bookstore. Both were in front of friends and fellow writers, so, while I was nervous, I was fairly certain both events would be well-attended, that I wouldn’t have to pry questions out of a reluctant audience or win over strangers with witty stories. After that, I wasn’t so sure what to expect.
As it turns out, I had the great good fortune of doing a number of readings as part of a trio along with fellow debut novelists James Charlesworth (The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill) and Katrin Schumann (The Forgotten Hours). James and I first met online through a Facebook group of debut authors then in person at the GrubStreet Muse and the Marketplace Conference in 2018. Katrin and I had mutual friends at GrubStreet but really started talking one-on-one when we both sold novels to separate imprints of Amazon Publishing. With our books set to debut one after the next in close succession, the three of us decided it would be fun to do some readings together.
For me, it was a relief to share the stage, to not be the center of attention. We found commonality in our very different novels that created something of an arc for our readings as we talked about absentee fathers and the messes they left behind. Katrin focused on loyalty, I dealt with conflict, and James tackled resentment. Each of us drew our own crowds to readings which plumped up the audience and made the discussions dynamic. Our time together helped me shake off debut jitters and gain confidence in myself as a speaker and reader so that, when I have to hold the room alone, I can do a laudable job. I asked James and Katrin to share their thoughts on our joint reading journey.
(SB) How does doing group readings compare with doing readings on your own?
(KS) I far prefer reading with others. I think the dynamic is more interesting for the audience, and that makes me more comfortable. There’s nice camaraderie, others to share excitement and anxiety with. It’s incredibly helpful to get feedback from the other authors about how you’re doing with your answers, whether the reading works and so on. In our conversations, some themes cropped up that I realized I’d been inadvertently underplaying and I was able to self-correct in talks when I was on my own.
(SB) Katrin did issue a caution on choosing well, on sharing the stage with authors who are self-aware and willing to share the limelight and promote each other’s work as well as their own. The three of us were fortunate that, not only did we like each other and develop a quick rapport, we had that through-line which held our readings together. That commonality didn’t constrain our discussion of other topics but it gave us a reason for being together and a jumping-off point for reading and conversation. It also gave our audiences a lens through which they could view novels they hadn’t necessarily read which in turn inspired more creative and in-depth questions.
(SB) Has the group dynamic changed how you engage with your novel when you’re on your own?
(JC) I think doing readings with other authors helps you contextualize your work within a larger framework. It helps you get outside the history of your own book and the process of its creation and the millions of little stories you’ve crafted for yourself about it and consider how it relates to books by other writers you admire. For instance, Susan’s and Katrin’s and my books all use very different points of view. Susan’s is first person, Katrin’s is a limited third person with a single POV character, and mine is a shifting and at times omniscient third person. I think each of these POVs is the right choice for its particular book for a variety of practical and artistic reasons, and observations like that—which I probably never would have discovered without the group readings—make me more capable of talking about my book on its own terms when I’m alone in front of an audience.
(SB) James’ point is important here. The group readings helped deepen my understanding of how my novel was being received and how to read and support other writers’ work. The more I heard James speak about the four sibling in his novel, engaged with him about how their father’s relentless pursuit of a capitalist notion of the American Dream devastated each of them, the more I was able to reveal about the father in my novel, how he was a dreamer but not a striver, how he could devastate his child by cuts large and small where George Benjamin Hill cut deep swaths that stoked the resentment his children felt. As Katrin spoke about her protagonist’s loyalty to her father who has been convicted of sexual assault, how we can turn on each other, demand a kind of adherence to a script as if there is only one possible way to see a scene unfold, I was able to see nuance in the injustices and violence women in my novel suffered which helped me more fully answer questions and discuss these hurt women when I was with other groups of readers.
(SB) How has camaraderie among writers outside of our reading trio played a role in the launch of your debut novel?
(JC) It’s played a huge role! At times I feel like it’s the only thing that has gotten me through this new and unique and uncertain experience of putting a book out into the world. Susan, Katrin, and I are members of an online group called Debut Authors ’19, which now has almost 200 members. Aside from sharing tips, commiserating, and creating a safe and confidential place to ask questions, the group has also helped me make great friends. The three of us recently did a reading in Brooklyn, and half the crowd consisted of Debut Authors ’19 members. I can’t wait to attend their readings and share with them the excitement of their own books coming out.
(KS) The level of support is really wonderful—writers cheering each other on! But I have to admit it raises my anxiety too. I see how engaged other writers are on social media, how creative and invested, and I can’t come anywhere near that level of enthusiasm. It’s a bit too easy to fall into the trap of comparing your experiences with other writers’ and you can end up inadvertently reinforcing a sense of inferiority. Comparison truly is the thief of joy, and I have to work hard not to be constantly assessing my novel’s performance by comparing it to others. But it’s so helpful to connect with writers who have had experience with the specific issues you’re tabling and are generous enough to share their insights. I’ve been heartened time and time again by that generosity.
(SB) I can echo what Katrin confessed: how hard it is to see some of those things you dreamed of for yourself landing somewhere else. For me, that’s one of the reasons doing readings with Katrin and James made the months after my launch so enjoyable. I truly felt like I had a team, fellow writers on the same journey, dealing with joy and frustration even if the individual experiences weren’t necessarily the same. And because we did multiple readings together, our understanding and appreciation of each other’s work deepened. I feel a kinship with Katrin and James that will stay with me as I watch great things happen for them and for the novels they’ve labored over and lovingly launched into the great dream.
Visit the authors’ websites for information on their upcoming events.
Spanning seventy years of life in America, from the Great Depression to the age of corporate greed and terrorism, The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill is a literary suspense novel about the decline and consequence of patriarchal society; it is also an intricate family saga of aspiration and betrayal. James Charlesworth’s writing has appeared in Natural Bridge and was awarded finalist status in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. He is also the recipient of a Martin Dibner Fellowship from the Maine Community Foundation.
In her evocative debut novel The Forgotten Hours, Katrin Schumann weaves a riveting story of past and present, of loyalty and the haze of memory, of truth and facts twisted, and how love can lead us astray. Katrin Schumann has been awarded fiction residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Schumann teaches writing at GrubStreet in Boston and was an instructor in PEN’s Prison Writing Program. She lives in Boston and Key West.