At a book signing at Park Road Books in Charlotte, North Carolina, a photographer from southern Florida sat in on the reading. He bought a copy of Forsaken.
After I autographed his book, we chatted. He told me he specialized in historical photography and was making pictures of sites and artifacts along the Underground Railroad, the path many African American slaves followed to freedom before the Civil War.
Although we shared an interest in history, I realized the reason— maybe the only reason—he was buying a book was that we had talked and connected.
I think most any writer anywhere wants to write a story so compelling that every human being on planet earth will read it, or at least see a dramatic representation, or both.
What’s ironic is that for all my years studying narrative, I remember discussing the craft of writing over and over, but I remember discussing readers only once.
Fellow Charleston, West Virginian, and National Book Award winner Mary Lee Settle put it this way.
“Whenever you write something, you must remember that up to that point, a silence has existed between you and the reader,” she said. “And you are responsible for breaking that silence.”
Her point was that the act of writing can’t just be about the writer. A writer should be considerate of the reader, even entertaining. The most profound, tragic novels can be immensely entertaining.
I thought about what Mary Lee had said in class so many years ago. When I was writing Forsaken, I concentrated on subtlety and nuance far less than I might have in my younger days, though I certainly strove for those elements.
What I concentrated on more than ever was plot. I felt I had an important historical event to relate, a tragic one, one I wanted a lot of people to read about, because the story was a hidden moment in history that—if examined and understood—could help us lead better lives. But I acknowledged my responsibility to move the tale along, to find compelling ways to keep readers turning pages to the very end.
I did my best with the novel. Still, however clumsy or skillful the writing may be, I understand from my experience with the photographer I must do more. Meet people. Talk with them. Thank each and every one, one by one, for being willing to read.