I have been privileged to attend several Herald Press author functions in the last week. Each event has reminded me of the compelling conversations that occur between authors and readers.
We often think of the relationship between authors and readers as a one-way street: the author “speaks” through the book, and the reader “listens.” End of story. But the conversations between authors and readers that I’ve watched recently remind me that authors listen to their readers, and listen deeply. They listen to their readers’ hurts, and longings, and the things that bring them joy. Good authors know their readers, and they care what their readers experience in the pages of their books. They use what they learn from readers as they write subsequent books. Most authors also know that they don’t own the communication that happens in the reading process. They know that readers “talk back” to writers in a variety of ways: sometimes in their own heads, and sometimes—like at book launches and book signings—in person.
I wasn’t able to attend the successful launch of Jacob’s Choice at Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio, in early February (see editorial director Amy Gingerich’s post about that event and author Ervin Stutzman’s post about writing the book). Hundreds of people attended the three-hour event, and although that meant a long line sometimes formed, Ervin took the time to listen to what each of his readers wanted to say. Ervin has also recently done book talks in Virginia and Florida.
Ervin R. Stutzman signs copies of his book at the Gospel Bookstore in Berlin, Ohio, in February.
Then last week I got to watch authors and readers interact at two events. On Tuesday Shirley Hershey Showalter and Saloma Miller Furlong spoke about their lives and their books to a crowd of more than two hundred people at the Mount Joy Mennonite Church in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. Hosted by the Milanof-Schock Public Library, Shirley and Saloma’s presentation, entitled “Coverings: Amish and Mennonite Stories,” focused on their stories of wearing—and eventually ceasing to wear—prayer coverings. Shirley tells her story of growing up Plain in Lancaster County in her book Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, and Saloma writes about growing up Amish and leaving as a young adult in her book Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds.
The night before, Shirley had spoken to another audience of two hundred people at an event sponsored by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Shirley that evening, and I spoke with some people who attended the program on Tuesday night who had attended on Monday night as well.
It is true: an important part of what Ervin and Shirley and Saloma do when they speak to audiences and autograph books is, well, talk. They stand up front and describe their writing process, and their personal histories, and their faith, and they answer questions from the audience.
Saloma Miller Furlong and Shirley Hershey Showalter share their stories at a library-sponsored event in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.
But here’s the thing: our authors don’t just talk. They listen. They attend to the type of questions that their readers are asking, notice what they’re curious about, and observe topics that readers bring up again and again. They listen carefully to readers, and they store away what they learn as they ponder what book they might want to write next.
In fact, one of the best parts of lurking around Saloma and Shirley’s book-signing on Tuesday night was watching them listen to their readers. People who attended the event and came through the line to have their books signed were eager to tell Saloma and Shirley not only how much they enjoyed their books but also to relate to them stories from their own lives. One woman reminded Shirley of a letter she had sent to her recounting experiences from her own youth that she saw reflected in Shirley’s book.
A reader talks with Shirley after the library event.
And I watched as Shirley and Saloma listened—intently—to their readers, thus giving readers the same gift of attention that their readers offer to them.
Saloma listens to a reader during a book-signing.
“Herald Press is more than just a publisher for authors,” Saloma told me after the event. “We actually become part of a community. I am honored and grateful to be part of that.” I like that idea: that Herald Press is creating a type of community, for both our authors and our readers. It means that we take our readers seriously, and listen to them carefully. We know that as publishers and authors, we’re only one part of the reading event.
The idea that regular human authors are good listeners reminds me that the Author of our faith is, too. The Word-became-flesh doesn’t just talk at us and expect us to listen—although God has done that throughout history and continues to do so. But one of the amazing truths of our faith is that God does more than create things. The Author also listens to us.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is managing editor of Herald Press trade books.
Looking for a way to listen to—or talk with—our authors? Check out Saloma’s speaking schedule.
Here are some upcoming events for Shirley.
Kansas City, Kansas:
- “Why Your Own Life Story Matters and Five Tips for How to Tell It,” South Branch of Kansas City (Kansas) Public Library, Friday, March 7, 3 p.m.
- Blush will also be available for sale at Mennonite Health Assembly meeting March 6-8 in Kansas City at the Marriott downtown hotel; Shirley Showalter will be available from 5-6 p.m. at a book table at the conference on March 7.
- “Finding Gold in Our Attics and Basements: How to Find, Use and Share the Artifacts that Prompt Our Stories,” book talk and signing, Kauffman Museum, North Newton, organized by Rachel Pannabecker, director of the museum, Sunday, March 9, 3:30 p.m.
- Chapel at Bethel College, Newton, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Five Tips for Making the Most of Your College Investment,” Monday, March 10, 11 a.m., organized through Nathan Bartel.
- Faith and Life Bookstore, book signing, Monday, March 10, 3-5 p.m.
- “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Memoir,” Schowalter Villa, Monday, March 10, 7 p.m., open to the community
Ervin will be appearing at the following events:
- Faith and Life Bookstore, Newton, KS on March 19, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
- Center Amish Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, KS on March 20, 7:00 p.m.
- Kidron-Bethel Village, North Newton, KS on March 21, 8:00 p.m.