Writing is a funny business. As writers, we are expected to do two things. First, sit in a room alone and imagine things for a couple of years; then, stand in front of groups of people and, if humanly possible, be charming. They are two skill sets at the opposite ends of the personality spectrum, which is why I enjoy both. There is a part of me that is an introvert—escaping to my room with a good book during a childhood that involved four brothers and sisters taught me the joys of both being alone and literature. But (and if you do not believe me, ask anyone who knows me) for better or for worse I am also a ham. I’m an old theatre junkie who enjoys stepping in front of a group of people—whether to give a lecture, read a story, answer questions, perform Shakespeare, or some combination of the above. So, while, like anyone, I could do without the crowded airports and the lack of time to eat much of anything that resembles food, I actually like going on a book tour. My latest jaunt took me to stores in Wichita and outside Pittsburgh—three days, six flights, and one mad dash through O’Hare to make a connection.
Talking with customers at the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA, I started to think about what it is, exactly, that I enjoy about coming face to face with my readers. Sure, it’s nice to get feedback on your work or to see the excited faces of those who have not yet read your book but want very much to do so, but it’s more than that. It has to do with what I imagine when I am in that room all alone. For years I imagined a “reader”—some fictional being to whom I was speaking as I wrote. That person would one day read my words and for him or her I was writing. But I had no idea who that person was. I wrote simply for the abstract idea of reader.
Now, however, I have met those readers face to face. I have talked with men and women in Atlanta and New York, in Birmingham and Asheville, in Wichita and Durham. Now when I sit down to write, it is no longer with an imagined reader in mind. Now I write for readers who actually exist, and having the chance to meet them not only makes them real to me, but it makes my task of writing both easier and more challenging—easier because now I know I am writing for people who will actually read my words; more challenging because they are real and I want very much not to disappoint them.
So, to all of you who have come out to see me on tour—or who will come out to see me during the soon to be announced First Impressions tour in October and November—I say “Thank You.” Because of you writing is no longer just an intellectual exercise. Writing is a conversation. It is that conversation between audience and actor that I loved about the theatre and it is that conversation between writer and reader that you have taught me to love as a novelist.