Authors Don’t Just Write. They Listen.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ValerieWeaverZercher

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.

Newton, Kansas:

  • “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.

Two Lifetimes in One: Inside and Outside my Amish Community

Guest blog post by Saloma Miller Furlong, author of Bonnet Strings and Why I Left the AmishSalomabyPoppies

Saloma growing up in eastern Ohio.

I often feel like I have lived two lifetimes in one — inside and outside my Amish community in Ohio. I have written two books about the experience of feeling torn between these two worlds. My new book, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds releases today, February 3 by Herald Press. I feel that Providence led me to Herald Press, and it is so fitting that an Anabaptist publisher is publishing my story. I love working with the capable and committed community there and I thank them with my whole heart for all they have done to shepherd this book into publication.BonnetStrings

Bonnet Strings is a sequel to my first book that was released in 2011 titled Why I Left the Amish.

I left because of situations that would surely have crushed my spirit, had I not. When I left the second time, my life took a different course from my upbringing and has led to where I am today. I am infinitely grateful for my life.

WeddingOutdoors2David and Saloma on their wedding day.

I was able to marry the love of my life. We raised two sons who are now grown and on their own. I had the opportunity to acquire a Smith College education, which included studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany and an internship with Donald Kraybill. I am on the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund Committee to help others who have left the Amish acquire an education. And I am doing what feels like my life work — telling my story of what it’s like to have lived in two vastly different cultures. It is a unique story, but it is also a universal one because everyone knows what it’s like to feel torn between their need for belonging and their desire for freedom. This I have learned from people I’ve met along the way who relate to my story in ways I could never have imagined.

My story has also garnered the attention of the makers of two PBS documentaries “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned.” “The Amish” aired on American Experience on January 28 and “The Amish Shunned” premieres February 4. (“The Amish” was first aired on American Experience in February 2012).

So I am walking the path I feel I was meant to walk — side by side with David in this journey we call life. I don’t regret the life-changing decision to leave the Amish, and yet there are aspects of my Amish life that I had to sacrifice to have my freedom.

It’s the sense of community I miss the most. I felt this most keenly when I returned to the horse and buggy world for my father’s funeral, twenty-four years after I had left the final time. I saw how the community came in and took care of everything. They moved the furniture around in the house to make room for church benches that would be filled with people in the ongoing wake until the burial. The women cooked food for the people who were traveling to the funeral from out of state. The neighbors took in people from Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Everyone knew their place, and everyone did their part. It was something to behold, how a community of people can pull together in times of need.

Four hundred people attended my father’s funeral. The most poignant moment happened at the end of the service. The pallbearers moved Datt’s body outside the shed in his coffin and opened it up. People from the back filed past the coffin first, and then gathered in the courtyard — the men on one side, the women on the other. The half-circle in the courtyard got bigger as more people gathered there. Finally only Mem and us children and our spouses remained. We gathered around Datt’s coffin to say our last good-byes. Everything became completely still — not a baby cried and not a bird sang. What we believed or what we were wearing didn’t seem to matter in that pregnant, quiet moment. It was as if this community of people who had been there when I was growing up, supported us in our grief, even though I hadn’t seen many of them for twenty-four years. The tears I shed were for the finality of the last good-bye and knowing I would never see Datt or hear his voice again. But the tears were also for what I had lost when I left this community of people who carried the traditions and deep, abiding faith of our ancestors down through the generations. I had broken this cycle when I left. It was a loss no less profound than losing my father.

When I think about the time when my life on this earth is at an end, I realize that I will not have what my parents had. They had a community of people who knew each other since birth and came together to support each other in their grief. They had the Plain funeral service. And they had the burial rites. Six men lowered the casket and then a wooden lid, and finally began filling the grave with earth at the same time that other community members sang the farewell chant in German — a chant that had been sung by our ancestors for more than three centuries. It seemed to me the song was the chariot that carried their souls off to heaven as their bodies were being tucked into their final resting places. It was a simple, profound, and beautiful end of a life.

I am not sorry that I took the path in my life that I felt was right for me. But this came with a price. We make choices in life and sometimes one choice precludes another. My story is about grieving for what was lost when I left the Amish, while at the same time living the life I’ve chosen with purpose, joy, and a heart full of gratitude for God’s gifts of love, grace and mercy.

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Do you see any connections to the
difficult choices you have made? 

Saloma’s book is being published today, February 3; be sure to watch the premiere of the PBS broadcast, The Amish: Shunned on February 4. Purchase Bonnet Strings here or at your local bookstore.

Also, you can visit Saloma’s website here, and her ongoing blog “About Amish, here.
For much more information on Amish and Mennonites,

Resolutions and Reading: What Books Appear on Your Reading List?

By Mary Ann Weber

It’s the time of year when you look at life and see what needs to happen. Do you need to improve your lifestyle through weight loss, exercise, or healthy eating? Or you want to take a close look at your finances and create new goals for you and your family? Maybe you should focus on making a relationship better, or taking up a hobby, or adjusting your attitude about something . . . there are many things to consider!

New Year resolutions have been around for a long time. According to Wikipedia, ancient Babylonians made promises to repay debts, while Romans made promises to the god Janus (for whom January is named). The tradition continued in other cultures and forms throughout the centuries. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Year’s_resolution)

I rarely make New Year resolutions. I know my enthusiasm will wane quickly and then I’ll be frustrated about not keeping something that I promised myself. So it’s best to not even create a resolution to begin with, right?

This year, however, is different. Perhaps because my resolution isn’t about changing my life, or because it embraces something I already do, I feel great excitement for a task I plan to continue through all of 2014. My resolution is simple, really—I will keep a list of all of the books I read this year.

It’s a simple resolution because I read a lot and I’ve often wondered how many books I read in a year, but I’m never before been motivated to keep a list. This year will be different!

It’s the fourth week of January and so far six titles appear on the list. Some are forgettable—murder/suspense books from the public library—but they provide moments of pure adventure and escapism as I try to figure out who committed the crime. Every now and then I read something of substance that makes me pause and think, and so those books appear on the list with an asterisk.

Fortunately, my role with MennoMedia lends itself to my resolution. I thoroughly enjoy the varied books that MennoMedia publishes, and am especially looking forward to two that will soon be released, Bonnet Strings, by Saloma Miller Furlong, and Jacob’s Choice, by Ervin Stutzman.

MennoBytesBlogPostBuilding 016Bonnet Strings is Saloma’s story of leaving the Amish as a young adult. Her previous book, Why I Left the Amish, was not printed by MennoMedia but I ran into it at our local bookstore and was challenged by Saloma’s story and the decisions she had to make.

BonnetStringsJacob’s Choice is a story of the Hochstetler family in Pennsylvania who were attacked in 1757. Yet, Jacob refused to fight back. Several family members are killed, while others are captured by the Lenape.

JacobsChoiceNo doubt, both books will receive an asterisk on the list.

Do you have any good book suggestions for me to add to my list? What types of New Year’s resolutions do you keep?

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Mary Ann Weber, Managing Editor for Curriculum

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Discount! Both Bonnet Strings and Jacob’s Choice are on significant pre-publication discount until their publication dates of
Feb. 3 and Feb. 8, respectively.

(You might recall Valerie Weaver Zercher’s earlier post on Mennobyes regarding her resolve to read “Scripture. (Almost) Daily. For a Year.”)

Visit the MennoMedia Store for hundreds of books,
DVDS and CDs you might enjoy this year.