By Masha Hamilton, Daniela Kuper and Judi Hendricks
We got an unusual call the other day from a cell phone in a car somewhere outside of Las Cruces. After several lost signals and retries, we finally managed a conversation with the caller, Daniela Kuper, author of the novel Hunger and Thirst. It seems she and two other novelists—Judi Hendricks, author of The Baker's Apprentice, and Masha Hamilton, author of The Distance Between Us—had just wrapped up a wonderful trip to Las Cruces, where a joint reading at the Branigan Library had far exceeded their expectations. The trio were eager to share their experiences, as a sort of thank-you to the area and a report on what can go right in the too-often-wrong publishing business. Here's their account—or, rather, accounts:
There is a quiet space writers must slip into if they hope to be able to hear the voices within. The world being what it is, getting there is commonly a challenge. And because novel-writing is a marathon, we novelists must ease into that space not once, but countless times over many years, often in a variety of cities and towns.
Once the voices have had their say, we are expected not only to find a publisher to believe in our work, but then to change out of our pajamas, tug on our tap shoes and perform. It's become a cliche, but a true one. It doesn't matter if we are shy or overworked or our children want us home. We have no choice, they say, if we hope to publish again one day.
Though the performance is required, the audience is not guaranteed. That uncertainty demands a leap of faith, particularly the further afield we venture. Once, in a bookstore the size of my childhood bedroom, I read for my husband, one friend, an old man hard of hearing, and a mangy dog that crept in from the night.
Las Cruces was my last stop in our joint tour, and I knew we might face a scene reminiscent of that bookstore of my past. We were traveling to a town where we had no family or support system. Though Judi lives in Santa Fe, Daniela comes from Maine and I from New York City. I nevertheless enjoyed the hours spent in the backseat of Judi's car as she drove us toward the historic stomping ground of Billy the Kid and Geronimo. I grew up in Arizona, and love the clean, dramatic desert vistas.
On that drive, I already felt a premature nostalgia. This was, after all, the last run. We barely knew one another before the tour began; by its end, we'd shared everything from confidences to toothbrushes. People told us at each stop how different we were as writers and as women, adding that it made our dialogue more intriguing. The first time someone said it, it surprised me. I saw our commonalities before I saw the differences. We each cared about telling true stories. We each were committed to that fragile act of holding the words close for as long as it takes to get them right.
Las Cruces, it turns out, was an ideal last stop. The Thomas Branigan Memorial Library is the color of an early sunset and curved in contrast to the desert's sharper angles. Mark Pendleton made us feel deeply welcome. And I was moved by an audience that included many who came to discuss private fears as they approached their own stories.
I only wish I could have told them what I discovered by the time we left. Las Cruces is not only a town of warm generosity. It is also conducive to the quiet spaces. It's a place where the voices in our heads and hearts can be heard.
For most novelists, the hard work begins after they finish the book. Experienced novelists know this, first-time novelists like me learn through months of book touring— events that fill the room, events where my cousin Nancy is half the audience.
Still, despite the odds or how tired I am or the number of books sold or unsold, magic can happen with an audience. And it happened the night Masha, Judi and I spoke in Las Cruces at the Thomas Branigan Library.
A former war journalist, baker and advertising CEO, the three of us stopped cold and, mid-life, turned to writing. We came together to break some tired literary rules, support each other's work instead of just our own, feed people, give away baskets of comfort, speak about the unspeakable act of writing.
The audience in Las Cruces pulled the best out of us. Before we took to the stage, people had open notebooks, booted laptops, cameras aimed and ready. They were frank, generous, surprising and thoughtful with their unstoppable questions. A mother brought her daughter who, at 13, had already written 90 single-spaced pages of a novel. Jeez. At 13, I was learning to floss.
Hands were up, people were yelling out questions. A mental health worker-turned-writer told us she'd stuffed down her own emotions so long, she couldn't make her characters come alive. She knew she had to open that locked suitcase, and she was scared. A man needed courage to extricate his novel from under the bed, and begin again.
An old saying kept repeating in my mind: You think you are the teacher and find you are the taught.
The three of us were dog-tired from a relentless tour that had us going from reading to interview to reading with barely enough downtime to change clothes. I watched my writer friends. Las Cruces was juicing us. This would be the loosest, most intimate talk we'd deliver together.
Paul Blevins from the Mesilla Book Center filled two tables with stacks of our books and no, he didn't sell out. Not even nearly. It was hard to watch his face when a woman said she was waiting to buy from her brother-in-law who worked in a bigger bookstore—you know the story.
Our bottom-line friends would tell us it didn't make sense—so much time, so many miles, so few books sold. They would be wrong.
That night in Las Cruces our backbones straightened, we were allowed a rich peek beneath surfaces, we were given the faith to go back to our rooms and start another world. And this, more than any profit and loss statement, is what writers live for.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. (Apologies to Mr. Dickens.)
The best was the part where three writers—total strangers, really, except for a two-hour panel in Tempe, Ariz., last November—managed to pull together a coherent presentation, travel together for two weeks, sharing bedrooms, vitamins, eye drops and, on one desperate occasion, a toothbrush. And to do all that and emerge not only still speaking to each other, but as real friends.
The best part also included the public libraries, independent bookstores, the American Association of University Women chapters that filled rooms with enthusiastic, interested and interesting readers who had challenging questions to ask and inspiring stories to share.
The worst part was the big chain store where no promotion was done and so no one showed up except the boys who wanted their extra-credit slips signed to prove they'd been to an author event. The constant battle to ensure a supply of all our books falls under that worst category, too.
The last place where we expected it all to come together—venue, promotion, audience, books—was Las Cruces. Some writer friends laughed or gasped "why?" when we said we were going to speak at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library. After all, none of us knew a soul in the town—well, except for one old boyfriend who suddenly remembered a previous engagement. When we talked about it afterwards, we couldn't even recall how we ended up booking Las Cruces. It was a four-hour drive from Santa Fe, down one morning after an hour-long early radio interview, do the Branigan event that night, get up the next morning and race back for another Santa Fe event to read works in progress. What were we thinking?
Whatever we were thinking (or not), it turned out to be perfect. Almost. Nice venue, enthusiastic promotion, great audience, local independent bookseller. Our presentation was spot-on (in all modesty). The only problem was, we didn't generate enough book sales to pay for our gas.
At a large Albuquerque bookstore earlier in the week, some of our books never showed up. The store said the distributor was out of them. Okay, it happens. And yet Mesilla Book Center managed to get them and Paul Blevins carted in enough books to make the signing table look like a Thanksgiving feast instead of the South Beach grapefruit diet. I felt the hit he took from the woman who said she was going to wait and get hers through her brother who worked for Big Brand X.
Greater minds than mine have puzzled over this contradiction—why some events work and some don't. Why people who appear to have thoroughly enjoyed the evening simply disappear after refreshments. Or worse, come up to the signing table, carefully examine each book and then smile and say good night. Maybe it was too far from payday or too close to the holidays. Maybe Venus was in retrograde. Maybe some people will wander into Mesilla Book Center in the next few weeks, see our novels, and say, Oh yes. I saw these women at the library. Maybe they'll buy a couple for cousin Doris and Uncle Frank for Christmas presents.
For all our sakes, I hope so.