Last week, I was fortunate enough to be in Jonesboro, Ark. I say “fortunate” for a number of reasons.
I was in Jonesboro at the invitation of the local public library system, embodied in this instance by Nina Darley, teen librarian and transplanted Brit.1 Nina asked me down to Jonesboro nearly a year ago, and the day had finally come.
I suppose the first example of my fortune in going to Jonesboro is that the library wanted me to speak specifically about Hero-Type. Hero-Type is a strange book for me — it came out between the controversial Boy Toy and the sequel-everyone-wanted Goth Girl Rising, so it was squeezed out of the limelight. People rarely bring it to signings, I don’t get many questions about it, and no one — but no one — asks me to come to their community to talk about it.
Jonesboro did. And they put their money where their mouths were. I signed triple digits of that book, man.
It just so happened to be Constitution Day when I was slated to speak. The perfect day for a discussion of civil rights, free speech, censorship, and patriotism, right?
Being a blue-state kinda guy for my whole life, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit concerned about the response to my book in a very red state. Not that it changed what I would say, but I was prepared for some blowback.
No blowback was forthcoming. You couldn’t have asked for better audiences.
Speaking of audiences… That’s really the crux of my good fortune in going to Jonesboro last week.
Let me spill a little authorial dirt, folks: Author visits are a total crapshoot. If you’re going to a school, sure, you know there’s going to be a captive audience, but you have no idea how receptive they’ll be, or if anyone will give a damn. If it’s a bookstore or library event, you have no idea if anyone will even show up. It can be dispiriting to show up, raring to go, only to witness an empty room. All of those unused chairs seem somehow judgmental.
This was not a problem in Jonesboro. Nina coordinated with something like a million schools (that’s what it seemed like) and the first session of the day saw the library’s Round Room jampacked. They actually had to bring in extra chairs from the children’s library, and man — those teens happily and politely squatted on those pint-sized chairs for the whole two hours, no complaints.
Best of all, the kids were engaged. Speaking to a room full of people is fun, but it’s even better when they actually care about what you’re saying. Nina had arranged for the kids to have copies of Hero-Type in advance, so they’d all read it. And they had questions. We had a terrific, lively conversation and the time absolutely flew.
The second group was smaller…by which I mean the room wasn’t in violation of the fire code. Just as attentive an audience and just as lively a discussion.
Now, along with the two day sessions, I’d also agreed to a third, evening session, this one for the community in general. If the average author visit is a crapshoot, then evening sessions are doubly so. For a YA author, your audience has already seen you during the day and they have better things to do than to come back for a second dose.
And yet… Somehow, Nina managed to work a miracle again. She got the word out to the community and the evening session was well-attended, with nice blend of teens and adults. Once again, time flew.
At no point during the visit did anyone call me a godless Yankee liberal commie. Not even when someone asked why I made Kross’s mother a lesbian and I responded, “I didn’t make her one; she was born that way.”2 One kid asked me if I was an atheist because there didn’t seem to be much religion in my books. We had a pretty cool discussion about it, and at no point did anyone get judgmental or even mildly put-out.
Why that last paragraph? Well, let’s be honest here: Most authors tend to be liberal types3 and hail from our coasts and our cities. And there is a sort of mild bigotry that persists, that people in the red states and in the small towns in particular are intolerant and not much interested in what we have to say.4
But damn! I had a blast in Jonesboro. You couldn’t ask for a better author visit. Truly. I don’t know exactly how big Jonesboro is, but I felt like the entire community had gotten into the spirit, as though everyone in town had read the book and come to hear me speak. That’s no small feat. I’ve been to events in New York City where literally not a single person showed up. On Constitution Day, I saw a couple hundred people…and they were all actively interested and engaged.
I grew up in a small town. Smaller than Jonesboro, certainly, and technically in the South.5 As best I can tell, I’m the only author to come out of that town. Ever. And it wasn’t easy because I sure as hell never met an author as a kid. Not even during a school visit. I had no role model to look up to, no one to emulate.
I guess that’s why I like going to small towns. There’s always at least one kid (usually more than one) who wants to do what I do and has been told repeatedly, “Yeah, right.” And I like to show them it’s possible.
Kids in big cities and on the coasts deserve that, too, of course. But here’s the thing: Authors already live in the big cities and on the coasts. Here in New York, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an author on his or her way to speak at a local school. If you’re a young wannabe author in New York or San Francisco or Chicago, you can pretty much head down to the local Starbucks and find some bestselling author pecking away.
But a kid in Jonesboro, Arkansas? What are his or her options to get some advice, make a little human contact? Slim to none.
Unless we go to them.
I had a great time in Jonesboro. I truly did. Not all small-town visits work out so damn well, but like I indicated above: The big city ones don’t always, either.
I suppose, then, I’m writing this BLog not just to thank Nina and the people of Jonesboro for a wonderful day, but also to encourage my fellow authors to think of the smaller towns when they go a-tourin’. Because you have fans who live there and trust me when I say they absolutely adore you. You should go meet them.
(And if you’re a librarian trying to put together an author visit, you could do worse than to contact Nina Darley at the Jonesboro Public Library for some ideas!)
- Yes, it’s hilarious to hear her British accent among the Southern ones.↩
- Half the room cracked up; the other half gasped. Good ratio.↩
- To be sure, the bigotry cuts both ways — there are red staters who think we’re all a bunch of deviant lunatics.↩
- “Real” Southerners don’t consider Maryland to be in the South, but Yankees do, so I’m always conflicted about that one.↩