By Erin Lindsay McCabe
As a former literature major and English teacher, I thought I understood the power of words on a page. But I always saw books in contexts where a community already existed—a school, a classroom, a book club made up of longtime friends. It wasn’t until my first novel was about to be published that I experienced a new kind of power: how a book can create a community.
Few aspiring or published authors today can escape the imperatives to define their audience, build a platform, obtain Twitter followers, garner Facebook page likes. When I learned my novel would actually be on bookstore shelves, I diligently set about beautifying my website, creating various social media accounts, and writing blog posts, even though I didn’t really grasp the importance of what I was doing. I saw myself as an author in my living room and the people I dreamed would pick up my novel were firmly ensconced in theirs. In my mind, we existed in separate spaces, only connected when the chance reader left a review and I was brave (or foolish) enough to read it.
And yet, a community found me. At first it was authors at my publishing house who shared the same editor. Even though I’d never met them, they included me in various events. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, after her novel Bittersweet debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, invited me to join her for a Twitterchat celebrating beach reads. I had a blast, tweeting about beloved books with the readers and authors who turned out. Elizabeth Silver, author of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, suggested doing a mini-book tour together. I set up a few Northern California events, she set up some Southern California ones, and we met for the first time at a bookstore. Just a few weeks ago, I finally met Miranda at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, where we shared French fries and a wonderful conversation.
The second wave of community came from authors who supported my novel with enthusiastic blurbs. Lois Leveen, author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse, sent a note offering advice if I had questions about the experience of being a first-time author. I followed her suggestions, and, when I landed in her city for a book event, invited her to lunch. A friendship blossomed that led to joining Lois on a panel at a conference for historians. We now email and Skype semi-regularly.
These women taught me about reaching out and extending invitations. They taught me how a book in common could grow into a web of connection—a community. Still, when my book came out, I was surprised again by the readers who found me, compelled to make contact—with an email, an invitation to a book club, a tweet– by an experience we shared only inside the covers of a book. The relationships that blossomed from each of these small beginnings grew in ways I can hardly trace now. This post I’m writing came about because of a parking lot chat on a rainy night after a library talk. A blogger’s request for an interview revealed so many intersections in our lives as teachers, mothers, and writers that a friendship was all but guaranteed. A book club conversation that wasn’t ready to end turned into a playdate.
When I wanted to create a fun, inclusive celebration for my paperback’s release, I thought back to Miranda’s Twitterchat and started making invitations of my own, first to book bloggers who loved my novel, then to authors whose work I loved. What was meant to be a one-time event has grown into #HistoricalFix, a quarterly Twitterchat for historical fiction lovers, with a companion book club. I’m amazed by the authors who agree to be our guests, and my heart is warmed by the chatters who turn out regularly. With every chat, new people join, the community enlarges, and my friendship with my co-hosts (two bloggers I’ve yet to meet) grows.
I could point to many experiences like these, where books serve as invitations to enter spaces where real, authentic community flourishes. I have long thought that books were magical for the way words on a page could create emotions and thoughts in a reader. But over the last two years, I have come to understand books’ super power—to create a community where none existed before.
Erin Lindsay McCabe is the author of the historical novel I Shall Be Near To You (Crown, 2014), a Goodreads Choice Awards semi-finalist. A 2010 graduate of the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program, she has taught composition at St. Mary’s College of California and Butte College.