You Never Forget Your First

They say you never forget your first. No, not that first! I mean your first big book event!

It was exciting and humbling to participate in a panel of local memoirists at the iconic RJ Julia bookstore in Madison, CT earlier this month. RJ Julia is a dying breed – an independent book store that draws big name writers while also supporting new writers. I had been to RJ Julia while visiting my lifelong friend, Donna (she’s in my book) who lives in Madison. We even went to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. Jodi drew such a crowd, they had to move the event to the local high school. This bookstore is hallowed ground.

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Our event was much more humble but equally inspiring. I was joined by my fellow She Writes Press author, Roni Beth Tower, author of Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance. Who doesn’t love a good romance? I chuckled as she read a scene from her book, her first date with her husband. Her husband attended the event – oh the support! – and didn’t so much as blush as Roni read that flirtatious scene. Sherry Horton shared Witness Chair: A Memoir of Art, Marriage, and Loss as her husband battled cancer. Hearing Sherry read her words, I thought, “what beautiful writing,” so it made sense to learn that she is a writing teacher. Shawn Elizabeth George spoke about yoga and religion from her memoir My Journey to Live from the Inside Out.

I read a scene from The Sportscaster’s Daughter, the chapter “Escape Night.” It’s a tough scene, a scary scene when my brother, sister and I try to run away in the middle of the night after our mother goes bezerk. We don’t run away that night, but our father does get sole custody of us the following weekend. People at the event said the reading was riveting. I have sometimes cried when having to do a reading in writers’ workshops, reliving so much of the pain of the past. The only cure to this is to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Authors have to try for that out of body experience. I had to keep telling myself: “It’s not me now; it’s the child version of me.” My voice still trembled, equal parts the vivid memory and a brewing cold (the first cold all winter, less than ideal timing!). I also greatly appreciated a tip from another writer: make your reading an excerpt, specifically edited for a live reading, adding context, and deleting parts that would have required someone to have read the previous chapters.

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Some other things I learned from my fellow writers: bring some props. Sherry had an art theme and brought some things her husband had made. As I have a book club event at Oakland Library next week, I am contemplating playing one of my father’s old radio airchecks. But then, at RJ Julia, only a few people had even ever heard of George Michael. This has been my book’s duality: many are drawn to it because of the universal themes of family and self-esteem, some because of my father’s fame.

Other tips for my fellow writers:

  • Be prepared for the hard questions. One person asked, who do I now think is more of a monster-my father or my mother. My answer: neither. Another asked: are my brother, sister, and I still close, because that is how “The Escape” chapter ends; our father tells us we have to stick together. The answer to that is the long, sad story of my book.
  • Thank your hosts: Book stores rarely sell enough books at an event to justify the costs of hosting them. It is as much a labor of love for them as it is for us writers.
  • Remember the big picture: Your event may not be a sell out. If you have just one good interaction, be grateful for this. There is also the long tail of the associated promotion of the event, whether in papers, social media, the store’s newsletter and website.

I have another first this week: a reading and book club discussion at a library. This is not just any library, it’s the Oakland Public Library. Oakland is the town of my childhood when my dad first got custody of us, where the chapter The Golden Years takes place. I fully expect to be emotional. I can only hope also to be inspirational.

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