I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many writers through readings, residencies, conferences, and my affiliation with WriterHouse. And what I’ve learned from those meetings is this: writers can win new readers by their behavior, or they can completely turn readers off.
When I met Susan Gregg Gilmore, I was an aspiring writer with very few publications to my credit. I’d had an essay published in a little known newspaper in the Midwest, and a story in a literary journal that, while a wonderful journal, is not widely distributed on the east coast. Because I’d just won a short story competition in our local weekly, the HooK, I’d finally come out as a writer to my friends, but I still had a hard time claiming to be a writer. “Real writers” intimidated me. When I heard Susan was going to be in Charlottesville, though, I knew I had to go, and ask her questions, writerly questions. I loved her book Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, was in awe of the way she handled the narrator’s voice. I wanted to talk to her about the challenge of staying in character in a first person narrative, among other things. As luck would have it, I got there early that day, and so did she. So I plopped myself down, asking her question after question, and she patiently answered, even giving me her email address so we could stay in touch.
She and I have since become good friends, but her willingness to help a new writer still amazes me. She is always the epitome of grace at appearances. I’ve seen her win over audience after audience. She has a loyal base of readers, and I can’t help but believe that some of those readers first read her books after meeting her. Once they read Susan’s books they’re hooked by her wonderful writing, but at least a few of those initial sales were because she’s just so damned charming and nice. (Check out Dairy Queen and her second novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove.)
There are writers I’ve first read because when I met them they were funny and genuine, some I might never have read if I hadn’t seen them in person and liked them. And then there are the few writers out there who, because of their demeanor, I will never read again. I won’t mention names, or go into too much detail about the bad behavior, but I will say that listening to a writer’s catty comments about another writer does not make me want to support him or her. I saw one well-known writer whose smug arrogance turned me off forever to his work. Heard another complain about the town car someone sent to pick her up. (Telling this to a bunch of writers who would give anything to be on a book tour, even if it meant taking a bus, is just rude.)
I know book tours are tough, and I know it’s not easy always being on, but I also know this: a writer is better off not going on tour if he or she is going to alienate readers. And I know not everyone can be a charming as Susan, or as funny as Colson Whitehead, but if nothing else, writers need to be appreciative and respectful of their readers. It’s the right thing to do, and it just might win new readers.