I’m making a special Saturday post because I’m excited about going to Dayton, Ohio, tomorrow, June 3, to introduce my new story collection, The Mutual UFO Network, to folks at Books & Co. I’ll be there at 2pm to talk a bit about short stories, to read briefly from the new book, to chat with those who come out, and to sign copies for anyone who wants one.
I’ve been doing similar bookstore events for a number of years, and, when I do, I always think back to the very first one I did when my first book, the story collection, The Least You Need to Know, came out. I wasn’t expected to read from the book at this event. I was to sit at a table and sign copies. I remember the little table and the stacks of my new book and how thrilled I was to be there. A first book is a glorious thing. Like your first car and your first love, you never forget that experience.
So I sat at my little table with my books and my Sharpie, ready for business. No one came. Well, that’s not quite true. One little boy, about ten years old, stopped to chat. “Did you write this book?” he asked. I told him I did. “What’s it about?” he wanted to know. Hmm. . .how to tell him it was a collection of stories about fathers and sons in difficult relationships? “It’s about fathers and sons,” I said. He touched one of the books, rubbing his hand over the cover. “I don’t have any money,” he said, “but I’ll go ask my mom.”
I’ve never forgotten that little boy. I could tell he felt sorry for me, sitting there with no one to buy my books. He wanted to do what he could to make me feel better. Each time I do a bookstore event, I remember how he went away from my table with such hope. “I’ll be back,” he said, and it was as if he were saying, We’ll get through this together.
I want to believe there was something in that boy that knew what it must be like to work so long and hard to make something like a book and how disappointing it must be to have no one take notice. I can say without a doubt that over the many years I’ve been writing, no matter how large or small the turnout for one of my events, I give thanks for the presence of each person who makes the time to come out and listen to what I have to say, to buy a book maybe, or to ask a question. Being there means everything to a writer. It means that someone cares enough about you, or about writing in general, to take the time to show up.
That little boy finally made his way back to my table. He was crestfallen. “My mom wouldn’t give me any money,” he said. I told him it was all right. I wish now I’d signed a copy of my book and bought it for him. He lingered a moment longer, touching my book again before his mother called for him, and he had to leave. He went out into the rest of his day, the rest of his life, but a part of him stayed with me, that part that cared enough about me—a stranger—to make room for my embarrassment and humiliation and disappointment and to try to ease it.
I’ll be thinking about him tomorrow at Books & Co. when I talk about The Mutual UFO Network and its stories about people longing for connection in their families, their neighborhoods, their worlds. I felt so alone that day behind my little table in that bookstore. Then that boy reached out to me. A similar action is at the heart of all the stories in my new collection, stories that look for those moments when we all feel a little less alone in our alien spaces. Tomorrow, I’ll go to Dayton, Ohio, to Books & Co., and I’ll be grateful for whatever company awaits me. If the audience is thin—if nary a soul shows up—no matter. I’ll just think about that boy and the difference he made to me that long-ago day.