One of the most memorable moments – and best lessons – of my writing life came early on. My first novel, Safe Passage, had just come out, and I had been invited to teach a class at The Writers Workshop in Asheville, followed by a signing at what was already the iconic Malaprop’s Bookstore. Emoke B’Racz, the owner, even picked me up at the airport instead of sending someone else, making me feel honored and important. The seminar went well. But oh! The signing promised to be a disaster.
Except for a few students who’d taken the class, no one bought a single book. The pleasant young clerk assigned to keep me company at my signing desk valiantly kept introducing me to readers who walked by looking for other titles, but after a while, it was embarrassing. I wasn’t savvy enough to know then that this was the fate of most unknown writers. I was crushed.
Then a middle-aged woman holding the hand of a little boy wandered by, undoubtedly on her way to the children’s department. As she’d been doing all afternoon, my intrepid clerk-companion got up and said, “Let me introduce you to Ellyn Bache . . . ” and went through her spiel. But instead of sneaking away, the woman listened, nodded with what looked like enthusiasm, and said, “Well then I’ll have to have one.”
By now the little boy was tugging at the woman’s arm so I signed the book quickly and let her go. It had been only one sale, but I felt restored.
“Do you know who that was?” my clerk-companion asked. “It was Gail Godwin. She brings her nephew in here often.”
Gail Godwin, whose novels I read and much admired, had bought my book!
Maybe she never opened it. Maybe she’d only bought it to be kind. No matter – her gesture had made me feel like a writer again, and not just a nuisance.
This happened nearly thirty years ago. Ever since, when I go into a bookstore where a writer sits alone and humbled, hoping to find an audience for a new book, I remember that long-ago afternoon in Asheville and how fragile an ego can be at the beginning of a career. Then I usually buy the book, if only to watch the sparkle come back into the writer’s eyes.