SheWriters, I bring you an incredible success story by New York Times bestselling author Jenna Blum. She helped march her novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers up the charts in the most amazing way. I get shivers reading this. Jenna, take it away! —Sarah P.
By Jenna Blum
When my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US came out, I was underwhelmed to learn I’d have to participate in my own publicity. For years I’d heard writers bemoan the legwork they had to do to promote their novels and I’d thought smugly: I’ll never be like that.
Then THOSE WHO SAVE US was published and I ranted to my agent: Why hadn’t the novel been reviewed by the New York Times? Why had my publicist confessed, “I haven’t actually read your book”? When my agent advised me to think how I could publicize the novel, I raved, “But I’m a WRITER. Isn’t it enough I WROTE the damned book?”
My agent, who’s French and inimitable, said, “Non. Your publicist is overworked. She has 20 other titles besides yours. So go do whatever you have to.”
My publicity method consists of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. For THOSE WHO SAVE US, I hired an independent publicist—a hybrid of a Jewish Audrey Hepburn and Cujo—to get the novel to Jewish audiences. I did stand-up for the Jewish Book Council, schvitzing through my dress while trying to entertainingly explain why Hadassah members should read a novel about a German woman. I stuck business cards on Starbucks bulletin boards and under windshield wipers. I paid to fly to any bookstore that’d have me, from Chicago to Seattle to Minneapolis, reading to audiences of, sometimes, two: my mom and a homeless person who’d come in from the cold.
But like many things having to do with writing—the perfect sentence that descends from nowhere, the agent who takes you on after 47 rejections—what really helped was a stroke of Providence I couldn’t have foreseen.
I teach at Boston’s Grub Street Writers—the best writing school anywhere—and one night a novelist in my workshop, Chuck Garabedian, asked, “Would you consider speaking to my mom’s book club about THOSE WHO SAVE US?”
At this point, THOSE WHO SAVE US had been out a few months in hardcover, a.k.a. the Family & Friends Edition. That’s who’d bought it so far. I’d written the novel because I was in love with its characters and their stories. Anything I could do to get it into people’s hands was worth doing. Anything.
I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
A week later, I sat in front of Mrs. Garabedian’s house in my car. I hadn’t been so nervous since interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors Of The Shoah Foundation. Then, as now, I’d rung strangers’ doorbells and stepped inside. Now, as then, I hoped my reason for being there would trump my fear of making an ass of myself.
What happened at Mrs. Garabedian’s book club was much like what happened in survivors’ houses: everyone was as nervous as I was. I walked into a beautiful living room. There was a chair set out for me. There was a pot of coffe
e and a plate of small cakes. The difference was, there were ten women instead of one survivor. And everyone had my book. It was so weird to see it in their hands instead of in untouched stacks on a bookstore table. It felt so good.
I sat in my chair and began:
“Thank you,” I said.
Then I answered questions about my book for three hours. What a privilege! What a delight! How long had it taken me to write the novel? Where did the idea come from? Were the characters based on real people? Why was there so much sex in it? What did my mom think about that? Why hadn’t I used quotation marks?
By the time I left, I felt I’d made a roomful of friends.
The next week, another woman emailed me. She’d heard about Mrs. Garabedian’s book club; would I visit hers? The following week, I had two invitations.
The next month, five more.
By the time THOSE WHO SAVE US jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list two years later, I was speaking to three book clubs a day. Drinking way too much coffee and talking way too fast, like the Tasmanian Devil. But loving every second of driving to women’s houses, meeting their families, talking about my own babies—my books—and making new friends.
Book clubs keep books alive. My readers have passed my novels from hand to hand, mother to daughter, friend to friend. I still get bookings the same way: women write via my website and ask, “Will you come?” And no matter where they are—MA, FL, NH or NY—I do. By phone, by Skype, or, my favorite, in person. Because my readers have given me a gift beyond even the bestseller list. When I was a kid, I was fat and bullied by my peers, with the result that as an adult, I called myself a misanthrope. “Writers aren’t supposed to like people,” I growled. “We’re solitary. We’re supposed to be set apart.” But really, I was scared. I used writing as an excuse to hide.
Going from house to house, being greeted by strangers with smiles, taught me I really like people. That as Anne Frank said, most people are truly good at heart. Every time I think of this, I say thank you to the orchid Mrs. Garabedian gave me after my first book club. I still have it, and it still blooms.
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