Sunday, March 8, 2009


THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS


I’m sure several of my fellow- and sister-bloggers here will write something about the South Carolina Book Festival which took place in Columbia the last weekend in February. I saw many of them in attendance, and even got to spend time with some. I’ll leave it to them to comment on the nuts and bolts if they so choose because I want to talk about the people—the readers, volunteers, and especially the other authors who come together once a year to form a community that’s all about books. And kindness to strangers.

Jackie Cooper (another contributor here) and his wife Terry and I had a long discussion that Saturday night about this very subject. We sat in comfortable chairs in the lobby of the Columbia Hilton, sated thanks to a wonderful buffet that even included Red Velvet cake—hard to find anywhere outside of your grandmother’s kitchen any more. It was cold and nasty outside, but we were cozy and warm, sipping wine and chatting. I think it was Jackie who said something about how writers seem to be, generally speaking, a pleasant group of people. We agreed that there are certainly some egos sprinkled here and there, but that, for the most part, we’re a pretty darn nice bunch.

I can personally attest to that. I came to the festival as a visitor before I ever had my first book published. I followed it from a round building—can’t think of the name, but I believe it was part of the USC campus—to the fairgrounds and finally to the wonderful, modern convention center. Eventually I was asked to participate as a presenter, but even before that I was welcomed by just about everyone I encountered. I rustled up the courage to speak to writers whose names I recognized and many who were new to me. Almost without exception, I was gathered into the conversation and made to feel as if my two books, published by a small regional press by that time, made me a card-carrying member of the fraternity.

As the three of us sat there on that blustery Saturday night, worried about getting home the next day in the predicted snowfall, many authors stopped off to say hello. Some I knew, like Mary Alice Monroe (who told us a hilarious story about fly fishing with the interviewer from USA Today) and Marjorie Wentworth, the Poet Laureate of South Carolina, and T. Lynn Ocean who was worn out from line dancing at the party going on in the ballroom behind us. These are all women I know, though we see each other seldom, usually at events such as the festival, but we seem to be able to pick up right where we left off the year before. Others who stopped to chat were strangers to me, but not for long. Maybe it’s because we all share the same joys and worries—a new contract or lack of one, deadlines, reviews, sales numbers. Everyone commiserates and congratulates with equal feeling for the ups and downs of this precarious road we’ve chosen to travel.

And then there are the attendees, the fans of reading who braved near freezing temperatures and a frigid, driving rain to spend the day with authors, booksellers, publishers, and other book lovers. When I finished my first panel and returned to the main room to the signing table, I had a line waiting—folks who had either bought or brought copies of my Bay Tanner mysteries for me to autograph. For the published authors reading this, you’ll understand my joy. For those of you who aren’t, take my word for it—having a line is a definite trip!

All throughout the weekend, I ran across old friends from every facet of the business: the indefatigable Paula Watkins. who spends an entire year with her cadre of dedicated volunteers planning this homage to the printed word; Fran and Don, booksellers from Aiken; Ivy and Mac, book lovers from Bennetsville; Rod Hunter, my reprint publisher and his talented writer-wife, Gwen; Cathy Pickens, who moderated my first panel and who loves to rag gently on me about being a Yankee . . . I could fill up a couple of pages with the names of those people whom I may see only once a year, but whose kindness turned even those most dismal two days into ones of warmth and remembered friendship.

And every year there are new people to add their own special spice to the mix, like the young man with whom I shared a panel on Sunday who had been chased by Katrina from New Orleans to Atlanta, but who still wrote about the Big Easy with love and insight. And the woman who shared my table at lunch and talked about wanting to be a published writer. I commiserated about how difficult that is, especially in today’s economic climate, and urged her not to give up. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and I promised to give her what advice and help I could, because other authors had done the same for me back in the days when I was just a visitor to the SC Book Festival.

Maybe it’s something about people who love books, whether author, reader, librarian, bookseller, publisher, or volunteer. All I know is that I invariably come away from this last weekend in February in Columbia, South Carolina, with the feeling that I’ve spent a couple of days among old, cherished friends. It’s a wonderful gift, and I hope many of you will have the opportunity to share in the magic next year.


Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 9th Bay Tanner mystery, Covenant Hall, will be released April 28 by St. Martin’s Press.

1 comment:

River Jordan said...

I love attending book festivals even when I am not presenting for these same reasons. Making new friends and visiting with old ones and just being in the company of people who love stories.

I also find that writers are one of the least cut-throat groups in the world. People ask me that all the time if people are always trying to push you out of the way to get ahead. I tell them the truth - that I have found authors to be some of the most all for one and one for all groups I've ever met. I believe that ultimately - we all love words and stories more than we love ourselves.